Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences

»Points of Entanglement« in and beyond the Caribbean

Chair: Barbara Gföllner (University of Vienna)
Co-Chair: Sigrid Thomsen (University of Vienna)

Sian Charles-Harris (University of Connecticut)
Paola Ravasio (Independent Scholar)
Gudrun Rath (University of Art and Design Linz)
Nadine Okalanwa (University of Vienna)

›Shifting the Geography of Reading‹ and Moving towards the Human: Diaspora, Subaltern Literacies, and Literary Productions of the Radical Caribbean Imagination

Sian Charles-Harris

The title of this proposal is a nod to Lewis Gordon’s theorization of »Shifting the Geography of Reason«, through which he explains the implications of the prevailing geography of reason where reason is territorialized within the global North and supposedly travels »down« to the people of the »South«. Looking at literature as a way to engage forms of decolonization is an approach that destabilizes processes of dehumanization (Figueroa 2014, Alagraa 2018), yet most attempts to bring »decolonial attitude« (Maldonado-Torres 2006) to literary analysis have relied on theories that still impose a unidirectional Western epistemic gaze onto stories from below. This paper reimagines literature, and literature created by Caribbean writers, specifically as an ontological point of entanglement and departure from which we might engage a discourse of diaspora and exile to discern patterns in the process of diasporization toward understanding the totality of »human history« (Butler 2001). The literary critique of the works of writers who document alternative histories, community stories and cultural knowledge has heretofore not been linked to a strong theoretical anchoring and distinctive nuanced approach that is de-linked from the euromodern episteme. Toward that end, I draw upon the work of Vévé Clark, Edward Said, Gloria Anzaldúa, Ngugiī Thiong’o, Jane Anna Gordon, Lewis R. Gordon, Sylvia Wynter, Carole Boyce Davies, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Bedour Alagraa and Yomaira Figueroa to propose shifting the defining element of the study of Caribbean writings from the current impositions of geopolitical, linguistic and ethnic group framings of Western ideas to, instead, a methodological and theoretical approach that pays special attention to the entanglements and interrelationships within various communities of the diaspora, while redefining the relationship between story-teller and reader in ways that interrupt the colonizing process and re-engage a decolonizing process at the level of the mind.

Sian Charles-Harris is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut. Her dissertation Playing in the Shadow of Modernity draws on the work of Sylvia Wynter and Toni Morrison to offer a decolonial critique of teacher education for social justice within the US settler-colonial project. As a transdisciplinary curriculum theory scholar, Sian’s scholarship engages with multiple fields of study. Sian was raised and schooled in Trinidad and Tobago and is a former NYC public school teacher. When she is not teaching or writing, Sian enjoys cooking, practicing yoga, social media public scholarship and enjoying the outdoors with her two children.

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At the Crossroads Between the Insular Caribbean and the Central American Caribbean: The Case of the Panama Canal

Paola Ravasio

My paper draws connections between the failed project of modern democracy in Panama (Pulido Ritter 2013) and the broader Black Atlantic (Gilroy 2002). This is done with the purpose of portraying the Americas as a space of entanglements whose points of intersection are physical displacement, transnational economies, and socioeconomic inequality. This approach shall reveal how the repeating island (Benítez-Rojo 1996) extends transareally and transhistorically to the Central American Caribbean (Ravasio 2020). With the purpose of making this visible, my paper focuses on the novel entitled Chombo (1981) by Afro-Panamanian author Carlos Guillermo Wilson (*1941). In Chombo, Wilson recreates a historical imagination regarding Caribbean routes re-rooted at the Central American isthmus in the 19th and 20th centuries due to the construction of the transisthmian railroad and the Canal in Panama. Departure from anglophone, francophone, and hispanophone Caribbean islands, arrival in the Central American Caribbean, and displacement across the isthmus and between the continental and insular Caribbean in fact develop the storyline together with the creation of new sites of mooring, creating points of im/mobile entanglements between the insular and continental Caribbean. These stories of spatial displacement are, however, narratologically linked to the difficult integration of Afro-Caribbeans and subsequent Panamanian-born generations to the Panamanian nation-state on account of racism and segregation, portraying simultaneously narratives of social immobility. My analysis shall bring to the fore how social kinetics (Bryson 2003), kinetic hierarchies (Cresswell 2010), motility (Kaufmann, Bergman, and Joye 2004), and power geometries (Massey 1993) determine the dialectics of socio-spatial im/mobility that define both the novel’s plot and the im/mobile entanglements between the Caribbean archipelago and Central America.

Paola Ravasio is an independent scholar in the area of Inter-American and Central American Caribbean Studies. She holds a PhD in Romance Studies with an emphasis on the Costa Rican Caribbean from the University of Würzburg; an MA in European Literary Cultures from the Universities of Bologna, Strasbourg and Thessaloniki, and a Licenciatura in Classical Philology from the University of Costa Rica. Her research interests include lyrical multilingualism in the Central American Caribbean and the train-trope in literature from the Americas. Her most recent publications include Black Costa Rica: Pluricentrical Belonging in Afra-Costa Rican Poetry (Würzburg University Press 2020); Este tren no está destinado a la gloria: un estudio de ferropaisajes literarios (kupi-Verlag 2020), »Negritud de Eulalia Bernard« (Vervuert/Iberoamericana 2020) and »The Routes of SoundPoems: Nation Language in Central America« (Routledge 2021).

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Mobile Knowledges: Atlantic Intellectual Networks and the Age of Revolutions

Gudrun Rath

The nineteenth-century Caribbean diasporic scholars and intellectuals Joseph Anténor Firmin, Louis-Joseph Janvier and Ramón Emeterio Betances have frequently been omitted from the Eurocentric history of knowledge, exclusively read as Caribbean national authors or discussed primarily with regard to their relevance to revolutionary events in the Americas. However, Haitian diasporic intellectual Louis-Joseph Janvier, author of La République d’Haïti et ses visiteurs (1883), was trained as a medical doctor in France before working as a diplomat for Haiti in Great Britain and Switzerland. Janvier was an acknowledged member of intellectual circles in Paris and collaborated with the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher. Like Janvier, the Haitian diasporic anthropologist Joseph Anténor Firmin, best known for his publication De l’égalité des races humaines (1885) – a book written in opposition to Arthur de Gobineau – was among the first Black members of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, a scholarly society that had a central role in the shaping of racializing methods in anthropology. As such, they were involved in the effort to change the direction of the association’s work. This paper aims to re-examine the networks that were established between Caribbean diasporic and European intellectuals based in the »strategic location« of Paris. While Europe is still often conceived in opposition to the Caribbean, this paper aims to work towards a non-Eurocentric perspective on the history of knowledge in the nineteenth century by reconsidering the »entangled histories« between Europe and the Caribbean.

Gudrun Rath currently holds a temporary professorship in cultural studies at the University of Art and Design Linz, Austria. She was a fellow of the graduate school »The Figure of the Third« at the University of Constance and holds a PhD from the University of Vienna. She is the author of Zwischenzonen.Theorien und Fiktionen des Übersetzens (Turia + Kant 2013). Together with Isabel Exner, she edited the volume Lateinamerikanische Kulturtheorien (KUP 2015). As a member of the editorial board of the Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften, she edited a special issue on forensics (Transcript 2019). Her second monograph, on narratives of zombification from a historical and transatlantic perspective, will be published in 2021. She is an associated member of Mobile Cultures and Societies and, since 2017, has been a member of the Young Academy (ÖAW).

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From the Ghetto to the World: Digitalization as a Determining Factor for Mobility in Dancehall

Nadine Okalanwa

This paper deals with the rippling effect technological advances have had on the mobility of dancehall since its beginnings in the 1970s. Thereby, dancehall is seen as an entity consisting of its music, language, culture, and agents. Working from a sociolinguistic and African studies perspective, the focus, however, lies on the social and physical mobility of dancehall and its language as a form of cultural expression. Embedded in the discussions of Glick Schiller and Salazar (2013) in Regimes of Mobility Across the Globe, the article highlights how digitalization allowed for a lower-class-origin music genre to shift in places, from discos to studios and radio stations, and subsequently across nation-state borders, which opened up ways for its agents, language, and culture to become cosmopolitan. The article then explores the social mobility caused in its agents and language through gained economic power, upper class dancehall representers, and the agents’ cosmopolitan status. Besides agents transgressing class boundaries, the ideology towards Jamaican Patwa, too, experienced a social shift. Formerly seen as lesser than English, dancehall has now been linked to the increasing positive perception of Jamaica’s vernacular. The discussion is greatly based on Hope’s (2006) Inna di Dancehall Popular Culture and the Politics of Identity in Jamaica and Stanley Niaah’s (2010) Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto and is extended by interviews with dancehall DJs and the analysis of lyrics by non-Jamaican artists.

Nadine Okalanwa holds a Bachelor’s degree in African Studies and is an advanced Master’s student in African Studies at the University of Vienna, in which she has set her focus on linguistics. Amongst her fields of interest are language use in popular culture and language ideologies surrounding pidgins and creoles, in particular Jamaican Patwa. She is currently working on her master’s thesis on language use of dancehall artists in the Gambian diaspora in Austria. She is also pursuing a Master’s degree in International Business Administration with research interests in cultural and linguistic barriers in international business relations.

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