Notes on Scott and Walcott

by Kelly Baker Josephs, English, York College

The following were discussion points for the Caribbean Epistemologies seminar meeting on 29 October 2010.
Readings: “Chapter 3: Conscripts of Modernity” by David Scott and “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” by Derek Walcott

1) Connections. In considering connections between the two texts, it is especially difficult in this case to avoid instituting the common relationship of theory to be laid upon creative.  But, I chose to follow what some may feel is perhaps a more objectionable connective route, that of the similarity in criticisms often levied upon both James and Walcott, which Scott notes (in relation to James) in order to do away with: “elitism and Eurocentrism” (101). While Scott provides solid reasons to turn away from these criticisms at this critical moment, I am not so sure that I am ready to do so. Not so much because I feel that the pertinent question (or problem-space) of the present is “about the autonomous moral value of Africa in the New World,” but more so because I frequently rely on these two writers for critical ideas that help me to think through Caribbean questions (Scott 105). For me (and for others who similarly rely on James’ and Walcott’s writings), there is a danger disregarding such criticisms as “beside the point” because silence denotes tacit agreement. Yes, the two writers can easily be labeled elite and Eurocentric – take, for instance, both James’ and Walcott’s frequent turns, in various writings, to Athens as model for the Caribbean – but there is much in their work that is useful in theorizing the contemporary Caribbean and one must pay at least enough mind to the bathwater if only to distinguish it from the baby.

2) What is our historical present? We are faced with two readings, one from 1992, the other published in 2004.  In the former, Walcott turns to language and landscape to voice, quite lyrically as Walcott is wont to do, his not inconsiderable anxieties about History; in the latter, Scott insistently shifts our attention to the problem of modernity as shaping the “conditions of possible actions….the cognitive and institutional conditions in which the New World slave acted” (106). What relationship do these concerns – History and modernity – have to our problem-space a mere six years later?  In the “sped-up” time of this decade of “post-posts,” are one or both of these concerns now “beside the point”?

3) The problem of representation.  I would like to position this as perhaps my “problem-space,” if one can bend the concept into such an individual form. I read Walcott’s History and Scott’s modernity – if I may be allowed, in this context, to reduce their concerns to these simplistic nouns – as signifying, along with James’ The Black Jacobins, anxieties of representation.  For example, Scott’s primary question in this chapter – “How might we otherwise understand James’ text” (106) – suggests that his reconceptualization of The Black Jacobins turns on a revision of past representations of the text and of what the text represents about the Caribbean and Caribbean historiography. And Walcott’s calling attention to his position as Nobel Prize winner – “with the world paying attention not to them but to me” (83) – reveals his anxiety about being taken as representative of some heterogeneous notion of Caribbeanness. Both writers seem to be grappling with how to represent the region’s now and what is at stake in said representations.