Chartbook #125: Familiar Stranger – Stuart Hall on diasporic thought

A few weeks ago, browsing the bookshop at the Barbican in London I chanced on Familiar Stranger – A Life Between Two Islands, the posthumous memoir by Stuart Hall edited by his friend and colleague Bill Schwarz.

Stuart Hall, born in Kingston Jamacia in 1932, was one of the founders of Universities and Left Review, which after merging with the New Reasoner, gave birth in 1960 to the New Left Review. Hall was one of the original contributors to the Birmingham school of cultural studies, co-author of one of most impressive pieces of analysis to come out of the 1970s, Policing the Crisis. In the 1980s, as a contributor to Marxism Today amongst other publications, Hall was one of the foremost analysts of Thatcherism and the crisis of the Labour Party. The subtlety of his diagnosis of the black diasporic condition, as exemplified by this memoir, is second to none. In our current age of polycrisis, Hall’s thought seems more relevant than ever. Policing the Crisis was constantly in the back of my mind in writing Shutdown.

But encountering Hall’s memoir in the last few weeks touched me in a different way.

In emotional and professional terms the last years, and the last few months in particular have been a maelstrom. Resuming travel to Europe after a long hiatus, in the wake of the consummation of Brexit, this internal turmoil was compounded by questions of identity and meaning that have been in abeyance for a while. For this, Hall’s text – a restless puzzling over the question of diasporic identity and thought – is not just clarifying, but consoling.  

“What shall we call our “self”? Where does it begin? Where does it end?”

Hall’s epigraph taken from Henry James The Portrait of a Lady (1881) sets the tone for the text.

As Hall explains:

 “These memories represent now, for me, not so much specific recollections as a sense of generalized absence – a loss, especially acute since I will probably never be well enough to see them again. They guarantee that I shall be Jamaican all my life, no matter where I am living. Though what that actually meant for men, in terms both of the practicalities of my life and of where my sense of belonging was to be located was much more problematic.” P. 10

Transitioning in 1951 from Jamaica, already on the off ramp to independence, to London and Oxford, never returning to Jamaica as anything more than an occasional visitor, Hall writes that he experienced his “life as sharply divided into two unequal but entangled, disproportionate halves. You could say I have lived … on the hinge … “. P. 11

A place on a hinge – whether in Jamaica in the transition to independence or, for instance, in 1989 in Europe, or China after Tiananmen – is not something you choose. You find yourself there.  

 “…. The transformations of self-identity are not just a personal matter. Historical shifts out there provide the social conditions of existence of personal and psychic change in here.” P. 16

A moment of transition can cast a long shadow. Hall was a small child at the time, but it was the anti-colonial upheaval and labour protest in Jamaica in 1938 that, in later life, he came to understand as overshadowing his youth. As he writes:

looking back, it feels as if 1938 has come to represent the opening skirmish in my personal war of position with my family, where I was uneasily torn between the enclave of the colonial coloured family and the tumultuous world of black Jamaica against which my familial ·enclave was designed to insulate me. These childhood experiences represented for me a slow disentangling of threads, a process of disenchantment and disaffiliation, pointing towards a radically different path ahead: an unpleasant experience, replete with gaps, contradictions, evasive silences, guilt and rage,· But also a journey with only one possible destination: out.

As Hall writes, in relation to these vast historical forces, “what mattered was how I positioned myself on the other side – or positioned myself to catch the other side.” 16

In this “war of position” (a Gramscian phrase), Hall takes inspiration from James Joyce, “who in his own situation, recommended ‘silence, exile and cunning’.”

Silence, exile and cunning are all forms of agency, a muted agency, but agency nevertheless. They are modes of positioning.

This relational idea of positioning runs through the text. As Hall writes:

“… identity is not a set of fixed attributes, the unchanging essence of the inner self, but a constantly shifting process of positioning. We tend to think of identity as taking us back to our roots, the part of us which remains essentially the same across time. In fact identity is always a never-completed process of becoming – a process of shifting identifications. rather than a singular, complete, finished state of being.” 16

“From the very moment” Hall “watched the shoreline of Port Antonio in Jamaica receding into the distance”, he “was shadowed by the question of whether” he would return.

“I think I knew from the beginning that there could be no return, in the sense of regaining what had once been. That delusion never entered my soul, in part, I suspect, because I had no desire to relive my earlier life. But the complex amalgam of these questions about the self impressed itself sharply, both in my inner life and gradually, later, in my more academic and theoretical investigations. The line dividing the two was never great; … The core of the conceptual problem we are dealing with here is this. Are the positions we take regarding the general problem of return to one’s origin best understood as the product of our psychic formation and the way inner conflicts are ‘resolved’? Does psychic formation, in other words, ultimately determine where we stand in relation to such a discourse of restitution? Or, alternatively, are we positioned by discourse and power, as Foucault suggests? This is the theoretical dilemma I’m left with, turning on the explanatory weight we accord to the psychic, on the one hand, and the discursive, on the other: the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’. … It’s no doubt true that the dilemma of whether to return home distilled all these dilemmas in peculiarly concentrated form. But I’m making no larger claim than that. It wasn’t an experience that was exceptional.” p. 170

For Hall the experience of a black intellectual migrant in the dying days of the British Empire was illuminating of wider problems.  

“The great value of diasporic thought, as I conceive it, is that far from abolishing everything that refuses to fit neatly into a narrative – the displacements – it places the dysfunctions at the forefront. In the imaginary it is possible to condense different persons in a single figure, to alter places, to substitute different time frames, or to slip ‘irrationally’ between them, as dreams frequently do. Montage is its lifeblood. We have to work with such ways of telling and speaking, with no attempt to iron out the disruptions. …. There are no alternative, direct routes. In historical reality, we cannot turn back the ever-onward flight path of time’s arrow. We can never go home again, and we need to fashion narrative forms able to catch the full complexities – the displacements, again – of this collective predicament.” 171

For Hall this goes to the heart of his appreciation of theory. For some exponents of the New Left, Marxism functioned as a safe harbor. For others the self-certainty of academic and theoretical rigor was an end in itself. Hall was satisfied by neither and ultimately resigned from the New Left Review editorial board.

‘I shifted from thinking of history as the search for the certainty of all-embracing totalities, to the necessity of recognizing the power of contingency in all historical processes and explanations. Or, in other words, of recognizing that the dynamics of displacement underwrite all social relations.” P. 76

If we cannot reverse time’s arrow, nor is Hall’s embrace of displacement a fuite en avant, a flight into the future. As much as we cannot go backwards, nor can we ever erase the past. As he approached death, Hall knew that he was forever Jamaican. As Hall remarks: “The dynamic of what Freud calls “afterwardness” “undoes any simple ‘before and after’ historical sequence.” P. 78

The “post” in postcolonial is

“not just a matter of the passage of time. It refers to the way one configuration of power, institutions and discourses, which once defined the social field, has been replaced by another. The old has indeed radically changed its form. However, the old has not been transcended. We continue to stand in its shadow. …. not two successive regimes but the simultaneous presence of a regime and its after-effects. …. Jacques Derrida points out that in his use of erasure … one can still read the metaphysical concept through which a cancelling line has been drawn … what options are there except to go on thinking with those old contaminated concepts in their deconstructed state? … there is no “beyond” …. We are what comes “after”, because the after-effects of what was in place “before” have not been superseded, overcome or (as Hegelians have it) sublated. The present still carries the specters of the past hiding inside it.” 24

Though Hall is speaking of the postcolonial condition, it struck me that one might think of both our relationship to neoliberalism, or the current condition of China in these terms, in terms of multiple erasures in which the cancelling and over-writing leaves the past all too visible. Indeed, one could extend the same vision of canceling and over-writing to our intimate lives, in which the past is irretrievably gone and yet inescapably and repeatedly, unexpectedly present.

Displacement poses questions of identification. It poses questions of history. It also poses questions of comprehension. As Hall spells out, the entire project of critical cultural studies was framed by his acute consciousness of displacement, in particular his sense that as a reader of the English literary cannon he was always at one remove, excluded from the habitus that informed the apparent meaning of texts for “native” English and American readers. The texts spoke to him with urgency, but in a different way to that in which they were read by British and American students.

What was in play in these jarring hermeneutic encounters was not a Freudian unconscious, but the discursive unconscious. What Hall’s displacement revealed was the thick web of mutually understood realities and relations – the phenomenological tradition would speak of lifeworlds, Michel Pecheux spoke of the pre-construit – that sustains reciprocity between speaker and hearer. This is what Barthes calls the connotative level.

To illustrate this point, Hall chooses a striking example taken from Barthes’ Mythologies.

An image shows two figures, a man and a woman, walking in the woods, engrossed in conversation.

This is spontaneously read by all knowledgeable viewers in terms of a richer set of metaphorical associations. It is obvious what one is witnessing.

“(T)wo lovers “wrapped up” in one another, oblivious to the rest of the world …”.

The warmth of their affection symbolized by their closeness and the harmony of their appearance.

Nothing further needs to be said. The image has the power that it does because, as Hall puts it, it serves as “the gateway through which ideology invades language. It’s a matter of both cognitive comprehension and what Barthes identified as the “pleasure of the text”.”

We relish the familiar image, which “organizes a discourse of romantic love and its recognizable scenarios. It arouses pleasure and desire.” That, in turn, both motivates and gives meaning to action. “It is at this structural level that language and ideology, or language and power, connect.”

That power, for Hall, is never merely discursive. It is real.

If his mother was the dominant force in Stuart Hall’s early life, weaving him into her desperate effort to maintain a late colonial world of social and racial hierarchy, imparting to him a profoundly fraught sense of identity, another woman, Catherine Hall who he met in 1962 on an Aldermarston protest march turned his life in another direction. As Hall wrote half a century later,

it’s not an exaggeration to say that among many other things – without I think quite knowing what she was doing -~ she rescued me, and saved my life.

Again and again throughout Stuart Hall’s text, Catherine Hall – herself a groundbreaking historian of Victorian Britain and the Caribbean – recurs as his interlocutor and as a fellow traveler across historic hinges and complex play of identifications.

In 1988 Stuart and Catherine Hall embarked on a family holiday in Jamaica. It was by Stuart Hall’s own admissions a difficult trip, on which he was dogged by his growing sense of alienation from the place where he was born. But Stuart Hall found redemption in the fact that for Catherine the same trip had a mirror image effect. She discovered that Jamaica was studded with villages whose names and Baptist churches mirrored those where she had herself grown up and whose history she knew intimately. These villages bearing English names were, they discovered, “free villages” that had been founded by Baptist missionaries in the hope of recruiting recently freed slaves.

The process of researching this historic displacement was for them, both individually and as a couple, generative and consoling.

Over a number of summers which followed we found ourselves off the beaten track, traversing the hills of rural Jamaica in search of the ‘free villages’ which had been established after Abolition … We navigated steep, potholed roads, one of us driving, the other trying to make sense of the maps which never seemed quite right. Many prolonged conversations with passers-by ensued, bringing into my line of vision a Jamaica which for an age I had barely encountered. … Moving from one back road to another, we were, step by step, tracking the processes of the entanglement of Britain and Jamaica through space and time. Our journeys helped us rediscover a vanished past; and they represented for us memory acts which resurrected, and worked with, forgotten histories. … It proved a moving, shared experience. It marks the moment when Catherine first immersed herself in the history of the Caribbean. But it was also important for me, bringing me face to face with a history that only had a distance hazy presence in my mind.” 80

Hall’s book is a precious reminder of the fact that much as we must all navigate the shifting terrain of identification – as Ijeoma Umebinyuo puts it in Disapora Blues, “too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both” – and as much as that terrain is poorly mapped and studded with potholes, as much as its pivots may be shaped by forces beyond our control, we have at our disposal both the creative energy of “positioning” and the strength of human bonds, of love, friendship and comradeship. As Hall’s title – Familiar Stranger – reminds us, displacement may be our inescapable condition, but solitude, anger, disorientation and lovelessness are not.


I love putting out Chartbook. I am particularly pleased that it goes out for free to thousands of subscribers around the world. But what sustains the effort are voluntary subscriptions from paying supporters. If you are enjoying the newsletter and would like to join the group of supporters, press this button and pick one of the three options:

related posts