Creole in the Archive: Imagery, Presence and the Location of the Caribbean Figure

Creole in the Archive: Imagery, Presence and the Location of the Caribbean Figure

by Roshini Kempadoo


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783482214
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 10/31/2016
Series: Critical Perspectives on Theory, Culture and Politics Series
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Roshini Kempadoo is a scholar, photographer and media artist at the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster, London.

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Creole in the Archive

Imagery, Presence and the Location of the Caribbean Figure

By Roshini Kempadoo

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Roshini Kempadoo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-222-1


Creolising Archives

A Relational and Contiguous Practice


Imagining a creolised Caribbean archive cannot be separated from an archaeological exploration (in the Foucauldian sense of the term) of how knowledge about the Caribbean is reflected upon in the present moment.1 New meanings about the past may be made in light of and in relation to current events and circumstances. This book discusses the inequalities and controlling practices that contribute to the state of existing collections, their contemporary conservation and evocation of Trinidad's past. Central to this is to differently conceive the Caribbean figure. The Caribbean figure is not a representation of a physical person or the essence of some 'authentic subject'. It is much more than that – it is evoked from the history of the Caribbean as a space of migration. The figure is an imagined being, rather than representative of an individual or group. The figure is formed by temporarily evoking a female Caribbean subjectivity through the processes of writing, visually analysing and structuring the archive as a knowledge system.

As material and places from which histories and memories are disclosed, Caribbean material as formal and informal collections reflect embedded social and cultural disparities including a historical system of unequal ownership and access to the materials, buildings and places; political agendas that have influenced who maintains formal collections; and political, cultural and economic imbalances in the types of institutions and private enterprises that have become responsible for preservation, conservation and safekeeping.


The West Indiana and Special Collections (WISC), University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad.

Author's research journal entry: August 2003

The library building, a modern brutalist affair of monolithic proportions in concrete and tinted glass, is prominent in the central space of the campus. The building is symbolic of 'credible' proof of intellectual endeavour and serves as a statement of world class standard to the rest of the world, particularly to the metropolitan European centre. It is approached from the car park, crossing the empty and exposed square, achingly hot in the sun for the best part of the day. Most students seek shade on the steps of the covered entrance to the library, retrieving telephone messages, or taking a break between study periods to drink or snack on something bought from the fast food outlets in the adjacent buildings to the quadrangle.

Once entered, like most ex-colonial administrative systems, there continues to be an institutionalized distrust of any of the population. There is a strict process for gaining entry involving lockers, security checks, random searches and identity form filling all done by armed, uniformed security staff – as if everyone's real agenda is to steal the 'intellectual' jewels.

The West Indiana and Special Collections (WISC), is located on the second floor of the main library. This is a research collection mainly concerned with the knowledge of the West Indies, by West Indians, and published in the West Indies. The look and feel of the library is typical of its period, office-like and functional, air-conditioned with laminated tables and plastic office chairs. The long study tables are immediately behind the small display area of the latest additions of books and documents hung on garishly coloured office partitions.

The process to retrieve documents from the main section involves searching the electronic database available from two computers in the front reception area. I fill in a request form (with many carbon copies), which is checked by a Senior Librarian at the Information desk area, then passed onto a junior member of staff who retrieves the books/periodicals. This all happens under the continuous and watchful eyes of all the senior librarians whose glass-fronted offices are set on a slightly raised platform area of the library floor overlooking the study area. Information about the Special collections is searched using the electronic catalogue database. Since the collections are partially computerised, any further detailed documentation of each collection is available in various ring binders from behind the Information desk, after more request forms are filled and permission is given by a Senior Librarian. Access to the actual documents is a separate arrangement accessible by appointment and prior arrangement with the specialist staff member and found in a separate temperature controlled room to the left of the WISC entrance.

Research work of other references such as photographs, theses and other miscellaneous items meant I was referred to an old index cabinet just outside the main entrance to the WISC. This was a familiar wooden structure with handwritten insets of alphabetical letters in the brass title-holders on each index box complete with the pencil sharpener permanently secured to the top of the cabinet – reminiscent of the index cabinet for the library at my convent school in Guyana in the 1970's. The index boxes are made up of well-thumbed, reused index cards – mostly handwritten, some typed. The index cards bore evidence of re-use, additions, changes in referencing, amendments, as handwritten and typed adjustments. The 'photographs' section was indexed as a separate section in the library's collection and occupied at least four wooden drawers.

The note making of my initial research visit to the West Indiana Special Collections in 2003 gives an insight into the way in which the physical space, location and architecture of the library space is instrumental to both the symbolic and experiential notion of the Caribbean archive as a place of consignment for Caribbean material. As a prestigious, national and regional institution, the university housing historical material becomes synonymous with an austere and strictly administered environment, preserved for the education of the elite and privileged. Discipline and correct behaviour is at once associated with hard work, intellectual endeavour and access to the nation's history. Like most academic institutions, the university appears as the ultimate preserve of knowledge.

As an integral part of the step change of independence from British colonial governance (with Trinidad becoming a Republic in 1976), the university as an institution of knowledge was presented as a safe haven to the perceived childlike status of the colonised nation as a postcolony. It also stands in stark contrast to the popularly misconstrued unruly and risqué behaviour associated with Trinidad street culture, everyday lived experiences and the goings on enacted as popular culture. Within this context, the material is authenticated as history and archive, consigned to a secure location, set aside from public view. An overexertion of strict administrative processes and protocol becomes normalised into the process of conservation, as if proving and sustaining the maturity of the nation state. Laborious paper trails, permissions and screening systems then become characteristics of the formal Trinidad collections.

The University of the West Indies achieved its own autonomy in 1962, the same year that Trinidad and Jamaica became independent nations. Part of the late Prime Minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams' pan-Caribbean effort was to establish a full education system and resource for all ages and to invest in specific Caribbean locations for collecting and archiving the region's knowledge about itself (including the pan-Caribbean University of the West Indies, the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago and the National Museum and Art Gallery, Trinidad and Tobago). Williams viewed education and history as the central tenet to the successful creation of a fully mature nation with the task of self-governance. The materials that constitute the WISC division are dominated by those associated with the period proceeding from independence. Their materiality embodies the postcolonial imagination bound by a historical colonial legacy and the formation of nations. The material is encoded by liberationist idealism, imagining nationhood and the contestation over independence.

As a site of conservation of significant historical material about the Caribbean, the WISC in the Alma Jordan Library of UWI is integral to the conceptual formation and abstract proposition of the creolised Caribbean archive. In defining the Caribbean archive I have drawn on Jacques Derrida's seminal writings on archive, language and memory. His premise reflects the relationship between internal process and externalising practices in which he states that 'there is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside'. The psychoanalytic construct of the archival drive, Derrida argues, is driven by our individual impulse to create, preserve and conserve memories in some external location.

The Caribbean archive is considered to be a Derridean impression. Relying on the indeterminacy of the term impression, Derrida uses this term to describe an archive as something that is altogether less rigorous than a concept. The notion of the archive is also predicated on understanding the term as an intangible and abstract hypothesis. Derrida's hypothesis is concerned with the mal d'archive, or the 'trouble with the archive' – in other words, a psychic condition that generates an excitement and compulsion to create and generate archives, specifically named as the archiviolithic drive. This drive, he suggests, is an impulse to remember and be reminded of an experience, or a drive to produce and sustain archives with which to recollect and preserve a memory externally. The commencement of an inscription that commits a memory to paper (or to another exterior trace) consigns the matter to what is considered to be a safer place and forms the basis of the archive. As collections, monuments and other externalised materials of memorisation, archives can never be kept satisfactorily, nor can they be considered resolved, complete or immune from risk.

The West Indiana Special Collections in the Alma Jordan Library of UWI is an institution that confirms legitimacy, providing what is conceived as evidential documentation of the nation's (and the region's) history. Official history is gleaned from the scope of the collections, what is in them, how they are stored and displayed, how they are conserved, how they are accessed and how they provide evidence of what took place. Particularly pertinent to this then is the way in which a value system around authenticity and truthfulness is created and sustained in the repetitive process of selection, interpretation and re-inscription of past narratives about Trinidad and the Caribbean. Derrida's psychoanalytic notion of a 'part truth' that 'resists explanation' provides a useful way to adduce the centrality of a truth-value system to the archive. As spectral and irreducible, it becomes a 'prosthesis – [a] distorted substitute'. Thus, he considers the impression of the archive as ultimately containing a confusion with itself, centrally concerned with the condition of uniqueness. Dipesh Chakrabarty examines the process of the production and demarcation of material, through the construction of evidence:

Constructing 'evidence' ... is a project of preservation, of making 'monuments' of certain objects that are actually contemporaneous with us. For them to acquire the status of 'historical evidence', however, we have to be able to deny them their contemporaneity by assigning them to a specified period in a calendrical past, an act by which we split the 'present' into the 'modern' and the 'traditional' or the 'historical' and thereby declare ourselves to be modern. ... History is therefore a practice of monumentalizing 'objects' ... of simultaneously acknowledging and denying their existence in our own time.

Chakrabarty's writing and Lawrence Grossberg's subsequent reflection, comment on the creation of pastness and the notion of monumentalisation as instrumental to the creation of societal truth values. Truth values are sustained and legitimised in any given society and become the discipline in which moral codes and the 'law of what can be said are established and understood'. Writers including Derrida, Hayden White and Michel-Rolph Trouillot argue that moral authorityis therefore sustained in a society by the meanings that are made and the credibility that is established. White refers to Foucault's critique of the connection with authority inherent between the way in which historical things may be ordered and the assumption that the 'right order of words could be found'. Constituting history is as much based on setting an order to things, as it is on establishing how and what may be said. Examining historical material in this sense is concerned with understanding the authentication process of things, objects or items that are conceived as the archive, 'to track' as Stoler suggests the 'production and consumption of those facticities themselves'.

The research journal entry highlighted earlier alludes to the specific jurisdiction, accessibility and use of the WISC archive collections under the constitutional auspices of the University of the West Indies, in conjunction with a range of national and regional laws and governing policies. The continual process of conservation in effect converts a series of documents, objects and things, into what Achille Mbembe considers items that are mostly 'worthy of preserving and keeping in the public place, where they can be consulted according to well established procedures and regulations'. The work and authority of the guardians of material and spaces in conserving, forming and formulating an archive is what is at issue here.

Techniques and technologies used in the administration and consignment processes are therefore symptomatic of the Caribbean visual archive as conceived in this book. These would not only include the idiom of the archive, but also include practices and procedures associated with its administration, such as writing and curating online media rich documentation as photographs, blog entries, personal websites or videos; personal computer databases as files and folders; types of indexing systems – whether these are database technologies or handwritten ledgers; procedures of collection and retrieval of objects; exhibition and viewing of work; processes involving reproduction and copyright permission; and eligibility of access to the work. Derrida explores this as a 'language' used by the archive, where 'there is no archive without the signature of the archivists ..., the signature of the apparatus, the people, and the institution which produced the archive. This signature is a language'. The examination of the archivists 'language' or 'signature' then provides an insight into the cultural specificity of the narratives of history and demonstrates the way in which guardianship and conservation is particularly significant to Trinidad and other Caribbean countries as ex-colonial states.

Of particular significance to the Caribbean subject configured in formal archives such as the WISC is the rupture and dynamic created by the change of perspective about the subjects featured in the archives, as Trinidad constitutionally transformed from colonial state to independent nation during the 1960s. The present guardianship of the WISC and other formal collections inherited a colonial administrative structure and language of the archive that is apparent in its materiality, language and form. Peterson's analysis of the South African archive in 2002 is a useful comparison in understanding the Caribbean visual archive as emerging from a colonial regime. Peterson perceived the European administration as being concerned to shape such archives into the 'service of colonialism' whose aim was 'ordering the past as inheritance ... with an insistence that Africans had no history'. The assumption was for historical knowledge about the colonies to remain European, perceived as an inherent part of Europe. A system of power associated with European inheritance and colonialism are ever present in the Caribbean archive. This is also particularly pertinent to the use of written European languages in constituting practices of the archive. Trouillot highlights this in examining the credibility awarded to written European languages and not to oral and spoken languages of the non-European:

The meta-language of grammarians, proved the existence of grammar in European languages; spontaneous speech proved its absence elsewhere. Some Europeans and their colonized students saw in this alleged absence of rules the infantile freedom that they came to associate with savagery, while others saw in it one more proof of the inferiority of non-whites.


Excerpted from Creole in the Archive by Roshini Kempadoo. Copyright © 2016 Roshini Kempadoo. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Notebook of a Return / 1. Creolising Archives: A Relational and Contiguous Practice / 2. Caribbean Spaces: Seeing Her Presence, Exploring Her Past / 3. Controlling Her Image / 4. ‘See We Here’: Determining the Caribbean Self / 5. Visualising Change / Conclusion: Endnote / Index

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