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Transcript: In conversation with Gail Lewis


Paul Gilroy: Hello, I'm Paul Gilroy, I'm the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at UCL. And this morning I'm gonna be talking to Gail Lewis, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at LSE Gender Institute; erstwhile Head of Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck College; a psychotherapist; insurgent intellectual. Gail was a member of the Brixton Black Women's Group years ago; founder member of OWAAD also; and she's written a lot on feminism, on questions of intersectionality, on the history of welfare and the welfare state, and of racialised and gendered experience, I suppose we could say, in the meeting space- the clearing that she's made where black feminist, psychoanalytic, sociological- political sociological approaches to subjectivity, history and culture enter into some fruitful dialogue. I know Gail's also an Arsenal fan, previously of the 'Wenger Out' persuasion, very loudly. You and I share a certain north London formation, it's hard to know where to begin a conversation really; but how do you see the situation we're in? Let's deal with that first of all. Generationally, I know the importance of a generational dialogue is more than ever an urgent thing and we have to do a lot of translation work, we have to cultivate a certain kind of patience with each other across the generational lines. So, I'm wondering how you're looking at this extraordinary and, in many ways, bleak situation that we're in? Do you have hope- resources of hope that you can draw upon?
 
Gail Lewis: Hi Paul, it's really good to be in conversation with you; and, actually, it's quite soothing actually at this time too - a kind of part of the whole healing process, because I think these times are so- I'm confounded in a way. I'm confounded by these times, because it feels as though there is both a despair- in me at least- a despair; and the despair that was particularly inaugurated in a loud version by the Brexit vote, and all then that followed in the move to 'we are leaving and how we're leaving'; and what that unleashed in terms of legitimisations around different forms of racisms, the loudness of those racisms just on the street, the ways in which obviously they always fold into state forms of violence against racialised populations. So, there was all that that then kind of got really accentuated by the deaths related to Covid, who seemed to be getting it, and of course that itself was a measure of Britain's racial formation; who are in those locations? Whether they are employment locations or living conditions because of Britain's racial formation, which is always denied, which drives us crazy- it's always denied and yet here it is. So there was that and then there was obviously the sadistic murder of George Floyd; the way in which you could see the sadistic pleasure on that policeman's face in the news; as he would slightly bounce up and down on that man's neck, and the awfulness of that; but how that just triggers for us all the deaths in custody here too. And often times it's in mental health services that the deaths happen here. Obviously they happen at the edge in terms of policing, but it's also mental health- other forms of incarceration that are just hidden from view. So there's all that triggering, so the despair in me that arose from that completely paralleled by a fragile, fragile, fragile hope that- in two ways really; one was the mobilisations of young people across the globe, the ways in which the young people came out under the sign 'Black Lives Matter', and I'll say a bit more why I think that's such a different kind of slogan than the ones that we used to mobilise under. But there was that, and the way that that spread; but there was also the paradoxical virus itself, captured perhaps no more kind of clearly then in 'it makes you unable to breathe', and yet the skies were clean so we could breathe. And that paradox of what was revealed by this Covid thing, revealing the locations of power, but also power's fragility and ineptitude- it didn't know what to do; and if we could find the fault lines, maybe we could carve a way in to something- and not a once and for all of course- but something that might give us slightly stronger anchors for keeping- pulling down- the symbolic statues, the statues of power- the institutional practices of power, disrupting them a bit more. And that's how I felt for a long time with this complete swirl of how many have died today? Where have they died? Not just in this country; how terrible is this? What's gonna happen? And then, but look at the mobilisations, look at what's happening, look at what's being revealed and can't be hidden anymore. Can we seize the moment? Can we seize the time? So, I've been in this funny mix of them, funny mix of things. And generationally, it's funny because I have a kind of a- probably it's nothing unique to me- but thinking about the intergenerational needs to happen at least on two registers: there's the chronology, there's the fact that we are now the elders, and we've got young ones coming up. We've got young ones coming up who both repeat our mistakes, but do it differently too- they've got their own versions, so it's not just simply a return, it's a bit of a spiral, it's slightly in a different space; but who also seem to seek us out for learning, in a way that I don't think I did in my- I don't think, I don't know, perhaps it's some romanticisation of 'now I'm old I've got to find something that keeps me connected'; but there is a way in which I'm in conversations with young people, often doing different kinds of artistic creative practices- finding those as the locations, the forms, through which to articulate other versions of life.
 
Paul: Yeah, I think that's right, there is the possibility of that now. I think probably the technology feeds it to some extent, although I worry that a lot of them are so habituated to online life that they go searching for the past, they go searching for history, they go searching for wisdom in the computer. And of course, a lot of what's in there is inaccurate, and a lot of the things they need to know aren't in there. And I suppose our generation- what Linton calls the 'rebel generation', which I think is a good name actually, not overly romantic name, but a good name- I think we've been culpable even though it seems like we've done nothing else but try and tell the story; we obviously haven't told in the right ways or repeated it when it needs repetition or adjusted the volume sufficiently to break into their lives, but they do want that information- they don't want to be reinventing the wheel- well, not all of them do, some of them don't want to reinvent the wheel; some of them have been very- what's the word- impatient with the archive in a way; they think that 'I don't really need to know what the past is and the constraints that register around us'. They're not used to thinking within historical limits, they're not used to thinking over long phases of time; maybe in some ways that kind of perspective is more of a luxury, I don't know, I think it's just - in myself - to be living a bit longer and being less susceptible to the allure of instantaneity, the idea that things happen straight away. There's a kind of 'I don't want to live in a friction-free environment', and I don't anticipate that. But I know that we haven't done very well. When you go to funerals or look around- I can remember sitting next Stuart at John La Rose's funeral, and looking around the room and thinking who's in there and just thinking what are the historians of the future if we don't make an effort to open up our lives and histories, and archive things carefully and make the most of the opportunity that the digital technologies allow. And I don't know where that story starts for you; you've done a lot of experimental life writing, I guess we could call it if that's the right word- experimental life writing that's clearly informed by your psychoanalytic or psychosocial sensibilities to try and find different registers communicating and so on, which speak across the generational line in different ways. And I think that's a fantastic thing. I've been a bit reluctant to do anything like that for other sorts of reasons, and I think that's- why is that so important to me? That's one reason I wanted to talk to you about it because we need to find those other vehicles for writing and I did a conversation last week with George the Poet. He has a very interesting line about the importance of storytelling in this; the political failures that engulf us, turning around or pivoting on the inability to find narratives that are compelling effectively. And I'm sure that there's something to that too. Do you feel that your interest in the formation and the life of subjects in the psychic forms of suffering, that people experience routinely in a racialised world, that this has helped you to find new ways of telling that story?
 
Gail: Well, I don't know whether it's helped me to find new ways of telling the story; it's given me a way to tell stories that I feel I can tell, in a way that I feel has allowed me to escape the dryness, and actually the evacuation of persons from the sociological version of talking. It felt to me that the sociology I knew- and I did a sociology of social policies, so maybe there was something about that too- but there was a way in which in the end I'd sort of say 'and where are the people in this? Where are they? Whichever people they were, whether they were elites and people with power to implement policy, or whether they were the people who were the subjects of that policy; where are they? So, there was something about a need to try and capture aliveness. And I know there are all the complications about aliveness that we get from performance studies, and all that kind of stuff, but nevertheless, a felt-ness of lived realities, and the limits of that. And of course I'm not- I didn't have the capacity to write novels or poetry that could deliver in that form, but I found a voice through working through the space that opened for me in the gaps between these bodies of theoretical knowledge and knowledge production, and their individual conceptual architectures. And what that taught me, Paul, and it relates to this generational stuff, is I really- well I feel like I really came to understand that the concepts that we use, through which we express our political imaginations and hopes, limit us. They open up something, but they also limit us. So I could think about questions of subject position, say, from a kind of Foucauldian sociology; but the lived-ness, the underneath the radar-ness, of black lives, say, the ways in which we lived outside of our nominal categorisations, felt to me- and it's a paradox because psychoanalysis is completely implicated in all of the stuff as well- but because of its notion of the unconscious -i.e. an element that is unruly, that cannot be captured - allows me to go from subject position, whether its subjectivity, whether it's personhood, but it's something outside of the capture of discursive power and its institutionalisation. So, there's something about that and I learned that fundamentally, as well as being on the couch and having my breakdowns on the couch and re-emerging. But what that's helped me to see is to think about the intergenerational question as not just one about the linear lines of inheritance from- through the ages- one generation to the next in terms a chronology of age. But also, how we might be a generation of political imaginings, where age is nothing to do with it; it's how do we understand the struggle? How do we think we can get there? What's the animating concept? What's the vision? What's the hope? And in that then we can see that you and I might sit alongside 26-year-olds and be a generation, but we can bring along the field of experience to that conversation. And that's what I find there's a thirst for in the black, feminist, queer cohorts that I kind of connect with. And they give me life- let me tell you, they give me an injection of life. I mean, hey frustrate me sometimes because I think, 'well, no, no, that isn't how it was; no, no, no, no, you got that out of a book but have you spoken to any of us...'
 
Paul: ...to those people, yeah. I think that's true, but we don't have a history of OWAAD; we don't have a history of the queer black group; we don't have- and if we did, lots of things would look very, very different if we had those things. And I feel very strongly that I don't want to be complicit in handing over the task of writing that history to a bunch of American graduate students, which is the way it's looking like it's going. To be more serious about what you said a moment ago, it makes me think of two things actually, which are interesting to me because of what I'm doing and what I've been thinking about and what's emerged in some of these conversations. Firstly, I suppose about the sort of dominance of what broadly could be called this nihilism or Afropessimism among many of the younger activists, whose fantasy- whose equivalent political imaginary is one devoid of love and joy, entirely. So that's one thing, or at least it pretends to be- I don't think it really is devoid of love and joy, it just announces itself in the world as being devoid of that, and makes that into a political virtue of some kind- a measure of sophistication and so on. And the other thing is, and this is a bit different I suppose, I think about Freud and Freud's absolute aversion to and dislike of music. And I can see you've got music behind you.
 
Gail: Yeah, always!

Paul: And you've written about music too; so why do you think at least that version of psychoanalysis has such a terrible problem with music? I mean, he wasn't just averse to it, he was averse to it in Vienna!
 
Gail: Yes, yeah! Well, I guess in the end who knows? Who knows? And I don't know enough about it- I would put it down I guess to Freud's everyday psychology- his own. But of course, what some psychoanalysts have done with it is to say actually music is exactly the thing that captures all of that stuff - of life, of relationships, of so-called internal feelings in an external environment - captures all of that that cannot be articulated in words. And if we don't know that, all we need to do is put on the music and hear it, I was thinking, Mantana Roberts, when she does her version of the Oscar Brown Bid 'Em In: "bid 'em in, bid' em in". And it's absolutely wonderful, but it's full of the torment, but at the end she riffs into a blues. And suddenly we have it announced in the musical form: yes, yes, there is all this, we were on the blocks being sold, there was all this; but look, look, life- they kept beating on in its blues form. And it's that, and music is so- music's just sustained really, Paul, and I know nothing about music, at all; but I know that it sustains me and I know that it's the thing that has allowed us- you've written about it, Paul, and the whole- the parallel, the counter line, in the Black Atlantic modern, that's kept us going, and kept us developing- the transmutations, the developments of the sound, and yet always with, in a sense, the heartbeat of 'we keep going'.
 
Paul: But I suppose that's what worries- my fear, my anxiety, I suppose, is slightly that a number of forces have conspired, have converged, to say that what music meant in the generation to which we belong won't be allowed to recur in the future. It will not happen again. The alignment of forces that foster that incredible flourishing, that blooming, of politics, musical sonic culture, ethics, critique, a devastating view of the limits of capitalism and the limits of estrangement that it relies on, that that doesn't seem to be possible these days for many people. And that for me the measure of the transformation is captured in the fact that people wear headphones wherever they go. I don't know how much music they're listening to, I haven't looked into whether anyone's researched that- probably they listen to podcasts actually, which is another terrifying thought, although I do actually really admire George the Poet's podcast because of the way they bring together a whole repertoire of different sounding possibilities. So I do wonder about that, I wonder about where music is now, because obviously we know we've been separated from live music now, we can't have that; prior to that so many of the places, the sorts of holes-in-the-ground that you and I used to frequent many, many years ago, are now closed and transformed by insurance, by criminalisation and its new iterations, by the surveillance culture and all of that. So, I'm wondering about where it goes and how it survives and how it finds pockets of space to grow in. I'm worried that that submerged public life is really harder to access now, it's harder to find- at least, music isn't central to it any longer. And I'm sure it still exists, but it exists in forms that are more distant from a sounding experience that hits you and you feel no pain kind of thing. I wonder...

Gail: ...yeah, maybe Paul. I think I don't know. I think I have a feeling that perhaps I- and this is absolutely a function of my age- I don't know where the young people go for their sounds, and certainly there isn't that moment of announcement of black presence that came when we were coming up, with Jazzie B and- all of it, the whole thing that emerged. But I think maybe we do ourselves, and the current younger generations, a disservice if we try to find that announcement of presence through the same structures- the symbolic structures and forms- because if we think about all the work that's going on in terms of film production and other forms of creative performance practice, I think that's where it's been. And I know that, like when you were saying about the kind of Afropessimism, I recognised it, because it's paralleled by- which I have some questions around- but is paralleled by this other strand within a kind of black, feminist, queer politic of pleasure activism; which at its most simplest is a bit kind of fluffy; but at its deepest is also a whole current of calling to account capitalist time, and the ways it takes our private lives as well as our working lives; and that the idea is that the activism part is to take time; and to take time to care for oneself and others. And so that's a very different attempt to organise a politic, if you like, than the Afropessimist stuff- even though they merge in. And I think it's important to do that; and part of that is all the cultural productions through the visuals, through the paintings, through the performance art, installations and stuff. So maybe it's there too and it's different; it's like we were saying about the conceptual architecture of political vision - the notion of oppression takes you somewhere, the notion of pleasure activism takes you another place. And Afropessimism somewhere else again. So maybe we need to think about what's gained and lost. And I love Dave's Psychodrama, you know that album? Because it so stages- partly obviously I love it because it starts off with the opening session: 'Hi we're here... where would you like to begin?' And it captures it so beautifully. But of course it's in speaking back to that discourse and that field of practice, it's saying 'if you're really gonna do this thing that you say- which is to say listen, you listen to every register and every word, and understand that you call this thing that and we call it this'; and there's that space that opens up, it's just fantastic. And that's in a musical form.
 
Paul: Well, no, it's good actually in a way because you sound much more hopeful than me.
 
Gail: I know, don't I?

Paul: I hadn't anticipated that really, but I'm very glad to hear that.
 
Gail: I know, I'm surprised, but it's good!
 
Paul: Actually, what you just said also relates is that- I don't want to reduce it to this formula, but it's the only words leap into my mind right now- to a politics of care, to a politics of love and kindness, as well as a bit performance. It seems to me to connect up in some ways with the things that you have said about the importance of Audre Lorde's work; and my view is that she's suffered a little bit in the way that she reappears amongst us; I mean, I know she had her austere moments; I was on the receiving end of one or two of them I think I can say. But actually, she emerges as a much more austere figure then I think the writing would really warrant. I wonder what it is about how people are read so narrowly as to produce a kind of hole that they have to crawl through; she suffers from one of those and poor Fanon suffers from another one; and they're recovered through- it's almost like, when our kids were little they used to play with sort of Playdough and you could crank a handle and it would force this sort of...
 
Gail: Oh, yeah!
 
Paul: ...out through a very small shape, and would kind of regularise it and sometimes it would be a star and sometimes it would be a triangle, you know? I feel there's a machine like that and these very labile, vital, fungal bodies of thought and concern and energy, get sort of regularised and forced out into the world in a new kind of way that's unduly regular. And I feel that she- I remember, it must be a very long time ago now, I think you were probably the last person to write anything critical about Audre Lorde really; and it was where you talked about her in relation to Hillsborough.
 
Gail: Yes.
 
Paul: And I thought I'd remind you about that today because I think there's a lot to say- there's a lot of quarrelling to be done about what work from that era should mean in these conditions; and I think the problem about the intergenerational relationships is that sometimes, because of the dominance of online culture in so many political movements now, people actually lose the ability to disagree with each other without permanent rupture. So I think cultivating the ability to disagree and to quarrel and yet remain in touch and remain loyal to shared projects and so on, it's not really captured in the language of allyship or the language of- there's so much organising, it sounds so formal. And I worry about that really and about how one might restore to what's left of or what's emerging as a new black political discourse, some of those qualities- people speak about resilience all the time, but the actual ability to assume that shape that you were in before or the habitable one in the context of disagreement is a harder thing now maybe than it was.
 
Gail: Yeah, I mean, who knows, Paul? That's interesting actually, because I think- so in that piece that I wrote in relation to Audre- and we did sit down, she called me and we did sit down and did groundings really, and figured out what it was that I was disturbed about by this equation between Eleanor Bumpurs and Indira Gandhi. And I guess, who knows- in a sense, I don't know what was in my mind at the time. I know that I was very, very preoccupied by the violence of Hillsborough- the state violence, and the ways in which it just went by- it just went by without comment almost. And that I didn't understand why we couldn't connect up all the stuff that we know as black communities - about the state and policing and the lies - just couldn't quite connect it up. Of course, there's something, especially then, about football and the terror of racism on the terraces, which went but it's coming back a bit more because of post-Brexit and what's being allowed again, and all that kind of stuff. So, there's something about what do you identify with, I think that's important; but the thing we knew about policing, we knew about policing. And so in my mind there was something about how we have to differentiate- we have to be able to connect up things that seem disconnected, and we also have to differentiate within feminism, who the- where the violence comes from against women. Obviously, Eleanor Bumpurs it was the police and all that kind of stuff, so it was transparent, okay? But I couldn't- and I still can't- I mean, Audre sits on my shoulder differently, but I still can't do a straight equation between that and the murder of Indira Gandhi, because she had killed many Eleanor Bumpurs. And so it's not about saying- of course it's not about saying that violence is okay, but if we are going to be anti-violence, then we can't simply assimilate into an 'us', or especially a kind of gendered 'us', without thinking carefully about violence and retribution and malevolence, and how it plays out - in whose hands and on whose bodies. So, it's something in that terrain, Paul, I still don't know really, but it's something in that terrain.
 
Paul: I was thinking about it because a couple of years ago on one of the Mark Duggan- I think it was the first year commemorating Mark Duggan's killing at the hands of the police there up in Tottenham, the routine tramp to Tottenham Police Station, and then Stafford gets up and makes a lucid speech and Mark's family also testify. But then after a little while, and I'm sure you've heard her too- I'm ashamed to say I can't remember her name- but the young woman from the Hillsborough families makes the speech that actually makes all the connections you were just...
 
Gail: ...because they've been made now.
 
Paul: ...because they've been made now, exactly. So maybe it's the time lag is the only thing that needs to be explained. I mean, yes; but at the same time it takes us into a confrontation with some of the more reductive ways of thinking that are often traded these days, because in a way it presupposes a kind of- either a series of human connections which people are very uncomfortable with now, or- and maybe they're equally uncomfortable with it- a number of class-based connections to do with the poverty and marginality and immiseration and exploitation; which have not become- people haven't grown in their sophistication to talk about those things. Maybe that will change now, maybe the Covid situation- the pandemic- which has kind of anatomised all of the inequalities that were there beforehand, both in racialised form and anyway in a dysfunctional country. Maybe that will feed something there that is more habitable for everybody.
 
Gail: I think at the beginning I said about the Black Lives Matter. I feel it's such a profound statement-slogan, because of the thing both about 'lives' and 'matter', when we've hardly been considered to be 'life', and making that claim, 'our lives matter'. They 'matter' as in value, obviously, but also as flesh and blood and neutrons and cells and skin. And for these things that have been just objects that are not 'life', to make the claim black lives mattering as so found- a claim that hits at the very foundations of the logics.
 
Paul: Well, I suppose for you the term presence has been a very, very important...
 
Gail: It has been, yes.
 
Paul: ...I think of it as it somewhere in a constellation with visibility and recognition, but it's a very different way of opening up that limited space of attention there. So, in a way what you say about somatical vitality, it seems to really speak to that concept of presence.
 
Gail: And it is linked, for me Paul, it is linked to learning to sit in a room with somebody who has come because for some reason something doesn't feel right about their life or they're in terrible distress. It can be as small as 'something's not quite right' or 'I'm in terrible distress, I'm falling apart'. And learning to sit in a room with somebody and really being present to them, and allowing them to be present to you, really taught me something about- whether I've learnt I'm better at it now, whether I can really do it- but it's extraordinary Paul, one of the things I notice is that I'm a fidget, I fidget all the time. But when I'm in that role, there's a stillness that comes, that I didn't think I could occupy my body in such a way, because I'm really trying to pay attention and be present in the room. And it- I thought, of course we can't be like that with everybody all the time, nor would anybody want us to be, let alone whether we could. But, being present to the aliveness, and the moments of deadening, and the moments of possibility, even in silence, really teaches you something about being 'with', being 'with'. And I think racism cuts all that, doesn't it? Or it attempts to.
 
Paul: I would actually say that that's a big part of what people miss when they read Fanon in very a reductive way.
 
Gail: Yeah, exactly.
 
Paul: But I also think it connects up with what we were talking about earlier, with the music, with the forms of attention that you have to cultivate in some sort of sonic situations, as well as the other wider flagrant response to different frequencies and things like that, which you're listening to but not with your ears.
 
Gail: Yes, yes, yes.
 
Paul: Well, Gail, thank you so much for making the time to have this conversation with me this morning and I really look forward to finding ways to continue the dialogue on the other side- if there is another side, there may not actually be another side to this. We may have to do more of this than we've planned. But I really look forward to that and once again, thank you. There's so many other things that are on my list to talk to you about that we haven't really got to, so maybe at some future point you might entertain submitting to this a second time.
 
Gail: Definitely. Great pleasure, thanks for inviting me.