The Stuart Hall Project celebrates the cultural crusades of an important historian

Jonathan Brick on a new film about Stuart Hall, the lecturer and academic born in Jamaica who found a home in British academia but not Britain itself.

Stuart Hall lectured at the University of Birmingham and presented BBC programmes on behalf of the Open University. He also founded what would become the New Left Review. His views were informed and personal, and he constantly spoke and wrote about social change and international affairs in the postwar, postcolonial world.

John Akomfrah has used both his own appreciation for Hall and exhaustive footage and stills of him for this cinematic eulogy. Hall is shown to be a man of clear, thoughtful expression when given a platform to respond to big global events. Akomfrah has previously worked on films about Louis Armstrong and Malcolm X, and The Stuart Hall Project is an exploration of politics underscored cleverly by Hall’s beloved Miles Davis. Hall says the trumpeter “changed my soul” and forced him to move away from Jamaica.

“I was an outsider from the time I was born,” Hall says, calling himself a “twenty-first century man”, representative of the group of people who have mixed heritage. He is a man of many origins, “three shades darker than my family.” Hall seems in control of his own destiny from a very young age, as a reaction to his sister’s mental breakdown when she fell in love with a white doctor.

Hall ends up at Oxford, alluding to the “profound shock” of his new country. He was a black man in a Britain becoming more used to seeing former citizens of colonies arriving for jobs or education. By the end of his twenties, he says that he does not “belong anywhere any longer”. He chuckles when he spells out that he is a man of “many ‘routes’”.

With Homer and Joyce as literary guides, he throws himself into socialism, and into publishing magazines dedicated to discussing it, forming proofs on his knees. His fellow academics are important to him, but he has no real role models for his work. Cultural criticism, after all, sprouted in his era as a response to social change in Britain; one key term Hall uses is “interpenetration” which leads to cultural globalisation.

The BBC’s Panorama interviews him at The Partisan cafe, where he iterates that he is “angry”. He wrote pieces called ‘The Deep Sleep of England’ for the Universities & Left Review, in which he responded to Soviet struggles in Egypt and Hungary. We later see a still of him marching against the H-bomb, and hear him recall three years at CND meetings, calling on Britain to set a unilateral precedent for the UN.

The meetings gave him an appreciation of industrial northern Britain, which he shares in his broadcasts. Hall also speaks for those who simply had to escape their birthplace, with Akomfrah using footage of ships on sea. Throughout, the footage matches the narrative perfectly, and the layer of Davis’s modal jazz gives it an artful quality.

Akomfrah uses chapter headings such as ‘A Public Intellectual’ and ‘The Neo-Liberal Problem Space’ to construct his filmic essay and frame Hall’s recollections. Cuba and Ghana are examples of nations whose people fought to be “free not to be unequal.” In his adopted country, however, Hall reckons British politics cannot whip up its people; the old class society became a mass society and belatedly joined the new century.

The rock revolution, which Hall says brought adolescence into the public arena for the first time, leads to the stirrings of 1968, the rise of a “genuine underground” in “anti-adult” protests. By this time Hall is a professor, also pioneering film criticism as a subject for teaching. He lectured for the BFI and wrote the book The Popular Arts (1964); astutely, he recalls how drawn he was to films where the protagonist was on the move.

Hall experienced the racism of Birmingham’s denizens when he married a white woman. For “coloured” kids, as Hall terms them, “the vice of colour seems to entwine with aptitude and intelligence.” He seems more resigned than angry at this, as he describes the “muted optimism” for assimilation.

As Enoch Powell is shown marching off to work, Hall accuses the country of amnesia, provoking fear and alienation in the new arrivals. Thus the dream of assimilation is “buried on both sides.” Identity is writ large in his discussions, a “conversation” that can “never be traded away.”

He shows no real love of Britain in the film, choosing to praise concepts and ideals instead. When feminism makes itself known in the 1970s, he admires the “conviction in the head” held by its advocates. By the end of that decade, he had noted the lack of “particularity” in things, and is pessimistic both for the welfare state and Britain’s “multicultural drift”. As the film shows, sometimes it takes a relative outsider to bring home cultural truths, and Hall has been one of the most perceptive on the left to do so.

The Stuart Hall Project screens at the Curzon Renoir and the ICA from 6 September and BFI Southbank from 13 September

The Stuart Hall Project.
Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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