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Talking Lloyd and Saying Nothing

(Part 11)

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 13, 2003

Lloyd Best knows some things (economics best of all) while he knows less about other things. This suggests that in some instances humility might be the better part of valor. I refer particularly to Best's foray into literary theory and his silly comments about my book. When I spoke about his wife's unethical behavior and the musings of his disciple I differentiated between how the novelist and the historian approached his or her field. Best objected to my statement. He noted: "In his column one week earlier, Cudjoe addresses his comment extensively and exclusively to the writing of Dr. Kirk Meighoo; but of course we can find that out only from the immense number of quotes not attributed to anyone. Though he has issued a book on Naipaul's work that Naipaul wouldn't even piss on, for some reason he refuses to engage the celebrated novelist as the original user of the concept 'half made.' Instead he addresses some spurious pretexts about the passing of fully fifty years since the observation was first made and cites a license denied Meighoo that artists enjoy for metaphor and image. Cudjoe's immediate aim is clearly to tap up my colleague, a recent PhD student still coming to grips, while he studiously avoids serious engagement lest he be eaten raw."

But what does this bravado mean? Fifteen years ago I took on Naipaul in my book. A year ago, Mustapha Marrouchi wrote: "The only book length assessment to date on Naipaul grounded in contemporary literary theory, V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading offers a responsible 'new historicist' reading (one that locates the author's work in the sociocultural context of colonialism and postcolonialism) as a corrective to earlier 'idealist' interpretations, those that neglected the ideological and cultural determinants of Naipaul's work and saw only his technical virtuosity, not his limitations" (Signifying with a Vengeance, p. 212). Marrouchi states that my book is the "fullest dissection of Naipaul's 'impartiality' and argues that it should be studied in the context of "Caribbean literary and historical tradition and the larger field of postcolonial."

It is irrelevant whether Naipaul chooses to piss on my book or not. Pierre Macherey, a French philosopher, pointed out that the aim of literary criticism is to provide a new knowledge rather than to fall into the trap of the empiricist or the normative fallacy (See A Theory of Literary Production). My analysis of Naipaul's work has little to do with whether Naipaul pisses or does not piss on my book. It has to do with whether I produced a new knowledge about what one may call the Naipaulian problematic. Apart from its vulgarity, there is really little analytical substance in Best's conclusion about Naipaul's stance towards my book. Such rumshop discourse proves nothing. But then dementia sometimes borders on the latrine which might indicate a new stage of Best's intellectual development.

A literary theorist approaches his task differently from a social scientist. Needless to say, the formal properties of a novel are quite different from those of a historical study, although they use similar techniques (See, for example, Hayden White, Metahistory and the role of "emplotment"). A literary text achieves its objectives via metaphor, images, etc. When Naipaul offers the trope of half-madeness he traces a line of "difference" better to highlight a particular way of seeing his society. For example, there is no reason why one cannot describe countries such as ours as a five-eights or a one third-made society. The trope of half-madeness is intended to suggest an incompleteness that readily captures one's imagination. There from, the novelist proceeds through incidents, relationships, etc., to develop his theme. There is no way a novelist can prove the five-eightness or the one-thirdness of any society except that the term half-made captures a particular condition that he mines for its symbolic value.

A political scientist is faced with a different task. He offers a thesis and then he adduces evidences to buttress his case. Where a novelist depends of images and metaphors, the political or social scientist relies on facts to buttress his case. That is why a political scientist supplies as much verifiable evidence as possible and relies on footnotes to pin down his case. A novelist has no such restriction, which is why he can write a novel from a stream of consciousness (Proust, Remembrance of Things Past), offer a realist rendition (Lovelace, Dragon Can't Dance), or tell a story thought letters (Walker, Color Purple). One uses different tools to evaluate different fields of study, which is why the techniques or processes of the social scientist might be insufficient to understand the painting of the herdsman and cattle at Tin Tazarift, Tassili.

Since Mr. Best wishes to defend the severely handicapped work of his disciple one does not have to go very far to demonstrate the limited applicability of the Naipaulian metaphor the latter uses. There really is no reason why Naipaul could not describe our society as being a one third- or a three-fifth's made society. His disciple titled his book "Politics in a half made society;" not politics in any society. After six pages of introductory notes he abandons his project with the following: "To further explore the idea of 'half-made' and 'full' societies would take one into territory that might not be able to be quickly crossed. And it would detract from the main purpose of the book, which is to examine the politics of a particular society." Where a thesis begins by purporting to analyze politics in a half-made society it exhausts itself in six pages to concentrate on the politics of a particular society without regard to its half-madeness. Suffice it to say that the author's burden is to demonstrate how politics plays itself out differently in a half made society than it does in a three quarters-made society. Instead, he proceeds via "thick description" rather than submitting an analysis that demonstrates the peculiar nature of politics in a half-made society.

Best's disciple also argued that we, in Trinidad and Tobago have become "fractious [and] irrelevant," pursuing make-shift activity which detracts from the fundamental project of building a viable, free, independent, prosperous, humane society…. Without purpose, without achievement or contribution to the world, without an objective requirement for excellence and production, we have the luxury of living without direction." These are nonsensical statements. It makes little sense to accuse a society of being fractious and irrelevant, pursuing make-shift activity...etc" especially when we recognize "the ambivalent figure of the nation, its transitional history, its cultural indeterminacy, [and] its wavering between vocabularies" as Homi Habra suggests. The nation is always an unfinished project.

Perhaps the most frivolous of Best disciple's positions is that we have contributed nothing to the world. This notion is taken straight out of Naipaul's Middle Passage. In his turn, Naipaul took the distinction between the "doer" and the "thinker" from "Stump Orator," Thomas Carlyle's fifth Latter-day Pamphlet. When James Anthony Froude wrote The English in the West Indies, he elaborated upon this distinction by depicting "the doer" as the central actor in the historical drama. In 1860, when Anthony Trollope wrote The West Indies and the Spanish Main, "an expurgated version of [Carlyle's] Occasion Discourse upon the Nigger Question," as Eric Williams described it in British Historians and the West Indies, he was merely updating the ideas of Carlyle and Froude.

Naipaul drew upon these thinkers to formulate his theories about the Caribbean having not made any contributions to the world. Homi Bhabha notes: "When V. S. Naipaul writes that 'History is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies', we become aware of the complete success of colonialist values and of the complete despair of the colonized. The notion that colonial countries exist in a historical void and that their cultural hybridity is only symptomatic of their immanent 'chaos' which resists the consolation of civilization, is part of a myth that naturalizes the history of the colonized and universalizes the history of the colonizer"

("Some Problems in Nationalist Criticism.")

In spite of the presumed elegance of Best disciple's ossified metaphor, it remains a backward, colonialist myth. It is not original and its shock value has long outlasted its usefulness. Societies are always in the process of being made. As a form of cultural elaboration, the nation is "an agency of ambivalent narration that holds culture at its most productive position, as a force of 'subordination, fracturing, diffusing, reproducing, as much as producing, creating, forcing, guiding'" (Bhabha, Nation and Narration). Surely, we can read the events in our society in ways other than Best's disciple intends that we should read it.

Although it is difficult to elaborate on this last point in the space afforded, I will deal with it briefly. It has to do with what Best calls the "epistemic challenge." He writes: "Cudjoe's other question is how does one ever come to see what others do not? The answer is simple: accidents of history involving a presence in critical institutions or crucial locations at strategic moments at exceptional conjunctures posing the epistemic challenge." I, too, believe that many important turning points in history are pushed forward by accidents, but what does it mean to talk about accidents involving a presence, etc?

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault poses questions that are associated with an episteme. He asks: "in what way, then, our culture has made manifest the existence of order, and how, to the modalities of that order, the exchanges owed their laws, the living beings their constants, the words their sequence and their representative value; what modalities of order have been recognized, posited, linked with space and time, in order to create the positive basis of knowledge as we find it employed in grammar and philology, in natural history and biology, in the study of wealth and political economy." In other words, what allows for the conditions of the possibility of knowledge at any given historical moment and how does knowledge engender knowledge?

Foucault argues that one has to look at an epistemological field in its totality before one makes a judgment and such judgments can be made only a posteriori. Even then, such judgments are made more difficult since "there are no definite methodological principles on which to base such an analysis." Therefore, talk about "strategic moments and at exceptional conjunctures posing as epistemic challenge" lacks in diagnostic sophistication. It reads like an extended exercise in bricolage, a term Claude Levi-Strauss used to describe how myths are assembled. Suffice it to say that the term, "epistemic challenge," as Best uses it, is a useless myth that reduces itself to meaninglessness.

It's difficulty to see how Best and his disciple can "eat me up raw," when they do not even understand these simple points of methodology that govern these disciplines. Although he tries to disparage my contribution by calling me "a flaming Stalinist conveniently turned liberal democrat and Manning PNM," Best still has to answer whether "Sunity Maharaj acted in an unethical manner when she accepted the executive directorship of the CJA after serving on a committee to select an appropriate candidate for the position? Best, an honorable man, should tell us whether he thinks it proper, ethical, honest and morally responsible for Maharaj to accept a position for which she was a selector?"

Best cannot evade such a question by pointing to the vagaries of "system problems." After he goes through the highfalutin language, his answer must make sense to the ordinary person. "System problems" and allusion to latrine discourse cannot answer the question. He should not allow his wounded pride to scotomize him. One certainly expects better from Best. I await a response.

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