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Comments on Sylvia Wynter

by Christopher Winks, Comparative Literature, Queens College

Text: “Afterword: Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/silencing the ‘Demonic Ground’ of Caliban’s ‘Woman’” by Sylvia Wynter

It was an excellent decision on Kelly’s part to have us read, study, and discuss representative essays by Wilson Harris and Sylvia Wynter, not only because both writers are part of the generation of the 1950s Caribbean Renaissance that contributed so much to Caribbean intellectual selfhood, and thus independence, but because in their complexity and indeed frequent intractability of access, they exemplify what to my mind Caribbean epistemologies aim at carrying out: a thoroughgoing questioning of dominant modes of knowledge in order to move outside these restrictive paradigms, grounded in the unique historical and experiential deep-structures of invasion, enslavement, colonialism, resistance, revolution, the decolonizing moment,  postcolonial disillusions, and new emancipatory possibilities.  Another immense Caribbean mind, the Cuban poet José Lezama Lima, declared that only the difficult stimulates, and it is precisely in their difficulty, in the vast range of cultural and philosophical reference that animates their quest for what Harris calls “a profoundly compassionate society committed to freedom within a creative scale” and Wynter “the lost motives of our ‘native’ human self-interest, and, increasingly degraded in our planetary environment, of our human self-interest,” that we as readers can ultimately find our surest inspiration and illumination.

I’m going to turn my – necessarily brief and impressionistic — attention to that part of Wynter’s thought outlined in her afterword to Out of the Kumbla, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” but before doing so I would like to point out a remarkable performative convergence: I’ve seen both Harris and Wynter in public presentations, and they both talk exactly as they write!  I heard Wynter speak at NYU several years back, and she communicated a palpable intellectual excitement and wonder: in the same way as her written sentences, of downright Faulknerian length, radiate a baroquely labyrinthine exuberance in which, let it be said, the impatient reader can easily go astray.  She delights in ideas to the point of being possessed, carried away by them; I recall a moment in her talk at which her spoken words couldn’t keep up with the racing of her high-speed intellect – whereupon she threw up her hands and laughed, as we all looked at each other in mingled perplexity and awe.

It is perhaps this very prolixity (not to mention her gender and racial ascription) that has worked against Wynter’s gaining a wider currency in the academic world.  Aside from the fact that, as she remarked to David Scott in an interview that remains the best general overview of her personal and intellectual trajectory (“The Re-Enchantment of Humanism, Small Axe 8, September 2000), “I’ve never really seen myself as an academic; I’ve always seen myself as a writer in the general sense of the term,” her theoretical work is largely dispersed throughout edited books and journals.  An anthology of her Jamaica Journal essays has been promised from Peepal Tree Press for years and will supposedly come out later in 2012, and there was talk of a comprehensive two-volume Reader not long ago, but we presently find ourselves in the position of having a Festschrift for her (the estimable After Man, Toward the Human, edited by Anthony Bogues) without a corresponding collection of her own work.  Invariably, the later essays, some of which are accessible on-line, are sprawling, dauntingly so.  The essay we’re looking at today, from 1990, bears an editor’s note that states it to be “the first section of a much longer manuscript which could not be included here in its entirety.”  In a world of increasing specialization and restricted intellectual compass, Wynter (as indeed does Harris) thinks on a large scale and in a truly interdisciplinary way.

Reading Wynter, I see her as an intellectual anthropophagite in the best tradition of Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade’s Anthropophagic Manifesto from 1928 (the year of her birth in Holguín, Cuba) – she masters and devours, without deference or obeisance, a range of so-called “Western” thinkers, be they philosophical, scientific, or psychoanalytic, in the interests of nothing less than a new conception of what it means to be human, or as she puts it in the article under discussion: “a new post-modern and post-Western mode of cognitive inquiry, one which goes beyond the limits of our present ‘human sciences,’ to constitute itself as a new science of human ‘forms of life’.”  Grounded in the emancipatory humanism of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, and her contemporary George Lamming’s notion, expressed towards the end of In the Castle of My Skin, of “a different kind of creature” beyond the self-limiting, constrained colonial self, Wynter explores, in this article as elsewhere in her work, the partial emancipation from the medieval European worldview occasioned by the Copernican revolution theorized by Hans Blumenberg (a frequent reference for Wynter) and historically confirmed by Columbus’s New World landfall.  Whereas the medieval conception of the “non-homogeneity” of the earthly order and divine order was overturned by Copernicus’s heliocentrism – a necessary stage in the secularization or what Wynter calls the “de-godding” of the world – the discovery for Europe of the New World reinscribed the former “non-homogeneity” onto the bodies of the “savages”:  Carib/Arawaks initially and then the enslaved Africans, all of whom were classified as existing outside “man,” as the “’non-rational’ inferior, ‘nature’ of the peoples to be expropriated and governed.”

As a paradigmatic text detailing and dramatizing this “othering” strategy, Wynter has recourse to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  In so doing, she places herself in a line of African and Caribbean re-readers of this play of archetypes: Lamming, Césaire, Fanon, Retamar, Roger Toumson, Brathwaite, Lemuel Johnson, among others.  Here, her focus is both on Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, who, although as a female a subordinate object of exchange in the patriarchal scheme, nonetheless heaps execration on Caliban as an “abhorréd slave.” and on the absent or silenced “Caliban’s woman” or female counterpart.  (Kamau Brathwaite, incidentally, saw this counterpart rather as Caliban’s sister, and paid attention as well to Caliban’s mother Sycorax as a submerged maternal/female force whom Prospero could never wholly dominate.)  For Wynter, the absence of Caliban’s woman is “functional to the new secularizing schema by which the peoples of Western Europe legitimated their global expansion.”  Against this, Wynter proposes the then-new term “womanist” as instantiating a “relation of sameness and difference” within anti-patriarchal thought and praxis that requires projection from what she terms a “’demonic model’ outside the ‘consolidated field’ of our present mode of being/feeling/knowing, as well as of the multiple discourses…through which alone these modes, as varying expressions of human ‘life,’ including ours, can effect their respective autopoesis as such specific modes of being.”  I focus on the word “autopoesis” here insofar as it posits a self-instituting poetics (recall that poeisis in Ancient Greek means to make or create) which in turn implies a sort of creative autonomy.  The vantage point of the “demonic ground,” that which is to be unsilenced, is the starting point of a “second epistemological mutation” that would “alter our systems of meaning, and their privileged texts.”   For the word “daemon” (the name of a character in Wilson Harris’s Resurrection at Sorrow Hill) speaks to a spirit or genius loci, a carnival trickster of meaning endowed with a power to “bring together the human and natural sciences in a new projected science of the human able to constitute demonic models of cognition.”  As examples, let’s think then of Jonkonnu, Vodou, Palo Mayombé, Santería, Carnival Mas, their arts, musics, and philosophies, as expressions of these models, as sketches of possible epistemologies projected from a demonic (broken) ground.  Let’s think of Lorca’s duende – black song, deep song — along with its Caribbean incarnation in the plantation spirit/sprite called the douen.  And all the syncretic transformations and sub/versions of knowledge systems.  From Nomos to Nommo.

Some problematic issues: is the Tempest model still a viable one or has it been overworked?  And what role is there for the indentured Chinese and Indians in Wynter’s model?