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Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies, and the Contingency of Things

July 26, 2018


It was June 1983 when British Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall stood before a cohort of scholars in Illinois. They had travelled from across the U.S. and beyond to hear Hall speak about a field of study that had emerged in England. It was a field that applied a peculiar combination of Marxist, literary, sociological, and communication theories to those things that fell beyond the interests of Oxbridge circles: the products and practices of working classes and popular cultures in England.

Hall delivered eight lectures, which, through an autobiographical and institutional history of sorts, proposed an answer to a question I’ve heard many times: What is Cultural Studies? It’s a question I’ve often struggled to answer: “It’s like English Lit, but more political and not just about books.” Or, more vaguely still, “It’s about theories for understanding social structures and power.”

Hall had hesitations about providing a concrete answer as well, but not for lack of insight. “He did not want readers to think that he was telling them what Cultural Studies was, what it should look like, the theoretical resources it should utilize, or the theoretical paths it should follow,” write Lawrence Grossberg and Jennifer Daryl Slack in their Editors’ Introduction to the posthumously released volume of Hall’s Illinois lectures.[1] Hall was nervous that, if the lectures were published, they would be read as an authoritative account, fixing the scope and trajectory of the field. He meant only to articulate his own place amongst a group of scholars in twentieth-century Britain and beyond.

Stuart Hall wasn’t the first visiting scholar in the United States to reflect on Marxism and the media. Four decades earlier, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer found themselves living in Westside Los Angeles, German Jews exiled from the Nazi devastation of Europe. It had barely been a year since their Frankfurt School colleague, Walter Benjamin, had chosen to die by his own hand rather than fall into those of the Nazi authorities.

Settling in the shadows of the Hollywood Hills, Adorno and Horkheimer heard echoes of the Third Reich emerging from theatres and film studios. They ferociously denounced Charlie Chaplin and Donald Duck.[2] Pleasure promotes resignation, they said. Audiences’ eyes glaze over as the “culture industry” dispenses “authoritative pronouncements, and thus [becomes] the irrefutable prophet of the prevailing order.”[3] Fascism had taken root in Europe, and the particularly American form of capitalist domination that kept a few rich and many more poor was being maintained in this new home, they insisted, by the irresistible glitz of the big screen.

From this side of the millennium, it’s hard not to read Adorno and Horkheimer as paranoid, obtuse, or hyperbolic at the very least. But two things are worth remembering: First, the fascist regime from which they had only recently fled was maintained not just militarily, but also through a complex system of propaganda that ensured a compliant social body. Second, if we read beyond their vociferous rhetoric, their basic argument that mainstream ideologies are reinforced through popular media is hard to deny, and it has influenced generations of thinkers.


Back in 1983, Stuart Hall paused as a student in the front row reset her tape recorder. Hall was describing the 1964 formation of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham. He spoke of highly educated outsiders within the stratified class structures of England’s academic world. Hall himself had moved from Jamaica to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1951, and several of his colleagues were adult educators from provincial towns and poor families.

To these thinkers, place mattered. The physical and social locations in which they found themselves informed their insights. And so, as Raymond Williams wrote, they took as their starting point not abstract concepts or ideas, but “men [sic] themselves, the material production and reproduction of life.”[4] Theory was important for many of them, but in Hall’s words, only “movements” and “historical conjunctures” would “provoke theoretical moments.”[5] Hall’s essays were profound, and his concepts were far-reaching, even if embedded in analyses of the present political moment, punctuated by Thatcherism and AIDS. In his Illinois lectures, Hall argued that “historical understanding always involves a detour through theory; it involves moving from the empirical to the abstraction and then returning to the concrete.”[6] The thinkers at the CCCS had conflicted relationships with Marxism, but this insistence on “materialism”the real world as the starting point, not abstract ideaswas consistent.

Perhaps because of their peripheral locations, or their interests in the everyday lives of working people, a pattern emerged among the scholars at the CCCS in which “the people,” however loosely defined, were portrayed as creative agents and makers of meaning. Working classes weren’t simply falling into line at the whim of those in power; they had complex customs, practices, and frameworks of knowledge. And so, against Adorno and Horkheimer, Cultural Studies burgeoned as a field that complicated the relationships between everyday people and those in power. Yes, society was stratified, and yes, the power of the prevailing order was codified within mass media and other cultural texts and institutions, but audiences weren’t just dopes who internalized every message they encountered.

In “Encoding/Decoding,” Hall’s influential essay about television, he argues that there is “no necessary correspondence” between producers and audiences. The assumptions, ideologies, and frameworks of knowledge both groups use to understand the world and interpret what’s on TV need not align. “Misunderstanding,” he writes, does not come from a failure of clarity or a lack of comprehension, but rather from a discontinuity between the ways in which different people in different places make sense of the world.[7] There is an irreducible gap within this model that suggests a radical contingency: instead of the inevitable concentration and application of power through culture, as described by Adorno and Horkheimer, a negotiation of power begins to emerge.


The CCCS scholars weren’t the first to think through the distribution of power in society. Long before, from a prison cell in Mussolini’s Italy, Antonio Gramsci wrote about cultural hegemony: the set of beliefs and values held by those in power and accepted as “common sense” by much of the population, even if to their own detriment. Violent repression may be less common in today’s Canada than in last century’s Europe, but what Louis Althusser called “ideological state apparatuses” still play a role. Schools, churches, families, sports clubs, and other forms of social organization consistently reinforce what is considered normal, ensuring a population that embraces “common sense,” not out of fear of prosecution, but for the sake of social cohesion.[8]

This leads not to one, but to many culturally accepted norms that permeate communities. For example, Mark Rifkin describes “settler common sense” as the basic assumption that North American colonial states are an obvious, unproblematic way of organizing people. This assumption is reinforced through legal and judicial means, but more significantly, Rifkin suggests that governments are concerned with “inducing inclinations and coalescing/catalyzing possibilities.”[9] The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, mired in criticism over its treatment of Indigenous peoples, ran a promotional campaign that positioned the museum within a series of binaries: “Keeper of the past? Or beacon of the future?”, “Architectural wonder? Or life-changing experience?” The museum, a federal institution, attempted to reframe public discourse rather than imposing its particular worldview.[10] Yet, following Hall, there is “no necessary correspondence” between hegemonic ideals and a population’s response. In his words, cultural forms only “structure possibilities.”[11] How audiences perceived the campaign was beyond the museum’s control.

Institutions and social structures thus provide frameworks within which we think, but hegemony is not fixed or rigid. According to a Cultural Studies approach, the power entrenched in ideologies and cultural practices is not simply holed up in boardrooms and performed on passive populations. It is massively distributed throughout society in a web of human-level exchanges that converge to constantly renegotiate and re-establish new norms. This means that common sense is contingent. The values, beliefs, and assumptions of any given moment need not be so.


Hall defines articulation as “the form of a connection or link that can make a unity of two different elements under certain conditions.”[12] An articulation is a joint or a juncture, like an elbow or a trailer hitch. It’s also an utterance, an expression, a manifestation of something not yet revealed. Take evangelicalism, for example: There is nothing inherently Republican, patriotic, or white supremacist about evangelical Christianity, and yet, in certain parts of the U.S., these cultural forms are often articulated together as if by necessity. While these links appear to be permanent, they can at times be broken, and elements can be rearticulated in new ways. Evangelicalism can be disarticulated from libertarianism and rearticulated to notions of mutual reciprocity and love for one’s neighbour. “A theory of articulation,” says Hall, “is a theory of ‘no necessary belongingness,’ which requires us to think the contingent, non-necessary connections between and among different social practices and social groups.”[13]

On one hand, Cultural Studies is rooted in the acknowledgment of concentrations and uneven distributions of power. At the same time, it sees articulations, the points of connection where power is manifested and enacted in distinct ways, as temporary. These connections between cultural forms may not be precarious, but they are not inevitable either.

I suggest that one task of Cultural Studies is to identify these articulationssites of affiliation and connection between social practices and ideologiesas sites of negotiated power, and thus as potential sites of resistance or emancipation. A profound, if tentative, hope has emerged within Cultural Studies. It is rooted in Adorno and Horkheimer’s dire recognition of domination through cultural texts, but it moves beyond their assessment to identify spaces of possibility.

I began reading Stuart Hall with a flagging affinity for the Frankfurt School thinkers. Their all-encompassing perception and effusive prose had kept the loci of power a comfortable distance away. Their culture industry model had invited a simple response: either step away from the screen or else dissect what you see through enlightened critique. But a Cultural Studies approach implies humility and self-reflexivity. It recognizes that power structures are embedded within the institutions, concepts, theories, and methods of Cultural Studies itself. The field’s earliest practitioners were not always willing to turn their analysis inward. Furthermore, voices who didn’t quite fit the mold of the early configurations of the field had to fight to be heard. Women had to break into the CCCS through the window, as Hall described it. Post-colonial critique came as a similarly ruptural intervention.[14]

Cultural Studies is a necessarily evolving field, as impermanent and contingent as its objects of study. Yet there is, in Hall’s words, “something at stake” when we attempt to identify the conjunctures of potential cultural change.[15] “This is perhaps not the most glamorous political work,” Hall said as he drew his Illinois lectures to a close in 1983, “but it is the work we need to do.”[16]

If it is difficult to describe what Cultural Studies has been, it is impossible to know what its future will be. Given the closure of the CCCS in 2002, and Hall’s death in 2014, an effort to define the field by its institutional and charismatic foundations risks fixing it in the past, restricting its significance to another time and place. Yet it is clear that these origins provide a rich theoretical legacy, inviting us to identify the articulations of power with both intellectual rigour and hope.



[1] Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, ed. Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), xi.

[2] Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The lives of the Frankfurt School (London: Verso, 2016), 224-5.

[3] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd ed., ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 1121.

[4] Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” in Culture and Materialism (London: Verso, 2005), 35.

[5] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies,” in Stuart Hall: Critical dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge, 1996), 269.

[6] Hall, 1983, 89.

[7] Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works, ed. M. G. Durham and D. M. Kellner (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 175.

[8] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation) (1970),” in Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Robert Dale Parker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 449-61.

[9] Mark Rifkin, “Settler Common Sense,” Settler Colonial Studies 3, no.4 (2013): 327.

[10] Jaqueline McLeod Rogers and Tracy Whalen, “Staking Claims and Cultivating Local Publics: The Billboards of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights,” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 37 (Spring 2017): 87-110.

[11] Hall, 1983, 194.

[12] Hall, 1983, 121.

[13] Hall, 1983, 122.

[14] Hall, “Theoretical Legacies,” 268.

[15] Hall, “Theoretical Legacies,” 262.

[16] Hall, 1983, 206.