Stuart Hall, pioneer of Cultural Studies

Emblematic figure of Cultural Studies, the British sociologist Stuart Hall remains relatively little known in France. A collective work on Hall's work and scientific heritage shows the relevance of his work, in particular his study of the relationships between discourse and power.

The work of British sociologist Stuart Hall (1932-2014), originally from Jamaica, has been the subject of growing interest in France for around fifteen years. Work of this pioneering figure of Cultural Studies, professor of sociology at the Open University from 1979 to 1997, is internationally recognized for her innovative approaches to cultures, media and ethnicity. Nevertheless, it has the unusual characteristic that it is not concentrated in one or a few key works. Indeed, Hall never ceased to call for the practice of testing, in the sense of field investigations dealing with the relationships between politics, society and culture, and this in direct contact with his time. Therefore, it may at first glance seem paradoxical that the sociologist Malek Bouyahia and the political scientists Franck Freitas-Eku and Karima Ramdani invite us, in 2021, to think with Stuart Hall, while the latter was so keen to think in his place and in his time .

Which Stuart Hall?

This involves drawing on the work of Stuart Hall which proves stimulating for the present investigations. The emphasis is placed on Hall's epistemology, according to which research in the human and social sciences aims to address the difficulties encountered by dominated communities, as well as the different modalities of the struggles they wage. The dialogue with Abdelmalek Sayad is this title interesting. Just like this sociologist of Algerian migration, Hall approached migratory facts as phenomena that disturb widespread representations, according to which nations must be made up of culturally unified populations.

However, it would be difficult to thinking with Stuart Hall without having read it first. For non-English speakers, this was a difficult task for a long time due to the lack of French translations. This gap was partly filled by the numerous critical editions of Hall's essays, published in 2017 by Amsterdam Editions. Thinking with Stuart Hall contributes, modestly of course, to this work, since it contains two unpublished articles, translated by Sverine Sofio: Topics in history. The making of diasporic identities (pp. 31-44) and The West and the Rest. Discourse and power (pp. 45-60). These texts alone constitute a gateway into Hall's thinking. They condense one of its leitmotif: the idea that cultural questions are political questions, in the sense that the way in which we give meaning to our lived experiences has an influence on our actions and our collective positions.

From the initial framework to current and potential uses of Hall's thought

The rest of the work is structured in two parts. The first offers an overview of Stuart Hall's legacy in the areas in which he operated. Far from any cult of personality, we appreciate here that this heritage is the subject of a critical history. The teacher-researcher Maxime Cervulle undertakes a form of demystification of the institution of which Hall was director from 1969 to 1979: the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), attached to the University of Birmingham. Cervulle compares the image of the Center to that of a mecca for collective and transdisciplinary research on culture, media and societies, which can be read in its archives. The latter reveal that the history of the Center, which is also the history of the institutionalization of the field of cultural studies (cultural studies), was marked by numerous conflicts. These opposed Stuart Hall and his colleagues to bureaucratic logic and noble of the university system, but also the dominant Marxist researchers of the Center including, in some respects, Hall himself to the feminist researchers who were finding their way there with difficulty.

If the other three chapters of this first part focus on the legacy of Stuart Hall within contemporary investigations into the relationships between class, gender and race, this theme is approached from the dynamic angle of the use that is currently made or not. of Hall’s interventions. James Cohen thus questions the limited reception of Hall's work in studies devoted to ethnicity and racism in the United States. One of the hypotheses formulated to account for this is particularly interesting: Hall's insistence on the labile nature of identities, against any essentialism, would often have been considered incompatible with the approaches of sociologists or historians focused on racism understood as a social relationship of domination. . In other words, Cohen suggests that these researchers would have wrongly assumed that a conception of identity as a changing and contested reality would necessarily undermine the idea of ​​a real fixation of communities in a social hierarchy.

However, we find in Hall tools to consider the anchoring of cultural practices in the conditions of existence of minority populations. An example is the concept of vernacular cosmopolitanism (vernacular cosmopolitanism), which Cohen defines as a experience of the world linked () to migrations imposed by necessity (p. 104). Another example is explored in depth in the contribution of researchers Lotte Arndt and Taous Dahmani. This focuses on the intellectual exchanges between Stuart Hall and certain pioneers of black British cinema of the 1980s. Echoing Hall's anti-essentialism, the films of a group such as Black Audio Film Collective have thus developed ways of projecting onto the screen the heterogeneity of the experiences of black British people, experiences which vary according to origins (West Indian, African, etc.) but also according to class affiliation. To shed new light on an already marked debate, teacher-researcher Nelly Quemener suggests that the concept of joint by Hall, which she understands as a relationship between experience and identity, allows us to address some of the problems posed by both intersectional perspectives and their critiques. Refusing to conceive of identities as simple products of experiences, without however evading the question by asserting the primacy of relations of domination, Hall would in fact allow us to think of identities, particularly ethnic ones, as the meanings that agents give to their social practices in a given framework.

How domination is established over time

The second part of the work takes as its common thread the problem of hegemony. This refers to the establishment of consent which allows a power or a relationship of domination to establish itself within society over a more or less long period. While showing Stuart Hall's debt to the one who first formulated the question of hegemony, namely the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the political scientist Kolja Lindner highlights Hall's originality. The latter refused to reduce economic politics while insisting on the importance of social representations in any struggle for or against power. On this point, Lindner's contribution adjusts the focus of that of Quemener. Indeed, Hall still stands at odds with the theorists of the left-wing populism, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Precisely, Hall avoids the pitfall of the reductionism specific to these theorists, i.e. the idea that the constitution of society would be above all symbolic. For Hall, on the contrary, the force of media images, for example, can only be understood within the framework constituted by social and economic coercion, state institutions and government. In his contribution, Franck Freitas-Eku invests this understanding of hegemony in a fascinating analysis of the mutations of French rap, through which this music would have gone, between the 1980s and the 2000s, from the craze for a city ​​socialism (marked by the demand for social justice emanating from stigmatized neighborhoods) the predominance of bourgeois ideals of entrepreneurship and individual enrichment.

Where Freitas-Eku's text focuses on the passage of themes and cultural meanings from the American context (Jay-Z) to the French context (Booba), teacher-researcher Marc Lenormand looks at the analyses, carried out by Hall, of the authoritarian turn within British society under the Conservative governments of Edward Heath (1970-1974) and Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990). Lenormand thus describes the central place of the concept of hegemony within the research to which Hall contributed. These works range from examining the media construction of a moral panic around episodes of snatching and assaults committed by blacks, mainly Birmingham, during the second half of the 1970s (Policing the Crisis, 1978) the criticism, in the 1980s-1990s, of a British Labor Party poorly adapted to a new configuration of class relations marked by greater cultural diversity as well as a fragmentation of the working class. In the last contribution to the work, the sociologist ric Maigret starts precisely from this last period of Hall's reflections to reassess the pessimism of this as an attempt to confront without concession the failures of the British parliamentary and extra-parliamentary lefts.

Tools for thinking about cultural, social and political changes

Thinking with Stuart Hall therefore shows to what extent the acuity with which the latter thought about the developments of his time has, in return, allowed him to outline a set of very useful perspectives for present action.

His reflections on the concept of race constitute a striking example in this regard, pertinently noted in the introduction to the work. Hall, in fact, refused to give a definitive answer when it came to defining race itself. He thus wanted to avoid the pitfall of a binary alternative, between a biological conception of races (perceived as physical human types) and a social-realist conception (where races are seen as groups constituted by domination and discrimination). Hall's position, which he himself describes as discursive, corresponds to an intermediate path. If the existence of visible differences, first and foremost skin colors, is undeniable, the social relevance of these differences, the fact that they have an impact on the trajectories of individuals and groups, or even on their very life chances, does not follow from such or such property supposedly inherent to the persons concerned. It is therefore only in so far as they are inscribed in a certain grammar that shapes our lives and our representations (p. 22), that is to say in a set of rules which gives them meaning only under given conditions, that these differences have social and political effects. From this perspective, speeches are not just ways of talking about things. More fundamentally, they designate a logic Who establishes a chain of correspondence between certain characteristics physical traits, clothing attributes, names, etc. and their meaning for a given culture (p. 33).

If there is reason to think with Stuart Hall today, it is precisely because we owe him this type of theoretical tools aimed at grasping a conflictual, moving and uncertain present. This is, moreover, a point which would have deserved to be emphasized more in Thinking with Stuart Hall. From its beginnings, the influence of Hall's work took the form not of a school, but that of the transmission of a mode of investigation and reasoning. The first student publications of the CCCS on racism in Great Britain to certain contemporary writings on urban mobs, Hall's legacy is, in this sense, that of a social and cultural critique resolutely anchored in the situation.