Now, on to my relationship with David Wallace's _Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn_. Fair warning: this is a very long post, partly a testament to my love of this book and its influence on my recent work. As it is the beginning of the weekend, though, I crave your indulgence.
Let me begin by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It is that rare academic book that speaks to its readers in casual, conversational tones, carrying us along a complex journey smoothly and with truly humbling erudition.
For those of you know who know me, it will be no surprise that what captured me most about this book are a) its obsession with notions of time and historicizing, and b) it’s dedication to a truly comprehensive understanding of hybridity. In figuring the movement from medieval to premodern to colonial to postcolonial, from
The objective which resonated most strongly and immediately with me was Wallace’s insistence on the attempt “to render accounts of human life and development without (in Hegelian fashion) according sequential temporalities the power of determinative or necessary force.” Such attempts, he conceded, “do not always succeed. But this longue duree historicism has (at its best) proven able to consider general socio-economic trends while remaining forever cognizant of locally experienced differences” (12). What Wallace does not state explicitly, but what a great deal of the book goes on to argue, is that “locally experienced differences” should really read “locally and temporally experienced differences.” It is this insight of his that led to my most recent paper.
Wallace makes this point partly by noting that all notions of the “
While it is no surprise that retroactive periodization and understandings have structured the Western experience of history, there were two real surprises for me. The first, which I discovered while researching my book, is that
As Wallace traces a gentle rhythmic motion from medieval
But what is truly striking is the way in which Harris goes on to link that notion of hybridity to a new conception of time. I quote at length from my soon-to-be-published paper inspired by Wallace’s book:
“Harris goes on to argue that not only is this original encounter a definitive one for the Caribbean, but that it is played out over and over again in Caribbean history. Indeed, he suggests that the original encounter was but the first in several “stages of conquest” which the Amerindians faced. First, they were forced to re-create their former colonial glory on a subservient level for their own conquerors. Then, when the blacks and Indians achieved freedom in
'involving men of all races, past and present conditions, had begun to acquire a
residual pattern of illuminating correspondences.
This, as with so much of Harris’s work, is a dense passage, and it makes several important points, all of which are represented in Harris’s first novel, The Palace of the Peacock, an examination of which will form the bulk of the remainder of this paper. In the first place, it suggests, as I’ve been saying, that Harris sees the exploitation of the Amerindians as something which has continually recurred in the history of the Caribbean, by all those people who came there after them. But he also suggests that recognizing and acknowledging that series of exploitations can be beneficial to the comprehension and formation of
Most importantly, though, the passage deals with an idea central to Harris’s work, and to his attempts to re-instill the Amerindian influence into a holistic conception of
. . .In other words, to read such a complex and convoluted history in purely chronological terms is to miss the potential knowledges which can be gleaned from the discontinuities and divergences from apparent historical patterns. In terms of Amerindian history, for example, it is possible to see “an apparently unchanging identity which embodied pre-Columbian conqueror in post-Columbian mercenary” (Continuity 182). That linear and continuous view of history, though, does not take account of “the divergence at a certain moment of time . . . that pointed away from that continuous character line towards a subtle annunciation of native host consciousness” (Continuity 177). So, then, within his own work Harris set out to stress “a discontinuous line – the missing links, as it were, between cultures rather than a hard continuous dividing wall. Such a discontinuous or dotted line means, in effect, that one has no dogmatic evolutionary reinforcement of superiority and inferiority. One is, in fact, intent on an original overlap or viable frontier between ages and cultures” (Continuity 177). It is of vital importance, he argues, to be able to “assess discontinuities and original divergences” from the continual historical line “charted by historians as a humane imposition, on one hand, or an oppressive deterrent on the other” (Mittelholzer 30). Thus, Harris is preoccupied not only with the overlaps and interstices between cultures, but among different times as well – he is as concerned with the overlaps and frontiers between ages as he is between peoples. . .
. . . Harris discusses the medieval clash of cultures and its impact in terms of a notion of time which is both accumulative and discontinuous, and he clearly privileges the discontinuous. Viewing history as linear and accumulative, he suggests, potentially blinds us to the parts of history wherein the Caribs are re-conquered and re-colonized, partly because that continuous history assumes that the Caribs have long been made extinct, a fact which is simply not true. By focusing on the repetitions and discontinuities of history, subtleties and unpleasant truths have the potential to be revealed, not least among them the colonizing and genocidal roles which blacks and Indians played in relation to Amerindians once those groups had achieved their own freedom. I will suggest that understanding Harris’s discontinuous view of history, and the recurring nature of that original medieval encounter, is central not only to understanding the nature of Caribbean identities he envisions in Palace of the Peacock, but the very form of the novel itself.”
To my ears, Harris’ intermixture of times and cultures echoes very strongly Wallace’s discussion of the influence of English on native Surinamese languages. Wallace notes that although England possessed Suriname for less than 15 years, “a quarter century after English withdrawal, a shipwrecked Dutch sailor encountering slaves in Surinam assumed them to be speaking English”; and that in the language spoken in Suriname today, the “terms kosi and bosi derive from the English cuss (cuss, curse) and buss (a kiss; a smack): terms more current in the English of Behn’s time – and to their social use in Surinam – than to our own” (241). We can see here the same jumble of space, place and time that Harris describes, languages and peoples and cultures all out of time. And here, of course, we come back to an age-old debate at In the Middle – the nature of time.
We’ve covered this before, but let me close by saying that Wallace and Harris together have combined to give me a new image of thinking time to myself, if they have not yet led me to a single coherent term to describe the phenomenon. The felicities of life played a part here too: just before reading Wallace and re-reading Harris I was re-reading some of the writings of Albert Einstein, and one sentence in particular struck me again: “The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once.” The image that grew out of this sentence, for me, was that of time as a ball. Within that ball is the sum of all experience on this planet (choose whatever beginning point you will). All of it is contained within the ball. As more people are born, as more stuff happens, as more human experience accumulates, that ball expands. But there is no straight line, only all human experience swirling around within that ball, each aspect touching and jostling against the others and affecting them in ways we can’t ever know. We make the obvious connections and call those time; so that, as Einstein put it, everything doesn’t happen at once. But those connections don’t account for the refusal of history to be ultimately and finally linear. In that ball, 1341 can touch 1941 as easily as it can touch the advent of the Middle Passage, or the fall of
The last example refers to David Dabydeen, a writer with whom both Wallace in this book, and I in mine, conclude. He is in a way the perfect representation of this notion of time. In the first place, he’s obsessed with medieval English literature, and it shows up throughout his novels and poetry. Secondly, Middle English literature led him not only to write in the first place, but to write specifically in the way that he does; his encounters with the medieval alliterative tradition, and its refusal of the Chaucerian and Chancery traditions, led to his own alternative and subversive uses of English, the very language which was for so long a part of the structure of domination which sought to determine his homeland and the identities formed there. And if his is a writing which, as Wallace puts it, “belongs neither here nor there, England or Guyana,” then it is also a poetics which belongs neither now or then, for it is undoubtedly infused with resonances not only of the modern and the medieval, but of all the times and spaces inbetween, and before and after. In this regard, I’ve identified the two words with which I disagree most in this book. Wallace writes that postcolonial theory considers texts and voices with “medieval, unmodern” ways of thinking. As I have argued here, elsewhere, and on this blog before, those two words do not automatically go together, for much that we consider modern is quite medieval, and vice versa.
I would like to end, then, with what has always been my personal punctum: “a sign or detail in a visual field provoking some deep – yet highly subjective – sense of connectedness with people of the past” (Wallace 2). It is a combination of two images taken from Dabydeen’s work- the image of an old snuff box, obviously colonial, found on the beach, and the sea itself onto which the beach opened. My great-grandmother had several such colonial relics around her house, and as a child I often admired their beauty (hers was a curious mirroring of the colonial tendency towards “the randomly assembled bric-a-brac of empire” (Wallace 279)). Far from being symbols to me of a wealthy and brutal regime, as I grew older they came to represent to me a common humanity – that these people who did such terrible things should share a sense of beauty with people who had endured such harshness (and believe me, my great-grandmother’s generation did). I feel the same way when I look at ancient Egyptian and Roman jewelry; that people of all times (or all around that expanding ball) care to make their things beautiful seems to me to say something more profound about humanity than all the horrors of war and colonialism. The second image, the sea, is the ultimate punctum: the sea encompasses and flows among all places and times – there are pieces in it of slave ships and slaves, medieval and antique treasures and modern toxic chemicals and sailboats. It carried the English and Caribs to the
We would never dream of trying to name each particle of the sea, the way we do each particle of time. To quote Wallace, the approach to time described here forces us “to acknowledge ourselves peripheral to a cultural unfolding whose complexity and historical depth escape our grasp” (283). Perhaps it is only by finally conceding our marginality to time, rather than our control over it, that we can begin to fully realize all the things that time has to reveal to us.
Thank you so much, Kofi, for this post. Your work is truly the avant garde of medieval studies: "temporally promiscuous" (as my colleague Gil Harris would say), hugely ambitious in in its geographical and generic sweep. It's always a pleasure to read what you've composed.
You know much more about the Caribbean than I do, so my question is simply a contextual one. It's interesting to me that much of what you have written here as well as (especially) what you've argued in your first book stresses the violence of the colonial encounter -- even as you've displaced the Middle Passage as The Origin of that violence.
You do mention that the hybridity engendered by the meeting of worlds can be as productive as it is destructive. Much of the "classic" postcolonial theorizing of the Caribbean, it seems to me, overly stresses what is productive and affirmative about the geography's (imagined) shared culture: Antonio Benitez-Rojo, for example, or to time travel forty years, Edward Kamau Brathwaite on Jamaican creole. You use the word "rhythm" quite a bit and it does seem that Caribbean rhythm is the privileged figure for expressing what is enduring/future-focused/affirmative about the expanse. Perhaps it is simply the fact that once one turns to the long history of the Caribbean, its violence is inescapable and must be foregrounded in a way that it doesn't if what one focuses upon is mainly the present. All the same, I wondered if you could comment about the relation of your work to another ITM obsession: memorialization.
I know you've partly answered this question through the invocation of Harris's work, and I love what he does with survival within discontinuity. As time permits, and depending on how this conversation unfolds, I'll share a little thinkining I've been doing about the adaptability of medieval Jewish communities to their Christian contexts and the ways in which that might be illuminated by the model you've invoked.
Oh ... and time as a ball, I like that a lot. In a way it gets at different versions of what we've been saying at ITM in many forms, and that maybe Bruno Latour said so well it ought to be a motto of the blog: "Time is not a general framework but a provisional result of the connection among entities."
Again, thanks, Kofi!
Thank you, Kofi, for such a rich and provocative essay. Like Jeffrey, I am not a specialist in Caribbean literature or history [although, at Jeffrey's urging I have read some of your and also Benitez-Rojo's work], but you touch upon so many historical and other themes here that are so relevant [and critically *productive*] as regards so much of what we discuss here, especially temporality and also the relation of the so-called "medieval" to the so-called "modern," that I hardly know where to begin.
I was first struck by Harris's own intuition that, when considering the movement of historical time, there are certain "currents" [or "rhythms"] that are mainly striated our pushed along by a "conquering mentality," or more generally, by human selfishness and greed and the violences and "grotesque adventures" [leading to various cultural "traumas"] occasioned by these human drives. I attended a lecture this past Thursday evening by Joseph Carroll, a scholar of Victorian literature, who has turned his attention in recent years to "evolutionary psychology" and "literary Darwinism" [he is the author of "Evolution and Literary Theory" and he also published a brilliant edition of Darwin's "On the Origin of the Species," among other books, and is one of the few literary scholars to be published as much in science journals as he is in literary journals], and the reason his talk came to mind while reading your post, and especially your comments on Harris's thinking, is that, for a long time now, in socio-biology, the predominant thinking has tended toward the view of the "selfish gene," in which view human nature [and therefore, also, human society and the development of human societies: what we call "history"] is primarily shaped by the deep-set and essentially mechanistic impulse to reproduce [both oneself and one's "group"--i.e., all of life is somehow designed for one purpose: to pass on genes], but in just the past few years, this view has been fairly soundly overturned, partly because, if only the most aggressive strategies for passing on one's "own" genes were always successful, then we wouldn't have complex life forms [nor, following that, complex social forms].
The new thinking is focused on the idea of the "cooperative gene," and how human society develops and evolves is seen as a function of several things happening at once: co-operation between individuals who share certain aims and who therefore form a "group" of sorts, co-operation between groups who share certain aims [this is our "hybridization"], and competition with other individuals or groups who are perceived to be standing in the way of those aims [this is where our "conquest" comes in], and then, for good measure, we always have to keep in mind, too, all the ways in which random events and chance occurrences [earthquakes, but also even just one small action on the part of a single person that is counter-intuitive to everything sketched out above] also affect "how things turn out."
It may seem that genetics is a long way from Caribbean history, but I think it's helpful to consider, if even briefly, a *socio*-biological perspective when we're trying to determine [if we care to determine] what those larger *forces* might be that seem to always underlie what Harris calls the "residual pattern of illuminating correspondences" in human [and other] history. And I guess this is all just my way of wondering if "the very repetitive nature" of the conqueror's desire and greed, leading to various "grotesque adventures," is the predominant framework within which all of time is "balled up," or if there is another framework that could enclose the one of "grotesque adventures"--the "selfish gene" world--and which would include other shaping "forces," and what would *those* be [and I think they would be, at least, "natural" and "cultural"]?
I *will* admit that I've been reading a lot of Elizabeth Grosz's writings on biology and time lately [thanks, Jeffrey and Michael O'Rourke!], in which she asks us not to forget, in our considerations of identity and subject-constitution, the "precarious, accidental, contingent, expedient, striving, dynamic status of life in a messy, complicated, resistant, brute world of materiality, a world regulated by the exigencies, the forces, of space and time" ["The Nick of Time," p. 2]. Because, for all of our artful renderings of time as a ball, or as always "in the middle," etc. there are certain predictable directions [or "durations" or "becomings"] by which things and persons move through the material spaces [that also shape us as certain types of historical/sexual/social/racial, etc. "persons"] that we cannot change or un-reckon. Or, as Grosz herself puts it, "Time is neither fully 'present,' a thing in itself, nor is it pure abstraction, a metaphysical assumption that can be ignored in everyday practice. It cannot be viewed directly, nor can it be eliminated from pragmatic consideration. It is a kind of evanescence that appears only at those moments when our expectations are (positively or negatively) surprised" [p. 5]. To put it even another way, there are certain "temporal economies" that we are subject to all the time, either consciously or unconsciously, and we should likely always keep those in mind when also thinking about all the ways in which, in our historicizing of things, and for critically productive reasons [i.e., for our true enlightenment, for the sake of "knowing"] we scramble time, ball it up, interlace it, turn it backwards, make it discontinuous and contingent, emplace and embody it in various "containers" that then carry it "out of time," etc.
But having said all that, obviously I would agree with, and wholly embrace, your thinking that "1341 can touch 1941 as easily as it can touch the advent of the Middle Passage, or the fall of Rome," and also that the "medieval"/"modern" binary is mainly a false one for thinking through certain questions of history, subjectivity, identity, and culture. But you also make these claims in the context of your thoughts on David Dabydeen, a novelist and poet, and therefore, our context here is also poetics, which is to say, art. And it is only in the realm of art, and even of poetics, that I would argue that historical studies most properly belong.
Thanks so much for this interesting and provocative post! Like Jeffrey, I think the image of time as a ball is a great one, and it reminds me (again, like Jeffrey) of Bruno Latour, but of his thought experiments with time as a whirlpool or as a line but a line which spirals or twists around to touch -- or come close to touching -- other, past points.
I'm really interested in what you call Harris's discontinuous idea of time/history.
So, then, within his own work Harris set out to stress “a discontinuous line – the missing links, as it were, between cultures rather than a hard continuous dividing wall. Such a discontinuous or dotted line means, in effect, that one has no dogmatic evolutionary reinforcement of superiority and inferiority. One is, in fact, intent on an original overlap or viable frontier between ages and cultures” (Continuity 177). It is of vital importance, he argues, to be able to “assess discontinuities and original divergences” from the continual historical line “charted by historians as a humane imposition, on one hand, or an oppressive deterrent on the other” (Mittelholzer 30).
This seems really key to me: not (or not only?) discontinuities as a kind of deviation from the historical norm, but discontinuities as breaking into, characterizing, and constituting the continuous line of history itself.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about temporal breaks and what they mean -- are they only utilized for purposes of periodization, ideas of development, and supercession, or can they also be put to positive use? I've been coming at it through Foucault and investigations of the figura (pace Auerbach), but your model seems really productive as well.
Basically, I think that Foucault, despite being everyone's fall guy for putting into place some of the most hard and fast period boundaries, is getting at something else entirely in his theory itself (and doesn't even go so far in his history, in my opinion). In essays like "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" and books like Archeology of Knowledge he argues that the main point of the new kind of history he wants to write is, essentially, to dissolve unities wherever they might be found. The image I see when I picture Foucault's ideal is a series of cuts, one after another: every time you think you've found some sort of solid historical truth, that's a sign you need to break it up a little bit more, or emphasize its connections to something else (or maybe these two aren't mutually exclusive: by emphasizing its connections you dissolve the solid truth a little bit more into those connections?).
I see, in this post, a similar line of thought on the discontinuities of time (though please correct me if I'm wrong). This interest might be proposed (may I propose it here?) as a temporal atomism, dissolving time into its smallest elements then tracking whatever particles we can in their jostlings and connections. Or perhaps another way to put it: time as periodic unities must be dissolved to enable these jostlings and connections to be described?
I'll end with another quote from your post:
The same elements have been recycled as water and vapour for eons, traveling to other seas and back, each particle traveling unimaginable distances over time and space, and each part of a Brownian motion in which it always affects every other particle in the world. Seas and oceans for me always invoke all times and places, both the body of water itself and each particle that comprises it.
We would never dream of trying to name each particle of the sea, the way we do each particle of time.
This is really great stuff -- thanks again!
Kofi, thanks for this excellent and ambitious post. Thanks for the reminder of the haziness of the distinction between medieval and unmodern, and thanks especially, and here I second LIza, for the turn to the sea at the end. I'm glad to see the sea used as something other than an allegory for human interaction; I'm glad to see something of itself reserved to it.
My main question has to do with the glomularity (nonce-word from glomero) of time. You write In that ball, 1341 can touch 1941 as easily as it can touch the advent of the Middle Passage, or the fall of Rome, Chaucer can speak to a Guyanese of Indian descent and lead him to study English at Cambridge while writing of the dissolution of the Caribbean’s ties with Europe. But in what sense can you speak to Chaucer rather than just put him (his work, his memory, his reception history) into play? Although Chaucer, in some sense, persists into 1401 (or 2008), and influences what happens in these years, he doesn't know what's going to happen.
THANKS VERY MUCH, Eileen, for your summation of Carroll's work against the Selfish Gene narrative. Let's hope it goes the way of the hunting hypothesis. And I like very much that the "cooperative gene" does not substitute some placid world for the violence of the selfish gene: there's still something red in tooth and claw, but the smallest meaningful unit ceases to be the individual in the species or the species itself; with the mutability of cooperation, we are in yet another situation where the smallest meaningful unit is the relation, the action, and thus can hardly be thought a "unit." Perhaps the next step will be one of moving away from the dominance of reproduction in biological history and towards something more like 'making a place in/with the world'?
And, YES LIZA, this works well: This seems really key to me: not (or not only?) discontinuities as a kind of deviation from the historical norm, but discontinuities as breaking into, characterizing, and constituting the continuous line of history itself...[we must, following Foucault] dissolve unities wherever they might be found" We have here another (which is not to say that it's not salutary, not welcome) reminder of the queer of the normal, the always mobile heterogeneity of so-called "identity," and thus a reminder that concentration on the queer of those special moments of discontinuities (even, perhaps, in Surinam?) tends to freeze those moments as particularly queer. Once more: we must understand 'special moments' as "special" as a fantasy of, and deferral of our self-difference.
Kofi, I'm Jeffrey's colleague here at GW, where I do U.S. Latin@, focusing in particular on Cuban/Cuban diaspora lit and cult. Jeffrey brought your post to my attention, and I like it very much. Picking up on it, I see how issues of violence, temporality, and beauty in the Caribbean plantation are embodied (in more ways than one) in the cuadros de castas paintings coming out of the Spanish colonial context. The way the paintings depict a variety of gendered mixed/unmixed-race subjects confirms the violence inherent in the código negro/black code--yet there's also something else there, what Buscaglia-Salgado calls mulataje, that movement, metaphorical and otherwise, of the mulato/a across color and class lines. It's a movement, too, across time, as the terms coming out of the código negro for capturing the subjects of the plantation and keeping them in their place suggest: the tente en el aire (hold yourself in midair) identity; the torno atrás (return backwards) identity; and the no te entiendo identity, an i don't understand you identity. These mixed-race subjects, captured in painting, in (an attempt) at codifying race, were also jumping back and forth in time--or, indeed, holding themselves up in the middle of it all.
I also think about Caribbean temporality and rhythm--or riddim, after Brathwaite--in terms of the invention of salsa by NYC Latin@s and others after the Cuban revolution, and how the Cuban son clave, as the sine qua non beat of salsa, functions here. For those diasporic Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, and Jews who performed salsa in the 1960s and 1970s, it was crucial to imply how salsa came after the Cuban revolution, after mambo and bugalú--and, implicitly, after the plantation. But the plantation, and, especially, the Cuban plantation, was always being signified by these performers (especially Celia Cruz), and one key way it happened was by reminding listeners that although salsa was "everbody's" creation (a pan-Latin@ text), it was really, in the end, Cuban, as evidenced by the son clave. Now, this often reads as a conservative moment--a Cuban-supremacist take on Latin@ diasporic culture--but I'd like to think of it as an example of how the son clave beat, in time and as time, questions the linear time of Latin@ diaspora, especially in culture with the emergence of musical-ridmic forms. I see your reading of Harris here in this light, and it's very inspiring.
This is such a beautiful and productive posting and I very much enjoyed reading it (and others' responses in turn). I too was struck by your image of time as a ball - I see it as an uncanny inversion of Julian of Norwich's vision of "a littil thing the quantitye of an hesil nutt in the palme of my hand...round as a balle." I would venture to say that the "balle" in this vision doesn't only signify all Creation but also time itself: "I lokid there upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: It is all that is made. I mervellid how it might lesten, for methowte it might suddenly have fallen to nowte for littil. And I was answered in my understondyng, It lesteth and ever shall..." Julian's vision of "all that is made" (and, by extension, all moments in time) as one tiny "balle" on the verge of vanishing curiously visualizes time's compression, rather than its perpetual expansion (the image you provide). Julian's reaction to this vision is curious as well: What can this be? How can it last/endure? After reading what you've just posted, I see Julian's questions revealing the contingency and fragility of our own conceptions of time. The very point is that we can't grasp it (in our minds, in language, or in our palms).
I've been thinking a lot about medieval representations of sea travel and cross-linguistic encounter, and I find your closing comments on the sea (as a dynamic, multi-temporal space) very intriguing as well. I admit I do not know much about language-mixing or creole-formation in the Caribbean but in ref. to Wallace's comments on the shipwrecked Dutch sailor "hearing" English words embedded in Surinamese speech (which apparently transmits archaic English words), it strikes me that language itself, like the sea, creates its own "jumble" of space, place, and time.
A delightful post. I live in Toronto, a city where Caribbean culture has had a significant impact, and Caribbean-Canadian writers find a broad audience (Austin Clarke most prominent in the previous generation, and Nalo Hopkinson in this one). All the issues you address apply here.
I will seek out the books you cite.
Thank you all for these very thoughtful responses, and for your kind words about my post. I'll do my best to address the issues raised throughout the day today, between trading blows with my ever-present stack of final papers.
To begin In the Middle, with Tony Lopez's comments and the general trend in the comments to focus on the question of rhythm. There's no doubt that this idea of rhythm is really key to the Caribbean. And I really relate to the example of Salsa the Tony offers. While Caribbean scholars tend to really try to underline the differences among Caribbean cultures, one of the areas where we see the deepest level of hybridity, I think is in the arena of music. The origins of the various musical forms can be traced (Salsa in Cuba and Latin America, Steel Drums in Trinidad and the smaller islands, Reggae in Jamaica, etc). But travelling through the Caribbean today, I find that many of these generic lines have become completely blurred, to the point where I often begin classifying a song as reggae when it starts, and say Soca once it's done.
And as you pointed out, even the historical rhythm of the music is interesting: as with the Cuban salsa, pan and steel drum in Trinidad began by actively distancing itself from the slave era while the song's protagonists tended to be escaped and rebellious slaves. Then it adopted the figure of the travelling Woodsman (a sort of frontier cowbow figure charactarized by his walking stick, and with all of the sexual connotations one associates with the term "woodsman" today"). Then the iconic figure became the young rebel fighting against the ideologies of the older generation, represented by the original pan and steel drummers. So throughout the history of the music, there is this constant reaching backwards married to declarations of modernity. There is a fantastic article by Gordon Rohlehr called "I Lawa: The Construction of Masculinity in Trinidad and Tobago Calypso," in _Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities_ edited by Rhoda Reddock.
I think at least part of the reason for this rhythmic motion between past and present lies in the long history of the relationship between the West and the Caribbean. That history is often figured as circular - the movement of European slavers to Africa, then of both groups to the Americas then, once the era of Independence had arrived, the post-war movement of those formerly colonized and enslaved people into the European metropolis. Because it's not a straight line movement at all, and because it became obvious that the past had conditioned the present fairly heavily, writers really began to pick up on this idea of history coming in gentle rhythms, sets of movements between disparate places that set up a pattern of travel and return, a rhythm of coming and going but also of past and present. Then, of course, we have the series of travel-and-return voyages made by post-Independence Caribbeans between Europe and the Caribbean, thus creating a second set of interlinking rhythmic movements, but all based on the first set of movements.
To me, the movements among musical genres in the present really adds to this complexity, not only because of the music's interactions in the present, but also it's insistence on interacting with the past and making all these generations relevant and politically useful in the present. I highly recomment Rohlehr's article.
The idea of the importance of rhythm is actually beginning ot get some well-deserved attention in Caribbean literature studies. I'm currently editing a collection of essays on the Black Atlantic and the final paper, "Rhythms of the Black Atlantic," deals with this topic nicely. The author, Martin Munro, deals with the ways that rhythm, sound and music has been integral to the experience of the Caribbean from the first slaving voyages. And what I like best about his article is that it focuses on that multiplicity and hybridity of Caribbean music, dealing with sources from the Spanish, French and Dutch Caribbean. Ultimately, he argues, rhythm "is one of the most enduring and polyvalent markers of black Atlantic cultural identity."
And Liza, that is certainly a large part of what I am arguing in my forthcoming paper on Wilson Harris. I like that image of the cuts a lot, and it seems to me that this is what both Wallace and Harris achieve superbly. They both take this supposedly hard dividing line of the Middle Passage slice and slice until they find smaller and smaller divisions, at the same time magnifying it so we can see all the small details obscured by the large historical view. What this leads to, of course, is an awareness that the dividing line isn't really a dividing line at all, but at best a squishy and puddingy and paper thin gauze.
This is not to say that we shouldn't acknowledge the utility of these division in at least some respects. Paradoxically, I think the recognition of a New World is actually an important thing for the Caribbean. It divorces that place from the long-held view (though not as much today, of course) that everything outside of Europe, especially the Caribbean and Africa, were really just sitting around waiting for the adventurers to show up and attach them to the pre-existing empires already in place. Ironically enough, it's newness, while having a pejorative sense and annihilating any sense of a long pre-existing history already there, DID eventually serve as a marker of differentiation from Europe which became socially useful in the post Independence era. As I argue in my book, Caribbean writers like David Dabydeen take the sense of newness and spin it into a positive thing - the Caribbean is a space which lacks England's long, over-determined history, and therefore is a space where radical new identities may be forged.
Phil: I live near Toronto and spend a lot of time there. I'm from the Caribbean, and I find Toronto strangely like Guyana - so many different races and peoples brushing shoulders and no one even seems to really notice. I don't mean to gloss over the underlying racism of Caribbean societies, but they really are multicultural in a way that I've yet to find anywhere else outside of Toronto.
Many of the articles by Harris that I cite in my piece have been gathered together in one volume: _The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination: Selected Essays of Wilson Harris," edited by Andrew Bundy. Great stuff, but I'm convinced Harris was just a little mad.
Eileen and Karl - so good to 'see' you both again. I do agree that in all our talk of time, we cannot simply dismiss its forward march, whether we think of that forward march as inherent or discursively constructed - either way, that notion is a shaper both of our world view, and of the world views of the writers we study. This is one of the things I really like about Harris; he doesn't simply focus on the discontinuities of time, but suggests that we must also pay attention to it's linear progression, _as long as_ we constantly interrogate that construction of linearity, and even why we fetishize that construction in the first place. We have to acknowledge the "temporal economies" which bind us, just in a more brutally honest fashion.
Which is to say, Karl, that I'm not at all sure that I can speak to Chaucer, except in the ways we, as a mass of humanity, might have appeared to him as possibilities, as he dreamt of the future of humanity, and used those dreams to shape his literary projects. Here is the bind which forces us back to the realities of what we call time - things die, flesh decays, intellects perish; so that they can speak into the future, but not we into the past. At a basic level, we have to acknowledge that certain lines literally can't be crossed. But the challenges to our concretely discursive and resolutely progressivist narrative of time, as I know you both agree, remain vitally important to the ways we think the history and spaces of our universe, and the relationships among these things throughout the ages.
And, as an avid reader and writer of science fiction, I still hold out the boyish hope that I'll one day be able to talk to Chaucer, Marilyn Munro, and Isaac Asimov.
But that's a whole other post.
Kofi [and I think this is a question for Jeffrey, too]: when I was teaching a course last semester on "writing, race, and the english nation," which course I shamelessly ripped off from one Jeffrey has taught, I included the introduction from Benitez-Rojo's "Repeating Island," which appropriates [or invents] to great extent the tropes of rhythm, which Jeffrey mentions here appears to be a "privileged figure for expressing what is enduring/future-focused/affirmative about the [Caribbean] expanse," as well as the trope of what Benitez-Rojo calls an actual movement of persons in the Caribbean that is, simply, "a certain way" of moving, physically, through space [such as, walking down a street].
Oftentimes, as we all know well, a student will ask a critically innocent, or maybe a naive [but still pointed] question [and by "naive," I mean only in the sense of not being overly-versed in the scholarly materials at hand], that turns out to be something you're also thinking but are afraid to express, so one of my students in this course [who is part-Cuban] said that Benitez-Rojo's approach made him uncomfortable because it seemed to be re-inscribing certain "naturalized" ideas about the Caribbean or "black" other that, in my student's view, are simply wrong--i.e., that the Caribbean or "black" other "has ryhthm" or walks/moves/lives "a certain [sensual/langorous] way." I have to admit, the student's comments troubled me a bit and I wasn't sure how to respond. I mean, if we privilege the ocean, and the so-called "movements" of the ocean [its tides, flows, etc.] as a defining environmental and natural trope for island cultures, have we participated in some kind of naturalized mythology and/or essentialism as concerns the description of a culture, or cultures, OR, are we simply making more explicit the ways in which geography and environment really *do* affect culture [and history--an ocean "passage," after all, is decidedly different than one over land]? And as another of my students also commented in class, "does this mean the western European can not walk 'a certain way,' and why not?" That comment actually made me laugh at the time, but then, again, I was kind of stuck as to how to respond. Please consider these the very naive questions of someone who does not "do" Caribbean history, but it's something that I've been thinking about throughout this conversation.
I was also hoping we could turn back to Jeffrey's first comment here regarding the "violence of the colonial encounter" that is stressed in your first book, albeit there is also an emphasis, as there is in much work on Caribbean culture and history, of certain "productive" hybridities. This is partly why I brought in some of those bits re: selfish versus cooperative genes, because it seems to me that our histories or descriptions of any culture would have to take account of both--I wonder if violence is the *most* intractable fact of any history, and as such, do we read everything else under its aegis [does everything else happen *under* it, so to speak, or as an extension of it, or always *with* it?], or is the history of any culture more a question of certain forces [including violence, but also art, let's say] that are always disrupting each other? Hopefully, these questions don't sound nonsensical.
That's a great question, Eileen, and a similar unease is behind my original query.
Antonio Benitez-Rojo is a terrific writer, and The Repeating Island is a book I love, but his repeated deployment of the phrase "in a certain way" is troubling, glossing over as it does the very real possibilities of violence that exist in the archipelago he maps. If I remember correctly, the phrase's first appearance is when as a child he huddles in his house, fearful that the missile crisis will bring nuclear annihilation to Cuba. Two elderly black women pass by, talking and walking "in a certain way" ... and he realizes that the Caribbean is not a space for apocalyptic narratives, that the violence will not arrive. So what work do these nameless, soothing, eternally strolling figures do for him? Should they really have to embody that deflective burden on his behalf?
Later in the same chapter he'll make the outrageous claim that the Caribbean tout court is not a space for violence. Then he'll glorify boxing. It doesn't make a lot of sense -- it's a utopia with its human ordinariness showing. But you know, I think Benitez-Rojo is more a poet than an accurate cultural analyst. His words, even in translation, are absolutely intoxicating; his writing is a work of art. But I don't think it's historically nuanced or even based in an actual (rather than a wished-for) reality. He sees a world that could be, and it's a powerful vision, but it's incomplete.
I've brought up Barrie Cunliffe's work on Atlantic peoples here before as well. He likewise attempts to capture a vast geography into shared marinal rhythmns. It's a hard trick to pull off, because it really does risk being so general as to be banal.
Relevant here: Aimé Césaire, whose A Tempest I am scheduled to teach next week to end my Myths of Britain class, and whose poetry made me want to keep at French in high school, has died.
Very nice collection of links about his life and work here.
Eileen, your student's and your question are not naive at all, or at least, they're the kind of naive that advances our thought process by forcing us back to question our assumptions.
I think thos concerns are spot-on, and it means that we have to be quite careful how we use the notion of rhythm - to me, it has always been most useful as a symbol or metonym for the Caribbean, its histories, and and the inherence of those histories in the present. So for example when I speak of the rhythm of music, for the most part I speak of its historically rhythmic movement, borrowings, reachings-back, etc.
The question of whether the use of rhythm to refer to a specific way of moving or dancing is too reductive is actually a more vexed one thatn it might appear. Yes, it sounds immediately offensive to our ears to say, for example, "blacks move with more rhythm than whites." But at the same time there is a whole body of work, lead by African-Americanists, which suggest that it is wholly appropriate, and in fact necessary, to focus on things like rhythm and movement. Because, they suggest, slavery and the historical experience of blacks in the Western world has been one of subjecting the body to harsh discipline (both physical and discursive/rhetorical), one of the most important ways in which black re-constructions of identity, post-slavery, have taken place is through the body - the wild freedom of the dancers in Caribbean Carnivals (the subject of another paper in my essay collection), the energetic movements of house and hip-hop, the slow grace of older black soul and jazz - all meant to showcase black bodies in specific ways (dignifed, or free, or powerful). I have always thought that this is the idea which underpins writings like Benitez-Rojo's - the problem, of course, is when the social origins of the importance of rhythm is lost, and it comes ot be seen as something inherent, rather than arising as a respone (one of very many) to a specific set of cultural events.
And your question in regards to the imagery of the ocean is also a complex one. I think it's natural to privilege the oceans/seas and their movements as one of the defining features of island cultures, but again, we must be careful that, as you say, we don't just do so in a naturalizing or essentialist way. At one point I was planning a paper on the images of the sea in Dabydeen's work, and wanted to discuss it in relation to sea images from other island cultures or cultures whose movements were largely circumscribed by water, including medieval England.
Just a little bit of research was enough to remove any essentialist rhoughts I'd had in that regard. The image of the ocean as a rhythmic bringer of history, forgiveness and salvation that we often see in Caribbean lit is noticeably absent from, say, Inuit literature on the subject. There, the sea is the bringer of food, but the relationship is much less forgiving and redemptive, and even when the sea is personified as a divinity, the relationship remains quite adversarial. So we must certainly be aware the Caribbean sea is not the Arctic ocean.
But this also means that these bodies of water can, to use your words, "make more explicit the ways in which geography and environment really *do* affect culture [and history--an ocean "passage," after all, is decidedly different than one over land]" The Arctic ocean and the Caribbean ocean affect the lives of those who rely on them in quite different and quite (geographically, culturally) specific ways.
We can actually see this in the different literatures produced on the South American mainland and the Caribbean islands - if water is the dominant image of island literature, the forest interiors are the dominant image of the mainland. SO the water images we see tend to be different - in Caribbean literature the image tends to be on large bodies of water between cultures - in the mainland writing, like Wilson Harris', the focus is much more on smaller bodies of water bringing a nation together from within, by building linkages among those scattered internal cultures.
The divide isn't that cut and dried - Harris, for example, focuses a lot on the larger bodies of water as well. But his work is really dominated by little rivers carrying groups of people into the interiors, the past, and the future of a nationalist dream.
Benitez-Rojo also does bring us back to the question of violence and Jeffrey's observation that a lot of Caribbean lit stresses not just the affirmative notion of shared culture, but also a kind of utopianism. The example of violence that Jeffrey offers is perfect, becuase Benitez-Rojo's claim that the Caribbean is not a space of violence is just so outrageously absurd and plainly wrong that it's actually funny. I discuss this at length in my book in relation to a poem by the dialect poet Paul Keens-Douglas, who puts forward the same notion of a fully-egalitarian paradise, as he tries to convince a friend not to emigrate to the West:
"An' when you leave yu house on ah mornin'
An' yu walk doewn de road, ent you does feel good boy?
Mattie (friends) callin yu, de neighbours callin yu,
Little children sayin mornin Mister Thomas how yu do.
De postman know you, de judge know yu, de police know yu
All de dogs in de area know yu,
Ah poor-arse man like yu, not ah cent in yu pocket,
But everybody know yu, yu name, yu family, yu whole generation?
You is part of de place, you is part of de place.
Where yu ever hear dat could happen in Canada, or England, or America? Eh boy?"
But of course, the Caribbean is a place of violence, corruption, misogyny, homophobia, etc. But these things are all brushed under the carpet in the name of a utopic nationalism. BUT, this is largely true of the male literature, perhaps because male writers are more invested in the existing power structures (although there are obviously exceptions - I'm thinking particularly of Austin Clarke's _The Polished Hoe_. The literature written by women, and queer Caribbean literature, pay much more careful attention to the histories of violence and exclusions of those spaces.
This also hearkens back to Jeffrey's questions re. memorialization. Before beginning to read the women's and queer literature from the region, I would have described Caribbean literature as a literature of memorialization. When male Caribbean writers focus on violence it is often on the violence of the past, its effects on slaves, and its effects in the present. The literature is therefore all about being a living memorial to those destroyed lives upon whom the Caribbean is built.
Which could grow quickly repetitive, if not for the peculiarly Caribbean postcolonial obsession with memorializing not only the subjugated, but the colonizers as well; and not only that, but of seeing within the colonizers echoes of oneself. For example, David Dabydeen's Guyanese engineer who is working on a project in England, in _Disappearance_: "No sooner had we dug twenty feet or so down but one of the shovelmen discovered several glass bottles which I guessed to be Dutch bottles. This was all that remained of the Dutch effort, centuries before, to do exactly what I had embarked upon now. The sea had come in and washed away all their efforts." And Wilson Harris's stress on the vital importance of remembering the pre-Columbian voyagers:
"these great museum figures in Europe, these voyagers who had circumnavigated the globe had another value. I began to ask myself what was the value residing in these voyagers? . . . You begin to imbue the great voyagers with a new density and new roots. One interrogates the building blocks of a civilization. Those voyages were immensely important." They too must be taken out of the museum and made speak actively in the present. Derek Walcott takes us even further back in locating figures who memories must be kept alive in various ways: "Alexander of Macedon, Shakespeare, Plato, Copernicus, Galileo and perhaps PtolemY [not sure what he has against Ptolemy], Sir Francis Drake, Dante, the unidentified author of The Song of Solomon, Lorenzo de Medici," etc, etc (Dream on Monkey Mountain 312).
The problem, of course, is that this long-view memorialization tends easily to resolve itself into a telelogical progress narrative, where things are just fine and dandy now.
As I said, it's interesting that in the women's and queer literature the focus is much less on the past, and much more os on the present. In a way, it's a literature of anti-memorialization, which often reads itself against the great canonical figures of Caribbean literature, such as C.L.R. James and his vision of Caribbean masculinity. Rather than focussing on the consequences of colonial violence, this literature tends to focus on the more recent history of physical and rhetorical violence enacted as part of the postcolonial identity and nation-building projects, suggesting that these 'other' voices are in danger of becoming silenced and rhetorically erased just as happened with the original slaves and indentured workers. It suggests that too much memorialization is useless if it blinds us to the problems of the present, or refuses to address them. There is a sense of deep anxiety in the literature that if something is not done now, there might not even be enough of those identities (particularly queer) left even to form the basis of a proper memorialization in the future.
Eileen, I haven't been ignoring your question about the larger forces which underpin historical movement, I've just been wrestling with it. The mechanistic "I've got to reproduce" "selfish" gene doesn't fully work for me, for the reasons you stated. At the same time, we can't deny that it lies if not at the root of our behaviour as a species, then somewhere close to it.
The "co-operative" gene hypothesis also makes a lot of sense, but the question which underlies it for me is then "why?" Why co-operate? To what end? Not simply so we can mate, since we've ruled that out as the primary mover.
So I'd like to put in my vote for the "loneliness" gene, or the "anti-loneliness" gene, I suppose. Perhaps the basic underlying principle behind both the "selfish" and the "co-operative" ideas is the fact that we just have a very basic need for companionship with others like us. Reproduction achieves this through intimacy with a mate, through the act of sex itself which brings us closer, and through an enlarged family group which means more companionship. Co-operation among individuals and groups would push the prospect of loneliness further away by building larger and larger networks.
Thank you for an interesting question to ponder. I'll be giving this a lot more thought.
Not that I want to commit a materialist or rationalist reduction (since, like Kofi, I think there's a strong desire for being-together), but I think cooperation is probably better than conflict at creating a liveable lifeworld for species, who, after all, have to live with others. Here I think of the orchid and the wasp, working, and, yes, becoming together.
I think cooperation is also a better explanation of the patterns of human interaction. Groups have been discovered who live cooperatively in isolated areas, so isolated that they have no conflicts with anyone else because they've simply never met anyone else. Conflict or the threat of violence doesn't explain why they group together, especially in societies whose diet is such that each member could survive fairly well alone (societies that don't hunt large animals for food, for example).
Which i guess brings us to the question of whose "human history" are we talking about anyway? It would be so interesting, if it was possible, to take every new isolated culture that has been "discovered" by the Western world since, say, 1850, and trace their histories back as far as possible. I wonder if such a study would give us a massively different view of "human history," and what drives it, than our study of the bigger, more dominant world cultures/institutions that define the world as we experience it.
Now I'm going to have to re-read Mandeville and some of his sources and antecedents to see if there's a way that their readings of other cultures can be read as alternate human histories, rather than only as mirrors of Latin Christendom.
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