01 May 2008

Five Favourite Revolutionaries: Stuart Hall

Revolution: what is it? We live in a society where the word typically describes either innovation in consumerism or is used in ways that are decidedly beyond its immediate capacities. ‘Revolutionary’ describes everything from the latest formulation of Tide to musical hucksters shilling for Mammon. Everyone from the poststructuralist pundit to the endowed heiress wants a piece of revolution nowadays.

On the political Left, revolution is imbued in a certain romance, stemming originally from the French Revolution of the 18th century but more closely tied to the development of Marxist thought in the 20th century (which itself borrowed quite a lot from the violence of the French model), flowing from Soviet nomenklatura and the socio-political discourses of the sixties. Revolution speaks to wiping the slate clean, a profound and common desire of the American mind, and as such, hardly revolutionary in and of itself.

For the student and intellectual, tracing out revolutionary intellectual moments may be somewhat more tactile. The pallid accusation that university academics work to indoctrinate their students does not, of course, speak to the idiosyncratic formation of the mind that is so integral to intellectual thought, which here primarily means the ability to think above and beyond what one already knows— to learn something new, and see something differently. Revolutions in thought, like political revolutions, rarely have predetermined endings, but arguably do have distinct and discrete beginnings.

So, in honour of May Day, I have decided to share some of my own revolutionary thinkers over the next five days: five intellectuals and cultural producers who, through their work, have informed my own particular formation as an intellectual and citizen. Five days, five revolutions in my own thought. And the first, and perhaps most influential in theoretical approach, has been the work and career of Stuart Hall.

Once you enter the politics of the end of the essential black subject you are plunging headlong into the maelstrom of a continuously contingent, unguaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism. You can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in the place of the bad old essential white subject, the new essentially good black subject. Now, that formulation may seem to threaten the collapse of an entire political world. Alternatively, it may be greeted with extraordinary relief at the passing away of what at one time seemed to be a necessary fiction. Namely, either that all black people are good or indeed that all black people are the same.

— Stuart Hall

At an MLA interview a couple of years back for a position in Latina/o literature, I was asked who my primary intellectual interlocutor was, and I responded without hesitation, “Stuart Hall.” This drew an interesting reaction from one of the interviewers, who demurred that this was an unexpected answer. I didn’t have the chance to follow up on the implications of that utterance (in particular the implicit expectation of a different name), but I found the response telling, in some ways. What does Stuart Hall have to do with Latinidad?

While Hall has a distinguished and elaborate career in many areas, the most important influence on my own thinking has been his formulation away from essential identities into the cacophony of contestation and contingency, which is a very fancy way of saying there are many ways of being Latina/o, or Black, or gay, or whatever. He wasn’t the first to articulate this particular critical stance, but he was the first I had read, and subsequently, his work became central to my own approach to questions of race and sexuality, in particular the challenges of working through the complicated legacies of white supremacy, colonialism, and resurgent sixties social movements.

I first read Hall in a seminar called “The Decline of Britain” my junior year. A small class, we met weekly over dinner in a paneled room off a dining hall, and while silverware clinked on plates and the voices of students drifted under the door, we discussed the end of Empire, and changes in society and the state in the postwar United Kingdom. Hall, emigrating from Jamaica as a young man to Britain, represented in many ways the promise of the metropole to the colonial subject, as well as a new articulation, of Black Britishness that spoke to transformations in British identity. Coming out of a particular moment in student identity politics, where race and sexuality were regarded simplistically as foundational and unquestioned monoliths, where experience was the unquestioned and unexamined baseline measurement of authenticity, Hall’s formulation opened the door out of a stifling cul-de-sac.

Of course his work has been remarkably influential on thinkers across the anglophone world. There seemed a time, in the nineties, when you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a citation of Hall. My graduate program was no exception, and I was surprised that as my fellow doctoral candidates struggled over their theses, they often used Hall in ways that raised questions about identity that were then foreclosed by their very own projects, by their insistence on rather rigid ideas about identity that exemplified themselves in rather ugly struggles over who counted as what, the hows and whys.

This critical misuse of Hall only reinforced for me the importance of the revolution his work sparked in my mind, the challenges of existing in the world of the Post, and the crumbling of the theoretical unitary subject. Hall’s own personal commitment to the possibilities of knowledge and transformation, not the least of which was taking a position at the Open University as opposed to crossing the pond to a bloated position in the Ivy League, became a positive model of intellectual engagement that lived up to its political implications, a rare bird indeed in the Business.

This realisation did not make my work theoretically impossible, but did mean I learned how to read and tread with care, how to measure and analyse in ways that spoke to the opening of possibilities through Hall’s work, rather than raising purely performative questions only to immediately shut them down. Hall pushed me to confront, seriously, what it meant to think through race and sexuality outside of the comfort zone of expectation and preconception, to own the intellectual choices I made, and make connections that expanded and enriched Latinidad beyond simply Aztec warriors and gang sociology, offering choices and pathways that were unexpected and new. And with this, he changed my way of thinking, as well as my expectations of the abilities of scholarship.


Anonymous said...

what a beautiful post. thanks for reminding me why i love hall's work.

regards - anonymous blog lurker in canada.

GayProf said...

If I were in the interview room, I would have been immensely pleased by the choice of Hall. It does make one wonder, though, who they would have preferred/expected you to choose.

cero said...

"...as my fellow doctoral candidates struggled over their theses, they often used Hall in ways that raised questions about identity that were then foreclosed by their very own projects, by their insistence on rather rigid ideas about identity that exemplified themselves in rather ugly struggles over who counted as what, the hows and whys."

I'd be curious to see you expand on this. Not with a whole essay, just with a brief example.

Why ... well ... not because I want to steal your sentences for an article of mine (in case you wonder, I say this because I know it could sound like that).

The kind of question I am thinking of is one which came up yesterday in a discussion about affirmative action too baroque to reproduce here.

Anyway - I'd be curious to hear more about that critical misuse of Hall.

Oso Raro said...

Well, brevity isn't truly my strong suit, but suffice it to say, if Hall calls for a contingency of identity, with an eye towards building politically meaningful alliances on the Left, then what was elided in the work of some of my colleagues was the notion of contingency itself, and the implication of change, transformation, and mobile politics- the fact that politics is change, and one can no longer depend on identity as a grounding *in and of itself* in politics. One of the struggles of theory and race has been accounting for social formation in the face of PoMo theories that undermine authorial positions (i.e., Spivak's "strategic essentialism," Realist theory, etc.). Some of this has been ironed out a bit, or at least seems less important now,

However, back in the nineties, I was surrounded by graduate students who read and embraced the theoretical precepts that undermined essential subjectivity, especially how it emerged out of the sixties racial-ethnic social movements (patriarchal, heterodominant, culturally nationalist), but then reinscribed essentialism (or had a queer shotgun wedding between essentialism and post-structuralism) under the guise of new identity formations that were, at least as they were applied in the classroom and the thesis (and in some cases the monograph), as tiresome and rigid as the old ones, if wearing florid theoretical language. One saw these tendencies in some application of theory in reference to racial-ethnic gender and sexuality identities in particular.

Which is not to indict important substreams of new gender and sexuality study in toto, but is to say that breaking free of the certainty of essential identities, whether those are patriarchal culturally nationalist ones or newer feminist or Stonewall-inspired forays, is difficult work. I am sensitive to this challenge insofar as my theoretical opponents don't engage in the ad hominem that unfortunately tends to characterise these debates, itself a function of politics that passes as identity discourse.