Tuesday, March 04, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #52]

PAUL GILROY, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line
director's cut, the Village Voice, May 2 2000.

by Simon Reynolds

It was Randall Jarrell, I think, who took the entire oevure of Yeats, did the pre-computer age equivalent of a word-search, and discovered the matrix of forty or so favorite (that's to say, over-used) words and tropes that encapsulated the poet's aesthetic. You could do something similar to Against Race, the new book by Paul Gilroy, the black British cultural studies maven and Yale Professor of Sociology and African American studies. On one side, there'd be the list words that make Gilroy frown: purism, essentialism, roots, unanimism, primordialism, homeland. On the other, the words that make Gilroy smile: hybrid, syncretic, cosmopolitan, transcultural, creole, heteroculture, and, especially, diaspora.
Against Race's contentious contention is that even in their "weak" cultural forms ("mild ethnocentrisms" identity politics, discourses of racial pride), the first frowned-upon cluster of words are philosophically on the path that leads to a bunch of even nastier words: ultranationalism, fraternalism, militarism, fascism, ethnic cleansing.

Against Race is going to upset a lot of people. With admirable courage and forthrightness, Gilroy dismisses race as a quasi-biological mystification, a toxic concept that, even when turned around into black-is-beautiful pride or made the basis of resistance, has basically fucked up our thought. Railing against the "cheap pseudo-solidarities" offered by ethnic loyalty on the grounds that they effectively terminate politics (in the sense of coalition, mediation, negotiation, alliance), Gilroy aims to discredit what he calls "race-thinking" or "raciology". He aims to analyse the history of race as a concept in the same way that Michel Foucault interrogated "sexuality" as discourse and discipline. Gilroy traces the way the near-simultaneous birth of "rationality" and "nationality" at the start of the modern era led to pseudo-scientific mergers of superstition and logic such as eugenics and theories of racial decline through miscegenation. Imperialism, Darwinism and the emergence of ecology, and the growing importance of what Gilroy calls (after Foucault) "biopolitics," created the context for ideas of the people or volk as a quasi-biological organism rooted in specific territory. This in turn led to the Nazis's demand for lebensraum and the literalisation of their slogan "blood and soil"--where the soil is soaked in the blood of the original but now exterminated inhabitants of the conquered territory.

What is going to offend a lot of people is the way that Gilroy shows that fascism is not the special genius of the German people, or even the white race. He reveals not just alarming parallels but strange alliances and mutual respect pacts between black separatist groups and white supremacists. The British National Party actually demonstrated in support of a Bermudan Rastafarian who wanted the UK government to fund his "return" to Ghana. That sounds bizarre, but if you listen to the Seventies roots reggae of groups like The Congos and Israel Vibration, you will hear the word "repatriation" being sung with disconcerting yearning and anticipation. Even more startling is the story of how Marcus Garvey met with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 and concluded that they shared similar ideals of purifying and standarizing the race. Gilroy dubs this syndrome "fraternalist mirroring"--blood-brotherhoods who are enemies but who respect each other as honest representatives of their race, and actually even admire each other's brutality. Garvey's United Negro Improvement Assocation anticipated the European fascists with their use of uniform and drill. In 1937, Garvey boasted "we were the first Fascists... Mussolini copied fascism from me. " Long after the defeat of the great dictactors, his son Marcus Garvey Jnr called in 1974 for "African lebensraum" and talked about "African National Socialism." What connects these depressing examples is a fundamental nation-building narrative, argues Gilroy, that goes back to Moses and underpins the careers of Hitler, Farrakhan, and Milosevic to name just a few: the shepherding of a weak, scattered, decadent but "chosen" people, by a messiah-like leader, towards its manifest destiny and/or promised land.

Against all these different manifestations of "ethnic absolutism", with their tendencies towards authoritarianism, militarism, and pageants of primordial kinship, Gilroy marshalls the concept of diaspora. As developed in The Black Atlantic (his book about the cultural traffic connecting West Africa, the Caribbean, the Southern USA and the U.K), diasporic identity has nothing to do with chosen exile or mere migration; Gilroy stresses the crucial dimension added by the forced nature of the dispersal. It might seem odd to valorize such cataclysmic traumas as the scattering of the Jews or slavery, but Gilroy--himself a child of the Black Atlantic--values the end result: a kind of subject-in-process, neither totally assimilated to the new culture nor able to preserve the old folkways. In turn, diasporic peoples unavoidably transform the cultures they pass through; they unsettle as they settle. London, whose popular culture is a mish-mash of Jamaican, Indian and imported Black American music and style, is one example; the entirety of Brazilian culture is another, where the ideal of mesticagem (mixing) was enshrined as state policy only a few decades after slavery was abolished in the late Nineteenth Century.

Unfortunately the weakest parts of Against Race are those concerned with the play of hybridities and essentialisms in modern pop culture. While you've got to admire his guts in dissing current rap as mere "pseudo-rebellion" and appreciate his chutzpah in using Luther "2 Live Crew'" Campbell's professed debt to lecherous Brit comedian Benny Hill as proof that hip hop is not a purely black artform, Gilroy's analyses of contemporary rap and R&B are riddled with strained over-interpretations, non-sequiturs, and arguments that trail off frustratingly. There's also a fogey-ish slant to his repetitious complaints about the video age and its privileging of image over sound, or his misinformed identification of sampling and programmed rhythm with musical de-skilling (no, Paul, it's just a new form of digital-not-manual virtuosity). Despite his nostalgia for the bespectacled seriousness of Curtis Mayfield and the fluent fingers of bassist Marcus Miller, he does acknowledge that it's precisely in the domain of computerized dance music that the praxis of "multiculture" is at its most vital--clubs, raves, pirate radio, are the real Rock Against Racism, he argues. Indeed, rave's implicity anti-fascist bodypolitics can be traced all the back to the secret parties in Nazi Germany where "niggerjew" jazz was played on gramophones rather than by live bands. The sound-not-visuals oriented hybridity of underground dance contrasts with the "specular" orientation of "corporate sponsored multiculture", where imagery of blackness as vitality, health, beauty and physical potency circulate in music videos, sports, fashion, and advertising, and negritude has been transformed "from a badge of insult into an increasingly powerful but still very limited signifier of prestige".

As Gilroy concedes, some of the race-thought eradication he wants to see is already being implemented by globalisation. But he doesn't really take on the quite powerful notion that ideas of local tradition and ethnic identity might be useful resources for resistance, if only in the mechanical sense of a drag or recalcitrant counterweight to capitalism's tendency to dissolve all forms of solidarity and difference. This in turns opens up another set of problems that Gilroy acknowledges but doesn't attempt to resolve: how to avoid the kind of homogenisation caused by globalisation without being insular, Luddite, nativist; how to avoid the weak and banal forms of rootless cosmpolitanism in which "everything becomes... blended into an impossibly even consistency" . The problem is that Nietzche was right: a fierce sense of identity and an us-versus-them worldview creates a certain kind of will, vehemence, and certainty that people find attractive and energizing. Which is why, as the old ethnic, regional and religious tribalisms fade, new ones keep emerging around culture and consumption--new volks like death-metal fans, snowboarders, Abercrombie and Fitch wearers. Maybe, for all Gilroy's hopes, there's actually an innate and almost pre-cultural instinct towards tribalism--look at the way children instinctively form gangs and show hostility towards the non-same. Humanism and tolerance have to be learned, they're part of the civilising process (which is why Nietzche was against civilisation and regarded the "will to stupidity" as an evolutionary advantage). Fascism and ethnocentrism can also draw upon all the irrational romance of the archaic and mythological--the seductive sagas of decline and rebirth, the resurrection of lost imperial powers and the inauguration of new eras. In response, Gilroy imagines abandoning the mythopoeic allure of antiquity and instead relocating utopia in the future: a "heterocultural, postanthropological and cosmopolitan yet-to-come".

In the end, the grand problem at the heart of Against Race is how to reinvent "that perilous pronoun "we" without lapsing into the inclusion/exclusion effect, into us/them psychology with all its consolations and intoxications. Gilroy's answer is to wield a bigger "We" that will hopefully subsume the smaller, squabbling "we's"--a species-level "strategic universalism" that repairs the shattering damage caused by raciology to the notion of the human. Following his hero Franz Fanon, the great anti-colonialist thinker, he wants to renew Europe's humanist project and simultaneously "purge and redeem" the Enlightement of its darkside (imperialism, racism, the coupling of reason and superstition that culminated in the scientific slaughter of the concentration camps). It's a noble but somewhat woolly ideal, and it's ironic that Gilroy takes heart from the way white and black unite to fight malevolent extra-terrrestials in movies like Independence Day and Men In Black, without realising that this is just racism on the cosmic scale, war against monstrous Others that truly are alien.

Weirdly , Against Race feels both overlong and sketchy. Passages of amazing lucidity and original insight alternate with garbled meanders where Gilroy seems perpetually on the verge of actually saying something. He also has an annoying habit of ending sections with long series of questions that propose fruitful areas of further enquiry, which only serves to frustrate the reader by making you think 'well, why didn't you enquire further?' Gilroy's prose demeanour can also be off-putting--a controlled simmer of indignation beneath the cool Sidney Poitier-like surface of elegant professionalism, revealed in odd verbal tics of squeamishness like his use of phrases like "unwholesome ideology" and "unsavory political phenomena" to describe things he disapproves of, like the Afrikaaner Voortrekkers. Other rhetorical gestures have the flavor of the lectern--lots of "I want to ask" or "I want to argue" , constant admonishments not to overlook or pass over too quickly the role of X in Y, calls for vigilance and diligence, soundings of notes of caution. Schoolmarmy tone and what Gilroy himself calls "my own wilfully dislocated argument" aside, Against Race is a brave and compelling book.

1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

re. the BNP and black purists: its current leader, Nick Griffin, distributed Nation of Islam documents in Britain in the 1980s, at a time when many within hip-hop (most notably Public Enemy) were strongly pro-Farrakhan.

There was a major conflict in the National Front at the time between Griffin's Third Positionist lot (who were into forming alliances with the likes of Gadaffi's regime in Libya, mainly because Islamists shared their own anti-Semitism) and the Flag Group, who were yer usual dahn-the-pub populists. The Griffinites supported the miners in the 84/85 strike, even before Gorbachev became Soviet leader, because they believed that Britain should retain its own industry to make economic nationalism easier to achieve, and spoke of "Marx and Hollywood" in the same breath as "alien" influences corrupting the British people - part of the Third Positionist "against Communism and capitalism" ideology.

Griffin today of course is strongly anti-Islam, but mainly so as to capitalise on mass hysteria and (he hopes) get in The Sun - he has still attempted to form anti-Islam alliances with British Hindus and Sikhs, a logical step on from anti-Jewish alliances with Muslims.

In Britain, the Westwood Question looms large over issues of race and authenticity, specifically where they interrelate with hip-hop (I'm not saying you should have mentioned it here, though: a US audience would I think find the specific resonances quite hard to understand). Tim W will always be seen by some as an intruder to their territory, by others as a race traitor. A black presenter on BBC Radio 3 (the long-established national classical music station) or even one on BBC Radio 4 (the main speech network) would be regarded as an intruder *by the same people who regard Westwood as a race traitor* and as a race traitor *by the same people who regard Westwood as an intruder*. Deeply depressing, of course, but fact. What does this say? Only that racial purism is something from which few of us are immune - I certainly wouldn't say I am - even if we think we are.

Even though I may well have leanings, though, I don't think racial purism is anything to do with my antipathy to the current wave of white soul in the UK charts: on the contrary, I'd prefer a greater engagement with what's happening in black pop *now*. What we're seeing is a grand abuse of Dusty Springfield's legacy, a prioritisation of her *sound* over her *spirit*. Replace Dusty's name with that of the Beatles, of course, and you'd have Britpop: I think *that's* my problem with it.