Mapping the Conjuncture

Various – Stuart Hall, Conversations, Projects and Legacies (Goldsmiths Press)

John Akomfrah’s wonderful Stuart Hall Project endearingly shows how in love with the music of Miles Davis Stuart Hall was.

It isn’t a facile part of Hall’s biography, this. Think about it: Miles Davis is always identifiably ‘Miles’, during The Birth of the Cool period, in the fusion cauldron of Bitches Brew and Get Up With It, and playing ‘Time After Time’ in the 1980s. Miles Davis both reacted to and shaped the music of each period he lived through.

Similarly, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through. In Britain, yes – although a diasporic Britain few could even see at the start of the New Left project – and via journal articles, books and teaching, rather than through music.

Equally, the archive Hall leaves us is as essential to take forward as that of Miles Davis, and as difficult to match, let alone better. The purpose of this book is a retrospective celebration of Hall’s work, coming out of the proceedings of the celebratory conference at Goldsmiths after Stuart Hall’s death.

Some of these articles were written to be spoken at that event, and that purpose juts out of the text a little. Some of the material has also been well-covered elsewhere, Hall’s relationship with the British new left for instance, but the best material here explains how the written work of Stuart Hall can be used in the moment we are in to allow us to diagnose it and try to do something about it. For that alone this book is essential.

This book is organised into sections: Part One, Cultural Studies, Multiple Legacies; Part Two, the Politics of Conjuncture; Part Three, Identities and the Redefinition of Politics; Part Four, Policy, Practice and Creativity; Part Five, the International Expansion and Extension of Cultural Studies and Part Six, the Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis.

Paul’s widow Catherine provides the Afterword and there is an engaging set of introductions.

The first set of essays frame the context to an extent. James Curran, the great media theorist, explores Stuart Hall’s early work and shows how wilfully neglected it has been, as though all writers have to have some kind of initial period of development, which is always a priori to be dismissed, before we get round to the ‘serious later work’, it is not the case with Stuart Hall. Like┬áMiles Davis, Hall was on it all the way through.

Part Two is the richest section in terms of the immediate present and future. The politics of conjuncture are precisely the things we need to revisit now, in 2018. John Clark’s analysis of Hall’s conjunctural methods contains precisely the suggestion that we turn back to them now.

But now we have an academic milieu which has drifted very far from this kind of work. We have, on the one hand, macro big data surveys grounded in a kind of neo-Kantianism, often instrumentalised work, and on the other hand the frayed remains of the erroneously named ‘post-structuralism’; the infra-analysis of cultural texts which seem to be sealed, which seem not to emerge from the real world, and I use the term ‘real’ in a general sociological sense here.

For Clarke and others, conjunctural analysis is difficult and requires collaboration, it depends ‘on the building and sustenance of various forms of collaboration’, which ‘were at the heart of the CCCS project’. It is, then, completely at odds with the individualistic and careerist trajectory of the neoliberal university and in it we might find a negation and way out of that impasse too.

Conjunctural analysis contains the need to ‘resist the temptations of various forms of lazy theoretical reductionism’, whether ‘in the modes of fundamentalist Marxism or technological determinism’, and to avoid falling ‘into the trap of believing that everything is necessarily predetermined’ and ‘recognise that our task is also to identify and pursue the specific forms of marginal, residual and emergent cultures’.

This last need of course emerges from Stuart’s friend the late Raymond Williams. Conjunctural analysis also tallies with some things in Jameson – cognitive mapping for instance – and in Neil Smith, David Harvey et al.

But this is Marxist analysis without the blinkers, as much as that is ever possible. It doesn’t contain the religious belief, nor the comfort of finding ‘out there’ the signs we are looking for, but it can show us what is assembled and where the tensions and contradictions lie.

Clarke argues that conjunctural analysis presents ‘the exact opposite of the dominant modalities produced by the contemporary pressures of academic institutional life.’ Pressures that ‘continually induce competitive forms of academic careerism, characteristically involving forms of self-promotion’, via which people maintain positions and progress.

Therefore ‘individuals must claim to have made ever more exciting and definitive intellectual breakthroughs’. We can see the arrogant new orthodoxies being hastily pushed through conferences now, ‘Metamodernism’, ‘the new depthiness’, both of which are not just ‘meta’ but entirely orbital. There is no new depth here, only the old thinness of postmodernity rebranded.

Stuart Hall’s project of conjunctural analysis outlines that macro research should be rooted in the multiple realities of the nationstate, in politics, in capitalism, in the masses, in the movement of people across borders, and of course now in the resistance of the movement of people across borders. Here also lies the crucial importance of this book to the future.

Tony Jefferson’s contribution, ‘Race, Immigration and the Present Conjuncture’ sutures those conjunctural methods to Britain’s contemporary moment of Brexit via a great reading of Shane Meadows’ film This is England. Jefferson describes how racism shapeshifts into different forms, how we can never find the pure racist anymore than we can find the pure outsider or the pure alien.

Part Six, then, The Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis, is one sole essay – by Angela Davis no less – who argues that Hall’s book Policing the Crisis should be applied to America. I tend to think that America’s race situation and its policing is in fact much more pronounced and severe than in Britain – even with the vile racist nicks in London and elsewhere proceeding relatively unchallenged – and therefore it might be the other way around. This demonstrates just how powerful and influential Hall’s work has been. It was often rooted in a hybrid sense of Britain, but it has projected out, way beyond its own original context.

Again, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through, but his work will also continue to shape those discourses into the future, and in that we can find some much-needed sustenance and purpose.

– Steve Hanson

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A London Sumtin’ Rasta

Todd Dedman – Purists and Peripherals, Hip-Hop and Grime Subcultures (the Tufnell Press, 2017)

This book will mainly be of interest to academics in cultural studies, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, sociology and music, but it will also provide a great deal for the keener grime and British hip hop fan.

For a long time there has been nowhere to go for me, except British hip hop and dubstep. There are a few bands, Selfish Cunt, the Sleaford Mods – the latter arguably are British hip hop – but beyond them nothing contemporary is really worth a look, the exception being British hip hop, grime and dubstep.

I came through, as a fan, jungle and drum’n’bass in the 1990s – like many of the people involved in the music – after being immersed in Acid Jazz and dance music, and I was flung there from psychedelia and jazz. So the new scenes make perfect sense.

This book makes a very welcome and refreshing addition to the British cultural studies canon. It is scholarly but also lean, knowledgeable and rooted in empiricism and sociological practice.

The key dimension of this work that recommends it to posterity is the way it resists the idea that subcultures can now only really be ‘post-subcultures’, that somehow we have moved into a situation where culture is only ever consumed – even rebellious culture – and that the very concept of subcultural tribalism, resistance and subculture, to hijack Raymond Williams, as ‘a whole way of life’, has been swallowed by consumerism and the Fukuyama vision of the End of History.

Of course, even Fukuyama no longer believes that, but the other aspect of this book which will make it a classic in the field is the rooting of relative quantities of ‘resistance’ in different groups: The ‘purists’ and ‘peripherals’ of the title.

Groups from Ashford and Canterbury, Brighton and Rochester were interviewed, and the latter two showed themselves as relatively passive consumers of grime and hip hop culture, and the former two resistant and active.

This is where the history of cultural studies becomes very relevant. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham (CCCS) set up by Stuart Hall, attended by the now-iconic Dick Hebdige, Angela McRobbie and John Storey, set the bar high for the future with a Marxist and Gramscian approach to popular culture.

Dedman, then, has not only arrived with a classic post-CCCS set of binaries, the lineage of which contains upwardly and downwardly mobile subcultures – mod and hippie for instance – but he has rooted this, also like the classic CCCS studies, in empirical research. He argues for a revival of the CCCS tradition, itself updated, and I know that others are doing this, David Wilkinson for instance.

He also makes good use of Paul Hodkinson’s work on ‘subcultural substance’ from 2002.┬áThe analysis is nuanced, the binaries are poles between which Dedman scales his readings of the cultural conversations, they are not drawers in which he files people. The core concepts are worked through in chapters, for instance the very tricky hip hop terminology around being ‘real’ as opposed to fake, meaning authentic, of the streets, tough, experienced. Of course, logic begins to bend once one asks ‘who’s really the realest?’ and the anthropological relativism that follows is not too excessive and the interpretation not too stifling.

It’s great to read the material on postcodes and subcultural zones in the interviews. London looms large too, and the ways in which the ‘London Sumtin’ of Jungle, from a Code 071 record, has continued through grime and dubstep. As Wiley explained in his biography, the first time English accents could be MC’d en masse was when Jungle exploded in the 1990s. Children of Zeus discussed how rapping with a Mancunian or northern accent has only recently become acceptable.

One resistance, then, is Americanisation, although American rap features strongly in respondent conversations. London has its ‘manors’ and British hip hop has its regions. It is, in many ways, the authentic folk culture of our times, even if the bucolic visions and acoustic guitars the word conjures may seem utterly inappropriate. It is globalised folk music, present tense. It is folk as a verb, not as a dusty old repertoire, although of course global history and repertoire are also important.

There is promise for the future here, too: Dedman ends, very topically, arguing for a study of the ‘gyaldem’ (girl them) female rappers and MCs in the UK. The conversation about the unsung females of grime recently went live among the chattering classes on Twitter. Dedman was there before them.

A great book.

– Steve Hanson