Thursday, March 19, 2009

Postcolonial Melancholia, by Paul Gilroy

I was able to see Paul Gilroy speak last fall, by which time I had already read part of this book and a little bit of The Black Atlantic. Gilroy was in town at the same time as Tony Blair and was in fact delivering his lecture the same day as Blair, a coincidence he remarked upon a number of times.

Gilroy was a strong speaker: rhetorically powerful, very lucid, returning to his best points at significant junctures not just to recap but to propel himself into the next section or argument. I found him occasionally difficult to follow occasionally only because he seems to use references to other theorists and writers less to add to his argument as to note the presence of a parallel line of thought. DuBois or Fanon, for instance, would be invoked not to work from or build off (in the typical quote-interpretation-expansion-extrapolation pattern), but to acknowledge the presence of a prior construction of similar model. If it didn't sound like I was accusing him of arrogance (which it seems to me would be an incredibly off-base characterization), I would say that these allusions were rather like pauses placed sporadically in the speech in order to hear an echo from the past or from a peer.

Postcolonial Melancholia (published in Britain and maybe elsewhere as After Empire) is, in fact, very much like what I heard—it was first a series of lectures given at UC-Irvine (the 2002 Wellek Library Lectures). Discoursing on the need for a more robust sense of multiculture as a counter to the new formations of white supremacy and racial hierarchy (if you want a sense of what Gilroy is attacking, think of the driving instructor from Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go-Lucky), Gilroy makes a striking case on a number of grounds, particularly in identifying the points of greatest timidity and incoherence in the already existing arguments for and affirmations of multiculture and tolerance. Gilroy is also eloquent and uncompromising in denouncing exactly what is noxious and malignant about the racial atavisms of imperialist nostalgia. But he is best at articulating goals and aspirations:
  • "We also need to consider how a deliberate engagement with the twentieth century's histories of suffering might furnish resources for the peaceful accommodation of otherness in relation to a fundamental commonality" (4);
  • "Recalibrating approaches to culture and identity so that they are less easily reified and consequently less amenable to these misappropriations seems a worthwhile short-term ambition that is compatible with the long-term aims of a reworked and politicized multiculturalism" (5-6);
  • "the continuing pursuit of a world free of racial hierarchies… If we are seeking to revive that goal, to make it sound less banal, more attractive, and more political by showing where it touched and still transforms modern dreams of substantive democracy and authentic justice, then we will need to reconstruct the history of 'race' in modernity" (30);
  • "the ability to imagine political, economic, and social systems in which 'race' makes no sense is an essential, though woefully underdeveloped part of formulating a credible antiracism as well as an invaluable transitional exercise" (54).
But the project Gilroy is most intent on inaugurating in this text is the creation of "'a pathology of cultural communities'… a particular form of inquiry directed at the psychological poverty and pathological character of groups that understand their collective life and fate in specifically cultural terms." (65, quoting Freud). The project I am personally most interested in is "a revised account of European modernisms and their complex relationship with colonial and imperial experiences at home and abroad" (147).

The material he presents is rich, and the titular concept is, to my mind, extremely fertile, but the translation to textual argument erodes a bit of Gilroy's eloquence. The patterns I noted above—the echo-listening and the periodic return to the strongest points to gather energy for the next section—come out differently on the page, I feel, and make the book seem more repetitive and more abstract than, say, The Black Atlantic, still undoubtedly one of the finest works of scholarly synthesis of the past two decades.

Postcolonial Melancholia is also much more difficult for an American reader because Gilroy's arguments about empire and post-imperial collective psychology are almost entirely restricted to the British case, and use British examples. Many of them are by now very familiar to American audiences: the music of The Streets (aka Mike Skinner), Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G, The [British] Office. But Gilroy's use of these cultural products is highly temporalized, and this intense contextualization creates a large degree of dissonance. Even accounting for the cultural adaptations these products encountered making the transatlantic migration, the sense of acute tension Gilroy skillfully imparts to these cultural moments was dropped completely when translated to America: the intense discomfort of Ali G and David Brent became the docile awkwardness of Borat and Michael Scott. The sense of taut anxiety that Gilroy draws on with these examples just does not translate to this side of the pond, unfortunately.

The concept of "postcolonial melancholia" is, as I said, fertile, although Gilroy barely pauses to define it, but what is there is extremely provocative, and ready to be applied more concretely.
I want us to consider the political and psychological reactions which attend the discovery that imperial administration was, against all the ethnic mythology that projects empire as essentially a form of sport, necessarily a violent, dirty, and immoral business. We need to know how that deeply disturbing realization has been managed and, in particular, to consider what consequences follow from the need to maintain the moral preeminence and progressive momentum that define colonial power as the redemptive extension of civilization into barbarity and chaos. (93-94)
A little more explicitly, he remarks upon the "chain of defensive argumentation that seeks firstly to minimize the extent of the empire, then to deny or justify its brutal character, and finally, to present the British themselves as the ultimate tragic victims of their extraordinary imperial success" (94). Most directly, postcolonial melancholia is "a widespread desire—to allocate a large measure of blame for the empire to its victims and then seek to usurp their honored place of suffering, winning many immediate political and psychological benefits in the process" (95).

Gilroy cites the work of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich (rather than Freud himself) as the primary basis for his theory of melancholia, or at any rate, the inspiration for his use of the term. For the Mitscherlichs, melancholia is prompted by "the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence" (99) and exists as a defense mechanism enabling the subject in this case to avoid "the painful obligations to work through the grim details of imperial and colonial history and to transform paralyzing guilt into a more productive shame that would be conducive to the building of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the prospect of exposure to either strangers or otherness" (ibid.). Melancholia's "signature combination" is that of "manic elation with misery, self-loathing, and ambivalence" (104). Gilroy sees this most clearly in the type of individual who is so patriotic that he refuses to believe his country is racist or even harbors racists, yet who is convinced that the nation's problems stem from the presence of racial minorities. These individuals exist in a pattern of "identification with the victims of racism, a guilty dislike of them and the changes they have made to the country, and tormented self-disgust at the prospect of being implicated either in the problems they import or in their colonial and postcolonial sufferings" (106).

It is obviously tempting to start applying this particular notion of melancholia—the inability to enter mourning for empire, the denial of its death—to other ostensibly similar arrangements: postfrontier melancholia certainly sounds like a winner. An essay I recently read by Ned Blackhawk, "Recasting the Narrative of America: The Rewards and Challenges of Teaching American Indian History," certainly describes a condition quite similar to this form of melancholia, and what else is the industry of the western but a persistent deferral of the death of the Frontier? This isn't by any measure a new thought (see Richard Slotkin and some interesting new work by Stephanie LeMenager), but to my knowledge (and Google's), such a term has not been used to describe this condition. However, the relatively diaphonous nature of Gilroy's application of the term and its distance from the original Freudian definition probably means that I better do a little bit more homework before I plant both feet in the concept.

No comments: