Fall 1992, Volume 9.3
Critical Essay


From Jameson to Syncretism: The Communal Imagination of American Identity in Edward Brathwaite's The Arrivants

The key to understanding subjective identity, especially that of "third-world" literature, may well lie in the crossings and re-tracings of cultures. This paper will test the validity of two fairly opposed theoretical approaches to third-world literature: 1) Fredric Jameson's hermeneutic conception of cultures and 2) Wilson Harris's theories regarding subjectivity's inevitable refraction of the agendas of capital. The less well-known, Guyana-born Harris is a novelist, poet, and literary and cultural theorist. His conception of a cross-cultural imagination that can do more than remain subordinate to the exigencies of history offers a good deal more hope than Jameson's brilliant but forbidding analysis. My focus is Edward Brathwaite's The Arrivants, a poem trilogy whose overt goal is to interpret the history and experience of African peoples in exile in the New World. Brathwaite is a major poet and literary critic in his own right, who deserves to be more widely known than in the Caribbean circles to which he is currently limited, and The Arrivants is an important text in any analysis of Afro-American, and by extension American, literature.

On Subjectivity; introductory remarks, and an invitation to Marxism

It must first of all be said that The Arrivants is a series of poems which claims to speak for the whole of the exiled African peoples, the diaspora of the New World. The poems not only encompass the history of black peoples in the New World but explore their various identities and subjectivities that are and were produced in the process of exile. Thus the poems shift from voice to voice and perspective to perspective almost at random, with no sequence of poems dwelling solely on one persona for long, and never remaining wholly at the level of the generic "we." In fact Brathwaite often uses "I" in the sense of the collective or the whole that speaks with one voice.

The first poem, "Prelude," begins "I sing/ I shout/ I groan/ I dream/ about/ Dust/ glass grit/ the pebbles of the desert," and it is clear that this "I" is one who speaks from the vantage-point of history, one who is really a synthesis of many others, the poet-speaker of his people's experience. The next poem, "New World A-Comin'," switches to the plural: "we met you: lover,/ warrior, hater,/coming through the files/ of the forest," and the "we" here is the African people who met the white man in the jungle who will take them to the "New World." The poems shift back and forth from one character's perspective ("Tom," "All God's Chillun," "Didn't He Ramble") to the experience and memories of the collective people ("Prelude," "The Journeys") and to the poet speaking and feeling for all his people and their history. At certain points the poems speak as from the very regions of history: "Columbus from his after-/ deck watched stars, absorbed in water, melt in liquid amber drifting/ through my summer air" (52, emphasis mine). Here the poet's voice includes the places of the Caribbean, which are equated with the voice of historical knowledge and foreknowledge. The last lines of the poem clarify the position of places in history:

What did this journey mean, this
new world mean: dis-
covery? Or a return to terrors
he had sailed from, known before?
I watch him pause.
Then he was splashing silence.
Crabs snapped their claws
and scattered as he walked towards our shore. (53)

Like the black peoples of the diaspora, the islands of the Caribbean are also the tools and victims of the Empire.

Such allegorization of various subject-positions in literature is only to be expected, Jameson feels. It is in fact not a choice, he says, but a constitutive element of third-world literature. Indeed Brathwaite's overt concern for representing the historical trajectory of his people simply reinforces Jameson's point:

Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamicnecessarily project a political dimension in the form of a national allegory: the story of the private individual is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society. ("Third-World Literature" 69)

What is the basis for this judgment that seems like a further colonization of third-world cultures, this time by a literary critic? After all, Jameson's prescription of the inevitability of third-world literature performing the function of national allegory must seem totalitarian in the extreme. Do third-world writers not have the ability or choice to explore their individual psyches as do first-world writers?

The answer to this question will serve to open up this essay to considerations of the poems' construction of the subjectivity of the black peoples of the New World, considerations which will lead to questions about the applicability of Jameson's Marxist theories and Wilson Harris's cultural syncretism, especially against a background of the historical conditions of the peoples represented. For this is where Jameson focuses our attention: away from what he sees as the ideologically-charged modernist technique of the isolated psyche and toward the way the third-world literature is grounded in the shared material conditions of its culture and its peoples' place in the dominant, western world order:

[N]one of these [third-world] cultures can be conceived as anthropologically independent or autonomous, rather, they are all in various distinct ways locked in a life-and-death struggle with first-world cultural imperialisma cultural struggle that is itself a reflexion of the economic situation of such areas in their penetration by various stages of capital, or as it is sometimes euphemistically termed, of modernism. (68)

Thus Jameson defines the function of literature of third-world cultures and writers as the reflection of a people's strugglethe primary economic and ideological struggle brought to the level of figure and language.

This definition begins to answer the question of the third-world writer's "necessary" expression of group and cultural dynamics. Jameson argues that the invention of the isolated psyche is simply an invention of first-world ideology, whose function is to mask the fact that the economic and material reality of modern European or American subjectivity is no longer bounded by those cultures or places. The ruling conditions of existence for all people since the ascendance of capitalfor first-world subjects as for third-worldare precisely those produced by the agendas of capital itself. The history and meaning of individual subjects and their cultures then reach beyond themselves, as they are further integrated into the mechanisms of capital and its tools, imperialism and colonialism. Jameson writes that in the second or "monopoly stage" of capital, what Lenin called the "stage of imperialism," there occurs a "growing contradiction between lived experience and structure, or between a phenomenological description of the life of an individual and a more properly structural model of the conditions of existence of that experience" ("Cognitive Mapping" 349). In other words, the subject's real conditions of existence become absent from his or her own perceptual capacities; the subject has no immediate access to reality because the subject becomes a structural element in the service of a truly multinational project, the project of capitalist imperialism. Jameson takes as example the first-world subject's existence in the larger framework of colonialism:

[T]he truth of the individual subject's experience no longer coincides with the place in which it takes place. The truth of that limited daily experience of London lies, rather, in India or Jamaica or Hong Kong; it is bound up with the whole colonial system of the British Empire that determines the very quality of the individual's subjective life. (349)

This gap or lack is then figured, he finds, in the separation apparent in the modernist discrete subject or alienated psyche, the detached individual viewpoint which marks first-world literature and develops with the novel form. Jameson thus feels that the third-world subject's different structural position denies the writer the luxury of an alienated, individual subjectivity. The next section will turn to the group subjectivity that figures in and is figured in The Arrivants.

"Rights of Passage"

As I have already suggested, Brathwaite's trilogy is eminently concerned with the broader trajectory of his people's experience, and does not dwell in the realm of the individual. I would like to trace the development of the trilogy, noting its treatment of the community, and especially the search for some authentic ground for cultural identity. The first sequence, "Rights of Passage," begins with images of pain and suffering, the reality of historical deprivation in the New World, a deprivation that extends symbolically to the natural places of nurture: "Milk/ curdles in/ nipple in/ mouth. Flies/ nibble and ulcer . . ." (6). Desolation and loss are evoked throughout this first section, and the poet reflects on the exile of the African peoples in the service of the slave trade. The ancestral past is remembered and contrasted with the present poverty:

the paths we shall never remember
again: Atumpan talking and the harvest branch-
es, all the tribes of Ashanti dreaming the dream
of Tutu, Anokye and the Golden Stool, built
in Heaven for our nation by the work
of lightning and the brilliant adze: and now nothing. (13)

But strong as this reminiscence is, and the yearning for a former state of empowerment, the poet wants to communicate more: the total history of the people, including the powers of colonialism: "hoping my children's eyes/ will learn/ not green along/ not Africa alone/. . . but Cortez/ and Drake/ . . . and that Ferdinand/ the sailor/ who pierced the salt seas to this land" (16).

It is within this first sequence as well that Brathwaite introduces the central figure of his people's subjectivity: pathlessness. That is, the poet returns again and again to the forced journeys that his people have undergone, that have been forced upon them, that are the central element of their material history in their entrance into the colonizers' agenda. Speaking of the oppressed blacks of the islands, the poet asks of God, "What harsh logic/ guides their story?/ When release/ from further journey?" (21). Paths and journeys become increasingly central to the story of the exiled people, and it is here that one can see most clearly the allegoric element that Jameson speaks of as constitutive of third-world literature.

Here also Brathwaite signals his intention to find or construct an identity for his people that is not bound up with the hateful history of slavery and Empire: "Memories are smoke/ lips we can't kiss/ hands we can't hold/ will never be/ enough for us; . . . " (28). He wants to deny pathlessness, escape the rails of economic history, and find the real identity of his people in the present, apart from what is figured at this point as a useless past: "To hell with Europe" (29).

But section 2 shows exactly the effects in cultural elements of the endless series of (unwanted) journeys; historical movement becomes internalized at the cultural level. The poem performs a song, a rhythmic sequence that points toward movement both in its subject matter and in its constructionthe short lines that force the eyes down quickly, the repetition of short, sharp words, enacting the journey it longs for: "come/come bugle/ train/ come quick/ bugle/ train, quick . . . " (33). Section 3 picks up on this movement/journey element and reinforces it: "Ever seen/ a man/ travel more/ lands/ than this poor/ land-/less, harbour-/ less spade?" (34). Here the journey is made part of the structure of the speaker's identity; we are reminded of the African diaspora and the povertyof land, of any ownership or partnership in those journeys, and of those forced to journey. We see that in the absence of a final land, a final harbour, the journey itselfmovement along someone else's pathbecomes the sign under which this (group) identity lives and finds its order. In particular, the boogie-woogie song of section 2 uncouples the movement from any purpose; it is the symbolic identity of the people. The forced journey has been refigured by Brathwaite as a cultural element; exile has become internalized, constitutive of group identity and subjectivity.

Section 2 includes another central figure for the group identity Brathwaite is constructing, one which extends and deepens the internalization of the forced journey. The speaker analyzes a well-dressed African American walking in public, noting that the sexual interplay he seeks from urban black women is designed to "trick him, trap him,/ track him down and lead him/ to himself, the minotaur" (37). I want to dwell here on the image of the minotaur. The minotaur is the monster/mystery at the center of the labyrinth. And a labyrinth is the exact opposite of a path; if a path is designed to get a searcher somewhere, a labyrinth is designed to get the voyager exactly nowhere. It is this nowhere-leading journey, this path-less movement that I discussed earlier that is brought back in its most compressed and contradictory form: the labyrinth. If this identity ("himself") is the mystery at the center of a path-lessness, what can it be? European identities, and particularly New WorldAnglo and Europeanidentities revolve almost exclusively around definite paths: East to West, Old to New, etc. But this is a pathway that is not available, even to the subjectivity that it seeks to represent. The image of the labyrinth neatly contains the pointless movement Brathwaite underlines.

Section 4 reiterates this absence of the path:

Never seen
a man
travel more
seen more
than this poor
less harbour-
less spade. (40)

It will be useful to return here to Jameson and emphasize the importance of this figure of movement contradicted by pathlessness. For it is here most clearly that the distance between the personal level of consciousness and the level of historical, material condition is effaced. The structual position of the exiled African peoples in the overarching movement of imperialist capitalism in turn structures the interior consciousness of those exiles. The real motor of the people's existence is always out of their conscious reach, always the agenda which uses them but has its origin and master in another place and another language. The heart, so to speak, of the group's identity is not located in some past position of empowerment or sovereignty, nor in the psychology of some present time of poverty and need, but in the imbrication of these historical elements. Or, to put it another way, it is not that Brathwaite presents us with a misplaced people, but that it is the misplacement, their movement within a larger structure of conquest and exile, that historically and continually constructs this people. This figuration is in vivid contrast to the literary presentation of the self divided from historical process that Jameson sees at the heart of first-world modernism:

[O]ne of the determinants of capitalist culture, that is, the culture of the western realist and modernist novel, is a radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political, between what we have come to think of as the domain of sexuality and the unconscious and that of the public world of classes, of the economic, and of secular political power. ("Third-World Literature" 69)

For the people Brathwaite wants to represent in "Rights of Passage," there is no such split; the psyche is constructed directly on historical and material praxis. Ironically, the poet's search beyond history leads him directly to it; it is present at every turn in the subjectivity he describes.

So far, then, Brathwaite recognizes and represents the "wounds of history" of his people. But is that as far as the poet can go on the Marxist view I have been outlining? If the lived experience of the subject is never available to that subject, if the base conditions of existence continually shape the ideology and psychology of this people, how can they ever go beyond their victim/tool status or conception, short of a global revolution? Where is the conceptual space from which to reconceive their identity? It is hard to see how Jameson's views can be adapted to such a project; his hard structuralism tends to negate any separation between consciousness and material structure, a structure, moreover, that is always Eurocentric. For Jameson the history of the first world moves out and completely co-opts the rest of the world; all the history and culture of the globe simply refract the motions of capital (or whatever is the dominant mode of production at the time). For there is never, for Jameson, any original or self-sufficient culture to appeal to:

'[C]ulture' in this sense is by no means the final term at which one stops. One must imagine such cultural structures and attitudes as having been themselves, in the beginning, vital responses to infrastructural realities (economic and geographic, for example), as attempts to resolve more fundamental contradictionsattempts which then outlive the situations for which they were devised, and survive, in reified forms, as 'cultural patterns.' ("Third-World Literature" 77-78)

While it is hard to dispute the far-reaching and tragic effects of capital on the planet, Wilson Harris has what I feel is a far less static view of the motions of history and human consciousness, one which allows for human change to occur outside of or in "ascendant relation" to the patterns of history. Harris's key term is "cultural imagination," an imagination he feels is possessed by the writer, an imagination which is constructed from and able to use the pastthe various cultures and subjectivities of the exild people's pastto form a conceptual and linguistic space from which to reconstitute a cultural subjectivity that can extend beyond the material conditions and wounds of history. Or, in Harris's powerful prose:

The paradox of cultural heterogeneity, or cross-cultural capacity, lies in the evolutionary thrust it restores to orders of the imagination, the ceaseless dialogue it inserts between gardened conventions and eclipsed or half-eclipsed otherness, within an intuitive self that moves endlessly into flexible patterns, arcs or bridges of community. (The Womb of Space xviii)

Like Jameson, Harris sees that identity is always a function or secretion of the various historical moments, cultures, and positions that have defined the writer's community, but unlike him, Harris sees the cultural imagination as that which is able to break away from the frozen patterns of history to create a new communal identity.

"Masks" and "Islands"

If "Rights of Passage" figured the internalization of the subjected and disempowered structural position of the African peoples in exile, "Masks" offers little promise of security or power based in a placeAfrica. The poet moves imaginatively through the time and history of Ghana, tracing the tragic history of his people and his own inability to re-connect with the ancestral past in any material way. Even in Africa, Brathwaite indicates, his people were constricted by suffering and death; thus the hope of a return to the old ways as an escape from modern sufferings proves only illusion. I agree with John Povey on the central disillusionment of this middle sequence, which climaxes softly, after imaginative travels, with the lines "This was at last the last;/ this was the limit of motion;/ voyages ended" (122). The poet cannot continue, the people cannot find any further pathway through time; even Africa was filled with "Limits," the title of this section. This section ends with an appeal: " . . . who will build the new ways,/ the new ships?" The ancestral leaders and path-finders are no longer adequate here; the past offers no solutions to the present.

This sense of lack and rootlessness even in Africa continues in the next section, "The Return." The poet is welcomed"you who have come/ back a stranger/ after three hundred years" (124)but there is no sense of identity or belonging to be had here:

I could not find my mother
I could not find my father
I could not hear the drum
whose ancestor am I? (125)

This lack of identity and community, this sense of the impotence of the ancestral past and of its own limitation is problematic for Harris. For him, the mythologies of place and race are never fixed essences, the stopping points of a one-way process of cultural figuration. Rather, they are reflexive to the community, multi-dimensional, even contradictory sites for figures of identity, even simultaneous estrangement and empowerment, produced by the cultural imagination of a people. Commenting on the third part of the trilogy, "Islands," Harris says that Brathwaite tends to reduce the complexity of cultural history:

Brathwaite's intention to make his poems immediately available to an audience when he gives his readings can . . . exact a penalty when the social message becomes so banal it deprives the poem of numinous shadow. The god Legba, for instance, . . . is equated with a series of folk-deprivations and illnesses: pot-bellied children intermingled with maimed creatures and with black and brown people who are enslaved by banks, books, and insurance businesses. (The Womb of Space 130-31)

I would argue that the one-to-one correlation between myth and material condition that Harris finds so limiting is exactly in line with the status Jameson assigns to cultural figures in third-world writings: refraction of social and economic history. Harris, in sharp contrast, wants to revive the myths of the past as potentially powerful for the present:

Legba becomes indistinguishable from ruling deprivations . . . Legba forfeits his complex reality when he ceases to be a daemon of inner re-dress, when his investiture and the mask he wears becomes so literal that it cannot move a people into complex authority and originality by which to fissure block institutions and create necessary economies and architectures within the soil of an endangered, polarized, yet interdependent world. (130-31)

This may be the clearest statement delineating the points of contrast between Harris's and Jameson's approaches to the figure of culture. Harris disagrees with Brathwaite's trope, or possibly even the need to trope: in this instance (Legba) troping shifts the center of power, authority, and origin out of the frame. Harris wants to find these cultural products as useful and empowering for their community, rather than merely symptomatic of an irretrievably alienated and subjugated material condition. Of course, it is precisely Brathwaite's (and Jameson's) point that "interior essence," to use Harris's phrase, is always absent, bound up in the historic super-agendas of capital and imperialism. However, in the last part of the trilogy, that absence is filled through a shift to a Harrisean poetics of cultural plentitude, one which invigorates the power of a 'syncretic' imagination and its cultural figures, and away from a Jamesonian hermeneutic of cultural subjugation.

"Islands" and the return of the cross-cultural imagination

The last part of the trilogy, "Islands," contains a renewal of purpose and strengthone intimately related to the culture of the ancestor but not reduced to itin the poem "Ogun." Within the context of the modern history of black peoples, specifically in the New World of the Caribbean, Ogun, the creator god, is invoked or, more precisely, re-figured. It is important to note that the speaker does not efface himself or his current material situation to "return to" an earlier, static and complete form of power and identity. The middle section has demonstrated the impossibility of finding total identification with the ancestral past. Here, the Ogun figure is inherently present in the figure of the wood-smith uncle, whose actions are informed almost unconsciously by his past.

The uncle is a material servant, a supplier of goods to the new world; he makes "chairs, tables, . . . coffins," and "most days he was hungry" (242). The world he works forworks under, we might sayis described by Brathwaite in terms of the interpenetration of world economies, the world of "modernization": "Imported cabinets with mirrors, formica table/ tops, spine-curving chairs made up of tubes, with hollow/ steel-like bird bones that sat on rubber ploughs/ . . . were what the world preferred." The uncle cannot make such things; we may see him as occupying a subsidiary and determinant position in the bottom rungs of multinational capital, even in his "home" island. But this is not the end of him. Brathwaite sees him as the site for another cultural "reality," that of his African past which is forever with him. "Yet he had a block of wood that would have baffled them./ . . . he worked away at this on Sundays, exploring its knotted hurts, cutting his way/ along its yellow whorls . . . " (243). He works this piece of wood in a time other than that commanded by the market, on Sunday, in a way that is not only personal and empathetic ("exploring its knotted hurts") but for reasons and purposes he himself is only half aware of:

And as he cut, he heard the creak of forests:

green lizard faces gulped, grey memories with moth

eyes watch him from their shadows, soft

liquid tendrils leaked among the flowers

and a black rigid thunder he had never heard within his hammer

came stomping up the trunks. (243)

That which would "baffle" the world is not only the piece of wood, worked for no profit, but the presence of the ancestral past in the present; animated, alive, unconscious even, but definitely active. The carpenter knows sounds he has never heard, memories he has never had, sees things he has never seen.

This force from history does not, however, bring with it peace or answer. The wood takes an ominous shape symbolic of the historical wounds of the African peoples: "dry shuttered/ eyes, slack anciently everted lips, flat/ ruined face, eaten by pox, ravaged by rat/ and woodworm, dry cistern mouth, cracked/ gullet crying for the desert, the heavy black enduring jaw," all images reminiscent of the landscape of despair and exile that marked so much of "Masks." Brathwaite sums up the image for us: "lost pain, lost iron;/ emerging woodwork image of his anger." While it portrays a movement and image of anger and loss, it also demonstrates the imbrication of historical and cultural elements at work in the subjectivity here. Here, toward the end of the trilogy, Brathwaite denies the angry rejection of ancestral culture expressed in the earlier "To hell with Africa, to hell with Europe" that marked, in "Rights of Passage," the beginning of the search for identity outside of history. In a way that Harris would certainly applaud, Brathwaith re-figures the modern subjectivity of this black character as one in dialogue with the half-buried traces of his culture.

At this point there is no breaking out of the damage of history, but for the first time there appears the recognition of cultural overlap and historical imagination breaking through the walls of economic slavery and historical limitations. Harris reminds us that "the writer . . . both transcends and undermines (or deepens if you will) the mode of society since the truth of community which he pursues is not a self-evident fact: it is neither purely circumscribed by nor purely produced by economic circumstances" ("The Writer and Society" 60). The overlapping of the unremembered but ever-present ancestral past and the modern state of oppression indicates a move on Brathwaite's part that Harris would surely approve: the identification of a transcendent identity and imagination, one no longer purely tied to material history. In a sense the uncle/Ogun figure in the poem is similar to what Harris has described as the dancer in a Haitian vodun dance of possession:

All conventional memory is erased and yet in this trance of overlapping spheres of reflection a primordial or deeper function of memory begins to exercise itself within the bloodstream of space . . . [the dancer] is a dramatic agent of subconsciousness. The life from within and the life from without now truly overlap. That is the intention of the dance, the riddle of the dancer. ("The Writer and Society" 51)

It is this overlap that becomes significant in the last part of the trilogy. The poet's journeys into his people's past have not yielded any way out of history, but are now included in the people's modern identity. It is this inter-mixture of historical subjectivitiesthis cross-cultural or "syncretic" imaginationthat will provide a base for radical change. In the last poem, "Jou'vert," the poet expresses the change that will come from a melding of the present anger and loss with the power of the ancestral, mythical past: " . . . hearts/ no longer bound/ to black and bitter/ ashes in the ground/ now waking/ making/ making/ with their/ rhythms some-/ thing torn/ and new" (270). The "ashes" of the present are still there, but the recognition and re-figurement of the "rhythms" of the past transported into the present enter into vital connection with present subjectivity to enable the people to go beyond those ashes to something "new."

Brathwaite himself has commented that the project of this "second phase" of Caribbean artistic and intellectual development is precisely "seeking to transcend and heal" the problem of history for the Caribbean peoples, which he describes as a "sense of rootlessness" ("Timehri" 29-31). The trilogy re-traces the historical movement of this people, beginning with the recognition of their structural imbrication in the imperial hegemony of capital, but then moving out to encompass the possibility for resistance to that overarching structure in the recognition and re-figuration of past African culture into the current of modern history. In a sense, the trilogy follows Jameson's model for third-world literature in its first two sections, then begins to build upon the unearthed past and finds positive use for it in the present moment, reminding us of Harris's insistence that the imagination of a people is never entirely limited by economic structure, but lives in the aggregation and overlap of the traces of its past that continue to exert influence in silent but powerful ways throughout the history of a community.


Brathwaite, Edward. "Timehri." Is Massa Dead? Ed. Orde Coombs. New York: Anchor Books, 1974.

---. The Arrivants. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1986.

Harris, Wilson. "The Writer and Society." Tradition, the Writer, and Society. London: New Beacon Press, 1967.

---. The Womb of Space. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Jameson, Fredric. "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism." Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.

---. "Cognitive Mapping." Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg. Urbana: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Povey, John "The Search for Identity in Edward Brathwaite's The Arrivants." World Literature Written in English 27.2 (1987): 275-289.