Laura Chrisman


Paul Gilroy’s recent The Black Atlantic has received considerable international academic acclaim. Within cultural studies, literary studies, black studies, Caribbean Studies, American studies and anthropology the book has been hailed as a major and original contribution. Gilroy takes issue with the national boundaries within which these disciplines operate, arguing that, as the book jacket tells us, "there is a culture that is not specifically African, American, Caribbean, or British, but all of these at once; a black Atlantic culture whose themes and techniques transcend ethnicity and nationality to produce something new and, until now, unremarked." A political energy animates Gilroy’s academic project. He sets out to expose the dangers as he sees it of contemporary nationalism: whether academic or popular (as in US Afrocentrism), implicit or explicit, black or white in focus, Gilroy sees nationalism as socially dangerous, and intellectually untenable. Gilroy’s concept of a black Atlantic is then offered as a political and cultural corrective, which argues the cross-national, cross-ethnic basis and dynamics of black diasporic identity and culture.

If contesting nationalism is one goal of this book, intervening in debates about modernity is another. Gilroy challenges (what he sees as) Marxist, economic, and philosophical accounts of the development of modernity as a self-contained European process, based on principles and practices of rationality, economic productivism, Enlightenment egalitarianism, and wage labor. Slavery, he argues, was fundamental to modernity; racial terror lies within its heart. Gilroy’s concern with the racial terror of slavery shares chimes with a burgeoning academic interest in the experience of Jews under Nazism ("Holocaust Studies"), a connection which Gilroy makes explicit in the book.

In contrast to some trends in post-modern thought which equate the whole of the Enlightenment project with genocide, Gilroy does not reject modernity altogether but rather accentuates slavery as an unacknowledged part of it. This contestation of modernity’s self-complacency by emphasizing the inhuman violence and brutality with which modernity is entwined is to be welcomed. However the mere juxtaposition of concepts of "freedom" with "coercion," "reason" with "terror," does not amount to a reconceptualization or explanation of the relationship between the two spheres. They remain in frozen, almost mysterious association. Gilroy’s formulation has, arguably, catered (albeit inadvertently) to a current academic predilection for paradox, for the sublime and the incomprehensible: a danger is that this licences an essentially static academic mode, comforted rather than challenged by configurations of phenomena which "defy" norms of explanation.

Of the many important concerns in The Black Atlantic, I want to focus on two here: Gilroy’s conceptualization of the relations between nationalism, socialism and black identity; the characterization of black expressive culture in relation to slavery and political agency. I will present, as I see it, some of the problematic aspects of Gilroy’s arguments. I am interested in tracing some of the implications of Gilroy’s opposition to nationalism and socialism, his formulation of a black utopian aesthetic premised on a death-drive.

While Gilroy’s whole ouevre is animated by a rejection of what he sees as the reductively absolutist, vanguardist, exclusivist, and essentialized-purist currents of ethnic nationalism and economistic socialism, I want to suggest that the counter-model Gilroy presents, of an outer-national, hybrid blackness, itself rests on many of the same assumptions. Where Gilroy is a powerful, materialist deconstructor of the mystificatory and implicitly authoritarian agendas of other political projects and intellectuals, his own project subscribes to a decidedly mystical, idealist ideology, constructs a transcendental category of blackness, which retains the "ethnicism" for which he castigates Afrocentric nationalism. Because his definition of this emancipatory black diasporism repudiates the potential resources of nationalism and socialism, and proceeds by way of positing absolute antinomies between these respective value systems, Gilroy’s formulations become necessarily self-enclosed, hermetically sealed off, resistant to dialogism, dialectical transformation and cross-fertilization. "The Black Atlantic" becomes, despite its immense potential, an exclusive club liner, populated by "mandarins" and "masses" hand-picked by Gilroy, bound for death.


(This text is only a selection. For the complete essay please see our journal)