Ambiguation, Disjuncture, Commitment: A Social Analysis of Caribbean Cultural Creativity

By Wardle, Huon | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Ambiguation, Disjuncture, Commitment: A Social Analysis of Caribbean Cultural Creativity


Wardle, Huon, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Amongst its multiple meanings (Mintz 1996; Price 2001), creolization is widely used by anthropologists to refer to contexts of cultural medley, hybridity, or intermixture (Bolland 1992: 50-1). In the Caribbean, the term has often described a history of social compromise -- the 'cruel but creative' dialectical accommodation of cultural potential into a workable social life (Austin-Broos 1997: 4-6; Bolland 1992; Brathwaite 1971: 307). However, as a form capable of sustaining itself, Creole culture cannot mean simply cultural medley On the contrary, without a dynamic of conflicting generative forces, of which intermixture is only one, West Indian social life would rapidly be resolved into a more or less unified cultural landscape, which, as M.G. Smith long ago pointed out, it has not (1965). Rather, creolization must refer to a pattern in which flux and interplay of cultural elements, disjuncture between formations, and absolute commitment to particular social forms reproduce themselves inter-generatively to cre ate what we recognize as Creole cultural life. Likewise, what especially characterizes the Creole situation is the degree to which the contradictory dynamic of flux and interplay, disjuncture, and commitment is visible to and requires choice by actors simultaneously (Drummond 1998 [1982]). In this article, I explore this dynamic formulation of Creole experience from as close to the actor's position as possible, taking a stance of social microscopy (Wardle 2000: 16).

The Creole pattern of West Indian life evidences itself both in deep commitment to local communitarian syntheses of a heterogeneous cultural array as well as in disjuncture and violent antagonism when rifts emerge within the field of cultural values (R.T. Smith 1995). Caribbeanists have repeatedly described cultural accommodation in contexts of diversity (Horowitz 1967; R.T. Smith 1956), but also, contrastingly, conflict over incommensurable world-views (M.G. Smith 1965). However, in day-to-day social life, between co-ordination and incommensurability lies a middle region of cultural interplay, evasion, joking, ambiguation, reversal, and rhetorical displacement. This 'ludic' cultural quality is well documented (Manning 1973), most recently by Austin-Broos (1997) and Burton (1997), both of whom explain it in historicocultural terms. In this article, however, I suggest a revised social anthropological approach to the recurrent rhetoric of ambiguation and displacement in urban Jamaican life. I argue that this r hetoric falls within the mode of cultural interplay which exists between commitment and disjuncture.

Recent theoretical developments, loosely aggregated under the term 'deterritorialization' (Glick Schiller, Szanton Blanc & Basch 1993; Olwig 1997), enable a re-evaluation of the social frameworks around which ambiguation, commitment, and disjuncture co-generate Creole culture. The implication of the term 'deterritorialization' is that geographical space has, in analytical terms, ceased to be the master index for social and cultural processes and has instead become one amongst a number of social and cultural parameters, one amongst several means of 'cutting the network' (Strathern 1996). It is possible to understand more fully certain kinds of Creole cultural creativity if these are rethought in terms of the intersection of social formations which deterritorialization implies. None the less, as I suggest, deterritorialization can represent at best a temporary analytical positioning giving way to new interpretative forms.

Taken together, the three elements of the triad that I have outlined -- commitment, ambiguation, disjuncture -- create a synchronic picture of Creole cultural organization. Examining the three modes separately, I show how each one provides a viewpoint on the Caribbean which to an extent excludes the others, but I argue that it is their simultaneous co-working that defines the Creole situation. …

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