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Darker than Blue by Paul Gilroy

by Ben Pitcher
12 Mar 2010 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Review of: Paul Gilroy (2010) Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, hb, 224 pages.

ISBN: 0674035704

Paul Gilroy carries a lot of symbolic weight. In our transnational academic milieu, Gilroy’s status as a superstar professor overdetermines his writing, forcing a peculiar disjuncture between the character of his project and the expectations of his eager audience. While Gilroy speaks of a poststructural cultural politics, he is too often forced into the position of custodian or leader that sometimes rubs up uncomfortably with his analysis. After Gilroy’s public lectures, one often hears an unsatisfied muttering that seems to have been holding out for directions in an almost Leninist mode. In this, Gilroy is of course a victim of his own success: were it not for the way There Ain’t No Black crystallized and shorthanded the remarkable collective project of Birmingham Cultural Studies, expectations might be different; had The Black Atlantic not become such an inspiration for thinking race in a global frame, maybe his work wouldn’t have translated so easily out of the British context; had not Small Acts and Between Camps expanded and extended the methodological and philosophical parameters of this project, the burden of expectation might not have been quite so large.

It is to Gilroy’s credit that he will hold back and resist the spokesperson role to which he is so often ascribed. The ambit of his new book is modest and idiosyncratic, and all the better for it. Whereas 2004’s After Empire arguably retrod some old ground in its capitulation to the expectations of an audience looking for a verdict on Blair’s Britain, Darker than Blue, also based on lectures given at a US university, seems to be led more by interest than obligation. The book’s first chapter interrogates the US’s complex ‘history of black communities and automotivity’ (31), and comprises a layered reading of the private automobile as an ‘index of hegemony’ (23), a cultural text that expresses the possibilities, divisions, freedoms and oppressions generated at the intersection of race and North American consumerism. When he asks whether the automobile’s dialectic of liberation and privatization constitutes ‘a small victory over segregation or its refinement’ (27), Gilroy refuses to decide. He recognizes and amplifies the ambivalent but productive worry that his own nuanced analysis necessarily generates: true to the radically contextual, polyvalent and multi-centred arena of cultural politics that his work describes, Gilroy channels the desire for answers into a mechanism for producing more questions.

The diffuse character of Gilroy’s first chapter is maintained in his third, where he sustains his questioning openness by means of an ironic closure. Gilroy wants to register a very personal feeling about the demise of a counter-cultural black Atlantic popular music, yet is acutely conscious that the only grounds on which he can really do this is by drawing on a cache of arguments about a de- or pre-fetishized authenticity that just so happens to coincide with his own youth. Rather than attempt to deny his partiality, Gilroy rather ingeniously foregrounds the distorting lens of his own nostalgia, and in doing so turns the generational complaint of ‘aesthetic stagnation’ (122) into a genuine and celebratory evocation of loss. When he channels Adorno in his description of a contemporary musical community as a debased ‘aggregation of shoppers, downloaders, and headphoned poddies’ (129), Gilroy is self-ironizing in the ‘grumpy old man’ mode: he insists he has a point, just like Adorno had a point, yet unlike Adorno he does not insist on the generalizability of his position.[1] Gilroy’s model of writing as cultural practice here is a confidently mature one, a taking-of-positions in the full knowledge of their limitations in the faith that they allow for the contingent communication of certain ideas and (particularly) experiences. In this, they make their own modest truth-claim, and as such serve Gilroy well in this ‘homage’ (125) to the music of his youth.

Gilroy’s inquiring openness and stylistic maturity also inform the ethical position he sets out most fully in the central chapter of Darker than Blue. Here, Gilroy reprises a longstanding argument about the necessity of humanism – as ‘familiarity with the suffering of others’ (65) – in race politics. Against a facile self-righteousness that calls for the rejection of a sullied universal humanism, Gilroy rightly insists on the necessarily moral dimensions of antiracism. Refusing to align himself with the political certainties of an antihumanist high ground, Gilroy embraces the messy and fallible terrain of sentiment and recognition as antiracism’s conditions of possibility. Against those Schmittian critics who scoff at this as pure romance, Gilroy’s concluding argument returns us to Fanon’s clear-sighted verdict on the persistence of the human beyond race. As Darker than Blue reminds us in a beautifully negatively sentence on the wretched of the earth: ‘[t]heir past and present sufferings confer no special nobility upon them and are not invested with redemptive insights’ (158).

Notes

1. Though of course it is unlikely that Adorno had an entirely straight face when he compared jazz dancing to ‘the reflexes of mutilated animals’ in ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, on p.292 of Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (eds) (1982) The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum. [↑]

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Ben Pitcher writes about race, politics and popular culture. He teaches sociology at the University of Westminster, UK.
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