The Conjunctural Imagination

February 2024

Stuart Hall, Essential Essays, Volume 2: Identity and Diaspora, ed. David Morley (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); 352 pages; ISBN 978-1478001638 (paperback)

Since the passing of Stuart Hall in 2014, the world has continued to experience multiple crises—some old, some new, and all ongoing. These crises are the lived indexes of the struggles of classes and collectivities that contend with one another in the making of history. We are in the middle of this history without an origin or an end. We may fear that the end is near, not because being-toward-death is our mode of being but because we continue to witness that our survival and the survival of imperialist (settler-)colonial capitalism are not congruous. The premature deaths systematically inflicted upon so many peoples and communities, each of which constitutes a world in itself, have been a dreadful reality. This brutal evacuation of worlds from the world is the mark of the historical incongruity of our contemporary moment. The struggles animating this evacuation, however, also produce the scattering of worlds into the world in the forms of diaspora, exile, and refuge. These forms are organized, contested, and expressed in the idioms of social relations such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. These relations in turn are ideologically congealed into the political dichotomies of identity/nonidentity, identification/disidentification, and identitarianism/anti-identitarianism. The reality, rationality, and actuality of diaspora and identity thus have reconfronted us in the decade-long absence of Stuart Hall.

In Essential Essays, Volume 2: Identity and Diaspora, editor David Morley thematizes Hall’s thought along the foci of class, race, and ethnicity; the politics of anti-essentialism; the postcolonial and the diasporic; and the political and cultural geography of situated identity formation.1 Morley’s curating of different genres, such as essays, interviews, and conferences addresses, avoids casting Hall in fixed terms, thereby removing him from history and society, which he tirelessly tried to understand and illuminate. Instead of offering an apotheotic ascension into a canonical pantheon, the curation of the essays in this volume and the brief introductions to each part set up the context for reception in a way that echoes an observation by Catherine Hall and Bill Schwarz (editors of the Stuart Hall: Selected Writings series) that these texts were “conceived for the moment.” However, this momentariness is unlike that of ephemerality, the fever lasting one day. On the contrary, Hall’s essays discern the shape that contending forces of history take in the moment. In this way, these essays and addresses “written with verve and a sense of urgency” do not simply address the symptomatic fever of our social world,2 nor do they search for the root causes of these symptoms in a grand historical gesture—they provide the reader with analytical tools and examples to clarify why the crises that we experience show up historically in the specific appearance that the moment assumes.

Reading Essential Essays, Volume 2 at the confluence of these crises—not as the sensational subjects of moral panics but as the decisive and turning points in the planetary future of life and social justice—confirms the necessity of, once again, going back to Stuart Hall and learning from him the art of cultivating what I will call the conjunctural imagination. Both the analytical act of interpretation and the political action of social change vis-à-vis these crises require imagination. It is only through the quality of imagination do we access social phenomenon as a concretely constituted determination of concordant and discordant processes and relations of life. However, it is also the function of imagination that we do not perceive a social phenomenon as the only possible and necessary determination of its constitutive elements. In fact, what characterizes imagination is the tensile motility that conjugates a given determination and its various possibilities into temporal narrative constellations.

It is in this sense that Hall’s essays and interviews in this volume are the works of profound imagination, or are imaginative works. Their main import, however, is not limited to the exercise of imagination. Rather, Hall’s essential essays free imagination from being a general condition of criticality to take a particular form, that of the conjunctural. The conjunctural reorients imagination’s attention from universality toward specificity, remorphs imagination’s concern with temporality into (the making of) history, and refocuses imagination’s preoccupation with the political onto lived politics and political strategy.3 Hall’s cultivation of this conjunctural imagination renders it useful to address the problematics of identity and diaspora, which are necessarily specific to their historical and political context.

For Hall, this cultivation was effected by the exigency of “turning your face violently towards things as they really are”4—“if we are serious about transforming” them, he clarifies elsewhere.5 Turning to things themselves, however, poses a serious methodological challenge because “the world presents itself in the chaos of appearances.”6 Hall overcomes this challenge by employing Marx’s method, as laid out most clearly in the 1857 introduction to Grundrisse, and reaches the historical specificity of the conjuncture he examines through “adding more and more levels of determination.”7 Thus, Hall says that his “notion of the conjunctural is more like that [of Marx] than it’s like Gramsci,” for whom “the conjuncture was more superficial.”8 Nonetheless, Hall’s conjunctural imagination is inspired by Gramsci because of his objection to one-way and one-dimensional reductionist determinations that “would ‘read off’ political and ideological developments from their economic determinations” and his forwarding of “a far more complex and differentiated type of analysis.”9 This dual source of Marx’s method and Gramsci’s nonreductionism enables Hall’s conjunctural imagination to “take a much wider range of phenomena into account,” rather than “just rest[ing] with the underlying structural logic.”10 In this way, Hall effects a Fanonian stretching of Marxism,11 and through the conjuncture he turns to “that extremely important moment when race, class, and gender emerged as overlapping but distinct formations,” which previously “didn’t figure as a political question which somebody involved in British class politics could ask directly.”12 Thus Hall demonstrates that “all these apparently nonpolitical things have some bearing on how resistance is being lived and developed, especially when some of the formal channels of counterhegemony are locked up by social democracy.”13

In this stretched and renewed landscape of imagination, the conjunctural functions with a vigilance to ensure that theory is not mistaken for history and that the search for the purest and innocent theoretical positions does not stymie the messy and contradictory world of resistance and politics. For instance, on the one hand Hall insists on the historical specificity of race as a social relation and tries “to get it not subsumed within class.”  He “holds to specificity but where specificity is not reducible to an essence.”14 On the other hand, he says, “I don’t claim for my particular version of a nonessentialist notion of race correctness for all time. I can claim for it only a certain conjunctural specificity. So, I can understand the moment, historical moment, in which a strategic essentialism became absolutely germane.”15 This is not at all a contradiction; rather, it is an example of working with the complexities belonging to history and politics. For Hall, therefore, identity becomes a “provisional positionality” that “comes out of very specific historical formations, out of very specific histories and cultural repertoires of enunciation,”16 and “it only begins to be troubling when you settle down in that position forever.”17 Thus, I suggest, Hall’s conjunctural imagination both avoids the apodictic certitude of essentialist positions that flatten, for instance, “the African diasporas of the Caribbean, the US, of Brazil, and Latin America and the diasporas of London or Paris” into a self-sameness in favor of the “strong and deep persistent threads which connect them”18 and averts the aporetic problematicism that dissolves into “a kind of postmodern nomadism where we are all a different identity every time you wake up.”19 Rather, we learn from Hall to imagine the interconnectedness of these diasporas and identities as “ruptured by the different conjunctural breaks in postwar history, reorganized and reordered by them, yielding deep and concretely specific, differentiated formations.”20

In the last essay of the volume, Hall reminds us that we “will be in a new moment, a new conjuncture, and there will be new relations of forces there to work with. There will be a new conjuncture to understand. There will be work for critical intellectuals to do,” and he adds: “I commend that vocation to you, if you can manage to find it.”21 We are now, two decades after his first uttering these words, in a different moment indeed. It is hard to pinpoint an exact conjuncture, but I believe that we are in the turbulent passage toward a new conjuncture that is marked by the global far-right consolidation and normalization of neofascist racial capitalism. It is my hope that turning to Stuart Hall and cultivating our conjunctural imagination will provide us with a critical resource to better understand and analyze our predicament and help us generate political strategies that are commensurate to the existential threat that is facing us.

Gökbörü Sarp Tanyildiz teaches in the Department of Sociology at Brock University, St. Catherines, Ontario. His research focuses on concept formation in contemporary social and spatial theories of marxism, racial capitalism, and social reproduction. As a methodologist of social sciences and humanities, he explores the political possibilities that phenomenological marxism might offer to understanding the embodied social relations of race, gender, and sexuality.

[1] Morley also edited volume 1 of the two-volume Essential Essays; see Stuart Hall, Essential Essays, Volume 1: Foundations of Cultural Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).

[2] Catherine Hall and Bill Schwarz, “A Note on the Text,” in Essential Essays, Volume 2, vii.

[3] I think that Hall’s conjunctural imagination is at work in each page of this volume. In my reconstruction of the morphological work of the conjunctural on imagination, the following pages were particularly instructive: see “The Multicultural Question [2000],” 103; “At Home and Not at Home: Stuart Hall in Conversation with Les Black [2008],” 270, 271, 289, 291, 293; and “Through the Prism of an Intellectual Life [2007],” 314.

[4]  Hall, “Through the Prism,” 314.

[5] Stuart Hall, Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays, ed. Sally Davison, David Featherstone, and Bill Schwarz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 174.

[6] Hall, “Through the Prism,” 310.

[7] Hall, “At Home and Not at Home,” 271.

[8] Hall, 271, 270.

[9] Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity [1986],” in Essential Essays, Vol. 2, 29. For Hall’s discussion of determinacy and determinateness, also see “Through the Prism,” 313.

[10] Hall, “At Home and Not at Home,” 291.

[11] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004), 5.

[12] Hall, “At Home and Not at Home,” 286.

[13] Hall, “Politics, Contingency, Strategy: An Interview with David Scott [1997],” in Essential Essays, Vol. 2, 253 (italics mine).

[14] Hall, 257. For Hall’s views on the historical specificity of race as a social relation, see “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture? [1992],” in Essential Essays, Vol. 2, 83.

[15] Hall, “Politics, Contingency, Strategy,” 258.

[16] Hall, “The Formation of a Diasporic Intellectual: An Interview with Stuart Hall by Kuan-Hsing Chen [1996],” in Essential Essays, Vol. 2, 204.

[17] Hall, “Politics, Contingency, Strategy,” 258.

[18] Hall, “Through the Prism,” 318, 319.

[19] Hall, “Politics, Contingency, Strategy,” 257.

[20] Hall, “Through the Prism,” 319.

[21] Hall, 322, 323.

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