Interview with Vron Ware and Paul Gilroy (2/2)

Transnationalism in translation: the engaged intellectual’s melancholia

, by Melanine Choir

On Livio Sansonne’s [1] invitation, a panel of European and South American scholars gathered in Paris in June 2007 to discuss the ideas exposed more than ten years ago by Paul Gilroy in his Black Atlantic, and their reception in French academia [2]. We took advantage of the occasion to interview Paul Gilroy and Vron Ware, the author of Out of Whiteness and more recently Who Cares About Britishness?: A Global View of the National Identity Debate.

In the second part of this interview, we discuss political involvement on the left, feminism, the circulation of ideas and the remnants of internationalism.

An interview conducted by Laurence Rassel, Soopa Seb, Peggy P.- Translated and edited by Alfred J. Prufrock aka G.P. Many thanks to Livio Sansone, Vron Ware and Paul Gilroy for their patience and utter kindness.

- Melanine/Constant: Why do your books have different titles in the UK and in the US?

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- Paul Gilroy (PG): Well, yes. You know, Fanon’s family told my friend that Black Skin, White Masks was not the title he had chosen for his book. It was Essay on the disalienation of the Black. I often think of that... Now that computers are used to search for book titles, in every case I’ve had a fight with the press because the marketing department says you have to have this title otherwise the right people won’t be able to find you when they search.

Black Atlantic wasn’t my title for that book. I did not want to call it the Black Atlantic. I wanted to call it Promised Lands, and they said no. My title for Against Race was Between Camps. When I realized how much damage it was doing, I felt glad that I had chosen the title Between Camps.

In Europe it’s not the same; in North America, people can’t distinguish between race and racism. Americans hate to talk about racism but they love to talk about race, they like nothing better. But talking about racism is not the same. So being “against race,” that was a real problem to them. My title was Between Camps because I felt between camps was our address, in a sense of time and a sense of space: that’s our address, that’s where we dwell, we dwell between camps. Also because I was interested in the kind of solidarity that comes into the way we think of politics in the 19th century.

Here’s an example: when Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, they said that working people had no country, and then of course when the working people of Europe went to slaughter themselves in World War I behind the banners of the national bourgeoisie, they discovered that they were attached to them after all. Virginia Woolf speaks of women that have no country. It’s interesting to me that both the women’s movement and the movement of the working class imagined their solidarity as a kind of extension of the same property of interaction. I wanted to think what other kinds of solidarity might be possible to practice. My title for the other book was Postcolonial Melancholia, not After Empire. Again, it’s the marketing department of the press who had the last word.

- M/C: Appadurai’s book Modernity at Large was translated into French as Après le Colonialisme! Of course it’s also problematic to translate the term “modernity” into French...
But problems with translation and how you import ideas are numerous-what is called ‘French feminism’ in the US (the ‘Holy Trinity’: Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva) is often not considered feminism in France, and Delphy is rarely portrayed as a French feminist.

- PG: When I started out as a graduate student, we read Delphy as part of our curriculum because we were interested in the idea of a sex class, and I felt there were a different set of problems coming into the political interface of Left and feminist intellectual practice through this idea of the sex class. We talked about it and we linked it in our own thinking. Some of the things that were being written by Feminists who were interested in questions of racial difference among women, the idea of a sex gender system, the writings of Gayle Rubin, is there a race color system, does that make sense? How do you think of these forms of inequality and these dynamics of power as becoming articulated to questions of class and inequality, how do you theorize that relationship? So Delphy was very important to that, we certainly thought she was a French feminist then, but the marketing department hadn’t yet got control of the proceedings (laughs).

- M/C: Do you know a little bit about the context of the importation of your ideas in France?

- PG: I didn’t think there had been any importation! Alexandre Laumonier (of the recently defunct Kargo editions) approached me; he was interested in music, and was brave enough to make a press and start to try to make things happen with translation. Some of the other books he had translated I thought were interesting and good. He and I had some disagreements about some of the other books because I wasn’t sure what he thought he was doing, but he had an appreciation of what I was trying to do.
I never thought my book would be translated into French; I had never had any conversation with anyone in France about these questions. I have a very few political friends here. France is not really part of my intellectual world. It’s part of my historical knowledge and part of my theoretical inspiration, but the idea of trying to make a political relationship with anyone here was unimaginable. When Stuart Hall retired from the University, we wanted to make a book for his retirement and we got something like 40 pieces of writing from all over the world, and we couldn’t find anyone in France who would contribute to it!

- M/C: In fact, Stuart Hall books are just starting to be imported in France, but they are used in the French context as a tool to fight Bourdieu’s approach...

- PG: I see... but that’s silly!

- M/C: There are two books of Hall out now, a collection of articles and a small interview . This book has a preface and a postface. In the postface, the editor analyzes negatively what the people writing the preface are doing! It is very odd; he put on the table the context and the stakes of the importation of cultural studies in France ...

- PG: I didn’t know anything about that, in fact I didn’t even know Stuart’s books were being translated into French...

- C/M: Simple question about being an intellectual and how it relates to political life: how do you live it, how do you practice it? Do you think it’s important to keep it experimental and not be too much engaged in party politics?

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- Vron Ware (VW): This is something we speak about quite a lot, the way you position yourself. There’s a George Orwell essay called Inside the Whale where he talks about Henry Miller’s work. It’s sort of a literary argument, but it’s about whether you’re talking to the people who are already having a conversation and using the same terms, or whether you go outside and try to talk about what you want to talk about and see if anybody’s interested, and I think...

The experience of living in the US for 6 years was a change, in the sense that you talk to other people in the academy and they have a concept of the activist which is very fetishized I think. Activist with a capital A. Back in the UK, it’s a much smaller country, with a smaller intellectual community, you get the opportunity more readily to write in the print media, to appear on the radio and in the public space and intervene in debates if you want to. You can really push yourself; but it’s a little bit like once you start, you rent a quote, if they like you they keep asking you so your message always gets diluted. So you get incorporated.

- PG: I can only speak for myself. I don’t want to be in that position, because the world of that conversation is for me entirely dead. I know that there are strategic issues, that sometimes after some catastrophe, you have to put your hand out and speak. But mostly, the conversation among the elite opinion formers, the people that read and write in the Guardian, it’s not a conversation that interests me in the least, and the same way I’m not really interested in having a conversation with the people in the government. Some of them were my comrades when they were anarchists and feminists and so on. I knew them then, and I have nothing I can say to them now. I feel that in England-maybe it’s true here too-there’s a bubble, and in the bubble everything’s dead. And outside the bubble there are interesting things to find.

There’s a musician I like very much who says that in the music he makes, he had to give up everything he loved, in order to make the music he wanted to make, because he didn’t want to play someone else’s vocabulary. Because all you do then is you become caught up in a machinery of affirmation: you play jazz and you play it beautifully, and everyone likes it because they already like jazz. You’re just validating what they already know. I wouldn’t compare myself to him, but there’s something about that thought that I find interesting. Rather than rehearse already existing vocabulary, you do some damage in the world and if you’re lucky you can add something else. If it’s faithful to you and other people recognize themselves in that moment, then that’s enough, actually.

- C/M: But you still want to engage; it’s a tool for education or part of a social movement...It’s something to write in the Guardian to be friends with MPs, and something else to be engaged in the streets...

- PG: Exactly. But that’s outside the bubble, that’s the point I was trying to make. I don’t want to be in the bubble at all! Very occasionally I will do something that takes me in there, but every time I go to have a look it just makes me miserable. What’s exciting for me in life outside the bubble: if you look at institutions, there are some that are partly inside and partly outside the bubble. We were speaking about politics before; for example the art museums, the conversation about the practice of creative arts and culture and that dynamism... to me that’s kind of outside. There are some institutions that ask questions about how to connect with that energy, and what is a responsible, ethical form of accountability which can be practiced.

But you know it’s sort of a lonely thing. You could probably laugh at this, but one of my black comrades, whom I did things with before, is a management consultant. They’re all part of the privatization of government. They’ve grown to manage the Health Service and manage the Education Service. That whole generation of black activism, the antiracists, the people mostly around my age who were born in England-not the ones who were born outside and came here-all of them have accepted the kind of layer of practice which is part of the destruction of the government, really. They take to managing the problems that the government itself does not want to deal with. And many of them were activists, you know... I won’t mention names. You understand the issue: generationally there’s a question.

- C/M: How do we strengthen international bonds when internationalism is attacked from all sides?

- PG: I think the first and only thing I can say is that you have to learn to work and think across national boundaries, and you have to find ways of bringing that conversation alive in the work that you do. Internationalism isn’t the point, because internationalism, the declaration of people, women or workers, to override their other attachments, has proved to be absurd, unfortunately. So there’s nothing automatic about it. You have to make a form of solidarity that can withstand those tensions. For me, with the Black Atlantic-let’s get back to that for one moment-I was trying to say this morning that it works in a East-West geometry; whether it could be translated into a North-South geometry I don’t know. Maybe we could think of some other idea, some other way of thinking about the fortifications, the fugitives and the wars that have a bearing on these things. I would just say we have to find new ways to think and work across national boundaries, but not from the point of view of a larger, higher patriotism which is cultural or ideological.

Maybe DuBois is a good case of what some of this might be, because Dubois always went to Germany, right? So maybe it’s a German thing, but he came back from Germany and he wanted to do two things: write world history-he wanted the struggles of slaves to be part of world history-and he wanted to be a world citizen in that sort of cosmopolitical sort of way. He wanted to work between the axis of world history and the axis of world citizenship. I don’t see that’s any different. You can say that’s what Kant wanted to do; but Kant only said he had a cosmopolitan intent; he didn’t say he was actually a cosmopolitan. What he meant and what we mean are not the same. Where is the world in this story? One of the first books Dubois writes in the 20th century is The World an Africa; you look at the cover of the book, and it’s a representation of the world by the Brazilian flag. Something about seeing the world from the outside gives us the opportunity to think on a different scale. I’m quite interested in that.

- VW: I think the world is becoming increasingly stratified in terms of the elites and the dispossessed on a global scale. In some ways it’s relatively easy to find political connections and solidarities among people of the old class world. You can use technology to do that, you can travel, make conversation with people and you can have this sort of intercultural dialogue as much as you like, but actually the gap between people who have and people who have not is becoming bigger and bigger, and that’s absolutely terrifying. If you go to a country like Bangladesh, you have a big middle class, but they do not talk to the people in the cities who are so dispossessed. They send their children to Europe or North America for education or they can volunteer to other people’s countries, but they don’t send their children into the rural areas of Bangladesh to volunteer so much. And there’s patterns of that elsewhere, so I think it’s easy making the connections now, being a global citizen...

- PG: but I’m talking about conceptual work. I don’t think that’s easy at all.

- VW: But even that’s becoming easier...

- PG: It isn’t easy...

- VW: But children in school are doing it! Connecting up with each other...

- PG: But that’s not conceptual work! I’m sorry, but think about, who was it, Zygmunt was making the same joke about, he had some conversation with Galtung I think, they were talking about the political institutions that correspond to this moment of globalization, and how we don’t know what they’re going to be, and someone said we should have a world parliament. Someone else said “if we had a world parliament allocated by population groups, so many people would be Chinese, so many Indian, and there’ll be one person from Northern Europe!” The model of democracy as representative democracy that we imagine could be used in this emerging institution is not going to work. So we need to be able to think about that, and perhaps the difference between Athenian democracy and representative democracy, there’s a gap of that equivalent sort of size that will open up larger in our ability to imagine institutions that will make the idea of mutual accountability and bring it to a habitable shape for people.

I think we have to give up the old telos of the Enlightenment sense of progress. We have to speak to people in places like this and at home, and tell them that the future looks more like what’s going on in Bangladesh, not even Brazil actually, than what they see outside their window. Brown rice and bicycles is something they need to think about. They need to think about giving stuff up and actually start to imagine a future that doesn’t involve more and more and more... No politician is going to be promoting that conversation. I think it’s difficult to abandon that telos and imagine what new concepts we could bring for a future that’s habitable, sustainable and in which you have less stuff. Obviously the idea of a satisfied consumer is an impossible thing, but at some point you find an equilibrium. We don’t even have a language for that, except maybe poetic language.

- C/M: This idea of a worldwide representative democracy, it’s happening in the economy. In Belgium and France, Mittal (an Indian company) bought old steel mills.

- PG: Yes I read.

- C/M: My brother was in the first one they closed in 1976, but now they might reopen the high furnaces, it’s really interesting to see how after so many centuries it seems to be going the other way. But people are not prepared, and this is where racism comes in. At the European Commission they’re only talking about having a European right to strike... in Belgium we have many unions, so in solidarity they’ve been striking, this is our favorite sport, we love it!

- PG: Yeah, we used to do that too...

- C/M: Be careful cause they do it in France too! But the idea of having collectively the right to strike, but it’s really difficult to make people who close factories etc... either you go to China or you have to work for less... But how do you articulate this discourse for people that are directly concerned?

- VW: I just saw this item on the news program not so long ago. There was an English woman from Lancashire, from a garment manufacture, who said she’d lost her job a while ago to someone in Sri Lanka I believe, so the film crew took her to Sri Lanka to meet the women doing her job. She met them and she saw that actually it was quite decent, the way they were working, that it wasn’t a question of her job going somewhere where people were superexploited, so this woman was quite comfortable. But then the woman started crying, in Sri Lanka, because there was a threat to her job, they’d already found someone else, the whole factory. So the connection suddenly became obvious with the history of capitalism and their position within it, and they became sort of sisters. It was quite moving.

- PG: And very romantic...

- VW: yes! (laughter)

- PG: Except you know, when we lived in the States, there was a big zone of deindustrialization, and the unions there had a whole strategy for showing people where the jobs went. I don’t know where that took them, but it was I suppose a way of trying to show them the connection between the loss of their own livelihood and the ’walmartification’ of their own communities, with all the Chinese goods coming back at super cheap price for them to be able to luxuriate. Of course, the Left in England has nothing to say about any of this, except to say ‘we need the immigrants to pay for your pension when you’re old, to pay for your social care, cause that’s what they’re making, an economic contribution, so put up with them, because they’re doing you a favor in the long run....’

- C/M: Do you know about the question of cultural purity that came through around the debate around the Muslim veil in France?

- VW: I don’t know it in terms of cultural purity...

- C/M: The fact that you can forbid the veil based on secularism... It’s how they used this message of rights and feminism to split feminism and to target the Muslim population. The success of this idea among French feminists united around racism!

- VW: I think because they can only see the veil as a mark of subordination. They don’t understand any other kind of argument. For a start, they fixated on the meaning of that piece of cloth as a kind of essentialist mark of something that they think they understand. That’s the first problem. They have a sense of their feminist politics as being tied to a secular tradition which is safe from any kind of fundamentalist ideology coming from religion. Feminism is a kind refuge from religion. We had a similar version of this, although we don’t have the same model of secularism in the UK. There was the voice of secular feminists, and by secular they meant they could not tolerate any compact between religion and politics. And for them, they could only look at someone in a veil as someone who’d been told to or made to wear it as a mark of inferiority. There’s no way you could argue to see it as another kind of feminism, they wouldn’t buy that, they wouldn’t hear that argument. They would get quite..what can I say... fundamentalist about this principle and just not see it like that.
I think it could be an inability to see something from the point of view of other people.

- PG: But isn’t it something more than that? I mean that’s a problem for every movement, or every ideology has a problem like that, that people can’t see outside of it. Isn’t it something more than that? You say fundamentalism, but something fundamental about that particular form of powerlessness that seems to resonate...

- VW: I can’t believe people are so stupid as to not see the connections between say, the occupation of Afghanistan, what’s happening in Iraq, that’s legitimated by the idea that European civilizations are somehow rescuing, protecting, saving Muslim women from their men, this whole rhetoric... What happened in Afghanistan when we were there. Most of the students who’ve had historical education could tell that this was what was going on, people who’d had Women Studies, they understood that they were being told a lie, that it was a pretext. You had Oprah Winfrey taking the veil off the Barbie doll, whatever she did on prime time TV, and you had this incredible discourse of helping Afghan women... I studied the American diplomacy website, and it’s all driven by women, it’s about breast cancer, women’s education... I can’t see how the feminists would not feel uncomfortable aligning themselves with American imperialist power.

- C/M: And it’s the same people who are targeting abortion laws... it’s paradoxical. Their definition of freedom changes according to context.

- VW: We’ve had this debate in England about the niqab, a sort of much more extreme version of the veil. It wasn’t even about the headscarf, but about women wearing something much more objectionable in their terms that brought those women out.

- PG: Well about abortion, we had demonstrations of these veiled women holding up signs saying “Muslim women against abortion," as a way of rehabilitating themselves to be people who are part of a faith-based opposition, a ecumenical opposition...

- C/M: But I don’t understand how feminists would not get involved with these women, how can you imagine a change without any contact?

- PG: Maybe you still have organized feminism, but we don’t. The same way I made jokes that we don’t have a Left. We don’t.

- VW: We have very powerful women writers writing in the media a lot.

- PG: Yes, but we don’t have a movement anymore. It’s a postfeminism.