At a Race Matters conference in 1994 the great and good of black America's cognoscenti gathered at Princeton University to mark Cornel West's departure to Harvard. Among them were Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the late Manning Marable, Patricia Williams and Angela Davis. When questions were invited following the opening panel the first speaker came to the mic. "Stuart Hall, the Open University," he said, by way of introduction. "The room exploded into applause," wrote Claire Alexander in a special edition of Cultural Studies in 2009. "It was the only time I have ever witnessed someone getting a standing ovation for simply saying their name."
It is hard to overestimate the intellectual influence that Stuart Hall, who died on Monday, wielded both nationally and globally. His influence on the intersection of culture and politics as well as race, gender and national identity spanned continents, disciplines and generations. Hall wore the burden of this renown lightly, as though it barely weighed on him at all. One of the most celebrated sociologists in the academy, he never wrote a standalone book (though many essays) or gained a PhD in Sociology. He was gracious, generous, approachable and accessible – secure enough in his own intellect and comfortable enough in his own skin to engage a full range of allies, admirers and adversaries without apparently considering any a threat or himself a celebrity.
Of the two things I loved most about Hall's work the first was that he was never finished. He never stopped thinking, fathoming and immersing himself in fresh thinking. Constantly applying the texts he had produced to new contexts which emerged and then adjusting his ideas to keep his ideas dynamic.
"Cultural identities come from somewhere," he wrote in Cultural Identity and Diaspora. "But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power."
Like the identities he was critiquing he was always evolving. Always challenging and being challenged. This practice was what enabled him to not only coin the term Thatcherism but also offer the most thoroughgoing analysis of it even as it was emerging. "It no longer looks like a temporary swing in the political fortunes, a short-term shift in the balance of forces," he wrote of Thatcherism in Marxism Today in January 1979, four months before MargaretThatcher was elected. "It has been well installed – a going concern – since the latter part of the 1960s. And, though it has developed through a series of different stages, its dynamic and momentum appears to be sustained."
Many of his observations in that essay, as in so many others, would prove sadly prescient. "Thatcherism" has found a powerful means of popularising the principles of a monetarist philosophy: and in the image of the welfare "scavenger" a well designed folk-devil. Even then he suggested this "crisis" might last for decades.
The second was that he was not interested in the sterile opposition to Thatcherism and its ideological cousins but in formulating the kind of response that could actually defeat it. Not only did he remain faithful to principles of equality, humanism and social justice. He held them so dear he did not want to see them sacrificed at the altar of cheap rhetoric. He was not interested in the kind of formulaic "left" responses that offered solace but no solution. "If we are correct about the depth of the rightward turn, then our interventions need to be pertinent, decisive and effective. Whistling in the dark is an occupational hazard not altogether unknown to the British left."
These two things came together to elevate him, in my estimation, above the overwhelming majority of academics of his status. He was not interested in sounding clever but being useful and making a difference. His intellectual product was not a performance but an engagement: a genuine desire to understand the world as it is, not as he would like it to be, and to help change it by offering insights and interventions that might help make that world possible.
On a personal level he was generous with both his time and his affection. He encouraged the young (including myself) without patronising or indulging. "I remember the second time I met him," recalls Ben Carrington, who was then a 28-year-old PhD candidate at Brighton University. "I reintroduced myself and told him I worked on sports, to which he replied 'I know who you are Ben, I like your work'".
In these interactions there was not just kindness but example. To be a black, left, migrant academic in Britain living through one of the most reactionary periods of the last century would be enough to embitter most. It is a rare soul who emerges from one of those categories, let alone all of them, without the myriad slights, disappointments and setbacks seeping beneath the skin, coursing through their veins and making their blood boil. But the frustrations he undoubtedly experienced did not reduce him to the kind of cynicism, rage or disaffection and sometimes all three that have left so many of his generation rightfully but redundantly embittered.
I never knew him well enough to call him a mentor (we had lunch a couple times, sat on a few panels together and met at a few conferences) and the term "role model" is too sterile. But to see a black man of his generation – of any generation – excel in the world of ideas and emerge with both his professional integrity and humanity in tact was a personal inspiration.
"I believe in an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky," wrote EM Forster. "They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory over cruelty and chaos"
Stuart Hall was one such aristocrat: a class warrior and a class act who had class.
In his own words:
"I thought I might find the real me in Oxford. Civil rights made me accept being a black intellectual. There was no such thing before, but then it was something, so I became one."
"Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God's name is the point of cultural studies? … At that point, I think anybody who is into cultural studies seriously as an intellectual practice, must feel, on their pulse, its ephemerality, its insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we've been able to change anything or get anybody to do anything. If you don't feel that as one tension in the work that you are doing, theory has let you off the hook."
" … identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within the narratives of the past."
"Britain is not homogenous; it was never a society without conflict. The English fought tooth and nail over everything we know of as English political virtues – rule of law, free speech, the franchise. The very notion of Great Britain's 'greatness' is bound up with empire. Euro-scepticism and Little Englander nationalism could hardly survive if people understood whose sugar flowed through English blood and rotted English teeth."