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Stuart Hall, Caribbean Thought and the World We Live In

A Tribute from the Centre  for Caribbean Thought
Over the past week there have been many tributes to the Jamaican born thinker Stuart Hall. We at the Centre  for Caribbean Thought  remember the 2004 conference , “  Culture , Politics , Race and Diaspora: The Thought of Stuart Hall,” where  with  mesmerizing eloquence Hall  addressed  ideas about  thinking, activism, the Caribbean  Diaspora , politics and  the  complex relationships between culture , race, class and power.
When we invited Hall in 2003  and informed him that his work would be the subject of a “Caribbean Reasonings Conference” his initial response,  typical of his character  was that he had not written much on the Caribbean; that  his work was not  of the kind like that of Lamming  or CLR James . Yet in a lecture delivered at the 50th anniversary of the University of West Indies, Hall had noted that the 1998 event occurred at the same time as the 50th anniversary of the docking of the SS Empire Windrush in the UK. That landing began a new history of post war Caribbean migration to the UK.
Hall arrived in the UK as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951. His life was a Caribbean life away, a diasporic life in which the new meanings of home were constructed while retaining  echoes of the former home. How could one forget the 1991 seven part documentary series which he narrated , Redemption Song that deeply explored the past and present of the Caribbean? Hall was a Caribbean intellectual, one who was part and parcel of the post war Afro- Caribbean migration experience.  That he did not  return   “home “ like others ,  George Lamming ,  or Sylvia Wynter ( who returned for a while ) and others did not mean that he was not Caribbean . What it meant was that the Caribbean was now working through a different geographical and cultural location. He himself noted: “The fate of the Caribbean people living in the UK, the USA or Canada is no more “external” to Caribbean history than the Empire was “external” to the so called domestic history of Britain.” 
Living at the heart of the British colonial empire in its dying days and on the cusp of regional political independence was both a formidable intellectual and political challenge for Hall.  These challenges remained with him for a long time and as he said in an interview in 2012, “I am not quite English.” Hall’s preoccupation with Diaspora and race emerged out of this conundrum which he navigated. There is profound connection between Hall’s life and his writings and thinking about Diaspora and race for as he once said in a debate with a conservative political figure in London. “You cannot have at the back of your head what I have in mine. You once owned me on a plantation.” When Hall became involved in British left politics it was at a moment when orthodox Marxism was reeling from the exposures and revelations of the brutalities of Stalinism.
If in 1956 , another Caribbean figure , Aime Cesaire resigned  from the French Communist Party stating that not only  the bodies  murdered by Stalin  were an eloquent testimony to the negative practices of  orthodox communism but that the colonial  and race problems  required new and different readings of  how societies were constituted ,  Hall along with others in 1960 founded the New Left Review  as one attempt to construct a new left politics. This desire to construct a  different left politics which was not a distant cousin of orthodox Marxism (what he would call in 1986 in an article on ideology, “Marxism without guarantees”) was critical  to Hall’s intellectual and political life. Indeed his work as the central founder of the field of “Cultural Studies” at Birmingham University    was not so much about a study of the popular but more about thinking around the relationships between power and culture. It was to understand culture as a complex phenomenon which was always contested but importantly he believed  that one could not think politically without grappling with the yeast of culture. It was this  understanding which  made it possible for him to coin the term “ Thatcherism “ as a hegemonic cluster of ideas which were not just political but deeply rooted in  the cultural and social history of Britain.
 Hall’s political thinking in recent years was to grapple with the ideas inaugurated by Thatcher and others  and what he called a year ago the “neo-liberal revolution.” He reminds us that Thatcher once said, “the object is to change the soul “   In grappling with this new ideological configuration, Hall posited two sets of ideas amongst many which might be in part legacies for us today. The first is the notion of contingency. The idea that social and political life is not fixed, that there is no formal closure and therefore there is fluidity in what seems fixed and frozen.   It is an important idea because it always means that in the darkest of times there are always “points of light.”   The second is one which he took from the Italian political thinker, Antonio Gramsci -- the idea of “common sense.”  His challenge to us was that we should understand how common sense gets  formed.  In  an  article written by himself and Alan O ‘ Shea  in December 2013 , he argued that  the “  assumption that everyone is obviously going to agree with what is being proposed is in fact a means of securing that agreement.”   He also noted that the idea that “we all share common sense values … is a powerful legitimation strategy. “
That months before his death   Hall and others worked on the Kilburn Manifesto a document about the possibilities of renewing  the left in Britain is indicative of a force field of determination. But perhaps even more so it was indicative of   his deep desire to confront the world as we know it and challenge its assumptions. In London, Hall’s contribution to visual culture is well known particularly his work with the group of Black Photographers and the establishment of Rivington Place. Hall had that rare gift of discerning the contours of the world in which we live. With unmatched generosity he worked across generations. He was open to the future and to the possibilities of a different world as he practiced a form of engaged listening and dialogue . For those of us at the Centre for Caribbean Thought he is a seminal figure and thinker of the 20th century.     
This Tribute is written by:

  • Brian Meeks, Professor of Social and Political Change, Director SALISES, The University of the West Indies, Mona
  • Anthony Bogues, Lyn Crost Professor of Social Sciences and Critical Theory , Professor of Africana Studies, Director, Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice, Brown University
  • Rupert Lewis, Professor Emeritus of Political Thought, The University of the West Indies, Mona

February 17th , 2014

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