Stuart Hall and Cultural Studies

With the death of Stuart Hall on February 10, cultural studies have lost one of their most distinguished exponents. Born in Jamaica in1932, the young Hall came to England at the age of nineteen, as a Rhodes scholar to study at Oxford University. Unlike his compatriots, he was not attracted to Britain by the prospect of a better life but by an intellectual curiosity which he never lost through his long academic career. It is in the already multiracial Birmingham that Hall launched a new field of sociological and philosophical research, soon to become ‘cultural studies’. His main focus was initially the unresolved question of race in a postcolonial world. Although Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre had theorised about the status of the ‘colonised’ from a psychological and Marxist perspective, Hall brought his new methodology to the debate, relying on a wide range of conceptual tools taken from the media, political thought, feminist writings and literary critical theory. He identified five central paradigms constitutive of the concept of identity: Marxism and its socio-economic definition of the subject, Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, Saussure’s study of language and signs as the core of a structured self, Foucault’s theory on the individual being subject to institutions of power and discourse and finally, the central place give by feminism to genre in the perception of subjectivity.   

By inviting different disciplines to the table, Hall widened our understanding of what it is to be ‘human’ as cultural studies are prepared to include categories of individuals such as blacks, women and gay minorities, so far excluded from the white male tradition of Western Philosophy. Hall was not a pure theorist, entrenched in his ivory tower. Highly politicised, he was actively committed to causes such as racial justice and championed educational projects celebrating multiculturalism though contemporary art and photography. Like Michel Foucault in the 1980’s, Hall contributed to the fuller inclusion of the ‘Other’ in the philosophical landscape. By taking into account the manifold cultural manifestations of our modern society, Hall opened new vistas onto future philosophical enquiries and gave us a glimpse of what could be a more open and a more tolerant world.

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