Hall, Stuart

Assigned: Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (1705-17). Also read the editors’ introduction (1702-04).

“Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (1990/1992)                       

1. On 1705-06 (“This Conference provides us with…”), how does Stuart Hall describe the purpose of the conference he is attending in 1990 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign? How does he explain his own sense of what he, as a founding member of the diverse discipline we call “cultural studies,” can contribute to others’ understanding of how that discipline or discursive formation got started? In what paradoxical way does he try to avoid making his own voice central or overly “authoritative” (1705) in this collective reflection on cultural studies’ theoretical legacies?

2. On 1706-07 (“Cultural studies is a discursive formation…”), Hall begins by describing cultural studies as “a discursive formation, in Foucault’s sense” (1706 top). How does he characterize the complex origins of this discursive formation known as cultural studies? While acknowledging the “many trajectories” and “different kinds of work” (1706) that marked the early years of cultural studies, how does he nonetheless set up the discussion about what is “at stake” (1706) in this field, about what holds it together even in its great diversity of approaches and makes it, in his view, something more than mere academic research and chatter?

3. On 1707-08 (“This is a way of opening…”), Hall opens his concrete exploration of the genealogy and significance of cultural studies with a reference to Edward Said’s term “worldliness” (see Said’s Orientalism, Leitch 1801 bottom). How does he use his own worldly entrance into Marxist discourse “backwards” as an adherent of the 1950s “New Left” to illustrate the complex genealogical relationship between Marxism and cultural studies? How does Hall differentiate British cultural studies from Marxism, and why is it important to him to “deconstruct” (1707) any assertion of an easy identification between the two? What significant problems with Marxist doctrine and orientation does he identify with surprising intensity (1708)?

4. On 1708-09 (“I want to suggest a different metaphor…”), Hall uses a striking metaphor as a way of explaining his idea of theory’s value to him: “wrestling with the angels” (1708). How does his own experience during his time with the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, as he relates it, confirm this notion that it is necessary to have a difficult relationship to theory, and not a “fluent” (1708) one? In what sense was studying Louis Althusser’s Reading Capital a struggle, and why did Hall and his fellows at the Centre consider it obligatory to read heavily in all sorts of philosophy and sociology (Hegel, Max Weber, “idealist” art criticism, etc.) that was in no way reducible to straightforward Marxist doctrine?

5. On 1709-11 (“So the notion that Marxism…”), Hall turns to a detailed exploration of the importance of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s work to him and to his colleagues at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. (See Leitch 927-35) Why, indeed, was Gramsci’s work important to Hall and his fellow cultural studies practitioners? How, mainly, did the Italian’s searching investigations into the problems with the so-called “grand theory” of Marxism, along with his notion of the “organic intellectual” (1710) help Hall and his British colleagues calibrate their own difficult, never-settled relationship with Marxism, and their own responsibilities as materialist scholars and citizens?

6. On 1711-12 (“I want to look at two other…”), Hall transitions to consideration of two unexpected but significant “theoretical moments in cultural studies” (1711). The first of these moments, which Hall characterizes as “interruptions,” belongs to feminism. What five profound effects, according to Hall, did the entrance of feminist scholars have upon the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1711)? In a more personal sense, in what circumstances were these feminist scholars invited into the Centre, and how did men such as Stuart Hall—supposedly “transformed” (1712) or liberated men, at that—experience the participation of the highly capable, motivated and assertive women now working with them as colleagues?

7. On 1712 (“Then there is the question of race…”), Hall mentions the second of the two significant moments or “interruptions” that he says transformed the work going on at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies during his time there. In what sense was the introduction of the racial dimension in cultural studies just as much of a struggle as that of the introduction of the feminist dimension? What key texts does Hall mention in this regard, and how does he summarize the experience of black British scholar Paul Gilroy (see Leitch 2389-2409) with the Centre?

8. On 1712-14 (“I want to hold to the notion…”), Hall first wards off any notion that he is offering readers a “simple-minded anti-theoretical populism” (1713) in the name of cultural studies. He then turns to an exploration of the significance of the highly theoretical “linguistic turn” in the work being done at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. What effects does he say newly introduced “structuralist, semiotic, and poststructuralist” (1713) ideas had on cultural studies? How does Hall suggest British and American cultural studies, as a project, has managed the difficult relationship between the imperatives of material change (political, social, cultural, institutional, etc.) and the inescapability of text and “textuality” in the theoretical study of culture and politics? According to Hall (following Edward Said), what is the right and only way to approach the “displacement” that must continually occur in cultural/political discourse, and the “tension” between theory and politics that will always beset cultural studies (1714)?

9. On 1714-15 (“I’ve been talking very much in terms…”), Hall offers a key example of the question of theory’s importance in social and political matters: AIDS, which was at that time a leading cause of death in the United States and certain other countries. How could intellectuals’ theorizing about AIDS possibly make any difference to anyone—especially to those suffering from it? How does Hall respond to such blunt, skeptical questioning of theory’s value for those living through difficult real-life problems and in harsh environments? In his view, in what respect is theory-suffused cultural studies still able to do good work on behalf of those afflicted with this dread disease?

10. On 1715-17 (“I want to end in two ways…”), Hall concludes his reflections on the “theoretical legacies” of cultural studies in part by speaking about the special dangers he sees see in the current path being taken by American cultural studies practitioners? What happens, in his view, when cultural studies becomes merely another academic discipline? What might happen if it becomes too comfortable with, too “fluent” in (1715 bottom and 1716) theoretical, post-structural verities about textuality, deconstruction-mandated indeterminacy, and so forth? Still, how does Hall, in his final remarks, again draw sustenance from Antonio Gramsci’s updated Marxism? How does Gramsci’s concept of “organic intellectuals” (1716; see Leitch 927-35) help Hall assert the continued political and material potential of cultural studies, and remain hopeful that the new iterations of cultural studies won’t theorize the materiality and consequentiality out of intellectual work?

11. General question: As Stuart Hall points out in “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (1992), the relationship between cultural studies and Marxism has always been a difficult, if altogether necessary one. In writing the texts that they published, Marx and Engels obviously wanted to transform the world, not engage in endless theorizing like the German Idealists whose work they benefited from by way of brilliant inversion of the relationship between ideas and material reality. We now live in a mostly post-Marxist world—there is no more Soviet Union, China is still authoritarian but no longer truly “communist” in its economic affairs, and so forth. Only North Korea seems stuck in high-Stalinist mode, and it is extremely poor and isolated. What, then, is the value of continuing to make Marxist principles operative in contemporary theory and cultural studies? Is Marxist thought largely passé, or is there abiding value in the “dialectical materialism” and other formulations put out so long ago by communism’s original theorists? Explain.

12. General question: In “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (1992), Stuart Hall does an excellent job of wrestling with the impact of various branches of “theory” on the vast field of cultural studies, and he offers a sense of relative coherence with respect to its engagements with the material, “real-life” world in the light of theoretical commitments. Of course, cultural studies has come in for its share of criticism for allegedly being intellectually sloppy and even incoherent: too many incompatible theories going round at once and being applied promiscuously, so to speak. This criticism came to the fore when, in 1996, a New York University physics professor with a wicked sense of humor, Alan D. Sokal, submitted a bogus paper with the pompous title, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which was accepted for publication in the prestigious postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text. The journal’s editors were of course quite embarrassed at having been taken in by the author’s dazzling assertion of a profound link between literary interpretation and the principles and techniques of advanced physics. What is your own opinion of the integrity of cultural studies, in so far as you are acquainted with it at this point in your studies? Do you think it was (and is) unfair to make too much of Professor Sokal’s comic upstaging of this huge “discursive formation”? Why or why not? In general, have you found the cultural studies texts you have read mostly enlightening, mostly frustrating, or a bit of both? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake