Stuart Hall, image by Dawoud Bey.
On the 8th April, 2013, Margret Thatcher died. The world’s media mourned. World leaders made statements about how tragic the loss, how she had fought for liberty and freedom, how strong she was, how she was a symbol for women’s rights… But she was an extremely controversial figure. She was infamous to many, and signalled a change in politics, the like of which, say some, had not been seen since Winston Churchill. On the streets of the United Kingdom parties were held, people shouting that at last, this woman who had caused so much suffering to so many had died… I have not seen one balanced report of this in the mainstream news.
Stuart Hall is one of the reasons I am here today. I needed to bring my children into work on more than one occasion last week… Stuart Hall has long been a champion of women’s rights in the workplace and in education. His directorship of the Open University for many years has enabled not only women, but many people access to higher education. People that may not otherwise have been able to further their knowledge or careers. He is one of the people that has changed the way in which women and mothers are viewed in the workplace.
Without getting into the overt politics of these cases in point, I cannot think of a more fitting time to bring in John Akomfrah’s “The Unfinished Conversation”. This film is a poetic story of a man that lived through the time when Margret Thatcher was in power as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He spoke of the empowerment of people, of the media and how it presented the world to its viewers. He spoke about its potential power and the interpretation of those images, televisual and documented, through mainstream and alternative media, through the arts and through political activism. He spoke about the voice of minority groups and individuals and how this could be made stronger. His work commented on institutional racism and reasons for social unrest. He spoke about the need for theory to be put into practice. I don’t have enough time to do justice to his life’s work now, but hope to give you a flavour of some of this work. He is now failing in health, so I feel it is the moment to celebrate and discuss his work, so that the unfinished conversation can go on and make new conversations that help us to change his world, our world…
Who is Stuart Hall?
A great deal of Stuart Hall’s thinking was inspired by his own life experience. Described as teacher, activist and writer, Stuart Hall’s thinking has been attributed (by himself as well as others in the field) and formulated largely from his own personal experiences as a child, growing up in Jamaica, being of dual heritage, and subsequently whilst he spent time at Oxford University.
A Rhodes scholar, Hall has never considered himself to be the authority on the subject of culture, and believes in the relativity of the discussion of culture as to the context in which it is being discussed. Hence possibly the title “The Unfinished Conversation”, hence the nature of the debate that is being put forward today vis a vis his thinking and practice. Indeed, he believes that theory is useless unless used and put into a practical and accessible debate and more importantly, political intervention. It explains why he consistently wrote in collaboration with other theorists – A negotiation, a discussion…
Main terms that may be associated with Hall’s writing:
Dominant structures: Mainstream media – institutions (police, gvmt bodies etc) – ruling stratas of society
The concept of power to the people: that people are highly media literate and are able if given the tools, to decode and recode the messages that they are being given by those dominant structures – that they can question them and discuss them, that they can change them
Coersive messaging: so that there are messages given to us that are designed to persuade us of their integrity. That this is done through subtle representation of certain groups of people and individuals so that they appear in the light that they wish… That it is suggested that these messages are logical and normal, that they are common sense… The black guy running down the street must be a criminal running from a crime scene.. this is made to seem logical to us as an audience based on crime “figures”. Of course these figures bear no relation to other factors that might affect a certain area, social/political group. They play on our fears, they layer and manipulate information so that we might believe what we are seeing as fact. This thinking is also linked to Hall’s commentary throughout the term of Margret Thatcher as prime minister.
Identity – who are we? Simply Asian/women/gay/straight/old/young… for example, or a mixture of these things…..
Common-sense knowledge is based on the theory that we are led to believe that certain things are accepted norms, for example that one uses a knife and fork to eat dinner, when this is simply a practise that we use in the culture in which we live. Or that it is normal, logical and common knowledge that we should uphold Christian values, when perhaps we actually have other beliefs that may contradict this.
(“common-sense” – Gramsci – “A mode of conformist thinking, signalling consent to the dominant social order”)
Theory into Practice
Hall believes that theory should be an attempt to “bend language” in order to question common-sense knowledge, rather than a retreat into private languages ie putting theory to work.. to make it useful in our everyday lives, which gives it meaning.
Hall’s belief is in the power to change – that though dominant cultural structures aim to manipulate and coerce, that the reader/viewer of the media, has the ultimate power to decode messages and recode them. This in turn potentially allows significant cultural intervention on the part of the viewer/reader, making them producers of their own narratives. So, we see an image, based on our own experience we make sense of it, and that this then gives us the potential power to reinterpret and communicate our own understanding of that message within our own personal context.
Eg and simply put, A pregnant artist sees a film about the death of a child. She reads it with her unborn child in mind, added to her own experiences as a child, and things she has observed throughout her own life to this point. So, she makes sense of the film. It may have touched her in a way so as to inspire her to tell someone about the story. That communication is her reading of the points that were important to her based on her own experience. If she is an artist, she may go through a process of communicating through her artform. This process is called recoding!
Hall also rejects the condescension of “ordinary folk” as manipulable. He believes that we are all highly literate in this way.. That we have the power to question the things we see and experience.
He uses the Idea also that audiences do not discover meaning, but generate meaning
All of this theory was extremely important in the world of popular culture, as:
1968: the first year of televised war… Vietnam, protest/violence and riots – the media communicating to our living rooms events going on all over the world. So for him to say that we could and should question these representations was really crucial. It was in this year that he took over as Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham.
You might say that this is easier said than done. How do we know truth from lie, fact from fiction. Referring back to where we started, if unaware of the reign of Margret Thatcher, one might be forgiven for thinking that we are a united world, mourning the death of a great leader. Not the case! So, where does this leave Hall’s theory? He believes that there are certain representations in the media that lead us to believe that they are reality, not a representation of someone’s reality. In this way, theory, when put in a way that can be readily understood can give power to the individual: The mere thought that the dog on the screen can bark but it cannot bite, allows us to realise that what we see is an interpretation of a fact, not the fact itself. Once understood, we can begin to question that “reality” that we are being presented with in so many different contexts.
The idea that the media-maker “encodes” so presents a thought or idea in a particular way that may be designed to convince us, gives the media maker a great deal of power. For example, party politics is designed to convince us of the particular party’s thought and ideology. We are persuaded! But don’t we all question this from time to time? In the end, Hall has a point, we can “decode” or interpret the information we are being given how we wish. But we must be aware of the context from which it comes… that the conservative party might say one thing in a way as to make themselves look good, the labour party could say the same thing in a different way to make themselves look good!
So, the relationship is quite a delicate one, whereby the opportunity to be manipulated or coerced into a particular way of thinking is possible, but not evident.
It is very difficult to put Hall’s theory in a few minutes, his wealth of work is immense. I can only give you a few of the ideas that he has expressed throughout the years. I hope that this has helped, and that seeing the film will put his life and work into context. In showing this work, New Art Exchange has offered the opportunity for artists and audiences alike to view and review some of these topics that remain relevant to us in our work and our lives. If you go not know his work, I invite you to engage, because I believe that his life has been a process of opening doors that have been closed to the vast majority. Hall has always argued against the institutionalisation of cultural theories. In making the film, John Akomfrah, once again, offers us the chance to put theory into practice, into galleries and back into the public arena, to make this subject matter a part of our lives and change the world henceforth.
- Sooree Pillay