- Self-consuming Fictions: The Dialectics of Cannibalism in Modern Caribbean Narratives
Parce que nous vous haissons vous et votre raison, nous nous reclamons . . . du cannibalisme tenace.—Aime Cesaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal
Howling words of fresh blood to spark the sacred fire of the world, Aime Cesaire in 1939 claimed kinship with madness and cannibalism. In Cesaire’s view, colonialism and western rationality had imposed a falsely barbaric identity —or, in effect, a non-identity—upon the peoples that Europe had uprooted, subjugated, enslaved and otherwise mastered. Against the Eurocentrist representation of American otherness, Cesaire, within his poem’s ritual of parthenogenesis, prophetically identified with that otherness, subsuming it into his apocalyptic redefinition of Afro-Antillean selfhood. By such iconoclastic gestures, Cesaire and numerous other writers of the region have demonstrated the manner in which poetic self-identification can mean empowerment in providing the starting point for resisting the cultural annihilation of colonialism. My aim in this essay will be to account for some of the ways in which Cesaire’s “cannibalisme tenace” has indeed persisted, tenaciously and obsessively, in modern Caribbean narratives concerned with the question of critiquing and constructing a post-colonial cultural identity.
Cesaire’s affirmation of a unique Caribbean identity raises certain questions that remain to be addressed. The Afro-Antillean self of negritude is constituted on the violent exclusion of all other cultural elements that have formed Caribbean culture, including the contributions of indigenous, Asian and even European inhabitants. (One is led to ask if a truly Caribbean discourse of decolonization must negate or devalorize all such contributions.) The privileging of an African otherness furthermore entails the risk of reiterating the categorizations and exclusions inscribed in colonial discourse, for it was indeed the latter that hollowed out the representational space for what colonialism associated with “Africa” (the irrational, savage and infrahuman).1 Moreover, the concept of “identity” has itself become suspect in recent anti-essentialist theoretizations that have problematized the Cartesian notion of the subject. Jacques Derrida has displaced the subject along with other “transcendental signifieds” that have supposedly governed the play of signification within a cultural system from an assumed metaphysical center (249). Jacques Lacan has demonstrated the “subversion of the subject” as a function continually constituted and undermined in the chain of signifiers and in the “dialectic of desire” to which the self is subject-ed by its accession to language.2
The post-structuralist attack on the unified, self- present and self-transparent cogito thus puts in question the simplistic assumptions underlying a call to define a specifically Caribbean identity, but I would argue that it does not in the end disqualify that call. Within a Third- World context in which we could situate such a claim to original identity, the postmodern announcement of the “death of the subject” sounds premature and betrays a complicity with world-capitalist systems that have already dispersed and canceled out individual subjectivity. In an emergent culture like that of the Caribbean nations, the subject may represent a refuge and a source of resistance to hegemony. Andreas Huyssen in “Mapping the Postmodern” raises the questions of what subjectivity could mean precisely in the face of capitalist modernization:
Hasn’t capitalist modernization itself fragmented and dissolved bourgeois subjectivity and authorship, thus making attacks on such notions somewhat quixotic? And . . . doesn’t poststructuralism, where it simply denies the subject altogether, jettison the chance of challenging the ideology of the subject (as male, white, and middle-class) by developing alternative and different notions of subjectivity?(44)
A certain Caribbean discourse of decolonization, I would argue, has held out for a counter-movement to modernist fragmentation and dissolution in very its tendency to “develop alternative and different notions of subjectivity.”3 In this discourse, far from having become obsolete, the subject has yet to come into its own.
Appeals to integration of the divided colonial self have preoccupied Caribbean writers who have attempted to vindicate their right to self-definition. This vindication itself joins the broader question of cultural syncretism and synthesis endemic to Caribbean culture. In the “post- negritude” approach of Edouard Glissant, for example, this identity is acknowledged to be an identity-in...