Paul Gilroy in conversation with David Theo Goldberg

By Monday 10 August 2020 No Comments

Transcript :

Paul Gilroy: Hello everybody, I’m Paul Gilroy, I’m the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London. And it’s a great privilege, a great honor, this evening to be speaking to David Theo Goldberg, who is in California. David is the Director of the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute, which is a system-wide research facility for the human sciences and theoretical research in the arts. And he holds more departmental faculty appointments than anybody else I know; let me think, in Comparative Literature, in Anthropology, in Criminology, in Law and Society, and of course is also a Fellow of the UCI, University of California Irvine Critical Theory Institute; no appointment in Philosophy, David, I note, well perhaps we’ll come to that in a minute because I always think of you as a philosopher.

David’s writing is very well known, in fact, I can say that there are few scholars writing in this field who’ve done more to shake the field and to influence it, who’ve been more consistent, more prolific, than David Theo Goldberg. And we first encountered one another in 1990, which is quite a long time ago, when David very generously invited me to contribute to a volume he was editing, Anatomy of Racism, in 1990; and it’s been followed by a torrent, really, of thoughtful and engaging writing, most notoriously Are We All Postracial Yet? in 2015; Sites of Race in 2014; The Threat of Race in 2008; The Racial State in 2002; Racial Subjects: Writing on Race in America in 1997; and Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning in 1993; among other books. David, I’m not going to list them all, but thank you for making the time to have this conversation with me. I thought, you know, given your extraordinary record as a thoughtful commentator and political interpreter of this field, can we begin with your view of the state of the field of studying race and racism these days? How do you see the field right now in the context of the multiple layers of the crisis that’s engulfing us?

David Theo Goldberg: Thank you, Paul, for both that generous introduction and it’s just terrific to be in conversation repeatedly through these years, I’ve learned a great deal from that of course, and had great joy in our conversations. You know, I think it’s varied in conversations I’ve been having with those close to me, sort of around these questions of late. I’m a bit troubled, I have to say, about- and I think it’s particularly the case in the US, and you see it sort of in versions elsewhere, but I’m worried about the way in which the long history of critical thinking around race and racism in some quarters is being effaced, in terms- you know, in favor of or in light of a kind of presentism. And so there’s a kind of collusion that I think one’s seeing in some quarters of the literature, one has to say, that reinvents the wheel as though none of this history has already been written for the past 30 or 35 years, right?

I mean there was that surge, really starting at the end of the 70s and into the middle of the 80s, that repositioned critical theorizing around race and racism, that started with Stuart Hall and Edward Said, and others; and had, you know, an anti-apartheid aspect to it, and so on and so forth. And then you think of CRES, the Centre for Race and Ethnic Studies in Amsterdam, that was so productive and then closed down because it was too critical for the Dutch state; and, you know, in that latter case, it destroyed the possibility of a generation of critical thinking around race in the Netherlands; and I think we’re seeing a kind of informalizing aspect of that- I don’t want to overstate this, because of course, they’re people like you and people in South Africa and people in the US who are committed to engaging their students in this. But, you know, when you look at some literature, you know- I mean I shouldn’t pick his name as one among others specifically, but somebody like Ibram Kendi, who’s gotten great play in the US, who’s a terrific popular artist- I don’t want to short-sell sort of his role over here, but you know, that history has been written again and again and again over the last 30 years, and it’s not like he’s doing something critically innovative, I think one has to say, although he puts a particular kind of popularising spin on it. So there’s a role for it, but it’s also dismissing all the work that has been done over this period. And I think with the emergence of the surge particularly around Black Lives Matter in the US- and I don’t mean the actual organization itself, but the movement if you can call it that- around it, the popularising around it; you know, that history is just absent, it’s just not there, right? And I do worry about that, about being self-conscious about reviving that- or helping to revive it in certain sort of ways.

Paul: I mean, do you think that’s because people think they can manage without history, in general? Because I do you wonder about that; I know that in some cases, you know, I think I’m right in saying in South Africa this has come up, people say ‘I don’t need to go to the library to read, I just need to deal with what’s in front of me’. And that’s an interesting politics actually. To me, and perhaps to you too, you know, the dangers of that deficit of historical knowledge is one problem, but there’s also the deficit of historically- the inability to actually conceptualize processes over long arcs of time; and we’re dealing with the history of racial categories, racialized forms of power and government; we need to have that arc in place.

David: Yes, I agree completely with that characterization, and I think it’s commensurate with the legacy of the neo-liberalization across the last 30 or 35 years, right? I mean, a key central aspect of that neo-liberalization has been the effacing of the historical; it’s the de-historicizing of the condition that produced itself, right, in order to establish itself anew as the personalization of responsibility, and so on. So that effacing of that history itself has a history, and I think, you know, what gets lost- as you so well put it- is the transformation in categories, the work those categories have done in the past, that are both continuing to do but also paving new inroads into racist thinking in the moment, and so on. You know, one sees this again around the uptake in the very category of Black Lives Matter, which has become an easier way of expressing solidarity, to preface maybe something else, but which then establishes all of racism as anti-Blackness, rather than thinking of anti-Blackness in its relational conditions, you know which are historical, in relation to other forms of racist expression, which then are taking on new forms of expression with respect to immigrants, Latinos in this country, Asian Americans; I mean, there are outbursts which are different than police killings, but which nevertheless are as demeaning- in both senses of the term demeaning in their own ways, right?

Paul: Yeah, I mean that’s a really, I think, essential point for me; and I know for both of us in very different ways, the relationship between- what does St. Clair Drake call it?- ‘anti-Black racism’ and anti-Semitism have been particularly fertile. I suppose at both ends of that chain now we’ve arrived at a situation where one is not allowed to compare anti-Black racism with any other kind of racism; and one is not really allowed to compare anti-Semitism to any other kind of racism. Now, of course, the historical uniqueness of these formations is fundamental to grasp, but we are also living in a history, in ecology, where they’ve been complexly associated at many different levels, not least in the teaching of the humanities, not least in the teaching of the philosophical traditions, and obviously we want to revise all of that. So, I suppose my question- and I can’t answer this, and I’m just curious to know what you think- why, from so many different political directions, are we hearing this sanction against comparative reflection?

David: Yeah, I want to complexify that a touch in relation to the way I’ve been thinking about this. It’s so interesting that you brought up the contrast, or the relation even, and I’ll come back to that notion, between anti-Blackness and anti-Semitism, because it’s exactly that set of conditions I’ve been thinking about in relation to this set of questions. You know, on a political level, anti-Semitism has been mobilized as a way of saying historically there’s no comparable evil in terms of the genocidal history of the 1930s and 1940s, and by extension therefore, you know, Israel cannot be criticized because of its own forms of racist expression in relation to Palestinians but also others, right? And there’s a form of anti-Blackness which is taking, as you’ve rightfully reflected upon, a version of that kind of incomparable kind of condition. And comparativisms- the reductive comparatisms- tend to hold discrete, often in terms of nation-states sort of boundedness, but not necessarily only, the conditions within them and then contrasting them with conditions elsewhere. And how I think about this is to think not narrowly in terms of comparatives in those bounded kinds of ways, but in trying to get the relationalities- the relational conditions between these formations, you know, to put it very perfectly as I’ve done sort of elsewhere, racism anywhere is not possible to be upheld without racisms elsewhere, right? You saw it in relation to apartheid with respect to the US, with respect to Britain, with respect to Germany, with respect to Israel, under those conditions; you see it with respect to Israel in relation to its own conditionality today, you see it you know wherever you look; looking for these relations both historically and contemporarily I think is a way of surfacing the deeper structural conditions that hold these things together and support each other, right? Now, to get more directly to your question about why this is being eroded, I think it has to do with the way in which recent histories – neo-liberal, post-racial, and now tracking capitalism – are occluding its own historical conditions of its self-formation. And the lack of self-conscious critical focus on those conditions of creation and self-creation I think all too quickly then leads to the kind of presentism that we’re seeing, and that becomes totally self-regarded.

Paul: Actually, you know, in terms of the political philosophy of it, this is accompanied by a particular sort of- I mean I wouldn’t want to call it ontological turn because the ontology’s not quite there, but perhaps a new political ontology which is incorrigible, which is authoritarian actually, which is strongly oriented around the policing of speech and expression, that rehearse all the iteration of key tropes that serve- perhaps I’m sounding like a dinosaur, but to me they sound like prohibitive- there’s a certain prohibitive element. And that’s- I suppose I’ve, you know, you and I both have- I think rather different- but similar relationships to the work of Ian Hacking, the idea that ontology itself is something that has to be studied historically, and that one can’t really understand the history of racisms in the plural without that; I mean there are versions of this I suppose that trade under the name of dialectical realism, I mean, I think again both of us have kind of retreated from the dialectical patterns in favor of other conceptions of relationality. But why is it so hard for people to think ontology historically these days? And why is it so comforting for them to immerse themselves in a kind of incorrigible ontologies?

David: Yes, there is of course the ontologising of the historical, right? So, a turning of the outcome of historical conditions into an ontology, that then is both seen not to have a history- its history is not even continuous, it’s just always ever there, right? And that becomes an effacement of the historical transformations that lead to the possibility of both thinking, you know, if this was historically produced then there’s a way of actually taking it on critically and producing aspirational possibilities out of which, you know, out of struggle this might emerge, right? And so, the ontology becomes the current condition of establishing the constitutive as the more or less unchangeable, unless you transform the entire world, right? We’re not told to what end, we’re not told how this is going to happen, we don’t even see the politics at work that would even make it possible to think the possibility of another world; and so that kind of ontological formation, I think, in taking on its sort of self-cementing constitutiveness makes politics more or less impossible, right? I mean there’s a reason you’re not seeing a politics come out of certain forms of these formations, you know, no solidarity, no relationality, no cross-racial kind of coalitional condition, and so on and so forth. And it is very censorious, right? It’s not just if you’re not one of us, it’s if you’re not constituted in the way we’re telling you you’re constituted, you know, you don’t even count as an identity formation within that identity formation.

Paul: Yeah, but those recursions have an incredible effect on them at the moment. I mean, I do, I do struggle with it. I suppose I’ve been thinking a lot- maybe call me paranoid, call me weird- I’ve been thinking a lot about, you know, Richard Gibson; I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole history of how the movement has been disorganized particularly during phases of the Cold War history that we don’t visit very often. As you know in my teaching, I’ve taught William Gardner Smith a lot, I think a lot about his attempts to connect the experience and the insights of African American expatriates to the politics of decolonization in Algeria; and the fate of so many people who boldly attempted to link African American struggles to the decolonization politics that were unfolding elsewhere in the world, you know, so many of those voices, so many of those people meet unexplained premature deaths and so on- one doesn’t have to be paranoid to see this curious pattern of things.

So I do wonder about in whose interests this kind of disorientation, this sort of nihilistic disorientation, this appetite for- it’s not really- it’s sophistry on the one hand and a kind of trivialization of political processes on the other- this bothers me- but anyway that’s my problem; I mean, your work is also known I think if you don’t mind me saying this – as David Roediger’s and Vron Ware’s and Theodore Allen’s, and a number of others- Fred Pfeil, may he rest in peace – as being very early into a kind of critical exposition and critique of the worlds of whiteness, which derives in some ways from the work of Du Bois, but is also being energized by a number of other sources. And I wonder what you felt looking at those young white people standing there in practical solidarity with the demonstrators of these last few months in the street, you know, often- as they did in South Africa- putting themselves- their more valuable bodies as sort of shields in an act of political theatre, but also a real acknowledgment of certain patterns of violence which are fundamental to what makes racism distinctive as a governmental phenomenon. So how does whiteness look in these conditions for you?

David: Yeah, it’s a very interesting question. Let me step back and sort of connecting the previous line of analysis to the current one. You know, part of, I think, the way in which that ontologising has cemented itself is a function also- if one can put it in functionalist terms- is a function also of the digital turn of the last 30 years, right? The way in which the technology, without being deterministic about it, has encouraged a kind of speaking to oneself and those immediately around one; which then reinforces one’s voice within a very narrow kind of space of articulation, right? So that’s one side of the digital, I mean, you’ll recall in the 90s that the digital came with considerable promise of a kind of openness, engagement, possibility, a kind of aspirational quality that had people crowdsourcing knowledge, and so on and so forth, that by the beginning of the 21st century got shut down in relation to its kind of other dimension, which was reinforcing power, out of which birthed first surveillance and then what I’m calling ‘tracking capitalism’ kind of developed. And what has been interesting about what has been happening in the streets at the moment are I think two things: one is the kind of born-digital- so-called ‘digital native generation’ that has now come of age, having an incredibly agile facility with the technology to be able to put it to work on behalf of a set of engagements that they are finding compelling. And what that compelling news is driven by- which you have to think are a number of things coming together; you know, at first, the way in which climate change is closing down the future; the second is the way in which the pandemic made it absolutely palpable that the future is futureless on its current trajectories, both in relation to climate in complicated ways, but more immediately in relation to the deep inequalities that got surfaced as a consequence, which had a deep racial dimension to it, but which also had a deep generational dimension to it. You know, what is the world that we’re going to inherit where, you know, between 30 and 60% of the jobs you’re projecting we’re supposed to have gone into are not going to be there anymore, because, you know, Amazon is introducing robots to pack in its warehouses, even those jobs are no longer available, right? Which is in turn having an impact on how human work is being done too.

So, that sense- and I think it became really palpable because of the pandemic- it became absolutely undeniable to everybody, but most visibly to a generation whose future was being visibly undercut from them. You know, in order to have a future, we have to throw our lot in with everybody else; the figure of the black became the figure of everybody; that kind of futureless future that black folk had long had to face. And I think that present became absolutely undeniable and it’s like ‘we’re done with this; you’re leaving us a world we can’t inhabit; there’s no other way than going to the street with everybody else’. And what was interesting historically, and contemporarily, is that it took a series of murders and then the going viral of Floyd’s very, very casual murder in front of everybody, which was: ‘this is it; we’re done’. And, you know, as Angela Davis has mentioned, so what happens when that kind of immediate adrenaline rush wears off? What is the longer-term future of the struggle that kicks in on the various dimensions – economic, employment, residential, racial, pandemic-related, health-related? I mean all the major dimensions of what it is to live a dignified life are being hit at the same time by these multiple things coming together, which has a deep underpinning in relation to the economy, right? And it’s in that context that I think the last 20 years in the development- the slow development- and then in the last 10 years the quicker development of what I’ve characterized as tracking capitalism, comes into play. So, tracking capitalism becomes the kind of invisible version of a kind of policing without the police, so to speak, without the visibility of the police in your face, and how that’s addressed I think becomes a crucial question.

Paul: Yeah, well I think it’s great to have taken the conversation to that point, because I’m sort of wondering about tracking capitalism, surveillance capitalism, about these patterns of power in which people, you know, know you better than you know yourself; and the power of a kind of algorithmic governmentality is harnessed in the interest of new varieties of subordination, new varieties of exploitation, new varieties of immiseration. I suppose I’m sort of wondering really about what the state becomes under those conditions because the relationship between public and private powers in this connection is not yet settled; I mean I know that Palantir, or whoever it is, is doing the work for the police department, so we know that there is something sort of blurred there which is constitutive of the new varieties of governmentality, of exploitation, of capitalism, that you are describing; but I think what kind of state do we- is it just, you know, authoritarian mercantilism? Is it the Chinese-style state these architects of these new arrangements have in mind? What do you think or how do you see the state on the other side of this, assuming that they win- and I don’t want to too casually assume that they will, but if that’s what they’re going for, where does that leave government? And what forces can resist that?

David: Yeah, so, I think if one historically goes back to the way in which neo-liberalization emerged as a state form, I mean, as neo-liberalization took hold visibly at the end of the 70s and into the 80s, of course it has a- as Foucault warned us- it has a much longer tail, right? But as it became visible and people started kind of paying attention to it, there was a ‘oh the state’s going to disappear’, you know? And what happened was the state just shifted its form from what I call the kind of ‘care-taking’ sort of condition of the state- welfare, and so on- which was of course largely focused on the white middle and working classes where the welfare state, in particular the global north, kind of took hold and it shifted its state form to what elsewhere I’ve called the ‘traffic-cop state’, right? So it funded the repressive state apparatuses by shifting its budgets from the care-taking apparatuses – healthcare, social security, and so on and so forth – more visibly in some countries than in others, of course, it’s uneven across the domain. And what emerged was- a surveillance capitalism kind of emerged out of that set of conditions, clearly by the beginning of the 2000s; but the other side of that was incarceration, increased policing, a more vicious form of policing, of course, played out on black and brown bodies in various places, and alike.

You know, to go back to that relational condition, I mean, Israel has been training the police forces both in the US and elsewhere in South Africa and has been training the trainers in those places. So, the forms of policing you see in the West Bank, in particular, get then reiterated in, you know, transforms form in the likes of the US and parts of South Africa, and so on. And so one has to ask as surveillance takes over at the beginning of the 21st century, particularly with 9/11 and sort of what followed 9/11, and tracking capitalism emerges out of that, that, you know, China, of course, has led the way in the- not just the technological development, that’s happening in various places including Israel of course, but it’s also lead the way in the application, right? So just to give a couple of examples: school kids in schools are being photographed every 30 seconds on a scale of six forms of responsive emotion to see how they are responding to the lesson, which is then being provided to the teacher in order to adjust in relation to how the students have reacted. Workers are being injected, literally injected, they’re having inserted into their brains, tracking mechanisms to determine when they work best, when they’re fatigued, under what conditions, what forms of rest they need, at what points in time and so on, as a way of determining the kind of- the workday literally, and the kind of extractive process that can be conducted as a consequence. This is not just happening in China, it’s happening in the US in various ways, not quite as intrusive, but not far off. I mentioned Amazon as one form of this as a way of tracking. There are apps that are being introduced now increasingly exacerbated as a result of stay-at-home working, where worker computers are tracking the workday of the workers at their computers – how long they’re there, what their productivity is, and so on and so forth. So you can see the way in which a kind of back-end, almost invisible, what you call kind of mercantilist capitalism, that is over-laid- or under-laid, let’s put it that way, under-laid with a kind of state form of info-power that is directing sort of where the efforts should be. And these technologies have always largely gotten the push through military R&D and corporate R&D in relation to military activity. And you’re seeing all of that sort of taking place now as well.

Paul: Well, where does that leave the university?

David: Yeah, very good question. I mean universities I think are- you know, not to use crisis language too easily, but I think they’re facing a deep sort of identity crisis about- you know, in relation now to the broader social questions that are emerging as a result of these street protests and so on. What is the university there for, right? I mean, historically, in 1965, if you think of the founding of National Endowment for the Humanities, it was to produce thoughtful democratic citizenship for the nation-state, written into its founding senatorial document, right? That then gave way increasingly, a modality that is still with us, to the condition of producing just worker-bees for employment, ‘we’re training you to go and be employed, we’re going to defund the Humanities, we’re gonna defund Anthropology, we’re gonna defund the Social Sciences, and so on; we’ll probably defund the arts unless you need cool objects on the wall in employment spaces’; and even that’s gone because you’re working at home. So, the question for the university now is for itself, what function- you know, universities largely are no longer state-funded; 27% – when I arrived at the University of California in 2000 – 27% of the $15 billion a year budget of the university came from the state; today it’s 10% of $40 billion, and that’s indicative of what’s happened pretty much everywhere.

So, the question is, how is the university going to operate in relation to the state at the moment? Because the university is in a terrible fiscal crisis for one; but what is it going to do in terms of going back to a condition- two things I would say: one is, what is the form of citizenship that you’re committed to reproducing? And then the other is, I think, what the defining crisis of our moment is – that’s being played out on the street – is the tension between what one can call, again in petit terms, the clash between infrastructures of racism, policing, prisons, residential space, schooling- I mean, all of it, on the one hand; and what- for want of a better way of putting it- I’m calling ‘infrastructures of care’. And so the question for the university, if you’re committed to this larger vision as you say you are, inclusion is not going to cut it because you’re including into an institution that produced the very condition you say you’re against, right? So, I think you have to start thinking: how do you recreate the infrastructure of the social and what’s your role in doing that?

Paul: David, I think that’s the perfect place to end. Those are the questions for those of us who are hanging on to the university by our fingertips. Thank you so much for being so thoughtful and so attentive, I’m really grateful to you. It’s wonderful to have these conversations where the person you’re speaking to is really listening to what you say and being prepared to take the risk of thinking out loud. I like to think that there are examples there that may be of use to those who have capitulated to the pressure on their attention span. Thank you so much and I will be honored to continue the conversation as things unfold. I’m really grateful, thank you David.

David: Thank you Paul, I look forward to the possibility.

David Theo Goldberg, Director of the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute, offers his insight about the state of critical thinking around race and racism, and the effacement of historicality in favour of presentism; and responds to the sanction of comparativisms and relationalities as “racism anywhere is not possible to be upheld without racisms elsewhere”.

This conversation was recorded on 8th July 2020