Culture as Politics: Stuart Hall and the Work of Critical Race Theorists

by Cynthia Frezzo

“Three months at Oxford persuaded me that it was not my home.  The life I have lived is one of partial displacement.  I came to England as a means of escape, and it was a failure.”

 – Stuart Hall


Last week’s passing of Stuart Hall serves as an important reminder: one calling us toward radical imaginings, of pushing questions of multiculturalism into the political discourse, of seeking new modes of resistance to racialized oppression.  As scholars and practitioners of Critical Race Theory, this should be a necessary element of the work we do, the articles we develop, and the engagement we take in our social and legal communities. 

Stuart Hall gave the above remarks in a 2012 interview with The Guardian.  They highlight the nature of the colonial subject, emphasizing the failure of Western philosophy and liberal idealism to articulate a truly liberatory vision of postcolonial social relations.  The American legal system has itself created similar subjects while attempting to enforce a particular vision of post-Jim Crow societal ordering.  Thus, we have witnessed varying depictions of the disenfranchised voter, the mythical juvenile superpredator, and the criminalized immigrant, amongst countless others.  The marginalized products of such sociopolitical shifts are underserved by, and at times, exist wholly apart from the legal apparatus that fostered their very creation.  Such processes underscore the functional force of the law and our collective inability to disrupt the powerful, naturalizing discourse surrounding it. 

Stuart Hall struggled and sought to create such a rupture.  By picking through the purported “natural state of affairs” fed to the public in various cultural products and through avenues of mass media, he argued that one could ascertain, critique, and thereby attempt to resist modes of imperialist suppression and subjugation.  Hall understood culture as politics; thus, through the deconstruction of various cultural ephemera, one could determine how and when individuals became subjects and, in so doing, reframe various sites of cultural production and consumption as opportunities for social action and intervention.  Culture itself is not taken as a natural state of being or the necessary result of free choice, but rather as the product of a complex series of formulations that are inherently political, and therefore marked by various impositions of power, choice, and subjugation.  This was perhaps the greatest gift Stuart Hall gave to the school of thought and action that surrounded him; as producers and consumers of culture, we are not bereft of politics, but beholden to them.  Cultural production and consumption therefore serve as powerful instruments of political and social control. 

In depicting American mainstream media as servicing the (false) ideal of democratic pluralism, Hall exposed “the pretense that society is held together by common norms, including equal opportunity, respect for diversity, one person-one vote, individual rights and rule of law.”  Hall viewed the deconstruction of such widely-circulated pretenses as a vital project in determining how culture operated in capitalist societies, not merely to critique neo-liberalism, but also to debase Marxist strains of thought, which over-relied on economic restructuring as a path toward liberation.  Such a process is undoubtedly rooted in an antiracist, anti-imperialist agenda.  As Stuart Hall once wrote, “the very notion of Great Britain’s ‘greatness’ is bound up with empire.  Euro-skepticism and Little Englander nationalism could hardly survive if people understood whose sugar flowed through English blood and rotted English teeth.”    

By putting race and power at the center of our discussion, we can see processes of subjectification at play in the purported “every day,” rational decisionmaking that occurs by and through the American legal system.  This becomes strikingly clear with the effects of a unilateral understanding of what truly counts as racial progress in Shelby County v. Holder, or in the Court’s conception of federal power as it is applied to an invented sub-class of criminals.  These are not the natural byproducts of a neutral sphere of governance and should not be understood as such.  Critique can expose the true basis and ultimate effects of these inventions, which operate through generalized cultural understandings of what is criminal, what is discriminatory, and what is most deserving of reprobation.  Through such analysis we can strive to transform these sites of subjugation as locations of radical possibility within the legal apparatus.

For Stuart Hall, this was a necessary project of struggle, creating true opportunities for social and cultural transformation.  For Hall, race is “the modality in which class is ‘lived,’ the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through’.”  In his remembrance, and in carrying on the traditions of our own field, we must not be complacent in examining critically the intersections of race, rights, and the law: the products of which are not innate, obligatory consequences of an ordered society, but rather are laden with and defined by power, and thus replete with opportunities for radical transformation. 


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