“Without Guarantees: Background and issues in the Cultural Studies” by Stuart Hall

stuart hall

Composed of 26 texts, many of them translated into Spanish language for the first time, this book constitutes a substantive contribution in Spanish-speaking countries to the visibility of the work of Stuart Hall, one of the greatest intellectuals of our time. Some of his most inspiring texts, referring to a series of nodal problems of social theory and political practice, have been carefully collected in this book to serve as an entrance to the density and relevance of his contributions.

Born in Jamaica in 1932 and died in London on February 10, 2014, Hall was the most prominent founding figure of cultural studies and one of the leaders of the New Left in Great Britain. For over five decades, he wrote a large number of texts, many of them co-authored with colleagues in the framework of his commitment to collective and collaborative work.

This second edition differs from the first in that a preface by Lawrence Grossberg, one of Hall’s closest colleagues and one of the most visible figures in the field of cultural studies in the United States, was added. One of the texts was the obituary written by Grossberg on the death of Hall. The other one is an article referring to the outstanding features of the thought and practice of Hall. Along with a review and correction of typographical errors that were overlooked in the first edition and a new layout, this edition includes an index at the end of the book that makes searches and cross-readings of different texts comprising the book easy.

This book compiles his texts around five central issues. The first one, referred to cultural studies, is composed of three chapters. In the first one, “The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities,” first published in 1990, Hall looks back at the history of cultural studies in Britain, its main references and features, giving an important place to the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. The next text, “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms”, published in 1980, takes us on a theoretical elaboration on the place occupied by cultural studies in relation to both the humanistic paradigm in which Williams and Thomson stood out and the structuralist paradigm associated with the discussions with Althusser. Finally, this first section closes with a famous conference of Hall in what can be considered the founding congress of cultural studies in the United States in the early nineties. Entitled “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies”, in this conference, Hall takes stock of the main features that define the intellectual and political project of cultural studies before its then growing institutionalization in the United States, where textualist and depoliticized positions have prevailed.

The second part presents six chapters addressing key aspects of his contributions to social theory. Operating from a Marxist problematic, Hall displays a scathing critique on the reductionism derived from the economism of the Second International, as well as on discursivist reductionism. His position, understandable as a thought with no guarantees, is a challenge to the certainties and closures resulting from any kind of reductionism. The notion of articulation, central to Hall’s argument, is elaborated in some detail in the first chapter of this second part: “On Postmodernism and Articulation.” As a result of a couple of interviews carefully edited and published for the first time in the mid-eighties, this text also demonstrates Hall’s criticism on postmodernism and some of its most visible figures, while he vindicates himself as a post-Marxist since he continues to operate from a Marxist problematic without ever having fallen into reductionist orthodoxy closures of certain Marxisms. The next chapter, “Marx’s Notes on Method: a ‘Reading’ of the 1857 Introduction,” is Hall’s earliest text published in this book. Appeared as one of the Working Papers of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, this 1973 text is a comprehensive review of Marx’s approaches in this now famous introduction (which remained unpublished until the first half of the twentieth century, when together with the Gundrisse and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts offered a number of shades and densities of his thought that had been overlooked by Marxist orthodoxies). The notion of differentiated wholeness, that is, unity-in-difference, which Hall stressed in his analysis of Marx, is central to a methodological approach that moves between the register of radical historicity and the plane of the concrete. The next four chapters, three of them from the first half of the eighties and one from the late seventies, discuss the concept of ideology from a materialistic perspective of culture and in relation to its media operations. As part of this discussion, Hall suggests a theory that assumes a non-deterministic determination and does not ignore contingency as a condition of possibility of the agency, history and politics. Out of these chapters, “Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates” is the most known and quoted.

Race and ethnicity is the unifying theme of the third section, composed of five chapters. Although we can find Hall’s very early texts showing his concern about the race due to his racial marks as a Caribbean migrant (as in his article “Pluralism, Race and Class in Caribbean Society”), these chapters were published in the eighties. The first chapter of this part, entitled “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity”, expresses how inspiring it was for Hall to read Gramsci, not only for his analysis of Thatcherism, but also for considering issues such as race and ethnicity. After a detailed discussion of what constitutes the conceptual and analytical Gramscian approach, Hall emphasizes eight points he finds particularly relevant to the study of ethnicity/race.

The next two chapters deal with race and racialization of the black in relation to popular culture and the media. “What is this ‘black’ in black popular culture?” highlights the importance of thinking the popular relationally, not as an essence. However, he recognizes that the appeal to black popular culture has involved at times an essentialization that deserves to be made more complex. In “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media,” Hall suggests the distinction between overt racism and inferential racism to explain how the media articulate racial ideologies. In the last two chapters of this part, “New Ethnicities” and “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities”, Hall refers to the distinctions between some ethnicities and identities that reproduce fixed inequality boundaries and the latest ethnicities and identities that subvert these stabilizations in order to promote innovative social and political mobilizations.

The fourth part focuses on identity and representation. The first four texts explore identity in the tone of difference and diaspora, as well as the emergence and dispute of the subject. What Hall once called his “Caribbean prism” shows his not only thematic, when referring to the Caribbean, but conceptual imprints, as in the notion of diaspora. For Hall, diaspora does not mean a trans-historical essentiality that identically reproduces in its purity over time, but an imagined commonality of origin and historical experience in multiple conversations and positions in the present. Furthermore, the identity must be put under scratch-out, interrupted in its hasty closures and stabilization; we must think of it as identity and difference, an unstable stitch between subject positions and subjectivity processes. The last two chapters of this section, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’” and “The Work of Representation,” were written for a collective book edited by Hall in 1997 for the Open University, entitled Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. In both texts, aimed in this book at adult education, Hall presents in a very pedagogical way the background and discussion of the concept in social theory in order to propose that it be understood in its constitutive dimension of the world and, therefore, in the reproduction and dispute of social life. Especially in the first one, Hall emphasizes the connections between racial thought and stereotyping practices.

The last part contains six chapters covering some of Hall’s latest publications where his attention goes to issues like multiculturalism, globalization and postcolonial theory. The first two chapters characterize what would constitute the particularities, continuities and ruptures of the historical experience of the present in terms of “new age” or “globalization.” Hall is openly critical of celebrationist interpretations of these processes that seek naturalization from some historical amnesia. “The State in Question” is a chapter, also written for a textbook of the Open University, in which Hall makes a journey on the emergence and the major conceptualizations of the state and ends up proposing some of his own elaborations from his Gramscian reading. In the next chapter, “Culture, Community, Nation,” Hall refers to Raymond Williams in terms of both his influences and affinities and the shared place from the dislocations and margins against the dominant English culture. This positioning is relevant to think about the transformation of national formations and emergences in the current phase of globalization. Moreover, the chapter titled “When was ‘The Postcolonial’? Thinking at the Limit” starts from clarifying the meaning of the postcolonial in postcolonial theory, and then addresses some of the most visible criticisms that have been made to the studies of this issue. Finally, in “The Multicultural Question,” Hall differences between multiculturality (as a historical fact of the existing cultural diversity in a social formation) and multiculturalism (as policies and actions taken at some point against this effective and imagined heterogeneity). Multiculturality becomes a question as long as it problematizes us socially and politically.




Eduardo Restrepo

Anthropologist, Master and Ph.D. in Anthropology (with emphasis in Cultural Studies) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was one of the editors of the 2nd edition of “Sin garantías(Without guarantees) published by the Universidad del Cauca, Colombia. Currently, professor Restrepo is the director of the Master in Cultural Studies and a full time professor at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia.