It is commonplace to observe that democracy in Europe has reached a dangerous point. As ailing capitalism emancipates itself from democratic regulation, ultra-nationalism, populism, xenophobia and varieties of neo-fascism have become more visible, more assertive and more corrosive of political culture. The widespread appeal of racialised group identity and racism, often conveyed obliquely with a knowing wink, has been instrumental in delivering us to a situation in which our conceptions of truth, law and government have been placed in jeopardy. In many places, pathological hunger for national rebirth and the restoration of an earlier political time, have combined with resentful, authoritarian and belligerent responses to alterity and the expectation of hospitality.
Those reactions underscore the timeliness and importance of analysing racism, nationalism and xenology which are nowadays frequently disseminated online. Intensified by evasive and dubious techno-political forces, they have begun to correspond to the anxieties of lived experience in precarious and austere conditions. The effects of that shift are augmented by the uptake of generic conceptions of racial identity sourced from the US. They have gained significant international currency, even in places barely touched by the signature racial habits of the north Atlantic which would project the world only in black and white.
More than a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois, whose exceptionally wide-ranging work provided one axis for our discussion earlier today, traced the emergence of what he called personal whiteness. The resulting hierarchy became widely influential. Lately it has, in its residual condition, been well served by the malign influence of social and timeline media. The attractiveness of generic racial identities is part of a psycho-political shift that has encouraged fascination with ossified culture: lacking vitality but easily regulated. The invocations to whiteness now circulating in Europe are freighted with notions of victimage and vulnerability. They become compelling in the face of the existential threats presented by the Trojan horse of immigrant fertility on one hand, and on the other, by the encroachment of alien influences from the global south into the fortified, yet perennially fragile, heartlands of overdevelopment. Vivid images of invasion and demographic warfare have enhanced the allure of the rebranded fascism that styles itself the “Alt-right”. It is an unlikely and uneasy alliance of trolls, misogynists, meninists, ethno-nationalists, xenophobes and accelerationists, all dedicated to resisting the looming existential catastrophe they like to describe as “the great replacement”.
Rather than confront this rising movement, the political and academic mainstream has sought in vain to steal its clothes in a doomed competition that can enhance neither democracy nor knowledge. Long-established patterns of civility, like those which have marked the boundaries of acceptable political speech, are being altered for the worse. The effects of this new affective ecology are amplified by the predictive capabilities of surveillance capitalism and the technological security complex with which it is allied. So far, the resulting weaponisation of culture and information has been much more successfully exploited by the neofascists than their disorientated opponents.
I want to insist that this notable deterioration in our political culture and institutions cannot be understood without paying careful attention to the specific dynamics both of race as a matter of political ontology, and of racism as a variety of political speech. Race and nation are now primary sources of groupness and absolute ethnicity. They are supposedly endowed with a special power to restore certainty and find stability amidst the flux of precarious life in increasingly dangerous conditions.
In the twentieth century, militarist appeals to racial hygiene, and ethno-national unanimity resulted in genocide. That history of warfare and mass death is something it should be inexcusable not to know. However, as those epoch-making events pass from living memory, familiarity with them becomes patchy and intermittent. The archive of ineffable horror drifts into an indeterminate space where information is untrusted. News can be faked and spun, and truth held hostage, not by the politics of knowledge but by the political machinery that assembles carefully-managed ignorance, a curated ignorance.
From the mid-century, artists, thinkers, jurists, psychologists and philosophers laboured to make the unprecedented slaughter of those times accepted as part of the official conscience of an increasingly networked world. However the difficult, belated acts of recognition and acceptance that they won were not the end they imagined they would be. Keeping attention focused on the charnel houses, in Europe and beyond it, has required continuous commemorative intervention and renewal which has also been a spur for resentment.
Those horrors are always much closer to us than we like to imagine. Preventing their recurrence requires keeping them in mind. Monitoring our motivation for undertaking that thankless work is also essential. As Raymond Williams suggested, we cement our dissenting tradition by selecting the ancestors we need.
Du Bois was a Germanophile before he went to live and study in that country. He visited Poland on three occasions and was clear about exactly what he had learned about the world’s “race problems” by placing colonial rule, the Third Reich and the US racial order in historical, moral and conceptual relation. One result of that effort, born in particular from his bearing witness to the fate of the Warsaw ghetto, was, he says “not so much clearer understanding of the Jewish problem, as it was a real and more complete understanding of the Negro problem”.
Primo Levi, an authoritative humanistic emissary from the grey zone of the Auschwitz Lager, warned his readers about the continuing dangers posed both by fascism and by its imitators. In 1974 he issued this famous warning to which I have regularly returned for guidance:
“Every age has its own fascism, and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.”
Toni Morrison can be a third harbinger. She has, incidentally, expressed a strong affinity with what she calls Levi’s “defiant humanism” and applauded his “deliberate and sustained glorification of the human” in opposition to the efforts of systematic necrology. Morrison too penned a warning about the steady resurgence of Fascism in the years immediately after the publication of Beloved. Umberto Eco, another thoughtful anatomist of the fascist period, which he had witnessed from the precious perspective of a bewildered child, extended Levi’s insights and drew the obvious political conclusions in an enduringly valuable intervention:
“Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world.”
These wise comments converge on an understanding of Fascism as a recurrent and infinitely translatable phenomenon. This approach does not consider it to be endowed with an essence. If it has to have one, then the prescient words of Jean Améry, another survivor, who was able to describe its claws and teeth with greater precision than many, might usefully be borne in mind.
Repeated readings of At The Mind’s Limits Améry’s disturbing study of the predicament of intellectuals in the concentration camp have guided my intellectual work for many years. He interprets his own experience of being tortured and explores it forensically with the phenomenological tools he acquired as a student of philosophy in Vienna. Two aspects of his argument seem especially relevant today. The first is that he felt that the work of Frantz Fanon spoke for him uniquely in grasping the philosophical and political meanings of what he had endured in the concentrationary universe and its supply chains. The second is that he, again like Fanon, responded to those trials by becoming a combative proponent of what he called a “radical humanism”.
Améry discovered his juridical and his ontological Jewishness as a result of Nazi violence and was delivered to a deeper understanding of its historical and philosophical significance as a result of being tortured under the outspread wings of “the bird of prey” he called the Gestapo. In those talons, he had acquired a stake in the politics of dignity which could answer the governmental actions that had brought racial hierarchy so disastrously, yet legally, to life. Aggressive commitments to race had shattered the flimsy, social conventions of his civilized, inter-cultural childhood and then hung him from a ceiling hook by his dislocated arms in the dimly lit “business room” of the Breendonk fortress in Belgium: “everyone went about his business and theirs was murder”.
The resulting injuries conditioned Améry’s passionate post-1945 support for the state of Israel which he saw as a national liberation project. That outlook was intertwined, both with his politics of personal authenticity and with his endorsement of Fanon’s view that counter-violence could acquire reparative and even healing effects for individuals who had themselves been subjected to systematic brutality. Améry was motivated not just to explain the indelible effects of brutalization on his own political, psychological and moral dispositions, but to substantiate what he understood to be the difficult and contentious claim that torture was not an “accidental quality of this Third Reich but its essence”. Today, that unsettling assertion directs critical analysis of our own securitocracy and its proliferating states of exception to an extremely uncomfortable judgement about the afterlife of the twentieth-century fascist revolution.
Torture is prohibited. So is the use of any information it might produce. Exceptional circumstances cannot make its use legitimate. War and other public emergencies do not provide any justification. However, many governments, not least my own, have been contorting themselves in order to be able to torture their foes without being seen to have done so.
Améry’s perspective would interpret the resulting double standard as evidence of the resilience and mutability of fascism. Perhaps, with additional guidance from Fanon, he would also have been able to see it as the living residue of race-friendly, colonial rule. Restored to the metropole, those habits have incubated a new political rhetoric and a distinctive governmental idiom that delights in employing euphemisms such as “waterboarding” and “stress positions”. Like the repertoire of cruelty they obfuscate, those “newspeak” terms have proved to be as infinitely translatable as the twentieth-century science of public relations from which they derive. In this context, applying the seductive language of advertising demands additional analysis. It reassures all who dwell complacently within the bubble of official politics that they are correct in believing they can make anything mean whatever they want it to mean. War can be peace and ignorance is certainly strength, even if freedom is not yet slavery.
The corrosive products of the twentieth-century’s Fascist revolution are not only discernable in governmental misconduct. They arrive from several directions. They emerge from the unprecedented corporate mystification and orchestration of information and from the effects of ever-more tightly associated police and military activities. They unfurl from the violence common to the mainstreamed ultra-right and its fringe of violent lone wolves that, radicalized in the insomniac virtual world, perpetrates spectacular mass murder on a freelance basis in the actual one.
Refining analytical concepts addressed to the problems these overlapping phenomena exemplify will help us today to know where our democracy is coming apart and what its successors are likely to be. Those speculative efforts will benefit from an extensive historical literacy. They must be guided by a bold commitment to the future which can make the negative clarion call “Never Again” into a positive prescription that places us in contact with the world we desire and strive, against the odds, to build.
Influential commentary on recent manifestations of the fascist resurgence has hindered that utopian possibility by speaking in non-specific terms about the dangers of populism. More serious and specific consideration of racism may persuade them that resorting to that label risks mystifying or even obscuring the alarming situation that is unfolding now that fearful images of the alien invasion of Europe have been merged with ideas of civilizational clash, White cultural vulnerability and demographic decline.
In those perilous circumstances, reaching for the abstractions of high-theory can compound the way that official political communications have become characterised by what Stuart Hall years ago identified as an inferential racism. Those tactics seek to instrumentalise knowing, encoded appeals to racial fears, anxieties and advantages, while simultaneously creating opportunities to disavow or deny the racial meanings that are being “dog whistled” and targeted with increased, algorithmic precision.
If this wicked strategy is challenged, its perpetrators can profess pretended ignorance of how these elements of racist and ultranationalist discourse have functioned in the past and, if that denial sounds implausible, they will hide behind the general problem of free speech which is inflated so as to obscure any other juridical and ethical considerations.
Those of us committed to the multidisciplinary study of culture as a primary object of our research, as well as a methodological key to analyses of the interplay of power, language, performance and context, can contribute to interpretation of the nascent forms of this “psycho-politics”. Our attachment to culture points away from the autonomy of race as a category and towards its sedimentation or embeddedness in evolving historical and material conditions. In other words, it underscores the irreducible specificity of cultural life and communication.
Culture is articulated with economic and political structures and flows but they do not determine it. Historical approaches to cultural matters can also foster a distinctive epistemological orientation. Racial difference is not produced by nature, yielding variations that can be misrecognized and thereby transformed into the rational substance of racial hierarchy. Instead, races are assembled, conjured into being, by the–usually violent–workings of racism. Thus races are summoned and animated as political and economic actors.
Struggling with these problems has shaped my thinking since I began to publish. They orbit the issue of common-sense nationalism, particularly where it meshes with racism and xenology. And they have intensified my desire to respond to the certainties and moorings provided by racial sentiment by locating and promoting other kinds of ontological ballast. They can be found in forms of identification that, in opposition to reified identity, emerge from affinity and convivial contact, place, generation, sexualities and gender.
With those possibilities in mind, I propose that we are better equipped to turn firmly away from the defaulted racial ordering of life. Historically, that gesture has been associated with the elaboration of new ways of understanding humanity and thus with new varieties of humanism. Their novelty is confirmed by a dogged refusal of the world rendered definitively in racialized shapes. To be sure, this is a difficult response, but it is not one that needs to rely either upon cultivating “colour blindness” or on practising “word avoidance” as its critics have charged.
Instead, it follows Fanon and others in arguing that an intrinsic eye for racial difference should never be assumed or asserted as a defining feature of our species’ hard wiring. Comparative historical and cultural analysis reveals that those sensitivities are the outcome of iteration and education which generate the habitual patterns Fanon presented as the workings of racial/corporeal schemata.
Another way to grasp this pivotal point can be found by returning to the opening sentences of The Souls of Black Folk, the book that made Du Bois into a political leader of African Americans, and later, of the world’s rebellious colonial peoples. He excavates a key question that he sees as implicit in a host of other routine, conversational interactions which exemplify the limits of liberal reaction to the apparently incorrigible substance of racial division.
That question is “how does it feel to be a problem?” It is an absurd, and insulting inquiry. Yet it was present, though unspoken and unspeakable, in a host of other well-meaning responses to the “badge of inferiority” that the sage of Great Barrington wore as a result of being misrecognized as a Negro. That latent question spoke directly to the predicament of the doubly consciousness modern, black subject whose blackness was antagonistically disposed against the possibility and the value of democratic citizenship.
Du Bois imagined that escaping ontopolitical emplacement as a Negro would yield the possibility of a dialectical resolution of the racial strife that became visible along the fracture between postponed recognition as human and the deferred award of political rights. The warring, plural selves inside the racialised subject could then be sublated into a richer, more substantial conception of national citizenship, reformed and undistorted after the retreat of hierarchy and segregation.
The issue exclusion from national citizenship and political rights remains with us and rightly claims much of the energy of anti-racist movements. However, as my work has evolved, I have become increasingly preoccupied with the other face of the transformation Du Bois aspired to. This is the belated, shocking acquisition, not of rights but of common humanity.
That risky business necessitates more than merely an end to the distorted recursions of racial misrecognition and a substitution of brighter-hued universalism for quieter, more sober and more bloodstained varieties. This will be an epochal change. It involves a qualitative and imaginative transformation that fails if it is undertaken only to vindicate the veiled humanity of the racially inferior. This bold gambit includes potential gains, both for the victims of the racial order and for its beneficiaries, who acquire a precious chance to salve and repair what Fanon saw as their amputated human being.
Contrary to some influential contemporary approaches, the unjust and cruel arrangements that prompt this rebellion are not eternal structures. Du Bois’ “color line” was a contingent, historical arrangement: substantial yes, but never invulnerable.
Such systems are more usefully considered historically than metaphysically. My resolute commitment to their undoing is premised on appreciation of their constitutive power, a stance that confirms my status as a dissenter in this narcissistic age. I think we should be sceptical about the seductions of the ontological turn recently promoted in the study of race politics. It has become disastrously complicated by prospective nostalgia for the easy, essentialist approaches that were dominant when assertive cultural nationalism ruled the roost.
We can rebuild an alternative by taking cues from the agonistic humanisms of the black Atlantic thinkers who capitalized upon Du Bois’ imaginative breakthrough. Readings of the work of Cooper, Senghor, Hurston, James, Fanon, Césaire, Wynter etc. can be combined with the fruits of long-forgotten versions of black feminism with which those endeavors were entangled. We are drawn to the realization that it is imperative to remain less interested in who or what we imagine ourselves to be, than in what we can do for one another both in today’s emergency conditions and in the grimmer circumstances that surely await us.
In opposition to the rarified habits of high theory, I propose a lowly orientation. It corresponds to what we can learn about the primal responsibility we bear towards others by observing humane, selfless and generous responses to elemental perils like flood, drought and pollution as well as acute, deadly emergencies and risky activities like sea-travel undertaken by fugitives and refugees.
The latter example is important. Clear, moral and juridical choices are involved in salvaging people from the water, as they are in the tasks of naming the drowned and promoting dignity by burying their bodies. In many circumstances, we are referred to the forms of care and sociality conditioned by disaster and what might be called the banality of good. They operate on smaller scales than the revolutionary opportunities we associate with disaster capitalism. These responses are closer to the ordinary virtue that can be glimpsed in disaster altruism and disaster solidarity.
Lowly thinking operates optimally at the changing level where sea and land meet and has another advantage. It stimulates concern with planetarity and can foster the worldly outlook that is required if anti-racism is to be more than merely a parochial concern. The activity that results can be understood best not as an exercise in self-exploration or self-care conducted on the primrose path towards diversity understood as enhanced visibility, but when it is conceived as a deepening of democracy, a transformational practice that points beyond unsustainable arrangements towards better ones from which, in turn, richer conceptions of the human, untrammelled by racial styles of thought, may have already started to emerge.
The humanizing possibilities of conviviality and care are not limited to maritime settings. But they seem easier to appreciate in Derek Walcott called the sea’s “grey vault”. Similar responses have appeared in a host of other emergency situations. The aftermath of the murderous fire in London’s Grenfell Tower, now almost two years ago, displayed comparable patterns. In that instance, the survivors’ emphasis on the human dimensions of their vulnerability to the flames was both telling and consistent. Stories of sympathy and solidarity were circulated against the effects of slow violence and official indifference.
The language of humanity was central to the survivors’ descriptions of their trauma and in the terms of the appeal that they made to the world—not to raise money, but in pursuit of attention, or as they put it, seeking clarity (based on commonality and heteropathic identification) rather than charity.
To me, these humbling and inspiring reactions suggest that trumpeting the abandonment of humanism and spurning the strategic challenges of minor universalism are redundant gestures. Rehearsing them takes us further away from the mentality we need to cultivate in order to respond to the emergencies that await us.
The Black Atlantic traditions I have described were conditioned by the work of vindicating black humanity, but they were never reducible to that task alone. They have been enriched by exposure to cosmologies that do not consider individuality, subject formation, agency, temporality, property or groupness in exclusively European terms. The resulting mix of resources furnishes us with a compass we can use to locate newer and better understanding of the human—considered, “post-anthropologically”—that is, after the death of Man.
Du Bois helps again here. He approached the history of slavery systematically as the unfolding of an Atlantic modernity presented in watery terms. He triangulated the establishment of the modern racial order that counterposed the human to the negro, in an artful interrelation of ship, sea and land.
In harmony with Shakespeare who, did not, according to Du Bois, wince when a Negro sat beside him, a new kind of humanism came into being through the destruction of the historic, racial constellation emanating from the topos of terror he calls “the death ship”.
Three streams of thinking have, he tells us, flowed down to our day from that filthy hull. Each contained a thought and an afterthought. He arranged the resulting pairs in dialectical patterns and, in doing so, used a transformative anti-racist humanism to inauguerate a distinctive political tradition. Those ways of thinking about humanity, modernity, ethics, freedom and knowledge are still residually present but they are often scorned. They get dismissed as sentimental and unsophisticated, and come under attack from various trans-, post- and anti-humanisms.
In scholastic settings, distaste for history increases with increased appetites for sophistry. The resulting combination increases reluctance to approach the central issues of anti-racist ambition and hope. Instead, we encounter a simplistic yet tenacious attachment to the idea that the most sophisticated approach to humanism and its ambiguities sees them not as symptoms, but as the fundamental cause of racism in the world.
Considered against the framework derived from Du Bois’ path-breaking interventions, that response looks and sounds provincial. Paranoid, parochial hostility to humanism and indeed to humanity, resonates most loudly behind fortified campus walls where the hip imperatives of identity politics: docile nihilism, resignation and complacent ethnic absolutism, reign unchallenged while the seductions of the Alt-right–to which they are kin–present a growing danger.
If the trajectory that Du Bois formalized has to have an origin, it can provocatively be discovered in Equiano’s narrative. This option requires dispensing with the conventional sense of the venerable African seafarer as an American positioned at the head of a tradition of imaginative or autobiographical abolitionist writing.
Equiano’s restless oceanic peregrinations supply a better key to what we need now. They include the instructive discovery of the plight of the Genoese galley-slaves which precipitated his comparative assessments of the different varieties of slavery and cruelty he witnessed.
Think about the neglected passage where, imperiled by storms off the Bahamas, though still a slave, Equiano takes command of his endangered ship. He is galvanized to intervene because a number of other enslaved but expendable Africans remain chained below decks.
Facing shipwreck and imminent death, Equiano’s white fellow sailors become inert, apparently indifferent to their own fate. They begin drinking grog and lie about the vessel “like swine” while he, endowed with hopeful, divinely-instituted energy, takes on the superhuman task of saving everybody on board. He is joined in that demanding task by “three black men and a Dutch creole sailor” and worked so hard to save the foundering boat that the skin was stripped from his hands.
Equiano’s predicament in that maritime emergency was particular and instructive. He is bound by faith, law and what we can now call a humanitarian ethic to the fate of his fellow Africans lodged in the hold, while also being obliged faithfully to discharge his responsibilities as a trusted crewman. From that dilemma, with its echoes of the then recent Zong case and the contested commercial value and legal status of slave life, he seized the opportunity to save everyone, not only in the name of God, but also in the name of a humanity yet to come.
Equiano reports that he emerged from that thalassic trial recognizable, despite his slave status, “as a kind of chieftain” among his fellow crewmen. The ordeal had invested him with a new authority: superior both to the conventional ranking established among seafarers and the stricter, violent hierarchies of racialised life routinely found in the segregated order on shore. His conduct exemplifies the generosity and empathy demanded alike by the pursuit of a new humanism, and the elaboration of a hydrophanic ethics in which meaning is revealed through the mediating agency or presence of water.
This maritime archive can help to tune us precisely to the demands resulting from contemporary attempts to divine and apply a different humanist ethos: one that is not congruent with the racial nomos and has been conditioned by emergency conditions, in particular by proximity to water and the obligation to confront its special perils when the fate of other human beings demands it.
The value of this response increases when it combines with an enhanced sense of the difficulties involved in exercising judgement and power, as well as concern with the destabilizing interrelation and interdependency of varying forms of life: human, infrahuman and non-human. The moveable boundaries between those categories were central to the bloody operations of racial hierarchy in the nineteenth century and remain so today.
The earth’s colonial nomos was theorised and mapped historically and geopolitically in the twentieth century by the influential Nazi jurist, Carl Schmitt. His small book on land and sea supplies an insightful overview of the mutual association of hydrarchy and planetarity. It also includes the provocative observation that Herman Melville was “to the world of oceans what Homer (had been) to the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Delivered exactly from the period when whale oil began to be superceded by fossil fuel in the branded form of Kerosene, Melville’s passionate, planetary survey of errant humanity, the life of marine species, weather, capital and objects encompassed a number of arguments about the character and moral integrity of modern racial orders and the elemental significance of racial hierarchy as a repudiation of the claims of humanism, religious or profane. We begin to comprehend what might have made Melville’s work so influential among the rising constituency of mid-twentieth-century black Atlantic radicals.
Melville showed them that the racial nomos was implicated in the doom of Atlantic, that is, western humankind. He pointed the way by being prepared to have Captain Ahab speculate pointedly about the commercial value of a slave boy calculated against that of a whale.
Melville presents slavery as pelagic and planetary. Its true character could be revealed in the peculiar theatre of power found at sea. It was an obscure, grey confrontation between the properly human and the supposedly infrahuman—between the white and the black. The mutinied slaves in the novella Benito Cereno who enact the perplexing choreography of their submission while actually being in command of their floundering journey to freedom, were misrecognized in that mist. As a result, they get over-identified with that happy, musical, clownish, baboon the Negro, who is taken to, not “philanthropically but genially”, like “a Newfoundland dog” or becomes “an object among other objects” like combs, brushes and castanets. There is something about the maritime staging of encounters between human, animal and object that presents the core dynamics of that rapacious system with great clarity.
We can pursue these lines of argument a little further under the guidance of another Black Atlantic polymath, the Trinidadian, C.L.R. James. Detained on Ellis Island as an illegal alien by the McCarthy era US immigration authorities, James wrote a petition to the US government. It took the form of a book-length study of the writings of Herman Melville. That work Mariners Renegades and Castaways, helped me to appreciate that Melville had been born within a few months of both Karl Marx and Frederick Douglass. As radical anatomists of the pathology and misery of industrial capitalist exploitation, that heavily bearded trio shared several common concerns.
James’ plea to the US government, demonstrated how Melville’s literary output could be read for the way it complemented the political efforts and epistemologies of Marx and Douglass by extending their enquiries into deeper and murkier water. Douglass published The Heroic Slave his only work of fiction, in 1853, a couple of years before the appearance of Benito Cereno. It too included a shipboard mutiny by slaves on board the appropriately named ship, Creole. His story was based upon real events which were entangled with Melville’s extended family, unsurprising perhaps as the two men had lived in the same location on three different occasions and may well have met.
The intertextual sequence that connects them can be supplemented to encompass the work of the later writers who used their ideas to a divine a moral and political course that was repeatedly illuminated by watery examples. Ralph Ellison’s connection to Melville was revealed by his employing the concluding words of Benito Cereno as the epigraph to Invisible Man. He acknowledged his debt to writers like Melville for whom
“the Negro symbolized both the man lowest down and the mysterious, underground aspect of human personality. In a sense the Negro was the gauge of the human condition as it waxed and waned in our democracy. ”
This view of the Negro as a gauge—or a canary in the coalmine of western civilization–was taken further by others. Richard Wright had been reading Moby Dick while writing Native Son and he listed Melville’s book among his favourites. He drew political conclusions at variance with Ellison’s, although the maritime metaphors continued:
“The word ‘Negro’, the term by which, orally or in print, we black folk in the United States are usually designated, is not really a name at all nor a description, but a psychological island . . . This island, within whose confines we live, is anchored in the feelings of millions of people, and is situated in the midst of the sea of White faces we meet each day; and by and large, as three hundred years of time has borne our nation into the twentieth century, its rocky boundaries have remained unyielding to the Waves of our hope that dash against it.”
Similar ideas and images can be found in the work of later writers for example, James Baldwin whose essay “Nothing Personal” reads today like a luminous repudiation of every idiocy of “identity politics”. He concludes with these lines:
“The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
The composite of human frailty and interdependency that becomes visible is the frame of maritime peril is striking. In order to divine its contemporary significance, we can turn to Hans Blumenberg whose essay Shipwreck With Spectator outlines the fundamental significance of the “nautical metaphorics of existence” in European cultural history. Blumenberg is not remotely concerned either with race or racism, but I submit that his angles of vision can be amended to address the meaning of these signs in the context of colonial and imperial hydrarchy.
Blumenberg presents the sight of shipwreck as “the figure of an initial philosophical experience.” We get a hint of what this might mean if we remember how the 1781 case of the Zong provided an important source for J.M.W. Turner’s sublime 1840 painting: “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On” and generated moral ballast for the indictment of racial capitalism at the antislavery convention that accompanied its first public display.
As we struggle with the planetary and pelagic dimensions of our own emergency, we must enquire what that philosophical experience might now entail? First, we have to appreciate that the distinctive varieties of human recognition that are being sought and won in these watery spaces of death are of not the standard philosophical variety. They are defined in explicit opposition to the strictures of racism and ethnic absolutism. Second, we must accept that the demands voiced by people resisting their consignment to infrahumanity do not boil down conveniently to existing understanding of group identity. They surpass the habits of mind that were derived from acknowledgement of individual selfhood under eighteenth-century Europe’s favoured rules.
Today, demands for “equal dignity” operate as part of an appeal for recognition, not as culturally specific but as vitally and mortally human. Those demands have been articulated precisely against the specifications and the effects of racial hierarchy. They arise in circumstances where the acknowledgement of humanity has either been withheld or is explicitly denied, where the passage towards inclusion in species life has been closed off. They are not necessarily directed towards the attainment of rights.
The bans, double standards and other exclusionary mechanisms against which these demands have been voiced refer us to the contested limits of political communities that have been stratified according to the assumptions of nationalism and absolutist ethnic belonging that are still conveyed as matters of race.
Whether race is figured as natural history, frozen culture or political anatomy, institutionalized racism imagines and assembles it as an absolute, unbridgeable division in social and political life. This may still be considered a vulgar point to raise in polite, scholarly company. However, I want to insist that racism has travelled, mutated and grown from its enlightenment roots in the same intellectual compost that yielded the idea of essential human equality which, we should always remember, provided no significant obstacles to the consolidation of European colonies and empires.
The operations of the racial nomos are still uneven. There are significant regional and cultural variations in the intensity of attachment to race, to the idea of whiteness—which has been falling in value–and to religious or ethical commitments that might qualify or mediate those affects. Similarly, the degree of humanity identified in or awarded to racial, national and ethnic inferiors fluctuates with culture, politics and economic life. The quality of sympathy and empathy that can be expressed once the veil of alterity has been torn to reveal, unexpectedly, a needy, vulnerable human countenance beneath, is neither fixed nor over-determined.
Racism and fascism have been re-branded by forces grown online with help of Russian troll farms, AI and bots that are programmed in one jurisdiction, registered in a second and deployed from a third. It bears repetition that the versions of identity politics in which they trade are built around the idea that western civilization is being invaded and corrupted by alien intruders. The political language of civil war is dominant and these images promote a distinctive conception of political time in which greatness can be restored after periods of weakness and lassitude and nations, once thought lost, can be won back.
They may be divided internally about the significance of gender relations, but the Alt-right and its allies have projected a view of their activities not as radically evil, but as intelligent, daring, transgressive, comic and futuristic. Unlike their anti-racist opponents, these ironic authoritarians have been able to summon up seductive images of the utopia that guides their pragmatic and immediate political choices.
They use the anodyne rhetoric of ethnostates and human biodiversity but make no mistake, they want the world they are building to be racially pure and uniform. That new order will rest squarely upon revived natural relations between men and women no longer distorted by feminism, and it will be dedicated to the preservation of the embattled west which is threatened by the fertility of non-white incomers and menaced, not only by shadowy corporate forces of a cosmopolitan “global elite”, but in particular, by the corruption introduced by Islam and the “cultural Marxism” of its treacherous supporters. Muslim has become fixed as a racial trope rather like Jew in the interwar years of the twentieth century.
These unsavoury forces intersect in and rely upon the political ontology of race. They oppose political correctness and multiculturalism and employ the issue of free speech relentlessly to alter the limits of what can be said publicly. The resulting movement expands, not from the distribution of information but by garnering and monopolizing attention. It will not be stopped by the tactics used in the past to fight back against its predecessors.
Of course the nature of the ongoing emergency means that many people will prefer to renounce their liberties in the name of security and the fantasy that the clock of political time can be turned back to a period when alterity just did not arise.
In response and in conclusion, I want to suggest that our responsibility to ourselves and to the people in the water, now and in the future, must show how, against the effects of what Fanon called epidermalisation, something like a “real dialectic between the body and the world” can be reasserted. Perhaps it has already begun, unanticipated, to appear in the politics of sympathy discernable in the shadows of disaster. I hope you will be prepared to join with or at least endorse that ongoing, collective work of salvage. It is likely to involve more than pulling imperiled fellow beings from the sea, for it is our own humanity that needs to be rescued from the mounting wreckage. There is still time for that operation, but not much.
Some years ago, musing on these very themes, the poet and essayist June Jordan suggested that “ . . . the ultimate connection must be the need that we find between us”. We can still learn from the challenging words she spoke to and for her political generation: “It is not only who you are . . . but what we can do for each other that will determine the connection . . . I must make the connection real between me and these strangers . . . before those other clouds unify this ragged bunch of us, too late.”
Holberg laureate for 2019 Paul Gilroy is an American and English literature professor at King’s College London in the United Kingdom. He delivered his Holberg Lecture at the University of Bergen in Norway on 4 June 2019. The lecture is republished in full here by kind permission of Gilroy and the Holberg Prize Secretariat.