Learning from Stuart Hall: the Limit as Method

(Here’s a guest post from Sareeta Amrute. Sareeta is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington. She is currently completing her first book, Encoding Race, Encoding Class: an Ethnography of Indian IT Workers in Berlin (Duke U. Press). You can read more about her scholarship on her website)

Stuart Hall’s work is notable for the way it links biography, critique from within and of the ‘Left’, and a Marxian analysis of capitalism and popular culture. Hall passed away in February 2014, and is the subject of a series of talks on his life and work ongoing here in Seattle at the University of Washington. These remembrances inspired me to think more closely about Stuart Hall’s specific contribution to research methodology. Hall uses two sense of the limit to ground his research. First, he thinks through limit cases to question a given theorization. Second, he thinks at the limit to uncover what is not yet know about a particular case. The limit as research methodology has, to my mind, a very anthropological sensibility about it, since it uses empirical cases to talk back to establish categories, and at the same time, keeps newly developed conceptualizations open-ended.

I began my return to Stuart Hall by re-reading an essay that I’ve returned to time and again: Stuart Hall’s 1996, “When Was The Post-Colonial? Thinking at the Limit”. In this essay, Hall notes that the term post-colonial is useful precisely because of its ambiguity, the way it troubles—even while acknowledging the power of—the binaries of ‘then’ and ‘now’, ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ (246-8). As such, its periodization, emphasizing as it does the colonial encounter, provides an alternative narrative of capitalist modernity that puts the peripheries at the center of a story normally told from the perspective of European modernization (Hall here anticipates Dipesh Chakrabarty’s theoretical moves in Provincializing Europe). “The post-colonial”, Hall writes in that piece,

“is no different from other ‘posts’. It is not only ‘after’ but ‘going beyond’ the colonial… colonialism refers to a specific historical moment … but it was always also a way of staging or narrating a history” (Hall, ‘When was the Post-Colonial Thinking at the Limit’, 253).

But re-reading Hall’s essay this time around in concert with his earlier essay from 1980, “Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance” made me think more concretely of Stuart Hall’s method of building concepts and of doing analysis. The essay on the post-colonial mobilizes the idea of the limit to mean an “episteme-in-formation”, denoting an emergent relationship of power, temporality, and knowledge that both carries with it colonial ‘after-effects’ as Hall calls them, and marks a shift that reconfigures those relations.

In the earlier essay, the limit appears as something else. Hall is concerned in ‘Race, Articulation and Societies Structures in Dominance’ to move beyond two dominant paradigms for understanding racism, which he diagnoses as economic determinism and sociological pluralism.

The first, familiarly perhaps, reduces race to a mystifying expression of underlying class relations. The economy is the determining factor in the constitution of race. The second correctly objects to this line of thought by arguing that not all manifestations of race can be reduced to economic relationships. It however sidelines any possible relationship between economic structures and racial formations, thereby producing multiple types of racial formation without being able to link any of these to the social and historical conditions through which they are produced.

In the essay, Hall charts a methodology that will create an historically grounded framework for the analysis of race and social domination based on three principles of investigation, which he derives from a heterodox reading of Marx: First, “that the analysis of political and ideological structures must be grounded in their material conditions of existence (the materialist premise) and second, that the specific forms of these relations. . . must be made historically specific” by supplying those elements that can explain their differences (372). This latter is what Hall calls the historical premise. Finally, the third principle is that what we might today call relations of power, or in his words, ‘structures in dominance’ is followed through any given social relationship at hand. These principles are a starting point for doing work that connects questions of capitalism and capitalist formations with those of race, domination, and cultural hegemony.

If these three principles are a kind of distillation of Hall’s method of exposition, how did he get there? I think he did so by thinking in another way about the ‘limit’. In the essay ‘Race, Articulation and Societies Structures in Dominance’, the limit is used in terms of thinking through the ‘limit case’ of South Africa. South Africa, a clear example of an economy organized along racial lines, presented for Hall a case that could neither be fully explained by recourse to capitalist economics, nor by reference to the racist South African state. Each without the other was a partial explanation, inadequate to the task of understanding social domination.

The importance of the limit in this sense of an empirical case that gives the lie as it were to easy theoretical positions and to political polemics seems important in much of Hall’s work. In the post-colonial essay, for instance, Latin America with its long history of colonization and early decolonization provides a limit case for the term, allowing, indeed forcing, Hall to confront what is generalizable about the term (that it inaugurates a shifted narrative about the significance of colonial relationships to the unfolding of the history of colonized and metropolitan places). And, in the wonderfully-named short piece “The Whites of their Eyes” on race and representation in media, the practice of nativist politics used by the Labor Party in Britain in the name of job protection for the working classes serves as Hall’s limit case through which to think more carefully about how the politics of class and of race are aligned and fractured under certain historically specific conditions (in Hall’s case, Thatcherite Britain).

From Hall’s deployment of the ‘limit case’ we can see the way that a given social reality generates not another type of social life, but the careful reworking of existing frames of analysis. In this way, the limit case circles back to the limit as the edge of an emergent episteme. By thinking through a limit case, the outlines of that episteme (the trace of the limit) beyond which thinking has not yet gone, begin to be discerned.

These very grounded methods for engaging in research are for me one of Hall’s most important contributions to the human sciences, enabling the insights of ethnographic ‘limit cases’ to push at and delineate the limits of what is currently known.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

2 thoughts on “Learning from Stuart Hall: the Limit as Method

  1. Sareeta, thank you. You have given us so much to read and re-read, think and think over again. The image of the ethnographic case pushing against the limits of theory is a powerful one. Even more important is the way in which you direct our attention to Hall’s first two principles, “that the analysis of political and ideological structures must be grounded in their material conditions of existence (the materialist premise) and second, that the specific forms of these relations. . . must be made historically specific” and the way you move on to the the way in which the limit “gives the lie. . . . to easy theoretical positions and to political polemics.” Here is a way for anthropology to enter current debates without seeming to offer nothing but wordy repetition of what popular culture’s pundits and comedians already take for granted — covering up detail with familiar figures of speech.

  2. Thanks John–for me, it’s so clear when Hall describes how race, class and popular culture work together, but trying to figure out how he got to these pronouncements was very instructive and rewarding.

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