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Charting the "Black Atlantic"
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The Sea is History

Verandahs, where the pages of the sea are a book left open by an absent master in the middle of another life-- I begin here again, begin until this ocean's a shut book.... --Derek Walcott

Whatever else it is, this is an age of cartography. An age, perhaps, as Fredric Jameson has it, of cognitive mapping; cognitive because the territories we map (whether they are the territories of the nation, of capital, of hyperspace, or of transnational migration, to name only a few) insist on reshaping themselves, on continuously expanding or contracting, splitting and doubling, defying the abilities of their cartographers to keep pace, to commit to paper something that is not instantly belated. But "cognitive" also because, as the above list implies, the category of the mappable is itself increasingly unstable, because as our epistemologies of the local encounter the shifting ways in which local cultures, local knowledges and local narratives confront the globalizing imperatives of the nation, capital, hyperspace, and migrancy, our sense of what constitutes a cultural locale, of what can be spoken of as a discernible, perhaps even a distinct, space, is also continuously expanding and contracting. I do not presume, in this essay, to unlock the riddle of the local and the global; instead, in the spirit of the times, I want to examine one of our moment's apparently global cultural locales. I want, that is, to ask whether it is possible to locate the postcolonial, to inquire whether it occupies or implies a discernible order of space, and to ask -- if the postcolonial can indeed be located -- how that space is inhabited and experienced. My suggestion is that it is both not possible to speak of the space of the postcolonial (for the fairly simple reason that India is not Nigeria which in its turn is not Jamaica which in its turn is not England) and that it is possible to do so (largely because these places are at once structurally distinct and structurally coupled); and that if we are to understand how this can be so we must turn our attention from these national spaces of belonging to the waters that separate and join them.

"Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? / Where is your tribal memory?" an anonymous body of inquisitors demands the narrator of one of Derek Walcott's poems. To which interrogation the poem responds: "Sirs, / in that grey vault. The sea. The sea / has locked them up. The sea is history.... / ... / Sir it is locked in them sea-sands / out there past the reef's moiling shelf, / where the men-o'-war floated down; / strop on these goggles, I'll guide you there myself. / Its all subtle and submarine" ("The Sea is History" 1-4; 35-7). It is to that reply and that invitation that this essay responds.

Suffering a Sea-change

--all the deep Is restless change; the waves so swell'd and steep, Breaking and sinking, and the sunken swells, Nor one, one moment, in its station dwells. --George Crabbe

Let me start with a photograph and two fragments of text. In the black and white print, a central image in Sutapa Biswas' 1992 exhibition "Synapse," an Indian woman and two children are standing in water, immersed to their hips, gazing directly at us.


© 1997 Sutapa Biswas, used by permission.
Figure 1.
Click here to see the full image (20K).

Their bodies are neither perfectly relaxed nor rigidly tense. Rather, they hold themselves as if photographed by surprise, uncertain whether to dip their dangling hands into the water, to delight in the cool shallows, or to formalize themselves, to adopt a pose, to substitute decorum for the forgettable postures of play. Photographed an instant too late and an instant too soon, caught in a moment between abandon and self-collection, the three figures also wade between genres. The image implies a camera operator who is at once anthropologist, artist, and loved one. Either a snapshot for a family album, a study for gallery display, or a document for an ethnographic treatise, the photograph encloses the bathers in a multitude of literal and epistemological frames. If the undeveloped sandy beach and...


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