Interview between Tommie Shelby and Paul Gilroy (Class post)

Here is an interview from Transitions (2008) between Shelby and Gilroy:

Cosmopolitanism, Blackness, and Utopia 

a conversation with Paul Gilroy
AbstractIn a discussion spanning topics as diverse as W. E. B. Du Bois, cosmopolitanism, Marxism, cultural studies, antiracism, and hip hop, Paul Gilroy, author of The Black Atlantic (1993) and Against Race (2000), and philosopher Tommie Shelby prove once again that nothing is simple, when it comes to race. 

Paul Gilroy is the first and current holder of the Anthony Giddens Professorship in Social Theory at the London School of Economics. His intellectual interests are remarkably broad, spanning literature, philosophy, art, music, cultural history, and sociology. He is perhaps best known for his work on racism, nationalism, imperialism, and black identity, and for his original approach—the Black Atlantic approach—to the study of the African diaspora.

Gilroy is a prolific author. Among his many books are Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987); Small Acts (1993); The Black Atlantic (1993); Against Race (2000); and, most recently, Postcolonial Melancholia (2005). He has worked as a guest curator at the Tate in England and the House of World Cultures in Berlin. He has lectured at universities all over the world, and his work has been translated into numerous languages.

In the fall of 2006, Gilroy came to Harvard to give the W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures, “On the Moral Economy of Blackness in the 21st Century.” During his visit to Cambridge, Editor Tommie Shelby sat down with him at the Du Bois Institute to discuss Pan-Africanism, African American culture, racial identity and antiracism, Marxism, the idea of world citizenship, utopian political projects, and more.

Tommie Shelby (TS): As you know, many scholars and intellectuals are becoming interested in cosmopolitanism . . .

Paul Gilroy (PG): Again? [laughs]

TS: Yes, again [laughs]. And they’re writing extensively on the subject, and often in defense of the idea. But people mean quite different things by the term, and some assume, erroneously, that its meaning is obvious to all. So, what does cosmopolitanism mean to you? How do you conceive of it?

PG: Well, I’m really indebted to my friend and colleague James Clifford for much of my own thinking in this area, but, in relation to the African [End Page 116] American traditions and Black Atlantic traditions I work with and on, Du Bois is our exemplar and our guide, and he’s someone who looked at this problem in an interesting way. If one were to write about the trope of the world in Du Bois’s thinking and its development, I think you begin to get a sense of that. He’s someone who developed the Germanic notions of world citizenship and world history, and I wanted to use that scale of writing as way of de-provincializing American thought, de-provincializing European thought, and showing their complicity in the production and reproduction of racial hierarchies. So I want in some ways to return to the notions of world history—of world citizenship—that Du Bois constructs for us, and which of course were carried on in the twentieth century by social scientists and political activists. Think, for example, of someone like Immanuel Wallerstein, but also particularly of what I would call the revolutionary humanism of the Cold War, where the trope of the world in the context of minority/majority relations mapped onto a kind of North/South axis is articulated with great clarity. For me, following Du Bois, it’s really about thinking of our planet as one place, of understanding the radical relationality of developments and, through that, understanding the pivotal power not only of European expansion and state-making but also of colonial administration, colonial government, and colonial war. Those processes produce the social relations we inhabit and, against our better judgment, naturalize most of the time.

Photo by Marc Halevi
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Photo by Marc Halevi

TS: Though I’m sympathetic to your interpretation, let me press you a bit on your reading of Du Bois as a cosmopolitan. His relationship to cosmopolitanism is, shall we say, complicated? Du Bois may have regarded himself as a cosmopolitan, but he definitely viewed himself as a Pan-Africanist. At times, say at the turn of the twentieth century and during the Depression era, he even pushed a kind of American black nationalism. All these positions, so it would seem, he thought were compatible, as fitting together into a coherent view.

PG: It helps to live a long life.

TS: [laughter] Yes, one might have the audacity to change one’s mind once or twice [laughs]. Still, Du Bois is, of course, theorizing against the background of the nation-state as the principal form of political organization in the modern era, whether in the interwar period or shortly after the Second World War or what [End Page 117] have you. He’s thinking very much in those terms. Even in his Pan-Africanism, he’s thinking about the development of African nation-states, existing independently of Europe. But, at the same time, he has a global vision, a cosmopolitan vision, a vision of community that’s transnational . . .

PG: Yeah, and of the responsibilities of the world citizen.

TS: Exactly.

PG: He’s equipped with a conception of history which is not subject to the laws and dictates of the national state. And, of course your government had taken away his passport for, what, eight years? He was fighting with the U.S. government over the Marshall Plan, over NATO, over a whole range of things, and of course you know how he ended that long life, as a citizen of Ghana, having renounced his U.S. affiliations. So there’s a lot there, a lot there that some of the more, how should I put it, provincial and sentimental conceptions of Du Bois don’t really want to address, and I think that’s disappointing. I understand absolutely why it’s easier not to talk about those things because actually, in a way, those gestures exemplify the transcendence of double consciousness as a sufficient mechanism for solving the problem of African American immiseration because that project of double consciousness always saw the transcendence of Negro-ness and American-ness in the form of a higher, better selfhood, which is characteristically coupled with reworked citizenship. The argument about the First World War makes that very clear, too. So I think his renunciation of that project, in favor of other projects, which are, in my reading, cosmopolitan projects, is significant. This is an important moment at which to return to these questions of world history.

TS: Let’s continue on this theme for a moment, sticking with Du Bois as a focal point. Despite his hope for a more cosmopolitan conception of citizenship, he retained, throughout his life, a commitment to a conservation project, the preservation of a distinct black culture.

PG: Isn’t he also Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard? [laughs].

TS: I think he’s that, too! [laughs]. He is that, too. Well, you get him saying . . .

PG: You know what I’m saying.

TS: Yeah, at times, he’s the guy who’s drawing from different cultural sources—especially high culture—all over the world, rising above all local particularities. And yet he seems to have this deep worry about the loss of a distinctive black culture. In light of his cosmopolitanism, what are we to make of this conservation project?

PG: For Du Bois, their culture is what allows African Americans to be a world-historic people, to sit at that table and offer the world a conception of freedom which is richer, more complex, more compelling, and [End Page 118] more dynamic than any conception of freedom which has been articulated previously. And, actually, African American culture does offer the world this conception of freedom, which is more complex, more compelling, more poetic, more important. There’s something in that experience which articulates a conception of freedom which is not Freiheit; it’s not Liberté. This is a different freedom. This is not the freedom of the ancient Greeks; this is not the freedom of the Prussians; this is a distinctive conception of freedom which is won from an experience of suffering—not the redemption of that suffering, but the product of it. And so, however pompous it may have sounded in Du Bois’s mouth, I actually think that it’s kind of right. I do think that if we’re looking at the globalization of African American culture, if we understand why everyone in the world is doing hip hop—and it’s not just because Coke and Nike tell them to—there’s something about this vernacular culture which does exactly what Du Bois imagined it would do.

TS: Du Bois also clearly thought that a certain kind of racial solidarity was warranted, sometimes a very nation-specific kind—the Negro in America—sometimes a broader, more global form of Pan-Africanism.

PG: There’s always a tension between those two things, yeah.

TS: Do you think there’s a way to reconcile these dimensions of his thought, to square that circle, as it were? I mean . . .

PG: But why should we square it? Why can’t we live with that tension? We’re not dialecticians. He was a dialectician, of a kind. But we don’t have to be, you know? So I would rather live with that tension. That’s what my book The Black Atlantic was supposed to be about, actually. I can say that now, retrospectively, because the person who wrote that book died a long time ago. And I sort of say that there, actually, and I’ve said it in other places, too, that we don’t have to resolve that tension. Actually, the figure of diaspora for me offers an opportunity to live within that field of tension, as many people do, you know, who try to dwell in more than one place. [End Page 119]

TS: Speaking of The Black Atlantic, it was initially published in 1993, so it has been more than a dozen years since it was first published, and it’s had a tremendous impact on black studies, on the study of diaspora, and the way cultural studies has developed. Surely you would not approve of all the ways in which its ideas have been developed. But now, reflecting back on it, what would you want the take-away message from that book to be, and could you maybe say a bit about the message people have actually taken away from it, which may be quite different from what you had in mind?

PG: Well, you can’t police that. Mary Shelley was right about books. She said, look, my book is my hideous progeny. It goes off into the world and has its own thing. I mean, where people take the trope of diaspora as the license to create a kind of non-national nation, I’m most troubled by that, I think, because my work, in all its incarnations—whatever minimal value it may have—is really against nationalism in all its forms. So what I took to be the intervention of that diaspora notion, to have it rendered compatible with some revived conception of a black nationalist project, I find that kind of troubling. But, there hasn’t been too much of that because, well, what does black nationalism have to say about the predicament of the world right now? Not very much. Look, fifty percent of the women in the military are African American. I don’t hear black nationalists saying anything about that. There are Latinos marching in the streets, the denizens marching through the streets of this country, with placards saying, “I’m a human being,” and a lot of black nationalists saying, “They stole our act.” There are of course other people in the African American community who are saying things like, “They’re not stealing from us, they’re learning from us”; or “This is an opportunity, it’s important to understand this moment as a different element of racial settlement.” But, in some ways, the logic of that kind of black nationalism just offers you Condoleezza Rice as the end of history, and that’s very problematic to me. Because the issue of the world doesn’t go away, even if we know that the Iraqi insurgents like to shoot African Americans more than the other Americans they can shoot; we have to deal with the world—the same things that got Du Bois into trouble, that got Richard Wright into trouble, that got every African American who imagined that their struggles were going to be continuous with the experience of national liberation projects being created by other peoples in other places. Making that connection has always gotten people into trouble, big, big trouble. And it will still do so.

TS: So how would you interpret the idea of a “Black Atlantic tradition,” and what would you regard as the more productive uses of that idea? [End Page 120]

PG: Well, I think that the slave-descended intellectuals—by which I don’t mean academics—of the larger Atlantic world, all had important and compelling things to say in several different languages about the constitution of their societies and the impact of racial hierarchy. Sometimes those things were romantic; sometimes they were vindicationist; sometimes they were eschatological. But, in every case, they were valuable—although I can remember thinking when I interviewed C. L. R. James years and years ago, that the burden of the black intellectual was to feel that you had to know about everything, and that sometimes that burden can be paralyzing to people. I think that we have to use this notion of a Black Atlantic tradition to make a better map of our own development and the forms of interplay and networked conversation that have brought us to this point, and I feel that we don’t always do that. The result of it is that we end up having to invent the wheel all the time. We’re reinventing David Walker; we’re reinventing Equiano; we’re reinventing Du Bois continually; and there’s a problem with that. And once you factor in the things people are writing in the Caribbean, or the things people are writing in Brazil, or the things people are writing in other places that are also part of this world, that problem is compounded. I suppose I would also like to imagine that there’s some way in which the diaspora model, if I can call it that—and if it is a model—I’ll call it one for now, also draws attention to certain qualities in the category of culture itself by the way that the category is going to be used and function. In our idiom, most of the time, the connection between culture and land is so strong, and I think that attention to the fluidity of culture, to its liquid characteristics, this remains important, too. So it’s not just about seeing the Atlantic as a negative continent and understanding that, in crossing that water, things happened. Culture doesn’t just sort of go on hold when you get on a slave ship and then resume when you get to the other side. There’s something underlying that problem, which is really about the liquidity of culture, and I think that, given the technological revolution of our time, there’s something instructive about thinking about the liquidity of culture in that context, too.

TS: You mentioned that The Black Atlantic was, and much of your work is meant to be, a critique of nationalism in all its forms, and you’ve also been quite critical of various forms of black nationalism. In the pages of Transition, for instance, you [End Page 121] famously—or notoriously, depending on one’s point of view—compared black nationalism to fascism . . .

Photo by Marc Halevi
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Photo by Marc Halevi

PG: Well, no, let me be clear about this. It wasn’t a comparison. It was the fact that those things were kin, if you like, in some form to the larger political revolutions of the twentieth century. And I still don’t see why that upsets people to admit that. I mean, if Garvey goes to Germany and thinks it’s interesting what Hitler’s doing, it doesn’t make Garvey into a Nazi, but it does make him someone who could understand what he thought was interesting about that particular experience of modernization. Why were people in uniform, for goodness sake, if they weren’t part of that same essential political revolution of the twentieth century? Yes, of course there’s an inversion of the colonial model of power, there’s an appropriation of all of that, but there’s also just something about being in uniform, right? It does a certain work politically because it renders you interchangeable within the strata of the hierarchy you’ve created. So it’s doing the work of identity; that’s why people wear branded goods for goodness sake! African Americans, Black Atlantic people are modern people, and this isn’t something that just happened here and in the Caribbean; it happened in Brazil, too. So everyone’s dressing up, everyone’s making flags and wanting the badges of nationality, the emblems of authentic national identity. And they want the disciplinarian part of this, the authoritarian elements in it. Why are we in denial about the fact that those things are part of our history, too? There are elements of militarization in this society, inevitably, and along with the political revolution of the twentieth century, which is really a political revolution of fascism, there’s no surprise that there are family resemblances to be found, and the desire to deny that is symptomatic.

And, to be honest, that argument crystallized in my own mind because of some of the things that were said to me and done to me as a result of publishing The Black Atlantic. Certain prominent African American intellectuals-who shall remain nameless in this interview—turn [End Page 122] up in England and say this man Gilroy must be stopped from teaching your children. I wouldn’t go to Philadelphia and start saying that about this person. All this abuse that I received: I was described as a dog. I mean, very minor stuff of course, but still, I started to think, where is all this anger coming from? What’s it about? What model of political solidarity does it presuppose? What model of community is it working with? What notions of acceptable speech are being transacted here? What sort of aspirations for democracy are we working toward? And, actually, the more I looked at it, the more I decided it wasn’t really democratic. It was, the polite word for it would be: an aristocratic radicalism. The rather less polite word for it would be a form of revolutionary conservatism. Fascism represents a sort of aspiration toward palingenesis, a kind of rebirth of the nation after periods of weakness and lassitude. I mean, isn’t that in some sense what many of the black nationalists of the twenties and thirties were thinking about? So people have struggled with these things in the past. Why is it not acceptable to speak about them now? Is that a measure of our weakness or a measure of our strength? So, perhaps, I became more reckless when I began to see the significance of those family resemblances and to appreciate, much of the time, that liberation project isn’t a democratic thing, and one of the reasons it centers so obsessively on interpersonal conduct—on relationships between men and women, on relationships between parents and children—it’s not because it’s trying to repair the mythology of slavery. It’s because, in those models of natural hierarchy, there’s something which corresponds to its deeply antidemocratic character.

TS: So how should we think about black political solidarity, whether we’re thinking about that within the context of particular national formations or transnationally? How should we think about black solidarity now? Should we still aspire to it?

PG: If we think of Pan-Africanism historically, say, in the nineteenth century, we might say there’s a Pan-Africanism of return. And I think that, in much of the twentieth century, when the national liberation struggles are underway, there’s a kind of Pan-Africanism of solidarity there, but it turns on the issue of anticolonial war, and it says, “Well, our struggle is like the struggle of the people in South Africa, the struggle of people in Kenya and Uganda.” And, of course, the white supremacists are also going off to Kenya and Uganda and South Africa [End Page 123] to learn what fighting a racial war will eventually involve for them, so they’re not parochial either, okay? Let’s call that the Pan-Africanism of solidarity.

Now I don’t know—and this actually speaks to what I take from reading your We Who Are Dark with such profit—I don’t know that people here want to identify with Africa anymore anyway. And I don’t know what the Africa that they may or may not want to identify with looks like to them in the dreamscape they inhabit. Obviously, poverty will make you concentrate on your local circumstances, right? Misery and abbreviated citizenship will do the same thing. What is Africa to me now, in 2006? I don’t know that we can assume that there’s anything spontaneous about the forms of recognition involved. And I think that’s compounded by the globalization of African American culture as American culture. Africa functions in this dreamscape much of the time as a place from which no light can escape, as the heart of darkness, as the core of unreason. Why would people want to identify with misery, AIDS, all of this? I don’t know that they do. I know also that there are many people here who want to re-create the terms of that solidarity and for whom it is important to have the Africa in African American as something that is vital and contemporary and dynamic, to allow Africa into the same present that they inhabit, not to make it a matter of archaic Africa. But I think those people are kind of a minority—they’re struggling for their lives, really. For example in Europe—and it’s problematic, too, in that context of a revived notion of charity instead of politics—there’s a big argument about African debt and the economics of the contemporary relationship with Africa. Here in the U.S., for other reasons I suppose, I just see Darfur everywhere, and I’m a little bit skeptical about why that has emerged or what sort of vehicle that is for the residuum of solidarity with Africa. I’m a little bit unsure about what that really means. So I think, though maybe it’s a harsh thing to say—I hope it doesn’t sound like that—that it may well be that it’s in the hands of institutions like this, the Du Bois Institute, and intellectuals such as yourself, to offer Africa back to African Americans in a form that makes sense to them within their lives, and it would be folly to pretend that none of them will go for that. Many of them, as many people all over the world, if they have the chance to be Americans will take that chance with both hands and absolutely possess it, in a way that their history of citizenship ought to make spontaneously easy. But, of course, racism has intervened to prevent that from happening. [End Page 124]

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TS: Indeed it has.

PG: There’s actually one other point I want to make, and this relates, in a trivial way, to Hegel’s scheme-which was Du Bois’s scheme, too-the scheme that says that America is the land of the future. There’s a sense in which, when we look to the future of racial politics in the world, we always look here. Certainly in Europe we’re always told, America’s ten years ahead, America’s fifteen years ahead, America’s twenty years ahead! And we quarrel about how far ahead America is. But I don’t know that we ought to organize the world in that kind of teleological pattern. Maybe there are certain features of African life that represent the future for us now. Even in places like this. The characteristics of inequality, the privatization of experience—certain motifs of colonial government become routine. A lot of people live in a gated community; they want to separate themselves off. These are not just the tactics but the actual empirical mechanisms of how heavily stratified colonial orders operate routinely: the division of space, the organization of space. Obviously South Africa is the limit case of all this. The South Africanization of the world is kind of underway. Doesn’t that make them part of our future? There are things going on in terms of racial hierarchy, racial politics, struggles over democracy and human rights in places like Brazil and India, which are part of the future of race politics on this planet. So, in a way, we can take America out of that position of representing the future, and see Africa itself as representing it. When I was in New Haven, people would talk about the perinatal mortality rates in New Haven or in D.C., and think about where it was in the developmentally arrested world where we could find perinatal rates or AIDS and TB rates that were comparable. So there’s a little bit of Africa all around us here. Perhaps that’s the future for many people, too. So we have to think about America and Africa in a way that unsettles some of those teleological assumptions. [End Page 125]

TS: Let me ask one more question on this theme. In your book Against Race, you lay out a comprehensive critique of race thinking, not just race thinking as the legitimation of group-based oppression—race thinking as a vehicle or expression of domination—but also race thinking as a mode or tool of resistance. And, as you know, a lot of people, people of color, in particular, are bothered by what seems to be a recommendation to distance oneself from one’s putative racial identity or to refuse to think of oneself as having a racial self. So do you think that the just society and world, the humanistic world that you and I both hope for, needs to be a post-racial one, by which I mean one where people don’t think of themselves as having racial identities? And, if so, can you explain why?

PG: Well, I have to say, when I think of the kind of world I’d like to build, the issue of whether people have racial identities is not the first thing on my list. I don’t know the answer to your question, but I do know that the need or desire to attach oneself and represent oneself in that way might look different if things were more equitably dealt with, and might assume a different significance if white supremacy and racial hierarchy were not ubiquitous. So the argument that I made—and maybe I didn’t make it well, I don’t know—was a strong suggestion that, in order to do effective work against racism, one had to in effect renounce certain ontological assumptions about the nature of race as a category, which cheapened the idea of political solidarity, in my view, because it said that solidarity somehow was an automatic thing, that it would take care of itself. But I believe that solidarity—as you, I think, believe—doesn’t take care of itself, that we have to do things to produce that solidarity.

More than that, I’ve always tried to unpack the notion of identity significantly. So when you say racial identity, I immediately triangulate it: there’s the question of sameness; there’s the question of solidarity (which we’ve already dealt with); and there’s the issue of subjectivity. So, identity can be unpacked into at least three quite discrete problems, which are usually lumped together when we speak of identity. In terms of subjectivity, I would say, yeah, people probably want to hang on to that. In terms of solidarity, they might find it more important—they might, I don’t know—to act in solidarity in line with their economic interests or ideological commitments, or whatever. In terms of sameness, there are other dimensions of sameness that we are now being required to consider imaginatively as a result of the shift onto the molecular scale and the genomic revolution. We might want to think about sameness in terms of dimensions of our nature other than the ones that come from the eighteenth century. So I would answer “yes and no” to your question. In terms of subjectivity, I would certainly not want to say that that had to be disposed of. And, in terms of sameness and solidarity, I think there are other issues we have to consider. [End Page 126]

TS: Okay, let’s shift gears a bit. You frequently write about hip hop culture, and about hip hop music in particular, but largely from the standpoint of a social theorist or a cultural critic. Indeed, most of the scholarly writing that I’m familiar with about hip hop tends to go at it from the standpoint of its political, social, or economic significance . . .

PG: So you want to know what I was doing in the Disco Fever in the 1970s?

TS: [Laughs]

PG: Well I’m not gonna tell you.

TS: I’m sure you won’t. Well, okay, what I’m getting at is that people tend not to discuss the aesthetic side of hip hop music, at least not in scholarly writing. I’m someone who came to the music in the late ’70s-early ’80s, and, to my mind, it was, at least initially, a continuation of disco, a party music from the streets, as it were. It later became not just entertainment or something to dance to, but a kind of art form, especially when Rakim arrived on the scene. I wonder what you think about the genre from an aesthetic point of view. Obviously, it’s a huge genre, with lots of different things going on in it, but are there subgenres of hip hop music that you regard as having artistic merit? Are there aspects that you admire or enjoy?

PG: I can’t answer that without unpacking the idea of hip hop a little bit, which is, for me, a marketing category. In the beginning we called it rap; we didn’t call it hip hop. So that accentuated its continuities with things that were there in earlier phases of the way the music has developed: black popular music, vernacular African American music and styles, and Caribbean styles, too. Of course there are things that I savor aesthetically. That’s always been true. Certainly I didn’t start picking up those records and coming to New York looking for them until 1980, and that’s a good chunk of time now. I think we can cut that history crudely into the pre-video and post-video eras, the pre-walkman and post-walkman eras, or the pre-iPod and post-iPod eras. We need to periodize this really, really carefully, and we need to think, too, about the technological developments, because what a hip hop record is aesthetically now is not what a hip hop record was aesthetically before. Although, of course, there are conservatives even in that world, who want it to be what it was originally, and for whom cutting up your beats on a computer is not the same thing as doing it with your hands on the turntable. But I went to see Common in the summer—and I’d not seen him before that—he works with a drummer live, and with a pianist, as well as a DJ. That was interesting to see that kind of continuity. A lot of the time people cheat, a lot of the time the digital revolution has transformed the way that the aesthetic that you signaled you’re interested in is being [End Page 127] simulated rather than enacted. I don’t know how much that matters. What troubles me most is that—I don’t want to sound like Adorno here, but I’ll risk that—there’s a kind of regression of listening involved in much of what I think of as contemporary hip hop. Although I will always love trashy R&B—I will always love it—there’s something about that which I will never, ever be able to renounce. That said, a lot of the time what’s going on in hip hop is a kind of simulation of itself, and it’s empty, and that is depressing.

There are some great poets and thinkers and philosophers within that world, but there are not very many of them. If you and I had a blackboard here and started to list how many, there might be twenty really extraordinary pieces that you have to not just know intimately but revisit in order to understand, not just for the development of the form but for your own development. So I don’t think the return has been very high. I think that there’s a lot of de-skilling going on there. I was aware of this in living here, actually, that the patterns of musical education have changed a lot. The Lincoln Center-type model of the history of jazz was a rather morbid thing. The elevation and transformation of jazz tradition to classical tradition is really just dancing on the grave of that extraordinary creativity. Not dancing on the grave, actually, but sitting quietly on the grave in a corporate-sponsored seat, your arms folded [TS laughs], listening to a standard repertoire. So I think all is not well. And I’ve tried to suggest that music now occupies a very different place in the lives of people, does a very different job in relation to their education. One of the reasons that we engage these forms of art is because they educate us. And I don’t want to be too conservative about this, but listening to bad music makes you stupid. And that’s true of hip hop, too. I don’t think it’s letting our side down to admit these issues.

One of the reasons that corporations like hip hop is that it is cheap to produce, and there is a lot of turnover. And many of the leaders and the artists who defined the form in certain phases of its development have really betrayed it in the careers they’ve wanted to develop subsequently. Because of my car project, I have to watch movies like Are We There Yet? so I’m really kind of aware of this problem and it’s very depressing to me. In some ways, I think we have to be able to mourn these things, as losses from the way that tradition operates; we have to be able to mourn these things properly. One of the reasons I talk about Curtis Mayfield is because I really want to mourn Curtis, because he represents so many things that are really special and significant about the way this extraordinary seam of African American creativity has proceeded. And, [End Page 128] you know, in my own mind, he exemplifies just exactly that: the triumph of Du Bois’s notion of freedom. I mean there are lots of other artists who touch that chord, but he, above all, his sort of bespectacled seriousness, captures much of that for me, as perhaps the key intellectual of that period. Donnie Hathaway’s another one, which you can see if you listen to the interviews with Donnie, about what he wanted his music to be. Obviously, these are the things which drove him out of his mind, but it drove him out of his mind—if I can say that—because it has taken the world a very long time to catch up with these people. I’m not sure that that’s true with hip hop. Again, I don’t want to be too brisk about this, but it’s very difficult to see. . . . What, is MF Doom now? The keeper of the flame? It’s very hard to see contemporary hip hop which excites and thrills and moves and instructs in a way that listening to Rakim twenty years ago might have done.

TS: I first encountered British cultural studies, and through it your work, while in graduate school in the early ’90s, first and foremost through the collection Empire Strikes Back. I saw a very strong connection between cultural studies and Marxist social theory, which is what attracted me to the movement. In fact, I tended to regard it as a kind of neo-Marxist approach to mass media and commercial culture that took racism and colonialism seriously and attempted to rethink the tradition of critical theory. As the field has developed in recent years, it seems to me that Marxism has much less influence on the work people do, and, particularly, there is less of an emphasis on the relationship between labor and capital, less of a focus on political economy in general, and more of a focus on critiques of the images and sounds of mass culture, sometimes stripped free of economic analysis. So, first of all, do you think that’s an accurate characterization of recent trends? And, second, could you reflect a little bit about where you think cultural studies has come since the ’80s in Birmingham?

PG: I recognize the patterns you identify, but I’m not sure that’s the end of the story. I think what’s happening now is people are running scared from the idea of cultural studies with such speed, they’re scampering back into their disciplines. People who I knew—say, other graduates from Birmingham, people who have Ph.D.s in cultural studies from Birmingham—all now say things like “I’m a film historian of [End Page 129] Germany between the years 1926 and 1935,” or “Well, yes, I look at British social history from 1880 to 1920,” or something like this. They’ve all gone running back to the disciplines because the banalization of this concern with culture has created an institutional climate in universities where one sacrifices one’s seriousness if one says one is interested in culture. Eleven years ago or so, when they made me a professor in England, one of the reasons I said I wanted my chair to be in sociology and in cultural studies is because I was proud of that affiliation, and I remain proud of it. I’m not talking about the very affirmative or cheerleader-type stuff that was written about shopping and the male body and all this kind of garbage. These are not problems that are peculiar to cultural studies.

Photo by Marc Halevi
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Photo by Marc Halevi

Who wants to be an academic these days, and what do they do? All the smart people go and work for McKinsey, right? They’re all bankers or something. Who wants to come and waste seven, eight years of their life on their intellectual passion to be trained and prepared for a life as teacher in a university? I don’t want to sacrifice my professional probity, but most academics are not people who change the terms of academic debate; they are people who recycle and elaborate on the insights of others. That’s what most of us do. And if you’re not one of those people, if you have an original agenda of your own, it’s not always easy to get it recognized. It’s not always easy to work across disciplinary lines; it’s not always attractive to be an intellectual—and I don’t mean a public intellectual, but to be an intellectual rather than a scholar. Sometimes those things are pulled in different directions, and it would be silly to pretend that tension isn’t there. So I don’t see that cultural studies suffers uniquely from this. I think there’s just as much dull and bad scholarship done everywhere, although there are particular symptoms in the trivial and useless work that’s been produced under the sign of cultural studies, which has obviously sacrificed what I thought of as important features of that project as a political intervention—in the way that people thought about power. I mean, why should we have to sacrifice the interest in political economy in order to understand consumer behavior or to understand the allure of particular objects? The challenge, as many people have tried and succeeded in doing, is to hold those things in some sort of habitable equilibrium and to be able to show base/superstructure relationships even as they break down and become something different. Those tensions, those holes are important. [End Page 130] The essence must be made to appear, if you like. But these are not fashionable things to be doing now, and, actually, I think a lot of scholarship has become very timid, as the accusation of political correctness has bitten people. I’m not only speaking of the situation here where patronage and tenure and all of these other things have a very distinctive place in the life of institutions. I think this is true in other parts of the world as well. So people are very mindful of these dangers and pressures. Nobody wants to appear to be guilty of political correctness. There are certainly some voices within the general field of cultural studies, if I can call it that, who have traded in what I would call identity politics, which is a way of proceeding that makes identity meaningless and politics impossible. We need to be relentlessly and ruthlessly critical of all of that because there are still all sorts of ways in which one wants to take culture and technology seriously, and the failure to do so will mean that we don’t really understand what’s going on around us. There’s a danger, of course, in academics being even more remote and displaced and cut off from the vertiginous world of the moment than they already are. So I feel more strongly about that now. I think, in that sense, we need to return to questions of government and cultural studies, and if that means asking vulgar questions about what class has become in this moment, then so be it. If it means asking vulgar questions about the relationship between globalization and Americanization, I’m afraid that will have to happen. If it means troubling the assumptions about what stands for the future and what represents the past in the way that we understand the development of the humanities—never mind the development of national liberation projects—then so be it.

TS: Just a follow-up to the question about cultural studies: How would you describe your own relationship to the Marxist tradition? Can you reflect back on when you initially came to cultural studies and compare that to now?

PG: Well, what is it that Richard Wright said: Marxism is a transitory makeshift pending a more accurate diagnosis? Reading Marx is one thing, forms of Marxism are something else, and reading Marx politically is a different project altogether. I suppose there were forms of Marxist humanism that appealed to me which are associated with traditions of working-class self-activity and self-emancipation—the kinds of things that James and, in certain phases, Castoriadis and Grace Boggs supported. In that sense, I’ve always been a kind of Jamesian, for whom the contradiction between capital and labor is an essential element in the form of analysis you want [End Page 131] to develop, but it’s not by itself sufficient—it is necessary, but not sufficient. And, again, I don’t feel I’ve gotten past that really.

I’ve also always been interested in the anarchist traditions, and the relationship of anarchism to Marxism in the nineteenth century, and to those debates. That’s not really a history that people know terribly well, although it is one that has helped me to make sense of some of the forms of black political culture. We tend to think of spontaneity and organization sometimes as separate processes, rather than different properties on a continuum. Anarchist thinkers have been better than Marxian traditions at interpreting certain features of political behavior. And, of course, the tradition of Marxism I’m citing as influential in my thinking is something which has never had any time for the idea of a vanguard party, or for—and I suppose this is where Wright and James come in again—Soviet communism in any form.

Understanding where Marxism fitted into the beginning of British cultural studies is really important. Reading Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, Stuart Hall, or Perry Anderson—and others—in the light of their relationship with Marxism is of course fundamental to making that developmental map. And, of course, there are those who still want to read Marx and still find that an instructive thing to do in a lot of areas, not just as a historian but as a social theorist. But my fundamental problem with Marxism has always been what could be called its productivism. Even in the times when I tried to translate my own thinking into a more Marxian vocabulary, I was very clear about the tyranny of productivism and that side of Marx which, I think as Adorno says, wanted to turn the world into a big work house and to look at human social development through the relationship between self-making and labor. The Black Atlantic tradition is one in which work doesn’t play that role. Work is the very antithesis of that: work is servitude. That was something that had the practitioners of bourgeois political economy scratching their heads. How do we get Quashee to do more than the minimum that is essential to Quashee’s survival as a human being? So there’s a way that we can bring the history of the colonization of the Black Atlantic world into this story, and there are elements of Marxism and parts of Marx’s own writing that are particularly valuable even now in helping us to do that—in helping us understand the fundamental significance of colonies, in understanding the relationship between slavery and plantation societies and the constitution of national states, in understanding the forms of solidarity and political action possible when people begin to move in the direction of what James called a degree of proximity that is greater than that being experienced by the proletariat at the same time. So there are a lot of critical ways of opening up our relationship to this tradition of Marxism. [End Page 132]

TS: As you know, Marx was highly critical of what he sometimes called utopian socialism, a socialism that wasn’t rooted in a materialist conception of history, a socialism that relied on an overly moralized conception of history. Would it be fair to say that in some ways you are trying to revive the utopian tradition of anti-capitalism? And, if that is fair, what do you think utopianism has to offer that has been underappreciated or misunderstood?

PG: Marx thought he was going to do what Darwin had done—historical materialism would be the natural science of history, right? So the scientism also bothers me; it’s connected up with what I called the productivism. When Marx and Engels understood the second law of thermodynamics, they began to freak out because they realized that you couldn’t go on making a bigger cake—that actually there was loss there, energy was burning away—they didn’t like that. Yet they didn’t return to utopian thought. My engagement with utopianism and utopian thought is not part of a tradition. There are utopian thinkers and utopian thoughts and utopian events, in the philosophical sense. I have been very influenced by Ernst Bloch, his conceptions of utopia, and particularly his understanding of the relationship between music and utopia and also his sense of the place of the fragments—the shards of utopian thinking in everyday life—in fairy stories and detective novels. Where do I think this is important or influential for our political predicament? I think that when we are antiracist—which is not a word that trips easily off the U.S. tongue: antiracism. You guys love to talk about races, you like to talk about race, but you don’t like to talk about racism. I began to think that the appetite to talk about race is in inverse proportion to the reluctance to talk about racism—that is what my book Against Race is kind of about. For me, that creates a political situation in which we’re all really clear about what we’re against, but we don’t really know what we are for anymore, you see? And we can’t rely on somebody else’s recipe of socialism to tell us. I know that the P.C. and identity-politics people have some mantra about being against oppression in all its forms. Well, that was a bit vague for my taste, for my palate. I began to think, how do we systematically cultivate the ability to do what Bloch called dreaming forward, and what value does it have, to be compelled to imagine a different world? What are its characteristics? This is not the same as a political exercise in which we are always bound by someone else’s profane choices, and we just select among them the least bad option. What do we want? Do we just want that when you go to the doctor, you don’t have to pay? Is that it? Is that gonna do it? So we need to say what we really want, we need to say what we’re for and to find ways of doing that, which are in that sense “traditional” because they speak to a history of reflection on these matters which ought to be the cultural property (if culture can be property) of people from whom it appears as a kind of—and here we’re back in the kind of Marxian scheme—not [End Page 133] false consciousness but necessary illusion that corresponds to the people’s historical situation, to their sociological fate. So these are in a sense thought experiments which restore to people the ability to imagine a better and different world than the one they inhabit. This of course is done deliberately, and it has a particular relationship, I would submit, to the forms of vernacular culture they already practice, because there are ways of reading those things which suggest that they’re already doing them anyway, though not always in the ways that we like. The classic modernist obsession is the thought that you got to kill someone else in order to realize your own being in the world. As you know, alongside the love in hip hop, there’s a lot of death in there, too.

Photo by Marc Halevi
Click for larger view

Photo by Marc Halevi

TS: Can you give our readers a précis of your latest project?

PG: Right. Well, I mean, it’s another utopian exercise. First of all, I wanted to denature people’s relationship with automotive transport and represent their romance with the automobile as part of their complicity with an unsustainable social and political order in the world. And I wanted to show that being racially oppressed didn’t necessarily provoke disenchantment with that, but one of the consequences of being racially oppressed might be to bind you ever more closely to a particular sense of the relationship between identity and property—as well as to show that people had seen that problem and had interesting [End Page 134] things to say about it. Second, I wanted to address the globalization of black culture and to trouble the relationship between what you might call global eminence, on the one hand, and negative globalization, on the other, and to show that, to all intents and purposes, cultural globalization is the globalization of African American culture. I wanted to suggest some elements of how that has come about, and to ask what sorts of responsibilities, what forms of accountability, to the world fall to African Americans as a result of that. Although there are many of them of course who want to use that fact as a way to, at last, become authentic citizens of this country, and I have absolute respect for and understanding of their choice, it’s not necessarily the one that I favor. I think there are other choices, too. Third, I wanted to say that the problem of double consciousness has sort of run its course and that it does culminate in figures like Powell and Rice and Gonzales, and that people are in denial about that. And I try to use the lives of certain exemplary figures to bring these possibilities alive. Lastly, the fourth thing, was to justify that utopianism in some way as a valuable exercise, and not as a scholastic one, because I feel that in the context of this never-ending war, I’m more impatient with the merely scholastic orientation than I have ever been.

Allow me one last comment. Writing a book called Against Race wasn’t thought to be a very smart idea by many people, in a situation where even academics don’t always read what’s written. Against Race wasn’t really my title for that book. I gave it the title Between Camps, which is the title it has in its other edition. But when I realized how people were responding to the book, I began to be glad that it had the title that it had. Because, for some reason, in this discourse, people think that being against racism is an obvious choice, that it’s something that doesn’t need to be explained or elaborated, unpacked politically. They think it’s a banal thing to say that one’s against racism. I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure that’s true at all. My own critique of Against Race is that its focus on being against racism isn’t sustained in the way that it should be. I’m not asking for any special favors from the reader; I am asking for an honest read.

TS: I teach a course called “Philosophical Perspectives on Race and Racism.” I’ve been doing it for about ten years now. I always ask what seems like a simple question, just to get the students thinking: What’s so bad about racism? What, specifically, is wrong with it? Over time I’ve come to realize, much to my surprise, that people, even many nonwhites, really haven’t given much thought to that question.

PG: And that’s a measure of the job we have to do. [End Page 135]

One comment

  1. Very interesting interview and dialogue. It seems to me that Martin Delaney was correct in his, I think, assumption that the unique world/philosophical view of the “atlantic black” was essential to moving humanity in step to modernity.In as much that it would take the experience of that type of worldview to appreciate the gift or potential of human ingenuity.

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