Paul Gilroy . Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture. Cambridge , MA : Harvard UP , 2010 . Pp . 224 . $22.95 (cloth), $18.95 (paper) .

From its title, Darker than Blue, the latest collection of articles from renowned cultural theorist Paul Gilroy announces its distinctive tone: melancholic. The moral economies of the black Atlantic world—a terrain which Gilroy has done so much distinctive work to map—are under grave duress from the joint forces of militarism, capitalism, and the deskilling of pseudoparticipatory technology. If Darker than Blue returns to a sequence of culture heroes familiar to readers of Gilroy's earlier work—Theodor Adorno, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Donny Hathaway, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and Curtis Mayfield (plus a surprising new addition, Harriet Beecher Stowe)—the changes played here have grown increasingly ruminative, even elegiac. It is as if Gilroy hears the depths of negation their work sounds, even as that sound is being steadily muffled by the drone of a glib, affirmative culture.

The thread of each of the three chapters, which began as lectures and were honed and revised over the course of a decade, takes up a skein of black Atlantic culture, winds it around a foundation of critique of objectification and materialism, and unspools it into our postmillennial present. The first chapter takes up black mobility as it has become increasingly reified in the automobile; the second offers a deepened genealogy of human rights that centers both the moral enterprise of nineteenth-century abolitionism and the radical black universalism of twentieth-century Rastafari; the final chapter addresses the vexed relationship between black American music and US-led militarized globalization, with Jimi Hendrix's plaintive onomatopoetic indictment of the machine gun at its ethico-musical center.

Hendrix has long been a culture hero for Gilroy, and deploying Hendrix's electrified critique of the Vietnam War is key to Gilroy's continued (and often misunderstood) polemic against black complicity with American military hegemony. His argument (in outline) begins with the world historical fact of the traffic in black people as commodities during slavery, which has resulted in an intensive and extensive ambivalence in black culture over the status of the commodity object. Is our owning, using, embracing commodities freeing, or a sign of mental slavery? How does our implication in consumer culture in the overdeveloped world implicate us in global systems of inequality, climate injustice, and permanent war?“Much of what now passes for US culture worldwide,” Gilroy notes, “is in fact African American in either character or derivation” (172). But where many in the United States simply celebrate this fact, or assume that hip hop, for instance, necessarily plays a counter-hegemonic role when it takes root as a global youth idiom, Gilroy worries over the ongoing capacity for black music to retain its political and moral capacity to challenge consumerism, and to offer continued opposition to the stop-and-frisk, lockdown society that is part of the global exports of the US military-prison-industrial complex.

For popular music studies, debate is likely to circulate around Gilroy's repeated refrain that technology is deskilling black music, exposing it to the harsh mercies of commodification, and dispossessing current and future generations of the aesthetic resources of black musical virtuosity. As he remarks toward the end of the volume:

I feel obliged to confess that my critical standpoint has been shaped by an acute sense of being bereft of responsible troubadours—a feeling that is a wider generational affliction. I do not wish to capitulate to the pressures which dictate a nostalgic relationship to [a] departed golden age. And yet, at the same time, I can recall the glorious parade of black Atlantic performers that flowed through London's musical scenes between 1969, when I first started going out to enjoy live music, and the more recent point, when deskilling, aesthetic stagnation, and what can politely be called “recycling” all intervened to make live performances less alive and less pleasurable than they had been before. (122)

This is vintage Gilroy: skeptical of nostalgia, but defiant in the face of the demand to simply assent to the waning of the live. It is a standpoint that differs from the popular embrace of sampling, remixing, auto-tuning, and the video fetishization of the body as the condition of black musical postmodernity. In the house of the digital download, Gilroy plays the ghost note of the “responsible troubadour”—an emotive figure for the musician as wanderer, rooted not in place or nation, but in an ethic of love that, for Gilroy, is the sine qua non of black musical futurity.

If the preceding quote conjures the image of a curmudgeonly recluse, it may be surprising to learn that Gilroy is active on social networks like Twitter, where his commentary was particularly pointed during the summer riots in the United Kingdom. In contrast to critics like Zygmunt Bauman and Slavoj Žižek, who rushed to explain the rioters to the chattering classes (“defective and disqualified consumers,” Bauman called them), Gilroy tweeted this: “You already know enough. So do I. It's not knowledge we lack what is missing is the courage to understand what we know & to draw conclusions.”1 For Gilroy, music has always been an integral part of supplying this courage to understand what we already know (but disavow), which is why it possesses the political, public, and moral capacities that he persistently argues for it.

Gilroy's position, needless to say, is diametrically opposed to that of eminent British historian David Starkey, who argued that the riots indicated that working class whites “have become black,” adopting the language, culture, clothing, and mannerisms of an alien race.2 In the face of such bald revanchism, Gilroy's recuperation of the New Left historian's concept of the “moral economy” of the working classes acquires an unexpectedly timely force.3 Gilroy well understands there is no direct transposition of the eighteenth-century bread riot to the present. Rather, the moral economy he seeks is a “black vernacular expression” of “freedom in areas of social life that were not readily amenable to the tempo of lawful and respectable commerce: in the vitality of the no longer abject and exhausted body,” an ethos that is “fundamentally a love of life itself, deeply imprinted by the memory of slavery as the suspended sentence of death which could be carried out at any time by masters and mistresses who act with impunity” (6, 119).