Has the plantation become a cliche?
It is not, of course, that the plantation is irrelevant, but that it has become a cliche that deadens us to the dynamic fashioning of place and self that has informed the Caribbean's relationship to the world. Against our exceptionalist tendencies, they point out that plantation slavery was rarely the only game in town, and it was but one unit of power and labor in a complicated and interlocking system that stretched across the region, the hemisphere, and the world. We regard these global or "external" contexts as irrelevant, or contextual only in a distant sense (whether hostile or salutary), but the authors urge us to see them as thoroughly constitutive: what we regard as authentically "Caribbean," "Kittitian," or "Cuban," emerge partly out of the engagement with what is not local or connected in an obvious way.
It is the (re-) definition of creolization that is perhaps most critically at stake here, as the authors call for a more flexible understanding of creole identities and practices that reject notions of origin, stasis, singularity and authenticity, in favor of entanglement, folding, doubling, writing on surfaces that are already marked upon, contamination. Like other skeptics they think the uncritical celebration of the Caribbean as a model of hybridity and migration downplays the inequities and violence that have shaped these processes, and ignores the insights that a sustained attention to those who stay "at home" would also yield.
The Caribbean people we as scholars claim to study, past and present, have configured and re-configured themselves and the places they have carved out in the world in complicated ways, responding to the promises and perils of globalization and other temporal and spatial phenomena. While the authors insist on historical specificity in the theorization of creolization, they suggest throughout this study that our interpretive lenses are clouded by reliance on assumptions that have lost their explanatory power in our complicated present: we need to catch up with our "subjects"! It takes an ongoing engagement with global occurrences to grasp the Caribbean, and it takes a textured and interdisciplinary knowledge of Caribbean realities to begin to understand the world.
The authors go on to demonstrate this; they apply a wealth of disciplinary paradigms to a variety of contexts, along with critics' quarrels with the efficacy of those paradigms. This makes for an extremely dense, and sometimes even dizzying discussion of historical sociologists, anthropologists of slavery, social historians, philosophers and literary critics, theorists of globablization, post- coloniality, diaspora, and political economy. Who is the "peasant" in an age when tourism replaces agriculture, and when family sociality has been transformed? To what extent are world-system theoretical perspectives useful? What can a comparison of Martinican and Cuban sugar production in the nineteenth century tell us about global economic patterns? How can our conceptions of "resistance" acknowledge accommodation and mimicry as crucial components? Crichlow and Northover scrupulously tease out what they find useful or problematic about a particular perspective; and sometimes a problematic concept can be made to be useful.
I found their ruminations to be parallel to questions that are being asked in other contexts. Novelists have been exploring the politics of sexuality and resistance during the period of slavery and indenture. Historian Vincent Brown has asked recently about how the "social death" thesis proposed by Orlando Patterson is being given new life in recent studies of the period of slavery in the African-American context. Regarding the nature of resistance and agency, Donette Francis concludes, after reading five fictional heroines traversing the Caribbean and North America, that agency should be understood as "the continuous and sequential range of human reactions to circumscription, which entails cycles of both losses and gains," instead of "a singular moment of resistance" or "a fixed destination to which one arrives with the originating act forever completed" (11). About creolization, Nigel Bolland has said that it "is not a homogenizing process, but rather a process of contention between people who are members of social formations and carriers of cultures, a process in which their own ethnicity is continually re-examined and redefined in terms of the relevant oppositions between different social formations at various historical moments" (Bolland 72).
Crichlow's sustained discussions of St. Lucian cultural and political life are an opportunity to see in practice what it means to conceive of democratic participation without a commitment to the state as such, in the case of today's rowdy "Lucians," and to discern the workings of class, respectability, and the interplay of anglophone and francophone values in nineteenth-century flower festivals. These original portraits bear out the book's overall premise: that our present requires a particular descriptive force. Current paradigms and terms are limiting, and we need to re-orient ourselves to hear familiar terms anew, or to dismiss them altogether, if need be. What are the terms required for the new relationships and practices that position the Caribbean in relation to the world? The authors seek paradigms that are open to contingency, instability, the unexpected; that can recognize interdependency and linkages within as well as across entities; and that see historical and other processes as constituted and reconstituted, but also precisely as processes rather than single events. We should recognize that while power of all kinds shapes and limits people, it never does so consistently, and thus--crucially, and perhaps even maddeningly--even the most subjugated exert an imaginative force over their circumstances that might lead them to borrow liberally from the very elements that overpower them, in the process of fashioning their lives.
Ultimately, they want us to understand how someone like King Arthur, resident of a West Kingston garrison, with the disparate objects in his car and in his home, assembles various routes of self-making, as he works out and affirms his membership in a variety of constituencies across the nation and the globe: "recycled objects coming from various elsewheres particularized by their histories, in the Atlantic and beyond it, reinvested with various meanings"--meanings which "sometimes clashed," but which suggested a desire to be seen (Crichlow 173). This is an approach to making place that is open-ended, and it is this sort of open-endedness that the authors appeal to us as scholars to embrace.
Bolland, Nigel A. 1992. "Creolization and Creole Societies: A Cultural Nationalist View of Caribbean Social History." Intellectuals in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean. Vol.1 Ed. Alistair Hennessy. London: Macmillan.
Brown, Vince. 2009. "Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery." American Historian Review (December 2009): 1231-1249.
Francis, Donette. 2009. Fictions of Feminine Citizenship: Sexuality and the Nation in Contemporary Caribbean Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies and English