Comments on Caribbean Middlebrow

by Tzarina T. Prater, English, LaGuardia Community College

Belinda Edmondson, “Introduction: Making the Case for Middlebrow Culture” and “Chapter 5: Organic Imports, or Authenticating Global Culture,” Caribbean Middlebrow: Leisure Culture and the Middle Class (New York: Cornell UP, 2009).

In Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, he condemns the middle class as mimics of their colonial administrators. For Fanon, the bourgeoisie and their desires signify an annihilating self-contempt and violence to black consciousness and nationalism. In fact, he blames the failure of an efficacious black nationalism to emerge on the "intellectual laziness of the middle class":

The national middle class, which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime, is an underdeveloped middle class. It has practically no economic power, and in any case it is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country, which it hopes to replace. In its narcissism, the national middle class is easily convinced that it can advantageously replace the middle class of the mother country. (149)

For Fanon, the Black and Brown middle classes are little more than an opportunistic virus, one that produced “intellectual alienation” in the black colonized subject, but Belinda Edmondson’s Caribbean Middlebrow: Leisure Culture and the Middle Class, written fifty years later, is an attempt to reimagine “middlebrow” culture and its consumers.

The term “Middlebrow” is, itself, contentious with its decidedly negative connotations. Marked by “false consciousness,” narratives of upward mobility, self loathing; “middlebrow” is “derivative,” sterile, at the very least political sterile; and the cultural texts that get produced in and by this “class” articulate a desire for upward class mobility and validation. It is an ethos encumbered by all too familiar language of the dichotomy: white/black, high/low, and I would add capitulation/sedition. In Edmondson’s description of the middle class, she accesses the work of Benedict Anderson, and claims that “[t]he Middle class is, in a sense, an imaginary community, accessed through participatory rituals like reading certain kinds of books, dressing in certain kinds of clothes and attending certain kinds of public events” (11). Thus, she ties the identity to practice. In considering the class and its relationship to the “means of production,” she notes that the middle class is “de facto elite. Yet it is still not the elite. [It] does not own the means of production…shaping mass culture through its investments…but not driving it” (12). It is a “culturally rootless class” consuming but not producing “authentic” culture (13).

Edmondson is trying to rethink the way that the middle class and the cultural texts most associated with this class have been read. The cultural texts that Edmondson analyzes are: post independence beauty pageant culture, the commodification of “Carnival” across the West Indies, Jazz festivals in the Caribbean, and “popular” Caribbean fiction. Edmondson focuses her lens on: the impact of first British colonial and American cultural imperialism, the emergence of a “brown cultural identity as a national ideal,” and the feminization of the “Middlebrow.”

Questions:

1. While admitting that popular novels, beauty pageants, and music festivals are examples of Caribbean culture that are created, maintained, and consumed by an Anglophone middle class, she questions the role of pleasure: “Pleasure is key, because without pleasure reading is simply intellectual labor that West Indians do not yet ‘own’” (8). How do we theorize these sites of “pleasure”? Is this where the “innovation” is for the “middle class”? Is the language that we have, primarily that of materialist critique too limited? Is there a paradigmatic shift in the articulation of this “pleasure” that we have yet to account for?

2. Is there a counterproductive collapse of the terms “middlebrow” and “middle class,” as “middlebrow” is a sensibility that can be expressed by any class? Is there an arguably similar problematic dyad of “black and brown” in Edmondson’s configuration of the middle class’s accessing of yet another dichotomous formation of authentic and inauthentic “culture”?

3. One of the key cultural texts in the introductory and fifth chapters of Edmondson’s text is Bob Marley, who is now the ubiquitous soundtrack for “all island nations,” but there was no critique of this soundtrack’s material production which involved Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records and his sound engineers deliberately “softened” what they perceived of as the rough edges of the music, removing any atonal or disruptive elements to regular meter.

Edmondson reads the Black and Brown middle class’s turn to “reggae” as evidence of an evolving political sensibility, as a search for a rhetoric or site of “authenticity.” For Edmondson, Marley as a unifying force, but I question how “Bob” becomes a signifier of revolution. His image on t-shirts is just as iconic as that of Che, but is it just as empty? The music, at least that which was pressed onto vinyl and circulated through those conduits of capital to the other islands in the West Indies, was, for all intents and purposes, a repackaged reformulated “cultural text” that was then taken up, appropriated and incorporated into “middle class” sensibility as a language of resistance. What possibilities, in terms of a site of political efficacy, does this “soundtrack” provide?

My next questions have to do with the “feminization” of Carnival and Jazz festivals, and the unifying vector of African American cultural forms that Edmondson takes up in her text.

4. What exactly is the role African Americans see themselves as having when they participate in Carnival or the Jazz festivals, because they may have decidedly different objectives in and with each site of participation? Are these the housewives of Atlanta and gentrified Brooklyn, the black professional class going to the Caribbean to “exhale” or searches for more immediate connections to a more Afrocentric or Black culture without the negative connotations of victimage? Are they searches for more immediate connections to a past and if so what past is it?

5. Edmondson ties the “feminization” of Carnival and the Jazz festivals and absence of male participation to: 1) women’s liberation 2) tourism/advertising efforts that construct these spaces as “safe zones” for women, specifically “safe” from aggressive masculinist violence, and 3) the spectacle of non-black/non native women “wining and jamming” in the streets as “evidence” of cultural degradation.

Who is watching these spectacles and how are they read in the “local”? Is there any complication to what is being represented as a “passive consumption” of these spectacles by the “native”?

Edmondson claims that with the rise in a distinctly “feminized” commodity culture is a concomitant degeneracy of creativity associated with the withdrawal (or is it an evacuation of, non-elite, black and brown?) of male presences. The decrease of non-elite men’s presence is also a diminishing of “authenticity.” What other questions can be asked of this phenomenon? Is it merely about women’s increased access to employment/capital? Or does this shift signify other formations or calibrations of and in the way that men, non-elite men, are imagining themselves? In this shift of “non-elite” men to the periphery, is there a renegotiation or reimagining of masculinity along different lines, and if so, what are those lines?

6. With the Jazz festivals in particular, is there a way to read these as doing other kinds of work for the African American consumer. Is the location of the “jazz festival” in the Caribbean a way to “take back” Jazz from white academic elites? Is there an attempt or reinscribe a new “authenticating” voice through the attribution of a specifically Caribbean, and by extension a reinvigorated black, albeit “different black,” inflection to that voice?