Culture, politics and intellectual practice through Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic”

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This post is part of the series Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. Click here to read the first post of the series and here to read the second.

The book “The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness” written by Paul Gilroy is extremely insightful to understand music in relationship to alterity and politics. Even though scholars citing Gilroy are usually studying “black culture”, it is possible to find in his text ideas that can help anyone working with cultural analysis. In my case I’m studying carioca funk music, an electronic music produced in Brazil, initially in Rio de Janeiro, inspired by the beats of Miami bass. Carioca funk music certainly derives from black music, this link is easy to verify since the parties that preceded the bailes of carioca funk were part of a broader movement called “Black Rio”. One of the most important debates around funk is whether it represents the supposedly “miscegenation” of Brazilian society or black culture. Even though this question cannot be properly answered in here, I believe Gilroy’s book provide important tools in order to tackle the issue. I will emphasize in this text three different lessons that I believe are possible to be extracted from Gilroy’s books. Because my main field of concern as a researcher is music, this dimension is emphasized throughout the text. However, culture is understood here as a web weaved by different kinds of performances, music is only one of these different ways of acting.

 Dj Dollores singing in Brasil Central Station (Rio de Janeiro)

Dj Dollores singing in Brasil Central Station (Rio de Janeiro – Brazil)

The third chapter of the book Black Atlantic introduce some very important guidelines to research into culture, specially concerning the intersection between politics and scientific knowledge. The first lesson has to do with the argument put forward by Gilroy that music “can be used to challenge language and writing as preeminent expressions of human consciousness.” Black music provides a fruitful context to discuss politics beyond the so-called “Habermasian dialogue,” based on a clear and rational exchange of ideas seeking the solution of problems. More than providing instrumental tools to politics, even though this is also a possibility, music provides an environment where politics and sociality are performed and enacted. For Gilroy, music, dances, and different performances crossing the Atlantic, and associated to blackness, are at the same time cultural and political statements. One of the main arguments in the book “The Black Atlantic” is related to the idea of a “double consciousness” of black expressions encompassing rationalistic and pre-modern assumptions. Therefore, in order to understand this situation of ambiguity, it is indispensable to consider more than discursive elements. Otherwise, there is the risk of perpetuating ethnocentric prejudices. By departing from exclusively textual and discursive analysis, the attention of the researcher should turn to more dramaturgical dimensions, such as, gestures, dances, and clothing.

Mc Leonardo singing in Cúpula dos Povos (Rio de Janeiro - Brazil)

Mc Leonardo singing in Cúpula dos Povos (Rio de Janeiro – Brazil)

The second important lesson to be considered in this post is the emphasis on the interstices and movements across boundaries. This is actually one of the main arguments in the book, as the title “The Black Atlantic” suggests. Gilroy’s attention is directed to the Atlantic Ocean and the middle passage, a name for the routes of slave trade from the continent of Africa to the Americas.  However, the notion of boundaries is not referring exclusively to geographical boundaries, but to cultural boundaries as well. This attention on movements highlights the importance of a relational sociology. But, what does it mean a relational approach? It means shedding light on exchanges, appropriations, and feedbacks. It is a simple assumption: to understand social groups we should start by looking on how they become what they are, and not by presupposing their existence. The third “lesson” to be highlighted from the third chapter of the book “The Black Atlantic” regards the relationship between intellectuals and art. The “invented traditions” of black expressions considered by Gilroy are supported by what he calls a “caste” of “organic intellectuals”. Therefore, to understand these expressions, the almost automatic association of literacy and intellectuality should be discarded. Intellectuals might possess vast amounts of knowledge and also different ways of expressing this knowledge. Gilroy points to the existence of black intellectuals that escape the classification within the two roles identified by Bauman: the legislator and the interpreter. Therefore, this intellectual is not acting as a legislator, trying to impose a single truth, but he is also not only compromised with mediation and translation. This intellectual is considered by Gilroy the keeper of a certain body of knowledge.

Children dancing Funk at Cantagalo (Rio de Janeiro -Brazil)

Children dancing Funk at Cantagalo (Rio de Janeiro -Brazil)

Those intellectuals may also help to create and reinforce important imaginaries for the constitution of national cohesion. Therefore, understanding nation’s constitution almost exclusively through “print culture”, as in Anderson’s book “Imagined Communities”, is a very partial account. The artists and intellectuals considered by Gilroy are political beings, but not necessarily and exclusively through spoken, sung or written words.  Even though there is not enough space to explore all the implications of Gilroy’s work in integrating aesthetics, politics and culture, I hope this text accomplished at least to synthesize some of his ideas that helped me a lot to think about my academic practices. The ideas being presented here are also a path to escape from the simplistic question of whether funk represents more “miscegenation” or blackness. Both options bring assumptions that cannot be ignored. First of all, “miscegenation” is already a racial classification, and I do not believe it is accurate to talk about “races” being mixed through culture. However, to say that funk represents blackness as a substantive identity is not possible as well. In order to understand funk’s connections with black culture it is crucial to bring funk’s history to the fore. But, it is also indispensable to keep track of cultural practices and exchanges that maintain repertoires and performances constructing blackness. page-divider brunoBruno Muniz is a social scientist currently doing a PhD in Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He studies funk movement and collaborations set by funkeiros with various actors of civil society and the state. In his spare time, Muniz also enjoys making music. His last musical project was called Laranja Dub, marked by the mixture of dub, reggae and rock. To listen to Laranja Dub click here.



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