Sunday, December 5, 2010

Paul Gilroy: "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity" – review and summary

In his "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity" Paul Gilroy discusses the complexity of the concept of "identity". Gilroy heavily criticizes the essential discourse about blacks that is, so Gilroy asserts, prevailing in the academy. Gilroy stresses the constructive interaction of displaced ethnicities with other cultures which works to dynamically transform their sense of identity.

At the opening of "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity" Paul Gilroy argues that being both European and black requires a type of double consciousness (a term borrowed from Du Bois). This assertion alone already attacks exclusivist discourses of either/or that often characterize nationalistic stances. The dual identity of the western black is not composed of essential historical roots, for both their original identity and the European modern world have undergone transformation and reconfiguration over time. Gilroy claims that the subjective dichotomy of black and white, introduced in modern times, is far from a thing of the past, and they still continue to function by relating the concept of nationality with that of culture.

What Gilroy is essentially trying to say in "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity " is that the notion of hybridity goes both ways, and even the brutality of European cultures towards other cultures did not prevent them from being also influenced by their subordinates. Gilroy is trying to examine the impact that black thought had on what he calls the "cultural insiderism" on nationalistic thought, stemming from the notions of cultural differences. "cultural insiderism" "constructs the nation as an ethnically homogenous object", a construction that Gilroy aims at challenging by noticing how racial politics transverse and reform European identity.

"Cultural studies in black and white"
In "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity" Paul Gilroy is also critical of his own discipline of origin, cultural studies which contain, so he claims, a "secondary ethnic aspect" and an association with England and the ideas of Englishness which lead to an "ethno-historical specificity" of cultural studies. The nationalistic inclinations and ethnocentric modern traditions which viewed the state as a distinct cultural, economic and political unit are according to Gilroy in need of some serious modification. Traditional thought (from all sides) sees black and white relations in England as a collision between fully formed and distinct ethnic identities.

What Gilroy is essentially saying is that present day racism is the inheritance of the modern conception of the nation-state as established by and for a homogenous culture, and that those modernistic, Enlightenment lines of thought are still very much present in contemporary cultural studies, sociology and other social sciences. Esthetics is also a matter in which modern day society also still entertains residuals of the Eurocentric efforts to articulate what is universally beautiful.

As hinted by the title "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity", Gilroy argues that taking about "English blacks" of "American blacks" disregards the communal experience of slave trade victims which centers around the Atlantic ocean. He therefore suggested talking about the "black Atlantic" culture which ties the identities of the African diaspora. Taking the black Atlantic as a single unit, Gilroy suggests, transcends nationalistic, consequently ethnocentristic, paradigms which plagued British cultural studies.

Paul Gilroy views the black Atlantic as "framing the doorway" of blacks' double consciousness. He uses the historic example of Martin Delany to illustrate this point while also addressing the tension between "rootedness" and a view of identity as a mediated process. Gilroy sees Martin Delany's writings as a mixture of pan-Africanism and Enlightenment themes, and while Gilroy thinks Delany's Christian motifs to be "discordant" one might argue that this sits well with the hybridity that Gilroy celebrates. What interests Gilroy in regards to Martin Delany is also his travelling across the Atlantic as well as his self proclaimed scientific stance with accompanied his political abolitionist opinions. Gilroy sees Delany as one who appropriated 18th century philosophical notions into his ideas of racial integrity and citizenship. Delany, who compared the fate of blacks with that of the Jews and their ambitions with those of Zionism, dreamt of a black national state. 

Gilroy's "black Atlantic" is found in Delany's vision of the alliance between English capital, black American intellect and African labor power. Gilroy also finds in Delany's writings evidence of "the inner dialectics of diaspora identification", with Delany finding out during his visit to Africa that he is as much, maybe even more, African-American than he is purely African, and as Gilroy notes: "the ancient, ancestral home would simply not do as it was". As much as Delany wanted to elevate Africans, he also wanted to enlighten and modernize them. Delany's reference to Africa as the "fatherland" indicates his tying together of nationality and masculinity.

Black Politics and Modernity
If we consider black movements is the past two centuries as political opposition movements, Gilroy's question is what exactly are they opposing?  This while taking into account Du Bois's double consciousness of being both inside and outside the western world? Gilroy relies on Delany to illustrate how the intellectual heritage of Euro-American blacks effected the conceptualization of nationality within the black discourse. Gilroy distinguishes two perspectives towards this issue, the essentialist and the pluralist, though he argues that both are variants of essentialism, one being ontological and the other strategic. The essentialist, or ontological, point of view is a frustrated one in face of the cultural "contamination" of the black diaspora so widely immersed in the west. The pluralistic approach sees blackness as an open signifier and related to its inner divisions like class, gender, etc.

Gilroy looks at Hip-Hop music as a type of fusion, not just in musical terms but also in class and politics related instances. Despite its heterogeneous origins and function,Hip-Hop, Gilroy argues, as become as symbol of racial authenticity. But like politics and thought, aesthetics also accentuates the hybridity of and fragmentation of the black subject which is now further conflictualized by questions of class and gender roles.
On the other hand, Gilroy asserts that "black musical expression has played a role in reproducing what Zygmunt Bauman has called a distinctive counterculture of modernity". The complex nature of black music offers the means to go beyond the tensions of essentialism and absolutism Vs. pluralism and constructivism. Black music, Gilroy argues, opposes the world as it is with the world as the racially subordinate would like to see it, thus denying theodicy. Gilroy notes two functions of this music, one of "fulfillment" which demands of modernity to be all that it promised to be, and the other utopian which presents alternatives for the modern vision of society.  

Paul Gilroy: "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity"

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