Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Failure of Partial Displacement: In Honour of Stuart Hall

Grant Farred, The Con

“Three months at Oxford persuaded me that it was not my home,” he told the Guardian in 2012. “I’m not English and I never will be. The life I have lived is one of partial displacement. I came to England as a means of escape, and it was a failure.”

There are few events that demand our thinking as much as death. It is difficult enough to find the right words with which to remember the one who has passed; to remember exactly what it is that mattered in the moment of that passing, a moment unavoidably fraught and overwrought with loss, recollection, pain and immense gratitude for the life that was. Producing a language that befits the dead, who are still so alive to us, is a task made inordinately more difficult when the one who is being honoured is an intellectual who made the political use of language his life’s work. When the intellectual in question, as is the case here, gave theoretical gravity to “articulation”, renovated Marxism for our time, made us think about how “encoding” and “decoding” constituted a critical part of our everyday existence, and, perhaps his greatest accomplishment, made us attend to “culture” as though it were an entirely new concept.

Culture, as the fundament of cultural studies, the field with which the late Stuart Hall (1932-2014) is most intimately connected, the field, many are apt to say, that he brought to life and, with incisive regularity, rethought. Hall who, with figures such as Richard Hoggart and Paddy Whannel, first imagined cultural studies, critiqued the field so that it might do the political work that the new conjuncture (another key Hall term) needed. In the past 60 years, there are few thinkers on the left the world over who can claim to have remained immune to the charge of political engagement issued by cultural studies or whose work was not, in one way or another, influenced by Hall.

In light of such a towering intellectual legacy, it is not so much ironic as provocative that it is the notion of “failure to escape home”, as the Guardian reported, that resonates most because it addresses directly the question of work, of the conditions (“partial displacement”) under which the intellectual thinks. Hall, who came to England in 1951 from colonial Jamaica on a Rhodes scholarship to study at Merton College, Oxford, declares himself not to be “English”. Hall’s disavowal, considering that he lived in England from 1951 until his death on February 10 2014, does nothing so much as make us think not only what it might mean to be English (itself a matter of theoretical and political import for him), but also what it means for him to have worked, for more than six decades, in Britain.

In some ways, of course, Hall’s is an old story of exile or the diaspora, which are not the same things but are, from time to time, so proximate as to be indistinguishable. This narrative begins with alienation from the place of origin and ends, often tragically, with death and alienation from the place to which the intellectual has been deracinated. But that is precisely not what Hall offers. For Hall, working from England, this place which he pronounces “not my home”, is about responding to the demands of his “partial integration”, which is itself a response to his failed integration into Jamaican middle class life. Hall fled the racism of his own family (or, to phrase it crudely, the “colour consciousness” – that is, lighter is better). This “colour consciousness” manifested itself most traumatically when his parents would not permit his sister to have a relationship with a dark-skinned medical student from Barbados. Hall was, he recalled to me in a conversation over mid-morning coffee in the summer of 1993, pejoratively referred to in his family because of his own dark skin. And not just personally, psychically, but intellectually, Jamaica was hardly home. It took until 1996, in a conference organised at the University of the West Indies’ MONA campus, for Hall to be honoured in the Caribbean.

Hall’s intellectual trajectory, then, from scholarship boy to doyen of cultural studies and the British New Left, including his commitment to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and his role as founding editor of the journal New Left Review, is a testament to the difficulty and possibility of thinking from a “partial” but not marginal place. To be only, ever, “partially” at home means that the self must always know itself, in moments critical and mundane, as (raced, colonised, diasporic) other and, because of Hall’s centrality to the defining cultural and political debates in Britain since at least 1956, “partial (raced, diasporised, postcolonial, metropolitan) other”. Most importantly, this meant that Hall’s political work was never restricted to a single constituency, even if it was ideologically “delimited” – Stuart was, from start to finish, a thinker of and for the Left.

Hall took up the role of intellectual who championed so much more, while never losing sight of it as a lodestar for his thinking, than the cause of the Empire Windrush generation (the name of the first post-World War II ship to bring immigrants from the Caribbean) and subsequent generations of their descendants. This work included in its ambit everything from critiquing late-imperial racism (a condition that remains, to this day, slow to die) to discrimination in education, labour (a critique located at the intersection of class, race and capital) and culture. The Popular Arts, co-written with Paddy Whannel, makes a wonderful case for American jazz as a potential subject for study. Fitting, then, that one of Hall’s last public moments – The Stuart Hall Project, directed by John Akomfrah, screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – is a poetic recalling of his love for that most iconic of jazz figures, Miles Davis.

Beginning with his work for the New Left in 1956, itself a global anti-colonial movement that stretched from the Suez Canal (that Suez crisis that pitted France, Britain and Israel against Gamal Abdel Nasser’s newly independent Egypt) to Budapest (the Soviet invasion of Hungary) and Moscow (Nikita Kruschev’s denunciation of Joseph Stalin), Hall spent the rest of his life in Britain trying to realise, as he might have put it, an “already existing socialism” that was unwavering in its commitment to on-the-ground cultural struggles. The Hard Road to Renewal, arguably his best known book (a collection of essays written over a decade or so), brings a Gramscian paradigm to bear on the rise of Margaret Thatcher’s “authoritarian populism”. (It is possible to claim that he not only coined the term “Thatcherism” but made it the left pejorative it deservedly became.) “Thatcherism” was a mode of coming to and organising power that extended to and coincided with Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the United States.

“Authoritarian populism” stands as one of Hall’s signal accomplishments: he modelled for us not only how to take conservatism seriously but, critical in a moment when class lines were presumed to be absolutely rooted in the economy, never to fall prey to the Narodnikist line – that the working class is not, simply by virtue of being working class, always already radical. The working class, as Thatcherism demonstrated time and again, must never be thought outside of its capacity for nationalism – Thatcher’s ability to mobilise Britain in the Falklands (Malvinas) War made that point amply. He modelled for us how to think, via Gramsci, Marx and several other thinkers he dubbed, ironically, “old testament prophets” of the Left, of the terrain of authoritarian populism and how to counter it. So much so that much of The Hard Road to Renewal reads like an open letter to Neil Kinnock. Hall is explaining to the British Labour Party leader (Hall described his relationship to Labour as ambivalent, “one foot in, one foot out”) how to overcome Thatcher’s “Little England” mode of governing and how to construct a bloc that could undo the Tories’ populism.

When Labour, under the leadership of Tony Blair, finally unseated the Tories, there were those on the left who blamed Hall, some more loudly than others, for the triumph of the neo-liberalist Third Way. But they were wrong. Even if Blair’s Labour learned from Hall’s critiques of the party’s outmoded loyalty to the unions, even if they recognised the value of the cultural popular and its ability to mobilise and cohere, however precariously and impermanently, different constituencies (youth, gays, environmentalists, ethnicised communities and so on), Stuart never flinched in his socialist commitment. Neo-liberalism, no matter who occupied Downing Street, was for Hall the enemy of a radical politics.

Until his health began to deteriorate in his last decade or so, Hall stood at the centre of the political debate in Britain. In truth, his argument had an impact on politics far beyond his London home. Hall’s formative role in post-War British politics and culture, then, introduces a productive contradiction at the core of “partial displacement”. On the one hand, it signifies, as Hall intends, as an incomplete, jagged and truncated relationship to the metropolis. On the other, “partial displacement” gives voice to the power of the part, enabling a series of affiliations that extend well beyond the self without ever subsuming or invalidating that self. In his not belonging fully to the erstwhile imperial centre, Hall is able to give himself entirely – as the political landscape shifts, as new political possibilities emerge – to the struggles of the part (say, Marxism, cultural struggle) that identifies itself with, however problematically or tendentiously, the ideological whole (left politics).

The partial, in this logic, marks not the withdrawal of the displaced subject to the margins, but the immersion – the act of political commitment – of the self in the struggle at hand. Ironically, then, when he says that his “escape to England” was a “failure”, he is inadvertently, circuitously, entirely by accident, acknowledging the political and intellectual success of said “failure”. Hall, to phrase the matter jocularly, failed to escape England. As a result, he gave himself fully, not partially (that is, the kind of remove that is acquired only in retrospect), to Britain. Furthermore, it is England – in its imperial and post-imperial formations – that made of him the intellectual he became. Much like, we might say, it made his wife, the Northamptonshire native Catherine Hall (nee Barrett), the critic of imperial Britain and a feminist scholar of the colonial Caribbean.

The logic of the partial brings things, paradoxically, full circle. It is not only England that shaped Hall, but late- and post-imperial England has been shaped by a thinker who made of his partial displacement a full-time commitment to a radical politics that he, in his turn, both practised in England and also “displaced” far beyond this place that was “not home”, this place that was, as irony would have it, also perhaps the most fertile site for Hall’s thinking. Displacement, or, more properly phrased, the violence of deracination that compelled Hall to England, made of England a “home” for thinking. In this way, at least, England did not fail him at all.

What an intellectual benefit it is, then, to have lived, to be able to live (now, as the numbers of “displaced” intellectuals grows apace), a life of partial displacement, a life that resonates with Marx of the 18th Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.” We can say this of very few thinkers: what an intellectual history Stuart Hall made under conditions that he, only in part, chose. How Hall put those conditions to work, how he struggled to make a different history. How he used his “partial displacement” to “present” to, as Marx puts it, a “new scene” to world history.

In confronting Hall’s death, he has made us, once again, turn to, return to, the very thinking, the very life-sustaining difficulties, which were so crucial in forming him as an intellectual. In our turning to face the accomplishments of his life, Hall has presented us with his greatest gift: he alloyed his displacement into an intellectual culture of discomfiture. He discomfited us into thought so that we grappled with notions of home, radical homeless, the diaspora and the intellectual so that we contemplated the place of the exile and the displaced in intellectual history. Stuart Hall continues to make us think in death as he did so magnificently in his life.