BOOK REVIEW / Burchill's daddies

STUART HALL: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies ed David Morley & Kuan-Hsing Chen Routledge pounds 45/pounds 14.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HOW would you describe Stuart Hall to someone who has never heard of him? In the 1950s he was a leading light of New Left and founding editor of New Left Review; in the 1960s, along with Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, one of the founding fathers of Culture Studies. By the 1970s he was this country's leading black intellectual, an early champion of identity politics and, in the early 1980s, one of the spirits behind the GLC's minority arts programme. He was one of the theorists of "New Times" - an analysis of the late 1980s, associated with Marxism Today, aimed at persuading the Left to face our new post-industrial world. Now in the 1990s, the Late Show, the Modern Review, the Demos think tank, and any number of courses in "film theory" or "race studies" all bear Hall's stamp.

Hall was born in the Jamaica in the early 1930s, the blackest of his middle-class and conservative family; his mother in particular identified with everything British and Imperial and hoped that Hall might negotiate his way into the ranks of Jamaica's white ruling class. But in 1951 Hall won a scholarship to Oxford, where he became friendly with a circle of young white Communist intellectuals: Alan Hall, Charles Taylor, Raphael Samuel, Perry Anderson. In the late 1950s, in the wake of Suez and Hungary, they formed the nucleus of what became known as the New Left.

By the early 1960s Hall was editing New Left Review and teaching film and mass-media studies. When Richard Hoggart, a professor at Birmingham, started a research centre devoted to the study of culture and social change, Stuart Hall, just 30, was put in charge. The Centre was to take from Raymond Williams's Culture and Society a concern with the ideological uses to which concepts like culture, literature and high art are put, and from Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy a closer focus on traditional working-class cultures and the mass media. Cultural studies was born.

This book claims to offer a representative selection of Hall's writings, as well as a number of friendly essays by colleagues and critics, and if you work hard you get a vague sense of the development of cultural studies in general and Hall's own concerns in particular. It was not long before the Centre was exploring the art and values of women, youth groups and immigrants. Some things turned out even more unexpectedly, and by the late 1980s critics began to complain that culture studies had taken an unhappy post-modern turn, and become an ironic apology for cultural populism. Richard Hoggart, for one, was dismayed to discover that his baby had grown up into Julie Burchill.

As for Hall, he nicely puts it that he has always remained within "shouting distance" of Marx. Whereas orthodox Marxism held that simple class conflict between labourers and capitalists shapes everything else, Hall invokes the prison writings of the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who maintained that all societies, but especially our own post-industrial societies, are driven by conflicts based on sex, race, religion and region as well as class - and that people's sense of identity is shaped not just by economic but by cultural factors. The Left, like everyone else, has to build a coalition by appealing not only to people's economic interests but to their sense of who they are.

This seems so obviously a move in the direction of common sense that it hardly deserves all this attention. It is hard to believe, too, that this slackly edited book will do much to advance the cause of cultural studies. It is full of errors and poorly annotated, and the selection of pieces is fairly perverse. It includes as a single near-impenetrable dialogue on "post-modernism and articulation" a series of discreet interviews put through a Magimix; some discussions of recent black cinema that, in the absence of any annotation, only make sense to an insider; and a paper on cultural studies' theoretical legacy that is a scarcely edited transcription of a conference talk. Even the real articles make pretty heavy going - the Hall way is long and dark. And since he will always prefer "racially structured social phenomenon" to "race", "cultural practice" to "art", "critique" to "criticise", Hall himself is too often a victim of the torturous prose that is perhaps the worst legacy of cultural studies.

Comments