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Threnodies for  S.H.

1. Yesternow

Stuart Hall is dead. The world,  especially that part of it he directly  inhabited with his ideas and his presence, is a much less interesting and hopeful place  for his passing. He had become a cultural icon of  the Left and a man for  all seasons.  Something  a contemporary  wrote about   Thomas More, the original bearer  of that  sobriquet,  might well  be reiterated by those who mourn S.H.  today  : ‘a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity’[i].

For many  of us  on  the Left, his work was  an intellectual  compass by which  to get our bearings  in the face of  the many twists and turns  of  contemporary capitalism. Even for those  who disagreed with some of the positions   he took up, his writings provided a  central reference point for getting to grips with the  slippery  identifications of gender, race and class that have come to characterise late modernity.  He was a master of the   conjunctural analysis   and the essay form, who combined an eye for the telling detail  with a synoptic  grasp of what was at stake; he always remained  contemporary with  the world he was commenting on – easy enough when you are young, much less so when you reach old age.  His  radar was constantly  scanning the   horizon for new  ideas, new ways of understanding the intricate dialectics of structure, agency and process in the  cultural transformations of everyday life and  the possibilities these opened up for reinventing democratic politics[ii].

In reading  the many tributes that have flooded in one is struck by the pervasive sense of personal as well as political and intellectual  loss. But also in some cases   by  an  ambiguity of address. For those committed to  egalitarian principles,  there is a  certain squeamishness about elevating the achievements of one individual life over others as the object of public  admiration; this is often  coupled with  a commitment to  validating  the lives and stories  of those who   have been  ignored or marginalised by mainstream institutions; at the same time there is a desperate need to create an alternative pantheon to that of  the dominant political culture  and affirm the value of  our heroes, the people  who have made an important  contribution  to the struggle for social justice.

This  dual  response    speaks  to the  difficult position now occupied by public   intellectuals, who have to operate within a space  that is continually being  eroded or invaded by  the professional experts  of the knowledge economy on one side, and the glitterati thrown up by  contemporary celebrity culture, on the other[iii].  The implosion of  the public  realm,  the  increasing privatisation of its residual functions,   coupled with  widespread  disengagement  from  organised politics and  the ever more intense specialisation  of academic knowledge means that  the audience for  a discourse which encompasses  diverse issues and perspectives in a  comprehensive  critique  of our society has shrunk to almost vanishing point; even though  the left/liberal intelligentsia  has managed  to ensconce  itself in the  new  cultural industries, as well as in some of the more traditional elite  institutions, the fact remains  that  its leverage  on the political class, let alone on  those sections of civil society  whose causes and concerns   it routinely champions, has never been less.

This  situation resonates with the way public   recognition   and ‘making a name’ is today organised. The rise and rise of celebrity culture, where  ’everyone knows your name, and that’s your claim to fame‘  as Amy Whitehouse once put it, has affected even the  most elementary structures  of  human intercourse.[iv] ’You’re a star’ and ‘awesome’ now greet the most modest accomplishments and this  inflationary pressure has had its impact on     more rarified  forms  of celebrity.  If Seamus Heaney  was given his ‘famous’   nickname it had  nothing to do  with his poetry, his literary reputation, or the exemplary character of  his engagement with the issues thrown up by  the Irish troubles. It just happened to rhyme.

In fact the mechanisms of  enduring  fame  and  ephemeral celebrity, long distance reputation  and instant stardom,   peer respect   and    the spectacle of the cult figure  driven by  the frenzy of renown  have become increasingly  intertwined, not least through the advent of new social media  where ‘popularity’  depends on   global circuits of  messaging  with  the capacity to go viral  at the drop of  a tweet[v]. On this platform to become a follower no longer means to enter the toils of discipleship, or even to adopt the   name or attitudes of your  hero, but simply to adhere to a virtual community of fans  with one click  of your mouse.  At the same time  the democratisation of fame, on a scale that not even Andy Warhol  could have envisaged, has been accomplished  largely  through the medium of do-it- yourself  publicity hype  so  that the scope   for reputational identity built on critical evaluation  shrinks to  that of the peer  group  and the cognoscenti. The  literary pantheon  is full of   ‘writer’s writers’ whom almost nobody reads.

If the two  pathways  of fame have  converged   so too   have the strategies of  private  remembrance and public commemoration  implied by them. We can see the impact  on    obituary writing. The  stylistic  awkwardness of  the genre  arises from the way it is poised between  homage and homily[vi].  The    obituary writer is  pulled one way towards  hagiography  and another to  social biography, though  in the case of the biop the two can sometimes  be artfully combined, as in John Akomfre’s  brilliant and moving  The Stuart Hall Project.   The obituary of S.H. by Bill Schwarz and David Morley  in the Guardian  managed  to steer an exemplary   course  between the  extravagances of panagyric and the cool  irony of the  praise song, but   most  of the others  simply juxtaposed   the pieties of personal tribute and  academic  appraisal, eulogy and peer review, to greater or lesser effect.

It is conventional  for  obituaries to be written by close friends or colleagues in the role of  an  amensuensis,  though  not by members of the family, and to concentrate on positive achievements  and the public persona, not the failures or the private life.  So we usually get a  fairly whiggish interpretation of the life history,  sometimes   spiced  with moments  of  triumph over adversity; we  are rarely given any  sense of the inner struggles  that are often the counterpoint  to public success.  Only when the subject is infamous – and their life, far from being celebrated, is  told as a cautionary tale of what befalls when the values and norms of society are flouted,  do we sometimes get a glimpse of an interior life albeit one marked by  psycho-pathology. That is why  memoirs  can be  such an important corrective device,  though only if  they manage to avoid the trap of becoming  do- it- yourself obituaries written with one eye on posterity.

Feminists have challenged the split between  the public and private self in their autobiographies and memoirs,    while   post-structuralists  insist that  any kind of narrative identity   is problematic and merely papers   over the cracks  of the ‘decentred subject’[vii];  neither  has  come up  with a  way of summing up a life or a body of work  that does not depend on the tacit assumption that a) there is an intimate connection, however mediated or hidden,  between the two, and  b) that  the name being evoked is embedded in  a  web of  associations  which  makes  that linkage  possible, however entangled it may be in  the  many  histories it intersects[viii].  The claim on  posterity  continues  to encounter its principle of  counter-finality in the form of posthumous   revision   precisely because, however respectful  public    remembrance,    reputation  remain anchored   to this fragile  matrix  of identity.   That is why, at the level of interpellation, neither  the presumed intimacy of  first name  address  with its implication of fictive kinship nor  the  ubiquity   of the  surname with its indeterminate  genealogy  can carry the burden of representing a  legacy  which belongs to no-one in general, and everyone in particular.  That is why  the use of initials, in so far as they compose  an  acronym at once familiar and impersonal, may better  preserve  the  aura of  fame.

The long aftermath of a  famous death, in which the presence of the past is defined by a large absence, by a  void without agency,  becomes all the more poignant  when  it occurs in a political landscape littered with   last posts – marxism  and modernity, the industrial working class, the socialist utopia, the revolutionary movement-    so many ghosts in the machinery of history whose materialism has migrated elsewhere. Under these circumstances  we can only  try to unearth the common ground  of  all  the  yesternows that cluster around   the missing figure, knowing that  we have  to build from it  new principles of hope.

2.Dancing in the dark

Dialectics  has been called the dance of the mind.  But  its not just a question of mental gymnastics, of being able to perform    feats of   agility  on the high wire of theory. The grounding of dialectics in concrete analysis,  as a way of thinking about   the roller coaster of events  while staying  on your feet  and dispelling  the clouds of  common sense  is   the  real name of the game. As Brecht constantly  reminded us  subtle dialectics are no use without ‘crude thoughts’, by which he did not mean the slogans or  reductionism of vulgar Marxism , but  a down to earth analysis  which unraveled the true complexities of a situation and hence demystified it. Which indeed was S.H’s forte.

Dialectical  thought  creates its own epistemological  guarantees,   the mistake is  to seek a   basis  for its knowledge claims   in teleological  laws of history or nature. To proclaim the possibility  of a Marxism without  guarantees,  where economic  determinism, even in the last instance, becomes a matter of empirical research,  not  an a priori given,   was a bold, some might say a foolhardy move.[ix] Yes, social being determines consciousness  but  the Unconscious over- determines social being.  It was the entry of psychoanalysis  and the question of desire into the field of   ideology  critique, hitherto dominated by   notions of   false consciousness,   that    set the  cat among the orthodox   Marxist pigeons. The human subject now had to carry a double burden of misrecognition, and in some accounts sank without trace of intentionality or agency. Neutron bomb Marxism ( all   structures and no people) found its mirror image in deconstructive technology  (all  inter-textuality and  no author ).   The move to re-embody and re-territorialise  the subject  took place on quite a different dance floor, and at night when   history’s moles come out to play and the sleep of reason produces not monsters but the dream of another possible world in which the power of the  imagination is at last freed from the imagination of power.

To be properly dialectical in one’s perceptions, in other words to change one’s mind  because the world has changed, it is necessary to gain sufficient  distance from  any  investment in one’s own ideas  and so see clearly the gap which is always  opening up  between territory and  map, the society  and our understanding of it. This certainly creates a space  for intellectual opportunism, but it is also what makes it  possible  to transcend  orthodoxies and dogmatisms of every kind. As he did.

3.Thinkin one thing, doin another

Once upon a  time and not so long ago  the Academy’s chief claim to fame was that it was  a powerhouse of Ideas, where the cross fertilisation of disciplines  was  led and fed by ferment  in the wider society. Today the intellectual fashion houses of the Western world   are fully integrated  into  the global knowledge economy[x]. The stars of this new firmament spin around at the centre of their various webs of thought, trapping  passing butterflies in the hope that they will enable  their BIG IDEA  to materialise  and spread its wings.  The  widespread sublimation of political ambitions in academic ones  has given added impetus to this  whirligig…..

As a consequence it is easier  than ever to  justify  the disconnect  between theory and practice.  On one side we have the elaboration of  a  space of ‘pure critique’  which claims to be uncorrupted by  either  metaphysical speculation, political  ideology  or  governmental /commercial  interests. On the other the insistent pragmatism of evidence based policy analysis.  Meanwhile over on the Left bank,  the  scholar activist is  re-cast  as a nerdy Clark Kent  who is prompted to  leave his study,  don his superman outfit and fly to the rescue of the oppressed   whenever the occasion calls.

Leading  a double life, thinking one thing and doing another, is no longer a question of hypocrisy or  bad faith, it has become  a necessary   survival  strategy  for a whole generation who have   grown up under  heavy manners and know that  they are not going to be freed from the publish or perish ethos of the neo-liberal university any time soon.

Under  these circumstances  it is tempting to separate  the work and the life, not only to keep them in  different compartments, one marked public and the other private,  but to apply different criteria  of   judgement and evaluation to each. Yet  this splitting only fuels  public curiosity about private lives:  the  quest  for  behind-the -scenes accounts  which will prise open the secret  of creativity or genius and make it into a skill  set or conceptual toolkit  that anyone can buy into.  This takes us back to the conundrum of contemporary fame  : it celebrates the unique but demands that it be replicable.

Against this  there is a need to  stitch the life and the  work back together again  in a way that makes   sense of both   for  the  light each sheds on the unfolding circumstances  of their co-production.    Bringing the  two sides of the story together  can be a tricky task.

4.Thriving on a riff       

The essay, as a literary genre, is, or should be, the cry of its occasion. It is an intervention in public debate which is both calculated and improvisatory, drawing threads of argument, narrative  and evidence together to take a line  of thought for a walk, with a hop, skip and jump  across its  chosen mindfield. The true essayist is  by inclination an inter-disciplinarian  and by metier something of a prose stylist, but in any case the approach is always exploratory[xi].

If the essay was S.H.’s   chosen literary form, that choice cannot be entirely separated from his personal style. He often wrote the way he spoke   and his oratorical style of delivery  was part of his charisma. The   performance of thought has undergone a rapid evolution in the last few years, not only as a result of the proliferation of platforms, so that it is much easier to move between the lecture hall, the TV studio, and the on line debate,  but because the performative medium has  been amplified and  transformed  through its intimate relation with charismatic authority

Charisma is a  much misused term,  applied  today to  anyone whose personality  or mode of expression  exercises some kind of seductive power or spell over an audience: musicians, poets, cult leaders and mystagogues are the usual suspects[xii].   Charisma   evokes a metaphysics of presence and  is a phenomenon of modernity and its  technologies  of   public impression management  where acting and being have become fused.   For Weber the issue was how individuals gain power or influence  simply by the force of their personality, rather than from any inherited or acquired form of  social, cultural or political capital. He concluded that  charismatic authority arose in circumstances of extreme crisis, where the people turned to  leaders who  seemed to have  special insight and understanding of  the chaotic conditions  afflicting them,  could articulate their  fears and hopes and offer some kind of plausible way out. Weber’s analysis  might have  anticipated the rise of Hitler, but he did not  foresee  the democratisation  – which is also the banalisation – of charisma  through popular culture.  What  he called its  routinisation did not  arise through subsumption under  more stable forms of bureaucratic governance, but rather through    popular dissemination via  the operatic medium of the Spectacle with its capacity  to recuperate even the most subversive voices. The dialectician becomes a performance artist, viz  the Slavov Zizek  phenomenon[xiii].

It is in and against this tendency, that  we have to situate the attempt to construct a different theatre of intellectual operations in which  liminality is put to work as a principle of engagement with  the real.  Cue  the  intellectual- as- trickster working both sides of the line, at once inside and outside the dominant culture, using the cunning of dialectical reason to outwit  more powerful adversaries or trap them in their own traps. To pull this off requires  an ability to detect the fault lines in an argument, as well as in a society, a profound strategic sense coupled with  a vivid cartographic imagination.  S.H. had both.

 

4 Song of our century

The official honours list, the erection of statues and other  memorials, the  naming of streets and  buildings, the  celebration of anniversaries,  so many attempts to render    fame permanent  and immune  from historical revision. Yet  the  project of official memorialisation  is  always liable to be contested, to become   a focus  of  conflicting aspirations and loyalties in a deeply divided society. Rival halls of fame proliferate.

There are  certainly ways of  proofing public reputations against   the  quasi -oedpial politics of envy,  rivalry or revenge but they are not always progressive.   The anthems  which score the  song   lines  of our  century and etch them into the fabric of everyday life  have become  increasingly disconnected from any  concerted principle of societal orchestration; instead  they create their own ‘lieux de memoire’  which belong to   imagined   communities  of generation  or ethnicity, each supporting its very own fame academy.  Under these circumstances   the coincidence of context and conjuncture is no longer a matter of  cultural negotiation  : you just have to download  the appropriate soundtrack  and keep on playing it  to magically  appropriate the historical moment as your own.   Where  you were or what  you were doing when  X  happened   becomes less important than who or what you were listening to at the time.

As a result, the milestones of cultural transformation do not have to be plotted on any other map  than that of the territory they have created. This is not only because there is now a cultural economy as well as a cultural politics, but a cultural ideology which  secures its own reproduction  by articulating them    through a seamless web of relays. The mash up is its preferred idiom, the soundtrack of  a world in which everything has been rendered equivalent and commensurable  in its commodified form: neo-liberalism in symbolic action[xiv].

Even so the quest  for heroes, for  people who embody or enact   uncommodified  values is unabated, driven by a pervasive desire  to re-enchant the public realm. Hence the return  to  Hegel’s   ‘historical individuals’   and  Carlisle’s  ‘great man’  theory of history as a pedagogical resource.  What for Marx  were   representative figures who dramatised social conflicts   have been banalised into ‘role models’  for children and adolescents  in their long forced march towards the ever receding horizon of a better world. For them the song of our century has got stuck in  a minimalist groove…

S.H. was one of the few voices of his generation who recognised the trend  and took a stand against it.

5. It aint necessarily so

In one of his last  writings S.H. showed  how  the neo-liberal agenda  has become common sense, and how  common sense  has become the religion of  consensual validation  through which hegemony – political, cultural and ideological- is  exercised[xv].  Common sense  has its high priests (the popular press)  and  its dissenting sects, its rituals of initiation  and its forms of ex-communication, but ever since Gramsci  first mapped out its key forms, it has been  widely recognised that the battle for hearts and minds has no other terrain. It was in charting and strategising this terrain in Britain since the 1970’s  that S.H. made his distinctive contribution to   New Left  analysis.

So, yes, the need is still  to  find ways of shifting  ‘common sense’ away from its  anchorage in   conservative logics (‘there is no alternative’), to  enable  people to see and to say, against   the authoritative  discourses which legitimate and naturalise the oppressive circumstances of their lives, that    ‘ it aint necessarily so’.  This  requires  a triple intervention : to consolidate and focus shared experiences of injustice, and help  build  political coalitions  through specific campaigns;  to defend the commons against  further encroachment,   to   strengthen the   cultures of mutuality and generosity  which  inform everyday life in neighbourhoods and workplaces, and which hold in abeyance the divisive, anomic  and atomising pressures of late capitalism.  Finally  It means  encouraging and enlarging the   exercise  of  sociological imagination   through a variety of pegagogic and creative resources  in schools and communities so that  the uncommonplace, the utopian, the idea that alternative and more equitable  social arrangements are possible, can  take root  in popular culture  as principles of hope.

So far so commonsensical. But, of course, it raises  the hoary old question  of  agency. All these   educational, cultural  and organisational tasks, which  Gramsci  assigned to the communist party, Trotsky  to the ‘vanguard party’, in the British context  have been  variously assigned to the labour and co-operative movement, socialist sects, community activists, environmental and urban social movements  and, most  recently and implausibly to a  cultural and artistic avant garde. None of which today have the means  to concert these   initiatives.  This vacuum has been filled by a  vacuous post modern model of   instant mobilisation  through dispersed networks, with  multitudes  or ‘tribes’ conducting a new kind of guerrilla warfare by digital means against   massive corporate  emplacements of wealth and power.

Yet  one of the lessons  learnt  by and  from the  Occupy movement, and in a different context from the Stephen  Lawrence and the Hillsborough campaigns   is that  the capacity to  sustain protracted struggles and to succeed   is not the sole prerogative of  formal organisations. Provided groups are sufficiently embedded in their constituencies of support,  and sufficiently determined they can take on  major  institutions and win. S.H. was always alert to these springs of popular action as a baseline from which to reinvent democratic politics, but he never confused them with  the need to create and sustain new organisational structures.

 6. Kind  of Blue

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will – the Gramscian mantra-  has  remained  the touchstone  of  much Left analysis, but its  inflection has changed along with the times[xvi]. The conservatism of sections of the Old Left, especially those most closely connected with the  labour movement   stemmed  from the fact that  since the  1980’s  they have been fighting a rearguard  battle  against the impact of Thatcherism and its New Labour  reprise, while  their traditional constituency, white working class communities formed by industrialism and the culture of manual labour, have  increasingly jumped ship.  Leftist  melancholia  for ‘ the world we have lost’ is not an exclusively  English disease, but it did, for a time, put a brake on  the triumphalism of those who proclaimed the virtues of the Post fordist,  post industrial order in creating ‘ new times’ in which the ideological baggage of Marxism   and ‘class struggle’ could finally be jettisoned. Against  this background, the world of brass bands, miner’s choirs, industrial ballads, and  urban folk, soul, rhythm and  blues  melted away and was replaced by heavy metal,  punk,  rap  and electro-trance.  Skinheads and Chavs explored the harder, Mods and Emo’s   the  softer ends  of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks,  but however angry and in- your- face the lyrics, or bang -on the beat, there has  often been  a  cadence of regret   running through    these different soundscapes, a nostalgic evocation of  the good old bad old  days of 1960’s rocknroll.

Meanwhile  back in the universities, the New Left  found its historic moment in the aftermath of the revolutionary student movement and the anti Vietnam campaign. Its  Mayday manifesto, a totalising critique of an emergent  managerial and consumer capitalism was widely influential  and set the benchmark  for subsequent  conjunctural analyses.  At this moment too feminism and gay liberation powerfully renewed   democratic  politics, while the growth of cultural  studies provided a conduit  for  the  importation, and translation of seminal theoretical  work whose impact continues to resound in the human sciences today.

But by definition moments pass. They leave behind a sedimented memoryscape  around which the imagined community   of a generation   can cohere  and set about inventing its own tribal traditions, its own brand of cultural conservatism. The  generation of1968, like  that of 1989 in Eastern  Europe, has not lacked its mythologisers and de-constructors, but the effort at continual re-groupment,both intellectual and political, in the face of a tide of history that has been moving away from  it all the time, has taken its toll. In the last decade pessimism of the intellect has been much  easier to sustain than optimism of the will, and  what  began as a prescription  against infantile  leftism  ( over optimism) or    reformist defeatism (over pessimism), now   reads  more like the  clinical  formula   for  a chronic  manic-depressive  condition.

Bi-polar  structures of feeling  may be all the rage  in a political culture  dominated by  cycles of triumphalism and catastrophism but there is an alternative: the blues. The   register of the blues constantly moves  between  the voicing of grievance to the expression of grief, but  it also accomplishes  their attenuation, through  humour,  irony and   wit. The blues  articulate a spirit of resistance born of hard times, they are where story telling and song writing  become united in a single act of poesis,  a poetics of everyday life, its ups and down,  made by all  and for all.[xvii] We do not have to look further to find the keynote for addressing the legacy of S.H.

 7. One for daddy-o   

The full  quotation  from Ecclesiasticus  from which James Agee and Scott  Walker culled the title of their  book  reads ‘Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that beget us’[xviii]. To bracket the father with  the  great men of history is a characteristic  device  of Jewish culture, but not, of course,   unique to it; the same sentiment  can be found in many kinds of Patriarchal society. It speaks to an experience, whose implications Freud was the first spell out, of the young boy and girl idolising  their father  as a remote source of authority,  firstly as a defence against  their interdicted  ambivalence ( love and hate)  and secondly as the support of an ego ideal which will sooner or later bring them into conflict.  The image that is often used to characterise  the younger generation  as ‘pygmies on the shoulders of giants’ of course  evokes the early  experience of being carried on the shoulders of our  fathers,  but at the same time it   invokes a  projective identification with a position of  superiority which cuts the rest of the world down to size.

In 1969 in the heat of the youth revolution,  a book was published by  an eminent  psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich    entitled ‘Society without the Father’[xix].  It explored  the pycho- social causes  and consequences of the decline of patriarchal authority and its implications  for  forms of oedipal revolt, not only of sons against fathers  in families, but of youth  against  age.  Mitcherlich argued that industrial capitalism, by  destroying the family unit as an economic enterprise,  set in motion a process which both undermined partriarchalism and replaced it with charismatic  father figures  who manipulated  the  desire, especially on the part of boys,  to identify  with ‘strong’  male leaders. Instead of  mourning  the passing of the ancient regime, the rising generation   created  self referential  youth cultures which disavowed  their  patrimony   and  tried to cut all  links with the past.  The book was met with stony silence on the Left, although a few socialist feminists took up  its analysis of the psycho-dynamics of macho peer group culture, but perhaps it has a continuing relevance  to debates about the transmission of values, especially radical values, between the generations.

The issue still is whether  the ‘death of the father’  was a loss  that should be mourned  or a liberation  to be celebrated. Christopher Lasch argued that it was producing a ‘culture of narcissism’ based on a regression from oedipal to pre-oedipal positions[xx]. Against this,  Deleuze  and Guettari  in Anti-Oedipe  criticised the ‘familialism’ of psychoanalysis,  and heralded  the birth of a libertarian, polymorphously perverse,  culture  in which, to coin a Situationist phrase,  it was possible to take desires  for reality or  to put it the other way round,  to be realistic and demand the impossible[xxi].

In terms of today’s  memory politics, the culture of the Left is still  split along  these lines; on one side the compulsion to mourn is  institutionalised  in a whole martyrology elaborated   around  yesterday’s heroes; on the other  the  injunction  ‘don’t mourn, organise’  prevails  and   young pretenders  stake their claim to the  zeitgeist  by  attacking the old guard as ‘yesterday’s people’.

The quest for less authoritarian, if still charismatic,  father figures, whether  in the guise of the teacher, the mentor or the guru proceeds apace. The holy trinity of Marx,Engels and Lenin may have been dethroned but others have taken their place.  The ‘onlie begetters’  of  new intellectual fields  can be more safely venerated.     Ironically  those who adhere  most rigorously to ‘anti-foundationalist’ epistemologies  tends to be the most  devoted followers of their  founding fathers, like  Foucault and Derrida. Intellectual gang formation  still centres on issues of legacy and succession, as rival groups of disciples stake their claim to be the true heirs, to have the correct interpretation of now sacred texts. No wonder Marx said he was not a Marxist.

In contrast where there is   no  system of  thought, no   entrenched positions  to defend,  there is  no  fixed legacy  to be jealously guarded ; in this case  an altogether richer  grid of  inheritance  opens up, one   which  allows  for  multiple points of engagement  and encourages everyone to find  their own niche  within a continuing debate.

 

8. Bringing it on home

One of the great untold stories of austerity  Britain concerns  the resourcefulness and resilience  of  groups who find themselves on the front line of the war against the poor, and who are rediscovering  what  David Graeber  has called somewhat mischievously ‘‘actually existing communism‘.[xxii]  ‘Shameless’   turned this into an Ealing  comedy, and ‘Benefit Street’ into a soap opera, but there are other ways of bringing home what is happening on the other side of the tracks…

In ‘Let us  now praise famous men’ James Agee and Scott Walker  told the story of sharecroppers in the  USA during the ‘dustbowl’ years of the  1930’s depression. This collaboration between a writer and a photographer  produced a document – and, as the title indicates, a  praise song   -focussed on  the everyday lives  and struggles of  poor whites  in the rural deep South.  A group widely regarded as ‘white trash’  were given back their humanity in all its complexity.  Agee’s language is  incantatory, drawing on Biblical imagery  and  merging it with the rhythms of the Black evangelical church ( though the Black presence itself  is marginal to the landscape he depicts).  He was not  called the ‘Vermeer of deprivation’  for nothing; his word pictures, coupled with Walker Evan’s grainy black and white photographs  certainly beautify and even beatify, the poor.  No wonder Levi’s seized on this imagery   to promote their jeans!  Certainly, for all its obsessional inventory of the signs of poverty, this is no  dispassionate sociological account; nor is it an advertisement for the New Deal, it is a searing indictment of an oppressive economic system, part prose poem, part howl of anger.

More than half a century later, I switched on the radio one afternoon and heard an account by S.H. of the domestic interior of a West Indian household in the Brixton of the late 1950’s. There was the same ethnographic eye for detail, the same refusal of ‘objective reportage’, the same edge of anger, and also  a sense of pride  in what ordinary people had managed to achieve in their lives against all the odds.

Is this  then what is means to be an ‘organic‘ intellectual, not  necessarily in the literal sense of having a genealogical link to a particular social constituency    but of having one’s ideas  formed, informed and transformed by their  situation and life experiences, so they become a strategic  reference group.  Yet S.H  was not exactly  a roots man; he was always suspicious of  the essentialising impulses of identitarian politics, especially around race, even if he understood where those impulses were coming from.[xxiii] Afrocentrism was as alien to his thinking as Eurocentrism.  He was always sceptical  about  knowledge claims  founded on some putative access  to a superior ‘totalising’ standpoint, whether academic or ideological,  from  which the meaning of the world  fell neatly into place.  Rather he was a routes radical  who was most at home in diasporic cultures, in the local conjunctural debates that arise in concrete  situations of  political struggle  and in tracing the movement of ideas across disciplinary boundaries.  He summed up his philosophical approach in a piece which is as near to an intellectual autobiography as he came to writing, and where  he tries to  locate his place in  the  contemporary history  of ideas. Its cadenced phrasing   carries the rhetorical  insistence of his argument in an entirely  characteristic and inimitable way:

‘I come  back to the deadly seriousness of intellectual work. It is deadly serious business. I come back to the critical distinction between intellectual work and academic work; they overlap, they abut with one another, they feed off one another, the one provides you with the means to do the other. But they are not the same thing. I come back to the difficulty of inscribing a genuine cultural and critical practice which is intended to produce  some kind of organic intellectual political work, which does not try to inscribe itself in the overarching meta-narrative of achieved knowledge  in the institutions. … I do think there is all the difference in the world  between understanding the politics of intellectual work and substituting intellectual work for politics’.[xxiv]

 

 

 

AUTHORS NOTE

Each of these threnodies addresses an issue implicit in  or directly exemplified by Stuart Hall’s work,  or raised by published responses to his death. Jazz aficionados  will notice that the titles  of  each piece are taken from tracks or albums by  Miles Davis.

 



[i]    See Robert Bolt’s play, which takes this as it’s title. Hilary Mantel in her novel Wolf Hall offers a revisionist and more critical interpretation of his role.

[ii] see  Without Guarantees the festschrift volume edited by Paul  Gilroy,Lawrence Grossberg and Angela McRobbie   Verso 2000.   For an appraisal of his work in the field of Cultural  Studies see Bill Schwarz’s essay in Cultural Studies Vol 19 Num 2 2005

[iii] See Richard  Sennett  The Rise of the Public Man , and on intellectuals see Zygmunt Bauman Legislators and Interpreters Polity 1989 , Carl Boggs  Intellectuals and the crisis of modernity 1993  and Edward Said Representations of Intellectuals   Vintage 1994

[iv]  See  Leo Braudy  The Frenzy of Renown :fame and its history  OUP 1986

[v]   See Tiziana Terranova  Network Culture  2008

[vi]  See Bridget Fowler  The Obituary as Collective Remembrance  Routledge 2007

[vii]  On autobiography and narrative identity see  Philippe Lejeune     The Autobiographical Pact  1993

[viii]  See Saul Kripke  Naming and Necessity 1980

[ix]  See Stuart Hall   The Problem of Ideology- Marxism without Guarantees

[x]  see George Delanty Challenging Knowledge : the university in the knowledge society 2001

[xi] See  John Snyder Prospects of Power: tragedy, satire, the essay and the theory of genre  1991. On the relation between literary and academic  writing  see the contributions to  Maggie Charles et al (eds)  Academic Writing: at the interface between corpus and discourse  Continuum 2009

[xii] For a discussion of  charisma  see Richard Sennett (op cit)  and also  Judith Butler  ‘Agencies of Style for a liminal subject’  in   Gilroy et al  op cit

[xiii] See   Slavov Zizek  The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

[xiv]  I have discussed the mashup in relation to Olympic ceremonies in chapter nine of  On the Wrong Side of the Track?    2013

[xv] See Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea  Common Sense NeoLiberalism   Soundings manifesto 2013

[xvi]   See  A Bhaduri   Gramsci and the Intellectuals  1995

[xvii]  See Francis Davis  The History of the Blues 2003. For more graphic accounts of this history try  R Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country 2004  and Rob Vollmar and Pablo Callejo  Bluesman  2004

[xviii]  James Agee and Scott Walker  Let us  now praise famous men 2004

[xix] Alexander Mitscherlich  Society without the father 1969

[xx] Christopher Lasch  Culture of narcissism 1979

[xxi]    Gilles Derleuze and Felix Guettari  Anti- Oedipus :capitalism and schizophrenia  1977 . For a critique of of this position  see  Luc Boltanski and Eve Chapiello  The  New Spirit  of capitalism  2005

[xxii] David Graeber  Towards an anthropological theory of Value: the false coin of our  dreams  2001

[xxiii]   For a characteristic discussion of black  identity politics see  Stuart Hall  Aspiration and Attitude :reflections on Black Britain  in the 1990’s New Formations 33  1998    For a critical overview of the  identity  debate  in relation to anthropological theories of culture  see James Clifford  Taking Identity Politics Seriously:’ The contradictory stony ground’ in  Gilroy et al  op cit

[xxiv] Stuart Hall  Cultural Studies and its theoretical Legacies