- Constructing an Archipelago: Writing the Caribbean
Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective is a marvelously ambitious rereading of Caribbean literature, letters, and culture, deftly translated here by James Maraniss. But what makes the Cuban author’s book a work of particular interest and importance to postmodern studies is the powerful, shifting, and paradoxical framework he has established for articulating the “certain way” of the Caribbean. For Benitez-Rojo’s chief interest is in the ethnological but nonetheless inessential character that might justify the reference to so many diverse islands, peoples, languages, and histories as “the Caribbean.” His “Caribbean” is a constructed, postmodern, and yet finally coherent sociocultural archipelago.
Benitez-Rojo thus engages with the very difficult question of how to perform a cultural study that is postmodern and constructivist but which nonethelessless respects cultural specificities. He puts it this way: “How do we establish that the Caribbean is an important historico-economic sea, and, further, a cultural meta-archipelago without center and without limits, a chaos within which there is an island that proliferates endlessly, each a copy of a different one, founding and refounding ethnological materials like a cloud will do with its vapor?” (9). Both the value and danger of this work result from the energy and skill with which the author sets often contradictory theoretical apparatuses after this problem and into productive frenzy.
The readings are propelled by a roughly Deleuzian conception of an ordering, productive machine that is the Caribbean itself; the very machine from which Caribbean texts seek to escape in their search for non-violence. He calls this machine the “Plantation,” and it is in his attention to the Plantation that he produces the readings that are one of the real gifts of this text. The Plantation system is for Benitez-Rojo the producer of the similarity of differences that makes up the islands of the Caribbean: “the Plantation proliferated in the Caribbean basin in a way that presented different features in each island, each stretch of coastline, each colonial bloc. Nevertheless . . . these differences, far from negating the existence of a pan-Caribbean society, make it possible in the way that a system off ractal equations of a galaxy is possible” (72).
His most complete identification of the Plantation takes place in an introductory chapter that examines the history of the Caribbean in terms of the Plantation, and in his examination of his two historical texts: Bartholome de Las Casas’ 1875 history of what he still referred to as the Indes (Historia de las Indias), and Fernando Ortiz’s 1940 essay on the role of sugar and tobacco production in the shaping of Cuba (part of Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azucar). Benitez-Rojo carefully teases out from Las Casas’ text the author’s guilt for having been an original “encomendero” who both justified the Spanish conquest of Cuba and promoted African slavery as the most efficacious means of running sugar plantations. Las Casas, then, is one of the architects of the Plantation—the larger system of exploitation that would come to determine Caribbean culture. Las Casas, though, is no simple bad guy: Benitez-Rojo’s accomplishment is to show how his work also helps discursively to organize the region’s anti-colonial impulses.
Through a scrupulous Freudian reading of Historia” Benitez-Rojo suggests that Las Casas’ text both contains and represents a “rupture” in the “discursive practice that justified the conquest” and that this rupture creates one of the region’s first nationalistic arguments in its imagination of “a providential space in which Europeans, aboriginal peoples, and Africans might live industriously according to religious and civic principles, and where violence toward the Indian and the Negro would be condemned equally by the earthly power of the crown and the Church’s spiritual judgment” (86). The rupture is represented by an enigmatic moment in this historical text: a fantastic description of a plague of ants that reads more like fable than history. Noting the uncanniness of the passage, Benitez-Rojo uses Freudian analysis to show how the...