Stuart Hall has been a central figure on the left for 40 years. The father of cultural studies-with its jargon-encrusted prose-is now in bleak moodby Peter Popham / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Stuart Hall’s adult life encompasses the history of modern black settlement in Britain. He was born 64 years ago in Kingston, Jamaica, and when he arrived at Bristol dock by steamer with his mother in 1951, to enroll as a Rhodes scholar at Merton College, Oxford, mass black immigration into Britain had not even begun.
Unlike most of those who came on such scholarships, Hall never went home. One year off retirement now, afflicted with arthritis and walking with a stick, he has the sober, university common room style that marks out his generation of middle class black Britons from those that came later. Like the Huguenots and the Jews before them, his generation did us the favour of becoming like us. That meant not talking in loud voices about points of difference, adopting a tweedy sort of costume and a gentle, self-deprecating way of speaking.
Hall appears to have followed this formula to a tee. His manner is understated. He is soft-spoken, funny and charming. The oratory for which he is famous is all the more effective for being couched in a gentle delivery, still slightly inflected with the Jamaican accent.
And he has reaped the rewards. Twenty-three pages of curriculum vitae come snaking out of the fax machine. Hall is a DLitt Hum ten times over, as well as a fellow (Portsmouth Polytechnic) and Centenary fellow (Thames Polytechnic) -a compensation for the fact that he never finished his doctoral thesis on “Europe vs. America: Cultural and Moral Themes in the ‘International’ Novels of Henry James.”
More pages are devoted to his lectures, articles in learned and not-so-learned journals, textbooks and television programmes. Oddly, he has only one book to his credit, and that a collection of essays, but a volume honouring his life’s work, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, was published earlier in the year. Hall, laden with honours, seems a living testimony to the doctrine of assimilation.
Not quite. His life’s work, after all, has been an unending argument with Englishness and its assumptions. In the course of it, he has been midwife to the New Left, conduit into British academic thought for a succession of continental thinkers (Althusser and Foucault), the godfather of cultural studies, and the inventor of the word “Thatcherism.” Generations of leftist high-flyers have been fired by his passions.
Yet despite all the achievements, history shows signs of delivering a harsh…