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A Genealogy of Possibilities: Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History

By Nicole Higgins | @nicoledhiggins | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017.

Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History (Duke University Press, 2016) generously allows the anti- or inter-discipline’s most central thinker to serve as guide through its theoretical genealogy. This is accomplished through eight transcribed lectures delivered by Stuart Hall at the groundbreaking 1983 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture: Limits, Frontiers, and Boundaries” teaching institute.

Hall transparently offers personal experience as his grounding context for the work of Cultural Studies, and insists on its ongoingness as a political—not intellectual—project, rather than a fixed alleviatory conclusion. Modeling his articulation of process, he both acknowledges and grapples with the foundational ideas of Hoggart, Williams, Marx, Althusser, and Gramsci, ultimately reverberating most loudly in the moments wherein he is able to riff on the “possibilities of new subjectivities” (197), especially within Rastafarianism and its musics. It is precisely the notion of possibility that keeps Cultural Studies 1983 engaging where accessibility might otherwise falter.

The overarching assertion for Hall is that “the first task [of] Cultural Studies turns out to be the last task as well: to do some work in conceptualizing culture more adequately than had been done in the traditions which were available” (19). Lectures 1 and 2 situate these beginnings in the tactical break of New Left thinkers steeped in literary criticism but working in the community as educators from the existent Marxist tools to analyze the cultural shift in the economic affluence of postwar Britain. While methodologies borrowed from the disciplines of literature, anthropology, and sociology offer some intervention to the limitations of the base-superstructure model, these, too, require additional, nuanced attention to developing patterns and distinctions around the experiences and interpretations of lived circumstances (32).

Some degree of pleasure in the work and delivery is evidenced in Lecture 3, wherein Hall explores structuralism’s non-Marxist roots via “(at least) three Durkheims[’]” sociological notion of norms (55) and a particularly illustrative account of Levi-Strauss’ linguistic model for understanding the construction of myth. Here, a tiger, a stream, and a mythmaker echo (within their specific representative context—endlessly rearrangeable, they demonstrate how many different myths and meanings might emerge from the same basic elements) (64) Hall’s own rigorous engagement with the possible orientations of culturalism. The lectures which follow sustain this rigor, albeit with varying returns for readers not already deeply invested in Marxist theoretical frameworks.

Those who find footing in the earlier lectures may feel swept away by Lecture 4’s painstaking treatment of both the evolution of Marx’s thinking and its moments of failure around the relationship between movement in the base and superstructure to accurately represent historical change. Lectures 5 and 6 intervene in this complexity with Althusser engaging with and departing from or reworking the less useful of “classical” Marx’s theoretical formulations. Lecture 6 focuses this rethinking specifically on the connection between ideology and cultural force. Particularly memorable and helpful here is Hall’s personal experience of the vastly different contexts of being “hailed” as “coloured” to mean “black” or “not black” in England and Jamaica, respectively (146-147). Again, it is these moments when the textual apparatus falls away which grant the deepest impact of Hall’s theoretical labor.

Lecture 7 acknowledges the contributions, finally, of Gramsci to the foundation of Cultural Studies, with significant attention to his conceptualization of hegemony and moments of political struggle. Hall argues that “Gramsci’s opening of Marxism to the possibility, indeed the necessity, of differentiated forms of political struggle grounds a useful effort to adapt the forms of class struggle to the historically emerging conditions of capitalism between the two world wars” (177; italics mine).

He returns, here, and again in Lecture 8, to the guiding “first task” when he discusses black British youth finally becoming visible to themselves despite poorer economic and political conditions than those experienced by the previous generation (204). This recalls to mind the Hall I first encountered in his more widely circulated “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Culture?” when he says, “Now, cultural strategies that can make a difference, that’s what I’m interested in—those that can make a difference and shift the dispositions of power” (24). Published nearly a decade prior, this notice is reenergized by the deep and sustained commitment demonstrated by Hall in Cultural Studies 1983.

In its thorough rehearsal of constitutive recognitions, ruptures, and revisions, I try to imagine Cultural Studies 1983’s ideal reader. The first, too easy notion is that it is written to academics—perhaps meant to be read by members of a graduate seminar and re-theorized—but then I remember those early thinkers, Hoggart and Williams, working with communities not at all interested in pursuing degrees or theoretical formulations to better understand the effects of capitalism.

I think of Hall’s own assertion that the project of Cultural Studies is not an academic exercise—that it emerges from and works toward a concrete political aim. This tension is at once complicated and mitigated by his hesitancy to publish the 1983 lectures at all. I am compelled by the possibility that something communicable within a space equipped to accommodate a range of responses might be less so in bound pages which represent a fixed certainty. The potential barriers to entry—much less engagement—posed by the book’s presuppositions about readers’ theoretical grounding are, in a sense, acknowledged and eased by his insistence on the frame of a work in progress.

Even as the collective eight lectures represent North America’s introduction to British Cultural Studies, I remain unconvinced of their collective utility as an introduction to Hall for audiences lacking more than a cursory engagement with Marxist theory; however, there is certainly still much to be gained for readers who may have previously encountered Hall through isolated essays or not at all. Ultimately, the work—first at the teaching summit, now here in the text—extends an invitation to participate in Hall’s collective and ongoing task.

Works Cited

Hall, Stuart, et al. Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History. Durham: Duke

University Press, 2016.

Hall, Stuart. “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” Black Popular Culture.

Ed. Gina Dent. Seattle: Bay Press, 1992. 21-33.


Nicole Higgins is a poet and PhD student in English at Duke University. Her research interests include poetics, music and sound studies, and critical pedagogy.

A Genealogy of Possibilities: Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History

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