After Jamaican-born British scholar Stuart Hall died in 2014, I was just beginning to do editorial work at Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism and attended Hall's memorial lecture, where Small Axe editor David Scott was speaking. On a break, I went to the bathroom and Catherine Hall, a historian who also happens to be Hall’s widow, was tearing up by the sink. I knew it was her, but she did not know me. She does not know me. I had nothing to say to this familiar stranger except, “Do you need a hug?” We hugged awkwardly, and she explained what I already knew: Stuart was her husband. Was. The past tense cut the demanding silence, but I can say this following sentence in the future tense: I know I will learn more in women’s bathrooms than the academy would like for me to admit. Many women already know that the bathroom is a wayside of thought, one context of intellectual friendship.
David Scott, Stuart Hall’s Voice: Intimations of an Ethics of Receptive Generosity. Duke Press, 2017. 200 pages.
Though he would not put it this way himself, these moments of intimacy are at the core of Scott’s book, Stuart Hall’s Voice: Intimations of an Ethics of Receptive Generosity, which was published last year by Duke University Press. In Stuart Hall’s Voice, Scott, professor of anthropology at Columbia University, explores the kind of style Hall embodied, projected, and voiced. This exploration is not only a personal one, limned through Jamaica, but also a reflection on what Scott identifies as “learning in a context of intellectual friendship.” In other words, David and Catherine call him Stuart; I call him Hall.
The interview has been condensed and edited for publication.
One of the most striking features of Stuart Hall’s Voice is the epistolary form. I noticed that in 2012, years before the book was published, you also wrote that short piece “Stuart Hall at Eighty,” published in Small Axe, as a letter. Where and when did the idea of the book as a series of letters take shape?
When Stuart died there was something quite precipitous about the sense of his absence, and the seeming void around the lectures that I had given at the University of the Western Cape in 2013, which are the basis of Stuart Hall's Voice. The revision of the lectures was going nowhere. I don’t know exactly when it occurred to me that I had already been thinking about another way of continuing a conversation with him, namely, in the letter form that I had first used in “Stuart Hall at Eighty.” It occurred to me that the letter form would be a way of retaining a sense of Stuart as an addressee, an addressee with whom I was engaged—not in disagreements so much as in a kind of friendly divergence. We were always trying to work out not just what we shared but what we didn’t.
There’s a performative aspect to the letters; you talk about writing to a ghost. To what extent is this an ongoing project, specifically in terms of your correspondence? Did you two write to each other?
Did you write emails?
Yes, but very occasionally, and those emails were not really substantive. They were like, “I’m coming to London,” or “When shall we meet?” So there wasn’t really a correspondence. The correspondence was in some sense imaginative. The book is really a conversation with myself, mediated by Stuart, an attempt to work out for myself how I understood some of the debates I have been in, and how I understood the debates that he was in or had been in, and what my own take on those was and where I departed from him and why, and why it seemed to me that even in those nonidentities or nonconvergences, there was something very attractive to me about his way of going about the business of thinking.
Let me flesh out some of what I noticed in terms of departures. You describe throughout the book, especially in the chapter on style, Hall’s style as: responsive to change (something exemplified by his commitment to the essay form); occasional, conjunctural; sonic, voiced; relational, social. As for you, one stylistic thing I noticed throughout the book is this refrain where you take note of the gap or the space between your thinking, your style and Hall’s—in a second-person address. You write things like “This is a direction you didn’t quite take yourself, Stuart” or “I know, Stuart, that, put this way, these are not emphases that are instinctively yours.” I see this as a way in which you are parsing out intellectual differences. What were some of those differences and similarities?
It’s hard to know exactly where to begin. I could begin by saying that I often think that my inclination is with a philosophic set of preoccupations, whereas Stuart’s were much more political in direction. There must be some sense in which that’s true and speaks to different dispositions, locations, and life stories, but I think it’s also not entirely that simple. One of the things that I wrestle with in my own writing and thinking is, what, for my generation, is the political? What can it be? What is the relationship between the kinds of writing and thinking that I want to be engaged in and something that one might call a political intervention?
Although with Stuart there is a very deliberate eschewing of what might be called the philosophic, there is, nevertheless, something enormously complicated in his practice of thinking. There is a very explicit self-consciousness in his work of the kind of thinking that he understands himself to be involved in. What thinking is for him is something that I find very significant and very poignant—poignant in the sense that there is something passionate about it—in that it lends itself simultaneously to a concrete and abstract dimension, an intervention while still being reflexive. It is one of the things that I admire and can’t reproduce in my own work. There is that whole arena of the kind of thinking that Stuart was involved in and the kind of thinker that I took him to be that I admire, and I see in it what I am not.
There are differences also that have to do with displacement, that have to do with my obsessions with what I call “intellectual traditions” and with what it means to be a Jamaican intellectual in displacement. A lot of my relationship with Stuart turned on Jamaica. We were never not talking about Jamaica, and never not speaking in some implicit sense of ourselves as Jamaican. In a certain sense, it meant a lot to each of us, but meant a lot to each of us differently.
Stuart left Jamaica at age 19, which is roughly the age I left Jamaica, too, but I have a far more concrete, ongoing, organic relationship to Jamaican cultural and political life than he did. We were always trying to think about how our preoccupations were formed by a sense of rootedness in that space and with that past and history in relation to the divergent but connected journeys that we took. One example is his idea of diaspora, which I never shared. It’s very difficult for me to locate myself in the idiom of diaspora, but it became very crucial for his own sense of how he lived in relation to being in Britain. I have never lived that way in relation to being in the U.S. Although I could recognize the intellectual journey that made diaspora a way of thinking for him, I emerge as an intellectual in Jamaica in relation to debates in Jamaica about Jamaica being itself a diasporic location in relation to Africa and India. That’s my sense of diaspora, not the so-called second diaspora of the new metropolitan location of displaced Caribbean people, but the first diaspora in relation to the historic processes of enslavement and indenture.
I was attracted to the way you described two conjunctures in Jamaica’s history, tethered to what you’ve described elsewhere as a “generational vantage”: Hall as an adolescent during the decolonization movement of the 1940s and you as an adolescent during the socialism of the 1970s. Given that I grew up in the 2000s, I’m thirty years after you in terms of thinking about generations. To extend your temporal metaphor, I’m like a third diaspora, in a third metropolitan location—not in the Britain or the U.S. but Canada. The idea of generations is one that comes across strongly in your first interview with Hall, in the inaugural issue of Small Axe in 1997. You were very insistent that you wanted Hall to be understood as a Jamaican and you wanted Hall to be understood as having a specific intellectual trajectory that is located in Caribbean politics, literature, and history. That was 20 years ago, and it strikes me that this book is a shift . . . well, that’s a question. To what extent do you see this book as an ongoing quarrel about Jamaica? What you started with was an emphasis on the philosophical, and I think that emerges as one of the more obvious concerns and conversations in the book, rather than some other “Caribbean studies” idiom.
When I did the first interview with Stuart, it was literally the first time I met him. And it was also of course the beginnings of the Small Axe Project, which has always remained for me a project about Caribbean intellectual history. Part of the objective in the interview with Stuart was to think about—out loud and with him—his absence from the Caribbean intellectual tradition, and in particular the absence of his thinking, not to say his participation, from the left discussions in Jamaica in the 1970s.
He was always very modest about his relationship to Jamaica, and it's understandable in some respects, but he was involved in the 1970s in Britain in debates about and within Marxism. It was, for me, and for the larger left in Jamaica, an enormously important and volatile moment both in terms of debates and political activity. As someone trying to find his way in those debates and trying to find an idiom in which to resist the dogma of the Stalinist Marxist forms in Jamaica at the time, it is a matter of some concern to me that Stuart’s voice and Stuart’s work was not a part of those discussions. So, yes, there is an attempt therefore to read him into and in relation to something that I want to call a wider Jamaican intellectual tradition—which is even more central now as I try to formulate the biography.
In the research and reading around trying to craft a narrative of his life, I am more interested in what one might call the resonances of a Jamaican experience, or in and of a Jamaica that lends itself to the perspective that he has in the work that he developed while in Britain. What I’m saying more directly is that what Stuart Hall is for me is a particular style of thinking, and that style is generated out of a certain kind of experience of Jamaica, and central to that experience is displacement, which is a term he comes to use later. It’s all over his memoir, Familiar Stranger. You can see in his sense of displacement an intuitive sense of the mediated character of existence and of theory-making which makes, to my mind, his way of thinking much more instructive than the actual content of the thinking itself. There is something about biography that helps me to locate a Jamaican experience, that therefore locates him once again for me as a Jamaican intellectual or at least in relation to a Jamaican experience. Obviously there is a lot here about my forms of identification. I mean, I’m looking into a mirror, in some way.
When you make the distinction between the critical self and the listening self, the critical self being the agent of critique and the listening self being the agent of attunement and receptivity, your argument is that Hall is more of the latter. What is—I don’t want to say wrong—what is exhausted with the project of critique? Can critique ever be generous?
That’s a great way of formulating the question: Can critique ever be generous? In retrospect I may be obliged to say, especially with respect to Stuart, that there’s not a hard-and-fast distinction between a critical self and a listening self, but I want to hold onto the distinction insofar as it may oblige us to pause and reflect on dimensions of intellectual life that are often supplanted by the arrogance of criticism. I want to hold onto the sense that Stuart was as much a listening and a critical self, and I also want to hold onto the idea that these might not be straightforwardly commensurate, that you may not simply be able to conjugate them. They might exist in some nonidentical tension with each other.
I want to underline the sense in which this is an experience that many people have of Stuart: his ability to reflect back to you what you were trying to say, better than you could reflect on it yourself. It is that sense of being able to discern not just the superficial shapes of what you were trying to articulate but the motivations that were driving them. And to be attuned, therefore, to not just the cognitive but the affective in dialogical occasions. It was quite uncanny, and I think lots of people had this experience, of his way of being able to give you back, in his own language, and sometimes in yours, what you were trying to find apt ways of elaborating. So there was something about his way of suspending the need to overdrive the conversation with his own preoccupations. There was room enough to have his interlocutor’s concerns and modalities occupy discursive space.
I say that in the context of the sense of Stuart’s largeness; he could fill up a room. But very often, the fullness of that room would not simply be his own articulation of his own views but his ability to mirror a variety of different concerns that were trying to find a floor in that space. That’s an enormous gift of intellectual intelligence. He was a learner, not just a giver. I want to call this listening. That listening wasn’t merely a way of giving back something from you for his own intelligibility and his own intelligence. And this underwrote his intuitive sensibility for change and changefulness, including his ability to change himself. I think that criticism, in its imperial character, in its sense of rightness, and its sense of righteousness, very often, too often, precludes those possibilities of listening and therefore learning.
The second-to-last sentence of Stuart Hall's Voice, which reads, “I won’t write to you again, Stuart, though maybe I will write of you for another occasion—about which we also spoke,” refers to another book project. Do you want to say something about the biography you're working on?
I remember writing that sentence.
It’s a beautiful sentence.
I like it.
There comes a point in our conversations in which the conversations are very purposeful, that I have a tape recorder on, for example. That was after we agreed that I would write a biography, and so the relationship between a formal biography and what Stuart Hall's Voice became was a question for Stuart, and I think sometimes a question of suspicion, and it was a matter of some unclarity for me, too, especially because Stuart Hall's Voice wasn’t finished. I had a sense that in the biography I wanted to write a life, and I wanted in some sense to write a conventional life in which I would be relatively absent as author, but here, in Stuart Hall's Voice, I wanted to evoke something of the mode of being-with Stuart as an intellectual and the kinds of dialogues out of which certain kinds of learning or difference emerged.
As I now set about the business of trying to write the biography, and it’s going very, very slowly, you know, it’s interesting to me the Stuart Hall's Voice project now seems very far away and very long ago and I feel as though I am having to learn, in a very different way, what I thought I knew about Stuart. For example—I was saying this to Catherine Hall, his widow, recently, in London—Stuart was born in 1932 in Kingston and therefore is a child at the beginnings of the nationalist project and of constitutional decolonization and is in fact a child when the very significant riots of 1938 break out. It’s a period that I feel like I could talk about endlessly, but how to write about the period as illuminating something about the particular story of Stuart's life? That's not easy. Obviously, as Catherine immediately recognized, this concern speaks to the sense in which the biography for me is a Jamaican story, that the figure that I want to see emerge is a Jamaican.
I am in the middle of worrying around what Edward Said might have called the problem of beginnings. How to begin the biography, how to get it going, because you know in the getting going, there’s a lot about the arc to come that has already been inscribed. But beyond that I don’t actually know what to say about it. Even the question of form, even though I say it will be conventionally a life, I don’t know what that means. There is a large concern that I have now, and that I’ve had for a number of years, about the very idea of “a life,” and what it means to think in relation to life, and the uncertain ways in which one’s intellectual being is intimately connected to one’s life forms, and how to write that relation out in ways that are nonreductive and that give a sense of the plenitude of life, and not only of the plenitude but also of the finitude. For Stuart, there came to be an intimacy between his life and his work, and a very deliberate project of creating a sense of himself as thinking out of his life and therefore voicing theory was, I believe, enormously important for him. What one heard when one listened to Stuart or read him was him.