From edition

Theresa Enright: Postcolonial Melancholia

Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

Review by Theresa Enright, Arts and Science, McMaster University.

In an era where ‘multiculturalism’ has come under attack from all ends of the political spectrum, and ‘cosmopolitanism’ is often equated with a bourgeois worldliness, Paul Gilroy offers a rather unorthodox defense of both ideologies. Situating his analysis in a not-so-post-colonial Britain, Gilroy examines various projects of living with alterity, suggesting that the best vision for a world free of racial hierarchies can only be achieved with a candid look at colonial histories. Stressing the continuum of colonial racial logic in contemporary British culture and politics, Gilroy proposes a “remaking of the nation’s relationship with its imperial past”(xii) as a map to a more dignified and peaceful future. He attempts to detonate the violent and oppressive colonial definition of race based on false axioms of human worth, opting instead for an ordinary grassroots solidarity, what he terms ‘conviviality’.

Postcolonial Melancholia (published in the United Kingdom as After Empire: Multiculture or Postcolonial Melancholia) is a record of the 2002 Wellek Lectures in Critical Theory, delivered by Gilroy at the University of California, Irvine. His overall venture is summed up as follows,

“As the postcolonial and post-Cold War models of global authority takes shape and reconfigures relationships between the overdeveloped, the developed and the developmentally arrested worlds, it is important to ask what critical perspectives might nurture the ability and the desire to live with difference on an increasingly divided but also convergent planet? We need to know what sorts of insight and reflection might actually help increasingly differentiated societies and anxious individuals to cope successfully with the challenges involved in dwelling comfortably in proximity to the unfamiliar without becoming fearful and hostile” (3)

Although the text spans centuries of political philosophy, a gamut of theoretical and popular culture figures, and a range of historical events, Gilroy focuses his inquiry around a rather succinct topic. Like many race theorists of the past few decades, Gilroy addresses the yet unresolved question: How can ideas of race be understood and articulated in ways that allow and enable progressive future-oriented politics? Gilroy challenges us to conceive of human relationships beyond the confines of race thinking, where diversity and strangeness, rather than homogeneity and order can underwrite social organization. Noting the inadequacy of current discourses of racial politics, he also aims to reinvigorate the tired language of cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, and humanism and align them with the complex dynamics of a planetary age.

The book is structured in two parts, roughly encompassing the local and the global aspects of the racial dynamics he describes. In ‘Part One: The Planet’, Gilroy delves into “the bloodstained workings of racism”(4), twentieth century anti-racist humanisms and the emergence of a “planetary mentality” (69). Drawing on thinkers such as Franz Fanon, W.E.B. DuBois, and Malcolm X, the first part of the book shows how notions of solidarity and planetarity are related to anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles. In contrast, ‘Part Two: Albion’, focuses on the specificities of the British experiences of imperial nostalgia, postcolonial melancholia, and convivial living. Television icons such Ali G and David Brent are used to illustrate the ambiguous perceptions of race in Britain, while a militaristic football cheer is used as a vivid portrayal of yearnings for a mythic lost empire. While his critical historical approach is undoubtedly useful, Gilroy is somewhat unable to maintain the same rigourous analysis when dealing with contemporary culture.

Gilroy traces the history of Britain where difference is equated with fear and instability, as dangerous and inevitably leading to chaos and conflict. He notes the problems with state abuses of scientific notions of race, pointing out that “Race thinking and the distinctive political forms associated with it—biopower, ultranationalism, ethnic absolutism, and so on—have sanctioned gross brutality in many diverse settings” (31). Not merely aberrations in an otherwise pristine national story, this race thinking was and is deeply implicated in the social, political and military projects of the state. Xenophobia, racism and militarism are wound up in the political projects of European statecraft. He argues quite effectively that the projects of colonialism have not collapsed in the ‘post’-colonial era, but that the currencies of colonialism, defined along the lines of race, gender and class are still circulated in contemporary national projects. These residual ways of seeing and acting reinforce and reproduce the same hierarchies that defined the Empire.

When one considers the abused category of race and its ability to be harnessed for so much violence and suffering, one is left with the problem of how to denature the volatility of the term. What can be done with this largely discredited artifact that cannot be extricated from the grasp of victims and oppressors alike? Navigating the contradictory and ambiguous territory of racial thought poses many problems. There is an apparent conflict for example, in Gilroy’s “affirming the geopolitical potency of race”(7) on one hand, while on the other, recognizing that a “focus on racial difference obstructs empathy and makes ethnocentrism inescapable” (63). This paradox speaks to the heart of Gilroy’s argument as he ultimately attempts to fashion a method of historicizing race while simultaneously writing race out of meaningful existence. How can race be transcended in a viable and effective way without denying or ignoring its power?

Gilroy has many nuanced and engaging answers to this question. Of particular interest is his description of ‘conviviality’ as a means of fostering human relationships not dependent upon fixed racial classifications and ordering. He uses the term conviviality to describe “the processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life in Britain’s urban areas and in postcolonial cities elsewhere” (xv). A way to recognize diversity without cementing it in place, conviviality describes the everydayness of living with and through human difference that often renders race insignificant and inessential. Gilroy outlines “the evasive, multicultural future prefigured everywhere in the ordinary experiences of contact, cooperation, and conflict across the supposedly impermeable boundaries of race, culture, identity and ethnicity” (xii). Not only does conviviality complicate the structured categories of difference that racial thinking is predicated upon, but conviviality requires a necessary distance from the usual attachments to both ‘community’ and ‘identity’ altogether.

In lieu of identity-based social movements, Gilroy want to resuscitate the unpopular idea of humanism in a mode that is powerful enough to address contemporary global racial politics, while not falling into the traps that have largely discredited the movement in the past. He suggests the possibility of a progressive humanistic expression “licensed by a critique of racial hierarchy and the infrahuman life forms it creates” (xv). His vision of “planetary humanism” is articulated along radical lines and relies on a forceful critique of the dominant imperial calculus that ascribes human worth differentially according to different types of human bodies.

His vision of ‘the universal’ is not equivalent to liberal universalism whereby everybody is treated as if they were equal or everyone is made to conform to some mythic hegemonic ideal. Rather, he argues for ‘cosmopolitan solidarity’ among people around
th
e world to be recognized as human on the basis
of their differences, racial or otherwise. This solidarity bespeaks a way of living together that embraces hybridity, diaspora, multiculturalism; an everydayness of negotiating differences without reifying race. His vision is far from utopian however, and Gilroy does not suggest that conviviality is the solution to end racism. Rather, he suggests that “multicultural ethics and politics could be premised upon an agonistic, planetary humanism capable of comprehending the universality of our elemental vulnerability to the wrongs we visit upon each other” (4). The paradox of achieving conviviality amidst dominant colonial ways of thinking is a theme that runs throughout the text.

Shifting his focus to the microcosm of contemporary Britain, Gilroy notes the ambivalence of the national melancholic mood. He describes the pathology of postcolonial melancholia as arising from the sense of shame at recalling colonial atrocities, the exhaustive and harmful task of perpetuating a willful amnesia of these memories and the manic tendency to reenact these repressed emotions in various discourses. Set against this backdrop of confliction and irresolve, Gilroy locates hope for the future in urban youth and the “the spontaneous tolerance and openness evident in the underworld of Britain’s convivial culture” (131).

Where Gilroy does fall short perhaps, is in elucidating a connection between the two parts of his book and in proving direction for how to attain a multiculture beyond awaiting spontaneous acts of creative cohabitation. Although he provides a cohesive thread that links the colonial past with the present, the link to a cosmopolitan future is more tenuous and he does not clearly explain how to achieve his project. Imagining such a world and bringing it about are very different, though interrelated tasks. Arising as if by chance in the primordial seas of recreational drug use and electronic music of London’s streets, conviviality is an apparent anomaly. He provides us with a glimpse of what conviviality means, but does not venture to explain how to bring it about.

Though his critique of colonial history is powerful and resounding, his argument for the existence of conviviality is not entirely convincing. Two of the well-known figures he uses to support bottom-up cosmopolitanism, Rachel Corrie and Mike Skinner provide rather ambiguous support to his thesis. Corrie is a young U.S. citizen who was killed by the Israeli army while she defended territory in Gaza, sacrificing her life “in defense of the weak and the vulnerable” (81). In a different vein, Skinner is the lead singer of the popular English band, The Streets. His lyrics, Gilroy suggests, treat race as “a practice that can be understood through a comparison with the strategic choice of drug that a variety of person opts for in a particular situation” (96). Corrie relates to the Palestinian cause, but her words are tinged with notions of superiority. Skinner treats race as if it needn’t matter at all. These figures certainly represent some current trends in racial thinking, but their respective projects seem to blur rather than clarify the lines between sympathy and solidarity or indifference and acceptance.

Another issue that is brought up yet inadequately explored is his warning to the United States of engaging in the kind of “geo-pious” (96) patriotism that has caused Britain so many problems. Although focused on the British situation, Gilroy also speaks to the latest United States imperial ventures. He mentions the “heavily militarized globalization process” (3) and the emergence of genomics and biocolonialism, the injustice of Camp Delta, the superfluous “infrahmans” constructed in Manichean discourses and sensationalist representations of illegal aliens and terrorists. All of these current dynamics, centered in America are largely underwritten by race. Although Gilroy touches on these dangerous trends in American diplomacy, he does not engage with them as forcefully as he does with the colonial policies of the British Empire. It would be interesting to see, for example, whether Gilroy sees conviviality as a potential counter to these attitudes and actions, and how it could begin to counter the imperial U.S. forces.

“Everybody knows” Gilroy qualifies, “that conceptual innovations cannot bring racism to an end, but they do have their uses” (55). Although he does not give us a clear path toward a future unencumbered by race, Gilroy does importantly suggest revolutionary ways that we can begin thinking about such a world. Perhaps then, it is a good thing that he leaves us somewhat unsatisfied and longing for more.

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