Jamaican Adventures: Simmel, Subjectivity and Extraterritoriality in the Caribbean

Article excerpt

As one of the key theorists of modernity, Simmel's writing remains strikingly underrepresented in recent anthropological theorizations of this subject. Drawing on Simmel's conception of adventure, this article considers the ways in which a sense of agency is created by working-class Jamaicans through their presentation of self in narrative. Adventure, as an aesthetic framing of individual experience, provides a temporal and spatial modality in which the individuated self can be reshaped into a protagonistic subjectivity for others. At the same time, the adventure presents a vehicle for an exploration of the meaning of freedom in a cosmopolitan field of social relations. The article examines the affinity that exists between the conditions for adventure, as Simmel outlines them, and the political-economic circumstances that govern Jamaican lives.

Sidney Mintz's recent overview of the Caribbean region (1996) reminds us once again of the features that have, in the past, given this zone an anomalous status in anthropology. Together, slavery the plantation economy, colonialism and labour migration enforced a precocious and violent exposure to modernity for Caribbean peoples. [1] These factors also lent themselves to the region's vibrant social and cultural heterogeneity. Much attention has been paid by anthropologists both to this wider social-historical picture and to the varied modes of cultural expression that have emerged from it.

In this article I take Caribbean individuals as my point of focus. [2] I ask how it is that Caribbeans come to construct and perceive themselves as agents in the social and cultural field of modernity and how this sense of agency is developed and reproduced. My analysis centres on the relationship between human movement and subjective imagining and I leave to one side here the varied claims that Caribbean people make to cultural rootedness and localized identity (Mintz & Price 1985). Instead, the article draws on one of the chief theorists of modernity, Georg Simmel (1965 [1911]), in order to place a particular aesthetic form, the adventurous episode, within the social-historical narrative that Mintz and others have laid out (cfTrouillot 1992). Adventure', I will argue, speaks to a recognizable organization of imaginative resources within a context shaped to a great degree by migration and social and cultural open-endedness. Most significantly, for the working-class Jamaicans discussed here, adventure provid es a concrete-metaphorical framework through which to explore the meaning of freedom. [3]

Anthropologists have described extensively the structure of movement that is embedded in Caribbean life. In the 1960s and 1970s Philpott (1968; 1973) argued that we could hardly understand Caribbean society except through the networks of foreign migration that supported it: Caribbean social structure is not isomorphic with the Caribbean as a region. [4] In the 1980s, Drummond (1980), drawing on Brathwaite (1971) and Bickerton (1975), extended that notion to the sphere of culture. Caribbean culture, he argued, was best seen as a 'continuum', as open-ended rather than holistic: there was a need to investigate the ways individuals mediated, and made coherent, their manifold, often conflicting, cultural experiences (see also Drummond 1996: 76-88).

While identification with locality is clearly evident in the Caribbean, ThomasHope (1978; 1995) has indicated how central movement is to Caribbean definitions of freedom. Despite the disillusionment that actual migration often brings, it remains a powerful cultural ideal. Extending Philpott's insights, Olwig (1993: 206) and Basch et al. (1994) have shown that Caribbeans find themselves caught up in, and 'deterritorialized' by, inter-generational social networks that overlap the boundaries, and ideologies of inclusivity, of nation states. Involvement in migrant networks affects both how actors understand social relations (Foner 1978; Olwig 1987) and also the strategies for economic viability that they deploy (Besson 1987a: 121; Griffith 1985; Segal 1997). …