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Cultural theorist Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall was a Jamaican-British academic, writer, cultural studies pioneer, public intellectual and teacher who was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1932 and died in London aged 82. Hall’s family gifted his papers to the University of Birmingham's Cadbury Research Library in 2018.

Consisting of 89 archive boxes, the papers cover a period from around 1955 to 2010 and include unpublished reports, essays, scripts, and speeches; teaching material; correspondence; editorial material; notes; ephemera and cuttings; and both audio recordings and video cassettes. The papers are a unique resource which forms the empirical base for a three-year research project beginning this summer.

As a public intellectual, Hall made major interventions in British cultural and political life. In the 1950s and 1960s he was a leading figure of the British New Left and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the first editor of New Left Review.

He joined Richard Hoggart in founding the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in 1964, eventually taking Hoggart’s place as Director in 1972. There Hall, and the CCCS students generated a new field of enquiry and new approaches to trans-disciplinary research that continue to influence the arts, humanities, and social sciences today.

Hall joined the Open University (OU) in 1979, becoming Professor of Sociology, and delivering cultural studies not only to students at the OU, but to thousands who watched his documentaries and lectures on television late at night.

Hall was a powerful communicator and an exemplary public intellectual. His politics and research were informed and developed through distinctive pedagogical practices in extra-mural, secondary, and tertiary contexts—he strove to make the most complex theoretical and practical problems intelligible, whilst refusing to simplify or level out problems.

Professor Patricia Noxolo and Dr Rebecca Roach - University of Birmingham

Hall was a powerful communicator and an exemplary public intellectual. His politics and research were informed and developed through distinctive pedagogical practices in extra-mural, secondary, and tertiary contexts—he strove to make the most complex theoretical and practical problems intelligible, whilst refusing to simplify or level out problems. He spoke directly to new communities and constituencies within the university and beyond and was alert and responsive to the emergence of new social formations, their cultures and their political demands.

By the 1980s, Hall was widely known as a leading critic of ‘Thatcherism’ and the combination of ‘authoritarian populism’ and neoliberalism which, he argued, that project represented. He was equally critical of the ‘old left’ of the Labour Party. In journals such as Marxism Today and Soundings, which Hall founded with Michael Rustin and the late Doreen Massey, he presented these critiques whilst championing a new politics, emerging from feminist, diaspora, and gay and lesbian rights demands and discourses. It was in this period that Hall began promoting the ‘Black arts’ - advocating for institutional funding and support for music, photography, film, painting and sculpture produced by a second generation of Black British artists.

Theoretically innovative, always responsive to the political and social conditions of the present, Hall saw a certain thread running through his life work, the product of what he called ‘the prism of a Caribbean formation’. His arguments about the discursive nature of ‘race’, of the distinct cultural questions of the African and Asian diasporas, and his critique of the histories and geographies of the Caribbean in the colonial, decolonising, and postcolonial periods continue to inform and inspire activists, artists, and academics around the world.

The next three years’ research will make the archive widely accessible, through digitisation, cataloguing, development of digital tools and interfaces to enable work with the data and meta-data of Hall’s papers and related archives in Birmingham and across the UK. Hall’s archive provides an exceptional opportunity for the development of the distinctive kind of ‘public sphere’, which he had identified as necessary if the crises of the present—whether political, social, cultural, or environmental—are to be addressed. By engaging artists and political practitioners from outside the university, those who work with and represent historically excluded or minoritised communities and constituencies, the research aims to bring new questions, questions of the present, into relation with Hall’s work.

And I think that [there is an opportunity for] a very different public sphere which is less grounded in a traditional conception of the disciplines and the professions and the institutions; which is more open to a kind of porous notion of civil society, more open to the organic intellectual function; which is responsive to a kind of Lloyd Best call for non-disciplinary, extra-disciplinary thinking. A lot of those things are to constitute a new space of dialogue in which, of course, people would harangue one another till the cows come home.

Professor Stuart Hall, interviewed by David Scott, 1996

Interviewed by David Scott, in 1996, Hall commented: “And I think that [there is an opportunity for] a very different public sphere which is less grounded in a traditional conception of the disciplines and the professions and the institutions; which is more open to a kind of porous notion of civil society, more open to the organic intellectual function; which is responsive to a kind of Lloyd Best call for non disciplinary, extradisciplinary thinking. A lot of those things are to constitute a new space of dialogue in which, of course, people would harangue one another till the cows come home.” 

Such a space is needed today, when our media, education institutions, and politics are so fraught with conflict, and in the context of serial crises—of environment, economy, state legitimacy, social care, nationhood, sexuality, representation and identity. Whether questions of policing, access to public services, citizenship and who has the means to secure their heritage and cultural practices—Hall did not have the solution to these issues in his own time, nor ours, but his work enables us to pose the questions without foreclosure, enabling progressive political action