Stuart Hall: The formation of a diasporic intellectual

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Stuart Hall has been central to the formation and development of cultural studies as an international discipline. The book this text is extract from, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge, NY 1996) provides a representative selection of Hall's enormously influential writings on cultural studies and its concerns: the relationship with marxism; postmodernism and 'New Times' in cultural and political thought; the development of cultural studies as an international and postcolonial phenomenon and Hall's engagement  with urgent and abiding questions of 'race', ethnicity and identity. 

When I was seventeen, my sister had a major nervous breakdown. She began a relationship with a young student doctor who had come to Jamaica from Barbados. He was middle-class, but black and my parents wouldn't allow it. There was a tremendous family row and she, in effect, retreated from the situation into a breakdown. I was suddenly aware of the contradiction of a colonial culture, of how one lives out the colour-class-colonial dependency experience and how it could destroy you, subjectively.
I'm telling this story because it was very important for my personal development. It broke down for ever, for me, the distinction between the public and the private self. I learned about culture, first, as something which is deeply subjective and personal, and at the same moment, as a structure you live. I could see that all these strange aspirations and identifications which my parents had projected onto us, their children, destroyed my sister. She was the victim, the bearer of the contradictory ambitions of my parents in this colonial situation. From then on, I could never understand why people thought these structural questions were not connected with the psychic -  with emotions and identifications and feelings because, for me, those structures are things you live. I don't just mean they are personal, they are, but they are also institutional, they have real structural properties, they break you, destroy you.
It was a very traumatic experience, because there was little or no psychiatric help available in Jamaica, at that time. My sister went through a series of ECT treatments given by a GP, from which she's never properly recovered. She never left home after that. She looked after my father until he died. Then she looked after my mother until she died. She took care of my brother who became blind, until he died. That's a complete tragedy, which I lived through with her, and I decided I couldn't take it: I couldn't help her, I couldn't reach her, although I understood what was wrong. I was seventeen, eighteen.
But it crystallized my feelings about the space I was called into by my family. I was not going to be destroyed by it. I had to get out. I felt that I must never put myself back into it, because I would be destroyed. When I look at the snapshots of myself in childhood and early adolescence, I see a picture of a depressed person. I don't know how to be somebody else. And I am depressed by that. All of that is the background to explain why I eventually migrated.


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