Category Archives: Conversations

Reading Wilson Harris’s “History, Fable and Myth”

Reading Wilson Harris’s “History, Fable and Myth” (1970) as a “Foundational Text” in Caribbean Literature and Cultural Studies

by Barbara J. Webb, English, Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center 

At an international conference organized in 2001 by Hena Maes-Jelinek in honor of Wilson Harris’s 80th birthday and over 50 years of creative writing, Gordon Rohlehr referred to Harris as “the most admired unread writer of the Caribbean.”  Rohlehr was undoubtedly alluding to the difficulty of Harris’s densely metaphorical, highly abstract writing.  It is also striking that Harris is barely present in Alison Donell and Sarah Lawson Welsh’s Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature.  In their section on “Caribbean Criticism: Some Seminal Moments” (in the introduction to the period 1966-1979) they describe Harris’s Tradition, The Writer and Society (1967) as “an important and interesting intervention” but they maintain that his “writing, both fictional and critical… has not been easily accommodated within Caribbean literary traditions or critical paradigms and is often categorized as being more akin to the ‘magic realism’ of South American writing” (291).  Andrew Bundy, editor of the Selected Essays (1999) goes so far as to write Harris “out of the Caribbean.” He maintains that “Harris’s study of the fabric of the imagination sets his writing apart from the concerns of West Indian Caribbean writers” (7). Elsewhere Bundy rejects the idea of aligning Harris with certain issues of race, geographic and historical boundaries and situates him among the Central and South American writers that came to prominence in the 1960s. Wilson Harris does draw on a multitude of literary and cultural traditions and like the main character in his novel Black Marsden (1972) it seems that “everything is grist for his mill” (37).  Accordingly his numerous books and essays have been read as modernist/surrealist, postmodern/poststructuralist and of course postcolonialist where he is often given pride of place because of his engagement with questions origins, authenticity, subjectivity, universality and historiography. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

“The Pleasure of Writing at Last a Language as One Hears It”

By Jeremy M. Glick, English, Hunter College

Comments on “Order, Disorder, Freedom and the West Indian Writer” by Maryse Conde and “In Praise of Creoleness” (translation of Eloge de la créolité) by Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau & Raphaël Confiant

Focusing mainly on Maryse Condé’s piece, I present via propositional logic/further example some brief comments this afternoon to help advance today’s discussion.  I’ll restrict my comments here to signaling: (1) Some of the challenges generated by Condé’s keyword organization of her essay; (2) An example of Pan Africanist print culture (in this specific case radical pamphleteering) referenced in one of her footnotes that connects Newark, NJ, Guinea and the West Indies; (3) The problem of what we might think of as a friendly generative literary patricide that animates both pieces; and (4) The resonances in Black Arts Movement Afro-American literary formations.  Continue reading

Comments on Herman Bennett’s “Slave Insurgents and the Political Impact of Free Blacks in a Revolutionary Age”

by Greg Livingston Childs, History, New York University

As recently as fifteen years ago, historical interest among US scholars regarding the importance of Haiti to the aptly named “Age of Revolutions” was still minimal.   Aside from several important edited volumes and monographs, there was very little interest in discerning the impact of the Haitian Revolution on conspiracies, rebellions, and revolts by persons of African descent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.   In our current intellectual and political moment, however, new works on Haiti have appeared in rapid succession across a range of disciplines.  The tide has changed greatly, and where it might have seemed out of place some years ago to link black politics in Anglophone, Hispanic, or Lusophone America with the revolutions of Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe, today it seems to be a given that part of our methodological approach should entail an inquiry regarding what enslaved and free blacks knew about rebellion in Saint Domingue and how they responded to it. Continue reading

Glissant’s Contact Vernacular

by Rose Rejouis, Literary Studies, Eugene Lang College/The New School

My response is shaped by the fact that the session began with Agnès B.’s documentary about Edouard Glissant , Utopia Station (2003), and was followed by J. Michael Dash’s remarks on the arc of Glissant’s work.

First of all, let me say that, in respectively interpreting the work of Edouard Glissant and of Patrick Chamoiseau, Michael Dash and I are both readers of contemporary writers.  In “The Translator’s Task,”[1923] Walter Benjamin cautions against such readings when he writes that “the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin.”  What Benjamin means is that readers of contemporary works do not have the benefit of a work’s literary history.  It is to the literary history of Glissant’s Poétique de la Relation [Poetics of Relation] I wish to turn here.  I wish to examine whether the passing of time, 20 years, has allowed for a kind of historicization of Glissant’s work, not present in the first reading.

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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":

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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. Continue reading

Metaphors and Creolization: Reading J. Michael Dash’s “Bateaux-Prisons”

by Alessandra Benedicty, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, The City College of New York

In keeping with the intention of this seminar in which we are considering, interrogating and creating new epistemologies about the Caribbean, I’d like to mention that some of the ideas that I am including have come out of conversations that I’ve had with several persons here—Professor Dash, Kaiama L. Glover, Robert Baron, Maja Horn, Rose Réjouis, Robert Baron and Jarrettia Adams. It’s also a great honor to be able to discourse so directly and in such a venue with J. Michael Dash.

Binaries offer scholars, if not a productive tool, at least a point of departure, with which to consider and reconsider one or more epistemological spaces. A binary that I think might inform our discussion in this seminar is that in which creolization appears as one of the terms, and which I think might serve as a point of contact with J. Michael Dash’s work here today. Before going further, I am not bringing this up to be polemical, although what I describe is provocative. I think that Dash’s notion of the “bateau-prison” is exciting precisely because it opens up a space within which the polemics of creolization become less significant. Continue reading

Comments on J. Michael Dash’s “Hemispheric Horizons”

by Kaiama Glover, French, Barnard College

Michael Dash’s article explicitly states its concern with the “anxieties of place and belonging” that lead to a certain “spatial emphasis in postcolonial criticism” and the concomitant reliance on a series of increasingly unhelpful binaries: either a “homogenizing, ahistorical wholeness” or an “emphasis on displacement and diaspora;” either a call for attachment to place à la Peter Hallward or the devaluation of territoriality à la Chris Bongie; either a Césairean affirmation of the local and specific or a Glissantian emphasis on wandering and deterritorialization; etc.

Dash proposes an elegant approach to negotiating these binaries in his thoughtful mobilization of the chronotope of the ship. He offers a convincing articulation of the ship – or bateau-prison – as a metaphorical space that can hold in tension the unique combination of movement and immobility that is the Afro-Atlantic experience. From C.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire, and Edouard Glissant’s configuration of Toussaint as both imprisoned within and liberated from Fort Joux, to James’ reading of Melville’s “mariners, renegades, and castaways” as the proper heros of Moby Dick, to Césaire’s multiple accounts of “contained openness,” the Caribbean literary tradition is marked profoundly, Dash argues, by iterations of this central marine trope. Dash reads the portraits of various men on boats, as it were, in Caribbean literature as so many exemplars of the “true citizens of the hemisphere” who, via what he dubs their “renegade subjectivity,” issue a challenge to the concept of privileged, hegemonic national or cultural identity. Continue reading

Comments on Richard Turits’s draft

by Ryan Mann-Hamilton, Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center

These comments preceded the discussion of Richard Turits’s paper, “New World of Color: Slavery, Freedom, and the Making of Race in Dominican History,” at the Caribbean Epistemologies seminar meeting on 23 November 2010.

As Mintz states throughout his work, Caribbean cultures should be viewed by their particular histories and include analyses of power (Mintz 1995). Without the specificities of history, one’s understanding of current processes operating in the Caribbean is highly incomplete. This paper places the Dominican Republic at the center of the history of the Caribbean and the Americas as a microcosm and a precursor of similar processes operating in those spaces. It is a much-needed addition to the existing scholarship that has tended to privilege the narratives of the Anglophone Caribbean, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Continue reading

Comments on David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity (Chapter 3)

by Marcela Echeverri, History, College of Staten Island

The following were discussion points for the Caribbean Epistemologies seminar meeting on 29 October 2010.

 

In Chapter 3 of Conscripts of Modernity David Scott tells us he wants to find a strategic point of criticism from which to write “a new history of the postcolonial present” (p. 119). For this he proposes to displace what he finds are prevalent romantic narrative tropes for tragedy. What does it mean to displace a romantic trope? “To move away from the humanist assumption of a pre-constituted will to resist or will to freedom that studies of slavery and slave revolt are obliged to affirm or illustrate” (p. 122). More specifically, Scott suggests that we should go beyond the prevailing emphasis on cultural autonomy, the predominant focus on Africa and resistance, or the very normative expectations of resistance or overcoming. Continue reading

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. Continue reading