Deborah A. Thomas’s “Caribbean Studies, Archive Building, and the Problem of Violence” is one of the more frustrating things I’ve read this week. I admit, it’s been a profoundly terrible week so far. This Monday, my friend Cecily McMillan, a 25 year-old nonviolent Occupy student activist, was wrongfully convicted of felony charges for assaulting a police officer in March 2012, when in fact she was assaulted by him, groped and bruised, and then suffered a seizure while in handcuffs on the ground. After a month-long trial that saw open collusion between the judge and prosecution, and a hamstrung defense that couldn’t submit various crucial pieces of evidence, the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Some jurors have since immediately regretted this decision after reading online trial coverage and discovering she will face 2-7 years in prison. Meanwhile, the officer goes free, police brutality is sanctioned, and nonviolent social movements are told in so many words that dissent will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Why do I begin this post on violent Caribbean word and image archives with Cecily? Because the state violence we experience is palpable, visceral, eviscerating, and must be described with clarity (or else become a new flowery “cargo” balance sheet of academic analysis)… Handprints left blued on breasts and arms by an armed stranger. Ribs that ache for months. Imposed silence in a courtroom that decides her fate… To seriously “archive violence” is to renounce irresponsibly ambiguous wordplay like “modern blackness” and “insurgent citizenships,” to cease reproducing all-too-familiar footnote genealogies, and to instead present critical questions and techniques on how ordinary people create and respond to violence (or not). Thomas asks: “what if we applied the same impetus (evidence generation, claim making, vindication, and, perhaps ultimately, repair) to the study of violence that we have applied to the study of slavery, governance, family formation, and expressive cultural practices?”(36). But this essay becomes unmoored from its reparative intentions by the company it seeks to keep. What if Thomas were writing this from the confines of a cold cell in Riker’s Island? Or under threat of socio-economic dismemberment in a Jamaican shanty?
We see a mass failure in the practices of archiving violence because the people who have the resources and platforms to do so are not in the business of placing themselves in real socially engaged danger. We see well-heeled Caribbeanist scholars play games with locating the “silences” of violence in/of/on/and/through/around/over/under archival records at Yale academic conferences, and not conceive through first-hand experience why people would use opacity (verbal or visual) as a weapon against the state, or quietly suffer injuries instead of report them to the police (who may have caused them), or refuse to keep political records that could be incriminating, or focus less on the national/international question and more on basic local survival. Thomas spent time in 2004 doing an ethnography on gang wars in Jacks Hill, Jamaica–where are the concrete lessons here? Would her intended audience even dare apply them to other situations?
Even though The Caribbean Photo Archive presents itself more innocuously, the slideshow offers surprisingly lucid archives of violence, hidden in plain sight. In a series of modernist ruptures, one image after another, daily acts of violent racialized subjugation and resistance commingle with state violence’s benefactors. Plantation owners scowl from porches. A rumpled man sits atop a mountain. A mushroom cloud bomb explodes. Pastels are doctored onto a postcard of a Jamaican “coolie village.” Unnamed veterans wander ruined buildings and desolate streets. Named mercantilists pose stoic for photo-portraits. A dark-skinned man stands outside a building labeled “Chinese Free-Mason Hall.” A tourist film for “Jamaica: No Place Like Home” scans across the faces of African/Indian/Indigenous people working, smiling, performing music, wearing garish outfits, standing carefully apart from white bathing-suited visitors; the video footage is stone silent. The instructive irony here is that Thomas purports to elaborate on archiving violence, while the Photo Archive unwittingly succeeds in chronicling it.
Ultimately, that the slideshow moves from past to present and back, flouting genealogies, re-looping time knotted by violence and silent retaliations, helps me gain perspective that Cecily is not alone in this inexplicably rendered pain, and that in standing with her for justice, we stand for a reparative justice to be documented for all time.