Stuart Hall: Crossing the Border

Stuart Hall, Photograph: Eamonn McCabe. Via Guardian.
Stuart Hall, Photograph: Eamonn McCabe. Via Guardian.

You must look at what’s happening now. If it’s unpropitious, say it’s unpropitious. Don’t fool yourself. Analyse the conjuncture that you’re in. Then you can be an optimist of the will, and say I believe that things can be different. But don’t go to optimism of the will first. Because that’s just utopianism.”

-Stuart Hall, 11 February 2012

Stuart Hall died last week. There is a good obituary piece on the Guardian, here.

There is always a tension when writing about the dead. A feeling of trespassing. Somehow, it is very hard to speak or write of the dead without speaking of ourselves. When the dead had what we call today ‘celebrity status’, that bringing the death of the other to one’s self seems often disrespectful. At the same time, we cannot but speak about the dead but from our own perspective: who has the last word about the dead? Who is authorised to speak for them? This is something that has preoccupied me for a long time. The death of my father not too long ago (still feels like yesterday) brought these ideas back to the surface. We will not be able to speak of our own deaths, and when someone loved or admired passes away (to pass away– where to?) all we have left is what they meant to us, and what they meant to us, no matter how shared with others, will always be unique.

I never met Stuart Hall. I never saw him speak “in real life”. I haven’t even read everything he wrote; I am not, in any way, a “Hall scholar”, if there is such a thing. Last week was incredibly busy for me, and I really did not have much time to process what the news of Hall’s death meant to me. The way some of us live today does not leave us time to think about how we feel about things. I am not talking about the alienation of the factory worker here, and the comparison also feels rude and inappropriate. But there is a type of alienation in the demands (often self-imposed) of life in contemporary academia. I just stopped for a second this morning and reflected on what happened last week, including hearing of Stuart Hall’s death. Making this pause to write these words is now an exception in my life (and what more exceptional than someone’s death). And again this is not about me, but it is. I speak from my position.

I first read Stuart Hall as an undergraduate student in Mexico. I studied English Literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). It must have been in the second year or third year we took a module we all knew as “postcolonialism”. Nair Anaya was the tutor and it is to her I owe having read Stuart Hall for the first time*.  As it often happens one does not always realise what a deep impact some readings have on us until some time has passed. Then one comes back to them and re-discovers things. One matures with those readings, so to speak.

What I got from reading Hall was empowerment. At the time I had never identified with a theorist in such a way. I was  interested in studying popular culture, particularly comic books, this in a country where comic books were perceived as either fodder for the semi-literate working classes, an evil tool of American ideological and economic imperalism or an effective instrument for the Left to communicate.

In the early 90s, I was a tattooed, long-haired student into what was then referred to as “alternative” music. At that time it was common for armed police to stop and search us, inside police vans, on the way to the university, just because of our appearance**. Therefore Resistance Through Rituals (1975) opened for me a whole previously unknown discoursive toolkit. Culture, Media, Language (1980) and Politics and Ideology (1986) were the pieces I needed to complete the theoretical jigsaw puzzle I had started to put together with Barthes, Eco and Derrida. Politics and Ideology led me to the works of Raymond Williams: Culture and Society (1958) and particularly Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974) helped define the theoretical grounding that to my eyes proved my intuitions about the importance of popular art forms was not completely wrong.  It was that path that took me to Martin Barker‘s Comics: Power, Ideology and the Critics (1989) and his Reading into Cultural Studies (1994).

I would later discover the works of Dick Hebdige, particularly Subculture, the Meaning of Style (1979). These books are to date very important for me as they helped me become who I am now, which includes of course where I live and where I work. It is a painful irony that these books were so difficult to get, and though some were in the library one always wanted more and then you could not get them. You had to know people that travelled (normally to the United States) or travel yourself to buy them. And that was a clear economic class marker (try to get a US visa as a  young Mexican). Therefore you had to have some kind of privilege to access these books. Many were not translated into Spanish, so you had to be able to read English well. You had to have access to the university libraries and have the time and will and vocabulary to read them. You had to know they even existed.

Youth sub-cultures in Mexico at those pre-Web times were often perceived as belonging to poor, working class backgrounds. One version of the story says it was (not particularly poor) people who had travelled to the UK and North America in the late 70s and early 80s who brought glam and punk to Mexico in the first place. That there were young people that felt disenfranchised and alienated from a mostly nationalistic, heteronormative, homophobic and xenophobic mainstream culture deconstructed a simplistic understanding of “the oppressed” that often assumed that punk and the underground music scenes were mostly off the radar of economically privileged classes.

Not suprisingly, disengaged young people of poor working class backgrounds were also naturally attracked to a particular Mexican interpretation of punk. The influence of British pop culture on Mexican pop culture was complex and influenced the development of a political arena where ethnic and gendered identities were debated and performed. What did Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and London have to do with Mexico City? Back then -was I 19, 20?- discovering Hall’s work on youth sub-cultures, popular media and gendered and ethnic identities was like an epiphany.

By the time I studied Derrida’s works as an undergraduate (I would later teach an undergraduate seminar on deconstruction) Hall had already taught me the notions of positioning, and his understanding of “encoding and decoding” would set much of the interpretive enterprise of structuralism and poststructuralism in a political context that felt close to me, living in Mexico, studying in English and Spanish and experimenting everyday the symbolic violence of social and ethnic polarisation and the effects of the power of a mostly disempowering, right-wing mass media. By the time I read feminist theory (say, Luce Irigiaray) the idea that gender, race,  messages and technologies are never neutral Hall had  already provided me with a framework to approach gender studies better.

I find it inspiring that in spite of his massive publication output Hall never published a single-author monograph. His work is collaborative and disaggregated. Hall no doubt achieved a cult-hero celebrity status, but I was never a “fan” in this way. I read some of the volumes he contributed to and they inspired me. Hall came from Jamaica to the UK and would live and die here. His work on cultural identity is relevant to immigrants of all ethnicities and nationalities, even if they refer to the specificity of his own particular position as an individual and a scholar. In Latin America Antonio Gramsci is a giant, but Stuart Hall is not as well known. I believe his works have a lot to contribute to our Latin American engagement with identity politics. Many years later, as a non-EU national living in the UK, I am beginning to understand what a deep impact Stuart Hall’s works had on me.

Hall did not have to face the challenges that non-EU and/or ‘BME’ early career academics have to face in 21st century Britain. The scholarly communications “industry” was different too. I wonder if the current academic cutlure can foster academics like Hall anymore. Though today there is more awareness of ‘equal opportunities’ than when Hall started as an academic, one only has to open the doors that divide the School of Journalism from the main building of the insitution where I work to realise that there is a shocking ethnic divide between those who want to/are able to/have the means to/ aspire to work in the media and those who do not or cannot. As I crossed the symbolic border of those doors I had gone from a world where ‘BME’ students are everywhere to one where there was none in sight. I personally find it tragic that in the 21st century both British media and British Higher Education institutions reflect a sharp ethnic divide that is connected with access to opportunity, social class and horizons of expectation***.

When it comes to the field of comics scholarship, I would like to see more of the interrogation of culture and media and identity politics like the one that Stuart Hall proposed. As comics become more openly “literary” and high-brow, and therefore more expensive and addressed to socially-delimited target audiences, the analysis of this once-popular/mass culture form might become dangerously depoliticised. Having achieved a moderate form of recognition from mainstream academia, comics scholarship might have to start looking at who has been excluded in the process.

Needless to say, Mexico was not a British colony, and Stuart Hall’s experience studying English literature and culture was radically different to mine. However, as a student and now full-time academic I find in his writings and experience a lot to relate to. As an immigrant and an academic, I believe, like Hall, that politics is a route to adaptation. The journey to citizenship is for me led by political engagement, because one of the objectives, apart form gaining the right to freedom of movement, is to achieve that most-precious right: the ability to vote. This journey has also everything to do with identity. Go figure: to become, finally, a subject.

So life for me has been a series of border crossings. Stuart Hall has crossed the ultimate one. I am re-reading him as a way of paying homage, and as a means to make sense of who I’ve been and where I am going to.

*This is as I remember it and might not be true. We might have read Hall for Charlotte Broad‘s seminar as well. Or not… I definitely first read Hall at university for one of those modules in a Postcolonial Studies Reader.

**I don’t want to give the impression this happened on a daily basis, but it definitely happened, and off campus. The UNAM campus is an autonomous territory that is off-limits for the police (it has its own unionised security service).

***This was certainly my personal experience/perception at that precise moment in time when I crossed those doors late last year. Official student demographic data would provide a more objective insight, but I am not claiming to do that in any way here.

[I updated this post Monday 17 February 2014 to make some minor corrections and add the footnotes]