Thursday, 11 February 2016


Two years after the death of influential theorist Stuart Hall, scholars will meet at a university in Dortmund, Germany, to examine his legacy, in a world where the cultural and media landscape has changed tremendously over the past decade.

Stuart Hall (photo: E. McCabe)
The conference, titled “Wrestling with the Angels: Exploring Stuart Hall’s Theoretical Legacy”, is being hosted by the Technische Universität (TU) from Feb. 25 to 27.
Participants  will “engage with, examine, use, question, criticise, develop and transform Hall's many concepts and ideas”, according to the organizers - professors Gerold Sedlmayr, Florian Cord, and Marie Hologa.
Hall was one of the founding thinkers of “cultural studies”, an inter-disciplinary field that focuses on the political dynamics of contemporary culture, and on how power-relations play out between producers and consumers.
Scholars generally focus on analyzing the social and political contexts of culture, and, in this, Hall was primarily concerned with the impact on both individuals and communities, vis-à-vis society’s structure. But some current theorists are moving away from the “power and political” aspects, Prof. Cord said.
Prof. Florian Cord
“We still feel a belief in the relevance of Hall’s work, but has the field nowadays become too de-politicized? That’s something we’d like to examine,” he told SWAN.
As a long-time director of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Hall wielded major influence both within academic circles and in wider public discussions of politics, race and media.
Born into a so called middle-class family in Jamaica in 1932, he went to England as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951 to study at Oxford University. He continued on a PhD route (which he later abandoned), became a central figure of the British New Left, and co-founded the journal New Left Review.
For Hall, “intellectual practice was politics, and questions of culture were political questions,” say the meeting’s conveners. The conference’s title is in fact inspired by Hall’s own stated view that theoretical work meant “wrestling with the angels” and that the only theory worth having was one for which you had to fight and with which you had to struggle.
Author Caryl Phillips (photo: Daria Tunca)
British-Caribbean author Caryl Phillips has described Hall as a “sociologist, writer, film critic and political activist” and said that the theorist’s achievements were an extension of the work of a man Hall greatly admired, the Trinidadian intellectual, C.L.R. James.
Outside of the academic world, Hall developed into “Britain’s most insightful media critic on matters as wide-ranging as film, literature, race migration and class”, Phillips wrote in an article.
He considered Hall to be unique in his ability to “move between the worlds of the academy and the popular media with both elegance and authority”, he added.
“One day he is on television interviewing Spike Lee, or presenting a documentary about Derek Walcott, the next day he is delivering a guest lecture on [Italian theoretician Antonio] Gramsci’s political thoughts to a university audience, and the day after that writing a paper on the role of the modern black photographer in British society to be read at a gallery opening,” Phillips wrote in 1997, in the introduction to an interview with Hall.
It is this multi-faceted nature that makes Hall’s work so engrossing, according to professors Cord and Sedlmayr.  But his achievements and personality could be overshadowing his ideas.
Prof. Gerold Sedlmayr
“Hall is still very relevant - he is mentioned in almost every paper about cultural studies,” Sedlmayr told SWAN. “But there’s often no deeper engagement. He seems to be canonized, yet no one deals with his ideas anymore.”
The conference will not only address this anomaly, but some participants will offer theories on how Hall would have viewed the rampant development of social media, or the current political language in Europe, where governments are struggling to develop a coherent and humane response to the refugee crisis.
One scholar - Nina Power of London’s Roehampton University - will look particularly at “why the 21st century needs Stuart Hall”.  - A.M.
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