Stuart Hall (cultural theorist)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In 1951 Hall moved to Bristol, where he lived before going to Oxford University. He studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford, and obtained an M.A. He worked at the University of Birmingham, where he became the leading light of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. He held a post with the Open University between 1979 and 1997.
In the 1950s, after working on the Universities and Left Review, Hall joined E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams and others to launch the New Left Review —— in the wake of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary (which saw many thousands of members leave the Communist Party (CPGB) and look for alternatives to previous orthodoxies). His career took off after co-writing The Popular Arts with Paddy Whannel in 1964. As a direct result, Richard Hoggart invited Hall to join the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham.
In 1968 Hall became director of the unit at Birmingham University. He wrote a number of influential articles in the years that followed, including: Situating Marx: Evaluations and Departures (1972), Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse (1973). He also contributed to the book Policing the Crisis (1978).
After his appointment as a professor of sociology at the Open University in 1979, Hall published further influential books, including: The Hard Road to Renewal (1988), Resistance Through Rituals (1989), Formations of Modernity (1992), Questions of Cultural Identity (1996) and Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997). He retired from the Open University in 1997.
Hall's work covers issues of hegemony and cultural studies, taking a post-Gramscian stance. He regards language-use as operating within a framework of power, institutions and politics/economics. This view presents people as producers and consumers of culture at the same time. (Hegemony, in Gramscian theory, refers to the cultural production of 'consent' as opposed to 'coercion'.)
Hall has become one of the main proponents of reception theory. This approach to textual analysis focuses on the scope for negotiation and opposition on part of the audience. This means that the audience does not simply passively accept a text — whether a book or a film — and that an element of activity becomes involved. The person negotiates the meaning of the text. The meaning depends on the cultural background of the person. The background can explain how some readers accept a given reading of a text while others reject it.
Hall developed these ideas further in his model of encoding and decoding of media discourses. The meaning of a text lies somewhere between the producer and the reader. Even though the producer encodes the text in a particular way, the reader will decode it in a slightly different manner — what Hall calls the margin of understanding. This line of thought has links with social constructionism.
One can see Hall's political influence in New Labour, though Hall would recoil at the thought. Hall wrote many influential articles in the CPGB's theoretical journal, Marxism Today (MT), which challenged the left's views of markets and general organisational and political conservatism. This discourse had a profound impact on the Labour Party under both Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair, especially as many of those around both leaders came to political maturity at the apogee of the influence of MT.
However, Hall regards himself as as unreconciled with the Labour Party as ever. Television-viewers in Britain know him for his gentle, thoughtful explanations of issues confronting a multi-cultural society and as a widely-respected role-model.