Thursday, January 24, 2008

Lewis - Main Currents

Lewis, Gordon K. Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in Its Ideological Aspects, 1492-1900. Johns Hopkins, 1983.

One can object on several counts to Lewis’s book: his willingness to speculate about how ‘they must have felt;’ his casual use of the term ‘Asiatic;’ his sweeping and sometimes forced geo-historical comparisons. His prose often betrays him—sentences will occasionally be either meaningless or nearly tautological. He gives a degree of credence to the psychological dependency complex that is, to me, mystifying. (But what do I know?). His marxisant framework is married uncomfortably to a certain kind of idealist history of ideas. Lewis’s understanding of nationalism is highly teleological. He can sensibly point out that the legacy of slavery and colonialism were important for the development of nationalism in the Caribbean, but only in contrast to “the straightforward, linear character of European nationalism” (239). More seriously, although he says, strikingly, that “in a very real sense, the history of the Caribbean slave regime is the history of the sexual exploitation of the black woman” (232), it is as an aside, “a separate and final note.” Even inside the marxisant framework of ‘ideology,’ which allows him to discuss much that falls outside the purview of conventional intellectual history, he is not yet able to put gender at the center of his analysis in the same way that he puts class and race, though he is clearly aware that he somehow should.

To my mind the greatest fault of Main Currents in Caribbean Thought is that the introduction and the conclusion give only a very impoverished sense of the empirical richness of the text. Consider the important and telling examples of abolitionism and nationalism. In his conclusion, Lewis summarizes his findings on anti-slavery as an ideology by saying that it was “intrinsically revolutionary to the degree that it was essentially an ideology of protest on the part of the Caribbean masses...against an exploitative economic and political system seeking to justify itself in terms of a pseudoscientific doctrine of race” (323). The problem with this is that he has, over 150 pages, shown that most actual resistance against slavery was in no sense a “protest” against any kind of “exploitative economic and political system.” Rather, the various modes of slave resistance were generally of much more immediate and reactive nature. Revolts occurred when labor was especially hard, punishment especially cruel. Maroon communities (and here Lewis seems to largely be following Mintz and Price) were not intrinsically anti-slavery in the abstract, but would certainly fight to bloody death to avoid themselves being re-enslaved. In Jamaica in particular, the maroons established their safety and autonomy from the plantation system in part by agreeing to hunt down runaway slaves.

Contemporary research, above all in the French context, but also the British, would have tied abolitionism into imperialism much more closely. The conclusion says nothing about this connection. But Lewis has read Eric Williams, and if he doesn’t give the kind of attention to Haiti’s republicanism that one would today, he is nonetheless perfectly aware and articulate, in his discussion of Victor Schoelcher (213-216), about the way in which abolition generally went hand-in-hand with the ideology of Empire. In the British context as well, Lewis is clear that abolitionism in now sense entailed the dissolution of imperial control. Desire for independence (cast in terms of nation or not) was at first very much a thing of the planter class. The complex interaction and interference of anti-slavery, imperialism and nationalism comes out admirably in the body of Lewis’s text—but not in his summary of the work he’s done.

In the end, the documentary richness of Main Currents of Caribbean Thought saves the book from its shortcomings and the occasional awkwardness of construction. The simple fact is that the elites of various parts of the Caribbean wrote a great deal about themselves and their place in the world. If a lower percentage of the Caribbean population was literate and articulate, this does not mean that they had no thoughts, or that their way of making sense of the world wasn’t complicated and isn’t in need of explication (to use Rancière’s dirty word). Lewis’s work has the great merit of actually discussing some of the large amount of printed material that is available, and not shying away from thinking about how the lives of those with no access to printed voice would have effected and contributed to it. He takes the Caribbean seriously as its own region, with a certain coherence based on a broadly shared experience of slavery and colonialism. He even, in a somewhat odd and melancholy way, sees hope in the Caribbean past, compared to the US one: “In American society, money ‘talks’; in Caribbean society, money ‘whitens.’ If racial democracy is to survive anywhere in the twentieth century, then, it probably stands its best chance in the Caribbean” (10).

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