- Reading and Being ReadJamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place as Literary Agent
If as teachers of literature we teach reading, literature can be our teacher as well as our object of investigation. . . . Our own undecidable meaning is in the irreducible figure that stands in for the eyes of the other. This is the effortful task: to displace the fear of our faceless students, behind whom are the eyes of the global others. Otherwise, who crawls into the place of the “human” of “humanism” at the end of the day, even in the name of diversity?—Gayatri Spivak
Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.—Jamaica Kincaid
In her 2003 work, Death of a Discipline, Gayatri Spivak calls for university teachers to understand literature as a teacher in its own right. “If as teachers of literature we teach reading,” Spivak writes, then “literature can be our teacher as well as our object of investigation” (23). Imagining literature—especially literature categorized as “ethnic” or “global”—as a pedagogical agent, Spivak calls for a shift in institutional power, one that counters the intransigent asymmetry in Western universities that presents ethnic and global “others” to Western subjects for analysis rather than dialogue. Such reading encounters avoid submitting readers to a counterhegemonic gaze while they ponder feelings of self-difference1 (“our own undecidable meaning”) in response to encounters with ethnic difference (Death 23).
Such reading encounters are also, Spivak suggests, scenes of subjection at which readers occupy the “place of the human” in contradistinction to persons figured by the ethnic literary text (Death 23). Despite multiculturalism’s effort to challenge the exclusive category of the human, the privileged “place” of this category in the university has not been eliminated. And although the postmodern human2 is not ascribed the stability that was previously the hallmark, however false, of its predecessors, it is imbued with a similar privilege—one that is transacted against “others” retained as objects of intellectual labor. In the context of contemporary literary studies, the place of the human continues to be occupied by privileged reading subjects.3 [End Page 193]
It is against the interpellation of the postmodern human that Spivak warns her audience of literature professors. And it is to literature that she turns for remedy. But her solution is not simple, for readers, particularly university students, are often blind to the lessons in critical self-reflection many works of ethnic literature offer—not least because they are encouraged to view such literature instrumentally. (How will reading this work help me compete against global peers?) Encounters with ethnic literatures are not enough to dislodge readers from positions of privilege or to “displace the fear” of lost privilege Spivak identifies in her “faceless students” (Death 23). Acknowledging that the presence of diverse literatures is not a sufficient condition for the wholesale reordering of power relations within the academy, Spivak presents literature not as an object to be mastered but as a pedagogical agent—a teacher.
It is with Spivak’s call in mind that I turn to Jamaica Kincaid’s devastating account of tourism, A Small Place (1988), which anticipates and extends Spivak’s formulation of literature as pedagogical agent. Kincaid’s brief collection of essays, which takes on Antigua’s tourist economy, selfish tourists, hapless “natives,” corrupt politicians, and the slavers and slaves that preceded them all, functions quite deliberately as a teacher. Using second-person address throughout, A Small Place points the finger at its actual readers, critiquing contemporary reading practices for their affinity with global tourism and imperialism. Even more dramatically, this text teaches readers how to read it as it unfolds.
Rhonda Frederick has captured the pedagogical force of A Small Place in a persuasive essay detailing her teaching strategies. Arguing against the impulse to mollify “mainstream” students by encouraging identificatory reading...