Well, the ACS 2008 Crossroads conference has finally come and gone like a tsunami that rolled ashore, lifting us off our feet and depositing us back on terra firma gasping for air as it eventually receded this Monday. At its peak the Cultural Studies conference featured 20 concurrent panels or sessions, and you had to be the most dedicated, strategic, panel surfer to experience more than a smidgeon of the entire programme.
The packed few days of the conference, from July 3-7, brought more than 400 academics from all over the world to the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI). And UWI, caught like a matron in the middle of an elaborate facial while preparing for her main event–the university’s 60th anniversary celebrations that kick off on July 12th—was her charming, gracious self, wowing visitors with her flamboyant natural beauty now enhanced by the brilliant new colours the buildings are being painted.
I view the repainting of the campus as a significant step in the repositioning of the University in the 21st century. Perhaps I’m oversensitive to colours, perhaps its my coolietude, but I don’t see why we should be so committed to what I think of as boring, institutional colours like off-white, beige and gray. UWI Press was the first to buck this trend a few years ago when it painted its new building burnt sienna. I’m told the University Buildings Committee had a collective apoplectic fit but was effectively faced down by Linda Speth, the no-nonsense director of the Press.
The Buildings Committee must have undergone a transfusion of new members since then because the Main Library has just been painted shades of turquoise. I absolutely love it but seem to be in the minority—I’m told that one colleague who otherwise champions the people dem culture demanded to know why the library was being painted “inner city blue”. I sincerely hope those responsible will remain steadfast and not water down the new colour scheme; the turquoise library nestled in the lap of the green hills beyond it looks like a gem. Look at this picture and decide for yourselves.
CARIBBEAN MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE
Back to the theme of this blog which is conferences. Academic conferences to be precise. I’ve been on a conference rollercoaster since February this year. The most memorable one was the collaboration between the University of Technology (UTech) and the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in producing a conference on “Caribbean Modernist Architecture”. Held at the magnificent Jamaica Conference Centre downtown the symposium brought together architects, curators and historians of architecture from fourteen countries. The fees were steep and I wasn’t able to attend more than one or two sessions but it was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended locally.
To hear architects from the region talking about the trajectory modern architecture took in their respective countries was stimulating. In Venezuela interdisciplinary design and research were important and modern art—the work of artists such as Vassarely, Calder and Jean Arp—was used to complement the built environment. In Mexico architects were preoccupied with a series of responses to the question of how to come up with a Mexican nationalist architecture. In Puerto Rico there was “no history but a monumental void” and so military bases became the first sites of modernist architecture and aesthetic advancement.
THE MG SMITH CONFERENCE
In June the Centre for Caribbean Thought organized a small conference in honour of MG Smith, which started off with a no-holds barred address by Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University. MG was an eminent Jamaican sociologist and poet who taught at UWI, Yale University, UCLA and University College in London during the course of his lifetime. Smith gained a reputation for his work on corporation theory, pluralism and plural societies (of which he thought Jamaica was one). As a poet Smith was a member of the ‘Drumblair’ group of writers, poets and dramatists who revolved around the Manley household. Smith was particularly close to Edna Manley who ran what amounted to a ‘salon’ in pre-independence Jamaica.
Patterson, who had worked at UWI with MG in the early days openly stated his differences with Smith declaring that as a social theorist he had been a failure. There was he recalled “endless bickering” over pluralism and the taxonomy Smith employed was patently inadequate. In any case according to Patterson “West Indian societies are clearly heterogeneous,” something that would not have been obvious to Smith whose problem was that he viewed West Indian society from an “upper class perspective.”
According to Patterson Smith “should have checked out more carefully those of us who were upwardly mobile…25 years after being born in the bush I was teaching at the London School of Economics. Thirty years later I was offered a position at Harvard.” So “it simply wasn’t true that there were core institutional divisions” between Blacks, Whites and Browns as Smith’s plural society thesis posited.
Incidentally there are scholars who disagree with this view; In an article titled “The Permanence of Pluralism” Columbia University-based postcolonial theorist David Scott (also Jamaican) argued in the wake of the 1998 Zekes Riots that “the ghost of MG Smith is haunting the landscape of the Jamaican political modern”. Meaning that the total breakdown of any pretence at social cohesion, leading to the profound crisis Jamaican society finds itself in today, could have been predicted by MG Smith with his thesis that the population of Jamaica “constituted a plural society, that is a society divided into sections, each of which practiced different cultures.”
MIKE and EDNA
Patterson looked to Smith’s personal life for clues to the inadequacies of his social theory. Born to a white English-born father and a ‘coloured’ mother who died in childbirth (a pity, Patterson pointed out, as MG would have benefited from knowing her family and perhaps even produced different, better informed work) Smith was sent to JC as a child where he was subjected to ‘sadistic canings’. “Smith in fact was brought up by a corporation—I think this has major implications later on” said Patterson going on to talk of MG’s unusual relationship with Edna Manley, the mother of his schoolmate Michael, whom he was “immediately smitten by.”
This was the part where the prim and proper audience, completely unused to such candid disclosures, especially in the august enclave of UWI’s undercroft, started to squirm in its seats, as Patterson dwelt at length on the putative “consummation” of this unorthodox relationship between a young man and an older woman. If Mark (“In Praise of Younger Women”) Wignall thought that having a younger lover was a privilege reserved for older males he better think again. Many a woman could write paeans in praise of younger men too.
Having delivered himself of MG’s various shortcomings Patterson acknowledged that despite this there was a “great deal that was justifiable about this conference”. Smith had been a world-class historical sociologist whose early work on the Fulanis of Nigeria and his study of community organizations in rural Jamaica were timeless classics. MG was a meticulous fieldworker whose ethnohistories were “meticulous excavations”. His best work according to Patterson was done when he wasn’t obsessed with theorizing; the problem arose when he imposed corporatist theory on his findings.
Patterson’s thorough and honest examination of MG Smith’s work and life may have raised a few hackles but it set off several impassioned, contentious and useful conversations over the next couple of days among the social and cultural theorists gathered at Mona. The highlight though was Rachel Manley’s talk (at the opening of the library exhibit on MG Smith) called “The Mike Smith I Knew” which turned out in effect to be a gracefully executed rescue of her grandmother Edna (or Mardi as she called her) and Mike, someone who had nurtured in Rachel a love of poetry.
Consummation and consumption were preoccupations of the present said Rachel, but not of the 50s and 60s, when the friendship between her grandmother and Mike would have been at its height. She had no idea whether they had had an affair or not; if it had happened it was without her knowledge and frankly she didn’t care. What she did know was that that was “a time when you consummated independence for an island…that was the romance of the time.”
Mardi, she declared, was a magnetic woman. She flirted with everything, she flirted with Jamaica. All the young poets and artists of the Drumblair group were in love with her. But Mike’s poems and Mardi’s art—those were the consummations.
It was a consummate performance on Rachel’s part, casually delivered, without a hint of the agitation that must have been behind it. Her talk illuminated the enigmatic man in whose honour this conference was being held and brought him to life for us. The next day we went back to the tendentious business of dissecting the body of his work. One thing is for sure–whether MG Smith’s framework of social and cultural pluralism has any validity today or not, he was integrally involved in the labour of building theory, of developing conceptual frameworks, valuable academic tasks that alas, seem to have been jettisoned from the agenda of social sciences at UWI over the years.