Stuart Hall (1932-2014), the late public intellectual, educator, and activist, straddled multiple disciplines—while generating what became Cultural Studies. He was a founding editor of New Left Review and an early collaborator at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham.
The CCCS began as an attempt to understand the relationship between culture, everyday life, and politics and the erasure of the working class in post-World War II Great Britain. Under Hall’s direction (1968-1979) the CCCS shifted its focus toward a more explicitly Marxist analysis and an application of later Marxist theorists as their works were translated into English, most notably, Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. Hall utilized Marx but found the economic determinism too limiting (favoring a “Marxism without guarantees”). For Hall, Gramsci proved the indelible interlocutor.
Hall’s primary methodological approach of conjuncture is a useful lens for political theology. Conjunctural analysis takes seriously that social change is always bound up within historical conditions and particular incidents. A conjuncture contains the circumstances and conditions of the past and their collision into the present. How, then, are our current discourses contingent on what has snowballed?
Besides straddling multiple disciplines, Hall also straddled multiple cultures; born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1932, as a colonial subject of Great Britain, he left for Oxford, the heart of the imperial state, on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1951. Hall occupied the liminal space between colonized and colonizer (a “familiar stranger”) and the different “shades” of being “Black” and “British”—although he never considered himself British—that he often dissected from his lived experience.
However, it was Hall’s ability to exegete popular culture as a site of ideological struggle within politics that makes him an invaluable theorist for political theologians seeking to interpret our current conjuncture. An analysis of culture within politics is not necessarily novel, but as Cornel West prompts: “we all grew up reading Hall. We wouldn’t be here without him. We all stand on his shoulders.” This is partly because before Hall’s insistence on utilizing popular culture as a true litmus test for political reaction, there was still a distinction between “high” and “low” culture. Hall understood the purpose of analyzing culture as:
… not to show, in some modish way, that we are keeping up with the times. These are directly relevant to the imaginative resistances of people who have to live within capitalism—the growing points of social discontent, the projection of deeply-felt needs… The task of socialism today is to meet people where they are, where they are touched, bitten, moved, frustrated, nauseated… (New Left Review 1, no. 1 January-February 1960)
As a (reluctant) cultural theorist favoring the conjuncture, Hall preferred the essay as it provided a snapshot of a historical moment and interventions conducive to those complexities. Therefore, in true Hallsian spirit, I want to run the rest of this essay through a conjunctural analysis, noting the mutually correlative places in which political theology (for this essay I am using political theology as a politically engaged theological framework) can enhance Hall’s work and where Hall might nudge political theology in new directions.
One place in which Hall’s analysis of culture could enhance political theology is through his insistence on how media messaging is decoded rather than merely encoded. In one of Hall’s influential essays, canonical within media studies, “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse” (hereafter, ED), he argues against the idea that specific meanings are written into (encoded) texts and are decoded perfectly on the other end. People always decode from their social locations.
Decoding is the result of a variety of textual readings. Hall writes, “Before this message can have an ‘effect’ (however defined), satisfy a ‘need’ or be put to a ‘use’, it must first be perceived as a meaningful discourse and be meaningfully decoded” (ED, 260). The process of decoding is not as simple as unpacking encoded messaging; rather, Hall proposes three “hypothetical” reading positions of decoding’s construction: “dominant-hegemonic,” “negotiated,” and “oppositional.” Within our current conjuncture, one thread to analyze is the debate around kneeling for the national anthem as it is ripe for a Hallsian critique, and one in which political theology is positioned to not only exegete the symbols but strategize interventions.
After the initial COVID-19 shutdown, when sports slowly reemerged throughout the world, moments of silence and raised fists in support of Black Lives Matter reignited a seemingly latent debate. The debate did not center on the United States’ abject failure to handle the virus. The debate centered on kneeling for the national anthem. Once again, kneeling for the anthem was somehow disrespectful of the United States’ flag and, with liturgical reverence, the service members that “died for the flag.”
In the redux of this debate that began in 2016 with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest, it was another quarterback, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, who drew ire when he reiterated that he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America.”
Brees’ ideological logic suggests that because veterans died for this country, you must stand during the national anthem. The underside of this ideology is seldom taken into account. For example, those who oppose players kneeling rarely consider that at precisely the same time veterans under the inept care of a US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) long-term care facility were ravaged by COVID-19 at figures that vastly outnumber those killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan. There are material ways in which we can care for those who have served in the military; simply standing for the national anthem is not supporting the military.
Arguing that athletes are not protesting the military and that the players have been clear in what they are protesting is ineffective because the argument takes place within an ideology, and as Hall reminds us, ideology is never consistent—nor coherent. The national anthem debate is an encoded message with multiple layers. So, although this essay isn’t about the military, it is about how political theologians might analyze how the media develops encoded filters to maintain the functioning of a dominant ideological system.
Using the theoretical resources of Hall, how might political theology understand the national anthem debate, particularly in this political moment when “I can’t breathe” is the deadly refrain of multiple pandemics? The multiplicity resides within the rupturing pandemics of COVID-19, anti-Black racism, police brutality, white vigilantism, and devastating poverty. Hall offers a path through the ideological malaise toward what he called an “oppositional” position of decoding.
First, in the dominant-hegemonic decoding position, Hall, utilizing Gramsci, describes how the media texts of culture are infused with the common sense ideology of a dominant group. The messaging is decoded exactly how the encoded message was intended. These viewers are inside the prevailing code. A dominant-hegemonic reading of the ongoing national anthem kneeling “controversy” is the binary rhetoric to either stand out of respect for military service members or leave the country. The rhetoric is quasi-religious, if not overtly an expression of civic religion. The service member is treated as salvific. (“Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you: Jesus Christ and the American soldier. One died for your soul and the other died for your freedom,” as one trope retorts). It is heresy to speak against that sacrificial logic.
Therefore, the dominant-hegemonic logic understands professional athletes as wealthy and detached from the concerns of these oppressed communities and that kneeling is purely a selfish attempt to elevate oneself. Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham supports Drew Brees, stating that he “is allowed to have his view on political issues.” The cracks appear, however, when one dissects how she responded in 2018 to LA Lakers star LeBron James: she implored him to “shut up and dribble.” The dominant-hegemonic reading can be summed up as, if you are Black or brown, shut up and play. The hypocrisy is not surprising; as conjunctures represent a struggle toward hegemony, the dominant-hegemonic logic adapts its project. Hall noted this adaptation in his analysis of authoritarian populist governments, which he coined as an ideology of Thatcherism.
The second reading position is a negotiated code in which “majority audiences probably understand quite adequately what has been dominantly defined and professionally signified.” (ED, 273). These readings highlight contradiction and “the legitimacy of the hegemonic definitions to make the grand significations, while, at a more restricted, situational level, it makes its own ground rules, operating with ‘exceptions’ to the rule.” (ED, 273).
A negotiated reading would entail decoding that can hold the nuance that the nationwide protests are about the brutality of American police forces on Black and brown communities, but maintain that the players should protest in different ways. Examples include: “We should have a conversation and listen”; “we should reform”; “we should take incremental steps”; “looting is no way to make change”, or “remember this and vote.”
Finally, Hall offers the possibility of a contrarian decoding of texts, one which “opposes” the dominant-hegemonic position. Hall states that such a reading “detotalizes the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference” (ED, 274).
A conjuncture not only represents the threads that are interwoven in each interlocking moment, it also highlights collaborative efforts toward interventions. It is at this point that analysis from political theology assists Hall in bringing this opposition to life. Hall and political theology would agree here: theory has its limits, a commitment to some form of praxis is necessary. Political theology, as a politically-engaged theological framework, is committed not only to marginalized communities but also to understanding how our solidarity with those marginalized communities is an active aspect of praxis. Hall understood his politics similarly: he dropped out of a PhD program to devote his time to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Our oppositional positions of resistance emerged, from the ground up, in the Black Lives Matter movement. This conjuncture, remember, amid summer 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, brought protest and demands for change throughout the world. Poignantly, the “oppositional” reading of national anthem protest as it is embodied in Black Lives Matter is the critique that the media’s response to the kneeling is not about supporting the military; rather, the media’s response is about upholding systemic racism and subjugation of Black and brown communities. The oppositional critique is an amplification of another paradigm.
Hall would remind readers that an oppositional reading will not come from the NFL nor commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell released a statement on June 5th, 2020, that “we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier.” Woke neoliberal capitalism is quick to put out a statement of faint support while maintaining a commitment to profits. Companies, such as Citigroup or Nike, joined the hashtag resistance, but technocratic reform is no reform at all. Religious communities, too, have been on the front lines of promoting or abdicating (or abdicating through silence) the struggle for Black lives and a preferential option for the marginalized. These messages, too, need decoding.
Perhaps this is where political theology takes the lead. The imagery of the national anthem debate is shrouded in quasi-theological symbols. The salvific service member dies for our freedom. Kneeling is reserved for reverence to the gods—not for protest. The critique is ripe to continue pushing back against a sacrificial logic of war’s death and destruction. The spirit resides with an oppositional clarion call in movements like Black Lives Matter, which resist an adaptation from those same strands of woke neoliberal capitalism. This prophetic witness is an opportunity to remain in solidarity with the marginalized. The call, then, is to bear witness and join the intervention as it presents itself in our current moment.
Such opposition is not within the current structure. Throughout Hall’s career, he lamented his frustration with the failures of the Left; a failure of imagination. For Hall, radical politics imagine new possibilities and interventions within our conjuncture. Hall was resolute that, like his appreciation for jazz, socialism remained an emergence of the possible. The possible is a crucial intervention for our conjuncture.
Starting points in Stuart Hall’s bibliography:
“Culture, the Media, and the ‘Ideological Effect’.” In Essential Essays, Volume 1:
Foundations of Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley, 298-335. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.
“Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse.” In Essential Essays, Volume 1:
Foundations of Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley, 257-276. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.
Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands. Edited by Bill Schwarz. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.
“The Great Moving Right Show.” In Selected Political Writings: The Great
Moving Right Show and Other Essays, edited by Sally Davison, David Featherstone, Michael Rustin, and Bill Schwarz, 172-186. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.