Friday, April 26, 2019
PAUL GILROY, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line
director's cut, the Village Voice, May 2 2000.
by Simon Reynolds
It was Randall Jarrell, I think, who took the entire oeuvre of Yeats, did the pre-computer age equivalent of a word-search, and discovered the matrix of forty or so favorite (that's to say, over-used) words and tropes that encapsulated the poet's aesthetic. You could do something similar to Against Race, the new book by Paul Gilroy, the black British cultural studies maven and Yale Professor of Sociology and African American studies.
On one side, there'd be the list words that make Gilroy frown: purism, essentialism, roots, unanimism, primordialism, homeland.
On the other, the words that make Gilroy smile: hybrid, syncretic, cosmopolitan, transcultural, creole, heteroculture, and, especially, diaspora.
Against Race's contentious contention is that even in their "weak" cultural forms ("mild ethnocentrisms" identity politics, discourses of racial pride), the first frowned-upon cluster of words are philosophically on the path that leads to a bunch of even nastier words: ultranationalism, fraternalism, militarism, fascism, ethnic cleansing.
Against Race is going to upset a lot of people. With admirable courage and forthrightness, Gilroy dismisses race as a quasi-biological mystification, a toxic concept that, even when turned around into black-is-beautiful pride or made the basis of resistance, has basically fucked up our thought. Railing against the "cheap pseudo-solidarities" offered by ethnic loyalty on the grounds that they effectively terminate politics (in the sense of coalition, mediation, negotiation, alliance), Gilroy aims to discredit what he calls "race-thinking" or "raciology". He aims to analyse the history of race as a concept in the same way that Michel Foucault interrogated "sexuality" as discourse and discipline.
Gilroy traces the way the near-simultaneous birth of "rationality" and "nationality" at the start of the modern era led to pseudo-scientific mergers of superstition and logic such as eugenics and theories of racial decline through miscegenation. Imperialism, Darwinism and the emergence of ecology, and the growing importance of what Gilroy calls (after Foucault) "biopolitics," created the context for ideas of the people or volk as a quasi-biological organism rooted in specific territory. This in turn led to the Nazis's demand for lebensraum and the literalisation of their slogan "blood and soil"--where the soil is soaked in the blood of the original but now exterminated inhabitants of the conquered territory.
What is going to offend a lot of people is the way that Gilroy shows that fascism is not the special genius of the German people, or even the white race. He reveals not just alarming parallels but strange alliances and mutual respect pacts between black separatist groups and white supremacists. The British National Party actually demonstrated in support of a Bermudan Rastafarian who wanted the UK government to fund his "return" to Ghana. That sounds bizarre, but if you listen to the Seventies roots reggae of groups like The Congos and Israel Vibration, you will hear the word "repatriation" being sung with disconcerting yearning and anticipation.
Even more startling is the story of how Marcus Garvey met with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 and concluded that they shared similar ideals of purifying and standarizing the race. Gilroy dubs this syndrome "fraternalist mirroring"--blood-brotherhoods who are enemies but who respect each other as honest representatives of their race, and actually even admire each other's brutality. Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association anticipated the European fascists with their use of uniform and drill. In 1937, Garvey boasted "we were the first Fascists... Mussolini copied fascism from me. " Long after the defeat of the great dictactors, his son Marcus Garvey Jnr called in 1974 for "African lebensraum" and talked about "African National Socialism." What connects these depressing examples is a fundamental nation-building narrative, argues Gilroy, that goes back to Moses and underpins the careers of Hitler, Farrakhan, and Milosevic to name just a few: the shepherding of a weak, scattered, decadent but "chosen" people, by a messiah-like leader, towards its manifest destiny and/or promised land.
Against all these different manifestations of "ethnic absolutism", with their tendencies towards authoritarianism, militarism, and pageants of primordial kinship, Gilroy marshalls the concept of diaspora. As developed in The Black Atlantic (his book about the cultural traffic connecting West Africa, the Caribbean, the Southern USA and the U.K), diasporic identity has nothing to do with chosen exile or mere migration; Gilroy stresses the crucial dimension added by the forced nature of the dispersal. It might seem odd to valorize such cataclysmic traumas as the scattering of the Jews or slavery, but Gilroy--himself a child of the Black Atlantic--values the end result: a kind of subject-in-process, 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 as they settle. London, whose popular culture is a mish-mash of Jamaican, Indian and imported Black American music and style, is one example; the entirety of Brazilian culture is another, where the ideal of mesticagem (mixing) was enshrined as state policy only a few decades after slavery was abolished in the late Nineteenth Century.
Unfortunately the weakest parts of Against Race are those concerned with the play of hybridities and essentialisms in modern pop culture. While you've got to admire his guts in dissing current rap as mere "pseudo-rebellion" and appreciate his chutzpah in using Luther "2 Live Crew'" Campbell's professed debt to lecherous Brit comedian Benny Hill as proof that hip hop is not a purely black artform, Gilroy's analyses of contemporary rap and R&B are riddled with strained over-interpretations, non-sequiturs, and arguments that trail off frustratingly. There's also a fogey-ish slant to his repetitious complaints about the video age and its privileging of image over sound, or his misinformed identification of sampling and programmed rhythm with musical de-skilling (no, Paul, it's just a new form of digital-not-manual virtuosity).
Despite his nostalgia for the bespectacled seriousness of Curtis Mayfield and the fluent fingers of bassist Marcus Miller, he does acknowledge that it's precisely in the domain of computerized dance music that the praxis of "multiculture" is at its most vital--clubs, raves, pirate radio, are the real Rock Against Racism, he argues. Indeed, rave's implicity anti-fascist bodypolitics can be traced all the back to the secret parties in Nazi Germany where jazz was played on gramophones rather than by live bands. The sound-not-visuals oriented hybridity of underground dance contrasts with the "specular" orientation of "corporate sponsored multiculture", where imagery of blackness as vitality, health, beauty and physical potency circulate in music videos, sports, fashion, and advertising, and negritude has been transformed "from a badge of insult into an increasingly powerful but still very limited signifier of prestige".
As Gilroy concedes, some of the race-thought eradication he wants to see is already being implemented by globalisation. But he doesn't really take on the quite powerful notion that ideas of local tradition and ethnic identity might be useful resources for resistance, if only in the mechanical sense of a drag or recalcitrant counterweight to capitalism's tendency to dissolve all forms of solidarity and difference. This in turns opens up another set of problems that Gilroy acknowledges but doesn't attempt to resolve: how to avoid the kind of homogenisation caused by globalisation without being insular, Luddite, nativist; how to avoid the weak and banal forms of rootless cosmpolitanism in which "everything becomes... blended into an impossibly even consistency" .
The problem is that Nietzche was right: a fierce sense of identity and an us-versus-them worldview creates a certain kind of will, vehemence, and certainty that people find attractive and energizing. Which is why, as the old ethnic, regional and religious tribalisms fade, new ones keep emerging around culture and consumption--new volks like death-metal fans, snowboarders, Abercrombie and Fitch wearers. Maybe, for all Gilroy's hopes, there's actually an innate and almost pre-cultural instinct towards tribalism--look at the way children instinctively form gangs and show hostility towards the non-same. Humanism and tolerance have to be learned, they're part of the civilising process (which is why Nietzche was against civilisation and regarded the "will to stupidity" as an evolutionary advantage). Fascism and ethnocentrism can also draw upon all the irrational romance of the archaic and mythological--the seductive sagas of decline and rebirth, the resurrection of lost imperial powers and the inauguration of new eras. In response, Gilroy imagines abandoning the mythopoeic allure of antiquity and instead relocating utopia in the future: a "heterocultural, postanthropological and cosmopolitan yet-to-come".
In the end, the grand problem at the heart of Against Race is how to reinvent "that perilous pronoun "we" without lapsing into the inclusion/exclusion effect, into us/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"--a species-level "strategic universalism" that repairs the shattering damage caused by raciology to the notion of the human. Following his hero Franz Fanon, the great anti-colonialist thinker, he wants to renew Europe's humanist project and simultaneously "purge and redeem" the Enlightement of its darkside (imperialism, racism, the coupling of reason and superstition that culminated in the scientific slaughter of the concentration camps). 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 extra-terrrestials in movies like Independence Day and Men In Black, without realising that this is just racism on the cosmic scale, war against monstrous Others that truly are alien.
Weirdly , Against Race feels both overlong and sketchy. Passages of amazing lucidity and original insight alternate with garbled meanders where Gilroy seems perpetually on the verge of actually saying something. He also has an annoying habit of ending sections with long series of questions that propose fruitful areas of further enquiry, which only serves to frustrate the reader by making you think 'well, why didn't you enquire further?' Gilroy's prose demeanor can also be off-putting--a controlled simmer of indignation beneath the cool surface of professorial elegance, revealed in odd verbal tics of squeamishness like his use of phrases like "unwholesome ideology" and "unsavory political phenomena" to describe things he disapproves of, like the Afrikaaner Voortrekkers. Other rhetorical gestures have the flavor of the lectern--lots of "I want to ask" or "I want to argue" , constant admonishments not to overlook or pass over too quickly the role of X in Y, calls for vigilance and diligence, soundings of notes of caution. Schoolmarmy tone and what Gilroy himself calls "my own wilfully dislocated argument" aside, Against Race is a brave and compelling book.
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
What was your first musical love?
My first musical love would be things I heard through my parents, so Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, musicals like High Society and West Side Story. And things heard off the radio like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Yellow Submarine.” The first musical love I made for myself, though, would be punk—specifically, the Sex Pistols, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, X Ray Spex, the Slits.
What’s the difference between listening as a fan and listening as a critic?
I’ve been doing it as a critic for so long I’m not sure I can remember. I was listening like a critic before I actually was one, because I was such an ardent reader of the British music press and already half-knew that’s what I was going to be when I grew up. As far as I can tell, the main difference is that you listen not just for pleasure but always with the formation of new ideas as a goal. You want the music not just to satisfy but to give you new thoughts and new sensations. So this inevitably creates a bias, a distortion of sensibility.
For instance whenever I have written really rampantly about a new form of music—like, say, grime in the early 2000s, at a certain point I’ll have said everything I’m capable of saying on the subject. Unless the music keeps moving ever onwards, it won’t be able to stimulate new ideas in me. Most genres settle down after a while—even the most exciting and fast-moving ones can’t sustain that pace forever.
People who are just fans, who purely enjoy the genre, will probably stick around longer than a critic-obsessive. But for someone like me, the way I’m wired, I will want to move on. It may well be that genre continues to generate quality tunes, but if the broader contours of the genre or scene aren’t evolving or mutating, then there’s nothing more to say about it. So that is kind of occupational hazard or limitation—that you are not that interested in genres, or individual artists for that matter, who just solidly plug away churning out good-to-great stuff. A critic—or at least critic of the kind I am—is always looking for the next leap forward, the new development. Because it forces your mind to come up with new ideas, new language.
How has technology (LPs vs. MP3s, studio vs. laptop, whatever) changed the way we experience music?
A book could be written about this subject. Well, books have been. And indeed my book Retromania is partly about that. The short answer is that listening has become a lot more convenience-oriented. Our ability to move it around, pause and restart it, share it, make playlists of it, acquire it, check it out without paying for it, has astronomically increased, through mp3s, iPods, Soundcloud, Youtube, etc etc. But something of its aura has been damaged; it has been depreciated, like a currency that’s too common. The idea of the album as a whole work that you reverently listen to, an aesthetic experience that you submit to—that is something that you have to make a really conscious effort to recreate. Especially if you’re listening on the same machine that you also access the internet, social media, etc, on. The temptation is always to multitask and do something else while you listen. Partial-attention syndrome.
Any observations on the link between music and the visual arts?
Again, books have been written, etc. A very good one is Simon Frith and Howard Horne’s Art Into Pop, which is all about the British art school tradition of forming bands. And I explore the same kind of connections in my own books like Rip It Up and Start Again, about postpunk, where so many of those groups, in the UK and in America, were formed by art school graduates. Ian Dury is a great example of this—a pupil of Peter Blake (of Sgt. Pepper’s cover fame), Dury did art teaching himself in his pre-fame days.
However I would flip the question and argue that music—or at least pop music—is a visual art in itself. The instances of popular youth music that are purely about the music are quite rare instances—even Deadhead culture, which would seem to be not very style oriented, has a lot to do with light shows and trippy colors (not forgetting the whole tie-dye thing). But specifically in terms of capital A “Art,” pop music has always been as much about clothes, stage moves, theatricality, spectacle… about packaging, album covers, posters, T-shirts, logos, promotional campaigns … about videos and films too.
Pop is a messy hybrid of music, visuals, lyrics, business, discourse. In the early decades of pop and rock, pop stars usually had teams of experts providing these elements: a group would have favorite photographers, or fashion designers they worked with, promo directors, graphic artists doing the logo and the album covers. Groups that took a very active and informed direct involvement in directing all of that were quite unusual—the David Bowies and Roxy Musics and Talking Heads. However as the years have gone by it’s more and more the case that bands involve themselves intensely in all the para-musical aspects of the band. Look at a group like Vampire Weekend, who design their own record covers and clearly have firm opinions about typography and such like. The new DIY artists in underground music often create the whole package themselves—the music, but also the record covers and the little abstract or weird promos they put on YouTube. I guess the software used in all these processes is not only affordable, but the skills required are transferable.
In your recent New York Times piece on David Bowie’s new album, you wrote, “The Bowie-esque has been omnipresent.” How would you describe Bowie’s influence on the visual arts? Is there another recording artist with a comparable influence?
I don’t know much about any direct influence on artists he’s had. But he’s really beloved in the art world, as he is in the fashion world, in part because he’s paid so much attention to that side of pop—he’s really knowledgeable. Bowie was actually a critic for a while at Modern Painters in the Nineties, wasn’t he? But he’s also written songs about artists—“Andy Warhol,” “Joe the Lion”—which is partly about Chris Burden. So there’s a kind of mutual admiration pact between Bowie and the art world. Same with Roxy Music.
The recent Corcoran exhibition Pump Me Up celebrates DIY DC subculture of the 80s—hardcore and go-go music. How can today’s art school students profit by the lessons of untrained artists and musicians?
My talk is going to be about the history of DIY and how it’s changed in the digital age. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is a polemical argument and one of the things I will be suggesting is that there is no special virtue to be claimed for doing-it-yourself. Simply doing-it-yourself doesn’t guarantee that the “it” you’re doing is worthwhile or significant.
I’m also not sure that the equation between “do it yourself” and “untrained” holds anymore, if “untrained” is meant to signify amateurish, messy, raw, etc. Because digital facilitation software means that you can produce really glossy, polished, professional sounding and looking stuff at minimal cost. To be lo-fi, ragged, etc. is a deliberate aesthetic choice, a refusal of professionalism—in some ways more contrived than just letting your progams tidy up your work. The kind of “brut”-like authenticity or raw power that was once attributed to unfinished or messy, defective music/art/etc.—that equation no longer works, I don’t think. If you listen to a lot of “underground” (another word that is increasingly vaporous and unstable these days) music, it’s actually pretty slick and shiny.
Favorite artists, graphic designers, photojournalists?
I don’t have a mental list of favorite artists like I do with music. I can tell you a few things in recent years that I’ve found powerful. Mark Leckey’s “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore.” Phil Collins’s “The World Won’t Listen.” Paul Chan’s “7 Lights”…. I’m sure there must be others.
Graphic designers, I tend to think of ‘music,’ and in that category I do like the obvious postpunk ones (Malcolm Garrett, Barney Bubbles, Peter Saville, etc.), the obvious techno-rave ones (like Designers Republic, others where I don’t know the designer as such but I just like the label’s look, e.g., Reinforced Records, PCP, Underground Resistance).
Then more recently I really like the work of Julian House of Intro, who has done sleeves for Broadcast and Stereolab, but also is the co-founder of the label Ghost Box, for whom he does all the artwork as well as recording under the name The Focus Group. I also really like the look of the releases put out by Ian Hodgson as Moon Wiring Club, an example of the syndrome of the contemporary musician who handles the audio-visual output in its entirety.
Saturday, April 13, 2019
by Simon Reynolds
The New York Times, August 18th 1991
by Simon Reynolds
Monday, April 8, 2019
Domino Records, 2019
by Simon Reynolds
Monday, April 1, 2019
by Simon Reynolds
Exquisitely poised torment from the cult crooner, his first record in a decade.
Ivo first approached his hero Scott Walker back in the mid-Eighties, asking him to sing on the second This Mortal Coil album Filigree & Shadow. Nothing came of it, but perseverance obviously pays off eventually, because twenty years later 4AD got to release the legendary balladeer’s comeback album The Drift.