Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Black Atlantic @ 20 @ CUNY Grad Center

Every scholarly book is important (at some level) to its author, but as with other kinds of texts only a select few resound long beyond their field and moment of publication. Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, published in 1993 by Harvard University Press, is one such book whose central premise, that "blackness" was and remains constitutive of and central to "Modernity" and the political, economic, social, and intellectual development of the "West" as we know it, opened up new ways of thinking about and understanding the relationship between these concepts across a range of fields, including literary studies, anthropology, history, sociology, political and philosophical thought, and cultural studies. Two decades on, and despite an array of critiques, Gilroy's The Black Atlantic, continues to foster and inform new and older epistemologies linked to modernity and its multiple afterlives.
Paul Gilroy speaking with Jacquelyn
Nassy Brown and Robert Reid-Pharr
A month ago, at the CUNY Graduate Center, CUNY's Academic Research Collaborative, Certificate Program in American Studies, Caribbean Epistemologies Seminar in the Humanities, Institute for Research in the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC), and the Revolutionizing American Studies Initiative, sponsored a two-day event, The Black Atlantic @ 20, as part of a series of events throughout the 2013-2014 academic year, focusing on the Gilroy's book and work. The speakers included Gilroy himself, as well as numerous luminaries teaching or visiting CUNY, including Jacquelyn Nassy BrownSusan Buck-Morss; Tina Campt; Kandice ChuhDuncan FahertySujatha Fernandes; Eric Lott; Stephan PalmiéRobert F. Reid-Pharr; and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. 
Faherty, Nassy Brown, Reid-Pharr,
Buck-Morss, Fernandes, Wilson Gilmore
and Bennett
As the program noted concerning the effects of Gilroy's book, "scholarship no longer simply posits the relationship between blackness and modernity as an irreconcilable problem," and while we might argue that Gilroy was not the first or only thinker to challenge this assumption, his study, perhaps more than any of its particular moment, the ideas in it, and the pedagogy he and it enabled "engendered debates" in a range of humanities and social sciences fields that were "once perceived as the exclusive domain of an organic and hermetically sealed Western tradition." The opening night's panelists, Bennett, Nassy Brown, Buck-Morss, Fernandes, Wilson Gilmore, and Reid-Pharr, all delivered short pithy (9 minute) presentations showing the field critiques and responses respectively in history; anthropology; philosophy; hip hop and musicological studies; geography; and literary studies. Each asked and answered the question of whether it is possible to "produce innovative work around race, colonization, cosmopolitanism, and imperialism while also continuing to privilege traditional modes of intellectual inquiry," and several also contributed to a larger conversation that the Revolutionizing American Studies initiative and other programs have been posing for some time about ways to restructure research and pedagogical approaches at the CUNY Graduate Center and beyond.
Paul Gilroy chatting with an audience member
I could fill about 10 blog posts if I were to recount all of the dazzling insights the panelists offered, but I'll touch upon only a few. I should also note that not everyone who spoke offered a paean to Gilroy's book; several were thoughtfully and respectfully critical. Yet all attested to the centrality of the work to ongoing work in their fields. Herman Bennett noted how the text had helped to further an "epistemological exorcism" in terms of understanding race in Latin American intellectual history, and opened up "a new horizon of employment." Nassy Brown was more overtly critical, and cited Gilroy's earlier landmark study, There Ain't No Black In the Union Jack as particularly important, but averred that Gilroy's work in both texts had played a key role in fostering an anthropology of global blackness, and its engagement with geography, which is now framed in dialogic terms. She also noted the importance of its having posited "emancipation" as a touchstone for black subjectivity.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore speaking with
a member of the CUNY community
Buck-Morss did not deliver a paper, but spoke from notes. She urged that we not forget the "political reality in which the text emerged," its challenges to the "disciplinary police," and its skill in placing events and histories in juxtaposition, its rejection of ethnocentrism and nationalism (which remains controversial, as Gilroy noted in his own comments the next day), and its exploration of aesthetics as self-fashioning and critique of art as "immanent." Fernandes focused on how music in particular held pride of place in Gilroy's analyses, to some extent displacing language and writing, but how his text also pushed us away from Black American situatedness towards a more diasporic perspective. Wilson Gilmore's short talk brimmed with insights, beginning with the basic fact that the book had made it possible for her to understand the discipline she'd chosen. Other key points she made were that in this text, "theory is method," that it brought together the concept of diaspora not by a mythic path but through a "continuous and ongoing present"; and that it critiqued Raymond Williams' famous Structures of Feeling, in part by laying out the contradictory structures of feeling in diaspora, asking what discontinuous traditions rested on, and what might be the infrastructures of feeling that made the structures of feeling possible, reshaping our sense of the archive.
Poet and scholar Tonya Foster
Reid-Pharr concluded the panel presentations with brio, asking that, after Gilroy, we think about black intellectuals in less obvious positionalities, such as among the enslaved people in transit, on board ships or at market, that we ask who counts as a proper subject of our inquiry, and that we consider immigrants, sex workers, soldiers, and so on, jettison our reliance on heroic subjectivities. Are we, in the light of Gilroy, committed to give up cultural nationalism, he asked. After these brilliant presentations, Gilroy graciously took the podium to thank everyone for their comments on his behalf, and noted that he had always thought of The Black Atlantic as an "open-source project," rather than a closed intellectual work forbidding critique. It was a powerful moment, and added to the intellectually generous atmosphere that unfolded as the question-and-answer session began. If one sentence can sum up the fascinating exchanges during this section of the program, it would be: "Freedom is the practice of making unbounded life."
Scholar and critic Eric Lott
The next day, I did not make it over to CUNY until the early afternoon, and thus missed the morning talks by Palmié and Campt. I did get to hear Eric Lott, whom I first met many years ago when he had just published Love and Theft and was starting out at the University of Virginia, weave a web of thought that has to be read to be fully appreciated, but his talk "Open Letters," which poet and scholar Tonya Foster introduced, managed to tie together President Barack Obama's Dreams of My Father, and his negotiation between sovereignty and homo sacerLauren Berlant's concept of the "anatomy of national fantasy"; the Emancipation ProclamationMartin Delany's Blake; Jay-Z's and Beyoncé's controversial trip to Cuba and Young Hov's rap "Open Letter," which Lott assessed as "derailed by neoliberal self-regard"; Assata Shakur; and methods and ways of reading and analyzing popular music. It was a breathtaking tour.
Paul Gilroy
Last came Gilroy, who in a talk entitled "The Half-Life of The Black Atlantic" spoke about the book's afterlife, criticisms of this and subsequent work (especially the furor-inducing Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Harvard UP, 2002), and how he might rewrite The Black Atlantic today. He also mapped out what he saw as potential future pathways the book's ideas might offer. He began by discussing the critique of methodological nationalism in the book, and said that were he to write it today, he would include Alain Locke in it. He also spoke about how one strand in it to develop might to look more closely at the idea of culture in relation to "war," and African-American culture as "the machinery of diplomacy" today, which is to say, as a kind and form of "soft power". He related this to Penny von Eschen's work, and the idea of the "weaponization of culture." He also talked about the cultural revolution neoliberalism is wreaking, and how this is altering the currency of racial difference. He gathered around this idea the notion of "neoliberal poetics" and "depressive hedonia." Religion was another direction for further pursuit, and the idea of freedom as "individuality within a religious context," which he asserted once would have been problematic within Christianity.

Other points included thinking of Marcus Garvey and the idea of a cultural multiculturalism not limited only to black people and other racial and ethnic minorities; the increasing influence of neoliberal "self-help books" among young people of color in the UK and the USA (Sawyer, 50 Cent with Robert Green, etc.), and the ways that these ideas were having the effect of "soliciting the cooperation of people into their own subordination." He related this to the ongoing belief that through "work" and financial success, "deep racism" could be overcome, and to history of being denied recognition as a individual and how this was leading to an "extreme individualism." From this he proceeded to talk about the possibility, inherent in Aimé Césaire's writings, of the "human raised to the dimension of the world" as a way of positing a "new humanism," but which licensed a "critique of racial categories." Such thinking about "humanism" would be difficult given the extensive anti-humanist training and reflexes now present in the academy, and the appetite both for post-humanism and adherents to that concept's lack of concern with racism. (We discussed this in my fall 2012 class on the topic.)
Robert Reid-Pharr
In discussing this possible humanist turn, Gilroy invoked W. E. B. DuBois (whose name had, naturally, come up more than once already) and his idea of the tertium quid (that third thing, between human and animal); the humanism of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the strikers in Memphis (I AM A MAN); June Jordan's Civil Wars, in which she demanded a "reinscription of the human guided by cosmopolitanism" and gender, reifying no identities at all; and the great Sylvia Wynter, who long sought to give critical theory a role in "re-enchanting humanism," with "race" summoned as "solidarity." Lastly, Gilroy spoke about the role in South Africa of forgiveness in informing humanism. Unsurprisingly, many questioners asked Gilroy specifically about his conceptualizations of humanism, and he ranged widely, mentioning Frantz Fanon, the US success of "settler colonialism" and the lack of public queries about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (or multiple ones) here, Donna Haraway's arguments about Sojourner Truth's aims to articulate "an alternative humanism", Fanon's and Edward Said's secular humanism, and so on. In response to Caricom's call for "reparations" from Britain, Gilroy talked about being "disposed against melancholic formations" and called for a "working through rather than melancholic" responses. And there was so much more (environmentalism and biocolonialism; his omission of "Taksim Square" in relation to the topic of "democracy"; the topic of temporality and music, and how sonic environments allow us to "hear around the corner or into the future", etc.), but I'll end here by saying that it was like a weeklong seminar I'm still working through, and I thank all the speakers, and especially the organizers and Paul Gilroy himself, for this exemplary event that offered real intellectual and critical engagement.
The Skylight Room
Reid-Pharr and Gilroy, in conversation

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