Illumination in Dark Times: David Scott on Stuart Hall

The following interview was recorded at the House of Literature in Oslo on October 15, 2019. The interview has been transcribed by Gard Ringen Høibjerg (INN University College), and edited and amended for clarity by Sindre Bangstad, David Scott and Antonio De Lauri.

Sindre: First of all, David, I am going to cite one of my favorite passages from your own work on the late Stuart Hall (1932-2014). It is a moving tribute that you published already in 2005 in your journal Small Axe, entitled Stuart Hall’s Ethics. What strikes me is that this is in fact poetry. I have actually used it as an epigram in one of my own monographs. You wrote the following there, and this was at a time when Stuart Hall was still alive: “We live in dark times; they are not times that favor forbearance, they do not shelter generosity, they do not encourage receptivity. They are rather obdurate times, cynically, triumphalist and ruthlessly xenophobic times that seem to require new regime of silencing and assimilation. A new regime of prostration, submission and humiliation. Who, looking forward from a generation ago – in the middle of another imperial moment – could have imagined they would be living in a world that looks like this one. But Dark Times, as Hannah Arendt memorably said, need people who can give us illumination, and who calls them forth into the public realm.”

So, in order to talk about beginnings here David, who was your friend Stuart Hall and why does his work matter so much right here, right now?

David: Sindre, you begin with an impossible question. I thought you would begin with rather more elementary questions that would then take us gradually into the heart of the matter. But you begin with very, very large issues. So, let me try and find my way to your question. The passage that you read from was written roundabout in 2003-2004, and it was written for a really important event. Maybe we should begin there. It was the first time that a symposium had been organized at the University of the West Indies, Mona (the Jamaica campus of the University of the West Indies) in honor of Stuart Hall. It was a very telling and significant event, and as significant for Jamaican intellectuals as for Stuart. It was very significant for Stuart and for his relationship to Jamaica. My concern in my lecture (and it was the sort of keynote lecture delivered at the opening of the conference) was to try to present Stuart Hall in as broad a manner as possible—to try to characterize something about the texture of his orientation towards thinking, more so than to try to present the details of his particular conceptions of culture and politics. And so, part of what I wanted to evoke in the passage that you read was the signature way in which Stuart Hall entered conjunctures, as he might have called them, to try to unpack what he thought the dead-ends were, and to try to offer glimpses of alternative ways to think ourselves out of the present dark times. In many ways, that was his modus operandi. What was amazing about the character of the movement of his mind was a refusal to be imprisoned by the dark time of the present: the present was always for him a kind of challenge to unlock, to both re-describe the way in which the present appeared to us, and to re-describe it in such a way that we could see better where the present had come from—what kinds of pasts, and what kinds of pathways from the past, had led to this present. And to do so, moreover, in a way that would enable us to recognize the contingencies and the “constructedness” of the present so that we might think of the possibility of alternative futures. And that capacity, that uncanny capacity to re-describe the present as a way of thinking futurity, was to my mind unique.

Sindre: It is quite clear from Stuart’s own memoir, written with Bill Schwarz and published as Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands in 2017, that he had a sense of profound ambiguity towards his native Jamaica. He was of course born in 1932 in the later stages of British colonialism in Jamaica, and had grown up with the anti-colonial horizon. He describes himself as the proverbial “black sheep” in an elite brown middle class family in colonial Jamaica, with a very troubled relationship with his quite domineering mother, who had Scottish ancestors, and who had imbibed British colonial attitudes. With tragic consequences for Stuart’s own sister, who suffered a mental breakdown over her mother’s refusal to accept her much darker boyfriend. So, in terms of this very ambiguity, can you tell us something about what you have characterized as the Caribbean “problem space,” what kind of work does it do in Stuart’s own work?

David: Before I even attempt to characterize or to describe something of the location of Stuart’s own social and familial background, it needs to be said that Familiar Stranger is a very strange kind of document. It is a very complex ambiguous way of Stuart trying to come to terms with the making of the figure that he encountered later in life, named “Stuart Hall.” And part of that was an attempt to try to spell out, not just for others but also for himself, how it was that someone who came from where he came, the Jamaica of 1930s and 1940s, could have had the kind of impact that he had on intellectual life in Britain from the 1960s to the early years of the 21st century. And not just on Britain, but in many ways the modern Western world. His impact was of course quite large.

It is really important to understand Stuart’s emergence as a youngster in a very particular moment in Jamaica’s cultural political history. He was born in 1932, and he was a child of six or seven when there were major transformative riots in Jamaica, which were part of a regional upsurge of popular struggles in the late 1930s. The Jamaican riots of May and June 1938 are the real beginnings of the nationalist movement for self-determination and independence. They are the beginnings out of which the People’s National Party emerges in September 1938. Although Stuart was a mere child and barely remembered the riots, what he talked about was the terror that the mass of the black Jamaican population on the streets of Kingston in 1938 inspired in his middle-class family. And Stuart’s middle-class family was perhaps atypical in some respects. He was a child of relative privilege, but his family was distinctive in its peculiar antinationalist stance.

Whereas very many other families of that particular social status oriented themselves, or reoriented themselves, in a nationalist direction, his family was very, very conservative: socially, culturally, and politically. They were not sympathetic to the emergence of a discourse of decolonization and certainly antipathetic to the Left, and in particular the Marxist Left that drove the nationalist movement in the 1940s when Stuart was a youngster. But Stuart (as did many of the boys of his social class in that particular period) went to a very particular secondary school, a grammar school called Jamaica College, which certainly had conservative elements, but was also a very intellectually oriented secondary school. And it was a secondary school in which people were talking about the most recent advances in understanding literature, it was a place where Stuart began to read Marx, a place where he discovered Freud. So, it was an intense intellectual center for teenage boys, that provided in some way the idiom in which he began to think self-consciously about politics, about literature, about social life as Jamaica began the process of constitutional decolonization.

Sindre: We also need to talk a little bit about Stuart’s relationship with the Marxist tradition. Because he comes to Britain on a Rhodes scholarship, takes up studies of literature at Oxford University, gets introduced to a leftist intellectual circle which would later coalesce around Universities and Left Review, which later became New Left Review. In those circles there were people like Raphael Samuel, E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams and Charles Taylor. He becomes for a short period the editor of New Left Review before Perry Anderson takes over. So, I think in a profound sense, there is for Stuart Hall an element of the profound significance of the Marxist tradition, but also a rupture with Marxism occasioned by the Suez crisis of 1957 and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Later he would describe himself as an independent socialist. Even much later, when he becomes the doyen of cultural studies, one gets the sense that the most virulent attacks come from people who come out of a Marxist tradition, and that this never ceases.

You are probably familiar with this recent book by Perry Anderson, his successor at the New Left Review as an editor. It is entitled The H- Word: The Peripiteia of Hegemony.

Here, Anderson’s argument is basically that Stuart Hall discovers Antonio Gramsci’s English translations in the 1970s. Perry Anderson basically argues that Stuart Hall’s interpretation of Gramsci gets it wrong, it is not orthodox enough in terms of Marxist understandings. There is later also Chantal Mouffe, who in For A Left Populism invokes Stuart Hall’s legacy as if Hall’s rupture with Laclau and Mouffe’s discursive turn in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy from 1985 never really happened. What is there to say about how Stuart Hall, and I realize that this is another very big question, how he reworks the Marxist tradition?

David: You know, one of the remarks that Stuart makes somewhere is that he always lived, as he put it, in very idiomatic terms, “within shouting distance of Marxism.” Which is to say that Marx was never biblical for him. It was never a dogma for him. Although he was very serious about his reading of Marx, Marx was there precisely to be read and re-read. Of course, there were periods in Stuart’s life and work when Marx and debates about Marxism were much more foregrounded than at others. But there was always a sense for him that he was within shouting distance of Marxism.

I think that the figure of Gramsci for Hall was a way of articulating that shouting distance, a way of articulating a kind of mediated relationship to a Marxist canon, and a way of mediating the question of Marx as a reader of the social and political structure that emerged as a consequence of global capitalism, and as a reader of Marx also almost as a literary figure. I think that Gramsci provided both a textual example of how that might be done, but also, given Gramsci’s own distance from the availability of the texts about which he wrote (as consequence of being in prison in Mussolini’s Italy) he was himself always writing only within shouting distance of Marx. There is nothing really interesting, I think, to argue with Perry Anderson because he obviously believes that his reading of Gramsci in the very famous “Antinomies” essay is the biblical reading of Gramsci.

And there is a lot to be reconstructed about the displacement of Stuart Hall’s version of New Left Review and the character that New Left Review takes from the early 1960s onwards under the editorship of Perry Anderson—but that would be another evening’s discussion.

Marx remains crucial to Stuart partially because capitalism remains crucial in his understanding of the contemporary world. And for him, as I said a moment ago, one doesn’t take Marx at face value. One has always to read Marx inside of the conjuncture out of which Marx himself was trying to grapple with the world in which he lived. And that was an example, I think, of the way that Stuart approached historical figures. Never in their reified, canonical instantiation, but as always themselves historicizable figures, always themselves figures who needed to be read and re-read in the various conjunctures in which one found oneself. And that was Stuart’s modus operandi, always reading in and through his own conjuncture: a conjuncture that of course changed from the 1950s through the end 20th century when he wrote.

Sindre: So, this is what Stuart Hall referred to as a “Marxism without guarantees,” right?

David: Yes, I think that phrase, which comes to be used from the early 1980s onwards, is important. In fact, you can already detect it in the essays that Stuart wrote in the late 1950s in Universities and Left Review, because he is there reading very close to the complicated coming together of various social forces, which he is trying to unpack, namely, what he called the “settlement” in Britain in the post-war years, and the emergence, that he could discern already in the late 1950s, of what would eventually come to be called consumer capitalism. He recognizes very early on that one can’t read Marx as theoretical closure. One has to read Marx partially against the grain of certain dogmatic ways of reading. After all, Stuart well recognized that Marx was himself involved in serious politics in the 1840s and 50s that sometimes obliged a stipulative (even deterministic) discursive organization of his views. One has to read against that grain, and try, as Stuart’s successor at the Birmingham center, Richard Johnson, once said, to read for the best Marx. I think that was always crucial to Stuart as well.

Sindre: I remember that Paul Gilroy raised a similar issue in the conversation I had with him at this very venue in April 2018. Part of the mutual ambiguity within the British Marxist tradition stems from what Hall sort of identified as an element of so-called “Little Englander” nationalism in British Marxist circles. Therefore, there is a recounting in his memoir of an encounter with E.P. Thompson, the grand British Marxist historian, and his wife, at their home, and Hall is over for dinner and remarks on the selective blindness pertaining to race in these circles. And Thompson and his wife – to Hall’s despair – only seem prepared to talk about class in this context.

David: There is a lot to be said about E.P. Thompson. Stuart revered Thompson and honored the enormous contribution he made to the refiguring of the Marxist tradition in Britain—after the famous Khrushchev revelations at the 20th congress of the CPSU in 1956, and the Hungarian crisis, that led to the walk-out of the British communist party by members of the Historians’ group. Their attempts to reconstitute what Thompson called a “humanist Marxism” was very important as the background out of which the British New Left emerged, and therefore very important for the idiom of Marxist conceptualization that Stuart inherited, immobilized, and also critiqued. For there is a good deal that Thompson and others on the Left did not appreciate. This is also the moment of the war in Algeria, the coming of Ghanaian independence, and decolonization movements are developing across the Anglophone Caribbean. Thus, the question of decolonization is on the table, and consequently the emergence of social differences that are not simply reducible to class but are nevertheless very visible in important ways.

The fact that someone like E.P. Thompson could not quite recognize social difference in terms other than class was baffling to Stuart. And not only Thompson, but also even someone like Raymond Williams, given his own cultural difference. So, the absence of a language in which to talk about racial difference was very present. Stuart talks (I think he does in Familiar Stranger as well) of being in Marxist circles in Oxford in which Marxists are trying to talk about the character of class-consciousness. And Stuart, who comes from a very particular class fragment in Jamaica, one that is marked by an obsession with color and racial distinction, would intervene and say “Wait a minute, class is not unmarked in ethnic and racial terms.” So, the fact that someone like E.P. Thompson could recognize the nuances of the cultural character of the English working class, but not recognize the way in which social and cultural difference marked other modalities in the social movements that were emerging at the time was a matter of good deal of puzzlement for Stuart.

But there is more to it. E.P. Thompson was central to the merger between Universities and Left Review and the New Reasoner (the New Reasoner of course emerged out of the old dissident Marxist Left that had been part of the British communist party, and the Universities and Left Review emerged out of the Oxford student Left). They merge to form the first New Left Review in 1960. Thompson was the dominant force, and in many ways a dogmatic force. And among the student Left, Stuart was in many ways the visionary figure. And so, not surprisingly, Stuart and Thompson had encounters that, to put it mildly, were conflictual. Thompson often felt that the student Left was a bunch of dilettantes interested in youth culture, interested in the emergent rock music, interested in art and in aspects of cultural and social life that were not going to generate the revolutionary movement. And therefore, they came to very serious impasses, and in some way it was one of those impasses that led to the collapse of first New Left and Stuart’s departure from the New Left project.

Thompson’s blindness was not necessarily distinctive to him, but what made it especially stark was the fact that whereas he (like Richard Hoggart) could recognize the cultural distinctiveness of the working class, he could not recognize colonial difference and could not recognize racial difference attached to colonial difference. And of course, therefore could not recognize Stuart’s own particularity.

Sindre: This seems to me to be a question inherent to certain strands of left nationalism, which has never really left us either in Britain or in Norway for that matter. There is a recent monograph by Sivamohan Valluvan titled The Clamour of Nationalism: Race and Nation in Twenty-First-Century Britain, which is profoundly indebted to the work of Stuart Hall. It is, much like Hall was in his time, sharply critical of the tendency in many leftist circles to read the working class in racialized terms. In other words, the rise of nationalist populism throughout Europe – including Norway – being read as some form of “authentic” expression of a working class that is being understood and rendered only as white. If we go, then, to Stuart Hall’s work in his 1994 Du Bois Lectures published in 2017 as The Fateful Triangle could you perhaps help us understand where his crucial intervention lies? In terms of the work that his concept of “race” as a “sliding signifier” does in this context?

David: I am not sure that I can do justice to that question. But I think that, to begin with, part of what Stuart wants to gesture at is not only the senses in which working classes in Europe, or certainly in Britain and in England most particularly, are infected by Englishness. What really interested him, I think, was the political conjuncture in which that Englishness comes to count as a political force in relation to other particularities of working-class self-consciousness. I think what was always interesting for Stuart was not just that one’s consciousness or one’s social identity is made up of various kinds of historicizable fragments, but those conjunctures in which one organization or one dimension of social identity or social consciousness comes to be inflected or comes to be hegemonic. Which is why Thatcher interested him. It was not that the working class suddenly became English in the 1980s. Rather, it was that a very specific organization, or re-organization, of right-wing politics enabled the flowering of a reactionary Englishness.

I think, to go to the larger part of your question, the distinction that Stuart sought to make, not always successfully, between “race” and “ethnicity” functions as a distinction in which ethnicity was imagined as a much more malleable and historicizable mechanism of identity than race. Race seemed mired in a biological or sociobiological language, which made it very difficult to historicize in political terms. And that, of course, was always Stuart’s direction. How to make social and historical concepts available for political interventions. Or how to disable their reactionary implications in thinking political intervention. And so, I think that from the early 1980s, we see this in his attempt to rethink what he called the end of the “essential black subject.”

We see this across the 1980s in all of his thinking about post-Fordism and all of his thinking about identity. He attempted to produce a concept of identity that could be connected to the cultural histories that subjects invariably embody, in the sense that they are historically inscribed in their social formation, and also connected to critical cultural and political conceptual uses. And I think that was a very difficult and complicated terrain in Stuart’s late thinking of the 1990s, especially difficult in the Du Bois lectures, because in some form the construction of racial identity in the Americas appears not exactly in the same configuration as the structuring of raced identity in Europe. And so, the attempt to think race and ethnicity, or the connection between the two, in his classically Derridian terms of floating signifiers that come in particular conjunctures to stabilize around one or another kind of provisional identity, does not work in the British context in exactly the same way as in the context of the Americas. This, of course, hangs importantly on the difference between the histories of enslavement in the Americas as opposed to the European context. Race appears inscribed directly in corporeal embodiment in the Americas (and I should note that I say “Americas” here in plural because I want to distinguish the Americas from the United States of America, which is only one very particular instantiation of what constitutes the Americas). Where enslavement was part of generations of history, of the reproduction of social formations from the 16th and 17th century through the end of the 19th century, race was a very different experience from a situation in which enslavement did not occur in that constitutive way. I think in many ways, Stuart’s attempt to rethink the relation between race and identity was an attempt to work out some of that, which in some way, was perhaps not exactly as successful as he hoped it might be. Which is not to say more than that Stuart was always learning, and re-learning. The context of the Americas, which is partly the context out of which he himself emerges, is a thorny one in which to think the question of racial identity.

Sindre: I wanted to draw attention to some of your own work now. Stuart Hall’s Voice, was published by Duke University Press in 2017. It is a series of very moving epistolary letters to the late Hall. They originated as a series of invited lectures you gave at the Center for Humanities at the University of Western Cape (UWC) in Bellville, Cape Town, South Africa. This is for me a profoundly interesting contribution to the by now quite extensive secondary literature on Stuart Hall’s life and legacy. Your contribution here stands at a peculiar angle, because this is really a profound meditation about what you term “intellectual friendship,” and on Stuart Hall’s style of scholarship and engagement.

David: The thing that has always and still does animate me about Stuart as an intellectual was less the substantive points of intellectual arrival than the way in which he got from point A to point B. You know, to go back for a moment to the objections of Chantal Mouffe to some of Stuart’s formulations. Chantal and Ernesto Laclau were part of an enormously important study group in London called the Hegemony Group, which was really a study group around Gramsci. Laclau and Mouffe developed a particular way of thinking about Gramsci, elements of which Stuart shared: a very discursive reading of Gramsci, an anti-reductionist reading of Gramsci, and so on. But one of the things that Stuart disagreed with or at least didn’t share was the desire for a philosophic reading of Gramsci. Stuart’s readings were always informed philosophically, but they were political readings first and foremost: What do we do now? How do we mobilize a concept like hegemony to think ourselves out of a political conjuncture that has been shaped in this particular way and not that particular way?

That way of thinking, thinking dialogically, thinking provisionally, thinking strategically, was what interested me and what has always interested me about Stuart. It is never the question of the metaphysical character of concepts like hegemony, but always the strategic value. I mean, he was never a reader of Wittgenstein, but in many ways, it is the uses of concepts, rather than the meaning of concepts, strictly speaking, that interested him. His way was to mobilize terms, divest them of their metaphysical underpinnings, and put them to work strategically, provisionally, and politically. This is what seems the most valuable aspect of his thought. How to characterize that was the challenge for me in Stuart Hall’s Voice. The book emerged when I already knew that I wanted to write his biography, and emerged out of many hours ofconversations between us. One of the fascinating things about Stuart’s way of being an intellectual was his ability to listen to an interlocutor, and to find the idiom in which to offer back to the interlocutor what they were trying to say. He had an uncanny way of providing a mirror to a speaker in which the speaker could find a voice that was haltingly, fragmentarily, seeking to articulate something.

That way of thinking, as a matter of listening, was to my mind unprecedented. And to me, as I say in the book, it is as valuable or in some sense more valuable than the idea that Stuart himself mobilized often, the idea of critique and what critique means in intellectual life. Listening itself has critical, clarifying, reconstructive value.

Sindre. Hall himself was an independent socialist at a time in which it was still possible not to have been thoroughly disillusioned by certain post-colonial regimes, and to retain a sense of optimism about independence and sovereignty all over the post-colonial world. Now, part of what attracts me in your own work is that it is as much a contribution to political theory as it is to anthropological theory. And I don’t mean this in a sort of disparaging manner, because I don’t share certain strands of methodological fetishism, which implies that anthropology is all about doing ethnographic fieldwork. Your own contributions, and I am thinking here about Omens of Adversity (2017),

Conscripts of Modernity (2004), and Refashioning Futures (1999), are profoundly marked by your emphasis on tragedy and ruined time as a precondition for thinking critically about the post-Bandung world. Or, in other words, the politics of disillusionment, which is a striking feature of many post-colonial societies. To what extent is there a disjuncture here between your own work and that of Stuart?

David: That is a place where we disagreed, and around which we argued a lot. This begined to emerge with my own work in Conscripts of Modernity and onwards. It partly turned, I think, on my sense of the generation that comes of age in a post-colonial world, which is full of a kind of socialist hope that turns very rapidly into disappointment and ruin. That ruin is the background of all of my thinking: how to understand the nature of the unravelling of the Bandung project. Stuart wrote very interestingly about non-alignment at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s when the question of non-alignment was the bright light of the possibility of a reimagined global world. That global world comes to be undone by the middle-late 1970s, and that imagination comes to be replaced by regimes that are part of my own experience, that are part of the rampant cynicism of post-Bandung third world political projects. How to think the unravelling of those possibilities, which it seems to me are not merely administrative. They are not simply local or contingent dead ends, they are fundamental in the sense that it is the very conceptual and political grounds on which the idea of political alternatives is imagined that comes to ruin. The very possibility of thinking social progress, the very possibility of thinking social transformation, the very narratological terms in which and through which those futurities are imagined—this was a whole that came to be deconstructed in a way that is now not simple to restore or repair.

Stuart and I knocked heads around that. I think for him, the place of the tragic in my own work signaled something that I don’t imagine him being able to easily embrace. That sense of finitude and sense of failure, was something that for him was immediately to be recontextualized in relation to a politics of hope; that despair and disillusionment were not themselves a problem-space (to use a term that I have come to find helpful) out of which we might think ourselves in a way that did not presuppose futurity. I think, for my generation certainly, futurity is not a very straightforward conceptual idea. And Stuart would not have thought that. So, one of the terms that we often went around and around with (I talk about it briefly in Stuart Hall’s Voice) is the idea of contingency. Contingency was an enormously important concept for Stuart; it was for him a way to be able to think the past as non-necessary. Whereas contingency for me is a way of thinking possibilities that go awry, of thinking the tragic. I think of these as in some sense different sides of the same coin, the ways in which people from different generational experiences come to think an attitude to the present in which they find themselves.

 Sindre. Thank you very much David.

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