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Small Axe 7.2 (2003) 23-38
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Notes Toward a New Caribbean Cultural Studies
The noted anthropologist Peter Wilson, in his 1973 book Crab Antics, 1 observed in Caribbean societies a fundamental and structuring tension between "respectability" and what he called "reputation." "Respectability" is oriented toward bourgeois valuations of the centripetal, toward standard English, home, family, hierarchy, decorum, stability, honesty, economy, delayed returns, and transcendence. In contrast, "reputation" is oriented toward the centrifugal, toward carnival, toward Creole, the street, autonomy, mobility, trickery, display, and transience. 2 As with any schematic opposition, the respectability/reputation dualism is not all-encompassing, yet it is useful in making visible two related and conflicting sets of cultural desires, practices, and allegiances that are elaborated to an unusual degree in the Caribbean. The schema is also particularly pertinent as a measure of the allegiances of cultural criticism, which are what I propose to study here. [End Page 23]
I submit that in recent years Caribbean cultural studies has emphasized and celebrated the antisystemic values of reputation to the exclusion of respectability. This is most obvious in the disproportionate study of carnival as compared to Christmas (an imbalance that Daniel Miller has observed). Moreover, the privileging of reputation in Caribbean studies is continuous with a fetishization of resistance and transgression in cultural studies more broadly. 3 In both cases, the fascination with resistance and transgression derives from a legitimate critique of statism and class reductionism, and an interest in the political possibilities they neglect—whether feminism and the New Social Movements, subcultures, or styles of consumption. Paul Gilroy, for example, asserts that for the descendants of slaves, with their historical memory of forced labor, the centerpiece of hopes for emancipation cannot be labor, but rather must be artistic expression. 4 The point is a suggestive one, and goes a long way in explaining the intense outpouring of creative energies and the concentration of artistic expertise and expressive desire in carnival. But it does shrug aside the complex contemporary cultures of work in the Caribbean and the contestations of dominant ideology that occur within the realm of respectability. And it does not engage the structuring tension between reputation and respectability, between mass performances of transgression and mass desires for acceptance and assimilation, between popular desires for work and popular celebration of respite from its exploitative conditions. Thus, noting the unpopularity of practices of reputation in the political sphere, where Caribbean publics have tended to make pragmatic and often cautious political choices rather than revolutionary ones, Richard Burton argues that "significant progress within the system will depend on some new blend of the cultures of reputation and respectability that have in the past been so strongly opposed." 5 Although I do not agree with the safety-valve theory of which Burton is ultimately a cautious proponent, I find his concluding arguments on the political importance of cultures of respectability a compelling corrective to our present critical disposition.
Thus, I contend that we need both to dethrone carnival as the privileged site of study of Caribbean culture and to change the nature of the questions we ask about [End Page 24] it. In making this contention, one proviso is necessary: it is crucial to remember that carnival in the academy might serve a very different function from that which it serves in Caribbean societies. Thus, although I do not think that carnival itself can be usefully characterized as a safety valve, at the risk of sounding uncharitable, I venture that carnival studies may have functioned as such. I hope it will be clear that I am not underestimating the aesthetic, cultural, and economic importance of carnival. What concerns me is the critical divorce of carnival from other aspects of everyday life and the neglect of other oppositional possibilities: the resources of respectability through which a group of village women may mount a campaign against the drunkenness of their husbands; the informally institutionalized networks of daycare; the struggles for clean water, and so on.
I venture, further, that the rhetorical emphasis on reputation as a form of...