Paul Gilroy: Race and ‘Useful Violence’

Paul Gilroy: Race and ‘Useful Violence’

Public Seminar

McKenzie Wark, Professor of Culture and Media in Liberal Studies
The New School for Social Research

#BLM passes The New School.

Aimé Césaire called it: the so-called west is a decaying civilization. In both the United States and Europe, where institutions are receding, a base level of race-talk and racial solidarity is revealed as metastasizing beneath them. In such dim times, I turn to the writings of Paul Gilroy as offering an anti-racist vision that is transnational and cosmopolitan, but which draws on popular and vernacular forms of hybridity rather than elite ones.

In Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (Harvard 2010), Gilroy offers a series of essays on the culture of what he has famously called the Black Atlantic (Verso 1993) as an alternative to race-talk but which is also outside of the various alternative nationalisms that flourish as a response. It is not reducible to liberalism, and it also attempts to fend off incorporation into the culture industry. That might be an urgent project for this “age of rendition.” (87) One in which in Judith Butler’s terms that which is grievable, or in Donna Haraway’s that which is killable, are respectively diminishing and expanding categories.

Gilroy is wary of responses to racism that borrow from it. He would probably strongly reject Chantal Mouffe’s understanding of all politics as necessarily based on a tangible equality of participation in a shared substance, which the necessarily excludes the other as unequal to us. Hence he is not any more inclined towards Black nationalism than towards any other. Instead, he builds upon the moral economies of the Black Atlantic, in which the struggle against slavery and racism pose the question of a trans-national belonging, or what I would call he problem of species-being. Just as EP Thompson saw the English working class as self-making, Gilroy is interested in the coming in to being of a people in struggle, but beyond Thompson’s rather provincial national frame. Along with others influenced by the cultural studies tradition such as Andrew Ross and Angela McRobbie, he is interested more in vernacular than elite cultural forms…

…Gilroy: “What answers does the mixed-race person give to the apostles of purity, who can be found in all communities?” (103) Marley borrowed from Jamaican rude boys, from Curtis Mayfield, but also from Black Power: ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ as a famous Marley song has it – but not the deputy. For Gilroy, Marley is a version of Blackness that can include, but is not reducible to, African-American culture. It borrows from the diasporic cult of Ethiopia but makes it more a symbolic than an actual homeland. From the Rastafarians it also takes a view of wage-work not as self-mastery but as an extension of slavery. From the discovery of swinging London it evolves into the ‘Kinky Reggae’ of the ‘Midnight Ravers’.

Where Marley had been an itinerant worker, Hendrix was a former soldier, who swapped the ‘Machine gun’ for the electric guitar, itself also bound up in curious ways with military technology. He produced an Afro-futurist sound that was, as Caetano Veloso put it, “half blues, half Stockhausen” (130) Gilroy: “Hendrix’s career tells us that by this point, black music could produce its own public world: a social corona that could nourish or host an alternative sensibility, a structure of feeling that might function to make wrongs and injustices more bearable in the short term but could also promote a sense of different possibilities, providing healing glimpses of an alternative moral, artistic, and political order.” (147)…

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