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Economy and Society

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Paul Gilroy: Race and culture in postmodernity

Paul Gilroy
Professor of Sociology and Cultural Studies , Goldsmiths College, University of London ,
New Cross, London, SEl4 6NW
Published online: 28 Jul 2006.

To cite this article: Paul Gilroy (1999) Paul Gilroy: Race and culture in postmodernity, Economy and Society, 28:2, 183-197,
DOI: 10.1080/03085149900000002

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Economy and Society Volume 28 Number 2 May 1999: 183-197

Between camps: race and

culture in postmodernity
An inaugural lecture
Paul Gilroy
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This short piece invites reconsideration of the impact of modern raciology on the for-
mation of the academic humanities. In the light of that all too easily forgotten con-
nection, it asks what place the memory of the Nazi period should now enjoy in
contemporary scholarly work oriented by its opposition to fraternalist and populist
ultra-nationalism. The memory of the Third Reich can be recovered in a number of
different ways not all of which are alive to the relationship between anti-Nazi resist-
ance and the dynamic opposition to colonial power that succeeded it. In conclusion,
the cosmopolitan and humanist sensibilities articulated by some of the Nazis' colonial
prisoners of war are put forward as a resource for contemporary thinking about 'race',
difference and multi-culture.

Keywords: nationalism; black intellectuals; fascism; Frantz Fanon; Jean Amtry.

This is an uncomfortable experience for me. T h e genre requires that I use the
word 'I' more than I would normally want to do. Fortunately, it is one rare and
special occasion on which I do not have to keep my discomfort to myself. This
discomfort turns out to be a complex thing. It has been formed, in part at least,
by seeing Britain's institutions of higher learning being destroyed and devalued
since 1978 when my own post-graduate work - it was not called training in those
days - began. Believing that education is a good in itself, something which just
cannot be translated into the terms of economic rationality, is now a perversely
conservative position for a dissident to hold. T h e desire to celebrate on nights
like these should not lead us to overlook the problems we share as scholars and
as academics but more profoundly as political intellectuals with utopian

Paul Gilroy, Profssor of Sociology and Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths College, University of
London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW

Copyright 0Paul Gilroy 1999 0308-5147

184 Economy and Society

aspirations that are patently out of season. Of course, we care about our 'cus-
tomers', the students - tired, ill-prepared and under-resourced though they are
- but we also care about the world of which they are but one part. There are
other, in a sense less immediate but no less important, issues to contend with,
things that resist the awful jargon of targets, budgets, missions and monitoring
that claims so much of our precious time and saps our dwindling energy.
I'd like to think that this might also be a variety of discomfort shaped by a
good sense of how little what we do matters in the wider scheme of things, by a
realistic understanding of how insignificant and immaterial most of our efforts
are doomed to be.
The gulf between work and the world yawns at the best of times but it can be
especially wide for those of us who have maintained a commitment to writing
about the unspeakable evils perpetrated under the banners of 'race' and nation.
Apprehending the fissures between our is and our ought contributes a powerful,
lingering corrective, an antidote to the temptation of hubris. That gap is not the
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sort of problem I can pretend to solve, but I know that writing and teaching are
an important part of what makes it bearable. I want to lay that pseudo-insight
before you, in good faith, as something like the centre of my own understanding
of my work. It constitutes the context in which I would like you to consider what
I do: not, I should add, for any alibis it might afford me but, if you like, in miti-
gation for the failures, the incompleteness, the silences, evasions and provisional
formulations, the speculations, the inconsistencies and the errors that charac-
terize what I have published and which have brought me to this happy but
uncomfortable point. If this is a discomfort that can too easily become despair,
it is also a discomfort that must be transformed into a resource of hope if only
because it requires that we look outside the beleaguered walls of the university
in order to find the tools, the concepts, that we need in order to maintain our
serious work inside it.
An academic friend and colleague in the US is fond of saying that most
members of the professoriate have one or, if we are lucky, perhaps two worth-
while ideas in a lifetime of tenured scholarship. At best then, the bulk of what
we do involves the re-cycling and recoding of those rare insights, often in lan-
guage that is progressively more forbidding. I am not ready to succumb to that
diagnosis of our profession's ills, but I cannot deny that it passed through my
mind while searching around for what I would say tonight and trying to find
something to tie the threads of my presentation together. I took my difficulties
as a sign that I must still be waiting for my big idea to arrive. Then it dawned on
me that it might be possible to synthesize all my work and articulate it clearly as
a single, quite simple project. It is unified by my antipathy towards nationalism
in all its forms and a related concern with the responsibility of intellectuals to
act ethically, justly, when faced with the challenges that nationalisms represent.
That critical disposition, something I appreciate as the fortunate product of my
London cosmopolitan upbringing by two intellectuals, a migrant and a pacifist,
connects almost everything I have written. As I have become more conscious of
its power and value, it has given form to the later stages of my writing as it
Paul Gilroy: Race and culture in postmodernity 185

reaches its urgent conclusion in an exploration of the location of black politics

not in relation to England, Britain, the Americas or even the inter-cultural black
Atlantic, but in relation to Europe past and future. Reading Frantz Fanon's work
in my second term at Sussex University under the thoughtful guidance of the
historian Donald Wood, I remember being struck by his repeated calls for the
inauguration of a new humanism that was not blind to Europe's crimes. I do not
share Fanon's masculinism, his Hegelianism or his faith in psychoanalysis but it
is towards that end that I would like direct my remarks tonight.
Before I begin, I would also like to express my gratitude to all my teachers,
especially Stuart Hall and the late Gillian Rose; to my students here and at the
other places where I have taught, to Miriam Glucksmann, Barbara Harrison and
Stina Lyon for being prepared to give me my first chance at an academic job
when I was on the brink of giving up and to my colleagues in different sociology
departments who have wanted me around and given me space and support to
get on with my work, even though it is often remote from the doxa that defines
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the discipline and wins it institutional validity.

Long before I acquired an academic career, it had become commonplace for
sociologically minded thinkers analysing the development of political and econ-
omic institutions to employ the concept of modernity. At some cost, it is now an
indispensable part of professional shorthand. For those outside our masonic
circle, I should say that modernity is used loosely to refer to the confluence of
capitalism, industrialization and democracy, the emergence of modern govern-
ment, the appearance of the nation state and numerous other social and cultural
changes: in the registration of time, the experience of the metropolis, the con-
figuration of gendered public and private spheres and the quality of ethical life.
T h e development of territorial sovereignty and the cultural and communicative
apparatuses that correspond to it was also bound up with the struggle to con-
solidate the transparent, rational working of states and governmental powers to
which the term modernity refers. That combination promoted a new sense of
the relationship between place, community and what we are now able to call iden-
tity. It merits recognition as what I have come to call a distinctive ecology of
Though 'race' thinking certainly existed in earlier times, modernity trans-
formed the ways in which 'race' was understood and acted upon. I am broadly
sympathetic to the account which emerges from the rich work of scholars like
EricVoegelin, Martin Bernal and, most recently, the late Ivan Hannaford. From
quite different political positions, all argue in complementary ways, that 'race'
as we routinely comprehend it, simply did not exist until the nineteenth century.
Though it is presented as a permanent, inevitable and extra-historical principle
of differentiation, there is nothing natural or spontaneous about 'race' and the
differences it makes. It is a short step from de-naturing 'race' and appreciating
the ways that 'races' have been invented and imagined to seeing how modernity
catalysed a distinctive regime of truths, of discourses that I want to call raciol-
ogy. This was a novel way of understanding the anatomy, hierarchy and tempo-
rality. It made previously mute bodies communicate the truths of an irrevocable
186 Economy and Society

otherness that were being confirmed by new science and new semiotics just as
the struggle against racial slavery was being won. Though it is not acknowledged
as often as it should be, this close connection between 'race' and modernity can
be apprehended with special clarity if we allow our understanding of modernity
to travel, to move with the workings of the great imperial systems it battled to
control. Though they were centred on Europe, these systems, both exploitative
and communicative, extended far beyond Europe's changing geo-body. That
point need not be over-emphasized in this location: a stone's throw from the
Thames, 'the jugular vein of empire', and those distinctively modern technolo-
gies once represented by the operations of the Royal Dockyard in Deptford that
have been so beautifully recaptured for us in the luminous work of the activist
historian Peter Linebaugh.
Anthropology and geography are usually understood as the terminal points of
the cognitive aspects of this social and cultural revolution but its effects were not
confined to these new disciplinary perspectives. This large-scale historical
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change was given additional philosophical currency by the notion that charac-
ter and talent could be distinguished unevenly and had been distributed along
national and racial lines. These ideas are powerfully articulated in important
texts like Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View and 'On the
different races of man' that are too little read these days because they are deemed
to embarrass or even compromise the worthy democratic aspirations to which
the critical Kant also gave expression. It is noteworthy that, when it comes to
specifying what he calls 'the distinctiveness of races in general', Kant's critical
insight ebbs away: 'The reason for assuming the Negroes and Whites to be
fundamental races is self-evident' (1950: 19). Before we judge Kant too harshly
we should recall that the view of national characteristics of this country which
he derived from the seafarers of Koenigsberg has an interesting contemporary
For his own countrymen the Englishman establishes great benevolent insti-
tutions unheard of among all other peoples. But the foreigner who has been
driven to England's shores by fate, and has fallen into dire need, will be left
to die on the dunghill because he is not an Englishman, that is not a human
(Kant 1978: 230)
Kant is the first theorist rather than taxonomist of 'race'. His prolific writings
show how raciology requires that enlightenment and myth are intertwined.
Indeed, 'race' and nationality supply the logic and mechanism of their inter-
connection. This complex tale deserves to be reconstructed in a more detailed
manner than this occasion permits. It matters to me not only because it suggests
the integral significance of 'race' in the constitution of modernity, but also
because it points towards the ways that raciology became linked to statecraft and
modern political theory annexed by the exigencies of imperial power in its emer-
gent phase.
Richard Wright, the first black writer I found who used the word modernity
Paul Gilroy: Race and culture in postmodernity 187

as part of his critical commentary, the philosopher Berel Lang and, from con-
trasting political standpoints, Aim6 CCsaire and Hannah Arendt have con-
tributed much to my own grasp of these problems. All of them have something
important to say about the complex and delicate historical processes that culmi-
nated in the order of the nation that is also a state. This was a new pattern of
power that re-wrote the rules of political and ethical conduct according to novel
principles opposed to ancient notions of political rationality, self-possession and
Though these resources should not be disposed of lightly, my real point of
departure tonight is the heretical notion that modernity's new political codes
must also be acknowledged as having been deeply compromised by the racio-
logical drives that partly formed them and which endowed their exciting uni-
versal promises with a deadly exclusionary force. Perhaps, without sounding
overly defensive, I can identify Adorno's insightful remarks on the value of
heresy as a guiding thread for my own wanderings in the labyrinth of 'race' poli-
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tics. 'Through violations of the orthodoxy of thought, something in the object

becomes visible which it is orthodoxy's secret and objective aim to keep invisible'
(Adorno 1993: 23).
I hope it is not too obvious to point out that the ideal of humanity, too nar-
rowly defined, emerged from this revolution in thinking in filleted form. It was
not only something to be monopolized by Europeans, it could exist only in neatly
bounded, integral units. T h e national principle that rationalized this peculiar
notion was founded, as Claude Lefort has pointed out, on the idea of 'the people
as one' which would later put hinges on the doorway into totalitarian possi-
bilities. It denied 'that division is constitutive of society'. It accentuated the
interchangeability and disposability of the nation's members - its population. In
time, they would also be discovered to exist in the strict organic patterns of a
natural hierarchy that continued and extended the pre-modern typologies of
race thinking in the direction of a totalizing bio-social science.
By this point, as numerous scholars have observed, 'race' would be secure as
a central philosophical, economic and historical concept. In some national tra-
ditions, it summoned up a political ontology so fundamental that it could supply
unsentimental form and ruthless logic to the unfolding of history itself (Con-
nerton 1983: 110). History with a capital letter was reconceptualized in geo-
graphical and geo-political designs. Inferior, no longer merely different, races
were excluded from its compass. Their exclusion by means of racialized ration-
ality had the clearest implications for the folly of imagining human beings to be
an essentially undifferentiated collectivity. Hegel understood the implications of
this point when, in his geographical theory of history, he wrote these words: 'The
peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that
in reference to it we must give up the principle which naturally accompanies all
our ideas - the category of universality' (Hegel 1900: 93). There it is, his own
symptomatic apprehension that raciology cut the modern political imaginary to
the core. This primal ontology of 'race' would become so powerful that the
necessarily unnatural world of formal politics could only seem trivial and
188 Economy and Society

insubstantial by comparison. In The Black Atlantic (1993), I have tried to show

that it can be answered by a primal, counter-history of modernity that takes the
lives of slaves and their descendants as a privileged point of departure.
The racialization of the nation state and the consequent transformation of the
national community involved a comprehensive negation and repudiation of poli-
tics as it had been practised in the past. Of course, the effects of this were not
confined to the victims of raciology, who had, in any case, been deterred from
cultivating or exercising themselves in any polity. I want to emphasize that it had
important consequences for the beneficiaries of this new hierarchy as well. As
we saw with Kant earlier, their consciousness was, as Fanon might have put it,
amputated at this point. In many cases, they were offered an ideology of superi-
ority, the glamour of whiteness, or Aryan-ness for example, as a form of com-
pensation for the loss of that universal humanity. It bears repetition that the
elaboration of raciology was toxic to the workings of politics, of political culture.
Today, surveying its development affords a good means to observe the trans-
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formation of the nation into a new type of collective body, integrated spiritually
as well as politically.
T h e spiritual, mystical and irrational aspects that gain in power under the con-
stellation of raciology should not be underplayed in relation to the rational com-
ponents in its anthropological and geographical schemes. Especially when
closely bound to the workings of imperial nations, the concept of 'race' can be
appreciated as a successor to what Voegelin calls previous 'body ideas' - the
Greek polis and the idea of the mystical body of the Christian church. Right at
the summit of imperial power, the nation was invested with characteristics
associated with an equivalent type of bio-cultural kinship. T h e integrity of prop-
erly historic nations was imagined to derive from the activities of ancient sylvan
tribes (MacDougall 1982). T h e damage done by these ideas is visible from
Croatia to Canning Town.
I want to call the national and racial formations that resulted 'camps', a name
that emphasizes their hierarchical and regimented qualities rather than any
organic features. T h e organic dimension has been widely commented upon as
an antidote it supplied to mechanized modernity and its dehumanizing effects.
In some cases, the final stages in the transformation of the nation into an em-
battled camp coincides with the rise of fascism as a distinctive political and cul-
tural technology. However, I want to suggest that these developments have a
wider currency. They are not adequately grasped if they are reduced too swiftly
to an argument about the components of fascism as a generic phenomenon. I
propose that we see them instead as associated with the perils and possibilities
of modernity at a certain point in its unfolding. They communicate not only the
entrance of 'race' into the operations of modern political culture but also the
confluence of 'race' and nation in the service of authoritarian ends. It should be
immediately apparent that nation states have often comprised camps in this
straightforward descriptive sense. They are involutionary complexes in which
the utterly fantastic idea of transmuting heterogeneity into homogeneity can be
organized and amplified outwards and inwards.
Paul Gilroy: Race and culture in postmodernity 189

Especially where 'race' and nation become closely articulated, with each reg-
ister of discourse conferring important legitimation on the other, the national
principle can be recognized as forming an important bond between different and
even opposing nationalisms that can become trapped in an embrace of mutual
parasitism. The dominant varieties are bound to the subordinate by their shared
notions of what nationality entails. Think, for example, of the recent history of
Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha Party, the strange ultra-nationalist alliances con-
structed in the cause of Holocaust denial or, even closer to home, of the con-
nections made during the late 1980s between 'third positionists' in the British
National Front and the Nation of Islam in the USA.
What we can call camp thinking has distinctive rules and codes. However bit-
terly its practitioners may conflict with each other, their common approach to
the problems of belonging and collective solidarity is betrayed by shared patterns
for organizing thought about self and other, about the institution of collectivi-
ties to which one can be compelled to belong. That unexpected connection
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between sworn foes defines one axis of 'race' politics in the twentieth century.
What might be more properly termed the (anti)politics of 'race' is deeply impli-
cated in the institution of the camp and the emergence of national statecraft as
an alternative to more traditional conceptions of politics. Politics is thus recon-
ceptualized and reconstituted in a dualistic conflict between friends and
enemies. At worst, citizenship becomes soldiery alone and the political imagin-
ary is comprehensively militarized. The exaltation of war and spontaneity, the
cults of youth and violence, the explicitly anti-modern sacralization of the politi-
cal sphere, its colonization by the civil religion of nationalism: uniforms, flags
and mass spectacles, all underline that what I call camps are fundamentally mili-
taristic phenomena. These camps are armed and protected spaces that offer, at
best, only a temporary break in unforgiving motion towards the next demand-
ing phase of active conflict.
Marx and Engels appropriated this conception of solidarity in opposition to
nation states when, at the start of The Communist Manifesto, they described the
world they saw progressively divided 'into two great hostile camps . . . facing
each other' and aspired to break the allegiance of their universal class to its
national bourgeoisies (1973: 68). They believed that antagonistic social forces
more profound than those of the nation were constituted in this distinctive
arrangement. It would be foolish to deny that the internal organization of class
consciousness and class struggle can also foster what Alexander Kluge and Oscar
Negt, in their discussion of the history of the proletarian public sphere, call a
'camp mentality' (1993). Kluge's and Negt's concerns differ from mine in that
they are directed towards histories of class and party as sources of camp think-
ing. They contrast the oppositional but nonetheless antidemocratic moods fos-
tered in the sealed-off space of the class-based camp with the open vitality that
a public culture can accumulate even in the most beleaguered circumstances.
It should be obvious that camp solidarity can be constituted and fortified
around dimensions of division, apart from class, especially when the resources
of communicative technology - print, radio, film and now digital media -
190 Economy and Society

mediate solidarity-building. However, the camp mentalities constituted by

appeals to 'race', nation and ethnic difference, by the lore of blood, bodies and
fantasies of absolute cultural identity, have some distinctive qualities. They
revive a simple, pre-bourgeois homology between the state and the body and gain
great authority through appeals to the ideal of purity which is accorded an
inflated value. Their bio-political potency immediately raises questions of pro-
phylaxis and hygiene: 'as if the [social] body had to assure itself of its own iden-
tity by expelling waste matter' (Lefort 1986: 298). They demand the regulation
of fertility as readily as they command the labour power of affiliates. Where the
nation is a kin group supposedly composed of symmetrical and interchangeable
family groups, the bodies of women are the favoured testing grounds for the
principles of obligation, deference and duty that the camp demands. The debates
about immigration and nationality that dominated British racial politics until
quite recently have regularly presented the illegitimate presence of blacks as an
invasion. They could also be used to illustrate each of these unsavoury features.
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The camp mentality is also betrayed by its crude theories of culture and defined
by the aspirations towards homogeneity, purity and unanimity that it nurtures.
These words from James Callaghan's Home Office bi-centenary lecture from
1982 have stayed in my mind since I first encountered them while writing There
Ain't No Black: 'whatever their politics, Home Secretaries sprang from the same
culture, a culture it was their duty to preserve if the country was to remain a good
place to live in' (Gilroy 1987). Inside the fortifications of the national camp,
culture is required to assume an artificial texture and an impossibly even consis-
tency. Encampment puts an end to any sense of its development. Culture as
process is arrested. Petrified and sterile, it is impoverished by a national obligation
not to change but to recycle the past in essentially unmodified form.
In his unwholesome nineteenth-century raciological enquiries into the
meaning of nationality, Ernst Renan argued that there was an active contradic-
tion between the demands of nation building and those of historical study. The
nation and its new temporal order involved, for him, socialized forms of forget-
ting and historical error. These can be identified as further symptoms of the
camp mentality. An orchestrated and enforced amnesia supplies the climate in
which the national camp's principles of belonging and solidarity become attract-
ive and powerful.
The idea of diaspora becomes significant here. I have used it to conjure up an
altogether different cultural ecology. It introduces the possibility of an historical
and experiential rift between the location of residence and the location of belong-
ing. Diaspora demands the recognition of interculture. The complex and
ambivalent identifications it promotes exist outside and sometimes in opposition
to the political forms and codes of modern citizenship in its debased, camp form.
The national encampment has regularly been presented as the institutional
means to terminate diaspora dispersal. At one end of the communicative circuit
this is to be accomplished by the assimilation of those who are out of place. At
the other, a similar outcome is realized through the prospect of building a bigger
and better camp in the place of origin. The fundamental equilibrium of natural
Paul Gzlroy: Race and culture in postmodernity 191

nationality and civil society can thus be restored. In both options, it is the oper-
ation of an encamped nation-state that brings diaspora time to an end. Diaspora
yearning and ambivalence are transformed into a simple unambiguous exile once
the possibility of easy reconciliation with either the place of sojourn or the place
of origin exists.
The national camp also represents the negation of diaspora because the latter
places a premium on commemorative work. In diaspora culture has to be
remembered and remade. Its determining powers cannot just be assumed to
govern the reproduction of monolithic identity. The diaspora opposes the camp
where it becomes comfortable in the in-between locations that camp thinking
deprives of any significance.
For the members of the ethnic, national or racial camp, chronic conflict, a war
in the background, latent as well as manifest hostility sanction some stern pat-
terns of discipline, authority and deference. The camp operates under martial
rules. Even if its ideologues speak the language of organic wholeness, it is stub-
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bornly a place of mechanical solidarity.As it moves towards the totalitarian con-

dition of permanent emergency, the camp is overdetermined by the terrifying
sense that anything is possible.
Deliberately adopting a position between camps of this sort is not a sign of
indecision or equivocation. It is a timely choice and it can, as I hope the diaspora
example makes clear, be a positive if limited gesture against the patterns of auth-
ority, government and conflict that characterize raciological modernity's
geometry of power. It can also yield richer theoretical understanding of culture
as a travelling phenomenon.
Of course, occupying a space between camps means also that you are in
danger of getting hostility from both sides, of being caught in the pincers of
camp thinking. Responding to this perilous predicament involves re-thinking
the practice of politics. We are immediately required to move outside the frus-
tratingly simple binary categories we have inherited: left and right, racist and
anti-racist. We need a political analysis that is alive to the fluidity and contin-
gency of a situation that seems to lack precedents. The ultra-nationalists huddle
together in cyberspace. The Daily Mail and the Prime Minister loudly join the
family of Stephen Lawrence in the pursuit of justice. Diane Abbott MP acts the
part of Alf Garnett in a local struggle against foreign nurses. Black and white
boys in East London band together in the name of locality against alien Ben-
galis. We could say, in the interests of simplicity, that this is a political climate
in which the prefix in words like postmodernity and post-traditional has begun
to assert its presence. Whether we fasten on to the idea of postmodernity as
something more than a provisional element in the enumeration of these novel-
ties cannot be settled here, but the debate which that question raises is still
If we are going to be able to operate in these new circumstances, it helps to
approach the problem of camps from another angle. We must understand them
not only as a means to comprehend the interrelation of space, identity and power
with modern raciology but as sociological and historical features of a period in
192 Economy and Society

which that same raciology has constituted the most profound challenge to the
deepest values of Occidental modernity.
I have already identified camps as locations in which particular versions of
solidarity, belonging, kinship and identity have been devised, practised and
policed. Now I want to turn away from the camp as a metaphor for the modern
pathologies of 'race' and nation and move towards a brief reflection upon actu-
ally existing camps. These were and are concrete institutions of radical evil,
useless suffering and modern misery rather than odious if somehow routine
expressions of the bad habits of power. To identify a connection between these
different kinds of camp - in effect, to specify links between normal racism and
nationalism and the exceptional state represented by genocidal fascisms - may
be regarded as oversimple, even far-fetched. In recent British history, national-
ism has sometimes been part of the best populist responses to menacing neo-
fascisms that have been exposed as alien and unpatriotic. I endeavoured to
answer arguments of that sort in There Azn't No Black in the UnzonJack.
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Tonight, I want to invoke a somewhat different case for that fateful linkage.
This case is supported by the profane and bewildering tangles of recent post-
colonial and post-imperial history. It was a case that, as the Martiniquean sur-
realist poet, philosopher and statesman Aim6 CCsaire has made clear, went to the
bottom of the relationship between modern civilization and modern barbarism.
The general message is certainly confirmed in the history of Rwanda where, in
conjunction with modern cultural technologies and the civilizing mission of col-
onial power, raciology hardened pre-colonial conflicts into fully fledged neo-
colonial ethnic absolutism. There too the emergence of camp thinking, camp
nationality and encamped ethnicity - the key features of the first kind of camp
- have been implicated in the institution of camps of the second variety: first,
genocidal death camps and then, bewilderingly, refugee camps in which yester-
day's killers become today's victims and reach out to us to seek aid and com-
Understanding these connections entails more than seeing these camps as
epiphanies of catastrophic modernity and focusing on the colonial precedents
for the genocidal killing that has happened within Europe. It necessitates recog-
nizing our own predicament, caught not only between metaphorical camps but
amid the uncertainties and anxieties that real camps both feed on and create. We
are not inmates but their testimony calls out to us and we must answer it. Their
moral claims might provide important reorientation in a world to which tra-
ditional moralities now say next to nothing. This prospect also means being alive
to the camps out there now and the camps around the corner, the camps that are
being prepared. With his own version of misanthropic humanism in mind,
Zygmunt Bauman has suggested that our unstable time could, one day, be
remembered as the Age of Camps. Camps are confirmation of the fact that
cruelty has itself been modernized, sundered even from outmoded modern
morality. Bauman, for whom a reconfigured humanism is neither explicitly post-
anthropological nor post-colonial, makes no secret of his Europe-centredness.
He has Auschwitz and the Gulag in mind rather than Kigali and Kisangani. I
Paul Gilroy: Race and culture in postmodernity 193

think that weakens his case but there is something valuable and eminently trans-
latable in his polemical observation, especially if it does not prompt simplistic
speculation about some easily accessible essence of modernity. In moving
towards a different goal, I want to acknowledge the grave dangers that are
involved in instrumentalizing extremity. However, I am going to set those impor-
tant inhibitions cautiously aside in pursuit of a different role for the critical intel-
lectual that is premised upon the way that the camps rupture modernity and
constitute significant points of entry into an ethical and cultural climate associ-
ated with the repudiation of its more extravagant though nonetheless colour-
coded promises. Adorno's acute sense of the unhappy obligations that these novel
circumstances placed upon the committed artist have a wider applicability and
should be studied carefully by the committed academic lest 'political reality is
sold short for the sake of political commitment; that decreases the political
impact as well' (Adorno 1992: 88-9).
I want to take the risk of identifying those camps: refugee camps, labour
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camps, punishment camps, concentration camps, even death camps, as provid-

ing opportunities for moral and political reflection in the careful sense described
by the philosopher Stuart Hampshire who employs an explicit consideration of
Nazism as a means to refine his understanding of justice (Hampshire 1989:
66-72). Other writers, particularly the German sociologist of the concentration
camps Wolfgang Sofsky and the Ugandan political philosopher Mahmood
Mamdani who adapted the concept of fascism in his analysis of the Amin regime,
have guided and inspired me.
To link together the very different historical examples to which this diverse
body of work is addressed is already to have transgressed against the prescrip-
tive uniqueness invoked to protect the special status of the Nazi genocide.
Without being drawn deeply into the question of what, if anything, constitutes
a common denominator at an experiential level, we can observe that the camp
and its extreme wrongs have been strongly associated with the demand for justice
and with important attempts to clarify the normal moral and historical order of
modernity where the state of emergency has become an everyday reality. A con-
dition of social death is common to inmates in regimes of unfreedom, coercion
and systematic brutality. If genocide is not already under way, modern raciolo-
gies bring it closer and promote it as a rational solution. It is 'race', to borrow
some terms from Primo Levi, which explains how the outrage motive triumphs
over modernity's signature: the profit motive. The death factory is not itself a
camp - its inmates are not alive long enough. But camps gain something from
their proximity to the death factory. Tadeusz Borowski's work springs to mind
as our most vivid exploration of the articulation of the camp and the death
factory. We can proceed heuristically by arguing that the camp is not always a
death factory though it can easily become one and that the death factory is one
possible variation on the patterns of rational administration that the camp initial-
izes. The procedures of the death factory might also be thought of as partially
derivative of the camps that preceded them in Europe and outside it. The defin-
itive statement of this argument is found, of course, in Cesaire's angry and
194 Economy and Society

moving indictment of the West's inability to live a humanism 'made to the

measure of the world' in his Discourse on Colonialism.
I have already hinted that the second type of camp is especially important to
me because it has provided some stern tests for the critical intellectual. Jean
AmCry, Primo Levi's most profound, though not his most unsettling, interlocu-
tor - that title is reserved for Borowski - describes the shock of discovering the
redundancy of his own egg-head learning in the camp where, without technical
or practical skills and religious certainties, intellectuals were less well equipped
and more vulnerable than many of their fellows.
Not only was rational-analytic thinking in the camp and, particularly in
Auschwitz of no help, but it led straight into a tragic dialectic of self-destruc-
tion. . . . First of all the intellectual did not so easily acknowledge the unimag-
inable conditions as a given fact as did the nonintellectual. Long practice in
questioning the phenomena of everyday reality prevented him from simply
adjusting to the realities of the camp, because these stood in all-too-sharp a
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contrast to everything that he had regarded until then as possible and humanly
(AmCry 1980: 10)
It is interesting too that AmCry was driven to discover the power of even
limited counter-violence in the restoration of the human dignity of which he had
been deprived. He points to another of those resonant connections which pro-
duces hesitation, shuffling and embarrassed silences. In these circumstances, it
should be noted, his body did not spontaneously manifest the absolute truths of
its 'racial' otherness. His words are all the more notable because they make no
concessions to the veracity of racial difference coded into the body by nature
rather than human endeavour:
Painfully beaten, I was satisfied with myself But not, as one might think, for
reasons of courage and honor, but only because I had grasped well that there
are situations in life in which our body is our entire self and our entire fate. I
was my body and nothing else: in hunger, in the blow that I suffered, in the
blow that I dealt. My body, debilitated and crusted with filth, was my calamity.
My body, when it tensed to strike, was my physical and metaphysical dignity.
In situations like mine, physical violence is the sole means for restoring a dis-
jointed personality. In the punch I was myself - for myself and for my oppo-
nent. What I later read in Frantz Fanon's Les damnk de la terre, in a theoretical
analysis of the behaviour of colonised peoples, I anticipated back then when
I gave concrete form to my dignity by punching a human face. To be a Jew
meant the acceptance of the death sentence imposed by the world as a world
verdict. To flee before it by withdrawing into oneself would have been nothing
but a disgrace, whereas acceptance was simultaneously the physical revolt
against it. I became a person not by subjectively appealing to my abstract
humanity but by discovering myself within the given social reality as a
rebelling Jew and by realising myself as one.
(AmCry 1980: 90-1)
Paul Gilroy: Race and culture in postmodernity 195

His extraordinary account of his experiences in Auschwitz Monowitz and a

number of other camps might be provocatively placed alongside the reflections
of Lkopold Sedar Senghor. The Senegalese poet, philosopher statesman and
influential theorist of Negritude was confined in the prison camp Frontstalag
230 with other colonial troops drawn from very different social backgrounds
from his own elite formation. Saved from a racist massacre that took the lives of
his fellow colonials by the intervention of a French officer, Senghor sought
comfort in the songs, poems and stories of his fellow Africans but also in the
classic works of European philosophy and literature. This did not redeem the
camp, but it does help him to reconstitute his sense of humanity out of abso-
lutism's reach but still under its nose. He describes how his reading - particu-
larly of Goethe - triggered a 'veritable conversion' that enabled him to live with
the complex transcultural patterns of his own hybrid mentality and to see that
inter-mixture as something more than the loss and betrayal we are always told it
must be. His comprehension of the relationship between the particular and the
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universal was thus transformed along with his understanding of the project
Negritude itself In one essay, 'Goethe's message to the new Negroes', he
describes how, standing at the camp's barbed wire, he arrived at these important
insights under the uncomprehending gaze of a Nazi sentinel:
I had been in the camp for 'colonial' prisoners of war for one year. . . . My
progress in German had at last enabled me to read Goethe's poetry in the orig-
inal. . . .The defeat of France and of the West in 1940 had, at first, stupefied
black intellectuals. We soon awoke under the sting of the catastrophe naked
and sober. . . . It is thus, I thought close to the barbed wire of the camp, that
our most incarnate voice, our most Negro works would be at the same time
our most human . . . and the Nazi sentry looked me up and down with an
imbecilic air. And I smiled at him, and he didn't understand.
Strange meeting, significant lesson.
(Senghor 1964: 84-6, my translation)
These are only tiny examples. Many more could be drawn from the brave and
strange lives of other, perhaps lesser known, black witnesses to European bar-
barity. Their complex consciousness of the dangers of camp thinking and good
understanding of the anti-toxins that can be discovered and celebrated in cross-
ing cultures provide important resources which today's post-colonial peoples
will require if we are to weather the storms that lie ahead as we leave the century
of the colour line. T h e need to find responses to globalization has stimulated
some new and even more desperate varieties of camp thinking.
One of the many important things that examples drawn from the generation
that faced European fascism can communicate today is an invitation to contem-
plate the precarious nature of our own political environments. Reflecting on the
brutal context in which these testimonies were first uttered and thinking about
the institutional patterns that fitted around them makes it easier to grasp that we
inhabit a precious but nonetheless beleaguered niche in what used to be, but is
no longer, a state of emergency. Modernity's limited triumphs are besieged. As
196 Economy and Society

democracy, as creativity and as cosmopolitan hope, they are pitted against a

moribund system of formal politics and its numbing representational codes;
against the corrosive values of economic rationality and the abjection of post-
industrial urban life. T h e persistence of fascism and the widespread mimicry of
its styles is only the most alarming sign that the best of modernity is assailed
from all sides by political movements and technological forces that work towards
the erasure of ethical considerations and the deadening of aesthetic sensibilities.
T h e resurgent power of racist and racializing language, of raciology in its new
genomic form, is a strong link between the perils of our own time and the endur-
ing effects of the past horrors that continue to haunt us in Europe.
Modernity is on trial and fascism is on hold. We must debate the value of the
term postmodernity as an interpretative device turned towards these novel con-
ditions. However that problem is resolved, the camp experiences I have recov-
ered and briefly commemorated are addressed to it, if only because they promote
a reflexive, untrusting perspective towards the truth claims made by modernity's
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complacent advocates as well as its sworn foes and their latter-day inheritors. We
must claim that legacy now. It helps to appreciate that the achievements of mod-
ernity are in continual jeopardy but it might be even more important to be able
to welcome their incomplete and suspended state as a further source of insight
and moral inspiration. Perhaps it is possible to recognize in that vulnerable con-
dition a new sense of moral agency and the stirrings of an appropriate response
to the wrongs that raciology has sanctioned in the 'age of camps'?


This is the text of my inaugural lecture delivered at Goldsmiths College, University of

London. on 4 March 1997.


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