Holberg Laureate Paul Gilroy's Acceptance Speech

HRH Crown Prince Haakon presents the Holberg Prize to Professor Paul Gilroy. (Photo: Eivind Senneset)

Holberg Laureate Paul Gilroy's Acceptance Speech is published here in full.

Your Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon, Minister, esteemed members of the Holberg and the Nils Klim Committees, my fellow Laureate, beloved family and friends – present and absent – colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

I want to express my profound gratitude to the Holberg Prize Committee, and indeed to the people of Norway, for this extremely generous and very surprising award.

It is wonderful to return to Bergen, a place which already holds happy memories and associations for me, to receive this extraordinary accolade as well as to convey my delight at this unmerited outcome. The award still feels baffling and will do for some time to come. I may not be the best person to account for the development of my life’s work, but I fully understand how fortunate I am to have been recognized in this special way.

I owe an enduring and unquantifiable debt of gratitude to my life partner and wife, Vron Ware. Her innovative work in several fields has shaped my thinking in myriad ways: cross-pollinating it, prompting, probing and challenging me to be bolder, clearer, more rigorous and more artful. I would also like to thank my wonderful children whose creativity and intellectual insight, articulated so beautifully in their own research and writing, has informed and challenged me, pushing me away from the familiar locations where I was most culturally and politically comfortable, and demanding an urgent and sometimes painful reckoning with the ugly state of things as they are.

This special moment provides a welcome chance publicly to acknowledge the wonderful teachers who nourished my curiosity in its formative stages. I have never occupied the kind of professional position that would enable me to withdraw from teaching obligations into the cloistered life of scholarly contemplation that, I must admit occasionally to have craved, so I also wish to thank the many students, in various universities, from whom I have learned so much during my years as a teacher. I would also like to express my appreciation of my colleagues, especially those in the English department at King’s College, who have supported me and whose work has enriched my research and writing during what has been such a difficult time for institutions of higher learning in our bitterly divided country.

Of all these happy tasks, thanking those who taught me is particularly important. Unlike many of the admirable, distinguished laureates who have preceded me, I am unaccustomed to the receipt of honours and prizes. It is interesting to recall that in contrast with the intellectual freedom and pleasure I eventually discovered at university, my own secondary education was not an unalloyed success. I sometimes clashed with the teachers and spent too much time standing outside the classroom, watching the hall clock ticking slowly towards “play-time” or grinding towards the end of the day. That liminal position was partly a matter of temperament, partly a matter of my inarticulate answers to the pressures of everyday racism at a time when the “half-caste” child I was supposed to be, was considered a deviant and probably, an unassimilable figure.

The degree of estrangement from the education I encountered was, in some sense, liberating. Perhaps because it was also a happy result of the fact that I grew up in a book-filled flat and had acquired the nickname “professor” long before I arrived at secondary school.

I had been introduced to the joys of slow and wide reading in my parental household and those pleasures were consolidated during exciting, weekly trips to the local public library. I visited eagerly each Saturday to return the books I had read and to find new ones on the recommendation of the benevolent librarian. Those of you who take a less generous view of my homeland than Holberg did may not be surprised to learn that these days, that North London library, once a magical place of learning and refuge, has regressed almost beyond recognition. It hosts a joyless, diminished, “self-service” operation where the only residual employee is a security officer, placed there even though the value of books is falling constantly, to ensure that nothing is stolen or, more likely, vandalised.

My appreciation of the importance of reading has increased under the influence of Edward Said. As you know, he insisted on a connection between reading and humanism and argued that salvaging rather than abandoning the latter was a strategic and growing necessity. In the latest of his own late work, he insisted, that

Humanism is about reading, it is about perspective, and, in our works as humanists, it is about transitions from one realm, one area of human experience to another. It is also about the practice of identities other than those given by the flag or the national war of the moment. The deployment of an alternative identity is what we do when we read and we connect parts of the text to other parts and when we go on to expand the area of attention to include widening circles of pertinence.

(Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 2004, p. 80)

Of course, the life-changing, world-making habit of slow, deep reading that he describes and that I acquired easily in that vanishing civic environment, has today become more difficult to develop. Watching my students strain fully to inhabit a novel or follow a complex argument on the tiny, illuminated screen of their phone confirms that the reading experiences that infused my imagination and shaped my intellect are no longer routine.

The grip of reading upon me was intense. Somehow, it steered me past the stern admonitions that sought to fracture knowledge and divide holistic inquiry into discrete, disciplinary segments, each with its own rules and inevitable tithes to be paid.

Here the breadth of intellectual interests that characterized Holberg’s life and writing can provide inspiration. His legacy can be made to point to a future in which the specialized claims of fields and subfields have retreated and the humanities participate self-consciously in multi-disciplinary, problem-oriented conversations. A redefinition of the university will be premised upon the ideal that curiosity defers to no artificially-imposed boundaries and the related hope that we may once again be able to defend an idea of tertiary education as a good in itself rather than a private or corporate benefit aimed at the distribution of credentials.

Inevitably, this award is of great personal significance. But, potentially, it has a number of more important dimensions. I would like to hope that awarding the Holberg Prize, at this moment, to somebody who has often written as a critic of racism and nationalism, might also provide a measure of recognition and encouragement to the other people, in many places, who have been working on similar and related topics.

Our efforts are connected by their focus on the political and moral problems that arise from the institutionalization of racial hierarchy and inequality, and by the need urgently to develop critical perspectives on the fields of inquiry which have legitimized them over centuries. These ongoing efforts require a multi-disciplinary orientation, not least because race has regularly supplied a bridging or catalyzing mechanism that synchronised, linked and coordinated thought across numerous fields and disciplines: from the aesthetic to the scientific, military, biomedical, and technological.

Cutting through that protracted entanglement means that opposing racism and understanding its power cannot be a provincial enterprise. My own work is still being enriched by a cosmopolitan dialogue in which scholars, curators, advocates and activists drawn from the Nordic countries have played major parts.

I cannot name everyone now, but I am especially grateful for the pioneering energies of Flemming Røgilds, Tone Olaf Nielsen and Benny Lihme whose journal Social Kritik translated my writings into Danish early on. I want to acknowledge the inspiration provided to me over many years by the genius of Sven Lindqvist and the opportunities gifted to me by Michael McEachrane and his various collaborators in Sweden. Of course, there are many tireless activists and writers in Norway who have worked to reacquaint this region with its colonial past, as well as to answer the overt and inferential racisms still evident in contemporary social, cultural and political life.

Without the movement to which they have all contributed, I would not have been able to discover, let alone appreciate the colonial histories of Scandinavia at home and abroad, or to encounter the appetite for racial theory that was evident in the relationship with the indigenous peoples of what I understand we are now required to call “boreal” Europe. The ongoing struggle to repudiate racism and respond to the resurgence of ultranationalism, demands repeated reminders that the imaginative geography of Peer Gynt’s world was extensive, reaching to Morocco and encompassing the United States.

The dialogue that results from these interventions now extends eastward and into the global South. It has moved further into Africa, to Latin America and the Pacific, all locations where struggles over the racial nomos assumed forms that differ sharply from the patterns characteristic of the north Atlantic.

Working on these problems still sometimes invites the risk of dismissal as insufficiently scholarly. The very mention of the word racism in respectable company can precipitate scorn and the accusation of “political correctness”. The urgency of our current predicament requires greater boldness in the teeth of that dismissal.

The residues of slavery’s cruel history remain among us in Europe, regardless of whether our particular nation likes to imagine that it enjoyed the conspicuous benefits of a colonial or imperial past. I am, I suppose, an embodiment of it because some of my ancestors were enslaved by the Dutch and the English.

My work has pressed Europe to acknowledge the significance of the past but it has also sought to avoid becoming stuck in a recursive invocation of historical trauma. I have advocated taking possession of that legacy but have not wanted to be trapped in its continuing reverberations. As a result, I have become critical of the tendency to celebrate perennially wounded identity. Histories of suffering are not things to be held under cultural copyright as if they were a kind of property.

In response to those patterns, I have tried to revive and defend the proposition that we all have something to learn from the distinctive predicament of African slaves in a world that was modernized thanks to the fuel of their coerced labour and the brutal expenditure of their life’s blood. They were human beings reduced to the status of objects and brutes. In many cases, animals fared better than they did.

It is the ease of that expulsion from the fragile, precious category of the human that we must confront. We must know how infrahuman figures can be assembled outside of humanity so that we can effectively combat the problems that reappear when those cruel gestures are imitated, revived, recycled and institutionalized – irrespective of whether those who enact the dignity-stripping processes of exclusion are individually or personally racist in either outlook or disposition.

My current work emphasises that directing attention towards race as a potent category of political ontology, and to racism as a mechanism for creating distinctive social groupings, can contribute something unique and valuable, not only to the descendants of those horrors, but to all who accept the political challenge of renouncing their attachments to an innocent modernity and the world it assembled in racialised form. It is easy to see how the immediate victims had their humanity violently confiscated but much more difficult to appreciate how the people who benefited from those bloody structures might also have been damaged by them.

It is a far from fashionable view these days, but I hold to the possibility that nationalism, fascism and racism will have to be answered by a rearticulated humanism addressed to current circumstances. Sylvia Wynter, Murray Bookchin and others who have inspired me have gone so far as to refer to that difficult possibility as humanism’s re-enchantment. They write that in order to be compelling, the necessary alchemy will have to be shaped by principled opposition to, and repudiation of, the race-thinking with which the language of humanity and species life has been entangled, at least since the tropical dawn of Europe’s enlightenment.

The agonistic humanist responses voiced by slaves and their advocates eventually became a self-conscious tradition. It has lately been characterized as a Black Atlantic humanism by the historian Marlene Daut who has worked so thoughtfully on the place of Haiti in this narrative.

It bears repetition that Europe’s colonial and imperial history needs to be more widely known. There is more work to do, but we can say that those moral and political debates were shaped decisively by struggles over racial slavery and the distinctive forms of capitalism to which it was a midwife. Systematic analysis of the violence, the ethics and the economic thinking associated with those horrors was developed in more elaborate and sophisticated forms by successive generations of black intellectuals all of whom were ambivalently placed with regard to Europe’s supposed monopoly of the universal.

In her speech here as a previous laureate, the estimable Professor Natalie Zemon Davis drew eloquent attention to the history of the Danish/Norwegian West India Company in its earliest phase and the political-theological complexities of that moment which conditioned the life of this city and its people.

Walking down to the harbor on my previous visits to Bergen, I was struck when what I had read about the place of the sea and seafaring in shaping the local climate, not only meteorologically but culturally, historically and socially, leapt so vividly to life. Citizens of this city need no instruction from me with regard to the uniqueness of port cultures and their governmental, commercial and military interfacing of land and sea.

Thinking about seas can contribute to the cosmo-political mentality required by anti-racism if it is to be more than a provincial concern. A fluvial orientation promotes planetarity, and understanding of culture alters when solid territory gives way to water. Seafarers and others acquainted with the traditions of maritime life know the primal responsibility towards others that gets discovered amidst the elemental perils of storm and shipwreck. Similar obligations sometimes emerge in other settings: from flood, drought and the effects of pollution. Clear, ethical and juridical obligations are associated with the interrelated practices involved in human salvage, naming the drowned and promoting dignity by burying the bodies of the dead.

In many circumstances, those difficult ambitions refer us to the forms of care and conviviality conditioned by disaster. It is a mistake to dismiss them as sentimentality or self-serving sympathy. If we are to re-enchant the human and assemble humanism anew outside of the corrosive mechanisms of any, and all, racial orders, we must find ways to re-assert what Fanon described “the real dialectic between the body and the world”. That frequently mystified but essentially human relation is incompatible with racial rules. It is manifested when one needy hand reaches out for the aid of another and receives it. With that challenging possibility in mind, I hope you will be prepared to support the ongoing work of salvaging our imperiled humanity from the proliferating wreckage. Continuing to reckon with the power of racism and nationalism is an indispensible component of those acts of rescue and recovery. Edouard Glissant puts it like this:

We know ourselves as part and as crowd, in an unknown that does not terrify. We cry our cry of poetry. Our boats are open, and we sail them for everyone.

Professor Paul Gilroy

2019 Holberg Laureate

Speech delivered at the University Aula in Bergen, on 5 June, 2019