Stuart Hall [1932-2014] Founding Editor of New Left Review to Marxism Today…

In Uncategorized on February 10, 2014 by kmflett

Stuart Hall [1932-2014]

Stuart Hall who was has died aged 82 deserves to be remembered for a variety of reasons and some at least will argue whether they are all entirely positive ones. I am prepared however to err on the side of mostly positive while far from ignoring some significant potential downsides.

Hall was part of a generation, essentially the first new left, which was the one before that I am personally in. So I saw him speak on occasion but by the time I myself was speaking on platforms and organising conferences Hall’s health unfortunately meant that he often wasn’t.

In 1979 just on the cusp of the arrival of Thatcher I was a teaching in Birmingham and living in Worcester. Stuart Hall and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies which he had run were a not insignificant presence in staff room discussions amongst the left in those days. Some of the studies of the Centre had looked at West Midlands youth and done so in a useful and interesting way.

Hall himself had been around a while by then. He had been associated with Universities and Left Review in the post-1956 era and then became for a relatively brief period an Editor of New Left Review in 1960 in the moment when EP Thompson was still a central figure.

Hall had moved into the area of cultural studies from the early 1960s.

While for many, what much of cultural studies subsequently became may have seemed often rather long and sometimes incomprehensible words and paragraphs [I could mostly understand it myself as a Marxist academic but with the odd exception it wasn’t  exactly setting the world on fire]it is important to remember the times.

When Stuart Hall alighted on cultural studies it was something much of the left treated with disdain. Popular music and TV were not something warranting an engagement with by the left, although there were obviously even then important exceptions. One need only mention CND to realise that ‘youth culture’ and the left were not totally divorced.

Hall went on to do useful work around race, class and authority and became associated with Marxism Today which was nominally the theoretical organ of the Communist Party.

It would be reasonable to suggest I think that Hall did at least produce some theory,  but he was very much associated with the Thatcherism analysis of the time, the idea that the working class was changing or perhaps just dead and so on.

That led into some theoretical underpinnings for New Labour and I don’t think there is anything to be gained by not making the point clear.

Like others who remained on the left despite this dalliance with Blair & Co, Hall subsequently recognised the strong element of neo-liberalism in the New Labour project.

Stuart Hall certainly deserves to be remembered for his work with the early New Left and the important role he played at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Obviously I’m rather less enthusiastic about his Marxism Today period and the dalliance with New Labour.

However he kept going over seven decades and that deserves respect, albeit as I’ve noted sometimes critically so.




4 Responses to “Stuart Hall [1932-2014] Founding Editor of New Left Review to Marxism Today…”

  1. There was an engagement with popular culture from the Frankfurt School left – one diametrically opposed to that provided by Hall, for sure, but an engagement nonetheless. And Hall’s predecessor Richard Hoggart had much to say about it when he wrote in 1957 of ‘the endless, tepid glucose-and-water of some other radio musical programmes for workers, which are not of the people, but of the world where things are done for the people’ (Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (London: Pelican, 1958), p. 151). Hoggart realised the potential for nostalgic idealisation when speaking of how ‘In the working-men’s clubs, customs have not yet been exploited to support the profitable mythological figure of the good-fellow-working-man-with-his-warm-common-sense-and-honest-pint’ (ibid. p.151), but nonetheless identifies a new trend in popular songs coming from America, about which he wrote:

    It is clear that these songs work within a firm and restricted group of conventions. We may leave aside the more obvious conventions of apparatus and properties, since they are well known. More important are the clichés in melodic movements, such as those which announce that we are approaching the intensely sad part in a song of lost love: or the half-dozen notes, played in a certain way between two lines of the lyric, which indicate at once, even if you have entered the club only at that moment, that this is a song about childhood. . . .
    Yet these qualities illustrate more than the imaginative poverty of the mechanical song-writers; they illustrate a characteristic of their audience similar to that discussed in connexion with the stories from Secret and Glamour. These are strictly conventional songs; their aim is to present to the hearer as directly as possible a known pattern of emotions; they are not so much creations in their own right as structures of conventional signs for the emotional fields they open. The metaphors are not meant to be imbued with complex suggestion; they are part of a fixed and objective currency; very small change, in a few broad denominations, but recognizable in their own territory. They have not the subtlety and maturity in attitudes we may find in some Elizabethan songs. (ibid. pp. 161-162)

    Hoggart’s position on these songs was certainly less sharply critical than that of Adorno; whilst saying that the majority of such songs ‘are the sentimental, and especially the sad and nostalgic’ and that they have ‘limited and bold emotional equipment, without subtleties’, nonetheless ‘the springs of the heart are working’, they are ‘vulgar, it is true, but not usually tinselly’, ‘open-hearted and big-bosomed’ and they ‘still touch hands with an older and more handsome culture’ (ibid. p. 163).

    This view is to me much more nuanced than the full-on celebration of the most mass-produced and commercialised popular culture, with often extravagant claims made for its supposedly emancipatory, egalitarian and ‘subversive’ potential pioneered by Hall and the school of thinking he has bequeathed, which often argued specifically for the superior virtue of the mass-produced as against that often valued in terms of individual distinctiveness and sophistication. With the lack of any critical armoury towards commercialism and consumerism, the intellectual culture he left behind can easily be adapted so that culture studies become about ‘Getting on in the global marketplace’ and the like. That is part of what is likely to be his most lasting legacy.

  2. Actually the Hall NLR had an elitist and patronising attitude to popular culture, rather like Ian Pace’s:
    “However the discussion of popular culture often took on a more elitist tone. The very first issue carried a piece by Brian Groombridge and Paddy Whannel called Something Rotten in Denmark Street (NLR 1/52), which made an ill-informed and insensitive attack on current popular music – ‘noise of an unbelievable ugliness is wrung from saxophones and guitars with sadistic cruelty and finally processed in the laboratory’. Raymond Williams adopted the same tone of middle-aged paternalism:
    “‘Can we agree, perhaps, before passing on to the more difficult questions, that football is indeed a wonderful game, that jazz is a real musical form, and that gardening and home-making are indeed important? Can we also agree, though, that the horror-film, the rape-novel, the Sunday strip-paper and the latest Tin-Pan drool are not exactly in the same world …?’ (NLR 5/53)
    “The cultural theory that lies behind this is necessarily reformist. For if the working-class youth can be so easily and so totally manipulated by the record companies, then there can be little hope that the working class will ever actually emancipate itself. Hence it comes as no surprise that in 1961 NLR solemnly presented a set of detailed proposals to the Pilkington Committee (set up in 1960 by the Tory Government to advise on the future of radio and television). This went so far as to make detailed suggestions – for example, that there should be more records by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald on Juke Box Jury (NLR 7/40).
    “This kind of patronising nonsense could not survive the Beatles …..”
    Hall only discovered popular culture when it became trendy, after 1968.
    However Hall could be an impressive figure. I remember hearing him confront future Labour MP Brian Walden just after the 1960 unilateralist victory at Labour Party conference. He was magnificent.

    • Ian, for your information, I teach popular music and its history – including Tin Pan Alley, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, the Beatles (and Motown, funk, disco, punk, hip-hop and much else) – and by no means just from an Adornoite point of view; and plenty of things which might be construed as manifesting ‘ugliness’ or ‘sadistic cruelty’ can be found in the avant-garde music I play. But I am amazed by how easily some supposed Marxists forego any consideration of the relationship between popular music and the private capital which supports it, or its commodity form. One does not need to be a vulgar Marxist to still believe in the importance of the base, and avoid treating superstructural phenomena in a fetishised manner such as is far from uncommon in the field of Cultural Studies which Hall played a major part in bequeathing. The results are something I see all around me in higher education – total adoration of the market principle when it comes to musical production, in such a way as utterly suits the right wing agendas of those who would turn HE into a commercial training ground void of any critical perspective towards the cultural industries. For that I believe Hall and his school bear a good deal of responsibility.

      It strikes me that many fewer leftist eyebrows are raised towards, say, the fast food industry, its own products also frequently consumed by working class people.

  3. Thanks Ian, a really interesting post. Most of the obits I’ve seen have been tending towards the hagiographic which I don’t think helps at all

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