Matters of Formation and the Queer Afterlives of Stuart Hall

February 2024

Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands, with Bill Schwarz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); 302 pages; ISBN 978-0822371403 (paperback)

Annie Paul, Stuart Hall (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2020); 142 pages; ISBN 978-9766407919 (ePub)

I remember the fever I felt as a student in 1996 when the insights of Black British cultural studies became fortified in Canadian universities and recast the manner in which Black politics, and an idea of Black Studies in Canada, might take shape. To some this may be a bold claim, but this body of scholarship augmented the trajectory of already established area-studies programs such as Latin American and Caribbean studies and African studies (later departments in their own right) at York University and other institutions. Without question, as Annie Paul asserts from the outset of her biography of Stuart Hall, his “methods of conjunctural analysis had made inroads all over the world,” well before his passing in 2014. Noting his impact, Paul references a tweet: “Was this the man that launch’d 1000 dissertations? And then 10000 more?” (2). Even if we cannot be certain of the accounting, attending to this expansive legacy also conjures a series of critical questions regarding the manner in which one is inclined to remember the profound interdisciplinary interventions Hall engendered.

This question of how we remember Hall is reflected in two recent books about Hall’s life, Hall’s posthumously published memoir, with Bill Schwarz, Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands, and Annie Paul’s biography Stuart Hall. Familiar Stranger takes the reader on a journey that reveals Hall’s personal and intellectual development over the life-course. Divided into four sections—“Jamaica,” “Leaving Jamaica,” “Journey to an Illusion,” and “Transition Zone”—the text is a combination of storytelling and critical reflection. Beginning with section 1, the reader encounters Hall’s early life in colonial Jamaica, offered in two critical ruminations about how family and class positions became fertile ground to analyze the imbrication of race and class in the formation of Caribbean identity. Attuned to the intimate legacy of plantation society on the quotidian and structural formations that inform the development of Jamaica as an independent nation-state, Hall offers in later sections of the book a critical assessment of how his intellectual thought would evolve with movement “between two islands” and across multiple geographies.

I am struck by the insistence in Familiar Stranger to reimagine the form of the memoir. Refusing a model of autobiographical recounting as an end, in and of itself, Hall insists that the stories shared must be deeply understood as part of the development of their intellectual and political commitments and praxis. The reader will notice a sort of self-reflexivity in the text, wherein anecdotes about key publications are situated in their spatial-temporal context yet are subject to revision. Hall adamantly asserts that ideas about race, culture, nation-formation, and colonial legacies were informed by the grounded assessment of where they would reside as a colonial cum diasporic subject.

I read the subsections in Familiar Stranger provisionally as narrative essays because what is truly offered is a sustained reimagining of autobiographical narrative operating in concert with a critical modality easily associated with the essay. Throughout, Hall underscores that we as scholars would be foolhardy to assume that our critical interventions are not equally telling stories about ourselves and our desires for a different world. In this sense, this labor, this work is always-already autobiographical.

Hall, who was invested in radical change on a global scale, knew there was something fruitful about the insights of the French philosophers he deeply engaged with, and on occasion it would seem that he would have to justify such inclinations. When reading the latter chapters of the memoir, I am reminded why Hall’s understanding of colonial logics is invested in a Derridean notion of repetition with a difference.As Hall has indicated, strategies of capital accumulation, extraction, and the diversification of economic resources (i.e., tourism) can shift over time with little regard for the sociocultural and material conditions of the most vulnerable in postcolonial societies. Thus I encourage readers to engage this book not as a chronological unfolding of a life but as a genealogy of movement, of thought, and of place with a guiding consideration of what it means to feel emplaced within the matrix of power that Hall’s conjunctural analysis illuminates.

Annie Paul’s biography of Hall is part of an ongoing series, published by University of West Indies Press, highlighting the important contributions of Caribbean intellectuals. Paul’s portrait of Hall is intimate and meant as an introduction intended to reach a wider audience of readers unfamiliar with Hall’s place within the history of radical Caribbean thought. This question of Hall’s relationship to Caribbean thought leads to some keen insights, such as Paul’s reflections in chapter 7 on the tendency of Caribbean cultural studies to focus on “the analysis and critique of expressive or performative aspects of culture.” Paul reminds us that this “is a narrow view of culture” and that for Hall “cultural studies was a political project, a sustained but ever recalibrated reading of the contemporary conjuncture” (105). In other words, Paul offers not an easy folding of Hall into Caribbean critical traditions but an analysis that is attuned to complexities, tensions, and difference. However, Hall is also taken to task by Paul; for example, she reminds us that a consideration of gender dynamics during the colonial project in Jamaica and the Caribbean region at large was often animated at the insistence of his wife, Catherine. This is confirmed by Hall in the narration of the importance of Catherine Hall’s feminist analysis of abolitionist movements in Jamaica in relation to the development of his critical thought (100).

Like Familiar Stranger, Paul’s biography draws on important moments in Hall’s work by situating key concepts in relation to historical shifts in Jamaican society, as Hall saw it. While chronological in its form, Paul’s biography is also selective in its moments of narrative focus. This allows for an examination of Hall’s commitment to inserting himself within and changing media formations, as a broadcaster for the BBC in his earlier years. Later, in the 1980s onward, he collaborated with Black and queer avant-garde artists of the time. A key moment in Hall’s critical work is when something provisionally termed “Black popular culture” would become a fruitful site for analyses about racial, cultural, and national identity formations and the illusive ways in which these affective attachments can undermine future prospects of Black liberation.

As a reader, I am prone to seek elisions. Some may be curious about why questions of queered sexualities receive little attention in Paul’s biography when Hall is very adamant in Familiar Stranger that the quotidian landscape of Jamaican society, regarding the politics of respectability and matters of intimacy, be front and center in our analysis. Here I defer to an intervention from Hall’s memoir as he distills how psychic processes of disavowal regarding racial stratification are inseparable from and inform multiple configurations of power and bodily regulation.

The disavowal of those deemed the most socially abject is not exclusively a racial, or a colour, matter. It runs through the social relations of class, gender, sexuality and intimacy. In contemporary Jamaica the weight of the historical, in this respect, is immediate. The violence meted out to queer men, to take the most prominent example, bears this out. In earlier times, among the respectable, the circumlocution was pronounced. It wasn’t as if respectable society didn’t talk about homosexuality; it was a constant refrain, . . . ever present as a dark undercurrent. Today race, sex and power make a dynamic erotic cocktail.” (102)

Familiar Stranger and Annie Paul’s biography join a longer conversation about narrating Hall’s life that has unfolded across written and visual texts. One key text in this dialogue is John Akomfrah’s film The Stuart Hall Project (2013), with its use of vignettes and archival footage in order to offer, nonlinear modes (a collage/montage/remix/dub strategy, one might say) to tell the story of Stuart Hall. Akomfrah is very aware of the complexity of Hall’s life and complicates a desire to narrate his life straightforwardly. Some readers may have had the pleasure to witness rehearsals of this project in the form of the multiscreen installation The Unfinished Conversation that premiered at renowned galleries such as the Power Plant in Toronto in 2012.

Situating Familiar Stranger and Stuart Hall in relation to the various mediums we as scholars are drawn to in order to memorialize Hall’s life, I am curious about what a queer form of narration might look like, as well as its reception in this current conjuncture. This question is not informed by a desire to claim Hall as a queer subject, an assumption I feel might receive a chuckle by him. Instead, I am inclined toward remembering the queer, nonnormative orientations of thought that he embraced throughout his personal and scholarly life as a sociologist and cultural theorist.

As I think on this question of Hall’s queer afterlife, I hear the crack of the whip in Isaac Julien’s short film The Attendant (1993), and I remember his presence there and the disjunctive manner in which the whip is both in Hall’s hand, and later the source of pain/pleasure when in the hands of a colonial operative. I remember on multiple viewings a sense of desire, rage, and disgust. What a very queer film, I thought. This moment allows us to ask, Was the colonial project always-already sexualized in nature? One answer to this question can be found in Hall’s various collaborations with Black and queer British artists and intellectuals when he directed their critical lens toward popular culture as a site for sociocultural analysis. It is in these engagements that the erotic and messy intimacies of coloniality are laid bare.

Hall’s appearance in Julien’s film and in Topher Campbell’s 1995 The Homecoming: A Short Film about Ajamu is instructive here. What did it mean in the 1990s for Hall to enmesh himself in the queer landscapes of Black British cultural production in order to posit more unsettling questions about Black masculinity and its representation in “the theaters of popular culture”?1 The proverbial question: Could Black masculinity be “repaired” if the whip was in the hands of Black men? Or put another way: Who benefits in such a representation that in a contradictory manner both unsettles and reinforces the most vulgar images of black men—as brute, violent, and so on? I argue that Hall’s unabashed presence in these moments was intended to pave a foundation for future scholars, writers, and artists to imagine creative forms of intervention otherwise.

Christopher G. Smith is a research associate and program coordinator for the Queer and Trans Research Lab at the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. His research interests reside in the productive interstices of Black diaspora cultural studies, social and cultural geography, queer of color critique and Black queer studies, and Black feminist theories of decolonization.

[1] Stuart Hall, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?,” in Gina Dent, ed., Black Popular Culture (Seattle, WA: Bay, 1992), 31.

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