How Can Stuart Halls Analysis of Identity Enable a More Critical Awareness of Cultural Experience

How can Stuart Hall??™s analysis of identity enable a more critical awareness of cultural experienceIn order to assess the contribution that Stuart Hall??™s analysis of identity has had on enabling a more critical awareness of cultural experience, it is first necessary to define and illustrate exactly what is meant by this term ???cultural experience.??™ For the purpose of this essay, I shall take this term to mean the contribution that Stuart Hall??™s work has made to our understanding of the culture and society we currently live in, and that which we have lived through over the last 40 or 50 years. Furthermore, I will explore the struggles and tribulations that Hall faced as a child and relate these to his later work. I shall go on to pay particular focus to the issues of identity, the influences Hall has had on other sociologists (notably Paul Gilroy), his idea of the black diaspora and the critiques he makes regarding culture before assessing what the overall contributions he made to society and our cultural awareness really are.In order to fully understand the views and beliefs that Hall holds, it is imperative to explore his background and early life to gain an awareness of how these views were formed. Hall was born in 1932 in Kinston, Jamaica. From a young age, he was noted as being much darker in skin colour than his siblings. This was seen frequently among the resulting offspring of a marriage between two different classes. For Hall, this mix comprises of the plantation-colonial heritage of his mother and his father??™s Jamaican roots. This said, his father??™s Jamaican roots were one of many, including ???Portuguese, Indian, African and Jewish??™ (Davis, 2004 p.5). Thanks to this vast array of divergent heritage and ancestry, it becomes abundantly clear as to why Hall??™s work placed such an emphasis on the ideas of identity and belonging. From a very young age, he grew up with a tremendous sense of ambiguity regarding who he really was and where he really came from. On top of this, according to Hall himself, a further defining moment in his personal development was the major nervous breakdown his sister experienced when he was 17 (Hall, 1996a p.488). It was the result of a large family row after his parents forbade her from engaging in a relationship with a ???middle-class, but black??™ (Hall, 1996a p.488) student doctor, who had moved to Jamaica from Barbados. Hall was suddenly aware of the complex nature of a colonial culture and how colour and class played a huge role in defining who one was at this time in Jamaica. Hall talked of how he ???learnt about culture, first, as something which is deeply subjective and personal, and at the same moment, as a structure you live??™ (Hall, 1996a p.488).
In 1951, Hall moved to England with his mother to take up a scholarship he had been offered at Merton College, Oxford. During his time at the university, Hall joined the Labour Club and here met Raymond William, John Saville, Ralph Miliband, Raphael Samuel and Edward Thompson. The six of them, along with a couple of Hall??™s other university friends, would go on to set up The New Left Review and The New Reasoner, two radical left wing journal publications. These publications are prevalently believed to be the start of Hall??™s ongoing relationship with sociology and cultural studies (Davis, 2004 pp.7-10).Having identified the reasoning behind Hall??™s work, we can now explore the views he held towards identity. Hall tells us throughout his work that there are two contrasting ways in which cultural identity has been viewed. The first emphasises the view of cultural identity as an intrinsic quality. This belief states that we are born with an identity and this remains with us throughout life. Our identity is formed through common origins or experiences and stresses the cultural contexts that we are born into. Moreover, this definition of identity suggests that it is fully formed and cannot change. In other words, this is essentially the belief that identity is constructed through gender, race, class etc. and the fact that somebody is a woman, or black, or working class dictates the way that they will behave or act throughout life. Jonah Goldstein and Jeremy Rayner discussed this first idea of identity, writing that ???identity itself can be constructed from a number of factors, from race and religion to place of birth??™ (Goldstein and Rayner, 1994 p.367). For Hall, identity is much deeper than this. Although he recognises that ???we all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific??™ (Hall, 1994 p.392), Hall stressed the need to go beyond this simplistic idea of identity in order to truly understand it.
The second way of assessing the concept of identity, and one that is strongly supported by Hall, relies on a progressive view of cultural identity. This view focuses on the differences between people, rather than the similarities they share. Hall states that cultural identity is a matter of ???becoming??™ as well as ???being??™ (Hall, 1994 p.394). In essence, he believes that the future is just as important as the past or the present when it comes to determining one??™s cultural identity. This becomes clear in Hall??™s writing:
???[p]erhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ???production??? which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation??™ (Hall, 1994 p.392).
This is a view very much shared by Lawrence Grossberg who talks in length about the hybridity of identity. Backing up Hall??™s point, Grossberg informs us that ???the emphasis [of Hall??™s theory] is on the multiplicity of identities and differences rather than on a singular identity and on the connections or articulations between the fragments or differences??™ (Grossberg, 1996 p.89). Grossberg??™s quote helps us further understand exactly what Hall conveys in his writing regarding the diverse nature of identity. This view can similarly be found in the writing of Paul Gilroy, another sociologist who dedicated much of his writing to the idea of black identity. Born nearly 25 years after Hall, there is no doubt that the Jamaican had a considerable influence on the work of Gilroy. Gilroy talked at length about what he called the Black Atlantics ??“ those people across the world from African descent, whose ancestors were expelled from their homeland and into slavery. These are the people Hall refers to when talking about the black diaspora. As a result of this dissemination, these descendents, many of who remained in the countries their relatives were takes to, find their actual identity to be steeped in vagueness and ambiguity (Gilroy, 1993 pp.2-3). If taking one??™s origin as the sole criteria of identity, then these people are regarded as Africans. However, if we look at settlement, acquired cultures and gained traditions etc. then they surely have to considered to be European, American, British and so on. Gilroy uses the example of two planted seeds to further clarify this point. He informs us that two identical seeds planted in two divergent areas, will grow into two very different plants due to the different soil and climate conditions (Smith and Riley, 2009 p.247). It is abundantly clear to see the link Gilroy draws between a developing seed settling in a different place, with different conditions, and a human doing the same.
With this in mind, we can use this view of identity to explore Hall??™s idea of the Black Diaspora. For Hall, the word diaspora does not simply mean the displacement of a group of people from their original homeland. Instead, when he refers to the black diaspora, Hall is getting at the idea of cultural dispersion and the propagation of these traditions and customs around the world as a result. This links befittingly to his second notion of identity. He tells us that ???diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference??™ (Hall, 1994 p402). In other words, diaspora is the ever changing and updating mix of cultures, traditions and practices.
Hall pays particular attention to the group of black artists and filmmakers who migrated to England, when exploring this notion of diaspora. In his lecture ???Black Diaspora Artists in Britain,??™ which was later transcribed, Hall explains how he sees there to have been three defining ???moments??™ in post-was Britain that brought the Black Arts Movement forward. Essentially, he focused largely on two separate ???waves??™ (Hall, 1996b p.4) of diaspora artist coming across to Britain, before briefly touching rather ambiguously on a period he believes could be seen as a ???third wave??™. The first, he tells us, were those artist born in the 1920s and 1930s in distant corners of the British Empire. Arriving in Britain just after the end of the Second World War, and into the 1950s and 1960s, they were the last colonials to do so, fleeing their native countries as a result of great political struggles and with the ambition of becoming recognised artists (Hall, 1996b p.4). This first group believed strongly in Modernism and believed they belonged to the modern movement in Britain, headed largely by the avant-garde, anti-colonialists. This apparent promise of decolonisation acted only to spur the ambitions of these artists further who were noted by Hall as being ???universalist and cosmopolitan is outlook??™ (Hall, 1996b p.6). The aspiration of these early artists was to look to the future rather than their pasts that were steeped in conflict and hardship. Although the cultures, histories and traditions of these artists??™ places of origin still shone through in their work, they did so with a view to going forward and progressing (Hall, 1996b p.15). This group of ???first wave??™ artists was met with a great deal of uncertainty and many became marginalised in society (Hall, 1996b p.5).
The second generation diaspora artists, born in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s as post-colonialists, began to exhibit their work around the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, ???in the place of anti-colonialism, race had become the determining category??™ (Hall, 1996b p.5). Hall believes this was largely down to the status quo of the time. As a result of the awareness of black artists such as Aubrey Williams and Keith Piper paired with events such as the Nottingham Hill Race riots in 1958, the visits to Britain of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Enoch Powell??™s ???Rivers of Blood??™ speech, the racial music of Bob Marley and the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), the awareness of race issues came to light and anti-racist politics became ubiquitous (Hall, 1996b pp.16-17). The image of the beaten, vulnerable, imprisoned black body became iconic and helped contribute to the rise of the Black Arts movement of the 1980s and 1990s. This was something that had not been seen amongst the ???first wave??™ diaspora, but similarly to this period, the feelings of marginalisation and discrimination were once again present and this generation questioned their identity and sense of belonging, asking questions of ???who are we??™ ???Where do we come from??™ and ???Were do we really belong??™ (Hall, 1996b p.18). What Hall goes on to argue, contrary to the widespread views of the time, is that it was not simply one??™s race, ethnicity and skin colour that characterised their art. Neither was in an artist??™s date of birth, location or decades they were working in that gave them their artistic identity. Furthermore, he stressed that artists of the same generation often do very divergent pieces. Instead, in order to comprehend the motivation behind the art, we need to look back at Hall??™s second definition of identity. The idea of identity as progressive and constantly developing can similarly be applied to the work of these artists. In this case, the tumultuous and turbulent nature of Britain during the 1970s and 1980s, and the highly publicised race issues very much shaped the art of this ???second wave??™ generation and vastly politicised, ???highly graphic [and] iconographic??™ (Hall, 1996b p.17) art became prevalent at the time. These conditions, Hall would argue, gave identity to the artists and their work. In ???New Ethnicities,??™ Hall analysis identity from a different approach and brings in the idea of ethnicity. His focus is on black filmmakers of the 1970s and the two tasks facing them at the time: to get black artists represented in cinema and on television, and to change the adverse image of black actors in the same two fields (Hall, 1996a pp.441-442). It was at this time when the word ???black??™ was commonly used to simply group together a number of people from contrasting ethnicities on the basis of shared experiences and common interests, as much as it related to skin colour. The common interest that this group shared related predominantly to the opposition of racism. Hall explicates the change that he believed materialised in the 1980s as a result of racial awareness and the shift towards the ???Black is beautiful??™ epoch (McRobbie, 1996 p.256). People started to realise the need for greater awareness regarding the whole notion of ethnicity. As Hall writes, ethnicity ???acknowledges the place of history, language and culture in the construction of subjectivity and identity??™ (Hall, 1996a p.446). In other words, ethnicity is not simply about being black or white, but rather recognises the connection that need to be made to other conditions such as cultural history, class or gender to name but a few, in order to fully understand identity. As a result of this new was of thinking, and really for the first time, people started to understand that somebody could for example be black but still British. This is an idea that can be found in many of Hall??™s writings, predating this period, but one that only came to fruition in Britain after many years of tension and conflict relating to culture and identity.It is clear to see the vast impact Stuart Hall has had on the subject of identity and belonging. Through his writing, we can see the palpable role he has played in the advancement of race issues and questions of identity in Britain. His analysis of identity, with particular reference to black artists and filmmakers, has enabled us to view these areas in a different light and with a new understanding. In other words, Hall??™s two concepts of identity have given rise to a new era of representation and an understanding of diverse cultures and histories. His work explores the reasons for cultural differences and bases it within a personal context of his own troubled upbringing in Jamaica. This direct focus with issues of race and identity, allows for a significantly improved awareness of cultural experience; in relation to the way our society works and the changes we have experienced over time, the relations within that society and the problems we still face. It is not difficult to see why Hall has been labeled as the father of cultural studies, with his pioneering and insightful works on an issue of such importance in today??™s society.Word Count: 2,506BibliographyDavis, H. (2004) Understanding Stuart Hall, London: Sage.Gilroy, P. (2004) Between Camps, Bodmin: MPG.Goldstein, J. and Rayner, J. (1994) ???The Politics of Identity in Late Modern Society??™, Theory and Society, vol. 23, no. 3, p.367.Grossberg, L. (1996) Identity and Cultural Studies: Is That All There Is In: Questions of Cultural Identity. London, Sage Publications.Hall, S. (1994) Cultural Identity and Diaspora In. Williams, P. and Chrisman, L. (eds.) Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory. New York, Columbia University Press.Hall, S. (1996a) The Formation of the Diasporic Intellectual. In: Morley, D. and Chen KH. (eds.) Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London, Routledge Publishers.Hall, S. (1996b) Black Diaspora Artists in Britain: Three ???Moments??™ in Post-war History. History Workshop Journal, Spring Issue, no. 61, pp.1-24.McRobbie, A. (1996) Looking Back at New Times and its Critics. In: Morley, D. and Chen KH. (eds.) Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London, Routledge Publishers.Smith, P. and Riley, A. (2009) Cultural Theory, Oxford: Blackwell.

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