Journey to the Center of the Earth: The Caribbean as Master Symbol

Editor's Overview

In the August 2001 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Aisha Khan evaluates the ways in which the Caribbean and its primary interpretive and explanatory metaphor, “creole/ization,” has come to stand in recent scholarship as a model-- both for and of-- the 21st century world. In “Journey to the Center of the Earth: the Caribbean as Master Symbol,” she takes explicit issue with, on one hand, the work of anthropologists Ulf Hannerz and James Clifford, and on the other with the “indigenous” theoretical literature on creolization coming out of both the anglophone (e.g. Brathwaite, the progenitor) and French (Bernabé/Confiant/Chamoiseau on créolité and Glissant on antillanité) Caribbean, and argues that there are limits to the ways in which creole/ization can work as an “interpretive category [that stands in] as both master symbol of the Caribbean and as paradigm for the global.” For Khan, the problem with both bodies of work is that they operate entirely in the realms of theory, abstraction, and the imaginary and neglect both concrete events/processes and the people-- the “culture bearers”-- who make concepts like creole/ization meaningful. An incisive questioner, she asks, “where is the daily grind in the imaginary?”and deems the celebratory indigenous literature on creolization to be a “rhetorical wish list, [rather than] an examination of creolization on the ground.”

Khan maintains that there are two key ways in which creolization gets used and hence must be (separately) evaluated: first, as an abstract analytic tool (or model for reality) and second, as an empirical descriptor (or a model of reality). Khan asserts that both kinds of models enact a paradoxical fixing, and she uses the example of Indo-Trinidadians' substantive exclusion from the country's callaloo/creole narrative to reveal that “as much as idealized calls for the good news about creolization or revisions of its message have stressed the unity of common community, creolization's course on the ground is not a neutral operation. Certain elements of representation (who we are and how we got that way) are always chosen, certain others...left out.” Disrupting hagiographic narratives of creolization, Khan argues that against all good intentions, creolization does the opposite of the work that it is intended to do. “Journey to the Center of the Earth: the Caribbean as Master Symbol” will be of particular interest to scholars in Caribbean, African diaspora, and South Asian diaspora studies, as well as scholars with interests in epistemological critique, theories of diversity, and cultural politics.

Aisha Khan is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of Undergraduate Studies at New York University. Her Ph.D. (City University of New York Graduate Center, 1995) was done with a concentration on the Caribbean and Latin America, race and ethnicity, social stratification, theory and method in diaspora studies, and religion. She has conducted field research in Honduras, Central America among the Garifuna (Black Carib), analyzing the informal labor sector and women's participation in it. Her subsequent research has been among East Indians in Trinidad, analyzing ideologies of race and religion among Hindus and Muslims. Her fellowships include those from Fulbright, Sigma Xi Society, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and a Richard Carley Hunt Memorial Postdoctoral Fellowship. Her major publications include Women Anthropologists: Biographical Sketches (1989, University of Illinois Press, co-edited), selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Book, several journal articles and chapters in edited volumes on her ethnographic research, and several book reviews and review essays. Her most recent book is Callaloo Nation: Metaphors of Race and Religious Identity among South Asians in Trinidad, 2004, Duke University Press.

Cultural Anthropology has published another seminal article on the politics of creolization in the Caribbean: Richard and Sally Price's “Shadowboxing in the Mangrove” (1997).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a handful of other articles based on ethnographic studies in the Caribbean. See, for example, Todd Ramon Ochoa's “Versions of the Dead: Kalunga, Cuban-Kongo Materiality, and Ethnography” (2007), Deborah A. Thomas' “Democratizing Dance: Institutional Transformation and Hegemonic Re-Ordering in Postcolonial Jamaica” (2002), and David A.B. Murray's “Cultural Scripts of Language and Sexuality in Martinican Theater: The Improvisational Impasse” (1999).

Links from the Essay

An article on philosophies of créolité

General bibliography on creolization

NYT article on callaloo (the food, not the metaphor): 

Khan's Interlocutors

Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant

Selected works:

1993. Eloge de la créolité/ In Praise of Creoleness (édition bilingue). M.B. Taleb-Khyar, trans. Paris: Gallimard.

Kamau Brathwaite

Selected works:

1967. Rights of Passage

1971. The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 

1973. The Arrivants 

1974. Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean 

1984. History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry 

2001. Ancestors 

2005. Born to Slow Horses

James Clifford

Selected works:

1986. Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited with George Marcus, University of California Press. 

1988.The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, Harvard University Press.

1989. Traveling Theories, Traveling Theorists, edited with Vivek Dhareshwar, Inscriptions 5. 

1997. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Harvard University Press. 

2000. “Taking Identity Politics Seriously: the Contradictory, Stony Ground...“, in Without Guarantees: Essays in Honour of Stuart Hall, eds. Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg, and Angela McRobbie. London: Verso Press, 94-112. 

2003. On the Edges of Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradgm Press.

Ulf Hannerz

Selected works:

1987. ‘The world in creolization’, Africa, 57 (4), 546-59.

1989a. ‘Culture between Center and Periphery: Toward a Macroanthropology’, Ethnos, 54 (3–4): 200–16.

1989b. ‘Notes on the global ecumene’, Public Culture, 1 (2), 66–75.

1990. ‘Cosmopolitans and locals in world culture’, in Mike Featherstone (ed) Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity, London: Sage, pp. 237–51.

1992. Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Cultural Organization of Meaning, New York: Columbia University Press.

1996. Transnational Connections. Culture, People, Places, London: Routledge.

2000. ‘Flows, boundaries and hybrids. Keywords in transnational anthropology’, Working Paper

Related Scholarly Works

American Ethnologist, 2006. “Forum: Locating or Liberating Creolization,” 33(4): 549-592.

Aisha Khan, 2007. “Creolization Moments,” in Creolization: History, Theory, Ethnography, edited by Charles Stewart.----------------2007. “Good to Think? Creolization, Optimism, and Agrency.” Current Anthropology 48(5): 653-673.

Sidney Mintz, 1996. “Enduring Substances, Trying Theories: The Caribbean Region as Oikoumene,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (n.s.) 2:289-311. ------------------- 1998. “The Localization of Anthropological Practice: From Area Studies to Transnationalism,” Critique of Anthropology 18(2): 117-133.

Stephan Palmié, “Creolization and Its Discontents,” Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 35: 433-456

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 1992. “The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory,” Annual Review of Anthropology 21:19-42.

Class Discussion Questions

* Reflect on the title of Khan's article. Why does she use the phrase “journey to the center of the earth” to frame her argument? What, in her analysis, is a “master symbol?”

*Khan critiques literary theorists' ideas about creolization for their focus on imagination rather than the conditions of everyday life. In response, how might we consider the imaginary to be a realm of fair play for (empirical) investigation? If the ways in which people dream (or construct their worlds and possible alternatives) can be considered a part of the “messy stuff of daily life” where in that realm might anthropologists find satisfactory evidence in which to ground our interpretations?

*Khan's article points to the “tensions between ethnography and theory,” noting that “the move from template to boilerplate is often a short one.” How does her analysis of creole/ization further these observations?

Syllabi That Include Essay

Professor Olivia Gomes da Cunha, History G57.2008: The Place(s) of History in Post Emancipation Societies: A Comparative Perspective

Author's Website

Aisha Khan

Author's Other Work

Rites and Rights of Passage: Seeking a Diasporic Consciousness (Cultural Dynamics, 2007)

Good to Think? Creolization, Optimism, and Agency (Current Anthropology, 2007)

AE Forum: Locating or Liberating Creolization (American Ethnologist, 2006)(with Viranjini Munasinghe, Deborah A. Thomas, Ulf Hannerz, John Tomlinson, Vicente Diaz, Daniel Segal, Verena Stolcke, and Pauline Turner Strong)

Feats of engineering: Theory, ethnography, and other problems of model building in the social sciences

Callaloo Nation: Metaphors Of Race And Religious Identity Among South Asians In Trinidad (Duke University Press, 2004)

Sacred Subversions? Syncretic Creoles, the Indo-Caribbean, and "Culture's In-between" (Radical History Review, 2004)

Isms and Schisms: Interpreting Religion in the Americas (Anthropological Quarterly, 2003)

Constructing Identities in Trinidad (American Ethnologist, 1998)

"Juthaa" in Trinidad: Food, Pollution, and Hierarchy in a Caribbean Diaspora Community (American Ethnologist, 1994)

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