Randall Jarrell once subjected an illustrious poet’s entire oeuvre to the precomputer equivalent of word-search and revealed the matrix of 40 favorite (i.e., overused) words that encapsulated his sensibility. You could do something similar to Against Race, the new book by Paul Gilroy, British cultural studies maven and Yale professor of sociology and African American studies. On one side lurk all the isms that make Gilroy frown: purism, essentialism, primordialism, unanimism. On the other, the words that make him smile: hybrid, syncretic, cosmopolitan, transcultural, diaspora. Against Race‘s contentious contention is that even in their “weak” cultural forms the first cluster of bad terms are philosophically on the same track as ultranationalism, fascism, genocide.
With admirable courage, Gilroy dismisses race as a quasibiological mystification, a toxic concept that has degraded our thought. Railing against the “cheap pseudo-solidarities” offered by ethnic loyalty, he strives to discredit utterly what he calls “race-thinking.” Just as Michel Foucault interrogated “sexuality” as a discourse, Gilroy traces the history of “raciology” as a pseudoscience—from 19th-century fusions of superstition and logic like eugenics and the theories of racial decline through miscegenation to Nazi ideas of “blood and soil” and “lebensraum.”
What will surely upset many readers is Gilroy’s provocative argument that fascism is not the special genius of white folks. He highlights the strange pacts that have sometimes developed between black separatists and white supremacists. For instance, back-to-Africa prophet Marcus Garvey met with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 and concluded that they shared similar ideals of purifying and standardizing the race. Gilroy dubs this syndrome “fraternalist mirroring”—blood-brotherhoods who are enemies but who respect each other as honest representatives and brutal defenders of their race. Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association even anticipated Hitler’s and Mussolini’s use of uniform and drill. Just before the war, Garvey boasted, “We were the first Fascists,” and as late as 1974 his son was still calling for “an African ‘Lebensraum.’ ” Gilroy suggests that the careers of Garvey, Farrakhan, Milosevic, and other messianic leaders are based on a nation-building narrative that goes back to Moses: the shepherding of a weak, scattered, but “chosen” people toward its manifest destiny or promised land.
Against all these manifestations of “ethnic absolutism,” with their tendencies toward authoritarianism, militarism, and pageantry, Gilroy wields the concept of diaspora. As most famously explored in his book The Black Atlantic (about the crisscrossing cultural traffic connecting Africa, the Caribbean, America, and Britain), diasporic identity has nothing to do with chosen exile or migration; Gilroy stresses the crucial dimension added by the forced nature of the dispersal. As traumatic as the Jewish diaspora or the Middle Passage was, Gilroy values the end result: a “dual consciousness” that comes from being neither totally assimilated to the new culture nor able to preserve the old folkways. In turn, diasporic peoples unavoidably transform the cultures they pass through; they unsettle wherever they settle. London, whose popular culture mixes Jamaican, Indian, and imported black American music and style, is just one example of this vital hybridity.
Unfortunately, the weakest parts of Against Race are those concerned with modern pop culture. While you’ve got to admire Gilroy’s guts in dissing contemporary rap as “pseudo-rebellion” and appreciate his chutzpah in using Luther “2 Live Crew” Campbell’s professed debt to lecherous TV comedian Benny Hill as proof that hip-hop is not a purely black art form, his analyses of contemporary rap and r&b are riddled with strained overinterpretations and arguments that peter out frustratingly. There’s also a fogey-ish slant to his complaints about the video era’s privileging of image over sound, or his disparaging of sampling and programmed rhythm as musical “de-skilling” (when it’s obviously a new virtuosity, digital not manual). Despite his nostalgia, Gilroy does acknowledge that it’s precisely in the clubland domain of computerized dance music that his ideal of “multiculture” is most vibrantly alive.
Globalization and corporate-sponsored multiculturalism (images of black beauty in advertising, fashion, sports) are contributing to the erosion of race-thinking, Gilroy concedes. But he doesn’t really take on the powerful notion that local tradition and ethnic identity might be useful resources for resistance, if only as a counterweight against capitalism’s tendency to dissolve all forms of solidarity and difference. This opens up another problem that Gilroy acknowledges but doesn’t really resolve: how to avoid the weak and banal forms of rootless cosmopolitanism in which “everything becomes . . . blended into an impossibly even consistency.” Thing is, Nietzsche was right: a fierce sense of identity enables a certain kind of will, vehemence, and certainty that people find attractive and energizing. Which is why, as the old ethnic and religious hostilities fade, new tribalisms emerge around leisure and consumption—postracial “peoples” like snowboarders, Abercrombie & Fitch wearers, ravers. Maybe, for all Gilroy’s hopes, there’s actually an innate, precultural instinct toward tribalism—look at the way children instinctively form gangs and exhibit hostility to the non-same. Tolerance is part of the civilizing process; it has to be learned.
Ultimately, the grand problem at the heart of Against Race is how to reinvent “that perilous pronoun ‘we’ ” without lapsing into us-versus-them psychology, with all its consolations and intoxications. Gilroy’s answer is to wield a bigger “We” that will hopefully subsume the smaller, squabbling “we”s: humanity. Following the anticolonial thinker Frantz Fanon, he wants to “purge and redeem” Enlightenment humanism of its dark side (imperialism, racism) and renovate the idea of a species-level solidarity that transcends racial divisions. It’s a noble but somewhat woolly ideal, and it’s ironic that Gilroy takes heart from the way white and black unite to fight malevolent extraterrestrials in movies like Independence Day and Men in Black, seemingly unaware that this is just racism on the cosmic scale, war against monstrous Others that truly are alien.