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New Left Review 106, July-August 2017


Nikil Saval

TWO-ISLAND ESTRANGEMENT

The posthumous publication of an autobiography by Stuart Hall—impassioned political activist and analyst, prime mover of Cultural Studies—holds the possibility of lifting a veil from one of the most reticent and self-effacing intellectuals of the post-war period. [1] Stuart Hall with Bill Schwarz, Familiar Stranger Allen Lane: London 2017, £25, hardback 302 pp, 978 0 241 28999 0 It is an irony, if not an unexpected one, that one of the most liberating theorists of the everyday effects of culture and ideology was also one of the least forthcoming. It was easy to imagine how deeply personal motivations lay at the source of Hall’s ideas, activism and work. The co-authored volume Policing the Crisis (1978) was a landmark study of the eruption of ‘moral panics’ and law-and-order campaigns over race. Similarly, his essays from the 1990s on cultural identity in the Caribbean had obvious sources in his own experience of migration to England in the 1950s. But with some exceptions, the tone of his published record was serenely analytical, and he had a characteristic predilection for collaborative—co-authored or co-edited—work. The result was that Hall the black Caribbean intellectual was sometimes difficult to glimpse in the work itself. Late in life, Hall spoke more forthrightly about his relationship to Jamaica, where he was born and raised, and while still alive he enjoyed the unlikely transformation from respected academic to beloved cult figure, as he appears in the 2014 documentary film The Stuart Hall Project. (As readers of the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and viewers of the film I Am Not Your Negro will recognize, an analogous, albeit more belated, transformation of the African-American novelist and essayist James Baldwin—incidentally, one of Hall’s cynosures—who died in the late 1980s, is taking place in the United States.) But without a narrative of his life, the links between Hall’s personal story, his scholarly dispositions, and his nonpareil conjunctural analyses of right-wing movements have not always been evident.

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