A Note on Thinking with Stuart Hall

12 Feb

The continuing depressing climate of left political commentary makes Stuart Hall’s passing weigh especially heavy. Like so many scholars, his work in particular opened my eyes to different possibilities and responsibilities for thinking, researching, understanding the world and writing. I use gerundives deliberately: thinking as ongoing process not as object, “some unmeaning thing they call a thought” (Pope) or some unthinking thing they call a “think piece.”

Many noted that Hall did not produce a monograph. When you could do with Hall could do with an essay, or an interview, what use would a book be? Just consider his commentary on Barack Obama. He avoids substituting style and rhetoric for substantive engagement, and clearly articulates the challenges and risks for the left following the historic election of the first black president in an unusually conservative nation whose national myths and administrative structures make large-scale change difficult.

Or consider the ways he takes up Althusser in his “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance”. That essay remains a model to me of generosity and rigor, taking a difficult thinker and showing how Althusser’s thought might lend itself to a situation Althusser had not directly addressed. Nothing in Hall’s work is frivolous. There seem to be no ornamental quotes or half-digested ideas, no splashy “critiques,” just the labor of thought; defining and identifying problems with an eye toward solutions or more accurately naming a problem.

Perhaps my favorite example of this is in his reply to Jessop et al., who had critiqued Hall’s work an advanced an alternative thesis in New Left Review he found unpersuasive. For my purposes in this very brief note, I find the beginning and the end of the essay most striking. He sets a clear agenda up front:

I should like myself to take issue with some aspects of their argument, not so much to defend my work as, through mutual discussion and debate, to advance our understanding of the phenomenon of Thatcherism.

The emphasis is on the thinking still to be done, refined, clarified, revised. At the end, however, is the moment that continues to stay with me, particularly when I’m inclined to indulge in pointless point-scoring, mindless pedantry, needlessly ungenerous assessment of another scholar’s work, or other forms of engagement that betray the substantive and urgent work of thinking:

I am afraid they have sometimes had their eye cocked more towards scoring points than deconstructing Thatcherism. Nevertheless, they have contributed substantially to our understanding of many of its perplexing aspects. Perhaps, now that the sound of conceptual gunfire has died away, we might all get back to the far more important task of understanding the real complexity of the Thatcherism phenomenon, the better to defeat and destroy it.

I wish I had discovered this in graduate school. Certainly I am guilty of engaging in many long arguments with people about fine points of interpretation, or differences of accent that, really, made no difference. But one must learn somehow, after all, how to remain focused on the important tasks of thinking, interpreting, and confronting the world. There’s much more work and thinking to be done, and he left behind many thoughts-in-progress for us to take up, and an unparalleled example of political and intellectual engagement with the world we share unevenly.

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