Towards the next conjecture

By Annie Paul

The Stuart Hall Project, directed by John Akomfrah (100 minutes)

Still from the Stuart Hall Project

Still from The Stuart Hall Project. Image courtesy Smoking Dogs Films

It was at the celebration of Stuart Hall’s eightieth birthday on 1 April, 2012, at Rivington Place in London, that I first saw an early version of what would become The Stuart Hall Project, and met John Akomfrah, the acclaimed filmmaker and director. While the party went on downstairs, footage from the film was being screened in the Institute of International Visual Arts auditorium, but I was much too distracted to pay attention. The choice seemed simple: the flesh-and-blood principal in a gallery surrounded by a lifetime of friends and associates, rather than his celluloid avatar in an auditorium.

It never fails to astonish me how little Hall and his path-breaking work are known back here in the Caribbean, where he comes from — in Jamaica, where he was born and raised, for instance, he’s a complete nonentity. For those not in the know: Hall is a globally renowned intellectual (an “intellectual rock star,” as one publication has referred to him), a founding editor of New Left Review, and more famously the main progenitor of the influential field of cultural studies. Arising in the 1960s, this interdisciplinary juggernaut that signalled the advent of postmodern scholarship rapidly gained popularity, dealing a body-blow to traditional academic disciplines from sociology to political science to literature, and completely rewriting the scope of intellectual work worldwide. That it only arrived at the University of the West Indies in the 1990s is a measure of what a well-kept secret Hall remains in these parts.

In a sense, The Stuart Hall Project is a vivid demonstration of the strengths of a cultural studies frame of analysis. Constructed entirely from Hall’s film, television, radio, and photographic archives, this is a sensitively combined multimedia artifact introducing viewers to the various strands of Hall’s remarkable life and work. Set to the strains of Miles Davis’s elegant horn compositions, the film glides between personal mythology, domestic negotiations, national history, transnational crossings, and identity transactions, plumbing some of the multiple lives of this extraordinary man. In many ways, Hall — the master of the marginal, as we might think of him — is the ideal subject for a production like this, and Akomfrah the ideal person to direct such a film.

Against lyrical imagery of London’s skyline, the film opens with Hall’s voice from one of his televised lectures, a version of a social sciences course he did for Britain’s Open University, where he headed the sociology department for many years. “In this programme, we look at how social change affects our sense of who we are, what we feel entitled to, and what society makes available to us,” says Hall crisply. Statements like this punctuate The Stuart Hall Project, providing compelling voiceovers during the scenes of social transformation the film footnotes. These Open University lectures strike one as precursors to the contemporary MOOCs, or “massive online open courses,” now increasingly being offered by mainstream universities such as Harvard and MIT.

Born into a classic brown Jamaican family — the hybrid gene in all its multicoloured splendour — Hall won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford at the age of eighteen, and fled his claustrophobic circumstances, including a ceaselessly aspirational mother obsessed with whiteness (the song “I’m just an old fashioned girl with an old fashioned mind” plays in the background while the camera lingers over images of Hall’s maternal home and his family, all lighter-skinned than him). He arrived in Britain in 1951. In the film, Hall talks about how, like many bright youngsters born in post-colonies everywhere, he yearned for metropolitan life — London, New York, anywhere but Kingston.

Jazz was the first music that felt like him, Hall says, and the various moods of Miles Davis matched the evolution of his own feelings as he made the difficult transition to a new existence. “There continued to be regret for the loss of a life that I might have lived but didn’t live, and the uncertainty, the restlessness, and some of the nostalgia for what cannot be is in the sound of Miles Davis’s trumpet.”

The film conveys us through multiple scenarios and registers fluidly, requiring a second or third viewing to fully unpack what is being presented. One hears Hall’s voice in lecture mode over footage of early West Indian immigrants arriving in Britain, clad in woolen coats and suits, disembarking from ships. The film segues into Hall talking about the garb he wore on arrival in Britain — felt hat and checked overcoat — and the steamer trunk his mother sent him off with. Although he had survived “the most exquisitely differentiated class and colour system in the world” back in Jamaica, Hall didn’t feel part of Oxford, and left prematurely. Interestingly. V.S. Naipaul, who had arrived there a year earlier from Trinidad, also had mixed feelings about Oxford, where he suffered a nervous breakdown. “The whole of Oxford is run on lines so frightfully cliquish,” he said in a 1951 letter to his father. Oxford, Naipaul realised, was an alien world he would always remain a stranger in.

The story of alienation Hall recounts in the film corroborates this. At Oxford, his marginality weighed heavily: he realised he was “something entirely other” in his black skin and white mask. “You have to remember where I’m coming from, as well as where I’m coming to,” says Hall, observing that he wasn’t merely coming to England, but to its very heartland, “the pinnacle of the English class system, the high point of the English elite educational experience. It was a very profound shock.”

This early confrontation with Britain’s caste system, a rigid hierarchy with no room for the likes of him — which effectively rendered him an outcaste — was formative. The question of who he was, who he might be, the mystery of his identity, and identity formation itself, superseded everything else, becoming the hallmark, so to speak, of his academic interests. How do we become who we are? was the question that animated his investigations into the social fallout attendant on the changing demographics of Britain. Hall roundly rejected biology as the determining factor in how identity is formed, arguing instead that it is socially constructed. You are “the product of an endlessly ongoing conversation with everybody around you … you are partly how they see you,” Hall asserts, maintaining that even aging, the transitions from youth to age, are a question of changing identities, not merely biological changes.

The Stuart Hall Project occasionally uses footage from Redemption Song: History of the Caribbean, a seven-part BBC series filmed in the early 1990s, in which Hall, as narrator, visits Cuba, Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique, and other islands. This can be disconcerting to Stuart Hall Project viewers familiar with the Caribbean, as the voiceover may be talking of Jamaica while the camera roves over the landscape of another island. Akomfrah often uses black-and-white footage of the Caribbean, something we’re not used to seeing, thanks to the gaudy touristic representations that predominate nowadays. Here the Caribbean seems bleached of colour and leached of drama, although you do occasionally get the sounds of brooks, tree frogs, cicadas, and the sea washing up against the shore.

Britain, on the other hand, is represented by trains, ships, tracks, roads, bridges, and finally a series of planes — warplanes, even. Landscapes cleft by locomotives relentlessly ploughing their way across them, trains bearing black passengers racing through the countryside and penetrating the interior of the nation, lead to a discussion of the burgeoning black population of Britain and its effects, and the newcomers’ muted optimism and hopes of assimilation.

One of the surprises The Stuart Hall Project has to offer is the rarely glimpsed side of Hall the political activist. Over footage of marches and mass gatherings, Hall talks about his involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s and 60s, when he travelled around Britain making speeches almost every other weekend.

The Stuart Hall Project’s success depends in no little part on the figure of Hall himself, who mediates the film from beginning to end without ever dominating it. He is what the Brazilians call a simpático, someone whose extraordinary empathy makes everyone feel he’s on their wavelength. Who better to deconstruct mass media and its sinuous insinuations? Who better to tune into what regular people were consuming via radio, TV, and film, and decipher their effects? Who better to put people back into the distant “masses” the communists constantly intoned on behalf of? Who better to reach them? Hall is that rare intellectual who can break difficult theory into language intelligible to the proverbial man (or woman) on the street, as well as turn around and contribute to the most theoretically dense projects.

What fascinated me was hearing at least two distinct voices in the film: the voice of young Hall, the lecturer and broadcaster, crisply articulating new thoughts, and the later, more familiar voice of the mature Hall, more relaxed, more assured, less formal, shot through with humorous wisdom. Keeping in mind the multiple worlds he has inhabited and influenced, it’s not surprising that The Stuart Hall Project has left out the Hall who intervened in the art world, both nationally and internationally, founding Iniva, the Institute of International Visual Arts. Perhaps that would have made the film unwieldy, as richly layered as it already is.

Ever able and willing to take the measure of what he calls “the next conjuncture,” the film ends with Hall admitting that today, for the first time, he feels the world a stranger to him. “I feel out of time,” he says poignantly, while continuing to urge a certain undying optimism: “recognising what the world is like, recognising the way the terrain is set against you, and then remembering the openness of history and seeing whether one can intervene.” This remains as good advice for the twenty-first century as it was for the twentieth.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2013

Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies, Mona. She is editor of Caribbean Culture: Soundings on Kamau Brathwaite (2007), was a founding editor of Small Axe and the original Caribbean Review of Books, and has been published in numerous international journals and magazines. She is also the author of the blog Active Voice.