Commentary on David Scott’s ‘The Life and Work of Stuart Hall’ by ARC Student Fellow Marc Kagan.

David Scott, On the Problems of Writing Biography.

“What does it mean to write a life, to give intellectual character to a life?” David Scott, Columbia University professor of Anthropology, asked, as he wrestles with a different type of writing than he has done before, a planned biography of Stuart Hall. “Why Hall? Why biography?” As Scott is still grappling with these questions, much of his talk was about the problems he faces rather than his solutions.

An expatriate from Jamaica in his youth, Hall was an early participant in the founding of the British New Left and a leading light in the Cultural Studies and Black Arts movements. He was at the center of debates about identity, neo-liberalism and Thatcherism, the diaspora, Gramsci and Althusser. Yet Hall, Scott said, was a theorist without one big theory or methodology. Rather, he sought to “bend the twig from where it was stuck…. To ask a new kind of question.”

As a very public intellectual, Hall became almost the metaphorical or figurative embodiment of some of these historical conjunctures, their converging and diverging moments. Other intellectuals saw themselves through Hall, or found themselves refracted through Hall’s work. Later in his life, reflecting on his ideas and work in interviews and discussions with Scott, the real and actual Stuart Hall would find himself face to face with the ways he was perceived and represented. As the GC’s own David Nasaw wrote, in the introduction to a group of articles on biography he moderated in 2009, biography shows, “lives in dialectical relationship to the multiple social, political and cultural worlds they inhabit and give meaning to.”[1]

But how to best write this story? Clearly, an intellectual biography of ideas does not capture the largest meaning of Hall’s life. One approach is to place Hall’s work in the context of the succession of intellectual and political movements with which he was engaged. Alice Kessler-Harris has written that biography allows us to see individual or small group agency conflicting or aligning with broader social and political structures; we can see a person fall in and out of fashion with their times. “We will learn something if we watch the weather change, the value systems shift, the storm descend and retreat: as we observe the engaged life struggle to maintain its balance.”[2] Thus, near the end of his life, Scott suggested, Hall engaged less successfully with radical Islam.

A somewhat different approach is to place Hall’s work in the context of his life as a Jamaican entering still-imperial Britain. While Britain made Hall in a way that Jamaica couldn’t or didn’t, Scott is intrigued by the figure of Hall leaving his native land at 18, in 1951, wholly or partially formed by his colonial (family, school, social, and political) experience. Yet, if Scott assesses Hall on the boat, is this already teleological, denying contingency? And if you assume that Hall’s experiences produced a mindset on decolonization, race, and class, how far to cast the net in comparison? In the discussion that followed Scott’s talk, it was noted that Hall’s youthful milieu also produced Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul, other products of a British education intended to produce a “civilized” local elite. Following this line of thought further might lead us out of the Empire to the French Caribbean’s Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, or a back a generation and out of conventional periodization, to C.L.R. James, or across the ocean, to Nehru and Gandhi. These issues also impact on how or whether Scott will place himself in the story, as a Jamaican expatriate of a later generation, yet still, he said, an object of the civilizing mission.

Scott is also enmeshed in the story as a familiar of Hall in his later years, raising issues of distance. In discussion, Scott was asked whether he was in danger of writing a “love letter” to Hall. He responded with a confession that Hall had characterized a Scott communication with him in exactly those terms. Of course, proximity also gives Scott particular insights not always available to the biographer. It allows him the luxury, and also the burden, of weighing the significance when Hall’s and other people’s accounts of the same stories diverged. Hall’s extended interviews with Scott were, in a sense, his own effort to give meaning and coherence to his own life – how much to privilege them? In what ways do the choices Hall made in these discussions provide evaluative grist for the analytic and contextual mill of unpacking Hall’s life? The problem of “I know too much” is obviously a good one to have, yet it imposes fiercer and harder requirements and demands on the author to really see his subject.  

~Marc Kagan.


[1] David Nasaw, “AHR Roundtable: Historians and Biography – Introduction,” The American Historical Review. 114, no. 3 (2009): 573.

[2] Alice Kessler-Harris, “Why Biography?,” The American Historical Review. 114, no. 3 (2009): 625.