In occasione dei trent’anni di There Ain’t No Black, abbiamo ritenuto necessario dedicare un appuntamento del terzo ciclo di seminari a un dialogo con Paul Gilroy, figura chiave del vasto panorama dei cultural studies. Di seguito alcuni estratti dell’intervento che ci pongono da subito i primi interrogativi: cosa è cambiato in questi trent’anni? Abitiamo ancora i valori storici e politici della congiuntura di cui parla il libro? Siamo ancora ingabbiati nelle stesse relazioni sociali?
There ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987) acquired a baffling longevity. It seems to have sketched something that people still find useful, maybe because it accomplished the difficult transition from being an intervention to being a history book. Instead of lamenting the failure of better, more up to date, commentaries to emerge, I want to begin by asking whether we still inhabit the historical and political parameters of the book’s conjuncture? Are we still locked into the same social relations with regard to war and peace, biology and culture, work and unemployment, citizenship, criminalisation, law and policing? Are we still held hostage to a racially-accented politics of immigration which views that process as an invasion? We have to enquire into what these thirty years have meant for the vital culture of anti-racism in its governmental, organized and unruly varieties and examining if the country’s black communities are still spatially concentrated in the pattern—suggested six summers ago by the recurrence of rioting in many of the same locations it had appeared in 1981? We also need to reflect on how have the politics of black expressive culture and trans-national solidarity have changed.
However we respond to that timely question, there is still work to be done in order to understand a number of continuing struggles: battles against racial hierarchy and forms of inequality found behind the fortifications of overdevelopment where the ongoing operations of a resurgent culturalist and civilisationist racism in the context of war, apparently without end, have produced the Muslim as a racial figure and articulated Islam as a racial trope.
The impulse to ontologise is an important symptom and it is compounded by an internet culture of race activism where caring for oneself is increasingly conceptualized as a supreme, revolutionary gesture. There’s an odd use of the term body to mean the whole person that is sanctioned by a renewed theoretical engagement with the material foundations of social life. However this move can have the effect of reducing the subject to the body alone and thereby accepting the subordination of consciousness to corporeality just as the post-feminist struggle over gender and sexuality arrives at the opposite conclusion. The fact that there are no racists any more has created one of the biggest changes during these thirty years. Their disappearance needs to be accounted for historically and in a detailed way—a detour that I cannot accomplish in this presentation. The absence of actual racists creates additional problems. They come into focus when we consider the difficulties involved in identifying and categorising racist and fascist discourse, rhetoric and argumentation. We learned from the voluminous writings of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Brevik that it was now possible to be an anti-semite who supports the state of Israel. Now, Tommy Robinson the erstwhile leader of the English Defence League, further complicates our political map by sincerely declaring himself offended by homophobia and anti-Semitism. He warrants his own opposition to Islam with a familiar question we hear all too frequently these days resounding across the swampy, no man’s land of fading distinctions between left and right: ““How’s it racist to oppose a fascist ideology?” he inquires innocently.
These thorny individual difficulties also have institutional counterparts which have been intensified by the spread of corporate diversity management. Museums and galleries that are sufficiently brave and keen to use their historic, archival holdings to promote the working through of our country’s imperial and colonial past have to ask what can be done with the racist object? We must ask what our proper, principled or ethical relationship to those artefacts and arrangements might be, even or rather especially, in their residual state, in the indigent condition of their post- imperial half-life. In all cases, the issue of racism seems to be able to measure and disclose the degree of modernization that has been accomplished so far. All these operations are mostly presided over by experts drawn from the previous generation of antiracist activists. Let’s just say that there was a generation of 1970s activists nurtured, after the world-making riots of 1981, in the ample bosom of Labour municipal authorities. As the neoliberal tide turned, they moved beyond those walls to retail their newfound professional expertise as diversity and equality consultants to a range of corporate clients public, and private. Their view of how racism could be undone, largely through deft management techniques and the outsourcing of transformative, antiracist endeavor, was emphatically and comfortably statist in character. They endorsed New Labour’s authoritarian nomophilia and were happy to collaborate with the Blair and Brown programme of privatising state functions and responsibilities which would be democratized and improved with new values and fresh infusions of diversity and equality of opportunity. This tendency is still a strong but minor component in public debate.
Many young people are baffled, genuinely perplexed, when bell hooks criticizes Beyoncé as a celebrant of contemporary capitalism even though the sweated Sri-Lankans who make her leggings for sale in Top Shop are paid 44 pence an hour for their pains or when President Obama was denounced for his dubious use of drone strikes to formalize new varieties of warfare in which, as with torture, all the risks are borne by one side. The rise of the internet and its effects on the formation and reproduction of human subjects, political movements and critical analysis are another timely factor that has been insufficiently recognized for the way it has recast the politics of race. Online pageantry, celebrity and the effects of luxury PR can intensify the disorientation felt by consumers of these spectacular projections of black culture especially when libidinal investments in the virtual life of its central icons derive from the deepest pathologies of identity politics.
The habits of diversity management tend towards a view in which racial difference can be retained and affirmed while being divested of all its negative associations. It is hostile to the idea that it is racism that creates races and organizes them as political, economic and discursive actors. However, among the more destructive consequences of the spread of these outlooks has been the rise of what can be termed generic racial identities. They appear in several flavours: both black and white and are usually arranged in reassuringly manichaean patterns that help to salve the anxieties that result from the loss of ontic certainties associated with racial styles of thought.
While the value of whiteness is now uncertain or falling and differs widely when considered at several scales and in different enclaves inside and beyond the ramparts of overdevelopment, as far as blackness is concerned, the digital projection of sports, fashion and music has mediated the unsettling transition between political generations and the changing place of Africa and African-ness in the geopolitical and neocolonial firmament. In Britain, the importation of generic identity has helped to lubricate the movement from a political culture of blackness derived from the overthrow of atlantic slavery to a newer more abstract sense of Africanity which can be ambivalent or positively unenthusiastic about the confining idea of blackness with its hangover of abjection, chaos and misery.
The last census showed that all black peoples together compose just over 3% of Britain’s population. Immigration from the Caribbean ended long ago. During the last four decades, black settlement has largely been composed of various groups arriving directly from the African continent who, even though they may enjoy some of the African American sounds, styles and culture that compose generic black identity these days, may not identify deeply either with the central symbol of blackness or with the political traditions and movements of an Atlantic history rooted in the trauma of slavery.
Their settlements have markedly shifted the demography of this country’s black population. If blackness retains any grip at all in present conditions, it refers predominantly to quite different patterns and varieties of migrancy and settlement. These African incomers, at least those who did not arrive here as refugees, may, for example, have travelled with or gained more access to capital than their predecessors were able to enjoy. It is doubtless true that the children of these settlers have become recognized as a problem that gets specified in racial terms that derive from earlier phases of conflict. It may not, regardless of political ideology, even recognize itself in the idea of a black community. Adam Afriyie, the notable, Peckham-born Conservative politician and would-be, right-wing Obama, may speak for many—both rich and poor–when he says: “I consider myself post-racial . . . I don’t see myself as a black man. I refuse to be defined by my colour or pigeon-holed in that way”. The incorrigible autopoiesis in this refusal is another timely symptom of the neoliberal style of thought in racial matters.
Let me repeat that the emergent, discursive successor to blackness that I am trying to sketch has been shaped by the conspicuous trans-national forces of apparently endless, inter-civilisational warfare, often conducted within the cultural and technological infrastructure of social media. So far I have only hinted at the other big development that could not have been anticipated, namely the wholesale neoliberalisation of the concepts of subjectivity, agency, embodiment and culture on which the previous generation of militants had relied.
Tying this survey to There Ain’t No Black also means making some space specifically to consider the proliferation of class differences along new lines of fracture and at several degrees of resolution. I mention this because the book was the site of my break with certain traditions of thinking problems involved in the articulation of class, race and gender. It stages my turning away from productivism and falling under the spell of the different versions of political ecology espoused in particular by writers like Bahro, Bookchin and Gorz.
My deliberate adoption a certain distance from Marxism was confirmed for me through a deeper reading of CLR James that had been born from my frustration at not being able to get him to speak of the things I wanted to discuss with him after he summoned me once he had read The Empire Strikes Back. That turn was also the happy result of exposure to the challenging work of Cedric Robinson. Robinson’s readings of Du Bois, Wright and James as well as other thinkers who had passed through Marxism—pending a more accurate diagnosis – helped me to refine my grasp of their work and better to grasp the history of its advocacy with regard to the politics of autonomy for black communities today. I’m delighted now to see that Robinson’s best known book has recently won new readerships inside and beyond the US and not only where what he calls the black radical tradition has been rewarded with its own aesthetic counterpart.
Of course Marxism was not easy to dispose of and I recall the difficulty involved in trying to articulate my arguments outside of the problematics most closely associated with the scholastic Marxism of that era which seems to be making something of a comeback lately. That decision was associated with my espousal of a non-reductionist account of how race, class and gender might be approached in their mutual articulation. Something that these days might be more readily associated with the blunt instrument that the concept of “intersectionality” seems to have become. But the ontologising impulses in that later theoretical configuration did not correspond to the emphasis placed upon on the self-making of political bodies – assembled in processes of conflict that exceeded the antagonism between capital and labour which had nonetheless supplied a necessary—even and essential – but insufficient starting point.
Given my interest in postcolonial and postimperial Melancholia, I also wonder whether, pursuing that mistaken strategy might feed or channel a prospective or what, following Svetlana Boym, we might more accurately describe as a restorative nostalgia? Nostalgia poses a number of dangers. Timothy Bewes has pointed out that it “is a sentiment that entails no practice” and offers a “one-way relationship to the world, its typical effect is to reify the past into a frieze of clichés, incapable of releasing inventive action in the present. That warning may be another way of saying that it’s hard these days to marshall an all-encompassing, multinational, black unity. Stuart Hall was one of several commentators to have identified the poignant, pivotal moment where the idea of a unified black political body started to unravel and, as it faded, to prompt new possibilities. He pointed not only to the self- estrangement evident at the end of the innocent black subject and to the special role of creative, artistic practice in opening up these problems and finding ways of working through them. He continued:
“[…]the end of the essential black subject is something which people are increasingly debating, but they may not have fully reckoned with its political consequences. What is at issue here is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category “black”; that is, the recognition that “black” is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed transcultural or transcendental racial categories and which therefore has no guarantees in Nature. What this brings into play is the recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experience of black subjects. This inevitably entails a weakening or fading of the notion that “race” or some composite notion of race around the term black will either guarantee the effectivity of any cultural practice or determine in any final sense its aesthetic value.”
May I venture to say that lesson needs now not just to be re-learned but to be extended? Perhaps it’s time for our belated or retro-minded black political culture to restore a future-oriented perspective? Let’s try to go further than he did and respond to the reinstatement of that innocence. The work of holding community, solidarity and sociality together has become difficult in a world where blackness is transformed by the neoliberal assumptions, individualistic perspectives and anxious habits that are now dominant even, or perhaps especially, where the vexed politics of race and racism is concerned. At that point, racial difference risks being reduced fatally to just one more life-style or a consumer choice. Yet in Britain, even after all these years, the relationship between nationalism and race-thinking remains pivotal. Recently, spasms of nostalgia rippled through Britain’s fractured body politic. As the parapolitical power of anti-Islam sentiment increases and is brutally instrumentalised by dog-whistling, ethno-racial populism. The very best we can hope for may be that the old chestnuts of whiteness and blackness will continue to decay into generic, market-based identities or “life styles”. That small change may prove to be a hollow victory amidst the manifold neocolonial, biopolitical and environmental dangers that await us on the perilous pathway of our country’s mismanaged decline.