Paul Gilroy: Race and "Useful Violence"

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This piece first appeared at Public Seminar.

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), Gilroy offers a series of essays on the culture of what he has famously called the Black Atlantic 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.

This is in some respects an old-fashioned project. Gilroy: “After the Hegelian and Marxist imaginings of figures like WEB Du Bois and CLR James, the idea that the slaves’ pursuit of human freedom could retain any broader philosophical, political, or commercial importance was seldom considered seriously.” (5) Indeed what is timely in Gilroy is his insistence on the ongoing pertinence of just such questions, even if the forms of answering to their call needs changing.

The struggles against slavery and against colonialism are not always central to the self-understanding of human rights talk, perhaps because they keep pointing past the point where human rights could be made compatible with liberalism. Anti-slavery took some of its moral energy from the chiliastic Christianity of St Paul and aimed it towards a radical inclusiveness of the category of the human, beyond kith and kin.

Gilroy revises James Baldwin’s critical judgement on Uncle Tom’ Cabin. While acknowledging the ways that sentimental stories can block the full import of feelings of shame, Gilroy wants to retrieve something of the popular moral economy that text created through its global networks of translation and production.  “Uncle Tom’s Cabin composed a cosmopolitan chapter in the moral history of our world.” (66) Sure, it is problematic as a portrait of slave passivity and it treated suffering as redemptive, but also treated Black characters as actually having humanity. Like Butler, Gilroy wants to find once again a structure of feeling that can acknowledge the suffering of others.

As in his earlier book Against Race (Harvard, 2000), Gilroy also makes a case for the anti-fascist strand of anti-racist struggles for national liberation from colonial rule. That history tends to complicate stories that take identities as given and coherent, and innocently put-upon by some outside aggressor. Gilroy insists it cannot be assimilated to identity politics, no matter what current American academic reading lists might say. Gilroy: “That depressing pseudo-political gesture supplies an alibi for narcissistic quiescence and resignation to the world as it is.” (66)

Restored to the story of both anti-fascism and anti-racism here is the historical role of Ethiopia. Haile Selassie became emperor of this ancient state in 1930, and Italy began its second war against it in 1935, a war in which chemical weapons were used against civilian populations. It is worth remembering that the civil war in Spain is not the only skirmish that presages the return of world war. Spain might have galvanized the anti-fascist left worldwide, but Ethiopia played an analogous role for pan-African politics.

These of course are just gestures to complex and profane histories. Gilroy mentions them to ask about the role of anti-slavery and anti-colonialism in the struggle for human rights. “Taken together, those struggles contribute to a culture of freedom sourced from deep within the experience of object-hood. All of them resist the process by which a human being is reduced to a thing. For descendants of slaves, they summon the history of being locked away from literacy on pain of death, confined in a place where cognition – thinking – was not a special door to doubt, method, and modern being but rather a shortcut to the radical vulnerability of nonbeing and social death for a people whose infra-human status meant they could be disposed of with impunity.” (72)

One might imagine that the challenge of a thought premised on vulnerability to nonbeing had finally arrived in Giorgio Agamben’s work. There the concentration camp replaces the city as the topos for political theory. But as Gilroy insists, the pre-history of the camps in colonial history is only ever a gesture in Agamben. Gilroy turns instead to Primo Levi, and his concept of useful violence. In the camps, even the rationality of means, production targets or profits gets subordinated to something excessive. This suggests to Gilroy that racism has its own agency.

Why is violence useful to the perpetrator over and above compulsion and coercion toward some material aim? Strangely enough, it enables them to carry on murdering and torturing while minimizing emotional disturbance to themselves, as the victim is only infra-human and calls for no respect as a fellow member of a species-being. In a less world-historical but more everyday key, this seems like a valid line of thought for explaining those photographs of the debasement of Iraqis from the Abu Graib prison. It is also the conceptual, as well as emotional, heart of the very phrase Black Lives Matter.

Like Agamben, Hannah Arendt tries to side-step the question of race. For Arendt, when people appear outside the envelope of the national they appear as natural, provoking violence against their very humanity. But for Gilroy, Arendt mistakes the naked human for the natural one. The vulnerable figure is the racialized human not the naturalized human. The racialized infra-human body is made to perform the subordination that race theory assumes, but that their bodies don’t seem to support without such acts of debasement. Gilroy: “Racial discourse can be thought as contributing to a system for making meaning that feeds the tendency to create exceptional spaces and populate them with vulnerable, infra-human beings.” (85)

Anti-racism as a project might exceed not only liberal but also more critical political theory. But it might have a tendency on the other hand to collapse into the cloying embrace of the commodity form. Gilroy: “African Americans were interpellated as consumers long before they acquired citizenship rights.” (9) Jesse Owens, the Black track star who enraged Hitler, became a shill for Coca-Cola. I think the tensions Gilroy identifies between a political and a consumer identity are on full display in the American TV show Blackish, about the family of an upwardly mobile Black advertising executive. The central character’s father claims to have been a militant in the sixties, but was a member of the Bobcats, who he defends as “Panther adjacent.” The family have to navigate upper middle class life, complete with questions about the purchase of shoe and cars.

Blackish is alive to questions of getting to consume things you are not supposed to have, and to buying things as talismans of prestige denied in any civil register. It also acknowledges the role of black consumption as rendering certain commodities cool by association and thus available for white buyers. Consumption can appear as a form of rebellion, but also of resignation. The product is a stand-in one can have for what one can’t have.

This in turn has two registers. Jay-Z driving a Maybach may not sell many Maybachs, but it might sell a lot of shoes. On the other hand, what other vision of the good life does the commodity, big or small, occlude? As Franco Berardi and others note in another context, the commodity as placebo might just lead to cascades of envy. Gilroy: “A lingering negativity betrays black citizens’ desire to join in the carnival of American plenitude as full participants in ways that racism used to deny.” (21)

For Gilroy, the car is the ur-commodity of the relation of Black culture to consumption, and one which complicates any attempt to align African Americans with an anti-colonial project, given the intense connection between American neo-imperial projects and access to oil. But he offers a nuanced reading of the role the car played and continues to play in the African American imaginary, from Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright to bell hooks and Cornel West. Ellison already understood the tension between African American self-making and freedom through consumption that is in the end alienating. Still, the car could figure in the place of the train as a powerful figure for flight, restlessness and mobility as responses to racial terror, forced labor and confinement.

Car culture privatizes freedom and becomes a new instrument of segregation. “For much of the twentieth century, the private automobile, and the social order it supported, constituted something like an index of hegemony.” (23) Gilroy connects the rise of the car to a loss of blackness as resistance, solidarity, and its replacement with a lifestyle code. The infrastructure of the car puts technology right at the heart of everyday life.

The highway offers a kind of serial existence devoid of civil contact, and the default instance of being separate but equal, unless one is pulled over for the crime of Driving While Black. It turns out that having the same stuff does not promote much community, and one ends up acquiring stuff instead of rights. The car made white flight possible and still reinforces a geography of segregation. Perhaps it is no accident that Henry Ford was an enthusiast for Hitler. Fordism and fascism might be quite intimately connected.

Still, the car figures as a lot of things in African American culture, from Jack Johnson behind the wheel of a fine machine with a white woman by his side, to Malcolm X working in a Ford factory. The car replaced the train as in popular poetics, and its influence as a figure extends far beyond the American context. The car generalized the segregation of colonial the city. The car itself puts its occupants in a bubble, complete with its own sonic environment. The car ends up as “a kind of giant armored bed on wheels that can shout the driver’s dwindling claims upon the world into dead public space at ever-increasing volume.” (48)

In African-American popular music, the erotics of the car is a whole subgenre. One thinks here of: Robert Johnson, ‘Terraplane Blues’; Ike Turner, ‘Rocket 88’; Chuck Berry, ‘No Particular Place to Go’; Jimi Hendrix, ‘Crosstown Traffic’; Prince, ‘Little Red Corvette’ and TLC, ‘No Scrubs.’ Gilroy points to Williams DeVaughn, ‘Be Thankful For What You’ve Got’ as a rare song that celebrates not owning a car, and Albert King, ‘Cadillac Assembly Line’, which speaks not of the erotics of consumption but the labor of production. To which we might add the Detroit blues of Joe L Carter, ‘Please Mr Foreman’.

The latter includes the lines “I don’t mind working, but I do mind dying” from which comes the title of a famous account of radical black workers: Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. One could usefully connect Gilroy on car consumption to this text on their production. Black workers were central to ‘Fordism’ in many ways. Henry Ford famously used black workers as strike breakers, but the war brought many up out of rural work to factory work, and eventually into the United Auto Workers union. Ford and GM moved key production out of the Detroit area, but Chrysler was still dependent on key production facilities there in the late sixties, where radical black workers challenged both the company and the union with a series of wildcat strikes and a range of community actions, including resistance to Detroit’s aggressive policing.

The car companies were struggling by the late sixties against cheaper and better imports. They claimed to be meeting the challenge with automation, but Black workers called it N—ermation. Really it was the same old dirty, dangerous, authoritarian workplace and the time-old speed-up. And needless to say Black workers were among those still stuck with the most dangerous and low paid jobs. As were Arab workers, latest in a wave of migrants caught up in divide-and-rule tactics by management and even the unions.

The connection between race and production hardly appears in Gilroy. I’m skeptical about his claim that “cars fudge any residual distinctions between material and semiotic, base and superstructure…” (30) It might make more sense to think of cars as connected to an infrastructure that is both material and semiotic, which is deeply embedded in a global geography of production and distribution, shaping cities to its affordances. As Pasolini had noted in the sixties, the production lines of neo-capitalism stamps-out subjects as well as objects. What I find most promising in this part of Gilroy’s work is the opportunity to think about how race and infrastructure interact, and always on a global scale.

Fast-forward to the present: one could think then about the role of an image like Jay-Z behind the wheel of a Maybach in driving global production and consumption chains. He may not sell many Maybachs, as practically nobody – Black or white – can afford them. But might sell quite a few hats. The globalization of Black culture is oriented to American standards.

What would a popular form of hybridizing Black culture not entirely oriented to consumption look like? Gilroy offers two examples: Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. Before he was famous, Marley was a nomadic migrant worker, travelling across the leaky borders of both the under-developed and over-developed worlds. And to this day, “His recordings have been found in the pockets of unidentified African bodies washed up upon the beaches of Europe…” (88)

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)

For Gilroy there is something utopian in such flickering of diasporic Black culture. “These musical traditions do not always fit neatly into the stories of ethnic resilience, heroic masculinity, national liberation, racial ascent, and vindication that would serve the immediate political interests of its creators…” (101) They touch on the affective registers of an unequal yet interdependent world. “Purity becomes impossible, and hybridity ceases to be the exclusive preoccupation of some imaginary postcolonial elite. Instead, it becomes a routine principle of unruly multi-culture.” (151)

Yet there is a mournful note in Gilroy’s writing. “The counter-cultural voice of black Atlantic popular music has faded out. Song and dance have lost their preeminent positions in the ritual and interpretive processes that both grounded and bounded communal life.” (121) Perhaps it is important to accept its passing in order to imagine something else in its place. It was, after all, an art that heightened awareness of loss and kept open some other redress other than consumption.  “A virtuous rapport with the presence of death was one key characteristic of the tradition of music making towards freedom which is now coming to an end, as the freedom to consume without limits promises the satisfaction of all desires.” (126)

Gilroy really does think there has been what Adorno would call a “regression of listening.” (129) Other writers might disagree. Kodwo Eshun makes a case for the digital turn in Afro-futurism. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah writes compellingly about Kendrick Lamar and the fan culture of Beyoncé. As to whether they are convincing, it is not my place to say. Certainly, the changing global infrastructure upon within which popular cultures flourish or not is a rather different environment now to what it was in what one might call the late analog era.

What would a popular, affective, diasporic culture of hybridity be like now? Would it be elsewhere than in popular music? Might it dispense with even the alternate versions of masculine stardom? It still seems an urgent question. For Gilroy, it is about the problem of approaching a workable version of species-being. In his reading, Frantz Fanon is not a writer who would easily assimilate into the default anti-humanism of the American academy. In trying to conceptualize species being without race, Fanon refuses to see cultural differences as absolute, eternal, or insurmountable.

In Gilroy’s Fanon, racism exacts a cost to both victims and perpetrators in that a common humanity is amputated and authentic interaction becomes impossible. He refuses any easy position of innocence. The perpetrator and victim roles are, as in Baudelaire, exchangeable. Gilroy stresses the continuity in Fanon from the anti-Fascism of the war years and the anti-colonialism that gained momentum after it. There is a utopian moment that gestures toward universality here, but in the negative. There need be no idealized core to a concept of species-being. It is rather a decision to accept the relativism of cultures vis-à-vis each other. Indeed, it has to pull away the prop of an essential and restrictive claim to humanity made by any race as a component of the useful violence that produces a hierarchy of difference.