'Economy of Attention'

January 27, 2010

It is not only people living on islands who count as insular -- etymology notwithstanding. Consider a recent piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose usual shtick might be called “Thornstein Veblen for Dummies.” Using the disaster in Haiti following the earthquake earlier this month as his peg, Brooks diagnosed the country’s poverty and imploding civil society as byproducts of Voodoo – which, with its magical worldview, discourages rational calculation and planning.

Evidently the pundit is growing ambitious; he has graduated to Max Weber for Dummies. The thesis makes perfect sense, as long as you ignore as much economic and political history as possible.

After enslaved people of African descent liberated themselves during the Haitian revolution of the 1790s (creating an independent state, at enormous cost of life) they were forced to pay reparations to France, which had fought a war to resubjugate the island, but lost. The price of diplomatic recognition was not cheap; by one estimate, France demanded the equivalent of $21 billion in today’s currency. Haiti continued to pay it well into the middle of the 20th century. The resources of a poor country were transferred, decade after decade, to a rich country. Was this more rational than a belief in zombies? Would it not tend to foster a belief that the world is governed by capricious forces who must be placated?

The response of sundry blowhards to the news from Haiti is only partly the result of unabashed ignorance, of course. Moral callousness is also a factor. But even among people feeling empathy and a sense of responsibility to help there is often a blindspot with regard to the Caribbean – an underestimation of its place in the history of Atlantic societies, its role in connecting Europe, Africa, and the Americas.This was one of the points tirelessly emphasized by the late C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian historian and political theorist, whose classic book The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), is being rediscovered now. Perhaps it is not too late to grasp the Caribbean as a crucial part of the process shaping global society.

For some more up-to-date reflections on the region at this moment of crisis, I got in touch with Nicholas Laughlin, editor of The Caribbean Review of Books, who lives near James’s old hometown of Port of Spain, Trinidad. In addition to transforming CRB from a quarterly print magazine to an online journal, he is co-editor of the poetry magazine Town and an administrator of Alice Yard, a small contemporary arts space in Port of Spain.

Laughlin is the editor of Letters from London by C.L.R. James (University Press of New England, 2003) and of the revised, expanded, and re-annotated edition of Letters Between a Father and Son by V.S. Naipaul (Pan Macmillan, 2009). I reviewed the earlier book some years ago, and have had the occasional brief dialogue with him by e-mail in the meantime. Following the events of the past two weeks, we had a much more substantial discussion – one touching on the history and politics of the Caribbean, and how its cultural institutions (academic and otherwise) fit into the “economy of attention” of the 21st century.

A transcript of that exchange follows. Some of Laughlin’s spelling has been Americanized, for I have yielded to the cultural imperialism of WordPerfect.

Q: You know how the disaster in Haiti is being discussed by the mass media here. What can you say about how it is being framed within the Caribbean?

A: The Caribbean is so various, it's hard to generalize. I don't really know how recent events in Haiti are being framed in the Hispano- and Francophone Caribbean. Within the Anglophone Caribbean, responses vary from country to country or island to island. In the Bahamas – just north of Haiti, where there are significant numbers of Haitian immigrants – there's been concern about being swamped by refugees. My colleague Nicolette Bethel – anthropologist, playwright, theatre director, and editor of the online literary journal tongues of the ocean – has criticized the way the earthquake has been reported in the Bahamian press, even as many Bahamians have thrown themselves into organizing relief efforts.

In Trinidad, on the other hand, at the opposite end of the Caribbean, there's been some anger about the way the government has responded i.e. with what looks to many of us like faint concern. It took our prime minister nearly a full day to make any kind of statement about the earthquake, in the form of off-the-cuff remarks to the press.

Of course many of us in the Caribbean have CNN, the BBC, and the U.S. networks on cable, and read the international papers online. Where there's been local reporting, it's mostly focused on local angles – the Jamaican press gave lots of coverage to the visit their prime minister made to Haiti last week, and here in Trinidad there have been several stories on Trinidadians who happened to be in Haiti during the earthquake.

As with the media anywhere, the media here "like" stories of chaos and mayhem. So there's been ample coverage, via wire service stories, of looting, machete-wielding gangs, street violence etc., even though there are many people on the ground in Haiti who say that violent incidents have been rare and very localized, and there has been extraordinary cooperation among displaced Haitians – and the whole issue of "looting" needs serious deconstruction.

Q: Yes, it’s quite similar to how the coverage of the disaster in New Orleans unfolded in the American media just after Katrina. Do you notice anything distinctive about the Caribbean discussion of the crisis now?

A: I think there is wider awareness in the Caribbean (than in the U.S., say) of some of the historical circumstances that contributed to the present crisis – crippling and unjust debt, meddling by foreign powers, and so on. I'm pretty sure that the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath, including the "reparations" payments to the French (by now we can all quote the amounts by heart) are on the secondary schools history syllabus in Trinidad.

I've read a few incisive op-ed pieces in the local press – by the historian Hilary Beckles in Barbados, the activist Raffique Shah in Trinidad and Tobago, the literary scholar Carolyn Cooper in Jamaica, and I'm sure I've missed others – that explain Haiti's history of being bullied by wealthier countries with much bigger armies. Certainly among what you might call the Caribbean's intellectual elite, for want of a better term, there's a definite sense of the wider Caribbean's moral debt to Haiti. We've almost all read at least some of The Black Jacobins.

Still, the rhetoric of "failure," the idea that Haiti is "unlucky," has a foothold in the discourse. I got into a sort of argument the other day, on Facebook, with a friend who was riffing off the Senegalese president's offer to "repatriate" Haitians. This friend suggested, no doubt as a kind of deliberately absurd thought experiment, that the "seemingly interminable problem" of Haiti would be solved by permanently evacuating the whole country – resettling all nine or ten million people elsewhere. Even among well-educated and well-meaning people, the idea of Haiti as a "problem" is entrenched.

But another friend who entered the conversation said something that struck and moved me. She said she was appalled by her own attitudes towards Haiti – meaning, I think, that the horrors of the earthquake and its aftermath had forced her to confront her own unconscious prejudices and ignorance. I feel the same, and there seems to be a wider sense here that Caribbean citizens must take some blame for Haiti's troubles in recent decades. We haven't been interested enough, haven't pressured our politicians enough, haven't bothered to try to understand. Many friends and colleagues seem to share an awareness that real recovery for Haiti means meaningful involvement by Caribbean citizens, and a still-unfocused resolve to be a part of that. I hope we stick to our guns.

Q: The possibility of pan-Caribbean citizenship is familiar from C.L.R. James’s writings. It was something he saw as necessary and urgent. But it sounds like there hasn’t been much progress on that front in the two decades since his death. Why is that?

A: Individual Caribbean countries have much in common, of course, but there are real knowledge gaps separating us and very real prejudices behind the facade of solidarity that we generally like to put forward. At the best of times there are strong prejudices against the region's less wealthy nations. In the southern Caribbean, that means Guyana, and Haiti seems to fill that role further north. If some Bahamians are worried about being overrun by Haitians, some Barbadians feel the same way about Guyanese, and Trinidadians have long been suspicious of "small islanders" wanting to settle here.

It's more acute when it comes to Haiti – not only is it a very "poor" and "undeveloped" country, but it has a reputation for violence, HIV, and voodoo. Never mind that violent crime and HIV infection rates are rising everywhere in the region, and every Caribbean territory has one or more versions of a syncretic religion combining elements of belief and practice from West Africa, Christianity, and sometimes other traditions.

Q: As editor of The Caribbean Review of Books, you are in a good position to assess the literary and intellectual traffic within the region, and between the Caribbean and the rest of the Atlantic. Would you say something about this?

A: I often think I'd be in a better position to, as you put it, "assess the literary and intellectual traffic" if I lived not in Port of Spain but in New York or London or Toronto or even Miami. I'm also pretty sure it would be easier to publish a magazine like the CRB in one of those places. It would probably be easier to secure grant funding, and the magazine would be physically closer to a critical mass of potential readers.

One of the hot concepts in Caribbean academic circles these days is the "transnational" Caribbean. It can mean different things. The positive spin is the notion of the Caribbean not as a physical region but as a cultural or social phenomenon – a space, not a place – that includes the major Caribbean populations in metropolitan centers like the ones I listed above. So we can claim Brooklyn and Brixton as "ours," and we quote the late Jamaican poet Louise Bennett about "colonizing in reverse."

On the one hand, this notion of the transnational is simply descriptive. There are millions of Caribbean immigrants and their immediate descendants in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and elsewhere, and there is certainly a sense in which they continue to be Caribbean, participate in conversations about Caribbean society, contribute to Caribbean economies (through remittances), etc. On the other hand, and especially from the point of view of someone who actually does live here, it sometimes seems like wishful thinking, or at least like an attempt to put a hopeful face on a situation that is not so hopeful. Colonizing in reverse, or brain drain?

The last census in Guyana suggested some shockingly high percentage of Guyanese of my generation with a secondary education now live abroad – over 80 percent. Anecdotally, I can say that about half of my graduating class at secondary school (one of Trinidad's "elite" schools) is now abroad.

This isn't a new phenomenon, of course. Going abroad for education or to expand intellectual possibilities has been part of the standard narrative of Caribbean intellectual life at least as far back as 1932, when James left Trinidad. It's widely held that West Indian literature suddenly sprang into existence in the 1950s when various aspiring writers from different British West Indian territories went to London, discovered common cultural elements, and found an audience for their work via the BBC's Caribbean Voices program and postwar publishers with a taste for exotica from the colonies. (Though that narrative is now disputed by some younger Caribbean lit scholars working on earlier writers and texts.)

There was a moment in the late '60s when it seemed the center of intellectual gravity might shift back to the Caribbean itself, but it didn't take long for post-Independence disillusion to set in. It's very moving but also puzzling for me to read a book like Andrew Salkey's Georgetown Journal (1972), set just at that moment when Independence optimism was beginning to tremble.

Q: I asked about this without thinking about how the cultural history would overlap with your own personal experience. Would you say a little more about that?

A: I came of age in the 1980s, which with adult hindsight I can see was a very pessimistic time for Caribbean people of my parents' generation, but I remember as a schoolchild thinking that people who "went away to live" were specially lucky, even if it was an eventuality I couldn't imagine for myself. Had I gone to university abroad, it's likely I wouldn't have come back to Trinidad, not to live. I still can't decide whether that would have been a better thing.

Having reached my mid-30s, having never lived anywhere else, I'm now fairly certain I'll stay here. But that's something I still think about often – almost every time I travel to the U.S. or Britain, I spend a good chunk of my time trying to imagine an alternative life there. I think that for many Caribbean people of my generation and approximate background – middle class, relatively well-educated – the question of going or staying remains acute.

Sitting here in Diego Martin, west of Port of Spain, it seems to me that in 2010 the literary and intellectual traffic within the Caribbean – and between the region and North America and Europe – is still directed mainly by agents physically located outside the Caribbean itself. Most of our intellectuals and writers are elsewhere. Almost all our books are published elsewhere, There are only two publishers of consequence in the Anglophone Caribbean – both based in Jamaica, both quite small. The main intellectual journal of the Anglophone Caribbean, Small Axe, is based in New York.

Most serious contemporary Caribbean artists either live abroad or depend heavily on financial support from abroad via grants, residencies, etc. Many if not most intellectual or cultural initiatives in the Caribbean similarly depend on financial support from abroad. What's kept the CRB going in the past couple years is a grant from the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands. And the audiences for all of these are also now, in the main, in North America and Europe. In the money economy as well as the attention economy, we still depend on investment and, frankly, charity from elsewhere.

Q: What role does academe play in all of this?

A: It's true that indigenous institutions like the University of the West Indies do a great deal to promote conversations between separate territories, and the three campuses are relatively important centers of activity. But the university faculty are vastly outnumbered by Caribbean scholars in the academy abroad who are inevitably better funded and better positioned to insert themselves into essential debates in their disciplines.

It's terribly revealing that the theme of the Caribbean Studies Association's 2009 conference, held in Jamaica, was "Centering the Caribbean in Caribbean Studies." You can read the phrase in more ways than one, but my interpretation is: “bringing the Caribbean back to the center of Caribbean studies.” Well, where else was it?

I don't mean to set up a binary opposition between here and there, local and diaspora, us and them, because of course the reality is far more complex. There is conversation and exchange and movement between all these nodes, and they are often fruitful. But aspects of the situation are depressing. For the better part of five centuries the Caribbean was devoted to producing raw materials to enrich already wealthy countries further north. Now sometimes it feels like we're producing cultural raw materials to be turned into books, films, lectures, etc. by intellectual agents in New York or London or Toronto.

Q: Is there a silver lining to contemporary developments?

A: When I (infrequently) attend academic conferences or meetings in the Caribbean, like a stuck record I implore the assembled scholars to make more strategic use of the web to share their research, to make it more widely available. I remind them that many of us in the Caribbean don't have easy access to research libraries or online journal subscriptions. In the age of WordPress and Blogger, when anyone who can use a word processor can also set up a website, there's no excuse.

One of the interesting and encouraging developments in the Trinidad art scene in the past year or so has been the rapid flourishing of artists' blogs. The writers will follow close behind, I hope. There is no serious engagement with visual art in the press here – no real reviewing, no professional critics, and commercial galleries are generally highly conservative and mercenary. So younger artists are increasingly creating work to share online, and using their blogs and websites to document their practice and comment on the work of their peers. It's early yet, and if there's a conversation going on, it's still happening within a small circle, but the odd international curator has peeked or poked in.

Some of my friends and colleagues in the art scene here have been energized and encouraged by this development. It may fizzle out, or these small individual initiatives may coalesce. In the past year or two, I've been more involved in, and paid more attention to, the Caribbean visual art scene than to the literary scene – partly because that's where the energy seems to be, partly because Caribbean visual images seem to be doing better than Caribbean literary texts in the economy of attention.

Q: That seems like a useful expression – “the economy of attention.” Clearly it is bound up, in all sorts of complicated ways, with economics in the more familiar sense. But it’s also political....

A: At the moment everything going through my head is colored by the fact of Haiti. Who gets to decide what help Haiti needs and how to rebuild? I'm not sure Haitians will. Who gets to decide what contemporary Caribbean literature is? Publishers in New York and London and literary scholars in American, British, and Canadian universities. Those two questions aren't comparable in degree, but are bound together in a common dilemma.

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