Making Room for the Magical: Glave, Naniki, and the Archive

Due to my inattentiveness when downloading this week’s readings (ah, the perils of digital pedagogy!) I began reading Thomas Glave’s essay “Whose Caribbean?” thinking that it was actually the introduction to the anthology Our Caribbean. Imagine my surprise at being dropped into the first paragraph unprepared:

“The child — let us know him/her as ‘s/he’ — possessed a slender penis of startlingly delicate green, the truest color of the sea that s/he has always loved — that sea which licked and foamed out and back, out and in again, all about the shores of that place; as s/he also possessed a pair of luminous blue breasts the tone of the purest skies, which, on the gentlest days, nuzzled their broad, soft chins against the sea.” (177)

Though this is not intended to be the introduction to the text, it ended up being my introduction to Our Caribbean — a haunting image, an immediate disorientation, thrown out loud and clear: this anthology is (in spirit if not in form) more Brathwaite than Best, to put it in terms of our previous readings. I couldn’t help but think of Naniki when I encountered this recurring image — the recurring ocean-colored “s/he” seeking space to dream.

I hope that this brief digression is permissible, as I didn’t have the chance to write about the site last week. The aesthetic parallels are eerie: consider the Naniki story’s in-between, oceanic protagonists, with their “[f]luid, iridescent and segmented human-like bodies with long fins for hands and feet, their “[s]ea sponge/sea fan hair,” and their colors and tattoos changing according to their environments and moods. Is it pushing the story too far to think of the Naniki story as an early anthropologist’s reductive description of human-like sea-people and Glave’s essay as a missive from within?

It’s certainly tempting (for me, at least) to indulge this strange flight of fancy, as Glave’s essay, read in this way, provides a whimsical but wonderfully accurate corrective to our concerns about the Naniki story’s heteronormativity (or, at least, its unwillingness to play with gender and tropes of romantic love despite its playing-with-bodies in so many other senses). Which brings me to another point which I think we’ve been dancing around in this class but haven’t addressed head-on: whimsy and magic and how these relate to the digital. I’m wondering if it’s possible to hold space for joy and magic in the digital realm without falling into the trap of uncritical techno-optimism or techno-utopianism.

Glave — though he deals with the Caribbean rather than the digital in these essays — both plays and haunts, and his work summoned this idea for me. (As did Harrell’s GRIOT system; incidentally, in checking the name of the poetry-generator in question, I found another of Harrell’s articles about it, appropriately titled “GRIOT’s Tales of Haints and Seraphs”.) This perhaps pushes uncomfortably against a discussion I remember from the first weeks of class, in which we all settled on the idea that computers aren’t magic — we treat them as if they are only because we don’t understand them. But what if they could be? Is there a way to summon computer-based haints without losing sight of the material conditions of computing?

And, furthermore, what about the tension between play/magic/whimsy and usefulness, or academic seriousness? Accessing the Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement archive after reading the Glave essay brought this to mind as well, and it’s perhaps something for all of us to think about as we approach our final projects. My immediate response was frustration — I found the digital archive somewhat difficult to navigate as someone who was casually exploring and browsing rather than performing research (e.g. searching for a particular item or theme). But as I poked around, I ended up locating all kinds of interesting materials (the archived issues and production notes of the Jamaica Gaily News were particularly intriguing).

I’ve often felt that archival research, frustrating as it can be, can also involve a particularly magical “serendipity of the archive.”  Digitization of the archive can offer much the same experience, while also rendering it immediately and publicly accessible (in the sense that anything on the Internet can be immediately and publicly accessible, keeping in mind our many discussions about access and materiality). Can the archive be magical, particularly when we’re talking about the Caribbean — and archives that are so often inscribed within (and by) histories of violence? And what about the digital? Is it possible, or worth it, to hold space for queering, for haunting, for playing, for a childlike discovery of technology, or does this veer too far into the uncritical?

One comment

  1. Maxine, you raise a lot of really interesting points. I’d kind of like to go through them in sections.

    First, you point out the aesthetic parallels between Glave and Naniki, with a particular emphasis on the oceanic aspects shared between both, while also pointing out Naniki’s heteronormativity. Since I won’t be in class today (minor bit of flu), I want to point again towards Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage” in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2, and available on Project Muse (I mentioned this article previously in relation to the heteronormativity of “The Repeating Island”). Tinsley’s article is great at intersecting the Middle Passage, the Ocean, and Queerness.

    Your discussion of play reminds me of Derrida’s play- “Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence.” (“Structure, Sign and Play” in Writing and Difference 294). In other words, your pointing towards dual possibilities (seriousness and play, computers and magic) might be bolstered by calling upon this Derridean interplay between significance and the disruption of significance. For Derrida neither takes precedence, but are always in flux. I think the same might be true of a computer. We plug in the various components, then boom, we are transported into a digital realm which differs from the material. These things on the screen are marked by their simultaneous presence and absence- Present insofar as we are witness to them, absent insofar as they can be found materially nowhere.

    In response to your question “if it’s possible to hold space for joy and magic in the digital realm without falling into the trap of uncritical techno-optimism or techno-utopianism.”- I feel that such magic will always be present, though the ways in which it appears (or disappears) will always be a challenge to academia, simply because such magic is marked by an absence (for instance if we define magic as significance without referent), and absences are always difficult to pin down, but will also always be present.

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