Response to Belinda Edmondson’s Caribbean Middlebrow

by Ted Sammons, Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center

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).

Belinda Edmondson’s previous work—a number of articles, her book Making Men (1999), and her edited collection of essays, Caribbean Romances (1999)—together establish her place in conversations about the character and uses of literary representation among African-descended people in the U.S. and the Caribbean. In Caribbean Middlebrow (2009) we find her moving from literary into cultural studies while keeping focused on exploring how aesthetic practices operate and are operated on in English-speaking Caribbean societies.

The introduction and expository chapter selected for our discussion show that Prof. Edmondson’s latest book is an ambitious project, attending to the broad category of “leisure culture” by considering how it is produced and consumed in Anglophone-Caribbean territories in a variety of forms: novels, dialect poetry, beauty pageants, and arts festivals. Situating her study as such Edmondson retains her focus on a realm of aesthetic distinction, which she holds at some conscious remove from a realm of the material. She is thus able to foreground the difference between pleasure and provision, between living to eat and eating to live, and likewise to force open a space to discuss how ostensibly ephemeral phenomena function in the ways people live “Anglo-Caribbean” lives.

This is not to say that Edmondson confines herself to discursive analysis, and these chapters from Caribbean Middlebrow fit into our ongoing discussion of Caribbean theories of knowledge and knowing by insisting that aesthetic preference be understood in relation to the concrete realities of class stratification. Edmondson is vigilant against dissolving narrative meaning and peoples’ taste (distinction) into an abstract rendering of society, a strategy she attributes to historical, sociological, and ethnographic approaches, whose “inevitable” materialism tends to reduce cultural events to effects of political change. However, notwithstanding the debates over whether materialism suffuses these approaches to a degree great enough, it might be assumed that her portrayal of history, sociology, and ethnography comes in contrast to literary formalism, and that her main concern is to not reduce culture to a mere reflection but rather to hold onto a sense of art’s potential as a means of affecting material change.

To that end the introductory chapter, “Making the Case for Middlebrow Culture,” sets up Caribbean Middlebrow against the supposed contradiction in Anglo-Caribbean society between middle-class status and the ability to produce authentic culture. Edmondson writes that her aim is to give lie to the idea that middle class status precludes a person from making cultural contributions that are anything but derivative of elite or working class originals, and to demonstrate her point the book moves chronologically from the nineteenth-century through the recent past and to the present. Beginning with popular Anglo-Caribbean literature of the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, the reader travels forward in time through the emergence of dialect poetry, the advent of national beauty pageants, and the flourishing of arts festivals, before ending with a forward-looking chapter on new popular fiction. This chronology, Edmondson argues, uncovers the deep roots of an authentic and middle class Anglo-Caribbean culture. If today’s middlebrow Anglo-Caribbean culture—Colin Channer’s novels being one of Edmondson’s key examples—is fruit that has ripened from these roots, is that fruit the extent of the authentic cultural contribution of the Anglo-Caribbean middle class?

Edmondson observes that this middlebrow culture cannot be simply allocated to the middle class, since it tracks within a calculus of aspiration and authentication and “may reflect the desire for higher class status…or the reconciliation of middle-class and working-class status” (10). In other words middlebrow culture attracts and/or caters to a working-class public as well as a middle class public, so it is not simply a product by and for those in the latter group. Though in the past quarter century many working class Caribbean people have turned away from respectability—an avenue of status improvement previously advanced by members of the middle class—Edmonson argues that today middlebrow culture closes the gap by celebrating a discourse of professionalism that both middle class and working class Anglo-Caribbean people have embraced in their respective efforts to navigate a global economy dominated by the United States.

What fraction of the Anglo-Caribbean middle and working class has middlebrow culture effectively catered to over the years? Leftist tendencies have been in action among a partial but significant element of the English-speaking Caribbean middle class at least since the consolidation of anticolonial movements, and though associated cultural production may also track along the axes of aspiration and authentication, there may be great differences between the mores and systems of respectability embraced by this or another sector of the middle class. Pursuing this question of a middle class fractured along competing systems of respectability we may consider the hardy rural roots of the Anglo-Caribbean middle class, the historical dominance of those rural territories by members of the working-class, and the alacrity rural working class people have historically demonstrated in recognizing the trappings of respectability as merely paper over distinctly “unrespectable” behavior (cf. The Heptones from 1972, or Bob Marley from 1967: “see di ‘ypocrites/dem a galang deh”).

Caribbean Middlebrow may ultimately give short shrift to this rural working class framework of respectability, and in turn this may explain why Edmonson focuses the lens of cultural analysis on U.S. influences without much account for the influence of African popular culture, namely products of the Nigerian film industry—Nollywood movies or “African shows”—which circulate as neither low-brow nor high-brow yet are at this time not at all as widely embraced by members of the Anglo-Caribbean middle class as they are by those of the rural and urban working classes. However, regardless of whether Edmonson’s book adequately accounts for historical distinctions dividing middle class and working class cultures of the English-speaking Caribbean, her thesis retains its vitality by forcing us to address the radical character these classes exhibit in their aesthetic preference today. If contemporary middlebrow culture relates to a shift from respectability to professionalism as the primary category of aspirational behavior among middle class and working class people, then are we talking about the dissolution of a distinction between the two groups? Has a discourse of professionalism—derived out of the changing role of the U.S. vis-à-vis Anglo-Caribbean society—dissolved respective distinctions between sectors of the middle class? If so, is this to say that in reality what has dissolved is the influence of the left in the English-speaking Caribbean? What cultural products testify to the fact that it has not dissolved, and how would one recognize their testimony as such?

Thanks to Professors Josephs and Bennett, and to Ryan Mann-Hamilton for organizing this seminar and for the privilege of offering these comments.