BY Rob Sharp in Opinion | 01 MAR 19

A Divided Country, Resurgent Right and Rising Populism: How Stuart Hall Saw It Coming

In the age of Brexit, we need Cultural Studies more than ever, not least in its call to examine the complex, contradictory relationship between capitalism and democracy

BY Rob Sharp in Opinion | 01 MAR 19

Stuart Hall’s explosive essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, which was 40 years old in January, describes a familiar picture of Britain: a divided country with a resurgent right wing, populism on the rise and in tentative recovery from an economic car crash. Hall’s writing, which helped popularize the academic discipline Cultural Studies – the political and critical exploration of culture in its broadest sense – is more relevant than ever, not least in its call to examine the complex, contradictory relationship between capitalism and democracy. But, despite the enduring applicability of Hall’s thinking, it is worth taking pause to discuss the paradox of Cultural Studies itself: how it rarely gets the backing it deserves, suffers from self-consciousness over its own demise, yet holds immense potential to be reimagined.

Stuart Hall. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Goldsmiths Professor David Morley, a former colleague of Hall’s at Birmingham University’s influential Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which Hall led during the 1970s (and which was closed in 2002 despite widespread protest), believes ‘as a serious intellectual and political interdisciplinary project, Cultural Studies in Britain has been in decline for a number of years’, a victim of misguided funding mechanisms and increasingly detached from empirical study. ‘Under pressure from funders and government, the British academic world has shifted towards the rewarding of conventional disciplinary approaches and, in response, some Cultural Studies scholars have adapted themselves to a style of work that premises its claims to prestige on the basis of High Theory,’ Morley tells me. ‘As a result, Cultural Studies has now been re-invented, in some places, as a dismal mode of abstracted semi-philosophical speculation. That has, of course, had the benefit, for those who pursue that course, of making their work appear more prestigious, in so far as it complies better with the demands of the new academic conservatism.’

First, the negative story: it is saddening, yet predictable, that Cultural Studies – in its loosest sense a complex mixture of critical theory, linguistics and sociology indebted to the Frankfurt School, post-structuralism and post-Marxist philosophy – is barely taught in British schools. With fellow academics such as Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, Hall, who died in 2014, built Cultural Studies into what The New Yorker calls ‘the serious study of popular culture’ examining the power struggles rife in production, representation and circulation. Yet, when debates around the economization of education hit our newsfeeds, they are couched as an instrumental battle between science and traditional arts subjects. Without understanding the political biases of the culture we consume – its national, racial and gender skews – we are poorly equipped to reimagine it, to create what Williams, in his influential volume The Long Revolution (1961), calls fresh experiences through creativity, new meaning in art and different ways of living.

Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, 1961, book cover. Courtesy: Chatto & Windus

Interdisciplinarity, while noble in intention, is difficult in practice. Scholars grounded in different intellectual traditions might struggle to communicate within a single subject area, let alone within one department. The political demands of the Research Excellence Framework – the means by which the UK government allocates funding to universities by, essentially, counting lecturers’ academic publications – favours the best-known journals, discouraging creative and cross-disciplinary work. Rising tuition fees might discourage students from applying to study a subject that, in effect, criticizes the cultural status quo. School leavers might not understand what Cultural Studies is, being only exposed to it at university, thus hitting recruitment to undergraduate programmes. 

Which is a shame since, arguably, a greater understanding of the shifting cultural impact of a globalized workforce – the identity switches seen in book publishing, digital media and music – might be fruitful. Cultural Studies could help us understand why it is accepted practice for some musicians to effectively work for Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for free, posting content to such platforms as part of what Microsoft academic Nancy Baym calls ‘relational labour’ – managing intimate professional relationships online at great personal cost. Meanwhile, public-facing culture is dominated by output from a colossal public relations industry, led by a handful of key players, which places endless stories, wields huge power and yet is barely ever held to account. Critical cultural reportage, the practical bedfellow to Cultural Studies, once provided checks on the glossy monocultural London institutions that continue to grow in stature as their regional counterparts dwindle; now, however, it is underfunded and largely misunderstood.

(It is worth noting, incidentally, that there is a long tradition of lamenting the decline of Cultural Studies. In a paper published in 2017, Australian academic Andrew Hickey notes that descriptions of the death of Cultural Studies are almost as old as the discipline itself, frequently misrepresent its halcyon days and exacerbate matters by perpetuating a negative narrative. In an interview published in 2015, Hall mentioned that he didn’t ‘necessarily approve of everything that has happened in Cultural Studies’, including its retreat into theory and its blindness towards the economy. ‘I feel there is a choice of pathways,’ he said.)

Tahrir Square, 2011. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

So, what’s the positive take? That, in effect, there are currently dozens of Cultural Studies degrees nationwide: the discipline’s concerns have bled across the humanities and social sciences, influencing the inception of university courses in literature and race, postcolonial film theory, citizenship and identity. Cultural Studies has also emerged as a global field. Sally Munt, Professor of Cultural/Gender Studies at the University of Sussex, tells me she receives applications for doctoral study on topics as varied as the alt-right online, activism and the Arab Spring, queer life in Turkey or contraception advertising in Bangladesh. ‘There are a lot of ways in which Cultural Studies at university level can train people in critical and contextual modes of thinking, giving them an insight into their place in the world,’ she says. ‘We need Cultural Studies now more than ever.’

‘I’m very optimistic about the prospects for Cultural Studies in the forms in which it is now developing in other countries around the world,’ adds Morley. ‘In the future, the most important innovations in the field may well take place in the erstwhile “cultural margins” of the globe, perhaps only being imported to the old imperial centres at a later stage.’ 

In his posthumously published autobiography, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (2017), Hall traces his childhood in Jamaica, his arrival and education in Britain, and his emergence as one of the British New Left’s most powerful postwar intellectuals. ‘My first sense of the world derived from my location as a colonized subject and much of my life can be understood as unlearning the norms in which I had been born and brought up,’ he writes. The extent to which such norms can culturally determine our lives across national, political and legal boundaries is the enduring question of our age. Perhaps, at long last, rather than Cultural Studies facing down its demise, the question of how we understand this phenomenon is no longer only Britain’s to answer. Now that would be a compelling narrative.

Main image: courtesy New Left Review, Twitter

Rob Sharp is a freelance writer based in London, UK. He is the former arts correspondent of The Independent and the Observer, and has written for The New York Times, the Guardian and Prospect.