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.