Cultural studies

Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies

In the summer of 1983, Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall, who lived and taught in England, traveled to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to give a series of lectures on what is called “cultural studies”. At the time, many academics still considered the serious study of popular culture under them; a much sharper division then existed between what Hall called the “authenticated and validated” tastes of the upper classes and the unrefined culture of the masses. But Hall did not see this hierarchy as useful. Culture, he argued, is not what educated elites imagine, like classical music or the fine arts. It is simply “lived experience, interpreted experience, defined experience.” And it can tell us things about the world, he believed, that more traditional studies of politics or economics could not on their own.

Thirty years ago, many academics regarded the study of popular culture below them. Stuart Hall helped change that.Photograph by Eamonn McCabe / Camera Press / Redux

A masterful speaker, Hall energized the Illinois public, a group of thinkers and writers from around the world who had gathered for a summer institute devoted to the analysis of Marxist approaches to cultural analysis. A young scholar named Jennifer Daryl Slack believed she was attending something special and decided to tape and transcribe the lectures. After more than a decade of cajoling, Hall finally agreed to edit these transcripts for publication, a process that took years. The result is “Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History”, which was published last fall as part of an ongoing Duke University Press series titled “Stuart Hall: Selected Writings” chronicling career and life. influence of Hall, who died in 2014..

Generally speaking, cultural studies is not so much a branch of the humanities as an attempt to use all of these weapons at once. It emerged in England in the 1950s and 1960s when academics from popular backgrounds, such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, began to think about the distance between canonical cultural landmarks – the music or the books that were meant to be. teach you how to be civil and well behaved and their own education. These scholars believed that the rise of mass communications and popular forms permanently changed our relationship to power and authority, and to each other. There was no longer a consensus. Hall was interested in the experience of being alive during such disruptive times. What is culture, he proposed, if not an attempt to capture these changes, to understand what is newly possible?

Hall retained the faith that culture was a site of “negotiation,” as he put it, a space of give and take where intended meanings could be bypassed. “Popular culture is one of the places where this fight for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to win or to lose in this fight”, he argues. “This is the arena of consent and resistance.” In a free society, culture does not respond to central government dictates, but it nonetheless embodies an unconscious sense of the values ​​we share, of what it means to be right or wrong. During his career, Hall became fascinated by the theories of “reception” – how we decode the different messages that culture gives us, how culture helps us choose our own identities. He was not only interested in the interpretation of new forms, such as film or television, using the tools that scholars had previously implemented in literature. He was interested in understanding the various political, economic or social forces that converged in these media. It wasn’t just the content or the language of the evening news, or the in-between magazines, that told us what to think; it was also the way they were structured, packaged and distributed.

According to Slack and Lawrence Grossberg, the editors of “Cultural Studies 1983,” Hall was reluctant to publish these lectures because he feared they would be read as a versatile critical toolkit rather than a series of carefully situated historical conversations. . Hall himself was ambivalent about what he saw as American theoretical fetishism, a belief that intellectual labor was, in Slack and Grossberg’s words, a “search for the right theory which, a once found, would reveal the secrets of all social reality. . “It wasn’t that simple. (I wondered what Hall would do with the way cultural criticism of a type that can read as ideological pattern recognition has proliferated in the age of social media.)

During his lectures, Hall struggles carefully with his ancestors, including the British researcher FR Leavis as well as Williams and Hoggart (the latter founded the influential Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, run by Hall in the 70s). Gradually, the lectures revolve around questions about how we make sense of our life, how we recognize and understand “the culture we never see, the culture we don’t consider cultivated”. These lectures are not instructions for “doing” cultural studies – until the very end, they barely touch on the emerging cultural forms that intrigued Hall, such as reggae and punk rock. Instead, they try to show how far back these questions go.

For Hall, these questions emerged in his own life – a fact that his memoir, “Familiar Stranger,” published by Duke, in April, highlights. Hall was born in 1932, in Kingston. His father, Herman, was the first non-white person to take a leadership role in the Jamaican office of United Fruit, an American agriculture and farming company; her mother, Jessie, was Métis. They saw themselves as a class apart, Hall explains, indulging in a “big colonial show of England’s upper middle class.” From an early age, he felt alienated by their warm embrace from the island’s racial hierarchy. As a child, his skin was darker than the rest of his family, which made his sister laugh, “Where did you get that baby coolie from?” It became a family joke, one he often revisited. And yet he also felt no genuine connection to the Jamaican working class, “aware of the gulf that separated me from the multitude.” The slight sense of guilt he describes seems surprisingly contemporary. And he struggled to articulate the terms of this discomfort: “I did not find a language to disentangle the contradictions or to confront my family with what I really thought of their values, behaviors and aspirations. The desire to rediscover this language was to become the animating spark in his professional life.

In 1951 Hall won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford. He was part of the “Windrush” generation, a term used to describe the waves of West Indian migration to England in the post-war years. Although Hall came from a different class from most of these migrants, he felt a connection to his compatriots. “Suddenly everything looked different,” he later recalled when he arrived in England. He cut a photo from the newspaper of three Jamaicans who arrived around the time he did. Two of them are carpenters and one is an aspiring boxer; they are all dressed new. “It was style. They were on a mission, determined to be recognized as actors in the modern world and to make it their own. I look at this photo every morning as I walk towards this world on my own, ”he wrote.

Hall found ready followers in American universities, although it could be argued that the spirit that animated cultural studies in England had existed in the United States since the 1950s and 1960s, in underground magazines and the alternative press. The American fantasy of its supposedly “classless” society always gave “culture” a slightly different meaning than that of England, where social trajectories were more rigidly defined. What scholars like Hall actually counted on was the “American phase” of British life. After World War II, England was no longer the “paradigmatic case” of Western industrial society. America, that great experience, where mass media and consumer culture proliferated freely, became the harbinger of what was to come. In a country where the mobility from misery to wealth is – or at least we tend to imagine it – all at once, culture is about what you want to project into the world, whether you are a member of it. elite or an ordinary man. , offering your interpretation of Shakespeare or “The Matrix”. When culture is about self-shaping, there’s even room to be a down-to-earth billionaire.

How did we come to this, to this present, with our imaginations limited by a common sense of the possible that we did not choose? “Selected Political Writings,” the other book of Hall’s work that Duke published as part of his series, focuses largely on the long British phase of Hall’s life. The central essay is “The Great Moving Right Show,” her 1979 analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s “authoritarian populism”. Its rise was as much a cultural as a political turning point, from Hall’s point of view, an enmity towards the struggling masses, obscured by the projected stance of his harsh Victorian moderation platform. Many pieces in this collection revolve around the theme of ‘common sense’, how culture and politics together reinforce an idea of ​​what is acceptable at any given time.

This was the simple question at the heart of Hall’s complex, sometimes dense, work. He became one of the great public intellectuals of his time, an activist for social justice and against nuclear proliferation, a constant presence on British radio and television, although this work is only mentioned briefly in ‘Familiar Stranger ”. Likewise, he does not mention Marxism, its key intellectual framework, until the last chapters of this book. Instead, as in much of his more traditional studies, he focuses on his changing sense of his own context. Culture, after all, is about building a relationship between oneself and the world. “People have to have a language to talk about where they are and what other possible futures are available to them,” he observed during his 1983 lectures. “These futures may not be. real; if you try to bring them to fruition immediately, you might find that there is nothing in them. But what is there, what is real, is the possibility of being someone else, of being in a different social space than the one in which you have already been placed. He could have described his own awakening.