"Hall constituted his ideas by building tensions"

Published in O Globo, “Prosa & Verso” supplement, p.4, Saturday, 22 February 2014 

Perhaps Stuart Hall would have liked to know that to write about him after his death is to participate in a Bakhtinian polyphony of different voices that talk about him, what he did and said, the impact he had. My favourite homage, at the moment, is an excerpt from the obituary by David Morley and Bill Schwarz, his friends and former students. Published on The Guardian’s website, it was the most read article on the day the professor, theorist and activist, teacher and maître-à-penser died. The article ends by saying:

“When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, Hall talked about his lifelong passion for Miles Davis. He said that the music represented for him ‘the sound of what cannot be’. What was his own intellectual life but the striving, against all odds, to make ‘what cannot be’ alive in the imagination?”

In “What is this ‘black’ in black popular culture?” Hall wrote that “the people of the black diaspora have, in opposition to all that [the logocentric world centred on writing], found the deep form, the deep structure of their cultural life in music.” Hall was doubly diasporic, a descendent of people dislocated by the history of colonization and slavery, and a migrant from Jamaica to England. He pronounced himself in texts as if he were a Miles Davis: playing and collaborating with his partners, doing solos in tune and in contradiction with his context in a complex sound, difficult at first listening but with a freedom that could be admired at each new hearing.

In Brazil, in 2000, a keynote with impact

Hall constituted his ideas by building tensions – I described this process in the preface to a collection of his work, Da diáspora: Identidades e mediações culturais (UFMG, 2003). I said that in “What is this ‘black’…?”, “the question about black identity to which the title refers reverts to critical consideration of dominant ethnicity; black identity is crossed through by other identities, including gender and sexual orientation. Essentialist identity politics point to something worth fighting for, but do not result simply in greater freedom from domination. In this complex context, cultural politics and the struggle that they constitute are waged on many fronts and at every level of culture, including everyday life, popular culture and mass culture. Hall adds a further complicating factor at the end: the commodified and stereotyped medium of mass culture is made up of representations and figures of a great mythical drama with which audiences identify, it is much more an experience of fantasy than of self-recognition.”

It would be difficult to reduce this train of thought to dialectics. Instead, we can think of the way Hall elaborated his thinking as having a musical structure, in which theme and variation can be interrupted by improvisation, a solo can come forth out of a chorus of voices from the bibliography, understood as a source of strength to be mustered to understand different objects – different from the academic habit of negative criticism of predecessors under pain of seeming submissive to them. Maybe it was his way of feeling and elaborating ideas, based on a deep musical structure, that also has to do with Brazilian cultural life, that his work has resonated so strongly here.

The invitation to come Salvador in July 2000 for the conference of the Brazilian Comparative Literature Association was motivated by the organizing committee’s desire to highlight him as a black intellectual with an international impact in a black city, with its black culture, marked by racist oppression, at a time when there was a certain romanticisation of Bahia as the cradle of black Brazilian culture. Hall did not let the audience off the hook: in his lecture he conceived colonization not as an effect of the reach of European hegemony, but as a world historical event, involving “expansion, exploration, conquest, colonization, slavery, economic exploitation and imperial hegemony,” through which Europe “remade itself” starting in 1492. This concept has the effect of shifting the historical focus from modern Europe to global peripheries; instead of celebrating the periphery’s cultural diversity as a useful fruit of globalisation it understands it as the product of refusal and persistence of peoples distant from the metropolis; and identifying western modernity not as the “Universal Rule of Reason”, but the “suturing character of its power” and capacity, as a consequence, to generate differences. In the second place, Hall identified in racism (and in discourses on gender and sexuality) the exception to the rule by which diversity is understood as cultural creation: these discourses manage to naturalize difference more effectively. Thus, in this new dance of thesis and counter-thesis, variation and invention, Hall’s lecture returned to the theme of political responsibilities, which were primordial for him.

The collection of Hall’s work entitled Da diáspora was a consequence of his presence at the conference and came out in 2003, becoming an academic bestseller. I return to what I said before as a refrain: maybe it is because the themes on which he worked starting in the mid-1980s have to do with Brazilian cultural life that his work has resonated so strongly here, for from then on he was explicitly concerned with questions of black identity. For him, affirming the value of a diasporic “Africa”, a black diasporic identity summed up in the word “Africa”, was important in the “decolonization” of “minds in Brixton and Kingston,” of both black English and Jamaican youth. This “Africa” made it possible to talk about the “guilty secret of race […] the unspeakable trauma of the Caribbean” and marked all social movements and creative acts in the Caribbean in the twentieth century. At the same time, Hall was an implacable critic of the supposed biological foundation of differences in – he quoted W.E.B. Dubois – “colour, hair and bone.” For him, the body is read as a kind of text and its “race” can mean different things, depending different circumstances.

A utopian egalitarianism marked his relationships with his own others: people of other racial identities, women, homosexuals, students, young collaborators in the institutions he led, editors of collections of his work. He always remembered that the ideas that racial identity is based on genetic difference and that the subaltern roles of women are biologically determined are analogous in their naturalization of difference. He was always open to issues that did not affect him directly. I was once asked whether Hall was gay: in Brazil, where discrimination is criticised almost solely by its victims, it was impossible to imagine someone who was not gay, but appreciated the queer perspective without distancing himself from it, as he did in a number of articles, such as “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’”.

For Hall, who did not want disciples, intellectual life was lived in hand-to-hand combat with texts and authors, not by belonging to the cohort of one theoretician or another. Talking to him was to enter into a world in which reflections that could have political repercussions were the object, the problem, the game to be played. He welcomed people willing to enter this game and try to understand and project something new. Good humour and affection – and also the combative tone of a discourse within the oral tradition, in which its addressee is always implicitly present – come through in his writings and maybe this has to do with Brazilian cultural life, and constitutes one more reason that his work has resonated so strongly here.

Valuing the other

In the midst of so many, the best homage to Hall may be to avoid hurried agreement on what he thought – for example, understanding in a banal way, as sociability without conflict, the multiculturalism of which he is said to be the father. When someone asked him, at a symposium on culture, globalization and the world-system, held in upstate New York in 1989, if there was such a thing as “humanity”, he said no. When there is talk of humanity and of “everyone being human, in the end,” differences are erased in the name of a hierarchical inclusion, to the benefit of a few. The hope, he said, is that at the moment in which social hierarchy is naturalized in the name of universal humanity, something escapes.

Hall’s hope that the Other can escape reduction to the Same and to the name that the power system attributes to it, as well as the translation of this hope into respect for people in their variety: all of this was part of his charisma, his capacity to generate feelings of friendship and, no doubt, his contribution of images of “what can(not) be”. Herald of the openness of historical processes – he always insisted their results were not predetermined – his thinking was as complex as the sound of Miles Davis. This thought, motivated by the will for a less cruel, a more just future, has to do with Brazilian cultural life, and may be one more reason that Stuart Hall has resonated so strongly here.