Why Stuart Hall Mattered

The Marxist intellectual revolutionized how we think about pop culture. But the U.S. media barely noted his death.

Susan J. Douglas

The cultural theorist Stuart Hall left an indelible intellectual legacy. (Photo courtesy of the Stuart Hall project)

Imag­ine the unimag­in­able for just a minute. A tow­er­ing Marx­ist pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al — who influ­enced mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions of pro­fes­sors and their stu­dents — dies, and the U.S. press is filled with enco­mia about what he meant.

When Stuart Hall died February 10, the outpouring in the British press over an avowedly left-wing, anti-racist, anti-imperialist activist and theorist of the highest order served as just another reminder of the impoverishment of intellectual life in the United States.

When Stu­art Hall died Feb­ru­ary 10, the out­pour­ing in the British press over an avowed­ly left-wing, anti-racist, anti-impe­ri­al­ist activist and the­o­rist of the high­est order served as just anoth­er reminder of the impov­er­ish­ment of intel­lec­tu­al life in the Unit­ed States. Here, Hall was known pri­mar­i­ly in aca­d­e­m­ic cir­cles; the New York Times report­ed his pass­ing sev­en days late.

As one of the found­ing fig­ures of cul­tur­al stud­ies, Hall’s con­tri­bu­tions to aca­d­e­m­ic dis­course can­not be overem­pha­sized. It’s hard to imag­ine now,
 with com­mu­ni­ca­tion stud­ies one of the most pop­u­lar majors in the Unit­ed States, that in the 1960s and ear­ly 1970s, study­ing the media was regard­ed as beneath con­tempt. There was an elit­ist hier­ar­chy affirm­ing high” cul­ture as pos­sess­ing qual­i­ty, rig­or and vir­tu­os­i­ty, and low” or pop­u­lar cul­ture as being banal, trashy and hard­ly worth aca­d­e­m­ic atten­tion. Hall, as the direc­tor of the Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Cul­tur­al Stud­ies at Birm­ing­ham Uni­ver­si­ty, changed that.

A Marx­ist the­o­rist who loved pop­u­lar cul­ture — espe­cial­ly Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture — Hall under­stood that the British stu­dents he was teach­ing in the mid-1960s were defin­ing them­selves through music, Amer­i­can films, mag­a­zines and TV shows. His 1964 book The Pop­u­lar Arts, co-authored with Pad­dy Whan­nel, sought to legit­i­mate the analy­sis of pop cul­ture, both for its ide­o­log­i­cal valences and as a way to engage stu­dents. We want­ed to know,” he told me in a 2011 inter­view, what was the dream life of the masses.”

Hall launched a series of stud­ies that took media texts very seri­ous­ly. The rea­sons, con­tro­ver­sial then, are obvi­ous today. Mil­lions of peo­ple con­sume pop­u­lar media — more than read, say, Hen­ry James, the sub­ject of Hall’s ditched dis­ser­ta­tion — and have their iden­ti­ties and ideas shaped by them. And in those texts lie pow­er­ful atti­tudes about race, gen­der, class, crime, mil­i­tarism, and who deserves to hold pow­er and who doesn’t.

Stu­art helped rede­fine what was meant by ide­ol­o­gy.” Draw­ing from the work of Anto­nio Gram­sci, the Ital­ian the­o­rist jailed by Mus­soli­ni for a decade, Hall insist­ed that ide­ol­o­gy was not only a spe­cif­ic set of ideas, like Com­mu­nism or Catholi­cism; it was the every­day, com­mon­sense” val­ues and atti­tudes embed­ded in media, which often ben­e­fit­ed elites while also address­ing the aspi­ra­tions of every­day peo­ple by giv­ing lip ser­vice to equal­i­ty or upward mobil­i­ty. Such com­mon sense can also pit non-elites against each oth­er, by, say, equat­ing crim­i­nal­i­ty with peo­ple of col­or in the news or rein­forc­ing sub­servient roles for women. Hall insist­ed that expos­ing how ide­o­log­i­cal mes­sages are embed­ded in just enter­tain­ment” is the job of aca­d­e­mics and pub­lic intellectuals.

Yet in his famous 1973 arti­cle, Encod­ing and Decod­ing in 
the Tele­vi­sion Dis­course,” Hall chal­lenged the clas­si­cal Marx­ist notion that view­ers were pas­sive dupes manip­u­lat­ed into acqui­es­cence by the media. Some audi­ence mem­bers may accept the dom­i­nant mean­ings embed­ded in media texts, but oth­ers reject them. Still oth­ers devel­op a nego­ti­at­ed” read­ing, accept­ing some but not all ele­ments of a news sto­ry or TV show. Not only did this blow apart the received wis­dom about nar­co­tized con­sumers of pop­u­lar cul­ture, it also stim­u­lat­ed new lines of inquiry about the media that legit­i­mat­ed the entire field. The fact that pro­gres­sive pub­li­ca­tions like In These Times or The Nation fea­ture media crit­i­cism and analy­sis is a direct result of his work.

Hall coined the term Thatch­erism” and under­stood, regret­ful­ly, the Right’s con­struc­tion of a new agen­da” in the 1980s that won the con­sent of very sub­stan­tial sec­tions of the sub­or­di­nat­ed and dom­i­nat­ed class­es.” Yet despite polit­i­cal dis­ap­point­ments, he nev­er failed to rail against neo-lib­er­al­ism (which he described as an infec­tion) and its effects on increased inequality.

At the end of his life, though he was more dis­cour­aged than he had been in 30 years, he con­tin­ued to advo­cate for, as Gram­sci put it: pes­simism of the intel­lect, opti­mism of the will.”

Amen to that. We owe him a mon­u­men­tal debt.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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