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The article that follows is a series of excerpts from a faculty seminar sponsored by the Program in the Comparative Study of Social Transformations (CSST) on April 15, 1999. Hall‘s article, “When was ‘the post-colonial’? Thinking at the Limit,” served as a stepping off point for discussion. The Journal extends its thanks to Brett Johnson (CSST program coordinator) and Elizabeth Otto (doctoral candidate, history of art) for transcribing the seminar.
On the Use and Status of the Term “Post-Colonial”
The post-colonial is a very contentious field, and rightly so. It is a difficult area to know exactly what one means, so part of what I do at the beginning of my paper is to begin not exactly definitionally, but clarifying, interrogating the term. I use the post-colonial as if the concept is under erasure. We don‘t know exactly what it means. It doesn‘t mean what it obviously means. It‘s often situated in certain paradigms of thought, none of which I want to take up exactly in the way that it‘s traditionally used. I need to question it, to turn it around, to acknowledge where its weaknesses are, its gaps and aporias; and nevertheless I want to keep occupying it because it seems to me to say something absolutely important, and I know of no other way of saying it. So rather than trying to find another terminology, I occupy the deconstructed terrain. I‘m not a Derridian in a long-term sense, but I‘m a Derridian in a short-term sense in that I think more and more that the most interesting concepts in our field have fallen under erasure in exactly this way. One after another they tumble from the paradigms where they seem to be settled and come loose in your hands. And then you say, “Shall I stop talking about identity,” but how can you stop talking about identity?
Actually, what people very often point out is that once you lift a term from its moorings, it proliferates. Rather than looking less useful, it‘s somehow everywhere; everyone uses it, and a sort of confusion surrounds the term. Therefore, there is nothing to do but to go in and tease out how you want to use it and how you don‘t want to use it. Each lecture has to begin with, “I am using it in this way and not in that way.” You hold certain meanings in check in order to release others. This is a tactic, but I feel the post- colonial has come into that arena, too.
On Theories and Experiences of the Subject
I am committed to the view that no subjects are ever monistic. And that is because I have a psychoanalytic conception of the nature of the subject. By that I don‘t mean that the particular forms of splitting, which were identified by Freud, are common to all cultures. I don‘t believe anything like that. But I think that the fundamental insight is that what we constitute as a whole within the subject is fundamentally constituted by that which is not itself, by its constitutive outside. Put in another way, every self or every identity is constituted by that which it lacks, which is the Other. I think that is totally true in humans; so even if in all other dimensions the subject is stitched up, at that dimension it is more than one. It may not be two, but it‘s more than one.
I mean “multiple” in a very particular way. I don‘t hold with what I call the post- modern conception of the nomadic subject. I don‘t think that identity is what you get up in the morning and feel like being. I‘m talking about something that is in between making it up and being just one thing unfolding, like the oak.
Instead of asking what are people‘s roots, we ought to think about what are their routes, the different points by which they have come to be now; they are, in a sense, the sum of those differences. That, I think, is a different way of speaking than talking about multiple personalities or multiple identities as if they don‘t have any relation to one another or that they are purely intentional. These routes hold us in places, but what they don‘t do is hold us in the same place. We need to try to make sense of the connections with where we think we were then as compared to where we are now. That is what biography or the unfolding sense of the self or the stories we tell ourselves or the autobiographies we write are meant to do, to convince ourselves that these are not a series of leaps in the dark that we took, but they did have some logic, though it‘s not the logic of time or cause or sequence. But there is a logic of connected meaning.
I have to confess that in this respect I‘m driven by purely anecdotal and personal experience. I was the son of a lower middle-class colonial family. My family would never have — in a thousand words — ever thought of itself as Black; the word would not have entered its vocabulary. And you have to know the colonial Caribbean to know how utterly unthinkable it would have been for this middle-class family to think about anything like that. What seem to have been the turning points in my own life were all turning points I recognized after the event. They were not intentional but they were all connected with recognitions from outside of myself. The most telling one was when I went back to Jamaica from Britain after a long period of time in the middle of the 60s, after the upheaval in the Caribbean. And my mother, now besieged on all sides by a rising tide of Blacks said, “I hope they don‘t think you‘re one of those Blacks over there.” And she said next, “And I hope they don‘t think you‘re one of those immigrants. I think those immigrants should be pushed off the long end of a short cliff.”
I‘d never ever called myself an immigrant before, but in that moment I symbolically migrated. I had maintained, until then, the fiction that I might just go home, but at the point where somebody else said to me, “But you are something else; you‘ve become something else; you might be mistaken for something else,” I thought that I had, indeed, become something else. That was also the first time that I ever thought of myself as Black. That term was made available to me by Rastafarianism and by the civil rights movement, by all sorts of contingent factors which appeared to be out there. But the transformations of what one can and cannot be are so much not, you know, pushing oneself along from the outside through these barriers, but being called, interpolated in a new position. After the effect of recognition, that‘s where I‘ve come to, that‘s where my route has taken me.
On the Global, the Local and the Modern
If you talk globalization too much you really believe it is happening. That is why I want to interrogate the discourse of globalization itself. I think that there are discourses of what I would call “hyper-globalization.” Everything is transformed; everything is an outcast in the same way by the global processes. There isn‘t any local that isn‘t written, re-written through and through by the global. That just doesn‘t seem to me to be true. It doesn‘t ring true; I think it‘s a myth.
On the other hand, I think there is something significantly different about the pace and rate at which these uneven interdependencies now constitute our world. And that does have something to do with what I call convening locals under the canopy of the global so that local differentiation not only remains but actually intensifies. Therefore, the reason that I am partially interested in globalization is exactly the reverse process, the intensification of the commitment to the local. Simply because the global is in some ways antithetical to the local, more people have to find something. It may be nothing more substantial than the soccer team Manchester United, but they stake their flag somewhere. There must be some recognizable community of people that you might sometime see again. The whole world comes as a sort of kaleidoscope of ever-migrating folks. So localism is very important and is indeed the only point of intervention against the hegemonic, universalizing thrust of globalization.
So when I talk about globalization I talk about it in this more contradictory way, rather than as a single process…. I think that because the forms of globalization that we know about historically have been largely driven by capitalist modernity, I don‘t propose to use those terms as mutually interdependent. There are modernities that are not capitalist in the same way. Indeed, I think that that is what we are working for; otherwise we are driven back to the defense of closed traditionalism. I think that we can only be working for the possibility that we might be able to constitute what I call “vernacular modernity,” modern kinds of people who are not fully inscribed by capitalist modernity in that way. That again does have certain personal roots; it‘s grounded in the observation of C.L.R. James about the Caribbean from where I come, in which he always insists that people from the Caribbean are a modern people — poor, backward, stupid and underdeveloped, but modern (laughs). That‘s because, in his view, they are the products of a combination of an archaic and a modern mode. Slavery itself, within capitalism, is not the older form of slavery, but it is an older, archaic, differentiated form, enclosed within and intimately linked to the development of the modern mode. It constitutes the possibility of a kind of modernity from below.
Therefore I am polemically opposed to the notion that capitalism, because it has articulated modernity over the span of history so far, must go on doing so. It must be possible for people to conceive of themselves as of the present and of the future, that is to say modern, in ways that are not inscribed through and through by the imprint of capital. So it‘s really the disarticulation of that long historical harnessing that I am interested in as a political project.
I would issue one warning about historically or geographically specific studies: namely, that the sleight of hand between being captured by the case study, in an empiricist way, and going to the concrete as the specification, the distillation, the concrete instantiation… may look like the same strategy but are not the same strategy at all. You have to think as carefully about what the wider things being tested in this living laboratory are — and it‘s much easier to appropriate them in what I call an empiricist way. The empiricist thesis is a ubiquitous scholarly genre, in which the first chapter surveys the entire conceptual universe, and then the next chapter plunges down into a specificity, which never surfaces in relation with erudite questions again. I‘m afraid I‘ve read thesis after thesis like that.
So I make the distinction between the empirical and the concrete; but you‘re quite right in saying that these problems can‘t be taken beyond a kind of programmatic level without those kinds of studies. And we ought to be — I ought to be — more responsible in specifying why and how one might do that. I think that the situation is not so dire because where the post-colonial and imperial are concerned, there is a good deal of very good, detailed work going on that is not lost in the empirical. I don‘t do it, but I am sustained by the work being done by others who are doing work in ways that I couldn‘t. I don‘t think that it‘s quite the same in all disciplines, but I agree with you that this ought to be done.
Precisely what pedagogic work would prepare people to do that kind of work? Well, there must be as many pedagogies as there are people in this room. I bet everybody in this room thinks that is what they are teaching. They aren‘t teaching just by grubbing along the empirical and they aren‘t teaching just abstract theory; they‘re teaching how to interface between the general, conceptual questions and the historically specific moment, whatever that is. But it‘s perfectly obvious from the results that some of us are doing it better than others; and most of us are not doing it sufficiently, or often enough, or adequately.
We ought to talk about the technologies of inquiry more seriously than we do, because if we are ever satisfied with the ones around us—with what was described as putting a few tables into a text and thinking that this is somehow going to make it more economic—that is a complete barbarism. Students trained by that ought to have us up in the courts, really, because we‘re defrauding them. So I think we ought to talk more about that, and about methodologies which may not be complete and which can‘t be systematized, which aren‘t as random as we sometimes experience them as being. We think, “Well, that‘s just how I go on.” This isn‘t how you go on; this is the distillation of what you think you ought to be doing. And you don‘t set off on the next task as if you‘d never heard of it before, you set off with some knowledge of “last time around I did it that way, and that was a good start, but I could have done that better.” Or, “I have ultimately found myself calling for the economic and leaving it out. Not this time around!” etc.
We ought to be more methodologically self-conscious without falling into a methods course, whatever that might be. We ought to be reflexive about our own means of doing so. The more we are, the better we are able to teach our students about it. We are able to alert them as to what is distinctive about how we are producing the knowledge that we are offering them. That‘s an absolute requirement of good teaching. After you present the wonderful insight, you say, “And this is the funny way in which I get to it. This is precisely how I do it. And if you don‘t like it, tell me some better way of doing it.” That‘s the reflexivity that I think we do need now in these fields.
On the Joys and Perils of Working Collectively
Interdisciplinarity is the most difficult intellectual practice of all. The slack thinking across disciplinary traditions — as if the traditions don‘t matter, as if they were funny things that were made up in the academy — is not serious thinking. It‘s not serious when we encourage students to do that kind of facile, theoretical, magpie approach. It doesn‘t get anywhere. The serious attempt to bring two constituted disciplinary fields genuinely together so that one is thinking at the point of articulation between them is serious business, hard business.
I‘m going to end by a complete cop out. There are what I call “horses for courses.” When the going is soft you need to know which jockey to put in the saddle. If you want detailed, scholarly, historical work, you don‘t put me in the saddle (laughs). I don‘t do it; I don‘t do it well. I don‘t know how it‘s done, and I don‘t have the patience for it. That is because I came into cultural studies at the moment of its interdisciplinarity. You can only do any work at all by thinking rather programmatically. To get embedded into any one discipline would exactly have been to let loose of the challenge of daring to think across the divide, although it‘s a kind of chasm. So I chose to go with the flow and to think across the divide, although the thinness of what that produces is a drawback.
And that is why I am committed to collective, individual conceptual work. I describe it as a project because one person can‘t do it alone. It requires differences of temperament, skill and so on. Those people who are good at one thing need to feel that they are engaged in an intellectual project that includes the work of different persons who are good at another approach. It‘s when these two begin to come together in a conversation that isn‘t organized by academic institutional lines of contact that something really happens. Those are the affiliations and the networks worth sustaining. And one does have to see that this project requires a programmatic thrust and requires some serious scholarship and it requires some economists of the right kind, and so on.
The fact is that, in a funny way, cultural studies wouldn‘t have happened if we hadn‘t precisely tried to bring together people with very different aptitudes and skills. That‘s what made it such an exciting thing. As you know, we actually tried for a while in Birmingham the absolutely horrendous task of writing collectively. But we did write collectively, and I recommend it to senior academics. It‘s a wonderfully sobering thing as your graduate students take the blue pen and say, “I don‘t think we need this side” (laughs). You sweated your guts out in these wonderful, elegant formulations. I don‘t strongly recommend it, but it‘s a very good discipline. It never enables you to talk about knowledge as if it‘s an appropriation of private property ever again. You just do realize that it is something broader than that. It involves the eternal differentiation of skills. We [academics] were appointed by the fact that there is a division of labor. We need to put together those people who are good at one thing with people who are good at something else. That will be an argument, it will be a ferocious noise and so on; people will storm out of the room, but, you know, that‘s what democracy is about.
An eminent British intellectual, Stuart Hall has been central to the formation and development of cultural studies as an international discipline. A native of Kingston, Jamaica, Hall received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Oxford University. In the 1980s, Hall became a leading critic of the New Right and Britain‘s post-imperial political discourse, a pioneering commentator on the formation of Caribbean and black British identities and a leading theorist of race in popular culture. Among the many texts Hall has authored is Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978). Hall served as the director of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University for eight years. He recently retired from the chair of sociology at the Open University.