By Leila Dawney
I recently attended an event at Sussex University reflecting on the life and work of Stuart Hall. Here I come to consider Hall as a 'figure of authority' (see also Dawney 2013) and begin to work through some ideas about nostalgia and authority.
During the event several members of the audience became very emotional about Hall’s loss. Something was being mourned: and this mourning revealed affective attachments to certain values, practices, politics that Hall embodied and enacted.
I expressed concern that in telling the story of Stuart Hall, and in telling stories of British cultural studies in the academy, we are in danger of reducing the plurality of their meanings and responses. As the same stories are cited, iterated and drawn upon, inevitably we are left with “preferred readings” and a number of forgettings. This is of course dependent on whose stories we are hearing, and how these stories relate to other histories, biographies, encounters and agendas. Hall was and is a very important figure for the humanities and for critical studies more generally. Rather than outline why, and contribute to the sedimentation of one particular reading of this figure, I am interested in thinking about ways in which it can be evoked as a pluralising, productive figure for the humanities, one which enables multiple responses yet carries with it the authority of a public intellectual that is produced through a lifetime’s work.
When we reduce the figure of Hall to a heritage figure, does it then merely stand in for the loss of the age of critique, for a time when the university was a very different place, when education was associated with more than the production of debt and employable subjects. In placing this figure as the spectre representing a lost past, perhaps we are in danger of losing sight of the struggles involved in the production of cultural studies as a discipline, and the ongoing work of making critical work in the context of the academy. The figure of Hall needs to do work in the present in keeping the spirit of critique alive, in starting conversations, working collectively and collaboratively, in refusing to play along with the demands of the neoliberal university.
Bonnet argues for a rethinking of nostalgia. “Nostalgia is found to be acceptable only when it can be shown to be ‘a catalyst for action’, a resource for progressives and insurgents. He argues that nostalgia is variously seen as “good” or “bad” depending on whether it leads to progressive politics. Instead, he argues for a more open ended discussion of nostalgia, based on the idea that nostalgia is a condition of modernity, and that rather than compartmentalising its forms into those that are good and bad, or radical and conservative, we may do better by opening up a space for thinking about what nostalgia does – what attachments, distancings, positionings and vectorial shifts emerge through the operation of nostalgia? In other words, rather than placing a value on its various forms, we need to think about the part played by nostalgic imaginings, by the dreams of loss and return through which nostalgia plays out.
Let us now think about how this is playing out in the responses to Stuart Hall’s death. What if Hall is becoming a figure representing nostalgia for a lost university? How is this sense of loss, this grieving for a golden age of cultural critique, social mobility and access to critical education manifest itself and what is the work being done? We need to watch this space….