A promiment question in my work is to ask how we can we think the nation differently. Would we then, still think the nation after all? Working with theories of political anthropology in the Caribbean often results in an akward misfit of concepts and empirical data. Somehow, the world as we read about it does not apply in the Caribbean. Yarimar Bonilla (2015) explained this epistemic inadvertence to the assumption of national sovereignty as the norm. She argues that Caribbean islands are rarely the topic of scholarly work on political sovereignty, precisely because the reality of these islands undermines dominant notions of what sovereignty is. They are often reduced to being political aborations, all the while Caribbean islands have been a type of paragon of global processes, an argument made many times before by fellow scholars (Glissant 1997, Hansen & Steputtat 2001, Guadeloupe 2008) Such works urge us to ask: what possibilities are there when we reject the illusionary character of the sovereign nation?
Now lets be truthful in pursuing this quest. There is no denial here, or in the mentioned works about the real world effects of thinking the sovereign nation. Agamben (1989) already explained that while the ideal of sovereignty and its relation to the concept of bare life is fallible and treacherous, it is also an idea that remains to deliver real world effects, such as racism, xenophonia, genocide and mass incarceration.
Quite recently Yarimar Bonilla made a contribution to a MoMa event in a video shared on Facebook. Responding to the question if dependancy theory is a colonial myth/manipultation, Bonilla returned the question, asking, who is actually dependant on who? “After all, why does the United States have colonies?” This question reminded me of a statement James Baldwin once made about the constuction of the Other, the exception to the norm. An outsider that represents Agamben’s bare life, specifically framed as the idea of the black person. Baldwin famously spoke:
“The question you gotta ask yourself … is why was it necessary to have a Negro in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you gotta find out why. The future of the country depends on that.”
To say “give me liberty or give me death” is a claim that Baldwin said was not accessible to all citizens of the United States. Considering the global political climate, to whom does the exception of this claim belongs today? The answer to that question reveals to us the access, or lack of it, to a political community that grants us ‘human’ rights. We should thus ask ourselves: how can we imagine that community differently?
(this post was also featured in the december 2018 issue of the Caribbean Studies Association newsletter.)
Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford University Press.
Bonilla, Y. (2015). Non-sovereign futures: French Caribbean politics in the wake of disenchantment. University of Chicago Press.
____ Facebook video
Hansen, T. B., Stepputat, F., Adams, J., & Steinmetz, G. (Eds.). (2001). States of imagination: Ethnographic explorations of the postcolonial state. Duke University Press.
Glissant, É. (1997). Poetics of relation. University of Michigan Press.
Guadeloupe, F. (2008). Chanting down the new Jerusalem: Calypso, Christianity, and capitalism in the Caribbean. University of California Press.