Thursday, August 12, 2010

Life beyond race – seminar blog

I have not participated in the last seminar of the series, titled ‘Life beyond Race’ but I have read the three articles; David Theo Goldberg, The Threat of Race - Reflections on Neoliberalism, chapters three and eight; Sarah Nuttall, Entanglement - Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-Apartheid, chapter one; and Paul Gilroy, On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture - Darker Than Blue, chapter one. What follows is a summary and a discussion.

All the three articles address the issue of race and its entanglements. In David Theo Goldberg’s case it is the entanglement of race, racisms, and the neo-liberal state; with Sarah Nuttall, it is about re-reading identities, spaces, and histories that had been thought of as separate in order to find “points of intersection”; for Gilroy finally, entanglement is about the complex relationship between capitalism and racial divisions.

David Theo Goldberg makes two major claims. The first is that the emergence of the modern nation-state, largely a western and European construct, went together with race and racisms. State-making went with racism-making. The second is that the current triumphant neo-liberalism, as the dominant political and economic ideology adapted by many nation-states, re-enforces race thinking and racisms. As a global development, Goldberg identities five global areas in which particular forms of racisms, channelled through the state, occur: American (United States of America), Latin American, European, South African, and Palestinian racism. Analysing the leading, American racism, Goldberg argues that the roll-back of state programs which benefited black people is undermining much of the achievement towards racial justice that originated in the Civil Rights era. While the official state prohibits racism, private racism is accepted as the norm. Against this domination of whiteness, of (white) homogeneity Goldberg upholds heterogeneity. While this sociological approach is illuminating in indicating the global forces of capitalism and racism and how they manifest themselves through the state, the juxtaposition of homogeneity and heterogeneity seems to leave out much of what is happening in between; the shifts, leaps and bounds. Also, processes of challenges to this system of separation seem to be neglected. Previous discussions during this seminar on the opening and closing frontier in 17th and 18th century South Africa, for instances, offer insights into the intricacies of racial and power relations. It is then not only a linear expansion of European racism across the globe that is the constituting and determinant factor in where a future beyond race may lie. Rather, frontiers across race and class were and are shifting during struggles and processes, with different actors seizing opportunities, making and breaking alliances in the quest for control, security and resources.

To read closer these spaces that are in-between is the project of Nuttall’s articulation of entanglements across the colour line in reading literary and cultural production in South Africa. She is doing so with the help of creolité and how this concept first introduced elsewhere can be applied to South Africa; its strength is that it originates in the historical experience of slavery and its aftermath, integrates resistance but also accounts for subjection. With the background of a history of apartheid that strove to enforce racial divisions, the neglected or hidden history of the permeability of racial boundaries moves center stage. According to Nuttall, the South African approach to race and class emphasized the working class and neglected peasant culture, middle-class migrant and city cultures. Pointers towards what has the potential of undoing racial formations and hierarchies may emerge in analysing what has been over looked. In contemporary South Africa, more choices are available in terms of racial identification. As we analyse the ‘now’, racial entanglements, past and present, emerge.

In his analysis of the entanglement of American capitalism with African Americans, as former slaves who were reified and sold as commodities, Gilroy points to an uncomfortable observation: contemporary manifestations of African American popular culture do not augur well for emancipatory politics. Rather, an obsession with material culture negates the elevation of the self beyond the status of a mere object, as Gilroy’s reading of recent rap lyrics indicate. In this analysis, he joins Frantz Fanon who had described earlier the “formation of racial ontologies as part of the sociogenesis of deeply alienated human subjects” in which black people appear as objects. Gilroy’s is an analysis of the moral economy of the black Atlantic, with a focus on black people as consumers, and their particular relationship with the automobile. The mobility of the automobile held the promise of freedom which in the absence of full citizenship remained elusive. Furthermore, the automobile as an object of consumption has a larger significance in a globalizing world, with energy and environmental crisis, and deep cleavages between the rich and the poor across the globe.

Where do these readings leave us in our quest to understand contemporary South Africa? While consumer cultures give us choice, even in terms of racial identification, their emancipatory content is far from evident. Gilroy’s piece seems to contain a warning for South Africans who believe consumption and black advancement to middle class status will guarantee racial harmony. Unfettered neo-liberal capitalism, combined with the state abdicating social responsibility, maintains the status quo of racial inequality. Much of what happens at the level of the state is subjected to the ebb and flow of global capitalism, and if South Africa is analysed as a frontier society, this will have to be taken into consideration. The frontier in history has also been a moment of indetermination and flux. To grasp the nature of the current frontier appears more difficult yet necessary to gain better insights into “points of intersection” and future racial formations.

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