Upright now, my country and I, hair in the wind, my hand small in its enormous fist and our
strength not inside us but above in a voice that bores through the night and its listeners like the sting of an apocalyptic wasp. And the voice declares that for centuries Europe has stuffed us with lies and crammed us with plague, for it is not true that:
the work of man is finished
we have nothing to do in the world
we are the parasites of the world
our job is to keep in step with the world.
The work of man is only just beginning
-Aimé Césaire, from Return to my Native Land, translated by John Berger and Anna Bostock
“The Work of Man Has Only Just Begun”: The Legacies of Césaire, a December 5-6, 2013 event co-organized by Kaiama L. Glover, Alex Gil, Brent Hayes Edwards, and David Scott, aimed to crowd-source a people’s digital/analog history and reflections on the centennial of the late revolutionary surrealist Martinican artist Aimé Césaire. Out of a range of NYC events honoring his legacies (including an interactive reading series and panels at the CUNY Graduate Center), this event most ambitiously leaped into new methods to combine Caribbean studies and Digital Humanities.
The website home page coaxes our involvement with charcoal, purple, and white design hues, and Césaire’s slightly off-center beaming visage greets us with trademark buoyancy (although the visual effects make it appear as if his face is splashed with oil). The accessibly defined two days’ projects – a “researchathon” and a “forum” – invite us to participate before, during, and well after the event. The December 5 “researchathon,” we learn, successfully crowd-sourced an open-access Césaire bibliography of 912 primary sources, and 1243 secondary sources, although it limited welcome to only “students, scholars, librarians, and technologists.” The December 6 “forum” centered around four themes across and beyond Césaire’s work:
“Whither or whether postcolonial sovereignty?”
“The revolutionary Afro-Americas”
“Trans-Atlantic networks and contexts”
“The present-day poetic imagination”
8 scholars – Anne Eller, Millery Polyné, Gary Wilder, Yarimar Bonilla, Carrie Noland, Christopher Winks, Brent Hayes Edwards, and Erica Hunt – blog-posted initial thoughts beforehand, then interacted online with people’s posted responses (who also interacted with other people’s posted responses…), and then wove these dialogues into a live discussion at Columbia’s Maison Francaise (for which no recording is currently available).
Although this project’s expansive potentiality honors that of the artist’s legacies, the website’s credit page ultimately names only 46 contributors to the event (mostly academics), and the online dialogue halts 3 days after the event concludes (perhaps because the comments, although demonstrably erudite, are rather obtuse to the working-class intellectuals at large with whom Césaire would have preferred to break bread). This begs some constructively critical questions about the currently existing traction of digital Caribbean work – how can we facilitate online communities that engage in long-lasting meaningful contact across the diaspora? How can we apply decentralized lessons to our academic and social work? Can this project help us gesture towards openly – unapologetically – crowd-sourcing articles, syllabi, dissertations, books, departments, entire disciplines? In creating knowledge (including, as Césaire reminds us, “Poetic knowledge [that] is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge”), how porous should we make educational walls and national borders, and how should we produce and practice work that exchanges elitist solipsism with social empowerment? Who is and who is not being invited to evaluate Césaire’s legacies?
One co-organizer, Brent Edwards, warns of entombing the artist within gilded accolades, when a “legacy, even the idea of a legacy, can become a trap, a purgatory… a way to ‘deafen oneself with blindness,’ an unguarded door.” This all-too-familiar eulogizing practice can also myopically squint the project’s scope, as evident in the notable absence of the central influence of Suzanne Césaire on her husband’s life and work, and on the marvelous realms of revolutionary Caribbean surrealism more widely. Another co-organizer, Kaiama Glover, even notes in a comment to Edwards’ post, “Here, as everywhere on our site, including in the very title of this forum (that I’ve co-organized!), women are all but absent from our considerations of Césaire’s legacies. Shame on us? Shame on Césaire?” These are all crucial warning lessons for our future digital Caribbean creations. In the end, this event and website project have extended an invitation to do scholarship differently – and much else. Shame on us if we neglect to accept it.