What are the main ideas in Stuart Hall's "Cultural Studies and its Theoritical Legacies"?

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e-tdc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The major goal for Stuart Hall in this paper is to define cultural studies as a movement in intellectual thought. In the process, he will show just how difficult it is to define. He does so by trying to argue both for and against any particular definition of cultural studies. Hall first argues against any one definition by calling it a "discursive formation," meaning that the beginnings of cultural studies cannot be found in any one place or in any one person. In fact, he argues that one can only define cultural studies once they know what culture or societal system they are trying to study and critique. 

Hall backs this up with examples. His first example is in the fact that he claims his paper to be "speaking autobiographically," or only speaking from his experience. He does this to prove the point that anyone trying to talk about cultural studies must talk about it from their experience. There is no objective idea of cultural studies to go to. In the same way, Hall is making a point about all intellectual and academic work having to come from a specific experience and time.

Hall's second example is in the relationship between British cultural studies, the field of study that Hall is famous for, and Marxism. Even though there was a common belief that "Marxism and cultural studies slipped into place" and birthed the cultural studies movement, Hall says this is not true: British cultural studies only used Marxism to engage with specific historical problems happening at that specific time.

After giving his reasons against a reliable, objective definition of cultural studies, Hall does his best to give us some kind of definition to rely upon. After all, he claims that it does "matter whether cultural studies is this or that" and that it "can't be just any old thing which chooses to march under a particular banner." It is by politics, or the idea that something is always "at stake," that cultural studies is defining itself. Whether it is Marxism, race and gender studies, or some other field of societal study, cultural studies for Hall must always be related to a political struggle against the problems and injustices of the world in that particular moment. 

Ultimately, Hall finds cultural studies to be a fluid area of study, where, as seen in the quote below, there is always tension between defining (or theorizing) the problems of current events and being defined by those same events:

Here one registers the tension between a refusal to close the field, to police it and, at the same time, a determination to stake out some positions within it and argue for them. That is the tension--the dialogic approach to theory--that I want to try and speak to in a number of different ways in the course of this paper.

lprono eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The paper, originally published in 1992, examines how cultural studies can continue to be a counter-hegemonic critical and political cultural practice in spite of its increasing institutionalization in official institutions. How can cultural studies continue to maintain its critical vein, its challenge to institutionalized power, its strong connections with marginality from within the Academy. One of the crucial point that Hall makes is his final distinction between academic and intellectual work. While they may overlap at times, they are crucially different as intellectual work "does not try to inscribe itself in the overarching metanarrative of achieved knowledges, within the institutions" (286).

Hall also debates the relationship of cultural studies to Marxism. He challenges simple notions that considered cultural studies progressively slipping into Marxism. Yet, he recognizes that his definition of intellectual work is indebted to the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. Practitioners of cultural studies can be defined using Gramsci's idea of the "organic intellectual". Organic intellectuals, like cultural studies, work on two fronts. On the one hand, they cultivate their knowledge, which has to be effective and deep. On the other hand, knowledge cannot be an end in itself as organic intellectuals must make it accessible to those people who are not part of the intellectual class. The same is true about cultural studies whose theoretical legacy is to use theory to stimulate debates that can have political and social impacts.

Page reference to Hall's essay in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula Treichler. New York and London: Routledge, 1992, pp. 277-294