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Stuart Hall’s deconstruction of fate

Originally published: NewBlackMan (in Exile) by Amanda Bennett (October 31, 2017)

The island of Barbuda is currently devoid of human life, a bleak reality that is both unfathomable in its scope and seemingly inevitable under the conditions of racialized capitalism. The severity of Hurricane Irma’s impact was undoubtedly worsened by the gross consumption of natural resources, particularly by nations that historically benefitted from colonialism and the construction of empire. Of Hurricane Irma and other precedent-setting storms, Bolivian president Evo Morales wrote on Twitter that the “devastation of hurricanes is caused by pollution of capitalism,” specifically targeting the damage done to the environment by nations such as the United States and Great Britain through their industrial pursuits.

In his lecture, “The Formation of Cultural Studies,” Hall states that Fate is “the language of a class to which things happen, not of a class without any command on history. It’s the language of a class to which things happen, not of a class which makes things happen” (Hall 10). Thus, was it really “Fate” that determined Barbudans to be undeserving of their native home and suitable prey for the IMF, or was it unabashed greed and callousness, cloaked in the neocolonial idea of “modernity”? It appears that one’s position in the dialectic of modernity (in which one is either “backwards” or “advanced”) determines not only whether one deserves to be represented as a legitimate force in “high culture,” but also whether or not one has the right to retain control over the stability of one’s own body on this earth.

It is here—in the conflation of the concepts of modernity, capitalism, high culture, and the right to exist and have rights—that Hall launches his conceptualization of cultural studies. Specifically, it is his aim to metaphorically pull back the curtains on the ambiguous illusion of fate to reveal a complex web of material and ideological threads that determine who is rich and who is poor, who is colonizer and who is colonized, and ultimately, who may live and who must die. Hall’s envisioning of cultural studies implodes the godlike status of the colonizer and releases his stranglehold on the valve through which the formerly colonized and oppressed may have access to power, representation, joy, and life.

“What is the function of ideology?” Hall asks. “It is to reproduce the social relations of production. The social relations of production are necessary to the material existence of any social formation or any mode of production. But the elements or the agents of a mode of production, especially with respect to the critical factor of their labour, have themselves to be continually produced and reproduced” (Hall 129). In his laborious tracing of the genealogy of European Marxist thinkers such as Althusser and Gramsci, Hall deconstructs the ambiguous and omnipotent construct of “fate” in order to expose both the very real mechanics of global exploitation of formerly colonized subjects, as well as the veil of “false consciousness” that prevents the exploited from “recognizing the real” (Hall 128).

Thus, Hall’s lectures can be used contemporaneously more than thirty years later in order to critique discourses around issues such as racialized police brutality, the right to protest, and the continued stigmatization of “low culture” (such as hip hop and Rastafarianism) that are primarily created by those most harmed in the colonizer/colonized dialectic. Through Hall, it becomes possible to analyze these discourses not as even handed debates about patriotism, individual intentions, and personal taste. Rather, within Hall’s cultural studies framework, these issues become sites of resistance to hegemonic control.

In exercising the right to protest systemic racism and the racialized violence endemic to America’s existence as a carceral state, black people seek to dispel the opacity of “fate” and stridently refuse to remain objects trapped within a system that quite literally profits from their lifeblood. Through Hall, readers are able to identify the cultural, physical, and economic mechanics of hegemony that the State and the capitalist class consistently employ to project the illusion that a black life is necessarily fated to be miserable, sick, poor, and subservient. Furthermore, like cultural studies, early hip hop and Rastafarianism often acted as a counter-hegemonic force, speaking directly to those on the “lower frequencies” (as Ralph Ellison said) to dispel ideas of a racialized “fate” and begin the arduous work of picking apart the threads of this world.

Hall particularly emphasizes the potential of cultural forms (such as music, dance, and spirituality) as vehicles for the creation of new subjectivities. In the lecture “Culture, Resistance, and Struggle,” Hall notes the importance of learning to “maintain the difference between yourself and the other in the moments between the points where you can resist openly” (Hall 198). In this space of difference, the development of hip hop and Rastafarianism become methods of resistance, allowing the oppressed to convey messages to each other that are often cloaked in the stereotypes that the dominant class used to justify their exploitation. For Hall, the use of cultural forms as political projects directed toward liberation allows marginalized groups to transform spaces of liminality into crucial hubs of hope, catharsis, and organization. Hall’s work seems to only increase in relevance and urgency with the passing of time, particularly as more insidious and seemingly “natural” methods of suppressing new black subjectivities emerge within the current political and environmental moment.

How much of a claim do formerly colonized peoples have over the earth, and how do old colonial relationships strive to delegitimize that claim in the pursuit of capital and hegemonic control? Britain is certainly no longer the expansive empire that it once was during the nineteenth century, nor is it the budding Thatcherian neoliberal experiment of Hall’s time. Great Britain—as well as all other colonial powers, including the United States—are morphing into something else entirely, positioning themselves as vultures that pick apart the geographic and physical carcasses of the destruction that their insatiable greed leaves behind.

The destruction and economic exploitation of the former British colony of Barbuda is no more a consequence of fate than the State-sanctioned murders of black Americans such as Philando Castile and Eric Garner. it is, as Michel Foucault declared, “the order of things,” and it is the aim of Hall’s work and the field of cultural studies to facilitate a complete disruption of that order before we are all washed away.

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