In Public Books, James Vernon reviews a newly published memoir by Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands, along with a new collection of Hall’s political texts, Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays. Vernon suggests that it was Hall’s ability to bridge rigid divides—between orthodox Marxism and continental theory, between academia and working-class culture—that made him the startlingly original thinker he was. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
Familiar Stranger, like the two volumes in the series already published by Duke, remind us that for Hall thinking historically was essential to understanding ourselves and the conditions in which we live. The distinction between history and theory, like that between intellectual and political work, made no sense to him. Theory was not about arranging thought in abstract and systematic patterns, it was about engaging with the messy reality of the present. One could not understand the politics of the present without thinking both theoretically and historically. History ensured that the terrain of politics, and therefore of theory, were always changing. To be a historian and theoretician of the present one has to be a magpie.
This was not a position welcomed by any on either the old or the new left who thought politics and theory were about adherence to unquestioned articles of faith. They accused him, mistakenly, of being a modish follower of fashion. Yet, Hall believed, the intellectual’s task is to understand how each moment of our lives—each conjuncture, as he put it following Althusser and Gramsci—remains freighted by complex and contradictory combinations of old and new forms of capitalism, social formations, ideological forces, and affective relations. The ground we stand on is always shifting, so, he implored us, we must draw on every theoretical tool that helps us to make sense of each conjuncture and to build the politics necessary for its transformation.
Hall’s capacity to remind us that it was no less possible to think Britain without its empire than it was the colonies without the metropolitan “motherland” was a product of the changing conjunctures in which he lived his life. It was the quickening pace of decolonization, together with the escalation of the commonplace racism and racial violence against people of color in Britain in the mid-1960s, that pushed the legacies of colonialism to the forefront of Hall’s work. The last colonial could only slowly decolonize his own thought.
Image of Stuart Hall via Public Books.