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Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society


Re fe re n c e s

Stern, D. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the

Infant. New York: Basic Books.

Empson, W. (1966). Seven Types of Ambiguity.

New York: New Directions Publishing.
Huizinga, J. (1955, 1971). Homo Ludens: A Study
of the Play Element in Culture. Boston:
Beacon Press.
Kris, E. (1952, 2000). Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. Madison, CO: International
Universities Press.

Murray M. Schwartz
Emerson College,
120 Boylston Street, Boston,
MA 02116, USA.

Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (2008) 13, 112115. doi:10.1057/palgrave.pcs.2100152

Postcolonial Melancholia
Paul Gilroy
Columbia University Press, New York, 2006,
Cover Price: $18.95 (paperback)
ISBN: 0-231-13455-X
The central goal of Paul Gilroys Postcolonial
Melancholia originally delivered in May
2002 as the Wellek Library Lectures in
Critical Theory at the University of California, Irvine is to mount an impassioned
defense of the possibilities of multiculturalism. In a post-9/11 world, in which security
concerns too often justify xenophobia and in
which political conflicts are rewritten as part
of the inevitable clash between incommensurate cultures, such a project is more important
than ever. As he has in earlier works (Aint No
Black in the Union Jack, The Black Atlantic,
and Against Race), Gilroy couples his appreciation of more fluid forms of identity and
cultural expression with a powerful critique
of patterns of thinking that remain, even if
unintentionally, committed to essentialized
views of racial difference.
The first section of Gilroys book, The
Planet, traces the roots of our contemporary
situation to the European colonial past.

Fundamental to Gilroys analysis in this

section is his argument that the political
practices of the modern nation-state have
been forged out of the investments in the
idea of racial hierarchy that characterized
the colonial era (p 44). If todays politics are
more likely to be organized around ideas of
culture, rather than biology, the absolutism
of these posited differences nonetheless
demonstrates a continued if unacknowledged connection to racist patterns of
thinking. We need, Gilroy argues, to confront this historical legacy more directly
in order to diffuse the power it still holds
over our ideas of nation, race, culture, and
identity. Although he is attuned to the
damage wrought in the name of race, he is
equally insistent that race not be reified. If
race is a product of racism rather than its
cause, then a careful consideration of our
colonial past should lead us away from race
altogether (p 9). Gilroy turns to anticolonial
writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon,
and George Orwell and even Montesquieu
as examples of conscious cosmopolitan
thinking that demonstrate the crucial ability
to engage in a principled and methodical
cultivation of a degree of estrangement from
ones own culture and history (p 67).
Book Reviews

Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society


While the first section is global in scope,

the books second section, Albion, turns to
the local. Gilroy focuses on contemporary
Britain, suggesting that the nations contentious attitude toward its immigrant population and its desire to reinvent an imagined
homogenous past is a form of postcolonial
melancholia in which the seeming certainties
of race are used to quell anxieties about the
loss of national identity. Gilroy borrows his
notion of melancholia as a form of social
pathology from Alexander and Margarete
Mitscherlichs classic work The Inability to
Mourn (1975), which argued that post-war
Germany was unable to work through the
trauma caused by the terrible crimes undertaken during the National Socialist era.
Projecting its national guilt onto Hitler and
other prominent Nazi leaders, German society engaged in a form of collective denial
that prevented it from understanding and
accepting responsibility for its past. Likewise, Gilroy argues, Britain is currently
suffering from a melancholic condition
caused by the denial of its violent, colonial
past. Rather than deflecting guilt onto the
body of a fallen sovereign, however, it is
the bodies of Britains immigrants that focus
the anxieties associated with the nations
imperial past. Britains melancholic identity
is constructed in opposition to the intrusive
presence of the incoming strangers who,
trapped inside our perverse local logic of
race, nation, and ethnic absolutism not only
represent the vanished empire but also refer
consciousness to the unacknowledged pain
of its loss and the unsettling shame of its
bloody management (p 101). Yet if Britain
provides Gilroys central example of postcolonial melancholia (a condition he suggests
might also characterize other postimperial
European nations), it also provides him with
numerous instances of an ordinary multiE r i c Wo l f e

culturalism that evades this pathology. The

word Gilroy uses to describe this is conviviality, which he defines as the processes
of cohabitation and interaction that have
made multiculture an ordinary feature of
social life in Britains urban areas and
postcolonial cities elsewhere (p xv). Gilroy
is attracted to the notion of conviviality
because it introduces a measure of distance
from the pivotal term identity (p xv).
Rather than celebrating multiculturalism as
the interaction between groups that are
securely defined by specific racial or cultural
identities, conviviality makes a nonsense of
closed, fixed, and reified identity and turns
attention toward the always unpredictable
mechanisms of identification (p xv). Not
surprisingly, then, Gilroy finds an avatar
of this ludic, cosmopolitan energy in the
performances of British comedian Sacha
Baron Cohen as the shape-shifting Ali G
(p 132). Gilroy argues that criticisms of
Ali Gs racially ambiguous gangsta character from both sides of the political spectrum
exemplify anxiety about what he was and
a radical uncertainty about what he might
be (pp 134135). In contrast, Gilroy praises
Ali Gs ability to confound the racial and
ethnic categories that held contemporary
Britain stable (p 135). Like the cosmopolitan thinkers Gilroy praises in the first section
of the book, the satiric effect of Ali Gs
performances estranges viewers from their
entrenched notions of Britain and opens up
different ways of imagining identities and
Despite the prominence given to
the notion of postcolonial melancholia,
Gilroys book finally represents something
of a missed encounter with the possibilities
offered by psychoanalytic theory. Gilroy ably
adapts the arguments of the Mitscherlichs to
his analysis of contemporary British culture,

Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society


but as readers of Psychoanalysis, Culture,

and Society will know a number of other
recent theorists have also found that the
notion of melancholia is a useful way to
examine complex issues of identity, race, and
even to forge a potentially transgressive
social politics: for example, just to name a
few, Judith Butler, Anne Anlin Cheng, and
the essays collected by David L. Eng and
David Kazanjian in Loss. Rather than simply
opposing the normality of mourning to the
pathology of melancholia, however, many
of these theorists reread Freud closely to
argue, as does Judith Butler, that any form of
identification and therefore identity itself
is melancholic in structure (1997). Apart
from the seeming difference in interpretive
emphasis, many of these theorists arguments
are entirely consistent with Gilroys project.
Eng and Kazanjian, for example, advocate a
similar engagement with the traumas of
history (2003), arguing that melancholias
continued and open relation to the past
finally allows us to gain new perspectives
on and new understandings of lost objects
(p 4). And all of these writers demonstrate a
nuanced appreciation of, to quote Gilroy
again, the mechanisms of identification.
Engaging more fully with their thinking

about the melancholic structures of identity

would only deepen Gilroys analysis.

Re fe r e n ce s
Butler, J. (1997). The Psychic Life of Power.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Cheng, A. (2001). The Melancholy of Race:
Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief.
New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Eng, D. and Kazanjian, D. (2003). Loss: The
Politics of Mourning. Berkeley, CA: University
of California Press.
Gilroy, P. (1991). There Aint No Black in the
Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and
Nation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gilroy, P. (1993). The Black Atlantic, Modernity
and Double-Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Gilroy, P. (2000). Against Race: Imagining Political
Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge:
Belknap, Harvard University Press.
Mitscherlich, A. and Mitscherlich, M. (1975). The
Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective
Behavior. Paczek, B.R. (trans.) New York:
Grove Press (Original work published 1967).

Eric Wolfe
Department of English, Merrifield Hall,
Room 110, 276 Centennial Drive, Stop
7209, Grand Forks, ND 58202-7209, USA

Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (2008) 13, 115117. doi:10.1057/palgrave.pcs.2100154

Book Reviews