Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Brief Thoughts on "A Small Place" by Jamaica Kincaid

I think I found a favorite passage. This description of Kincaid's is one of the most succinct, effective descriptions of colonialism I have read:

In a small place, people cultivate small events. The small event is isolated, blown up, turned over and over, and then absorbed into the everyday, so that at any moment it can and will roll off the inhabitants of the small place's tongues...The people in a small place then experience the event as if it were sitting on top of their heads, their shoulders, and it weighs them down, this enormous burden that is the event, so that they cannot breathe properly and...eventually they absorb the event and it becomes a part of them, a part of who and what they really are...(52–53)
Though not specifically stated as such, Kincaid makes it clear that, in the case of this book, that event is Antigua's colonization by the British, but also colonization in general of any form.

When I read her repetition of "a small place" over and over in this passage and on the two pages that follow, I don't read that such a place is necessarily small, and it isn't really even a place at all. Rather, Kincaid is describing the process through which a larger, more technologically advanced culture can, when it sets its mind on colonization, completely obliterate any culture that stands in its way. Such was the case in Antigua. The British, with their overwhelming force both militarily and culturally settled itself "...sitting on top of [the Antiguans'] heads, their shoulders..." and projected their own values onto them. Kincaid then spends most of the essay discussing the political and cultural corruption that permeates through Antigua. She notes in particular the politicians' desires for wealth over the good of the people and that hotel training is more highly looked upon than formal education (i.e. the library). However, Kincaid is also careful to say that it wasn't the intention of the British to change their culture to such a singularly capital-driven, top-heavy society that is so full of corruption. To the British, they were bringing "enlightenment" to an unenlightened society. Rather, the culture that arose after the end of British control is simply the outcome of this heavy burned of colonialism on such "a small place."

Kincaid's primary argument against colonialism seems to be its destruction of a culture's natural development. She points out that Antigua never had an industrial revolution or an "Age of Enlightenment." They never had to go though the painful process of finding themselves as their own culture and society within the larger framework of the modern world. Instead, they were given a shortcut through which they missed out on the important lessons that give a society the ability to find its own equilibrium. After all, how could they expect to be faced with the weight of hundreds of years of British tradition, culture, and power without becoming infatuated and subverted by the advantages of wealth and middle-class promises that a seemingly successful capitalist state like Britain hints can be theirs? And, as Kincaid points out, the British weren't moral role models on the same scale as they were cultural. After all, it's hard to see those who are running your country as having anything but "bad manners." So, those in positions of power in Antigua go where the money is, take advantage of whomever they can, and think they are capitalists for doing so.

But the fact is, this situation of unnatural, broken development isn't only a formula imposed on those countries that are currently, or recently have been, directly occupied. Kincaid also shows how colonialism, both in Antigua and throughout the rest of the world, is alive and well today. But these days, it isn't the same old physical occupation it used to be. Instead, it is culture and capital that are doing the colonizing.

In the first chapter of A Small Place, Kincaid asks us to imagine ourselves as tourists in Antigua and guides us through what seems like a typical first tourist experience in Antigua (though pointing out questions that we, as tourists, may not ask ourselves). But she quickly turns the tables on the reader, no longer inviting us to explore Antigua, but telling us that "a tourist is an ugly person"—not the person, necessarily, but the tourist in the person. While a tourist is not an invader who colonizes with guns blazing, the tourist does expect to be treated with a certain level of deference. This expectation does not necessarily spring from the explicit belief of personal, innate superiority, but rather from the point of view that the tourist is the one with disposable capital that the host wants. As in the case with Antigua, tourism and a booming tourist industry is not necessarily what the people of Antigua want, but because of their lack of natural development of other capitalist industries, in a sense, it is what they get regardless. It is an industry where they can make money to feed their need (British-originated) for further capital that (again due to lack of natural learning&$41; is not put into building the infrastructure of Antigua as a whole, but rather it is put back into the tourism industry to build more capital without the thought or experience that expansion is possible. Because of this vicious cycle, each tourist that visits Antigua is contributing to the stagnation of an Antiguan culture which cannot grow outside of a one-dimensional economy on its own. Tourists are the new colonists, imposing what they want and their ethnocentric demands on this country which, as Kincaid says, becomes a weight which in turn "eventually...becomes a part of them, a part of who and what they really are."


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