Monday, November 06, 2006
Below you will find the remarks delivered by Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell at the Futures of the Field symposium. Kofi traces the contours of his own training as a postcolonial medievalist, and suggests some fertile areas of field interpenetration for future mapping.
(You may ask why Kofi's talk is illustrated with a shabby looking pirate. I may then answer that illustrating Kellie's talk was easy; I used a self-portrait, since I'd been called a spiked mammal. Here I performed a Google image search for "medieval caribbean" and the first hit was a poorly constructed pirate costume. The fellow at left bears no resemblance to Kofi, who is too suave to ever dress like such a low rent rogue; the pirate also bears only a glancing resemblance to me. But you know, we medievalists ought to do more with pirates. I'll save that for another post).
The research which led to my dissertation, and my first book, really sprang in the first place from a problem I encountered right at the end of my undergraduate career, which was that I had developed a love for both medieval and postcolonial literatures. The two fields at the time seemed so completely incommensurate with each other that I always assumed that eventually I would have to choose between them.
But in my MA year at the University of Toronto I was lucky enough to take a seminar with Dr. Suzanne Akbari entitled “Constructions of the Other in Medieval Literature.” The course focussed precisely on what I wanted to do; it combined medieval and postcolonial studies in its examination of medieval European constructions of the eastern, Muslim world. The course was at the time on the absolute forefront of this area of scholarship; no scholarly work had so far been published which dealt with this congruence of medievalism and postcolonialism, although the first articles and book collections were in the process of being prepared. Within 2 or 3 years the field had established itself as the most rapidly expanding area of medieval studies, as I would argue it continues to be today; in the time between when I first came to the field, and the time I started to write, several works had appeared in the area, from Gilles’ and Tomasch’s Text and Territory, to Sprunger and Jones’ Marvels, Monsters and Miracles, to Jeffrey’s book The Postcolonial Middle Ages, which really brought a lot of the research that was being done together, and solidified the subfield into the form we recognize today. What this meant practically for me was that, even at the time I began to write this book, a great deal of work had already been done in the field, and this led to the question of what kind of contribution I could still make. Now, there were, or rather still are, two tendencies within the practice of medieval postcolonialism which I eventually came to realize that I wanted to address. In the first place, it became obvious that much of the work in the field was almost exclusively concerned with what postcolonial theories and literatures could contribute to an understanding of medieval literature and culture, and almost never with the reverse. So, for example, I learned a lot about what writers such as Edward Said, Homi Bhaba, Benedict Anderson and Timothy Brennan could teach us about English nationalism in the 14th century, but almost nothing about how the shape of that nationalism could force us to re-read those scholars of modernity. This became one of the driving forces behind my research; I became convinced that medieval literatures and cultures had a lot to teach us about the modern world and about our theories of postcolonialism. This explains Bruce’s statement in his Speculum article on the topic, that while this is a big deal in medieval studies, it’s really not in poco studies – in fact, it’s not even really on the radar yet in postcolonial studies. And it seems to me that it won’t really get the attention of postcolonialists until we can show them what this kind of scholarship can do for them, so this is part of what I set out to do. What I still hope to do.
The second realization I came to, eventually, was that almost all of the scholarship had an obsessive east-west focus. That is, it focused on relationships between Christian Europe and Muslim Asia, to the exclusion of all other relationships. I found this particularly strange because throughout the primary literature, Africans and the Muslims were so closely allied.
I thought it was so strange that I began to search for Africa and Africans throughout Middle English literature, expecting that, since there was no scholarly activity on the topic, I would find nothing. But as I read around I realized that Africa and Africans were actually all over Middle English literature. It is just that they were most often in the background of European-Muslim conflicts. But I also came to realize that there was a substantial enough body of primary texts which focussed on Africa specifically to warrant serious attention, and so my attention turned there.
And once I realized that these works were often quite influential in shaping the expectations of early English explorers, I naturally began to focus on what those explorers saw in them that was so fascinating. I began to realize that what the explorers got out of them were justifications, reasons, for what they were doing, as well as knowledge which enabled them to do it. And once I saw that these texts were related to the enterprises of colonialism and slavery, it became clear, that they represented a part of black Atlantic history, one which has rarely been discussed by historians of colonialism and slavery. The black Atlantic is a term developed by the sociologist Paul Gilroy; it refers to the political, cultural and creative interrelations among blacks living in Africa, the Americas, and Europe (specifically England for the purposes of this discussion, as my work focusses on the Anglophone black Atlantic); it refers, in other words, to the English speaking black diaspora encircling the Atlantic ocean. As I note in the introduction to my book, it is currently held as gospel that the black Atlantic has its origins in the Middle Passage, the mass transportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas, which began in the Renaissance. But after reading these texts, it became clear to me that that history begins much earlier. I quickly came to realize that writers such as Wilson Harris and Derek Walcott didn’t believe that either. And so I focussed on demonstrating those basic facts: that black Atlantic history begins earlier than commonly imagined, and that understanding this fact can help us to make clearer some of the processes at work in postcolonial literatures and cultures.
So I begin by focusing on the methods through which Middle English representations of Africans and blacks constructed them in a manner which laid the groundwork for the future colonialist project. They did this by consistently portraying black Africans in ways which would make it easier to justify and accept their eventual enslavement and displacement, and by portraying their lands as highly desirable. The various texts which I examine use very different methodologies and disciplinary techniques to arrive at similar conclusions and a composite picture - that blacks are primitive, lazy, ugly, inhuman, cowardly, overly-sexual, threatening in various ways, and blessed with a rich and fruitful land whose wealth they squander through ignorance. These texts also speak of the need to impose some sort of containment upon black Africans, a containment which is often based on arguments for various forms of invasion and subjugation; various forms of colonialism, in other words.
This process really begins around the turn of the 14th century in Middle English. Now, at the beginning of the period, the discourse is quite vague in terms of discussing actual colonialism. What it does do is begin to construct black Africans in convenient ways – but by the middle of the 15th century, we get a text which, for the first time, really suggests that the English should be moving into Africa, that they in fact have a duty to do so. This text is the Book of John Mandeville – now, The Book exists in several version in Middle English – most of them spare little space for Africa, one or two pages at the most. But the Bodley-version is quite obsessed with Africa – and this redactor’s treatment is quite interesting. The Book is a medieval travelogue, describing the journeys of the supposed English Knight as he travels through the lands of the east and the south. What the Bodley-writer does is to take the worst examples of humanity and human behaviours from all other parts of the world, and transplant them wholesale onto Africa, often verbatim. But what is really interesting about this version is that while it does focus heavily on African difference, it also draws our attention to the similarities between the Africans and Europe, and especially on religious similarities. The Bodly-writer states that in fact, all Africans have SOME inkling of the Christian faith, although they don’t understand perfectly. So he encourages his audience to go there and teach them, to make them more godly, more civilized. This is, of course, the oldest and most-often cited aim of colonialism, to enlighten and bring to god the savages that live in other parts of the world. So we can see that this colonialist justification is much older than we commonly think.
Examining these medieval texts allow us to make many other corrections to some of the most widely-held beliefs in postcolonial studies. It allows us, for example, to see that the construction of blacks as ugly, inhuman and primitive is not a product of 19th century Social Darwinism, as is commonly believed, but is in fact part of a much older Western tradition of constructing its others. This particular realization is important to the second arm of my research, which is trying to show that these medieval and early Renaissance discourses can still be traced in contemporary Caribbean narratives, and how they can be viewed not as a specific discourse of Caribbeanism or Africanism. For example, this discourse of ugliness and inhumanity really begins with Middle English discussions of Muslims living in Asia – once Africa becomes important to England, these discourses are transposed onto Africans – and once the Caribbean is discovered, it becomes translated onto the Caribbean.
Many Caribbean writers self-consciously engage with these constructions of blacks. In this way, I argue, they try to expand the notion of hybridity as it is commonly understood in postcolonial studies. Paul Gilroy argues that one of the most important features of black Atlantic hybridity is the flow of creative energies along the black Atlantic – by engaging with these medieval constructions, the writers I examine engage with a hybridity that is not only cultural, but also temporal – they suggest that features of the distant past must be incorporated into contemporary Caribbean identities, along with the cultural hybridites which constitute that identity. By engaging with these discourses, they extend the black Atlantic hybridity backwards through time as well. Derek Walcott, for example, in Dream on Monkey Mountain, uses this image of black inhumanity to discuss the contemporary relationship between black Caribbeans and England. He refers explicitly to the medieval process whereby Ham, the son of Noah, becomes synonymous with blackness, evil, and slavery – he suggests through this image that the roots of the relationship between England and the Caribbean are pre-colonial, and that we must acknowledge that depth of that history if we are to deal with it effectively. Wilson Harris likewise links the physical space of the Caribbean landscape with the pre-colonial discourse which constructs it as a vast and empty space filled with the possibilities for new beginnings, a notion which was central to convincing Europeans to settle the Caribbean. So these writers allow for a flow of creative energies along the black Atlantic which is both cultural and temporal – they suggest that ALL aspects of black Atlantic hybridities must be accounted for in the creation of a stable and useful future for Caribbeans.
And it seems to me that this area of investigation is one of the most important directions the field can go in right now – an examination of how the study of the medieval can help us to shed light on postcolonial writings; in the case of my work, specifically Caribbean writings. One of the most exciting projects for me right now is a collection which is coming along nicely, edited by Kathleen Davis (Princeton) and Nadia Altschul (Johns Hopkins); the collection is titles Medievalism and the Post/Colonial Perspective: Historical Foundations to Global Politics. That collection examines the understanding and practice of medievalism in the former colonies themselves – that is, it examines how postcolonial writers actively engage with medievalism in their works, and on how they understand its influence. For that collection I’m writing a piece which examines the uses of the medieval in Wilson Harris’ Guyana Quartet. What I’m suggesting in that article is that Harris views the coming of Europeans to the Caribbean as a clash of two medievalisms. Harris in his critical writings describes the European Middle Ages in the way I do in my book, as a time in which the European colonialist ideologies were born and refined. He suggests that the Arawak and other Amerindian tribes which lived in the Caribbean at the time, were also an imperialist, colonizing people, and that their encounters with Europeans was the clash of two imperialist cultures – but what he argues is that the Amerindian empire was at the end of its grand colonizing movement, which Europe was at the beginning of its imperialism. This clash of medieval cultures is repeatedly invoked in the four novels of his Guyana Quartet; in each novel, the main character, who is always playing the role of European colonizer, comes into contact with representatives of the Amerindian peoples, and is transformed through that encounter – what Harris seems to be suggesting is that that original clash is played out over and over in Caribbean history – after the original encounter, the Amerindians were further colonized and silenced by the freed black slaves, and then by the east Indian indentured workers who were brought over after the abolition of slavery. So this clash of medievalisms becomes a symbol for Harris of the repetitive history of subjugation in the Caribbean, but also of the potential for new identities to emerge which are defined by the hybridization of all these cultures. He argues, in other words, that the clash of medievalisms in the 16th century marked both an ending and a beginning in black Atlantic history, and that recognizing this fact can allow us to create identities based on a more honest understanding of that past and the role Caribbean subjects themselves have played in it.
The other really important direction I think the field is beginning to head in has to do with the idea of England itself. One of the good things the study of medieval postcolonialism has allowed us to do is to challenge the homogenization of Muslims and blacks which Middle English literature enacted – we’ve begun to allow for, and to discuss, the homogeneity of those peoples and places. But in doing so scholars have often been guilty, and I count myself among these, of (re)homogenizing England in turn. So we speak of how “England” constructs Saracens, of how “English literature” portrays blacks. But what do we mean by England, and English literature?. In our rush to argue that England in the late Middle Ages was in many ways a nation, and that it enjoyed colonial relationships with some countries already, we often forget one of the most important lessons of postcolonial and nationalist theory, which is that no nation is inherently self-cohesive – this is a fiction which national literature constructs. This is a lesson we must apply more carefully to England itself. So I think that Jeffrey’s forthcoming collection Infinite Realms: Archipelago, Island, England, will be very important for the field. It will show the processes whereby England came to discipline the heterogeneity within its own borders, how it came to define itself as England not only against Asia and Africa, but against its own internal others as well. This work will also, I think, be of importance in our understanding of contemporary nationalism, and particularly postcolonial ones. It will lay bare some of the processes whereby a new nation, as postcolonial nations are, begins to refine its sense of self and to fashion itself into a fictional homogeneity.
These two anthologies in particular then, will be useful not only in shedding light on medieval postcolonialisms, but on ways in which those postcolonialisms can really help to elucidate contemporary postcolonial cultures and their writings. And to me, this is the vitally important thing we need to do in this subfield, if it is to continue to grow. We must seek to engage with postcolonialists more directly, because many postcolonial writers have engaged with medievalism, and until scholars in the two fields put their heads together more directly, there will continue to be a lot of blank spots in the study of both medieval literature and postcolonial studies. This is one of the reason I am so excited about the collection by Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul – it brings together both medievalists and postcolonialists, not only in individual essays, but by having postcolonialists respond to articles by medievalists, and vice versa. In this way, it will begin to build the kind of direct dialogue that I think, I hope, will come to define the study of medieval postcolonialism.