‘Caribbean intellectuals have continuously theorized and given meaning to the experiences and prospects of living in/as a region.’ Discussion on Benitez Rojo’s introduction to The Repeating Island.
Several Caribbean and non-Caribbean intellectuals have established a determined and cognizant effort to redefine the very notion of ‘Caribbeanness’. Benítez-Rojo in the introduction to his book named The Repeating Island, attempted to redefine the Caribbean by drawing on several fields of study including cultural anthropology, economics, history, literary theory, psychoanalysis, nonlinear mathematics, and sociology. He suggested that the ‘time has come for postindustrial society to conduct a rereading of the Caribbean.’ He asserts that the Caribbean basin is one of the least known regions of the modern world in the discourse of the Social Sciences. He suggested therefore, that this rereading begin with a look at chaos theory and its relevance to the Caribbean as a complex space. Benítez-Rojo argues that within the apparent disorder of the Caribbean the area’s discontinuous landmasses, its different colonial histories, languages, ethnic groups, politics, and traditions there emerges an ‘island’ of paradoxes that ‘repeats’ itself and gives shape to an unexpected and complex sociocultural archipelago. This is important since scholars often judged the region with the framework of preconceived notions, and based their analysis on models that are arguably applicable only in Europe.
It is noteworthy that Benítez-Rojo’s approach in interdisciplinary, since in defining the Caribbean one would meet several stumbling blocks, “this region where boundaries are notoriously fuzzy…neither center or periphery.” (Trouillot 19) In terms of Wallerstein’s world systems theory it does not fit the theory. It is neither centre, nor semi-periphery or periphery with “The swift genocide of the aboriginal populations, the early integration of the region into the international circuit of capital, the forced migrations of enslaved African and indentured laborers, and the abolition of slavery by emancipation or revolution, the Caribbean would not conform within the emerging divisions of Western Academia” (Trouillot 21).
Another reason defining the Caribbean is difficult is because definitions of the Caribbean are always contested. For some people the Caribbean includes parts of the Americas, for others it is largely defined as the island Caribbean. For others it is about language, the Spanish speaking Caribbean, the Dutch speaking Caribbean, the French speaking Caribbean and the English-speaking Caribbean, some view it as somewhere to go on holiday, palm trees and white sandy beaches. Benítez-Rojo claimed that the main obstacles to any global study of Caribbean society are the things scholars cite as evidence to define the area: The region’s fragmentation, instability, reciprocal isolation, uprootedness, syncretism and so forth. As well as the habit of defining the Caribbean in terms of its resistance to different methods which served them in the analysis of European society.
He also postulates that this designation of Caribbeanness might serve a foreign purpose-the great powers’ need to recodify the world’s territory better to know, to dominate it-as well as a local one, self-referential, directed toward fixing the furtive image of collective Being. Whatever its motive, this urge to systematize the region’s political, economic, social, and anthropological dynamics is a very recent thing. (Benítez-Rojo 1) Chimamanda Adichie in a lecture on “The danger of a single story” stated that, “our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.” In the lecture she tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.” Hence Benítez-Rojo’s interdisciplinary approach is a commendable effort.
The body of the introduction to The Repeating Island Benítez-Rojo discusses four ideas which he used to describe the Caribbean experience. These ideas examined from what he called Columbus’ machine to the sugar-making machine, from the apocalypse to chaos, from rhythm to polyrhythm, and from literature to carnival. He gave the Caribbean the label of ‘meta-archipelago’ and justified it with the references to the role the Caribbean played in Europe’s movement from Mechantalist Revolution to its Industrial Revolution. He likened Columbus’ machine to that of a ‘bricolage’, a ‘medieval vacuum cleaner’. “The flow of nature on the island was interrupted by the suction of an iron mouth, taken thence through a transatlantic tube to be deposited and redistributed in Spain.” (Benítez-Rojo 5) This machine produced gold, silver, pearls and many more precious stones.
He went on to discuss Pedro Menéndez de Avilés’ machine which was a combination of many machines. The ‘flota’ (fleet) a convoy system which was made up of a mixture of cargo ships, warships and light craft for convoys. This meant that all trade was now supported by this system to ward off efficiency issues with delivery of goods including that of piracy and privateering. From here he went on to discuss the movement to a more efficient machine which he called the ‘plantation’. This machine in particular “repeats itself continuously” (Benítez-Rojo 8) The point of his examination of these machines was to enforce the idea of the Caribbean as a meta-archipelago and to introduce the idea of the Caribbean as a ‘historico-economic sea’.
In defining of the Caribbean in the discussion of ‘apocalypse to chaos’ Benítez-Rojo stated that, “the Caribbean is the natural and indispensable realm of marine currents, of waves, of folds and double folds, of fluidity and sinuosity.” (Benítez-Rojo 11) Peter Minshall the great masman in a lecture at the University of The West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, said: “the islands have the license to me magical”. He also looks at the mystic in his attempt at defining Caribbean culture. He spoke of ‘supersyncretism’ and the people as being a “certain kind of way” who can conjure away the doom of apocalypse of the Cuban nuclear crisis with merely by being a “certain kind of way” which is something remote that reproduces itself and carries the desire to sublimates apocalypse and violence, which separates the onlooker from the participant. (Benítez-Rojo 16) Beyond the mentality of the people he discussed the formation of this culture or the Caribbean cuture and the chaos one would meet in determining the logistics of how it has come to be.
In discussing his point on rhythm to polyrhythm, he defined the Caribbean rhythm as a
metarhythm arrived at through signs like that of dance, music, language and so forth. It is a polyrhythm which presupposed a central rhythm. He gave importance to the use of improvisation and locates the aesthetic experience of the Caribbean people within the framework of rituals and representations of a collective, ahistoriacal and improvisary nature. He concludes this point by highlighting the role polyrhythm could play in the development of Caribbean people in areas like music, song, dance and even boxing.
All Benitez-Rojo’s arguments are related, and the ideas of the machine, chaos, polyrhythm, improvisation and being a “certain kind of way” comes together in his discussion on ‘From Literature to Carnival’. He argued that Literature is one of the most exhibitionist expressions of the world. He relates the relationship between the performer and the text and the way that a reader makes a text his own. He exams the authenticity of the existence of a Caribbean Literature. He mentioned the multi-ethnic nature of Caribbean literature as a representation of the society on which it floats, which has no choice but to speak of its fragmentation and instability. The impossibility to find a stable identity means that the Caribbean text must transcend, must avail it self of previous models. He also spoke of the Caribbean person as unable to keep the text to himself and as a consummate performer uses Carnival as the avenue to express Caribbean literature.
A rereading of the Caribbean is definitely necessary for post industrial society. Benitez-Rojo does not out rightly define the Caribbean but discusses avenues and processes which can be explored in the attempt to define Caribbean. He proposed a rereading and planted the seeds that can be used to as a point of departure. He highlighted the variety and chaos that results from merely being Caribbean and introduces points of focus which were never before discussed in the ways that he placed his arguments. This reading therefore, is a significant place to began a rereading of the Caribbean.
Adichie, Chimamanda N. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TEDTalks. 29 July 2009. Lecture.
Benitez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and Post-Modern Perspective. Durham: Duke Unversity Press, 1992.Print.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks, Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.Print.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. “The Caribbean Region:An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 21(1):19. Annual Review Inc, Oct. 1992. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.