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Ariel's Ethos: On the Moral Economy of Caribbean Existence

From: Cultural Critique
56, Winter 2004
pp. 33-63 | 10.1353/cul.2003.0059

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Cultural Critique 56 (2003) 33-63

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Ariel's Ethos

On the Moral Economy of Caribbean Experience


Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path.
—Jiddu Krishnamurti

Few intellectuals and organic philosophers in the Caribbean will doubt that the region is in a severe moral and ethical crisis at this historical juncture. And yet, making this assertion presupposes the existence of an indigenous moral and ethical matrix against which such a judgment can be made. More often than not, however, precisely this existence is concealed from the discourse about society and moral development in the region. The following essay pursues—perhaps too ambitiously—a number of simultaneous objects. First, it intends to highlight some of the elements of what could perhaps be called the Caribbean ethic/ethos. In this effort, the initial guiding questions are: What are the elements that circumscribe Caribbean thought? What are the motives for action? And what are the ethics of the people inhabiting the Caribbean? Later, I will read this (reconstructed) ethos/ethic against Shakespeare's play The Tempest, in particular against the figures of Ariel and (to a lesser extent) Trinculo. Both "texts," the Caribbean ethos and the Shakespearean figures, may (and I choose this word carefully, as I am setting out to explore subtle connections and discontinuities) put each other into perspective, withdraw each other's legitimacy or basic assumptions, or reinforce common premises. Second, I will argue for a view of Ariel that differs somewhat from the predominant interpretation by postcolonial [End Page 33] writers. This view will direct the way in which the Shakespearean figures are deployed as a lens through which I choose to consider issues pertaining to the moral economy of the Caribbean. Third, the essay is an attempt to utilize different—sometimes deliberately disjointed—registers of writing with which to map the moral landscape of Caribbean existence. Since Caribbean existence is circumscribed by a multiplicity of different discourses, themes, and cultural traditions—rationalist-positivist, mythopoetic, Afrocentric, Marxist, and so on (see, e.g., Trouillot 2002)—rather than to settle for any one of them, I consider it to be methodologically more appropriate to move back and forth between the epistemological registers implied in these discourses.

The connection between ethos and ethics throughout this essay is not arbitrary, but reflects the need to consider Caribbean people as moral persons. 1 This is to say that their actions and parameters of thought should be regarded as a collective attempt of structuring and making sense of the world in a culturally specific way that facilitates the emergence of a certain measure of order and predictability. Unlike the moral agent of Kantian and utilitarian theories, the Caribbean person should be regarded as a culturally embedded individual and not an abstract "ghost" acting in a cultural vacuum (Hinman n.d., 1). I intend to advance themes that, for a long time, have lingered in the discussions about Caribbean culture and identity but in the past have been centered on demonstrating the commonalities between African or Asian cultures and those of the Caribbean. While I firmly believe that these were utterly necessary in light of the required reconstruction of self- and peoplehood and the budding processes of nation building, I am equally convinced that we have reached a point where it is appropriate to expand the parameters of these debates in order to arrive at a definition of the Caribbean persona sui generis, i.e., without constructing parallel universes. This attempt is neither denying the persistent validity of cultural heritage nor does it intend at the other extreme to promote a genetic argument. 2 However, it is my persuasion that the history, ontological conditions, epistemologies, and cosmologies of Caribbean peoples, in their process of mutual attraction, rejection, and mixing, have created a unique intellectual space that has come to inform their habitual ways...