A Culture of Anti-intellectualism?

Well, it would appear that I’ve abandoned blogging and wandered back into the arms of traditional media. At least for the time being. It’s a month now since i started writing a weekly column at the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s premier newspaper, and in consequence Active Voice has become inactive. It’s an interesting zig-zag, from column writing to blogging to column writing once again. In a blog you address the big wide world, in a column you tend to address local issues for a local audience.

The movement is not unlike a lens zooming in or zooming out, manually of course, there is no autofocus available, only telephoto or wide angle and all the calibrations in between. As you zoom in small things get larger and more legible; as you zoom out the enlarged shrinks, allowing you to see the big picture and where you fit into it. Occasionally the view becomes panoramic, collapsing horizons and walls, a grand sweep from left to right.

cnn-missionaries-dead

In my second column I took on a group of what I termed ‘cultural nationalists’ who seemed more interested in protecting Jamaica’s image than in changing the dangerously lopsided society we live in, one designed for the middle class and the wealthy, to the detriment of those who have not/naught. A CNN anchor had described Jamaica as a ‘remarkably violent place’ after two North American missionaries were murdered here. Up rose the cultural nationalists claiming that the anchor was  exaggerating wildly and there are only ‘pockets’ of violence here.

This seemed rather disingenuous to me when murder and violent acts dominate the news headlines here daily so that the nation seems equipped with an abnormally large number of violent ‘pockets’, if one must use such imagery. Yes, areas where uptown people live don’t suffer the same intensity of violence as poorer neighbourhoods, but surely to deny that the country has become remarkably violent is like thumbing your nose at those for whom this is a daily reality. Are they likely to disagree with the American anchor’s description of Jamaica?

These are people  who live, as UWI scholar Norval Edwards pointed out in the 90s, in a permanent state of emergency. The rest of us tolerate this, some even demanding this routine abrogation of citizens’ rights. Not surprisingly when the violence then spills across the boundaries and news of it escapes into the international news circuits some of us start squealing about bias and exaggeration when actually what is being reported is the truth.

But of course the truth is dispensable. We prefer to think of ourselves as highly cultured, civilized, law-abiding, English-speaking citizens who do not curse or act violent. This is the image we want to project, let no foreign anchor tell you otherwise. The level of denial and self-delusion is all-pervasive. I spoke to a couple of individuals who don’t live in middle class enclaves and they too insisted that Jamaica could not be called a violent society. A banal nationalism trumps all.

What seems curious to me is that at the same time the cultural nationalists are busy pushing back at portrayals of Jamaica as a violent country by outsiders they have no problem with internal declarations that there is a ‘culture of violence’ here, sometimes even uncritically reproducing this canard themselves. In doing this they seem unaware of the ethnic profiling they are participating in, one that is made amply clear by the following tweet:

Stereo Williams @stereowilliams
Black guys fire shots at rap shows and u hear “culture of violence.” White guys fire shots at theaters/schools/offices and it’s “isolated.

In my third column I tried to elaborate on this weird incongruity between local commentators’ denial of the existence of violence on the one hand and their comfort level in  denouncing the ‘culture of violence’ that allegedly exists here. Not all are guilty of this but far too many are and it makes you wonder what’s going on. The following is taken from my column The ‘Culture of Violence’ Thesis:

The ‘Culture of Violence’ Fallacy was the title of a book review by David Scott in 1997 in the second issue of the journal Small Axe. He was reviewing Lauri Gunst’s Born fi Dead and Geoff Small’s Ruthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies. Praising the books’ authors for being ‘thoughtful, perceptive and readerly’ while attempting to arrive at “theoretically informed understandings of the problem of organized violence in Jamaican society” Scott rued the reliance on ‘pop’ cultural psychology in their analysis. The books’ main weakness he said lay in their “unproblematic reproduction” of the view that there is in Jamaica something called a ‘culture of violence’.

Scott noted that while this view was a widely held one, much retailed by the press and others, he doubted its usefulness as a conceptual framework, fearing that it obscured problems rather than illuminating them. What Scott was objecting to–rightly in my opinion–was the proposition that Jamaicans have an inclination towards violence or a ‘constitutional aggressivity’ and that there is social acceptance towards violence in Jamaica. He also questioned the idea that violence was endemic to Jamaican culture or that the frequent episodes of violence here are due to ‘historically constituted behavioural patterns’.

In contrast to the way violence in Jamaica is portrayed countries like Sri Lanka, victim to decades of the most violent conflict and prolonged warfare, are rarely described as having a ‘culture of violence’, said Scott. He went on to clarify that his objection was not to culture being used as a conceptual tool in analysing violence but to the particularly narrow and limited concept of culture employed by analysts.

In her 2011 book Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica anthropologist Deborah Thomas highlights the same problem pointing out that the notion of Jamaica having a ‘culture of violence’ is so widespread that commentators within the country freely use it without questioning its validity. She cited a National Security Strategy green paper of 2005 that used the phrase unproblematically claiming, “It is now conceded that Jamaica has spawned a culture of violence in its most negative form which is abhorrent to its values and stands in the way of every kind of social progress.”

The problem with viewing violence as a cultural trait is that it presents the issue as one of an innate brutality and savagery, whose roots are in Jamaican culture rather than generated by the system itself. Thus it distracts attention from the socio-economic inequality and the lack of opportunities for decent work and living conditions in the country, the everlasting structural adjustment that has marooned the impoverished out on a rickety limb; the systemic problems that contribute to violent solutions to social problems and need urgent attention. For the violence that envelops Jamaica is not a symptom of its culture but the fallout of the ‘Babylon’ system the country’s numerous singers and DJs have raised their voices against.

Though there were many who appreciated my use of cutting edge scholarship to make my argument on the subject of violence, there was a surprising pushback from the Gleaner. I was told that this particular column was considered “Too philosophical and not digestible by regular folk”.

A lot is claimed on behalf of ‘regular folk’ and it made me wonder whether the reason most public discussion here remains simplistic and one-dimensional is this insistence on dumbing down debate for the much maligned regular folk. I’m sure some folk object to exercising their minds even occasionally but there are many others who don’t. Which constituency is a columnist at the premier newspaper in the country to cater to? What is the role of an opinion columnist? To provide pap for the masses or to give them the benefit of some of the finest thinking on a subject of relevance to them?

Are we not guilty of fostering a culture of anti-intellectualism when we insist on insulating the public from complex ideas and arguments? Don’t Jamaicans deserve better? I don’t like running fast myself nor could  I if I tried, and I’m sure there are many more like me, but I’m so glad that Usain Bolt, Shelly Ann, Asafa and the others weren’t told they had to slow down and keep pace with us so as not to hurt our feelings.

 

 

 

“The Last Conjuncture”–David Scott’s moving tribute to Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall, the world-famous cultural theorist, remains little known in the land of his birth. This post excerpts a moving posthumous conversation with him by David Scott.

 

 

studavid copy
David Scott with Stuart Hall in New Kingston, 1996

It’s about six months since the world-renowned intellectual Stuart Hall passed away in London after years of ill health. In Jamaica where he was born and brought up Hall remains largely unknown so that it took local media a few days to register the fact of his passing. It was scandalous then and remains scandalous today that the highly acclaimed film about his life and work, The Stuart Hall Project, has yet to be shown in Jamaica. A friend who attended the recent Global Art Forum at Art Dubai 2014 remarked that she had seen busloads of people going to view the film which was a highlight of the programming there. I excerpt below a question Ibraaz Editor-in-Chief Anthony Downey asked the director of the film, John Akomfrah, at the forum.  It will give a sense of how the film and its subject, so little valued in Jamaica, are viewed by the rest of the world:

AD: …You mentioned Stuart Hall and the pivotal, seminal importance of Stuart Hall for your generation. Certainly for my generation, coming to England in the late 80s, Stuart Hall’s work opened my eyes to the potentiality not only of theory but of thinking, clear thinking; how you could assess a situation in a manner in which it had never been considered before.

I’m thinking now as well of your most recent film The Unfinished Conversation (2012), also known as The Stuart Hall Project. I’m wondering – this must have been a labour of love, this could not have been an easy film for anyone to make, because, in effect, one is dealing with the father figure; one is dealing with the person who made a lot of what we do today possible. He is, effectively, the father of multicultural studies, but equally he transcends that.

Could you talk a little bit about how that film came into being, and what you see it as? Because it’s taking on a life of its own now; it’s transcending you. It’s being shown worldwide, it has garnered awards, and it will be shown tomorrow here in Sharjah. Can you talk a little bit about how it came into being and the importance of that, and where you see it going, or indeed, if you can?

For the full interview go here.

Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004
Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004

Perhaps the most moving elegy to Hall was written by Columbia University-based David Scott, also Jamaican, editor and founder of the journal Small Axe, who is working, among other things, on a biography of the acclaimed cultural theorist. I excerpt below from his posthumous letter to Stuart and ask that we reflect on how and why a country that takes such pride in its triumphal culture is incapable of celebrating a son–widely acknowledged as having put culture on the curricula globally as an object of study–who was as much a trailblazer as Usain Bolt.

So here then is Scott’s letter:

Dear Stuart,

There remains, as you may well imagine, a lot to say. That is why I have, once more, taken refuge in writing you a letter, selfishly perhaps, foolishly, yes, but it is for the sake of my own belated clarification, and to sustain the dialogue (henceforth, alas, a fictive one) we have been engaged in these past many years—and all without heed, I apologize in advance, of your undoubted desire to be done with the bother and burden of all this.

But there are now so many conversations left stranded in the middle, Stuart, by your lamented departure, cut off without ending, without prospect of an ending. Death does that, though, doesn’t it, in an uncanny, unforgiving sort of way. Death is the sharp knife-edge of our finitude, the moment (however it comes, timely or untimely) when we are overtaken by the irreversible—and the ineluctable—fact of our mortal being. It is the last conjuncture, isn’t it? As you once said to me, somewhat gravely, ruefully, apropos of what I can’t now remember: Life unfolds in one direction only. It does. I take that to be an existential truth, with tragic implications. Whatever the Augustinian distensions of temporality we are inclined to imagine, whatever our hermeneutic desire to refute or refuse the linearity of time’s arrow, we all round the corner on this particular crossroads—Papa Legba’s—where we find ourselves summoned to render up what is owed for what we have spent. The one thing we are guaranteed: death is simply the price we pay for time. As we made our way behind you through Highgate Cemetery that bright and private Friday morning this past February, with strains of Marley’s great elegy, “Redemption Song,” still plaintively resonant, we all, I think, noticed Marx pause his ruminations and nod his fraternal welcome, and, just next to him, our own Claudia Jones whispered a dread chant of greeting; and as I watched you being lowered caringly into the ground’s reluctant embrace, I almost cried out with Derek Walcott, “O earth, the number of friends you keep / exceeds those left to be loved.”1

But it is finitude, Stuart, about which I want to talk to you on this occasion, the strange, haunting sense of a last conjuncture. Because this is something we talked about a good deal in the last years—sometimes directly, mostly obliquely—as talk about your life and your work (an admitted obsession on my part) came to be shadowed by talk about the immediacy of pain, the permanence of discomfort, the long, difficult nights without sleep, the creeping anxieties, the dispiriting experience of a body less and less under your command. We spoke, too, occasionally, about death—not only its frank imminence but also its peculiar immanence, how it comes from within as much as from without. And yet, even so, Stuart, finitude is not exactly a word many would readily associate with your name. Too lugubriously Heideggerian in feel, maybe; too complicit in a fatalistic sense of limits, constraints; too redolent of a realm of necessity. So much of your life was committed to the construction of new possibilities out of seeming dead ends, new times and new identities out of old, beleaguered, frozen ones, that there is undoubtedly something perversely paradoxical in this image of you face to face with your finitude, not a philosophic abstraction now, but face to face with what you might have called, with a slow, sardonic smile, the final play of contingency. So, I wonder whether finitude isn’t precisely a word that bears reflection in relation to you because of what it illuminates about the tension between what you are given and what you can make.

I want to talk specifically about finitude and writing, more specifically, about my impression that the growing awareness of the coming end increasingly shaped the exercise of writing, especially the uncertain, or anyway not-so-straightforward, exercise of composing your memoirs—the last, definitive, story of yourself. What do I mean? I know you would have asked me that, Stuart, leaning slightly forward in your chair and regarding me with a resigned but skeptical air, trying to discern whether on this occasion our conceptual languages were overlapping, or at odds. I don’t mean anything very mysterious, of course. You already know that it has always seemed to me that for you writing was a way of moving on, of not standing still; it was a way of not being the same, of occasionally changing yourself, of saying the next thing rather than the last thing. Indeed, there was never for you a plausible “last” thing to say. This was deeply a matter of the politics as well as the poetics of writing. For you, therefore, writing was always to have an orientation toward futurity. I don’t think that the past as such ever much enchanted you; you certainly never reified it. The challenge of writing, then, was to subject the present to a form of redescription—what you famously called “reading the conjuncture”—that aimed to loosen its bondage to the past, to release it from its congealed assumptions so as to make possible a contingent practice of reinvention.

This is why, as I keep repeating, the essay-form so appealed to you as a genre of writing. The thing about the essay-form, it seems to me, is its embodiment of a mobile temporality so conducive to your temperament and the general ethos of your style. The essay is always, precisely, moving on. It has, in this sense, an active more so than a contemplative character; or rather, however meditative it may be, it always suffers an internal restlessness, an agitation of spirit that drives it in one direction or another—or in one direction after another. This is what enables the essay to evade closure and to defer its rendezvous with finitude. The essay is a thinking form—thinking that is inherently situational, occasional, embodied. One might say that the essay-form is a mode of presencing, of being present, of voicing presence, within writing. In this sense it is as close as nonfictive writing can get to the uneven grain of an audibly speaking voice.

Scott’s poetic tone and the probing register of his elegiacal missive are not ones we often come across in intellectual work here where public debate and discussion seem frozen at certain basic levels. Building Brand Jamaica. Attaining sustainable growth. Poverty alleviation. Reducing risk perceptions. The buzzwords trip off our tongue and down the drain. Gleaner columnist and Nationwide broadcaster George Davis rightly questions the quality of education available to Jamaican youth lamenting the fact that “An essay in university is like honour in the Jamaican Parliament; it’s almost disappeared.”

For the rest of Scott’s letter go here.