smell

[See also Gilroy I and Gilroy II.]

Gilroy has been criticized for his “populist modernism” before, not least by Kobena Mercer, who took him to task as long ago as 1990 for his celebration of “black cultural practices that have ‘spontaneously arrived at insights which appear in European traditions as the exclusive results of lengthy and lofty philosophical discussions'” (“Black Art and the Burden of Representation” 69). As we have seen in Postcolonial Melancholia, and as in all populisms, Gilroy wants to have his cake and eat it: both championing the spontaneous wisdom of the people and insisting on the intellectual’s “fundamental” task of “education” (“Race and Faith Post 7/7”). Populism sets its store by the people but never fully trusts them, hence its characteristic double articulation of mobilization and demobilization. It puts its faith in the nation’s ordinary common sense and sentiment, but at the same time seeks to exclude those who do not accord with its version of common sense, to mark them as somehow not fully part of that national community. Here, as so often, the rhetoric is directed primarily against political elites, specifically the New Labour government who have betrayed (Gilroy suggests) the faith conceded them by the 1997 electorate. But there is equal distrust of the cheap or petty, suburban or rural, “small-minded Englishness” (138) of those who are perhaps not “vulgar” or “ordinary” enough (67).

But surely the point of a truly Orwellian patriotism, if we really were to consider resurrecting this rather quaint project, is that you cannot pick and choose: true solidarity has to contend with the physicality and materiality of the most unpleasant of affects and habits. For Orwell, the politics of affect figured above all in the “physical repulsion” incarnated in the notion that “the lower classes smell.” How, Orwell asks, can you have “affection for a man whose breath stinks–habitually stinks” (The Road to Wigan Pier 112)? Consensus or hegemony are not at issue here: Orwell points out that it is irrelevant how much “you may admire his mind and character.” The point of conviviality is not the liberal politics of agreement, but the challenge of living together despite what is indeed an almost pre-political sensation of difference. “England,” if an anti-racist patriotism has any sense at all, must belong to everyone. But of course at this point “England” also starts to fade, leaving only its increasingly marginal state apparatus, marginal despite its paroxysms of nervous violence, as in the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell. Yes, there will be points of historically-conditioned affective intensity (melancholia or shame, nostalgia or pride, anguish or joy), tied to images or sensations that are coded as national. And a television corporation or a cricket team, or even a government, might work within these codes to incite or dampen particular affective responses. But why should such overcoding also structure a politics of liberation?

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