[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?


Having finished reading Gilroy’s book, I’m now about halfway through the review.

For the review, I’m interested in Gilroy’s notion of patriotism, and how it connects with his conception of cosmopolitanism. Because Gilroy would seem to want to hold on to both of these concepts. Strangely, indeed, it is Orwell who is perhaps the key figure in the book, the only one to bridge its two halves, “The Planet” and “Albion.” Orwell, we are told, combines “worldly consciousness” with “parochial attachments to England’s distinctive environment” (76-77). So, it would seem, does Gilroy.

Patriotism in Postcolonial Melancholia is not, then, or not always, the last refuge of a scoundrel. It can be, in Orwell’s own case, “authentically geo-pious” (96); it can also be, now in Ali G’s case, a “daring act of . . . love” (135). Of course, Gilroy’s advocacy of patriotism is far from unequivocal. He’s certainly opposed to the “state-sponsored patriotism and ethnic-absolutism [that] are now dominant” (25). But the fact that, especially towards the end of the book, he often refers to “ultranationalism” as the enemy (as in the “artificially whitened, comprehensively rehomogenized national community to which ultranationalist discourse casually refers” [109]) appears to leave open the possibility of a dignified, modest brand of national adherence.

There’s a tension here, though, between adherence and the “estrangement” that Gilroy also praises, for instance in what he calls Montesquieu’s “carefully cultivated degree of estrangement” (70) or Freud’s “intuitive estrangement” (68), even Eric Auerbach’s “observation on the perfection of the man for whom ‘the whole world is as a foreign land'” (24). This is, again, where Orwell comes to the fore, because there are few who have been as estranged either from their own country or even from the poor with whom he sought solidarity (as even a cursory glance at The Road to Wigan Pier shows) than this Old Etonian turned colonial bureaucrat turned tramp turned anarchist turned writer in the lonely isolation of remote Jura.

Gilroy half acknowledges that such estrangement is the very model of the modernist intellectual. “Distancing can sound like a privilege and has sometimes been associated with the history of elites,” he says, “but I am not convinced that it is inevitably tainted by those association” (67). I’m not convinced that it isn’t, either, but perhaps this could be another way of reading the irony and cynicism that are such denigrated features of our postmodern condition. With the universalization of irony, are we all now able to be “stranger[s] in [our] own country” (135)? Is that indeed what a website such as i am fucking terrified is all about?

Gilroy is no friend of postmodernism–far from it, it is modernism he tells us he wants to reclaim–but there’s a sense in which his ironic, distanced patriotism can only be postmodern in its generalized assumption of modernism’s aesthetic distancing plus its premodern appeal to territory, belonging, and even authenticity.


I’m over a third of the way through Gilroy’s book. And to follow up on my last entry, I do find what he has to say about unruliness interesting.

But in the first instance, what he has to say is (as yet) nothing particularly specific. Indeed, generally, Gilroy seems to have reached that stage of his career at which he can dispense with references.

Sometimes that’s OK. When he says that “problems like the disappearance of public torture are often understood to identify a significant stage in the development of a new type of power: capillary, biopolitical” (44), I know he’s talking about Foucault, even if he doesn’t say so. (My graduate students would be less happy, but there we go.)

But at other times, he succumbs to the temptation of broad sweeps in a way that makes me raise my eyebrows. For instance, he consistently asserts that his project is unfashionable and against the grain of scholarly and public discourse alike, but is it really true that “the academic tribunes of globalization do not usually include the end of formal empires or the wars of decolonization in their accounts of our planet’s commercial and political integration” (55)? If so, which ones? And though it might be true that “some beguiling political models assume metropolitan governance to be innocent and colonial administration to be benign” (18), it would help to know which, and to be told who exactly is beguiled. There are times when it is as though Gilroy thinks that Niall Ferguson has a monopoly on scholarship or writing about imperialism.

And as for public discourse, I’m not completely convinced either that “dissidence has been criminalized” within our contemporary “states of permanent emergency” or even that such states would have it that “civilizations are now closed or finished cultures that need to be preserved. The individual agents who are their bearers and affiliates come ready-stamped with iconic badges of relative rank” (58). Look at the London bombings: apparently carried out by three people of Pakistani descent, one of whose parents rang the police and so opened up their investigation, but also a West Indian married to a white woman and now a series of East Africans, also apparently shopped by members of the Somali community. The ways in which they have been described and discussed (OK, apart from in the Express) reveal both a more complex public struggle to understand the relations between cultures and also the fact that there’s no necessary link between bearers and badges.

Second, however, though Gilroy may not refer (yet) to specific instances of unruliness, the metaphors of disorder permeate the text. Despite his declarations of willful unfashionability, there’s something very familiar about the way in which he opposes a “docile cultural history” with its “tidy models of governance” and its “polite scholastic debates” on the one hand with the “disreputable, angry places where the political interests of racialized minorities might be identified” (17) or with the “tangled, profane, and sometimes inconvenient forms of independency” that he wants to champion. “Scurrilous speculations” are to displace “polite labor” (53). Gilroy consistently invokes a rhetoric of messiness, of the “unkempt, unruly, and unplanned” (xiv), the “messy complexity of social life” (6), allied with “disreputable abolitionism,” “insurrectionary practice,” and “vitality” that “can still embarrass and contest the overly innocent versions of liberal thinking that are still in circulation” (57). Arranged against this vital, uncontainable disorder are “facile notions,” “casual talk” (36), “squeamish reluctance” (54), and above all “cheap antihumanist positions” (7), “the cheapest invocations of incommensurable otherness” (8), and “cheap patriotism” (25).

Now, there are plenty of reasons to favour a bit of messiness and a bit of unruliness over over-tidy authoritarianism, the deceits of ideological whitewash, or (of course) the political hygiene of ethnic cleansing.

But I do wonder about the extent to which Gilroy’s is also an aestheticized politics, if more Jackson Pollock than Albert Speer. And how much that has to do with the denigration of the “cheap.” Why in politics as in housing should the expensive be valorized over the affordable? Moreover, does this opposition between tidiness and mess not also map onto a distinction between state and market?

Indeed, and rather against what is elsewhere an (Agamben-influenced) analysis of states of emergency, new modes of sovereignty, and the like, Gilroy at times implies that the market is itself undoing a couple of centuries of racism rooted in colonial order:

The colonial hierarchy that previously specified the proper relation of blackness to whiteness starts to break down. It yields to a different–usually commercial and resolutely antipolitical–understanding of what “races” are and how they differ from themselves and each other. The previously separated worlds of absolutely different groups can then be made to leak. They bleed risk, pleasure, and excitement into one another as part of selling things and accumulating capital. The magic of freshly racialized markets means that it is important to consider whether blackness and whiteness, like raciality’s other inventions, should now be understood as nothing but transient symptoms of a dominant but dying order. (55)

We can see that the messiness, entanglement, and unruliness everywhere privileged in this text maps quite closely onto market processes described in terms of “leak[age],” “bleed[ing],” “risk, pleasure, and excitement.”

And there’s nothing wrong, either (and especially for Deleuzians), with considering the revolutionary potential of capital’s deterritorializing flows (as it were). But I wonder how that fits with what is otherwise Gilroy’s high-minded defence of (a revitalized) modernity, universalism, humanism, and the like.


I’ve now finished and sent in the review of Read’s book.

Next (and for all intents and purposes last) up on the review front is Paul Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia. (Which I believe goes under another title in the UK.) I’ve flicked through it before, and even read the Preface, in which Gilroy writes that “Britain should make more of the conspicuous gains brought about in its civil society by an unkempt, unruly, and unplanned multiculture” (xiv). It’ll be interesting to read this book in the light of the recent unruliness.

I may take a little longer on this review, as at the same time I’ll be starting up on the Book again, and saving Gilroy for downtime.