A transcript of Professor Roger Shannon’s talk delivered at the Stuart Hall tribute event held at Edge Hill University, 1st April 2014, in the new Creative Edge building.
Good evening and welcome; It’s great to see you all here this evening on our wonderful ‘creative campus’ and in the newly opened Creative Edge building.
My name is Roger Shannon, and I’m a Professor of Film and Television in the department of Media.
This evening we are paying tribute to Professor Stuart Hall, who passed away in February. Much has been written since his death about his absolutely key role in shaping and defining the field of cultural studies, in his guise as a leading public intellectual and in his ceaseless advocacy of multi culturalism over numerous decades.
All of this true amongst a host of other remarkable attributes.
My contact with Stuart was as one of his students; I was a post graduate student at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham from 1977 to 1979. I took the taught course MA there. Stuart was a fantastic teacher, and that’s the prominent image I’ll always have of him.
We had theory classes with him on a Monday morning, and for three hours he’d cover the theory to be discussed, supported by a stack of books under his arm, and a way of interpreting the arguments with ease and with panache that made the most inaccessible reaches of cultural and Marxist theory as navigable as the Leeds Liverpool canal. And all done without lecture notes, but with a delivery that combined reflection with oratory with humour and with a wonderful application of metaphors that visually or literally cut to the quick of any one argument, revealing its inner conceptual workings, inherent contradictions or theoretical antecedents. These were master classes of the highest order, and for me and many others a fabulously, stimulating, nigh on narcotising experience.
Educational Viagra to coin a phrase.
Because he was so on top of the swirling contemporary debates of cultural and Marxist theory, as a teacher he was always concerned to introduce his students to the very same. For me, it was a richly rewarding time, robustly intellectual, but also challenging, as this was a time of a deeply engaged and, admittedly, scary, theoreticism, as a cleric like forensic reading and re reading of the latest theorist du jour took a grip on some of the Centre’s practices. And ‘du jour’ is a clue to the nationality of some of those theorists.
For me, the Centre’s own widening participation agenda in welcoming students from Polytechnics and other educational backgrounds was a great boon. I’d begun to unburden myself in the study of English Literature from the constraints of grammar school Leavisitism and New Criticism, and at Teesside Polytecnic for my first degree had embraced the more challenging ideas my tutors had introduced. Interestingly, many of these sharp minded teachers had previously been at universities in the newly liberated and newly independent African and Asian states, frozen out of the more conservative UK university system by their politically unorthodox views, and had subsequently found a more receptive home in the flourishing new wave of Higher Education offered by the Polytechnics.
This is where I first came across the Centre’s Working Papers in Literature and Society, which got me, so to speak, out of Lit Crit and into Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukacs, Terry Eagelton et al, Studying literature and culture suddenly became the political subject I’d always hoped it would be, and my final work at the Polytechinic on Emile Zola and Joseph Conrad revealed early influences of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.
It’s interesting to note that the modus operandi of the Centre under Stuart had two significant effects that in more recent years the most REF driven Pro Vice Chancellor would dearly wish to mimic,
But at the time in the 1970’s were considered not to be the role of a University.
The first was the organisation of academic work into collective endeavours, the output of which were frequently published either by the Centre as Working Papers or increasingly picked up on by a growing academic publishing appetite.
The second was the impact the Centre had, beyond the University, as a consequence of its collectively driven research approach – impact within the media, within policing, within education, within youth work, within feminism, within trade unions etc. And, for sure, within the wider society and culture of the UK.
I think this is one of Stuart’s major acheivements as a teacher and academic researcher in identifying with astute interventionist foresight the direction that the educational institutions had to take…..a two way traffic of ideas and influences between the culture (often local, on your door step) and the academic environment, without which exchange you run the risk of elitism and exclusiveness reproducing itself in a spiral of privilege.
And, of course, it is the analysis of popular culture, first introduced at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies by Richard Hoggart in 1964, that is the basis and starting point for this significant acheivement – or ‘epistemelogical break’, to use the more flowery language of that era !
My opening remarks are more of a personal nature about Stuart Hall rather than an attempt to nail his position on culture, race or politics. As Stuart himself pointed out, identities are fluid, endlessly negotiated and re negotiated. We are screening a film that covers eloquently his life and his politics and no doubt there will be disagreements later about the ‘Stuart’ that wasn’t in the film, that the identity of Stuart has been missed by the film makers – be that the anti Thatcher Marxism Today thinker; or Social Deviancy writer; or proponent of the new criminology; or the anti Suss laws campaigner; or the jazz loving family man of two lovely kids who lived at 65 Prospect Rd, Birmingham.
The film makers themselves – Smoking Dogs Films, formerly the Black Audio Film Collective – became politically driven film makers having been introduced to cultural studies when in the early 1980’s they were studying at Portsmouth Polytechnic. And, it’s perhaps no accident that their ground breaking documentary ‘Handsworth Songs’ about the early 1980’s Birmingham uprising was made in that city, on the heels of Stuart Hall’s research for the classic text, ‘Policing The Crisis – Mugging, the State, and Law and Order’ from 1978.
I can also identify a very direct influence that Stuart Hall had on my life. The research that I undertook while at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies into the oppositional documentary movements of the 1930’s lead me umbilically into the UK’s Film Workshop Movement of the late 1970’s and the founding of Birmingham Film Workshop, where I began my film career. One of the films from that Workshop – ‘Giro: Is this the Modern World ?’ from 1983 is screening tomorrow in the ‘Beyond Benefit Street’ Symposium.
The film today covers Stuart’s extraordinary life of 82 years; here, I’ll just point to some of those years as they relate to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.
Born in Jamaica in 1932, Stuart came to the UK in 1951 on a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University. He always described himself as a ‘familiar stranger’ in Britain.
In the late 1950’s he was the founding editor of the New Left Review, and after abandoning his Oxford thesis on the novelist Henry James, he began work as a teacher in Brixton, followed by in the early 1960’s a film and media lecturing post at
Chelsea College, London University…..Brixton and Soho proving more amenable to him than Oxford had been. His book on popular culture with Paddy Whannel, The Popular Arts (published in1964) opened up a field of inquiry that he was to develop at the University of Birmingham, paving the way for the emergence of cultural studies.
Richard Hoggart had set up the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1964, and invited Stuart Hall, to join as its first research fellow. In 1972, Stuart became its director. Cultural studies was then in its infancy ; 50 years later, it is seemingly everywhere, with possibly a Cultural Studies course on the curriculum at almost all the Universities in the world. A google search shows 480 million listings.
The origins and underpinnings of cultural studies are based on an insistence on taking popular cultural forms seriously, tracing the interweaving threads of culture, power and politics, and bringing together literary theory, linguistics and cultural anthropology into analyses of subjects as diverse as youth sub-cultures, deviancy, popular media and gendered and ethnic identities.
There are no single-authored, scholarly monographs in Stuart Hall’s name. However, he produced an extensive array of collectively written and edited volumes, essays and journalism as well as countless political speeches, and radio and television talks.
After leaving Birmingham for the Open University in 1979, for the post of Professor of Sociology, he was attracted by the possibility of reaching out to those who had fallen through the conventional educational system. At the Open University Stuart increasingly focused on questions of race and post colonialism, and on theorising the migrant view of Britain. His work and ideas became a significant influence on the upsurge of black film makers, photographers, screen writers, novelists,and visual artists from the 1980’s onwards – such as San Kofa, Isaac Julien, John Akomfra, Black Audio Film Collective, Sonia Boyce, Rivington Place, Autograph, the International Institute of Visual Arts and many more artists and institutions.
His involvement in the movement for black arts gave him a new lease of intellectual life, as reflected in the history of his life and work produced by the film-maker John Akomfrah, in the form of the gallery installation, The Unfinished Conversation (from 2012), which premiered in the Liverpool Biennial. This gallery installation was followed by the documentary film, also directed by John Akomfra, The Stuart Hall Project (from 2013), which we will see this evening.
This film was released shortly before Stuart’s death; it pays acclaim to the life, thinking and teachings of one of the formost intellectuals of the past 50 years in the UK, whose attention to race, culture, class and politics – in and outside Higher Education – has transformed the way that we look upon ourselves and at popular culture, and for that I’m proud to have been in those eye opening, and mind enhancing theory classes nigh on 40 years ago.
Stuart had a life long passion for Miles Davis; and some tracks by Mile Davis are being played this evening in his honour.