- The Ship, the Plantation, and the Polis: Reading Gilroy and Glissant as Moral Philosophy
Theories of the Caribbean do not just account for a given history—that is the historian’s task—but, rather, aim to explain the philosophical stakes of an odd social experiment whose ramifications were and still remain largely unforeseeable. Some of the most productive of these theories have benefited from the iconic power of a particularly successful metaphor. This is no doubt the case with Antonio Benítez Rojo’s “the repeating island” and José Luis González’s “el país de cuatro pisos”—to name just two metaphors capable of painting in simple strokes concepts that are sophisticated and eye opening. However, while the efficiency of the metaphor sometimes overshadows the complexity of the concept, occasionally, the richness of the theory eclipses part of the suggestive power of the metaphor. In this article I explore two concept metaphors, “the ship” and “the plantation,” which suggest lines of inquiry that either supplement or advance the explicit preoccupations of the theories they illustrate.
In The Black Atlantic (1993), Paul Gilroy uses the ship—described as “a living, micro-cultural, micro-political system in motion”—to symbolize the slave trade. According to Gilroy, the ship is a chronotope (Bakhtin’s term) that not only grounds Caribbean culture in a specific narrative but also provides a figurative framework for the revision of political and moral philosophy. Similarly, Edouard Glissant’s Poétique de la relation (1990) explores the metaphorical weight of the plantation, a concept alluding to the formation of purely relational societies on the basis of forced labor. Like Gilroy’s ship, Glissant’s Plantation stresses a thoroughly Caribbean condition of existence: that of a society built exclusively on an aleatory and largely involuntary coexistence. Both theories start out by exploring how such an anomalous social formation “ait pu contribuer à ce que vous appelez [End Page 186] la modernité” (“could have contributed to what you call modernity”).1 The metaphors behind these theories help us visualize a space that encloses a form of social presence characterized not so much by integration as by togetherness; a form of togetherness that, though driven by one-sided economic interests, has had social, cultural, and ethical consequences of foundational proportions.
In this article, I see both the plantation and the ship as spatiotemporal matrices of a distinctively Caribbean mode of existence based on relationality. Both Gilroy’s and Glissant’s theories seem to be animated by a similar question: what ideas of belonging, justice, and responsibility operate in societies in which membership is based on neither filiation nor consent? With this question in mind, I seek to elaborate the meaning of these concept metaphors from the perspective of moral philosophy in order to analyze the complex links between self and community, ethics and politics, that subtend Caribbean societies.
In The Black Atlantic, Gilroy uses the image of the ship as “a central organizing symbol” of the history of slavery.2 The ship has intense “descriptive and moral power” because it helps visualize a confined site of aleatory togetherness in extreme circumstances. The ship is both enclosure and vehicle—something like a traveling neighborhood—a kind of entity that fosters relations of continuity and discontinuity with various land-based societies. As a social space, the ship is a world unto itself, with its own legal codes, unspoken rules, and political tensions. As a vehicle, it connects different points of the Atlantic, creating a Deleuzian machine of ships, ports, institutions, laws, and people that Benítez Rojo calls “la Flota” (“the Fleet”).3 So understood, the ship facilitates colonialism but also—and this matters greatly to Gilroy—instances of dissidence. In Gilroy’s words, “The image of the ship—a living, micro-cultural, micro-political system in motion—immediately focuses attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artefacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs” (4). To be sure, the ship so described speaks of the forced migration of people, but it...