"we also have to note how difficult it is to learn things from the past."

Delivered at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 5 June 2019

A panel discussion with David Morley, Angela McRobbie, Roshini Kempadoo and Clive Nwonka, chaired by Julian Henriques


Despite the fact that the title for the session stresses Stuart`s relevance to the `here and now`, just for a moment, I want to go back and say some things of a more general nature. In doing so, I want to focus not so much on what Stuart did or said but on how he did it—his `methodology` we might say—and on how we might learn from that.

However, in saying that, we also have to note how difficult it is to learn things from the past. There is an exemplary rendition of that difficulty in the publicity for Nick Beech`s forthcoming event on Policing the Crisis. In that publicity Nick quotes Stuart on how, if you want to use something like Gramsci’s comments on regional culture in Sardinia to inform your own analysis of some other situation, you have to ‘dis- inter’ them from their original context, very carefully, if you are hoping to transplant them elsewhere—as it’s rather more than a cut-and-paste job

But apart from all that, today has many resonances for me: 20 years ago, I took part in another launch event here at the ICA, for a book of essays by and about Stuart called Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. One of its reviewers remarked in a jocular (but telling) ‘aside’ that anyone writing a novel about the British intellectual left in the post-war period might well find themselves ‘spontaneously reinventing a figure exactly like Stuart Hall, so much had his personal narrative and the public history and 20th century Britain been intertwined—at once, deeply symbiotic and sharply at odds’. Looking back at the publication of that book in 1997—and at the influence which Stuart’s work continues to have today, both in academia and in public discussion of cultural politics—it is its sheer prescience that is most striking…

The question of his continuing influence also relates to his conception of how cultural power operates. He was particularly interested in how systems of hegemony work almost ‘invisibly’—through their capacity to set the limits of common sense—and thus set the horizons of thought—in a given period. They do this by establishing certain propositions to be so self-evidently true that they don`t have to be stated explicitly – so they literally ‘go without saying’. (1) The ideological twist here, of course, is that while common sense always presents itself as natural and ‘timeless’, its actual contents are radically changeable over time. To take one example, in the early 70s ‘monetarism’ was an obscure (and much derided) bit of specialist economic theory; a decade later it had become the taken for granted common sense of Thatcherism. Today it still provides the intellectual rationale for the assumed necessity to reduce the ‘national deficit’—a presumption which has condemned us all to the last 10 years of austerity politics

While I`d certainly regard Stuart’s influence on things as considerably more benign than that of monetarism, I want to propose a formal analogy, in so far as in both cases, the influence is so profound that it becomes almost invisible. His work has had a similarly transformative effect on the ‘common sense’ of the many academic

disciplines which have, in recent years, undergone a ‘cultural turn’ as a result of their engagement with the cultural studies that Stuart originated.

Nowadays, it ‘goes without saying’ that issues of culture and representation are as important as questions of economics; that we must pay attention not only to class, but also to questions of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality; and that our very definition of the field of the ‘political’ must be extended to include its popular and vernacular forms. However, if all that now seems to be no more than common sense, that is precisely because work such as Stuart’s has made it so

Having said that, let me turn to the books. My most difficult task, as the editor of the two volumes whose publication we celebrate today, was that of finalising the selection, from the vast range of Stuart`s essays, of a plausibly ‘representative’ sample. My priority has been to situate them in the context of the conjunctural debates to which they were variously contributed. I`ve also been concerned to highlight the continuities that underlay them. If Stuart always wanted to push any argument forward, he was nonetheless opposed to any simple model of intellectual ‘progress’: and was also concerned, as he put it, to ‘honour’ his intellectual debts to the positions he was trying to transcend.

Let me just mention some of those continuities, which became increasingly apparent, the more I re-read essays written sometimes 30 or 40 years apart…

One was the continuing influence of his early training in literary methods of analysis and his insistence on the necessity of close attention to the text—an approach derived from literary scholars such as F R Leavis (2). Indeed, while he entirely rejected Leavis’ politics, he was still at pains to recognise his ‘moral seriousness’—a quality which informed Stuart`s own abiding concern with questions of aesthetic and cultural value. He had no time for the uncritical celebration of popular culture, but rather, aimed for the ‘de-canonisation of the established categories alongside the retention of the critical function’.

What also became clearer to me in the editing process was the extent to which concerns with race and ethnicity already informed his earliest work—so that even when he is ostensibly talking about class, he is usually doing so from a diasporic perspective. Conversely, it was his critique of conventional Marxism`s deterministic models of class, which provided what Kobena Mercer described as the ‘architechtonic grounding’ which enabled his later deconstruction of essentialist models of race and ethnicity. From what I have heard, it seems that the recently opened archive of Stuart`s files at the Cadbury Research Library in Birmingham will throw considerably more light on these inter-connections.

Another striking continuity I found was how Stuart`s analyses of the recomposition of the class structure in the ‘affluent societies’ of the 1950s, had already laid the conceptual groundwork for his later work on the emergent consumer cultures of the ‘new times’ of Post-Fordism and then of Neo-Liberalism

If, as you probably all know, Stuart said that he had found himself ‘dragged into Marxism backwards’ by the events of 1956, what also became clearer to me, the longer I was immersed in the essays, was how much, right from his time in Oxford,

Stuart had always been engaged with Marxism from outside its Eurocentric presumptions. As he notes, almost all the group to which he belonged were from the ex-colonies. We see there a glimpse, right at the beginning, of the hybrid origins of what came to be called ‘British’ Cultural Studies

It was that perspective which provided the intellectual basis from which he went on to produce his later critique of ethnocentric perspectives on globalisation: his Marxism was always ‘de-centred’ by his liminal perspective as a ‘marginal native’ or, as Bill Schwarz`s book-title has it, a ‘familiar stranger’ in the West.

Nonetheless, the central concerns of Marxism—how changes in the mode of production related to changes in socio-political formations; how to provide a historical perspective on present day events— were never far away. Right to the end, he remained deeply concerned with these questions—and especially the question of periodisation. But we also find him already posing them (if in a rather different vocabulary) as early as 1958, when he asks, in ‘A Sense of Classlessness’— ‘where does the old end, where does the new—the really new, not the superficially new—begin?’

Stuart would never, of course, have claimed to have a definitive answer to any such question—his was always a more modest search for provisional truths. However, it was a search conducted in the utmost seriousness, if accompanied by a wry chuckle at the most intellectually challenging moments. That chuckle was no incidental mannerism—David Scott is right to point us towards Fanon’s observation that the quality of a man is to be found not simply in his acts, but in the ethos of his intellectual style. In Stuart`s case, the conviviality of his particular style was manifested not simply in what he did himself but also in what he enabled so many others to do—and can still enable us to do, today.

But, to return to my beginning… today’s panel also has a resonance with other important events here—such as the conference which led to the first publication of Stuart`s ‘New Ethnicities’ paper in 1988 in the ICA’s ‘Black Film and British Cinema’. Evidently today, the relative optimism of that moment has been largely superseded, as poisonous forms of xenophobia, which we might have hoped to have left behind by now, have been re-legitimised by contemporary political discourse. But I will say no more of that for now, as I know that my fellow panellists also have plenty to say about all this…


  1. In the discussion of the changing modes and varieties of ‘authoritarian populism’ which took place in this session, Tony Jefferson made the important point that one of the things about common sense is that it is, itself, inevitably authoritarian—precisely insofar as it sets limits to what it is that might be deemed to be ‘sensible’.
  2. In her presentation of Stuart’s essay on ‘Deconstructing the Popular’ in this session, Angela McRobbie discussed the complex ways in which the media ‘ventriloquise’ popular sentiment. In doing so, she offered one very good example of where close textual analysis is necessary to reveal the complexity of the ideological processes in play. She referred to the resonant phrase which was used at one point in discussion of ‘welfare scroungers’—who were described in the popular press as wasting their time ‘sleeping off a life lived on benefits’. The rhetorical slight of hand in the phrase is astonishing: alcohol is never mentioned directly, but the clear implication is that such (feckless) people are only not working because they are too preoccupied with ‘sleeping off’ their hangovers. More than that, their whole life is somehow metaphorically reduced to being no more than one long, wasteful ‘hangover’. Overall, those seven little words offer in a seemingly colloquial fashion, a vicious characterisation of the ‘undeserving’ poor.