Learning from 'SH': 1974-1979, 2012-14.

Author:Johnson, Richard
Position::Symposium: The legacy of Stuart Hall - Column - In memoriam


Smart Hall's engagement with contemporary culture and politics was so wide-ranging, sustained and rich and that commentators have difficult choices to make about where to begin.

In this paper, 1 focus on two periods in which my engagement with Stuart's (1) work was intense. In 1974, as a new recruit to the tiny staff of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), I was, just like its newest postgraduate students, learning to do cultural studies from Stuart and his colleague Michael Green. Students already at the Centre knew more about the emerging field than I. My early years at CCCS were the most exciting, accelerated period of learning in my life. Such lessons stay with you.

A second period of engagement is happening forty years later. In 2004, I retired from Nottingham Trent University, liberated from a neoliberalised institution to spend more time on 'politics'. It takes time to learn campaigning skills and recognise the political limits of 'single issue' movements. It is also easy to leave your intellectual self behind in the daily work of organisation. I began, however, to re-read political theory with sharper, practical aims, though not SH's work at first, because peace and anti-war issues rarely figure there. Then, in 2011, we corresponded about the setting up of a CCCS archive at Birmingham University. He sent me a fifty-page document--a source text for an article in Soundings (2011), and also perhaps for the co-authored Kilburn Manifesto (Hall, Massey and Rustin 2013). I drafted a reply on 'Hegemony and hope', also partly published in Soundings (Johnson 2013). We met and discussed agreements and disagreements: his pessimism about politics, and my own reaching for hope. After he died, widespread interest in his legacy and my involvement in Left Unity made me return to his political writings.

CCCS 1975-1979

Because CCCS was a genuinely collaborative project, it is hard to unscramble the dialectics of learning and teaching there. That I learned cultural studies from Stuart is undeniable, but I also taught and learned with him, and we all learned from each other in the process of group work. For example, we were in two Marx reading groups together. They were exemplary of his 'Marxism without guarantees' (see Worth, this issue), but also of collaborative learning. We took turns to present Marx texts--mainly his political writings. I choose the Eighteenth Brumaire for its 'historian's' complexity. For Stuart's own take on this work, see his formative account of Marx's theory of classes, first delivered at a conference of the Sociology Group of the Communist Party in November 1976 (Hall 1977).

Too biographical a view of CCCS distorts the radical educational alternative that was attempted there, while retrospective accounts have often succumbed to the discourses of academic stardom. Actually, students themselves innovated in many lines of research, and insisted on the inclusion of new theories, especially when the concerns of social movements were not represented in the formal and informal curricula. Feminist theory, research and intellectual practice and early encounters with versions of post-structuralism and psychoanalysis were examples of student insurgencies of this kind. But Stuart was the quickest, most subtle, most agile and most politically consistent scholar among us, and he was, even more than Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, the teacher of the teachers of cultural studies. He eschewed the formal power of an academic directorship (though not its responsibilities) in favour of a post-1968 empowerment of students and colleagues; but he led us by the virtue of his intellectual ability, commitment and wonderful gift of presentation. Part of his role was to gather up initially disparate strands of theory and make a syncretic unity from them. In the 1980s, he would develop this intellectual vision into guidelines for a new kind of politics, reviving an earlier New Left project.

A key locus for his teaching was the theory course of the Cultural Studies MA, which began in 1975, based on an earlier theory seminar. (2) Students attended this even if they were registered for Ph.D. studies. The course centred on the different frameworks within which culture or equivalent objects had been explored. Although the conventional view --that SH 'read Gramsci through Althusser'--is largely true, the course, when I took it, was an extended dialogue between many positions, including for instance the literary-critical origins of the 'culture' agenda in Britain; the work of Hoggart, Williams and E. P. Thompson; Weber's sociology of religion; Sartre's Marxist existentialism; Barthes's structuralism (and moves towards post-structuralism); the Frankfurt School; Alfred Schutz's phenomenology; and Berger and Luckman's 'social construction of reality'. Later, versions of discourse theory and language also figured. These positions were brought into dialogue with one another, and there was always something valuable--'a rational kernel'--to be said about each.

This open, dialogic reading of theories was different from 1970s polemics on theory and from older Marxist habits. It allowed different appropriations, though it also inevitably constructed certain terms of debate. When new demands arose, the inclusions and exclusions became a focus for opposition. We were always watching to see what would be there next time. Psychoanalysis? Feminist theory? There was also a good deal of (self-) mockery about...

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