- This Conjuncture: For Stuart Hall
When Stuart Hall died in 2014, many tributes and memorial activities were planned by organisations, institutions and publications that felt they owed him a debt. New Formations was no exception, and the editorial board spent some time reflecting on an appropriate tribute. Stuart himself, as many of us knew, had little interest in seeing his work codified or memorialised for its own sake. But there was one injunction that many of us were familiar with from that work, his example, and from frequent personal and political conversations with him.
The importance of thinking about ‘the conjuncture’, of ‘getting the analysis right’, was one that Stuart frequently emphasised to his students and interlocutors. The importance of mapping the specificity of the present, of situating current developments historically, of looking out for political threats and opportunities, was always at the heart of Stuart’s conception both of ‘cultural studies’ as a specific intellectual practice, and of the general vocation of critical and engaged scholarship in the contemporary world. For cultural studies in particular, he understood this approach as steering a course between the two extremes that he saw as characterising too much work in the field. At one end of a continuum, he saw a tendency to theoreticism: overly abstract speculation, engaged in theoretical innovation for its own sake, rather than for any obvious analytical gain. At its most extreme this tendency manifests itself as a pure speculative philosophy that only uses cultural ‘objects’ as illustrations for its generalised theses. At the other end, he also decried an excessive particularism – textual analysis, descriptive ethnography – that made no effort to situate or explain its objects of study with reference to any wider set of social relations or historical tendencies. He was careful not to imply that all – or even most – contributions to cultural studies should be seeking to map an entire ‘totality’ of social relations at a given moment. But he did insist on the crucial importance of the question ‘what does this have to do with everything else?’ when examining any phenomenon, however minute.
This shouldn’t be interpreted as a rigid prescription, and New Formations certainly publishes work that occupies every point on this continuum, and several others. New Formations is not specifically a journal of cultural studies, but it is one that prides itself on providing a home for the kind of work that Stuart valued, as well as many others. For this special issue, we decided to invite work that would reflect on or engage with Stuart’s work in whatever way the contributors felt appropriate, but above all with reference to his frequent invocation of conjunctural analysis as an always-necessary and always-urgent [End Page 5] task. Such was the range and quality of the contributions offered, we decided to assign two issues to this task (the second to be published a year or so after this one). So this is double-issue is the first of two volumes of New Formations (and so, technically, the first two of three issues), to be dedicated, in Stuart’s honour, to the understanding of this conjuncture. In this introductory essay I will first consider the relationship between ‘cultural studies’ and ‘conjunctural analysis’ as specific types of intellectual practice, before proposing a specific analysis of our present ‘conjuncture’, in dialogue with the other contributors to this volume.
CULTURAL STUDIES AND CONJUNCTURAL ANALYSIS
‘Conjunctural analysis’ is sometimes said to be the core activity and objective of ‘cultural studies’.1 But what do these terms mean? While all of them require further elaboration, ‘conjunctural analysis’ can be broadly defined as the analysis of convergent and divergent tendencies shaping the totality of power relations within a given social field during a particular period of time. From this perspective, ‘cultural studies’ might be best understood as a species of political sociology, with an analytical emphasis on the study of semiotic practices and a heavy bias towards qualitative modes of analysis. Its primary objective is to map power relations of all kinds in in a given social field, with particular attention to the ways in which those relations are changing at a given moment.
Such a description of...