- Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies
'The horror! The horror!' might be an alternative sub-title to this book. Sheller's account of white European consumption of the Caribbean, from annexation in the fifteenth century to the early twenty-first century, transports the reader to a kind of Caribbean 'Heart of Darkness'—one observed from the moral high ground of a twenty-first century Joan of Arc. Sheller, a sociologist, is no less than a committed analyst using the sword of Caribbean Studies equally against the history of white European consumerism and against the defiling pens of travel—the hacks who promote the latest version of abhorrent consumption, an abomination by which most of the region now earns a precarious living, tourism.
Her text makes a virtue of skipping through centuries, offering juxtapositions to illuminate the different ways that the Caribbean region has been consumed. The focus shifts from the instrumental and practical cataloging of indigenous plants exported and exploited by European pharmacology, to the consumption of Caribbean produce in Europe, especially sugar (dripping with the blood of slaves), Caribbean landscapes and ultimately Caribbean bodies, especially black and East Indian Caribbean bodies. Mobility and stasis underpin this moralistic history of consumption.
Sheller's thesis, essentially, is that the Caribbean, viewed in a global context, allows privileged (white) people from Europe and things produced in the Caribbean to have the advantage of mobility, while the exploited (blacks) in the Caribbean are held captive to do the shit work, or to receive the tourist or travel writer's licentious gaze and, indeed, sometimes their bodies. 'Book me a ticket', I'd say if I was in Europe; but I'm already in the region, so I'll confine my observations to some of the issues that the text raises.
Not surprisingly, one of Sheller's concerns is with the ethics of consuming the Caribbean in both the historical and contemporary world. The author's concern for ethics is really a sense of moral indignation at what she perceives as a lack of European sense of guilt in connection with the region. Most chapters are filled with outrage at despoliation in one form or another. There is, indeed, plenty to be outraged about in the region and in its history. However, Sheller's outrage diverts her from a closer analysis of important underlying issues and distinctions to be made around consumption. By this I mean, for example, the contradictions of consumption, the way that consumption may both marginalize and include and whether or not and how this happens in different eras of capitalism in the Caribbean.
Instead, hacks from various centuries are firmly ticked off. For example, in an examination of what she calls the visual consumption of Caribbean landscapes, Sheller examines a piece of recent journalism on Jamaica in which the writer suggests that its north coast road becomes the 'road to a new Eden' (69). Well, who tell he say dat! This is unacceptable. She complains: "Describing nature as an auto poetic or self generating life form removes the need for any kind of consumer guilt or anxiety. Such carefree guiltlessness is often transferred to the tourist relationship with local people" (69). When the same hapless journalist suggests, further, that Jamaica is like Eden after Adam was tempted with the [End Page 1205] apple, this is simply too much. In the same paragraph she releases the following broadside:
Thus the new Eden is a perpetual garden in which sensuality can run rampant; rather than being expelled from the garden, humanity can indulge all the temptations of fertile nature and fertile sex, without guilt. Vandal proof nature serves as a transparent metonym for sexual access to 'natives' without consequences; the laws of nature and of morality have both apparently been temporarily suspended in this fantasy Jamaica; more vested in Hedonism than in Edenism.(69)
The hack at least can plead fantasy. Sheller's rage, however, appears to have had a partially blinding effect on the author. Let me provide two examples. In Chapters 2 and 5, both male and female travel...