Deborah A. Thomas’s Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica considers how the inherently violent social practices of colonialism impact, inform, and facilitate contemporary economic and political struggles in Jamaica. Key to Thomas’s multi-threaded argument is the retention of spatiotemporal specificity: a mapping of connections between colonial and postcolonial state formation in the Caribbean and local articulations of spectacular violence and transglobal networks of power. Thomas engages with historical events, historiography, national policy, and popular media (music, news and radio, film, and pulp fiction) to analyze the functioning of violence within the postcolonial state. Thomas is an anthropologist, and thus her book does not offer literary readings of the texts it examines. However, because Thomas contextualizes discourses and spectacles of violence within local Caribbean history and illustrates how Jamaican cultural production circulates globally, she offers important counternarratives to those coming out of the US and Great Britain about Jamaican violence. Exceptional Violence thus serves as a helpful resource for literary scholars and cultural critics specializing in Jamaica, the Caribbean, and postcolonial studies.
Thomas’s treatment of violence is historical, anthropological, discursive, and metaphorical. Several of the book’s chapters open with specters of violence: a violent death of a friend, families and homes set on fire, and the terrorizing of local communities by gangs or the State. This focus on the local, family, and community enables her to unpack the violence of nationalistic ideology and rhetoric, specifically the relationship of the gendered black body and family to discourses of pathology. She analyzes depictions of Jamaica, Jamaicans and “Jamaican crime” in American, Canadian, and British media as extra violent, extra vicious, and extra pathological (77). Under this lens, the bodies of Jamaicans become walking pathogens, and their traversal across and through conduits of capital are [End Page 209] the spread of a disease. This metaphor of disease allows Thomas to link disparate examples of violence in order to illustrate how Jamaican cultural production circulates through transnational networks of power.
Thomas deftly links local abuses of power—political coercion, unequal distribution of resources, rape, and murder—to larger shifting political interests and definitions of nation and citizenship. For example, she traces the sources of a “local” conflict—a rash of murders within a historically non-partisan community—to a spat on a soccer field between two young men. Discourses of black masculinity evolving out of slavery are linked to economic and population shifts due to losses of employment and the withdrawal of the middle class from participation in community. In a move that illustrates how American imaginings of landscape echo the perpetuation of colonial social hierarchy in Jamaica, Thomas connects contemporary literal violence and State and international interventions to historical renderings of the “new world” as a wild frontier composed of untamed territories and bodies, symbols of possibility and opportunity for colonial and imperial powers to master. Thus contemporary class conflicts become linked to “provision grounds,” the practice of allowing slaves a small piece of land for their use; this practice cultivates illusions of possession and belonging that obscure the violence of slave labor and weaken solidarity among slaves “while solidify[ing] the racial and economic hegemony of planters” (49).
Thomas’s reading stands against culturalist arguments concerning the relationship of subject formation to violence, specifically readings of Jamaican culture and history that reduce and obscure the lasting economic, political, and social impact of colonialism and slavery on the Caribbean. She allows that “the language of cultural politics has enabled a critique that can be construed as anti-nationalist,” but critiques its failure to imagine alternative models of political community in an international framework or allow us to understand “the ways imperial and nationalist projects have been developing transnationally,” which would enable us to “frame violence in Jamaica within a more historical and relational context” (69). For Thomas, violence in Jamaica is a spatiotemporal formation, not a cultural inheritance.
By retaining historical specificity, Thomas challenges the representation of an “American foot that is seen to be bearing down on Caribbean...