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Stuart Hall in conversation with Les Back [audio]

by Les Back
28 Nov 2010 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Article

In March 2006 I received an email from my friend and colleague Claire Alexander about her plan to edit a journal special issue dedicated to assessing and celebrating the work of Stuart Hall. She wanted particularly to foreground his contribution to understanding race and racism in Britain but also his work on diasporic cultures. Claire asked me if I’d be willing to write an essay about Stuart’s life and work. I took the invitation as a wonderful compliment and honour. As I started to think about the prospect I became uneasy. After much reflection I wrote back saying no one would be interested about what I had to say about Stuart’s vast contribution to these issues least of all myself. What is of interest is what Stuart Hall has to say. This is how the recording made available here came to be made and I agreed to interview Stuart and transcribe his reflections and present it as a piece for the special issue.[1] On 2nd November 2007 I visited Stuart at his north London home and we talked about his life and influences, his love of Henry James, contemporary geopolitical issues as well as reflecting on the transformation of British society and the enduring legacy of imperialism and racism.

An observant reader will note the eighteen-month gap between Claire’s invitation and this interview with Stuart. The truth is I was nervous about meeting him. Like so many people I owe an enormous intellectual debt to Stuart. A kind of hide and seek ensued as we edged towards setting a date I would then pull away. It was simply that for me the stakes were so high and I was afraid of getting it wrong with someone whose work had meant so much to me. When we met it was immediately obvious that these concerns were needless. I tried to explain and he was gracious in his understanding and tolerant. David Scott wrote, “thinking for Stuart is a way of changing himself”.[2] Yet this transformation is always sociable, a collective activity that happens in dialogue with others forming part of a larger conversation that also transforms those around him. His work contains the rare compound of critique without dogma, acute insight coupled with humility, grave political seriousness that also retains its sense of humour.

The conversation was published in 2009 in a special edition of Cultural Studies dedicated to Stuart’s life and work.[3] The advantage of the recording available here for the first time is that the listener can access aspects of Stuart’s style of intellectual dialogue that cannot be transposed to the page. As Roland Barthes commented so much texture is lost through transcription in the reduction of speech to words.[4] I felt this very keenly in relation to the published version of this conversation, so much of the humour and the joy of thinking with Stuart were impossible to convey adequately on the page. The grain of Stuart’s voice contains insight into the key questions of our time, it also demonstrates his “mode of practicing generosity.”[5] This is expressed as much in the ways he speaks, as the content of what he says.

The conversation begins with a discussion of his involvement with new art complex at Rivington Place that had just been opened dedicated to contemporary artists from all over the world. It is the home of the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA) and Autograph – Association of Black Photographers (ABP) in east London is landmark not only for the black arts movement in Britain, it is also a testament to Stuart Hall’s enduring contribution and relevance to its intellectual and political life. As chair of both inIVA and Autograph ABP, Stuart played an integral role in realising this vision of a public space dedicated to creativity and diversity. The £3 million building, designed by architect David Adjaye, offers a place to exhibit art but it also provides a home for ideas, thought and reflection upon the relevance of difference to the visual arts. We started by talking about the library at Rivington Place that is named in Stuart’s honour.

Part I Conjuncture

Download: Part I (mp3 24mb)

Part II Diaspora and out-of-placeness

Download: Part II (mp3 24mb)

Part III British cultural studies, race & class

Download: Part III (mp3 25mb)

Part IV Revolutionary politics & multicultural drift

Download: Part IV (mp3 21mb)

Part V Globalisation and neo-liberalism

Download: Part V (mp3 28mb)

Download audio files: All Parts I – V (mp3 zip) or Alternative formats –


1.  The original recording has been edited by Anamik Saha  [↑]

2. David Scott “Stuart Hall’s ethics,” Small Axe, 17 (2005) p. 4 [↑]

3. Stuart Hall and Les Back (2009) “At Home and note at home”, Cultural Studies, Vol 23, 4: 660-688 [↑]

4. Roland Barthes (1985) The Grain of the Voice: interviews 1962-1980 London: Cape, p. 3 [↑]

5. Scott, p.12 [↑]

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Les Back is a Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His main fields of interest are the sociology of racism, popular culture and city life. His books include: Art of Listening Berg (2007), Auditory Cultures Reader with Michael Bull Berg (2003); Out of Witnesses with Vron Ware, University of Chicago (2002); The Changing Face of Football: Racism and Multiculture in the English Soccer, with Tim Crabbe and John Solomos (Berg 2001); New Ethnicities and Urban Culture: Racisms and Multiculture in Young Lives (University College Press, 1996); Race Politics and Social Change, with John Solomos (Routledge, 1995); Racism and Society, with John Solomos (Macmillan, 1995)
All posts by: Les Back | Email | Website

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