Nick Beech on Stuart Hall
I worked with Stuart (I keep writing 'with' when really I mean 'for' – but I think that's a fairly typical experience!) for the past three years. I was originally asked by Stuart if I could help him in the drafting of his last book. I suppose one would call it an 'intellectual autobiography'. It was developed from a long conversation/interview with Bill Schwarz. Whilst the drafts contain autobiographical information, the purpose of the work is to provide an account of the threads that bind Stuart's work together – lines (I suppose I think of that more like 'lines in a play', than 'lines on a fishing rod') that he could see necessarily transforming at particular historical conjunctures, but which he also argued held a continuity of position and aim. Stuart suffered from serious ill health throughout this period, and was often very tired. My main tasks were to type for him, read to him, and converse with him over the issues with which he was contending. He always took time to enquire into my own research and studies (I had started up a reading group studying Marx's Grundrisse just before I'd begun to work for Stuart and he was always interested in the outcome of our meetings). I would visit Stuart at his home on a weekly basis. As well as working on revised drafts and edits of the book, I would also help on the last few articles Stuart wrote for Soundings (particularly the Kilburn Manifesto) and more widely (largely for the Guardian, but interviews for the BBC and researchers), critically assessing the coalition and the new turns within the Labour party. The period also marked the re-issue of Policing the Crisis, a book which Stuart often indicated remained central to all his work. Finally, I would help Stuart maintain his correspondence. I am very pleased that I learnt how to touch type during my doctoral studies! It meant that I could enjoy listening direct to Stuart's always thoughtful, always considered response to the many e-mails he received from friends, colleagues, ex-students, journalists, politicos and others. Due to his illness, Stuart had to turn down nearly all invitations – from honorary professorships to requests for commentaries or articles. Even in this quite distressing process, Stuart put in so much effort to respond as best he could. I would often tease him that his lengthy refusals ended up providing more material than many people's positive engagement!
I have spent the time since Stuart's passing, scouring the papers and the internet for obituaries and reflections on Stuart and his work. As for so many, I'm sure, Stuart constituted part of a constellation of intellectual stars for me. From my time as an undergraduate his name took place alongside Barthes, Benjamin and all the other 'names' of cultural studies and critical theory. That I might spend my Friday mornings each week with him, discussing politics, theoretical positions, readings of Marx and Gramsci, was a gift I never thought I might receive, and that I will hold dear beyond measure.
Reading the obituaries to Stuart has been a great reminder of how I once saw him and they bring a little respite from my feelings. For I suffer from a great sadness that springs from losing a friend who I joked with and who would make me laugh, who would tease me and patiently, so gently but so assuredly test my political imagination. I often felt like a little bird beside a great bear, gently lifting me and pushing me on. I know I'm not alone in that experience. He was such a strong and respectful man.
I continue to seek out recordings of his voice – something I will miss a very great deal. I do hope that the archive under construction at Birmingham is able to digitise the audio visual material that Stuart produced so that more people may access it than those (I'm sure it will be very many) who go to explore the stacks.
To the end, Stuart explored very seriously the questions that he raised throughout his work – on the nature and the points of critical purchase within social formations, the slippery conditions and contradictions of the 'subject', on language and politics. What struck me most, in our conversations, was how questions of 'periodisation' and 'location' were returned to again and again. It's something I hope to work on, both in reflecting on Stuart's work and in my own small researches in architectural history. I look forward to discussing the question with Stuart's colleagues and those engaged in useful, political histories of post-war British culture. I suspect that Stuart's reflections on the frameworks in which we think historical time and place were a result of working on a major retrospection, trying to articulate a centre to his life project. Stuart did not appreciate the compartmentalisation of his work into 'neo-Marxist', 'Black Intellectual', 'popular culture theorist' etc. and strongly resisted the accusations of 'faddishness' from – frankly – those who should have known better. Nor did Stuart accept the dismissal of his work on the grounds of a lack of 'scholarship' – though he often self-deprecated on those grounds.
The way the 'academy' works these days, I fear that much of Stuart's work – particularly that which wrestled with Gramsci and Althusser for the purpose of contending with the political conditions of his own time – will get anaesthetised under the twin medicines of 'discipline' and 'orthodoxy', so that Stuart can be safely embalmed as a 'historical figure'. I'm sure I won't be alone in trying to prevent that from happening.
Readers may also be interested in the following:
Stuart Hall and his legacy, from Sociologists at Goldsmiths, published in openDemocracy
Nick Beech is a lecturer in architecture at Oxford Brookes University