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Talking Caribbean—the rhetoric of Mas

Published: 
Monday, July 21, 2014
Dr Kevin Browne

Tropic Tendencies—Rhetoric, Popular Culture and the Anglophone Caribbean, a recent publication by Trinidadian assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at New York’s Syracuse University, Dr Kevin Browne, is a welcome and important addition to both Caribbean cultural studies and Caribbean cultural theory. 

 

Developed from his doctoral thesis which attempted to answer two fundamental questions: 1. What is Caribbean rhetoric, and 2. Its role in popular culture—Browne refocuses critical attention on a wide range of Caribbean vernacular cultural expressions, viewing them through the trope of the carnivalesque and a creolised theory of rhetoric. 

 

In so doing, he has finally pushed cultural theory in the Anglophone Caribbean beyond the Creole/isation discourse initiated by CLR James and formalised by Kamau Braithwaite over 40 years ago, in his 1971 The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820.

 

Cultural theory and poetics in the English Caribbean have long languished in a parochialism and an anti-intellectualism, which are the legacy of British (specifically English) colonialism. 

 

In contrast, both the Hispanophone and Francophone sub-regions have well established traditions of cultural discourse and theory, led by Caribbean rather than Eurocentric concerns. In Cuba, there was Marti, Fernando Ortiz and Benitez-Rojo; in Haiti, Antenor Firmin and Jean Price-Mars, while Martinique engendered Negritude (Cesaire), Creolité (Chamoiseau, Confiant and Bernabé) along with Antillanité and the Poetics of Relation (Glissant).

 

Browne makes his intentions clear from the prefatory quote from Cesaire: “I’ve decided I don’t want to be called Caliban any longer” to his stated objective in the introduction: “The goal is not to explain the Caribbean to the reader. Rather it is to initiate and sustain a conversation about the tasks we Caribbeans face.” 

 

The crisis of Caribbean (cultural) identity is just as relevant now as it was when Marti wrote the following in his definitive 1891 essay Nuestra America: “Knowing is what counts…The European university must bow to the American university…Our Greece must take priority over the Greece which is not ours. We need it more…Let the world be grafted onto our republics, but the trunk must be our own.” 

 

Marti was speaking from much the same position as Browne, both “exiles” in America, with the necessary distance to analyse insular (Cuba, Trinidad) concerns as integral to Caribbean concerns. Although it’s unusual for an Anglophone academic or cultural theorist to use the term “we Caribbeans,” Browne does so in much the same manner as Dominican scholar Torres-Saillant (another Syracuse professor) when writing about “Antilleans”:

 

“Once one…has learned to see Antilleans as speaking subjects, the next challenge…is to grasp that Antilleans themselves deserve credit as reliable interpreters of their own reality…However, we must deal with the fact that the notion of the Caribbean as a culturally underdeveloped area has thrived and still infest the minds of some literary scholars. Therein lies the widespread hesitation to use indigenous discourses and tools of instruction when seeking to explain the region’s cultural artefacts.”

 

Marti, Saillant and Browne share a common position: they all reject western/Eurocentric cultural hegemony; they refuse to be dismissed as Caliban, or to be reduced to invisibility and the silence of the postcolonial subaltern. In place of victimhood or dependence, the mimicry of Bovaryism, they all call for Caribbean agency. As Browne says: “It occurred to me that a people should want to demonstrate…that they consider themselves as worthy of recognition as any other people…to have some role in shaping their destiny as a people.”

 

Unsurprisingly, the postcolonial western academy has appropriated discourses of creolisation, carnival and the carnivalesque, as the seams of its canon unravelled when the Empire started writing back. It’s become fashionable to claim that under globalisation “We’re all Creoles,” or to view any aspect of Caribbean cultural production through the reductive lens of carnival or a notion of the carnivalesque which owes more to Bahktin (and his own cultural specificities) than to Minshall or the Midnight Robber. 

 

But Browne writing from the belly of the beast, maintains a narrow focus (“a response to the absence of Caribbean issues in the field of rhetoric”) and emphatically dismisses the postmodern/ globalised festival from his theoretical framework: “…the festival is inadequate as a theoretical frame for though the festival has been identified as a key signifier of social complexity—its co-optation by corporate and middle-class cosmopolitan interests has done a great deal to undermine its rhetorical significance to a contemporary vernacular audience.”

 

Fortunately, he does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, another less reasonable modish response—which reduces traditional African retentions (like Canboulay) along with Carnival’s wining culture to empty or even anarchic expressions which breed the violence and lawlessness of contemporary Trinidad. 

 

Browne insists that Caribbean rhetorical performances—across many fields—originate in resistance and survival, that the “fundamental motive of the Caribbean practitioner “is to be recogninised, seen and heard” and the range of expressions are “part of a complex system of mediated communication and collective identification with an alternate register of consciousness, which connects with ancestral knowledge—both consciously and unconsciously.”

 

The Mas Rhetorica Browne introduces all of us Caribbeans to is based on the “key topic in Caribbean rhetoric”—the carnivalesque: “the premier act of rhetorical (re)invention and the critical response to shifting situationalities of everyday life,” “an embedded practice of culture and the definitive method for understanding and enacting the critical aspects of Caribbean ethos.” For Browne, the carnivalesque is manifested in multiple genres: aural, oral, visual and scribal which resonates with far more meanings than a simple adjectival tag. 

 

The immediate value of Browne’s inquiry is that it takes us back to the root of decolonisation; a process abandoned in the Anglophone Caribbean as the vision of Federation went aground on the rocks of insular nationalism and a myopic pursuit of development. He reminds us at a critical juncture—when many of the expressions he analyses are under serious threat of erasure if not erosion—that Caribbean rhetoric “coalesces as a series of carnivalesque displays in response to a historical situation” and that its development is “a deliberate response to misrepresentation.” 

 

However, he rejects the binarism implicit in viewing Caribbean culture “solely in terms of resistance” and the inevitable comparisons this would lead to with mainstream culture, by refocusing our attention and analysis on the question “whether we go far enough into our own systems to construct an approach that is sufficiently meaningful for us and useful for others.”

 

He begins his own investigation of our systems with language and a classification of the rhetorical modes of Caribbean discourse: code-switching, wordplay, circumlocution, call and response, boasting/shaming, proverbs, the sermonic and nonverbal/visual semantics. 

 

Despite persisting internalised negative colonial perceptions of Creole he argues “if the imperative of rhetoric is to promote the judgment of its participants, then we must establish categories of vernacular creole expression as legitimate forms of argumentation despite the way Caribbean language may be maligned by some and misunderstood by others.” Browne’s hermeneutic is both meticulous and exhaustive in its attention to detail and reminiscent of Gordon Rohlehr’s pioneering essays on Caribbean popular culture. When analysing the non-verbal/visual semantic classifications for instance, he provides invaluable insights into the “steups,” “cut eye,” “twist mouth” and “kuya mouth,” all of which we take for granted. 

 

One of the most innovative sections of this fascinating book, follows on logically from Browne’s analysis of facial signifiers, when he extends his scope to include a set of photos (mostly of dilapidated board houses, yards), in order “to highlight the need to complicate assumptions that can arise from the cursory examination of vernacular images, assumptions about anything from heartfelt nostalgia to exotica, the errant pleasures of imagined exile, or the paradoxical relationships between tourism and industry, the challenging practice of everyday life among idle consumers and those who are idly consumed.” 

 

If Browne inveigles us in best cultural studies mode to interrogate our built environment along with all its historical and mundane echoes, once again he refocuses attention on his original questions about Caribbean-ness, refusing to take anything for granted. 

 

He proposes an ethical and aesthetic project that “gestures more directly toward the development of a discursive model and allows a distinctly Caribbean identity not only to flourish but also to do “work” on our behalf.”

 

Chapters on mas itself, Earl Lovelace and a rhetoric of vernacular fiction and right up to the minute—the digital vernacular, will engage even a casual reader and provide material for a library of doctoral theses. Browne sells himself short, when in his conclusion he has a moment of doubt; “what is theory but wishful thinking that goes in search of practice to legitimise it, a flight of fancy in need of some grounding.” His book is one of the best examples of theory grounded in deep and committed research that the Caribbean has produced.