Metropolitan Paradoxes: Then and Now

by Les Back

Stuart Hall reflected towards the end of his life that he never thought that the drift towards a deeply profound ‘never going back multiculture’ was ever going to happen without conflict. It has been 20 years since New Ethnicities and Urban Culture was published, it was my first big project, going back to that book and thinking about it again, I was always committed to exploring the paradoxical combinations of hybridity and how soundproofing around culture never holds, and that more complex forms of tradition are carried in combination with emerging forms of improvisation or change. That is just how people live.

When I was trying to make sense of what I had learned from trying to understand south London life in the late 1980s, the writing of Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Parminder Bhachu, Kobena Mercer, Ann Phoenix all offered interpretive tools to understand what was unfolding at the bus stop or in the youth club.   It was always paradoxical, it was always in my mind a matter of trying to makes sense of the structural damages of power and also trying to find ways to attend to listen and record the complexity of how people lived. The relationship of the past and the present coalesce as people move into the future.

Our society suffers tremendously from the affliction of forgetting. Our intellectual spheres and intellectual cultures also suffer chronically from amnesia. Questions of new ethnicities and cultural hybridity had a kind of affective grip at the time because they offered a way out of the straight jackets of cultural pathology that post-colonial migrants were subjected to. Whether it is cultures in crisis and all of that stuff, those ideas had a real political edge that I think has been forgotten. That was the politics of the intervention around culture.

Now writing about cultural hybridity, diversity and creativity, and I don’t think they are unimportant things, can suffer from not seeing those forms of expression as profoundly situated within the structural limitations of economic division, surveillance and racially coded policing and all of those deep structural cleavages. The danger is of operating within a ‘thin culturalism’ or a ‘thin understanding of hybridity’ in that it doesn’t connect with economic and political power and inequality.   What is inspiring to me is that this event has brought together such a wealth of work and people who are committed to understanding how racism co-exists with patterns of culture that embody its convivial overcoming.

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