The Limitations (?) of Geography

Though Derek Walcott’s essay is the only one to explicitly (deeply, intimately, affectively) confront the “Caribbean” — Stuart Hall addresses it in passing several times as part of his larger critical-theoretical overview, and Nicholas Negroponte takes as his subject the “digital” rather than the “Caribbean” — these pieces speak, as a whole, to questions that come up again and again in the study of the Caribbean (and that will, I suspect, come up repeatedly over the course of this semester). Here I mean particularly the question “What is the Caribbean?” — and, of course, inseparable from that question is “How does one talk about the Caribbean?”

Walcott — affective, intimate, proliferative — is taking part in a certain way-of-writing-about the Caribbean (exemplified also by Edouard Glissant and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, for example) which privileges the poetic and poetics; one could perhaps refer to an “aesthetic Caribbean.” Still, he (as well as Glissant and Trouillot) all attempt to strike a delicate balance with this type of work; they caution against a reductive exoticization of the Caribbean while, at times, seeming to succumb to — if not exoticizations — somewhat essentializing flights of fancy.

Compare Walcott’s disdain for “the usual benign insult of the traveller…the islands passing in profile, their vegetal luxury, their backwardness and poverty” (77) to his description of Port of Spain: “a city ideal in its commercial and human proportions…this is how Athens may have been before it became a cultural echo” (74). This slipperiness in Walcott’s work is both frustrating and seductive, especially when compared to Hall’s very different approach — where Walcott is willing to, at times, let precision slip while engaging with the poetic, Hall is incredibly reluctant to make sweeping affective or historiographical claims, preferring to engage, precisely, dialectically, with smaller points.

Still, despite their very different approaches, Walcott and Hall feel much more connected to each other than to Negroponte. Thinking about Walcott’s essay in terms of a dialectical approach is helpful here — in particular his focus on syncretism as constitutive of the lived experience of the Caribbean subject. The “dialect [Caribbean subjects] exchange” is “hearing two languages, one of the trees, one of schoolchildren…”  (80). Similarly, Walcott’s argument that history is written in a particular geography echoes Hall’s insistence that an engagement with very particular historical/social contexts is integral to historiographical and sociological work dealing with race.

Even putting aside Negroponte’s enthusiasm — or at least unconcern — about the projects of large-scale data collection, marketing, and surveillance he suggests are (will be?) the hallmarks of the “post-information age,” I found his suggestion that the future will include decentering and devaluing of place jarring after reading Hall and Walcott, who focus so intensely on the meaning and the specificity of place. Walcott has written a love letter to the Antilles-as-place. Hall’s argument similarly depends upon the specificity of place — he sets himself in opposition to a classical reading of Marx by pointing out its inapplicability outside of a particular Western European geographical/economic context (notably, using the example of plantation slavery in the Caribbean to make this point).

What, then, to make of an age that “will remove the limitations of geography” (165)? Is it true that digital living will result in the “transmission of place itself…[starting] to become possible” (165)? I can’t help but think this is a really reductive, technocratic-utopian position to take, and am left thinking about Walcott’s remarks on tourism. Negroponte suggests that he will be able to “see the Alps, hear the cowbells, and smell the (digital) manure in summer” from his digital living room (165).

Negroponte chooses the Alps, but he could have just as easily evoked a tropical island, and I can’t help but think of Walcott’s comments on the “civilizing decency” of engravings of the Antilles, depictions of the sky as a “glass ceiling under which a colonized vegetation is arranged for quiet walks and carriage rides” (75). In Negroponte’s hypothetical world, would digital renditions of place be colonized (or perhaps, colonizing)? Would they “[reduce] even the landscape to melancholia and self-contempt” (Walcott 76)?

Further thoughts: this essay presents some more contemporary thoughts on technocratic utopianism & “technology operating in a political vacuum” — as well as place/borderlessness.


  1. Two more quotes from the Negroponte:

    “Today, writers and money managers find it practicable and far more appealing to be in the Caribbean or South Pacific while preparing their manuscripts or managing their funds…. in some countries, like Japan, it will take longer to move away from space and time dependence, because the native culture fights the trend” (166)

    “A computer program… can be seen simultaneously as a set of computer instructions or as concrete poetry….” (230)

    I couldn’t help but note the ironic, passing mention both of the Caribbean and Japanese “native culture.” In these offhand remarks, the essence of one of the issues I think we’re all taking with Negroponte is revealed: the gaping gulf between the current, physical state of affairs & the (pseudo-fascist, in fact…) dream-images of a digital u/topia/youth cult.

    What Hall warns about–the danger in “naturalizing” or effacing differences–is fully realized: “Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony” (230). Re-interpreting digitization as a force of “nature” necessarily re-hegemonizes classes & groups within the world–whose “nature” is reflected in the digital mirror? Whose geography (as you both point out)? Whose metaphors & poetics, whose values, whose capital, whose labor?

    I think the second quote–perhaps unintentionally–speaks directly and productively with the “slippery” and uncertain poesis you’ve traced in Walcott’s essay. While they are clearly on different “sides,” both authors recognize and are somewhat troubled by (if not, in Negroponte’s case, troubled with) the wide scale coming-together of vastly different, specific, unique individuals and cultures through language.

  2. I too was struck by Walcott’s dialectical “slipperiness” in reading his article. I initially read it as a reductive “West vs. East” – exemplified, for instance, in his initial discussion of having never seen Ramleela but having recently adapted the Odyssey. And in these initial excursions he even seems to doubt the validity of his own presence in Felicity as “polluting the afternoon with doubt and with the patronage of admiration (67). As he progresses, though, there gets revealed a pursuit of synthesis without reduction, similar, as you point out, to Hall’s articulation. Poetry, which “conjugates both tenses simultaneously” is one example, as is the reconstructed broken vase whose pieces may be “disparate, ill-fitting,” but no longer taken for granted. I also thought this simultaneous doubleness was interesting, particularly in the way that Walcott seems to contrast it with the traveler who falls into a position of compassionate, beguiled outsider, distancing oneself while enjoying. In the traveler there is no articulation, rather only two separate things- the traveler and the landscape, a point you excellently use to challenge Negroponte’s ridiculous digital Alps, and his belief that the “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography” (165). I’m reminded in Walcott of Keats’s concept of “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” an idea Keats formulated in challenge to Coleridge’s desire to place knowledge over beauty. In Keats, as in Walcott, there is simultaneously doubt (“polluting the afternoon with doubt”), and beauty- “One rose hearing two languages” (Walcott 80). In this sort of push/pull then nothing seems reduced, or necessarily defined only by its relation with other aspects.

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