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Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies

In the summer of 1983, the Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall, who lived and
taught in England, travelled to the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, to deliver a series of lectures on something called
“Cultural Studies.” At the time, many academics still considered the
serious study of popular culture beneath them; a much starker division
existed, then, between what Hall termed the “authenticated, validated”
tastes of the upper classes and the unrefined culture of the masses. But
Hall did not regard this hierarchy as useful. Culture, he argued, does
not consist of what the educated élites happen to fancy, such as
classical music or the fine arts. It is, simply, “experience lived,
experience interpreted, experience defined.” And it can tell us things
about the world, he believed, that more traditional studies of politics
or economics alone could not.

A masterful orator, Hall energized the audience in Illinois, a group of
thinkers and writers from around the world who had gathered for a summer
institute devoted to parsing Marxist approaches to cultural analysis. A
young scholar named Jennifer Daryl Slack believed she was witnessing
something special and decided to tape and transcribe the lectures. After
more than a decade of coaxing, Hall finally agreed to edit these
transcripts for publication, a process that took years. The result is
Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History,” which was published, last fall, as part of an ongoing Duke University Press series called
“Stuart Hall: Selected Writings,” chronicling the career and influence
of Hall, who died in 2014.

Broadly speaking, cultural studies is not one arm of the humanities so
much as an attempt to use all of those arms at once. It emerged in
England, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, when scholars from
working-class backgrounds, such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams,
began thinking about the distance between canonical cultural
touchstones—the music or books that were…

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