Why Stuart Hall’s Groundbreaking Work on Culture and Identity Still Matters

It’s a sad week for cultural theory geeks. On Monday, the news broke that Stuart Hall had passed away at age 82, due to health complications. He was born in Jamaica, went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and became a trailblazer in British cultural studies, founding the political journal New Left Review and establishing a visual arts center in London devoted to diversity. While Hall lacks the pop-culture dazzle of Žižek or the widespread name recognition of Foucault, he was one of the most important cultural theorists alive. And now, upon his death, his work is worth remembering more than ever.

I read Stuart Hall my first week of college. We tackled “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse” — which, as a media studies major, I would read over and over again in subsequent years — but because it was my first week of college and my first introduction to theory, I was totally overwhelmed. Like most theoretical texts, his writing isn’t exactly accessible. I took furious notes in class because I had no clue WTF Hall was saying. My professor only pulled out the pertinent communications aspects of “Encoding and Decoding,” primarily the idea that audiences do not simply consume a text — they actively engage with it. But the parts of his work that would become the most interesting (and most applicable) to me were the ideas that started with Hall’s own complicated position in the world.

The topics he grappled with were colored by his own experiences as an outsider at Oxford, growing up in Jamaica as part of the Caribbean diaspora, never quite fitting in among his elite British peers, and feeling like a “familiar stranger.” Hall’s ideas about identity formation, culture, and race are entirely relatable, even when they’re not easily readable. He championed the idea that our identities are fluid, rather than fixed, and that things like race gain meaning in difference, redefinition, and appropriation. “Identities are formed at the unstable point where personal lives meet the narrative of history,” he wrote. “Identity is an ever-unfinished conversation.”

Beyond providing fluffy, theoretical “quotable quotes,” his work has real implications for how we approach representation in the media, and how we perceive ourselves thanks to the media. While we now take the importance of diversity on television as a universal fact (even when it doesn’t actually happen), Hall was one of the first people to articulate the value of representing minorities onscreen. And for a certain subset of geeky, bookish types, he actively took part in being one of those onscreen cultural models. Filmmaker John Akomfrah, who produced a documentary on Hall that premiered last September, credits him as being one of the few people of color on television who wasn’t athletic or in the entertainment business, whose very existence on television “suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities’.”

Today, we debate the offensiveness of Han Lee, the heavily stereotyped Asian character on 2 Broke Girls, and argue over whether Lena Dunham has an obligation to show more people of color on Girls. But that’s why it’s important to honor Hall: he was bringing up these issues before these types of conversations were even a given. And that’s something worth remembering.