Lecture By Stuart Hall: Race the Floating Signifier

Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies
The most prominent and influential theorist of British cultural studies. Born in Jamaica. His racial and national difference as a black colonial subject rendered him a “familiar stranger” in his adopted home, occupying a position of knowing two “places intimately” (Jamaica and England), while being “not wholly of either place.” Lecturer in film and mass media. Intense involvement in the formation of Britain’s New Left striving to create a non-Stalinist, non-communist socialism in the Labour Party. Interested in popular culture. He moved to the University of Birmingham in 1964 to join Hoggart’s newly formed Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Dialogic, multi-voiced, collaborative work was the norm. Cultural studies were engaged in a series of debates with Marxism, anthropological and sociological functionalism, and aestheticist literary criticism, avoiding definitive statements of its own position. He advocates a “cultural studies … that is always self-reflectively deconstructing itself. Over the years, his work has been influenced by Western Marxism, poststructuralism (especially Michel Foucault), critical race theory, and feminism. Commitment to the political relevance of intellectual work. An alternative to a vulgar Marxism that is rooted in class politics and economic determinism. Aligned with Antonio Gramsci against the more pessimistic visions of the Frankfurt School and Louis Althusser. Adapting Gramsci’s crucial notion of hegemony, Hall emphasizes the ways in which the power of ruling elites is constituted and reconstituted within a complex cultural scene that affords various possibilities for action. He uses the concept of hegemony to provide a more dynamic vision of ongoing struggles among members of society. His interest in connecting intellectuals “organically” to these political struggles also follows Gramsci’s lead but through an engagement with Foucault, as he details power’s dispersion through a whole social order, the processes of subject formation, and the power/knowledge produced by intellectual discourses. Refusal to declare a prevailing methodology and a designated object of study. Cultural studies strives to analyze the hegemonic practices by which social groups are bound (institutionally, intellectually, emotionally, and economically) to dominant social forms. And it examines how forces of resistance creatively intervene in those practices. For cultural studies anything is a potential object of study and has adapted any disciplinary methodology that might prove useful, ranging from surveys, case studies, and personal observation to textual explication, institutional analysis, and political critique. Much cultural studies work has focused on popular, as contrasted to high, culture. The absence of a prevailing methodology does not mean that cultural studies lacks a theory. Processes of identity formation are central, as are the concepts of “conjuncture” and “articulation.” Hall is a “conflicting theorist”: one who views the social field as a dynamic site of numerous contending forces. Within that field, he refuses to recognize any stable identities –either group (like class) or personal (like ethnicity). Identity for him is always in the process of being constituted by prevailing social norms, institutions and subject positions and particular struggles against determinants. Identity is a battleground, where the meaning of social life is being forged and contested. Conjuncture is the idea that everything exists simultaneously amid specific historical forces in process and amid specific determinant structures. The elements within any conjuncture and the relations of force among them are differently “articulated” at different times and places. Each conjuncture has its own configuration. Social groups will work to make their “articulation” of a given constellation of elements prevail. For him, no dominant order can provide a permanent vision. All hegemonies must be continually produced by very specific acts of public articulation. Cultural studies is interested in mapping the constellation of identities and hegemonic articulations at various social sites. It often focuses on dynamic tensions between mainstream norms and marginalized groups, studying how cultural materials are creatively re-signified to fit the nonstandard purposes of such resistant groups. A typical cultural studies research project might examine the circuits of production, distribution, and consumption through which such “discourses” pass. Hall’s importance for contemporary literary studies rests on his insistence that “textuality is never enough.” He insists on linking literary theory’s understanding of meaning production and textual interpretation with social theory’s delineation of conflicting forces within the social field. Any interpretation of a literary text must consider both the social forces that contribute to the text’s production and the hegemonic work that the text does. Social field is a dynamic site of contending forces, no stable identities, group class, or ethnicities. He advocates a cultural by prevailing social norms, institutions and subject positions and particular struggles against determinants studies that is always self-reflectively deconstructing itself. His aim was understanding the politics of intellectual work, not substituting intellectual work for politics. Critique to Marxism’s reductionism to economy. Interest in what Marx didn’t talk about: culture, ideology, language, and the symbolic. Based on Gramsci’s study of the problematic of Marxism. He didn’t resolve the tensions but gave us practical examples of how to live with them. Feminism was decisive in cultural studies:
It opened the question of the personal as political and its consequences; it meant a radical expansion of the notion of power, it brought about the centrality of questions of gender and sexuality to the understanding of power itself, it re-opened the closed frontier between social theory and the psychoanalysis. Theory as a set of contested, localized, conjuctural knowledges to be debated in a dialogical way. A practice that thinks about its intervention in a world in which it would have some effect.

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