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The Caribbean Novel since 1945Cultural Practice, Form, and the Nation-State$

Michael Niblett

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9781617032479

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781617032479.001.0001

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Cultural Practice, Creolization, and the Nation-State

Cultural Practice, Creolization, and the Nation-State

(p.3) Introduction Cultural Practice, Creolization, and the Nation-State
The Caribbean Novel since 1945

Michael Niblett

University Press of Mississippi

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter provides an overview of the main themes covered in the present study. Of primary concern is the relationship between national transformation and literary form. The starting point for this book on the Caribbean novel since 1945 is the postwar conjunction that Dépestre characterized as full of “democratic and anti-colonial hopes.”—a period when the colonial edifice seemed to be crumbling and popular nationalist movements were emerging across the Caribbean to challenge for power. The chapter also makes the case for the author’s approach to the foregoing themes, followed by an overview of the subsequent chapters.

Keywords:   Caribbean novel, fiction, national transformation, literary form

In January 1946, President Élie Lescot of Haiti was toppled in a revolution that, for at least some of its participants, drew its inspiration from surrealism. The visit of the surrealist writer André Breton to Port-au-Prince a month earlier had encouraged the radical student newspaper La Ruche—edited by, among others, René Dépestre and Jacques-Stéphen Alexis—to dedicate a special edition to Breton in which, galvanized by his lectures, they called for national insurrection.1 The authorities promptly seized the newspaper and imprisoned the editorial team, sparking student protests and, on the back of this unrest, a general strike. The rapidity with which the strike took hold is an indication that while the La Ruche affair may have acted as something of a catalyst, a desire for change among a broad cross section of the population had been building for some time. During the U.S. occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, a spirit of resistant nationalism had helped to unite Haitians across lines of color and ideology. However, the end of the occupation saw the reemergence of old tensions. When Lescot came to power in 1941, his policies only exacerbated the problem, alienating both the rural peasantry and the black urban elite. A pro-American mulâtre, he granted the U.S.-controlled Haitian-American Society for the Development of Agriculture the right to expropriate peasant land for planting rubber trees, while also waging an “antisuperstition” campaign against the vodun religion.2 By systematically filling his administration with light-skinned individuals, moreover, he defied the convention of at least appearing to reward competence over color and antagonized the black middle classes.3 The resentment bred by these actions prompted the emergence of a general front opposed to the ruling elite, paving the way for the revolution’s success.

The overthrow of Lescot thus seemed to represent a moment of promise for Haiti: it was, as Martin Munro observes, the “first instance of a successful popular revolt against a U.S.-backed regime in postwar New World politics.”4 As such, it chimed with the prevailing “democratic and anti-colonial hopes that the immediate aftermath of the [Second World War] had lit on every continent”: “We wanted,” wrote René Dépestre, “to demystify a society still shaped profoundly by a colonial heritage that the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) had not succeeded in effacing from our national life.”5 Such sentiments make it easy to see why surrealism, with its emphasis on the disruption of reified lifeworlds, should appeal to Haiti’s radical intellectuals. Yet this is not to say that surrealist literary (p.4) aesthetics simply provided an imported model for the Haitian writer to imitate (in the way that earlier poetic conventions—Parnassian verse, for example— had done). The emphasis now fell on the development of an indigenous Caribbean aesthetic, with authors seeking inspiration in radical black journals such as Légitime défense (1932) and Tropiques (1941–45), as well as in the work of writers like Jacques Roumain and Aimé Césaire (who had visited Haiti the year before Breton). To match an insurrectionary politics, an insurrectionary literary style was required.

However, the potential of the 1946 revolution quickly dissipated. Popular protest may have brought Lescot down, but it was a military junta that took control of his removal from office and installed the new president, Dumarsais Estimé, a provincial schoolteacher from the black middle class. In retrospect it is clear that the ousting of Lescot, which for the La Ruche group was to put an end to reactionary, racialized politics, ironically set the stage for the political dominance of Haiti’s noiriste factions, in particular the authentiques, who would seek to justify their leadership of the country on the grounds that their race made them the natural representatives of the Haitian people.6 The ultimate beneficiary of this shift in power was François Duvalier. Backed by the army, he secured the presidency in 1957, inaugurating a repressive dictatorship in which racial mystification was consistently used to obscure exploitative socioeconomic relations.

I begin with these events in Haiti because they introduce many of the issues addressed in this study: national insurrection and decolonization, the struggle for state power, ethnic chauvinism, class conflict, the relationship between rural and urban areas, and neocolonialism and imperialism. Of primary concern, however, is another issue to which the foregoing history draws attention: the relationship between national transformation and literary form. The starting point for this book on the Caribbean novel since 1945 is the postwar conjunction that Dépestre characterized as full of “democratic and anti-colonial hopes.”7 This was a period when the colonial edifice seemed to be crumbling and popular nationalist movements were emerging across the Caribbean to challenge for power. At the same time, fiction from the region was registering significant changes in style and form.8 We have already seen the overlap between the politics and aesthetics of liberation in Haiti. But one could just as well begin with Jamaica’s winning the right to internal self-government in 1944 and the appearance five years later of V. S. Reid’s seminal novel New Day, which, in retelling the island’s history from the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865 to the promulgation of the new constitution, pioneered the use of a modified Jamaican vernacular. Or one could take the granting of département status to Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana in 1946: seemingly holding out the promise of equality, this move was promoted by Césaire, a deputy in France’s Constituent Assembly and the author whose Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939) had earlier given lyrical expression to the revolutionary cry of negritude. Or, at a later date, expectations were (p.5) again raised by the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which encouraged the return to Havana of “many aspiring writers scattered throughout Europe and the United States who saw in the revolution the affirmation of all their hopes for national renewal.”9

These examples could be said to bear out Frantz Fanon’s observation in The Wretched of the Earth that the “crystallization of the national consciousness will both disrupt literary styles and themes, and also create a completely new public.”10 With this in mind, this book will examine the way in which Caribbean fiction has registered and represented the nation-state, understanding the nation in its relationship to the state as, pace Michel-Rolph Trouillot, the “culture and history of a class-divided civil society, as they relate to issues of state power …. [The nation] is that part of the historically derived cultural repertoire that is translated in political terms.”11 I emphasize the distinction between nation and state because their conflation in much of the criticism produced in the field of postcolonial studies has led in practice to a lack of consideration of state issues, and of the social dimensions of the anticolonial struggle, in favor of a more narrowly national (and national-cultural) focus, usually framed in relation to problems of identity and representation.12 While identity and representation remain important areas of concern here, I hope that the attention to nation and state in the Caribbean context will allow for a better understanding of conflicts over modalities of social organization, as well as of the complex and variable forms that the relationship between state and nation can take.

However, of equal interest are instances where the representation of the nation runs into difficulty. This might happen because an independent nation-state is absent (as in the cases of the French départements or Puerto Rico) or because other forms of community—the diaspora, for example—are posited as the content of experience. But it might also occur because of a disjuncture between state and nation. Most commonly in the region, this has arisen when nationalist projects have failed to meet the needs and desires of the people— a dissipation of potential epitomized by the events in Haiti after 1946. As we will see, the crises suffered by such projects (and later by the nation-state itself under the pressures of neoliberal globalization) are frequently translated into crises of representation. In turn, confronted by societies struggling with new and inherited modes of oppression, Caribbean writers have sought to reshape the novel form in an effort to articulate new possibilities for social regeneration and to project original kinds of collectivities (Fanon’s “completely new public”).

Integral to such attempts to renarrate social experience have been other forms of cultural practice. Any endeavor to recover the histories repressed under colonialism, and to construct a Caribbean aesthetic able to integrate this past into a critical or emancipatory vision of the present, will entail consideration of such practices, since they have so often served as repositories of memory and vessels for subaltern agency. Hence do we find the Créolistes—Jean Bernabé, (p.6) Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant—in their now widely cited manifesto, Éloge de la créolité, arguing that “our writing must accept without reservation our popular beliefs, our magico-religious practices, our marvellous realism, the rituals tied to the ‘milan,’ to the phenomena of the ‘majò,’ to the ‘ladja’ duels, to the ‘koudmen.’”13 Similarly, Wilson Harris identifies cultural vestiges and practices such as limbo, vodun, Carib bush-baby omens, Arawak zemi, and Latin and English inheritances as “epic stratagems available to Caribbean man in the dilemmas of history which surround him.”14 Indeed, he goes on to contend that in fact “the subtle key to a philosophy of history is embedded in the misunderstood arts of the Caribbean,” such as limbo, vodun, and so forth.15 These practices contain within themselves a means to rethink how we might understand the region and the experiences of its peoples. In registering both the specificity of those experiences and the world-historical forces that have shaped the Caribbean, they embody a philosophy of history that is, as Harris puts it, “original to us and yet capable of universal application.”16

Echoing Harris, but in terms that make explicit the social imperatives at stake in this emphasis on such cultural resources, Earl Lovelace argues that the indigenous traditions of the folk—“indigenous” here used in such a way as to include the process of indigenization17—should be seen not merely as “lower class entertainments” but as enabling the establishment of “the philosophical bases of our own civilization.”18 Such traditions, he reiterates, must be returned to as “a source of philosophy or ethics or economics”; and if colonial distortion has circumscribed their meaning, as it has done with the folkloric figure of Anancy, for example (who is seen only as “a scamp, a smart-man”), then it is necessary to revise such bias, to conceive of Anancy “not as a trickster, or ‘smart-man,’ but as a subtle philosopher tricking the individual into the recognition of the consequences of bad choices and bad faith.”19 Lovelace’s perspective highlights the social or class content of these indigenous folk resources: not only do they provide the foundation for an alternative cultural identity to the historyless nonidentity imposed by the oppressor, but they do so in conjunction with a view to the total transformation of society, to its reorganization in relation to the needs of the poor and the powerless. Lovelace, moreover, goes on to emphasize the critical importance of the body to such cultural practices. A locus for the exercise of domination on the one hand, the body has been a key site of resistance on the other. Through activities such as dance and ritual, the body has been able to articulate a sense of agency and personhood otherwise denied in colonial and, often, despite independence, postcolonial contexts. I turn next to this corporeal history.

Among the Caribbean folktales collected and reworked in Raphaël Confiant’s Contes créoles des Amériques, “La bête-à-sept-têtes” (The Seven-Headed Beast) provides a useful illustration of the historical content embedded in such tales. (p.7) When Ma Lôlô discovers one morning that the Beast has not only “devoured all that she had planted in her garden” (dévoré tout ce qu’elle avait planté dans son jardin) but also left in its wake a mountain of excrement, she bursts into such a fit of anger that the monster reappears and, via a magic incantation, forces her to eat its feces.20 The next day, accompanied by the eldest of her three sons, Ma Lôlô returns to the garden, only for the same fate to befall them both. On the third day, she and the second son are subjected to the Beast’s vindictiveness. On the fourth day, however, she arrives with her youngest son, Ti-Pascal, whose powerful talisman causes the Beast’s heads to fall off. The monster immediately grows a new set, and a series of beheadings and reheadings ensues before Ti-Pascal finally overcomes his adversary with the help of a potion.

This tale slyly confronts and denounces the system of plantation slavery. The Beast’s destruction of Ma Lôlô’s garden and the theft of her produce figure the colonial exploitation of land and labor, its power to make her eat excrement suggesting the control exerted by the colonizer over the bodies of the colonized, and in particular the violence inflicted on the female body under slavery.21 Ti-Pascal’s eventual victory, however, represents the hope that a way can be found to overcome a seemingly unstoppable oppressor (although that it is Ti-Pascal who assumes the active role, while his mother remains a passive victim, indicates a problematic gendering of resistance, an issue to which I return later in this study). The tale as Confiant presents it, moreover, retains elements of performativity (songs, chants, calls to the audience) that highlight its oral provenance and draw attention to the fact that it was itself a form of opposition to the attempted regulation of corporeality by the plantation regime.

Thus the story underscores the dual character of the body as a site of both domination and resistance and emphasizes its significance to any analysis of the historical experiences of Caribbean societies. Understood as constitutively shaped by material conditions of existence and discursive practices, and differentiated along lines of sex, gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality (categories that are themselves structured and restructured by the dominant mode of production), the body is central to the reproduction of social life—and, more specifically, to the reorganization of societies under capitalism and the institutionalization of colonial power relations. The economic connection between the development of Europe from the sixteenth century onward and the expropriation of resources from the New World is well established. So too is the way in which, as Marx put it, the “veiled slavery of the wage-labourers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal.”22 But these connections also produced and necessitated correspondences at the corporeal level.

The reprogramming of populations for life and work in the world of market capitalism entailed a reprogramming of the body. The production of the isolated individual—the monadic subject of capitalist modernity—took place against the backdrop of the increasing rationalization of society, whereby “the (p.8) traditional or ‘natural’ [naturwüchsige] unities, social forms, human relations, cultural events, even religious systems, are broken up in order to be reconstructed more efficiently in the form of post-natural processes or mechanisms.”23 Across what were emerging as the core economies of Europe, this process of rationalization meant the separation of the workers from the land and their conversion into “free” wage laborers. Unable to immediately adapt themselves to their new condition, however, the workers were subjected to regulation designed to refit them for insertion into the new socioeconomic structures. As Marx summarizes it: “The agricultural folk [were] first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded and tortured by grotesquely terroristic laws into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage-labour.”24 This remolding of the body into an isolated, productive unit of energy intensified with the expansion of the factory system. Here the division and supervision of labor, and regulation by the clock and bell, became the norm.

But these changes were crosscut, too, by a new sexual division of labor and the reorganization of gender relations. As Silvia Federici points out, the “primitive accumulation” on which the development of capitalist relations was premised included the subjugation of “women’s labour and women’s reproductive function to the reproduction of the work-force,” the “construction of a new patriarchal order, based on the exclusion of women from waged-work and their subordination to men,” and the “mechanization of the proletarian body and its transformation, in the case of women, into a machine for the production of new workers.”25 In this view, we must understand gender not as a “purely cultural reality” but as “a specification of class relations,” with feminine and masculine identities coded as the carriers of specific work functions.26

New modalities of thought also emerged from the reorganization of society. Capitalism’s separation of “living and active humanity” from the “natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature” impacted on the structure of Enlightenment thinking.27 An opposition was established between nature and culture that was to underpin a notion of progress as requiring nature’s subjugation by culture. Culture, or the “human mind, which overcomes superstition,” was equated with the consolidation of an abstracted, sovereign subject over and against the profusion of matter.28 At the level of the individual, this schema relegated the body to the status of messy corporeality and so positioned it as needing constant regulation by the mind. Integrated also into the new sexual division of labor, the schema identified women with a “degraded conception of corporeal reality” and thereby construed them as inferior to men, who were viewed as more closely associated with the mind and rationality.29

Such hierarchies became similarly integral to the ideological presentation of class relations. If the proletariat were to be equated with the body, a mass to be disciplined by the factory, workhouse, and prison, then the bourgeoisie (p.9) were to be equated with the mind. This entailed the production of a corporeality that was likewise highly regulated, only in less oppressive and spectacular ways.30 Through schooling and socialization, the middle classes were inculcated with manners, habits, and dispositions that emphasized control over the “low” body and its “vulgar” impulses: corporeality was enclosed to ensure the subject “progressed” beyond the blurring of nature and culture to become the rational monad of modernity—a “privatised and largely passive ‘consciousness’ systematically detached from [the] world.”31 Importantly, this form of bodily regulation enabled an appearance of self-determination by way of its naturalization in the very habits of the individual: under the auspices of an inculcated internal limit as to what constitutes rational behavior, the bourgeois subject became self-regulating.

Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice provides a particularly rewarding way of thinking about how social structures and relations of power are reproduced in and through the body. Positing a dialectical relationship between material determinants and mental schemata, Bourdieu argues that existence is shaped by the interaction between the body and a structured organization of space and time. The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (for example, the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, “systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations.”32 Through the habitus, “the structure of which it is the product governs practice, not along the paths of mechanical determinism, but within the constraints and limits initially set on its inventions.”33 However, within these constraints resides the potential for the production of an infinite series of thoughts, perceptions, expressions, and actions, which can also feed back to—and so perpetuate or modify—the underlying structure. As the product of the history inculcated into individuals via practices shaped by objective conditions, the habitus is an incorporated history, an “embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history.”34

Bourdieu’s theory thus draws attention once again to the body as a key site for the contestation of relations of power that would present themselves as inevitable. Moreover, while his analyses apply to social reproduction and class domination in general, much of what they uncover was more obviously visible in the context of slavery, where conditions did not allow for the indirect, impersonal domination that the system of wage labor ultimately secures.35 Instead the colonizer had to rely on elementary physical violence in conjunction with explicit symbolic domination to inculcate the enslaved with a habitus attuned to the power relations of the plantation regime. Indeed, the institutional containment and regulation of the body in Europe—the reduction of the corporeal to “low” matter in need of subjugation by a rational mind—had its extreme and (p.10) bloody underside exposed in the colonies. Here the same ideologies were rearticulated to facilitate the codification of the enslaved as uncivilized physicality and the colonizer as civilizing consciousness. Thus we have Russell McDougall’s observation that “the great age of global exploration solidified into Empire at roughly the same time that [the] relocation of the body [in confinement] took place. The age of imperialism ‘completed’ the body.”36 In other words, the conquest of the New World’s “wilderness” and the taming of the colonized were to signal both the final triumph of culture over nature and the consolidation of the bourgeois sovereign subject. Bodily behavior, in fact, became something of an obsession for colonists in the Caribbean, the “unseemly gestures” and “lascivious attitudes” of the enslaved and their postemancipation descendants being a common source of concern.37 Underlying this concern was the implicit recognition that such movements, and the dances, rituals, and other cultural practices they were associated with, signaled a historicity—a creative agency—that the colonized were not supposed to possess. The obsessive regulation of the colonized’s corporeality was meant to reduce the body to nothing more than an automatic component in the system; but the imposition of a habitus adjusted to the colonial order was never absolute, and in the “unseemly” or undisciplined gestures of the colonized lay the means to contest this system.

Denied access to other forms of historical inscription, the enslaved turned to the amanuensis of the flesh to sustain a countermemory. After emancipation, the body would continue in its role as archive and expressive instrument, reembodying past articulations of resistance and community against new kinds of constraints. Moreover, it would play a similar role for other peoples who were brought to the region and subjected to the depredations of the colonial order, most notably the indentured East Indians. Hence, writes Lovelace:

When we look at our dances and listen to our songs, when we experience the vitality and power of the steelband and hear a stickfight chant and watch the leaps and dexterity of the bongo dance … , we know we have a history of ourselves as subjects. It has not been erased, for it is carried in our bodies.38

The body as it links to the practices of the subaltern class thus opens on to a history that has persisted beneath the apparently ahistorical condition imposed by colonialism. These corporeal practices manifest a habitus coexistent with but different from that structured by the colonial regime. As such, they contain the seeds of a potential alternative to the colonial habitus, for they carry a social content that presupposes new social relations and forms of collectivity. Hence the importance of cultural practice to the national liberation struggle, in which embodied local practice or knowledge is transformed into a national culture that incarnates a national consciousness. For liberation theorists like Fanon and Amilcar Cabral, moreover, this national consciousness was supposed to give on (p.11) to a social consciousness that would demand the total transformation of society in line with the needs of the poor and the powerless. The antecedents of this transformation lie in those subaltern cultural practices and their opposition to the dominant order.

We can trace the importance of such cultural forms to the development of anticolonial nationalisms in the Caribbean more concretely through religious practice. Religion has been central to a number of resistance movements throughout the region. In the Anglophone Caribbean, for instance, resistance by the enslaved, such as Tacky’s Rebellion in 1760 and the so-called Baptist War of 1831–32 in Jamaica, drew on religious belief as a source of unity and inspiration. Equally, in the postemancipation period, religion played a key role in events such as the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865. Significantly, the various religious movements involved in these events did not just serve to encourage their communities’ actions but were bound up with the very creation and coming to consciousness of those communities. Tacky’s Rebellion provides the clearest example here: researchers have argued that it was the first slave rebellion to incorporate people of different tribal origins, something Monica Schuler attributes to the rise of Myal as a Pan-African religion “which addressed itself to the entire slave society, rather than to the microcosms of separate African groups.”39 The role of Myal in the rebellion was thus linked to its rallying of a resistant Pan-African ethnic identity, but one that was at the same time already gesturing toward an Afro-Jamaican identity. In bringing the separate tribal traditions together within the space of Jamaica, Myal—itself an apparently new Caribbean phenomenon modeled on West African secret cult societies—emphasized the common African connection yet also signaled the transformation of these traditions within the new environment, a transformation tied to the claim now made to this environment. Here, then, a creolized religious practice became inseparable from the development of a kind of proto-creole nationalism.

Unsurprisingly, the Haitian Revolution provides the most striking instance of such developments. Again, Afro-Caribbean religious (and bodily) practice played a central role in raising a resistant consciousness: according to Haitian oral tradition, the revolution began “with the dance of the lwa, led by a mambo (priestess) and the famed Boukman, at a ceremony at Bois Caïman.”40 This consciousness would develop into a national consciousness during the struggle that would see Haiti become the second state in the hemisphere to declare itself independent and the first black republic. To the extent that it institutionalized “blackness” as the index of Haitian citizenship—the Imperial Constitution of 1815, promulgated by Jean-Jacques Dessalines (the first chief of state of the independent Haiti), stated that all Haitians were to be referred to as noirs and that “no white man, whatever his nationality, should set foot in Haiti as a master or property owner”41—the republic could be said to have defined itself in terms of a racial nationalism. Yet Dessalines’s emphasis on Haitians as noirs was in fact meant (p.12) to defuse (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) the antagonism between blacks and mulattoes in the country: noir was to be an ideological concept that would identify all Haitian citizens whatever their shade of skin.42 Moreover, while Africa remained a source of inspiration among many Haitian politicians and intellectuals (albeit one they were ambivalent about), they nevertheless clearly emphasized the national specificity of the Haitian experience. Some even began to conceive this specificity in terms of the creolization of cultural influences: “We quite like the American are transplanted, stripped of traditions,” wrote Emile Nau in 1836, “but there is in the fusion of European and African cultures, which constitutes our national character, something that makes us less French than the American is English. This advantage is a real one.”43

Such thinking was complemented by the impulse among several of the revolution’s architects, as well as later intellectuals, to situate and conceptualize Haiti within the modern world order.44 Despite its isolation by the imperial powers, Haiti was to be not an anomalous enclave but a modern nation-state in which diverse legacies, including, for example, the universalism of French revolutionary rhetoric, were to be indigenized and given radical new meaning as part of an attempt to model an alternative articulation of modernity. Useful here is Michael Dash’s gloss on C. L. R. James’s understanding of the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath. In James’s view, writes Dash, the desire for emancipation was “expressed in the form of the struggle to become [a] modern state … and to achieve technological power”:

By focusing on state formation as an alternative revolutionary strategy, James was already shifting attention from resistance as marronnage (that is, the creation of isolated communities, united by shared defiance of a dominant force) to the importance of the state—a state that would try to restructure relations shaped by the plantation or colonialism and produce a new self consciousness through the creolizing power of the state.45

The revolutionary state, then, was to transform the modern condition into which Haiti had been thrust by the plantation system (for in its agro-industrial organization, the plantation was, as James argued, a “modern system”),46 producing an indigenized Haitian consciousness coincident with a Haitian nation-state organized around the social needs and demands of the Haitian people.

Chapters 1 and 2 in particular will examine in more detail the elaboration of this and other nationalist projects in the Caribbean. But it is worth making a few general remarks here. The examples cited earlier underscore the significance of cultural practice to anticolonial resistance, as well as to the cultivation of a national consciousness. As Neil Larsen asks in his glossing of Fanon: “Does not the ‘national question’ become in fact the question of national culture itself as precisely that sphere within which a ‘national consciousness’ makes the concrete (p.13) transition from purely objective political theory and strategy to the more subjective level of mass, everyday experience?”47 But they also highlight the question of the form of the nation-state and its coincidence (or otherwise) with the lived experiences and demands of the majority of its inhabitants, a question that, in the Caribbean context, is inseparable from a consideration of indigenization and creolization as processes that have indelibly marked the social fabric. Fundamental to this book is the understanding that these issues will be registered—in however mediated a fashion—in literary form, for there is “no material content, no formal category of artistic creation, however mysteriously transmitted and itself unaware of the process, which did not originate in the empirical reality from which it breaks free.”48 How, then, have those histories of rupture and reconstruction, of excision and regrafting, of creolization and indigenization, found their way into the form of the Caribbean novel? How has the Caribbean novel articulated the particular character of modernity in the region, and how has it offered utopian glimpses of different social formations? And how has the nation—itself having served to mediate social consciousness and cultural practice—been mediated in literary form? These are the key questions that underwrite this book.

In the remainder of this introduction, I make the case for my approach to the foregoing themes. My emphasis on the nation-state in particular requires some discussion, given what is fast becoming the orthodoxy of postnationalism in the academy, not least within the field of postcolonial studies. Indeed, in what was, at least until the mid-1990s, its dominant poststructuralist avatar, the critical thrust of this field—its disavowal of all forms of nationalism, hostility toward totalities, and celebration of liminality, migrancy, and border crossing—has been integral to the elaboration of postnational perspectives. I am thinking, for example, of the work of Homi Bhabha, whose antihistoricist conceptualization of the nation as narration has provided the vocabulary for many of the current dismissals of the nation-state as a relevant unit of analysis. The distrust of nationalisms exhibited by much postcolonialist-poststructuralist criticism can be traced to the setbacks suffered by national liberation movements following the reassertion of imperial dominance in the 1970s and their own failures in delivering on emancipatory promises.49 More recent arguments for thinking postnationally tend to combine this distrust with what is claimed to be the obsolescence of the nation-state in the age of globalization. However, the undifferentiating disavowal of all nationalisms, in the first instance, and approaches to globalization, in the second, that overstate its impact and overlook the way it is articulated with nation-states (and not necessarily in opposition to them) raises a series of problems that I want to take up here in relation to the Caribbean. These include a failure to theorize fully the workings of power at a global level; a lack of attention to intrastate struggles (including class conflict); a celebration (p.14) of global flows and cultural hybridity that obscures structural inequalities and downplays the often violent nature of such interactions; and a haziness (arising from the relative lack of consideration given to state issues) about how and where an emancipatory politics might be grounded.

Let me first reemphasize that in attending to the nation-state, I am not seeking to reinstall it as the exclusive object of analysis and identification. Nor do I wish to treat it as a discrete or essential unit or view literary categories as equally essential units coinciding with national borders. Rather, my argument takes as its point of departure a world-systems standpoint, understanding the production of localities, nations, and regions in terms of how they are systemically related at a global level as specific social formations registering differential articulations of capitalist modernity as itself a worldwide, singular, and simultaneous yet everywhere uneven and heterogeneous phenomenon.50 Such an approach seems, in fact, to be demanded here, given the Caribbean’s historic imbrication in international movements of commodities and people, and the way its national territories have so often been marked by regional determinations—not least in the spheres of economics (due to the small size of many of the states) and literature (due to the tendency for writers to migrate around the region). The restructuring of the global economy since the early 1970s under the aegis of what Samir Amin terms the “the logic of unilateral capital” has deepened the massively uneven integration of the Caribbean into the world market, simultaneously driving many of its nation-states into crisis.51 To be clear, therefore, I am not suggesting that the nation-state in the current conjuncture has not run into difficulties, difficulties that threaten to destroy its historical role as a center for the accumulation of capital. But I do not think that these difficulties mean that we should abandon thinking about it. Indeed, in many ways they make such thinking even more necessary if one is to understand the pressures that weigh on the populations that remain within—and subject to—nation-states.

Moreover, critically analyzing the discourse of globalized flows and endless border crossings might help better to explain the power relations and historical forces that determine contemporary experience. Certain formulations of that discourse, especially those derived from postmodern or postcolonialistpoststructuralist paradigms, have tended to reify—in the very rush to expose all “given” social formations as formal constructs—the fluid vectors and nontotalizable fragments that the deconstruction of totalities is meant to unleash. The touchstone for such theorizations has been the idea of hybridity. Again, Bhabha’s work is instructive here: not only does he define postcolonialism as a concept that works against nationalism, but he also deploys hybridity as that which disrupts nationalism’s “unisonant discourse.”52 A variety of subsequent theorists, even if they otherwise disagree with Bhabha’s position, have continued to employ hybridity in similar fashion.53 As Shalini Puri argues in her critical commentary on this tendency, hybridity—now often used interchangeably (p.15) with terms such as creolization, mestizaje, and transculturation—has been both abstracted from a series of cultural practices into an “epistemological principle” and yoked squarely to postnationalism.54

The way those other terms have been adopted as near synonyms for hybridity indicates the extent to which the hybridization discourse has consumed the theoretical production of the Caribbean, where much of the intellectual work on creolization and the like was first performed. Indeed, as a number of critics have observed, the Caribbean itself has increasingly been abstracted into an emblem of a putative global hybridity, best captured in James Clifford’s oft-cited remark “We are all Caribbeans now in our urban archipelagos … hybrid and heteroglot.”55 This formulation conveys some sense of how such abstractions can all too easily elide social and structural inequalities (“we” are manifestly not “all Caribbeans” when it comes to the particular political-economic pressures that weigh on different regions, nations, and localities; indeed, Caribbeans are not all the same Caribbeans with regard to how they experience such pressures). But it also points to the way in which the use of the Caribbean in conjunction with discourses such as creolization to name a global reality understood as defined by uncontained cultural flows and postnational fragmentation actually works against the general thrust of those discourses as they were formulated in the Caribbean. Indeed, the conflation of the concepts of creolization, transculturation, and mestizaje, which had been invested with specific sociopolitical valences in certain concrete contexts, is achieved by emptying them precisely of this sociopolitical content to leave them as little more than catchwords for cultural dispositions.

Broadly speaking, these concepts have tended in the Caribbean to be articulated with nationalist projects, not against them.56 Of course, different states or movements or thinkers have employed them at different times for different ends, from reactionary attempts to mask class or racial domination to progressive programs aimed at bringing about radical social change. As this implies, a term like “creolization” was not simply a descriptive moniker; it was a way of understanding social relations, its meaning and role thus something to be fought over by competing interests with opposing views on how to organize society. Contrary to how the idea is often seen today, therefore, creolization (or transculturation or mestizaje) is not inherently emancipatory; it has the potential to become so, but only when linked—as it was in certain formulations in the Caribbean—to a critique of the existing social order and a historically grounded political project aimed at transforming state institutions, class relations, and economic modalities. Mimi Sheller accurately summarizes what is at stake here when she observes:

Earlier generations of Caribbean intellectuals invented theoretical terms such as “transculturation” (Ortiz … ), “creolization” (Brathwaite … ), and “transversality” (p.16) (Glissant … ) to craft powerful tools for intellectual critique of Western colonialism and imperialism, tools appropriate to a specific context and grounded in Caribbean realities.57

However, she continues:

The explosive, politically engaged, and conflictual mode of conceptualising creolization in the nationalist period of the 1970s has been met with a later usage, from a different (metropolitan) location, in which creolization refers to any encounter and mixing of dislocated cultures. This dislocation has enabled non-Caribbean metropolitan theorists to pirate the terminology of creolization for their own projects of de-centring and “global” mobility.58

Lost in this “pirating” are the political meanings and subaltern agency associated with those earlier conceptualizations, which were bound up with a broader insistence on struggling for the realization of the social demands of the poor and the powerless.

Before looking more closely at the theoretical coinages cited by Sheller, I take as a point of comparison an influential formulation of Caribbeanness from the 1990s, one that accords well with Sheller’s account of the general thrust of later projects of decentering and global mobility. This is Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Of course, this study is not written by a “non-Caribbean” theorist, and it remains very much concerned with the historical, geographic, social, and cultural specificities of the region. Nevertheless, in conceptualizing the Caribbean as “a meta-archipelago” that has “neither a boundary nor a center” and thus “flows outward past the limits of its own sea” to anywhere from Bombay and the Gambia to Canton and Bristol, Benítez-Rojo’s arguments do chime somewhat problematically with those dehistoricizing appropriations of the region as an abstract sign of hybridity.59 He argues that the, as he sees it, polyrhythmic, fractal, and chaotic quality of Caribbean cultural practices embodies the possibility of social transformation through an ability to sublimate violence: “Within this chaos of differences and repetitions, of combinations and permutations, there are regular dynamics that co-exist, and which, once broached within an aesthetic experience, lead the performer to re-create a world without violence.”60 Missing here is a consideration of the material contestation of the dominant order that would have also to take place if this desire to “re-create” the world is to become the progressive project it is clearly meant to be. In a move that corresponds to Bhabha’s privileging of the agonistic over the antagonistic, social conflict is evacuated, so that those polyrhythmic cultural practices now appear inherently emancipatory. Even then the lack of attention to social determinants raises the further problem as to where such emancipatory potential could be grounded. Benítez-Rojo’s arguments (p.17) begin from an analysis of the socioeconomic organization of the Caribbean under the plantation system, which he views as central to the creolization process on account of its role in the violent bringing together of cultures. But in moving to talk about the transformative potential of the resulting creolized cultural practices, he offers no comparable consideration of the social formations that might materialize this potential: creolization or the polyrhythmic interaction of cultures is reduced to an “aesthetic experience.”

This, I suggest, is a far cry from those earlier theories of Caribbean cultural dynamics. Fernando Ortiz’s concept of transculturation is instructive here, not least because Benítez-Rojo devotes a chapter to Ortiz in The Repeating Island in which he seeks to align Ortiz’s work with the critical thrust of his own. Beginning with the claim that Ortiz’s Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar touches on several of the interests of postmodern criticism but ultimately offers something different, Benítez-Rojo argues that the text suggests that “Caribbeanness should not be looked for in tobacco or in sugar, but rather in the counterpoint of the myth of the Peoples of the Sea and the theorem of the West.”61 I find this reading problematic for a number of reasons. First, Benítez-Rojo displaces Ortiz’s emphasis on the materialities of tobacco and sugar. His own counterpoint of the West and the Peoples of the Sea—the latter defined as societies that are born from marine cultural flows and “undeveloped in the epistemological, theoretical, technological, industrial, imperialist, etc., senses”62—ultimately fetishizes both. Each is assigned its own kinds of knowledge and reduced to, in the case of the Peoples of the Sea, a geographically nonspecific and socially undifferentiated cultural grouping, and, in the case of the West, an equally undifferentiated quasi-geographical unit. Although Benítez-Rojo speaks of the historical connections between the West and the so-called undeveloped world, his culturalist emphases obscure the unequal power relations and the systemic imbrication of these sites that produce them as “developed” and “undeveloped.” Combined with that elision of their internal social differentiation, what we are left with is transculturation as the interaction of cultural substances as they flow around the globe.

It seems to me that Ortiz’s ideas are better served in Fernando Coronil’s analysis of Cuban Counterpoint, which Coronil reads as enabling the demystification of the same kinds of reified categories that Benítez-Rojo seems to reestablish with his talk of the West and the Peoples of the Sea. “By examining how cultures shape each other contrapuntally,” contends Coronil,

Ortiz shows the extent to which their fixed and separate boundaries are the artifice of unequal power relations. A contrapuntal perspective may permit us to see how the Three Worlds schema is underwritten by fetishized geohistorical categories which conceal their genesis in inequality and domination.63 (p.18)

Though both Coronil and Benítez-Rojo hold up contrapuntal cultural interaction as centrally important, the different conclusions they come to in their discussions of Ortiz reflect contrasting understandings of what such interaction entails. Benítez-Rojo’s approach recalls the difficulties identified by Jonathan Friedman with theories of creolization. Friedman argues that the “mingling of cultures … is a metaphor that can only succeed in terms of a previous metaphor, that of culture as matter, in this case, apparently, a fluid.”64 He goes on to observe that this “substantialization of culture also leads to an understanding of the latter in terms of products rather than production,” so that “while allusion is made to the ‘social organization of meaning,’ the social organization as such all but disappears in references to flows of meaning.”65 We can see clear parallels here with the way Benítez-Rojo’s theorization of cultural counterpoint turns away from the issue of social reproduction and presents culture as a fluid substance. But this is not how cultural interaction qua transculturation is conceived in Ortiz’s work, where it is better understood precisely as a social process and as inseparable from indigenization in a particular environment.

Speaking of the different social groups and cultures that arrived in Cuba, Ortiz describes how each was torn from its “native moorings” and had to face the “problem of disadjustment and readjustment, of deculturation and acculturation.”66 But he locates these transculturations within the production of social reality: they cannot be divorced from the related disadjustment and readjustment of socioeconomic structures and techniques of production, which in turn reorganize social relations and determine the framework—the relations of power and modalities of domination and resistance—in which cultural practices are reproduced and refashioned. On the influx of peoples from across the Atlantic, whose diverse origins he carefully differentiates rather than subsuming under the sign of the West, he notes that “some of the white men brought with them a feudal economy,” while others “were urged on by mercantile and even industrial capitalism”:

And so various types of economy came in, confused with each other and in a state of transition, to set themselves up over other types, different and intermingled too, but primitive and impossible of adaptation to the needs of the white men at that close of the Middle Ages. The mere fact of having crossed the sea had changed their outlook. … And all of them, warriors, friars, merchants, peasants, came in search of adventure, severing their links with an old society to graft themselves on another, new in climate, in people, in food, customs, and hazards.67

Signal in this description of the transculturation process is the way it invokes the “transmigration” not of cultural substances but of socioeconomic structures and multiple class fractions, all of which are readapted and transformed within the new environment. Turning next to the arrival of enslaved Africans, Ortiz (p.19) is again careful to differentiate between the diverse cultures and levels of economic development of these peoples. Again, too, he describes their experiences not simply in terms of a “mingling” of cultures but in relation to their position within the plantation system and the particular organization of labor, land, and property it instantiated. Thus it is within the totality of these readjustments and the related production of new social relations that, as practices are refunctioned and reassembled, culture is remade.

The perspective on cultural interaction that Ortiz’s work opens up for us, then, emphasizes culture as practice and the materialities of the social world. The disassembly, intermixture, and reassembly of cultural forms are not independent of—nor in themselves determining of (as they often seem to become in more culturalist readings)—social reality but folded into its very production. This helps us understand the apparent contradiction that Coronil highlights in Cuban Counterpoint between Ortiz’s declaration that tobacco and sugar are “the two most important figures in the history of Cuba” and his claim that the “real history of Cuba is the history of its intermeshed transculturations.”68 In fact, as Coronil points out, this contradiction is precisely one in appearance only, for in Ortiz’s thinking, those transculturations are inseparable from the relations of production that organize Cuban reality: they are a part of the interactions and conflicts between human actors that determine, and are determined by, the socioeconomic structures that produce the commodities of tobacco and sugar, these commodities subsequently appearing as independent entities, and the social organization that determined their production as inevitable. For Coronil, Ortiz’s personification of tobacco and sugar helps reveal precisely how the appearance of commodities as “agents in their own right … conceals their origins in conflictual relations of production and confirms a commonsense perception of these relations as natural and necessary.”69 By treating tobacco and sugar not as things but as social actors, Coronil suggests, Ortiz “in effect brings them back to the social world which creates them, resocializes them as it were, and in so doing illuminates the society that has given rise to them.”70 Thus tobacco and sugar are the “two most important figures in the history of Cuba,” but only insofar as these commodities contain and conceal the social relations and collective labor that enable their production.

From this perspective, we can understand transculturation as not just a description of a process but an optic on commodity fetishism that can be used to unmask the human agency and structural determinants this fetishism occults. Once related to the whole network of human relations that organize reality, transculturation becomes a way to map the social totality, restoring a sense of historicity to social formations that otherwise appear immutable. As Coronil puts it, transculturation “breathes life into reified categories, bringing into the open concealed exchanges among peoples and releasing histories buried within fixed identities.”71 Rather than stopping where it identifies the heterogeneous (p.20) forces at work in society—as many later theories of hybridity do—transculturation moves to enable a totalizing perspective. By so doing—and without being in itself inherently emancipating—it highlights the possibility of reorganizing a hegemonic social order grasped now as the product of specific social relations.

Various other Caribbean theories of cultural interaction, while they need to be differentiated from transculturation, nevertheless share with it certain features that not only distinguish them from those later, problematic appropriations of ideas like creolization but also enable us to establish an alternative genealogy for such theories that should revise how they are understood more generally. As in Ortiz’s work, these formulations display an emphasis on the materialities of the social world, on conflictual relations of production, and on a dereifying totalizing perspective. For example, meditating on cultural identity and Indian labor, George Lamming argues that “the concept of labour and the relations experienced in the process of labour is the foundation of all culture, and this is crucial to what I mean by the Indian presence as a creative Caribbean reality”:

For it is through work that men and women make nature a part of their history. The way we see, the way we hear, our nurtured sense of touch and smell, the whole complex of feelings which we call sensibility, is influenced by the particular features of the landscape which has been humanized by our work; there can be no history of Trinidad and Guyana that is not also a history of the humanization of those landscapes by Indian and other forces of labour.72

A process of creolization is implied here (indeed, Lamming later uses both that term and “transculturation”), but it is understood in the context of indigenization through the reproduction of the social world and a material (bodily) interaction with the environment. According to this view, then, it is a case not of Indian cultural legacies flowing into the Caribbean melting pot but of the imbrication of the Indian community in a Caribbean social reality via the community’s contribution to the very act of materially reproducing that reality. Similarly, when Walter Rodney refers to creolization in his discussion of the relationship between people of African and Indian descent in late-nineteenth-century Guyana, he does so in relation to their “work environment and their responses to capital at the point of production.”73 Moreover, he locates any progressive potential that creolization might contain firmly within the context of a wider social struggle: its significance lies in the possibility of its helping to bring people together to strengthen a class-based alliance geared toward restructuring socioeconomic relations.74

In fact, creolization would increasingly be used as a way to articulate a class-based critique of the bourgeois nationalisms of the 1960s and 1970s in the Anglophone Caribbean. This theorization of creolization was used against other claims to creoleness, which had been deployed to cement class domination (further (p.21) giving the lie to celebrations of creolization as necessarily progressive). In Jamaica, for instance, lighter-skinned middle-class people of mixed African and European descent had sought to idealize such a mixture as a means to facilitate national integration; yet by doing so, they set themselves up—as the group that most closely reflected this mix racially—as the “natural” representatives of the nation over and above lower- and middle-class blacks.75 In The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica (1971), Kamau Brathwaite attacked this idealization of creoleness as inspired by colonialist conceptions of society:

The educated middle class, most finished product of unfinished creolization; influential, possessed of a shadow power; rootless (eschewing the folk) or Euro-orientated with a local gloss; Creo- or Afro-Saxons. For them society is “plural” in so far as it appears to remain divided into its old colonial alignments. They are “West Indian” in that they are (or can be) critical of the colonial power. But they are dependent upon it.76

Brathwaite was writing in the context of increasing popular disillusionment with postindependence realities, in particular the failures of elites to push through anything more than constitutional reform. Among a broad section of “the working class, the radical or revolutionary intelligentsia, and the very volatile urban youth” developed a renewed sense of cultural nationalism and a desire for wide-ranging social change.77 Brathwaite’s alternative view of creoleness to that upheld by the middle class accords with these sentiments, its foundation the traditions and practices of what he calls the “folk.” Having discussed the development of creole society in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Jamaica, he muses about whether “the process of creolization will be resumed in such a way that the ‘little’ tradition of the (ex-)slaves will be able to … provide a basis for creative reconstruction.”78 Here again creolization means more than just the mixing of cultures. Instead it represents a conflictual, class-differentiated process that is to be supported only insofar as it is connected to the possibility of political reconstruction—of the reorganization of the state and the renewal of national consciousness in line with those folk traditions and the alternative social consciousness they embody.

Turning now to the Francophone Caribbean, we can observe similar features in Édouard Glissant’s theorization of creolization. Although Glissant is responding to a different sociopolitical context—that of departmentalization—the thrust of his thinking is inextricable from a challenge to the existing organization of the state and to the role of the elite (in this case as little more than a cipher through which France maintains its grip on the départements). Indeed, in the seminal Le discours antillais, Glissant insists that when a population lacks control over the socioeconomic “structurations” of its own reality, cultural practice will become reified and hollow.79 Thus once more it is made clear that if (p.22) creolization is to aid in the construction of an emancipated cultural identity, it can only do so as part of a wider project with the aim of fundamentally reorganizing the social world and state institutions.

Despite its increasingly routine citation in evocations of creolization as the global flow of cultural forms, Glissant’s work—and indeed that of the other thinkers we have just examined—retains a sense of the grounds on which a new order is to be erected. Rather than jumping from the identification of creolization to the assumption that the dominant order is thereby overturned, there is an emphasis on where and how the potentially progressive thrust of certain creolized practices might be materialized. Often that site is the nation-state. Now, it may be that other forms of identification will be equally important (Glissant’s simultaneous emphasis on the significance of the region is instructive here). Moreover, the struggle cannot be prosecuted successfully on the national terrain alone: what is confronted—whether in the guise of colonialism, imperialism, or neoliberal globalization—is an international system, so that any attempt to overthrow that system must ultimately be global in scope. Nevertheless the works of Ortiz, Lamming, Rodney, Brathwaite, and Glissant share an assumption regarding the need to secure a new and different sociopolitical dispensation, and the nation-state continues to offer a means of doing so, even if only as a transitional ground in the struggle to realize a form of collectivity yet to come.

For this reason, despite claims that it is increasingly obsolescent in a postnational, globalized world, the nation-state remains central to the concerns of this book. In fact, as suggested earlier, those charges of obsolescence seem to have been overstated. While the drive toward the transnationalization of capital has intensified over the last forty years, and the autocentricity of the nation-state has weakened, the tension between nation-statism and internationalization is not new, nor are those apparently contradictory tendencies necessarily mutually exclusive. Capitalist expansion has historically been bound up with the formation of nation-states, and even in the contemporary period, private capital, including multinational corporations, continues to rely on the state for, among other things, the “guaranteeing of supplies of skilled labour power,” the “orderly regulation of commercial relations with other capitals and the provision of a stable currency,” and “the taking of measures to protect firms against the sudden dangers presented by the collapse of large suppliers and customers.”80 Moreover, certain states—primarily core capitalist ones—remain capable of regulating capital to some extent through national policies such as pay scales and minimum wages. But that some states are better able to do so than others only highlights that, while the world might be more closely integrated, the articulation of economic and political power continues to be, as Puri puts it, “highly unequal along axes of both class and nation.”81

Puri’s reference to class also points up the internal impact on nation-states of globally uneven development, in particular the way in which different class (p.23) fractions are differentially integrated into the world system. In peripheral countries especially, the benefits that might accrue to elites who work with or enable the penetration of transnational capital frequently come at the cost of the security of the masses, for whom—broadly speaking—neoliberal policies of deregulation and privatization mean the driving down of wages and the reduction of social and distributive policies. Moreover, imported global products that carry associations of First World power and luxury may well be appropriated by local elites as a means to reinforce their own power and status.82 A number of theories of globalization present the assimilation of such products into local meanings as evidence of the way that hybridization undermines claims that globalization will result in homogenization. This may well be the case, but such hybridization does not equally undermine either intrastate class domination or, more generally, the baleful impact of the capitalist law of value, an effect that the more enthusiastic celebrations of hybridity as an emancipatory force tend to overlook.83

One way of approaching such matters would be via the concept of cultural imperialism, but cultural imperialism understood not as the straightforward imposition of Western culture and products on the non-West, but as the penetration of what Leslie Sklair has called the transnational “culture-ideology of consumption.”84 This better captures the world-systemic quality of the social and cultural logic of late capitalism—its multiple sites and drivers that expose the fallacy of reducing it to the export of Western goods. Thinking in these terms helps avoid overemphasizing cultural products at the expense of the modalities of social reproduction. It spotlights the way this culture-ideology is inextricable from a process whereby the material instance of generalized commodity production rips through the social fabric, destroying or restructuring lifeways and writing itself on cultural practice, not least at the level of the body.

The issues at stake here, and their implications for Caribbean societies, are perhaps best summarized by Lovelace in his essay “In the Dance.” Highlighting the undeniable failures of various national projects in the Caribbean while emphasizing the importance of what they once stood for, he suggests:

Perhaps what has changed is that where once we were colonised by governments, we are now dominated by multinational outfits. National development is a term increasingly out of use. What we have is development by any who have the means to do so. We deceive ourselves if we believe that colonialism is dead, that there are no more struggles, no larger themes to relate to, that we are individuals in the global village waiting to be inspired. … In a sense, what we face today is a struggle between the promise of National Independence and being diffused into an impotent individualism by the propaganda of the post-colonial world.85

Crucial here is that without denying the changed global context and the multinational pressures that undermine the already questionable autocentricity (p.24) of the nation-state, Lovelace underscores the significance of the promise of national independence as the potential grounds on which to combat contemporary domination. Moreover, he is speaking not only of domination exercised by international actors but also of inequalities within the nation-state and of the need to fulfill the social goals that national independence was supposed to achieve but did not.

Tellingly, Lovelace uses dance—bodily movement—as an analogy for these issues. He describes the attainment of national independence as having been like getting to the entrance of a dance, finding there is some kind of restriction (“maybe it is the dress code, or your colour, or your class, or you don’t know the people”), focusing all your energies on getting in by fixing yourself up right, but then finding that once you get in, “you feel you must behave in a certain way, you feel you must restrict your behaviour to what you believe that they would expect of you.”86 By contrast, what is required once you are in the dance is to dance on your own terms. “Your job,” says Lovelace, addressing a “child of Independence,” “is to dance. You have the self-confidence and we hope, the moves; and if you don’t have them, you have to get them, you have to learn them. The dance is yours. You have to take over the fete.”87 The need for a dance that is different in (bodily) form to the restricted version practiced previously figures the need for a new form of politics while also pointing to cultural practice as that which contains the resources to shape this politics insofar as it embodies a social content.

Nevertheless, for this content to become something grasped by all at the level of everyday experience, it must still be mediated. As indicated earlier, for writers like Fanon and Cabral during the era of national liberation—and, it would seem, for Lovelace, given his emphasis on national independence—it was precisely the nation that was to play this mediating role. As Neil Lazarus observes, discussing Cabral’s formulation of the relationship between “converted” intellectuals and “the people,” in the “modern era (and not only in the ‘Third World’), the nation has been one of the privileged sites—perhaps the privileged site—for the forging of this articulation between universalist intellectualism and popular consciousness.”88 He goes on to quote Achin Vanaik to the effect that “the nation-state for the first time invests ordinary people (through the principle of equal citizenship rights) with an authority and importance that is historically unique. To date the zenith of popular individual empowerment is political citizenship, whose frame of operation is the nation-state or multinational state.”89

The failings of various national independence movements, in the Caribbean as elsewhere, have led to a questioning of the role of the nation-state in this regard. Nevertheless, while the world political system continues to be organized as a hierarchically structured system of nation-states, this unit will remain an indispensable political space through which to pursue the struggle against imperialism as it is experienced by the mass of the people in their daily lives.90 This (p.25) experience, moreover, will continue to be felt most sharply at the level of the body, which remains a privileged medium for the exercise of both domination and resistance.

This book comprises five chapters that treat a selection of Caribbean novels from 1945 to the present in more or less chronological fashion. Chapter 1 considers evocations of the nation-state in narratives from the 1940s and 1950s, setting them in the context of the growing social and political unrest of the time and the upsurge in anticolonial and anti-imperial movements struggling for independence or for the thoroughgoing reorganization of societies already nominally independent (Cuba and Haiti, for example). The chapter provides a brief overview of a range of texts with the aim of identifying key themes and tropes while also establishing a theoretical framework for considering the relationship between the nation, cultural practice, and literary form.

Chapter 2 explores the dissipation of many of the hopes and promises generated by national independence as a result of continued imperialist pressures and the failings of native elites. Examining works by Wilson Harris, Earl Lovelace, Marie Chauvet, and Enrique Laguerre, I consider how the difficulties experienced by the body politic are not only registered in these texts via the image of the physical body but also shown to be connected materially to its dispositions and inculcated behaviors. The crisis of political representation, I argue, finds its literary corollary in a crisis of aesthetic representation, figured most notably through the malfunctioning of the topos of the tragic sacrifice.

Chapter 3 continues in this vein, examining the increasingly fraught representations of individuals and communities in the 1970s and 1980s as the shortcomings of various national projects became ever more apparent or, as in the case of the French départements, the possibility of even obtaining independence seemed to recede. Through an analysis of novels by Lovelace, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Luis Rafael Sánchez, I explore themes of language, madness, folklorization, and commodity fetishism. I argue that despite the strangulation of cultural and political expression these texts document, they nevertheless imply that new social relations and forms of collectivity can be articulated, though they embed that suggestion less in any explicit avowal than in the challenges and innovations of their aesthetics.

Chapter 4 subsequently considers how such stylistic innovations and the utopian potential they contain are extended, in work by Chamoiseau, Lovelace, and Erna Brodber, among others, into whole aesthetic programs that flesh out projected new modes of collectivity. These writers fashion a new kind of epic form that draws on Caribbean religio-cultural practices centered on possession rites and ego displacement and refracts the potential lineaments of a reconfigured nation-state. (p.26)

Chapter 5 explores how the utopian imaginings of the texts considered in chapter 4 remain unfulfilled in the contemporary Caribbean as a result of the continuation both of imperialist exploitation (now euphemized as globalization) and of internal problems such as ethnic conflict and parasitic indigenous elites. I begin, however, by reexamining some of the themes broached in chapter 4 in terms of Francophone Indo-Caribbean literature, a hitherto relatively understudied corpus. I then switch to the Anglophone Caribbean to examine work from the 1980s, 1990s, and the first decade of the twenty-first century by a series of women writers, including Oonya Kempadoo, Margaret Cezair-Thompson, Michelle Cliff, and Shani Mootoo, whose novels mediate the crises suffered by the nation-state since the 1970s through the lens of gender relations and issues of sexuality. I also examine the particular problems that confronted Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989. I end by considering the claims of regionalism while continuing to insist on the importance of the nation-state to any effort to combat the imperialist logic of global capital.


(1) . See René Dépestre, Le métier à metisser (Paris: Éditions Stock, 1998), 49–55. See also Michael Richardson, ed., Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean (New York: Verso, 1996).

(2) . J. Michael Dash, Literature and Ideology in Haiti, 1915–1961 (London: Macmillan, 1981), 160.

(3) . Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti: State against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalier (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990), 133.

(4) . Martin Munro, Exile and Post-1946 Haitian Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 25.

(5) . “Des espoirs démocratiques et décoloniaux que l’immédiat après-guerre avait allumés sur tous les continents. … Nous voulions … démystifier une société encore profondément tributaire d’un héritage colonial que la Révolution haïtienne (1791–1804) n’était pas parvenue à effacer de notre vie nationale.” Dépestre, Le métier, 50; translation mine. Unless otherwise stated, all translations are my own. For ease and consistency, where English translations of works are available, I have tried to use them (except in instances where I felt a particular point of language use was better served in an alternative translation). The source language quotations for my own translations are given in the notes.

(6) . On the fallout from the 1946 revolution, see David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1996), 183–90; and Trouillot, Haiti: State against Nation, 13–36.

(7) . By “Caribbean” I mean not only the islands of the archipelago and the continental enclaves of Belize and the Guyanas but also the circum-Caribbean coastal zones. In this I follow the lead of theorists like Édouard Glissant and Rex Nettleford, whose conceptions of, respectively, the “Other America” and “Plantation America” map an area stretching from the southern United States, down through the archipelago, and into Brazil. See Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 114–17, 144–50; Rex Nettleford, Caribbean Cultural Identity (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2003), 114–15, 197n252.

My intention in this book is to approach Caribbean literature as much as possible from a comparative regional perspective, examining work from across its linguistically diverse literary traditions. While the world-historical forces that have affected the Caribbean (colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberal globalization, for example) have been differentially articulated and unevenly registered across and within societies in the region, at the same time certain similarities or likenesses of the unlike can be detected in the effects of, and responses or opposition to, such phenomena. I am interested not only in the varied ways Caribbean novels encode these same forces, with differences evident in relation to the specificity of different social instances, national contexts, cultural or literary traditions, and so forth, but also, again, in the similarities or likenesses of the unlike found in literary production from across the region. Regrettably, however, my own linguistic shortcomings mean work from the Dutch Caribbean receives relatively less attention, as does literature produced (p.210) in a number of the region’s creole and indigenous languages (Haitian creole being an obvious omission, for example).

(8) . In taking 1945 as the start point for this study, I do not wish to minimize the importance of Caribbean literature written before this date or to suggest that it marks some kind of absolute break with what went before. Indeed, I draw on works from this earlier period, albeit in arguing that important formal differences are evident in many of the post-1945 novels as they respond, in however mediated a fashion, to changing social and political circumstances. Nevertheless I recognize and hope to avoid the danger (particularly where the Anglophone Caribbean is concerned) of perpetuating what Alison Donnell has identified as a tendency to marginalize pre-1945 works or to canonize only those that fit a nationalist entelechy. See Donnell, Twentieth-Century Caribbean Literature: Critical Moments in Anglophone Literary History (London: Routledge, 2006).

(9) . Adriana Méndez Rodenas, “Literature and Politics in the Cuban Revolution: The Historical Image,” in A History of Literature in the Caribbean, vol. 1, Hispanic and Francophone Regions, ed. A. James Arnold (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1992), 283.

(10) . Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (London: Penguin, 2001), 193.

(11) . Trouillot, Haiti: State against Nation, 25. Trouillot’s definition shares something with Benedict Anderson’s now famous description of nations as imagined political communities, although Trouillot is keen to emphasize the distinction that the “nation is not a political fiction; it is a fiction in politics” (26). I follow Trouillot here because his approach—particularly his interrogation of the relationship between state and nation—underscores the material relations that determine the context in which such imagining takes place, something that has been obscured in certain strands of postcolonial studies where, as Neil Larsen observes, the idea of nation as narration has led to the reduction of the nation to nothing but text, nothing but “a formal construct, a quasi-absolute contingency of form, subject to perpetual reformulation by the ‘national’ subjects themselves.” See Larsen, Determinations: Essays on Theory, Narrative, and Nation in the Americas (New York: Verso, 2001), 86.

(12) . On these points, see Neil Lazarus, Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 108; and “The Politics of Postcolonial Modernism,” European Legacy 27, no. 6 (2002): 771–82. Since the mid-1990s, various materialist critiques have been leveled at the field of postcolonial studies on similar grounds, of which see especially Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory (New York: Verso, 1992); Timothy Brennan, At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); Arif Dirlik, The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997); Larsen, Determinations; Benita Parry, Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique (Oxford: Routledge, 2004); E. San Juan Jr., Beyond Postcolonial Theory (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

(13) . “Notre écriture doit accepter sans partage nos croyances populaires, nos critiques magicoreligieuses, notre réalisme merveilleux, les rituels liés aux «milan», aux phénomènes du «majò», aux joutes de «ladja», aux «koudmen».” Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant, Éloge de la créolité (1989; Paris: Gallimard, 1993), 40.

(14) . Wilson Harris, “History, Fable, and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas,” in Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, ed. Andrew Bundy (London: Routledge, 1999), 156.

(15) . Harris, “Continuity and Discontinuity,” in Selected Essays, 182. (p.211)

(16) . Ibid., 180.

(17) . These indigenous traditions, specifies Lovelace, “arose or had their meanings in direct response” to the Caribbean reality, even if they drew initially on customs from elsewhere.

(18) . Earl Lovelace, “The Ongoing Value of Our Indigenous Traditions,” in Growing in the Dark: Selected Essays, ed. Funso Aiyejina (San Juan, Trinidad: Lexicon Trinidad, 2003), 34, 36.

(19) . Lovelace, “Artists as Agents of Unity,” in Growing in the Dark, 99.

(20) . Raphaël Confiant, “La bête-à-sept-têtes,” in Contes créoles des Amériques (Paris: Éditions Stock, 1995), 65.

(21) . The motif of being forced to eat excrement, moreover, is not merely symbolic: it was one of the physical tortures inflicted on the enslaved. See C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (London: Penguin, 2001), 10.

(22) . Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 925.

(23) . Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (New York: Routledge, 2002), 48.

(24) . Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 899. See also John O’Neil, “The Disciplinary Society: From Weber to Foucault,” British Journal of Sociology 37, no. 1 (March 1986): 42–60.

(25) . Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 2004), 12.

(26) . Ibid., 14.

(27) . Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin and New Left Review, 1973), 489.

(28) . Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Verso, 1997), 4, 10.

(30) . For a more wide-ranging discussion of the regulation of the body in western Europe and the production of the “rational” subject, see especially Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body (London: Methuen, 1984); Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (Oxford: Routledge, 2001), and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

(32) . Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990), 53.

(33) . Ibid., 55.

(34) . Ibid., 56.

(35) . On this point, see Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, 123. See also Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin and New Left Review, 1973), 157–58.

(36) . Russell McDougall, “Music in the Body of the Book of Carnival,” Journal of West Indian Literature 4, no. 2 (1990): 11.

(37) . See Rex Nettleford, Inward Stretch, Outward Reach: A Voice from the Caribbean (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1993), 96. The quoted comments are from the writings of two nineteenth-century colonists in Jamaica, James Kelly and William James Gardener, respectively.

(38) . Lovelace, “The Ongoing Value of Our Indigenous Traditions,” in Growing in the Dark, 31. (p.212)

(39) . Monica Schuler, “Afro-American Slave Culture,” in Roots and Branches: Current Directions in Slave Studies, ed. Michael Craton (Toronto: Pergamon Press, 1979), 129. See also Jean Besson, “Religion as Resistance in Jamaican Peasant Life,” in Rastafari and Other African-Caribbean Worldviews, ed. Barry Chevannes (London: Macmillan, 1998), 43–76.

(40) . Patrick Taylor, “Dancing the Nation: An Introduction,” in Nation Dance: Religion, Identity, and Cultural Difference in the Caribbean, ed. Patrick Taylor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 4.

(43) . Quoted in J. Michael Dash, The Other America: Caribbean Literature in a New World Context (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 45–46.

(44) . According to C. L. R. James, for example, Toussaint L’Ouverture sought “absolute local independence, on the one hand, but on the other French capital and French administrators, helping to develop and educate the country, and a high official from France as a link between both Governments. The local power was too well safeguarded for us to call the scheme a protectorate in the political content of that dishonest word. All the evidence shows that Toussaint, working alone, had reached forward to that form of political allegiance which we know today as Dominion Status.” James, The Black Jacobins (London: Penguin, 2001), 214–15. In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, the writer and intellectual Anténor Firmin offered some of the strongest arguments for the world-historical significance of events in Haiti, and of the need for the country to pursue an internationalist politics. See his De l’égalité des races humaines (1885) and Lettres de St Thomas (1910). On this point see also J. Michael Dash, “Haïti Chimère: Revolutionary Universalism and Its Caribbean Context,” in Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution and Its Cultural Aftershocks, ed. Martin Munro and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw (Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2006), 12–13.

(48) . Theodor Adorno, “Adorno on Brecht,” in Aesthetics and Politics (London: New Left Books, 1977), 190.

(49) . For an excellent discussion of this point, see Lazarus, Nationalism and Cultural Practice, 68–143. See also Neil Larsen, who observes that postcolonialist-poststructuralist theory’s emphasis on “ambivalence” and the “primitive disunity of identity relations” reflects both “the generalized, historical crisis of the cultural nationalism of the ‘Bandung era’ … and the desire to move beyond it.” The governing desire of postcolonialism, to this extent, is clearly one of hostility toward nationalism, in “implicit recognition of its betrayal of those who once saw in it the emancipatory alternative to colonialism and imperialism” (Determinations, 39).

(50) . On modernity as inextricable from worldwide capitalism, and for a discussion of its singular yet everywhere heterogeneous expression, see Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (New York: Verso, 2002), 12, 182–83.

(51) . Samir Amin, Capitalism in the Age of Globalization: The Management of Contemporary Society (London: Zed Books, 1997), 95. (p.213)

(52) . Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 159.

(53) . Critical works that could be said to reflect—to a greater or lesser degree—this tendency to deploy hybridity against nationalism, itself viewed as increasingly outmoded in a postnational world, include Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987); Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Néstor García Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity, trans. Christopher Chiappari and Silvia López (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995); Jan Nederveen Pieterse, “Globalization as Hybridization,” in Global Modernities, ed. Mike Featherstone, Scott Lash, and Roland Robertson (London: Sage, 1995), 45–68; Ramón Grosfoguel and Frances Negrón-Muntaner, eds., Puerto Rican Jam: Rethinking Colonialism and Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

(54) . Shalini Puri, The Caribbean Postcolonial: Social Equality, Post-nationalism, and Cultural Hybridity(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 19–20.

(55) . James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 173. On the use of the Caribbean as an emblem for global hybridity, see the insightful discussions in Puri, Caribbean Postcolonial, 1–15; Donnell, Twentieth-Century Caribbean Literature, 77–129; and Mimi Sheller, Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies (London: Routledge, 2003), 188–201.

(56) . See Puri’s excellent discussion of this point in Caribbean Postcolonial, 43–79.

(58) . Ibid., 191.

(59) . Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, trans. James E. Maraniss (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996), 4.

(60) . Ibid., 81.

(61) . Ibid., 176.

(62) . Ibid., 167.

(63) . Fernando Coronil, “Transculturation and the Politics of Theory: Countering the Center, Cuban Counterpoint,” introduction to Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, trans. Harriet de Onís (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995), xli.

(64) . Jonathan Friedman, “Global Systems, Globalization, and the Parameters of Modernity,” in Global Modernities, ed. Mike Featherstone, Scott Lash, and Roland Robertson (London: Sage, 1995), 82.

(65) . Friedman, “Global Systems,” 82.

(66) . Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, trans. Harriet de Onís (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995), 98.

(67) . Ibid., 100–101.

(68) . Ibid., 4, 98.

(70) . Ibid., xxviii.

(71) . Ibid., xxx.

(72) . George Lamming, “Caribbean Labor, Culture, and Identity,” in The Birth of Caribbean Civilisation: A Century of Ideas about Culture and Identity, Nation, and Society, ed. O. Nigel Bolland (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2004), 621. (p.214)

(73) . Walter Rodney, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1891–1905 (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1981), 179.

(74) . However, Rodney emphasizes that in the nineteenth century, “the existing aspects of cultural convergence were insufficiently developed to contribute decisively to solidarity among the working people of the two major race groups” (179).

(75) . On this point, see Rex Nettleford, “National Identity and Attitudes towards Race in Jamaica,” in The Birth of Caribbean Civilisation: A Century of Ideas about Culture and Identity, Nation, and Society, ed. O. Nigel Bolland (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2004), 465–66.

(76) . E. K. Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 311.

(77) . James Millette, “Decolonization, Populist Movements, and the Formation of New Nations, 1945–70,” in General History of the Caribbean, vol. 5, The Caribbean in the Twentieth Century, ed. Bridget Brereton (London: UNESCO and Macmillan, 2004), 215.

(79) . See especially the “Un discours éclaté” section and the essay “Théâtre, conscience du people,” in Le discours antillais (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1997), 465–721.

(80) . Chris Harman, “The State and Capitalism Today,” International Socialism 51 (1991): 34.

(82) . On this point, see Friedman, “Global Systems,” 73.

(83) . On these points, see David Hesmondhalgh, The Cultural Industries, 2nd ed. (London: Sage, 2007), 214–19.

(84) . Leslie Sklair, Sociology of the Global System, 2nd ed. (London: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1995). See especially the chapter “The Culture-Ideology of Consumerism in the Third World,” 147–90.

(85) . Lovelace, “In the Dance,” in Growing in the Dark, 192.

(86) . Ibid., 187–88.

(87) . Ibid., 188.

(89) . Ibid.

(90) . On this point, see Ahmad: “To the extent that contemporary imperialism’s political system takes the form of a hierarchically structured system of nation-states, it is only by organizing their struggles within the political space of their own nation-state, with the revolutionary transformation of that particular nation-state as the immediate practical objective, that the revolutionary forces of any given country can effectively struggle against the imperialism they face concretely in their own lives” (In Theory, 317).