“Criticism as a question”

David Scott talks to Nicholas Laughlin about the past, present, and future of the journal Small Axe

The Jamaican scholar David Scott is a professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York City, the author of Refashioning Futures: Criticism After Postcoloniality (1999) and Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (2004), and a major postcolonial theorist. But outside the academy he may be better known as the editor of the journal Small Axe, founded in 1997 when Scott was a research fellow at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. Eleven years and twenty-six issues later, under the guidance of a strong editorial collective of cutting-edge scholars and thinkers (whose original members included Anthony Bogues, Nadi Edwards, and Annie Paul), Small Axe has become the leading intellectual journal published in the anglophone Caribbean, while maintaining a decidedly critical stance towards the region’s political and cultural establishment. In May 2008, when he was in Port of Spain for a meeting of the editorial collective, Scott spoke to CRB editor Nicholas Laughlin about Small Axe’s evolving role in Caribbean intellectual life.

Nicholas Laughlin: In your introduction to the first issue of Small Axe, back in 1997, you described the journal’s aim as a “project of fashioning a vernacular idiom of criticism.” After eleven years, have your objectives or ideals changed?

David Scott: The broad ambition of the journal, I think, has not changed. The idea of a journal that would be concerned with intervening in debates about the Caribbean in such a way as to be critical of the conventional paradigms in relation to which, or through which, the Caribbean was conceived, argued about, engaged — to try to open up conceptual intellectual space for revisioning the Caribbean — that broad preoccupation has not changed.

What has changed, I suppose, are the tactical details, the distinctive dimensions along which that project has been pursued. I think that Small Axe has always been a work in progress. I was never able, at any given point, to see very far in front of me. One of the things that has changed very concretely is that the journal, beginning with a concern with intervention, has had to recognise that the potential contributors to whom it spoke were a younger generation of scholars who needed the journal not to be simply a journal of intervention, but also needed it to be a journal of authorisation. It spoke to a young generation of Caribbean scholars, many of whom are women, many of whom live between the Caribbean and North America, back and forth, many of whom were born in the 1970s, and so who were not formed by the Caribbean I grew up in, but who recognised in the journal a platform whose idiom was in many respects theirs — an idiom of questioning, whose skeptical relationship to the nationalist project they shared — but who also needed the journal as a distinctive platform to shape an identity as a scholar in the universities that they taught in.

NL: It’s interesting that you talk about Small Axe as a work in progress. I think that’s true of every periodical. I certainly think about the CRB that way. Whatever you don’t get right this time, in this issue, you can try for next time — a magazine or a journal is always becoming.

DS: I remember having to persuade my colleagues and partners in this project that it wasn’t absolutely necessary to get things perfectly right in trying to implement some aspect of the project. For me, from the very beginning, longevity was part of what I wanted to enable. What was crucial was to meet the challenge of being around long enough to think against ourselves.

NL: To change your mind?

DS: To change our minds, reflect on what we had done, look back on ourselves looking forward, and alter ourselves as we proceeded. And that tension between trying to hold on to and trying to build on, trying to consolidate, even as we sought to experiment and open up new areas, has been a constant tension in the journal project throughout its history.

NL: How has Small Axe’s context, the Caribbean intellectual space, changed in the last eleven years — or has it not changed significantly?

DS: That’s in some ways a hard question for me to answer, because I was obliged to leave the Caribbean in 1999. So I have not been inside the Caribbean academy, and therefore in some senses I can’t answer that question directly. I think that some of the large issues about rethinking the Caribbean are still recognisably there as questions. The question of what I thought of then and still think of now as the dead end of the nationalist project in the anglocreole Caribbean, and the challenges for institutions like the University of the West Indies, are still I think real challenges. And the question of the conceptual tools through which you begin to re-imagine political futures that are in some relationship to the nationalist imagination, but critical of it as well, and trying to open up new space for thinking. I think those have not yet emerged as one might have hoped.

But there’ve obviously also been very interesting developments, like the emergence of a concerted preoccupation with rethinking the popular, and rethinking dimensions of Caribbean expressive culture, in music, for example, that weren’t as developed eleven years ago as they are today.

In some respects Small Axe partakes of the cultural studies shift in understanding the Caribbean, and part of the shift has been the reconfiguring of attention to the popular, the idea of a popular that is not driven through a Marxist conception of the working class and its role in politics, and what the implications of that are.

“For me, from the very beginning, longevity was part of what I wanted to enable. What was crucial was to meet the challenge of being around long enough to think against ourselves”

NL: More and more I come across the term “transnational” used in relation to the Caribbean — and the idea of the Caribbean not as a place but as a wider space that defies geographical or political boundaries, and that a huge diasporic population is part of. It seems sometimes that half the people in the world who think of themselves as Caribbean don’t actually live in the Caribbean region. Do you think the notion of a transnational Caribbean, which on the one hand is simply descriptive, is also a way of looking hopefully at a situation that is not actually hopeful? A way of putting a positive spin on brain-drain, let’s say? How does it look to you, as a key member of that transnational Caribbean?

DS: Dismal, I think. I suppose that is existentially what my spontaneous reaction is. And part of that spontaneous reaction has to do with the way in which I am formed as a Caribbean person and as an intellectual, in ways that make the question of home and the regional location of home a priority. And I recognise in some sense the prejudice through which that sense of the Caribbean is shaped. I think it is the case that the Caribbean is now as much here regionally as there transnationally or diasporically, but I think that one has to look at the kinds of global inequalities and the global uni-directionalities of flows of populations — as you suggest, brain-drain — that makes being there not quite the same as being here. These are not symmetrical worlds, to say the obvious.

To bring us back to Small Axe, one of the things that we have had to worry about over the course of our existence is the extent to which or the senses in which we are a Caribbean journal with a sense of concern for the regional Caribbean, and not a diaspora journal, as we might have imagined ourselves to be. We have insisted that it is enormously important for us to pay attention to the formations of and the traditions of intellectual life and creative literary life and creative visual practice in the regional Caribbean. So that we have very self-consciously thought of ourselves as having a fundamental preoccupation with the regional Caribbean — recognising, even as I say that, that the Caribbean is an artificially constructed space, and there’s a sense in which the new spaces that are called Caribbean in the various metropolitan centres are themselves new constructed locales for Caribbean identity.

But there is a history and politics of marginalisation that founds these spaces. One of the dangers around thinking about centering one’s attention on the transnational or on the diasporic is that there is a false equalisation or a false symmetry drawn between the varied spaces that get called Caribbean.

NL: What have been the key intersections between your own work as a thinker and scholar and what Small Axe is doing? Has the journal triggered shifts in your own thinking?

DS: That’s a question I ask myself very, very often. Because on the one hand I think there are not many people who would think of my own written work outside of Small Axe as being Caribbeanist in a traditional sense of the word, and therefore would hardly consider me a pioneering Caribbeanist. But I do think of my work, certainly in Refashioning Futures and Conscripts of Modernity, as work that has grown out of the larger conceptual vision that for me inspired the initiation of the Small Axe project — that is, a sense that the dream of anti-colonialism through which my generation came of age in the Caribbean, and through which the Caribbean was imagined as a space of social transformation and revolutionary change, has now been exhausted. And the end of that dream (and the practices of criticism that accompanied it) has created a demand for us to rethink the project of criticism and social change. This sense of the present infuses both my stewardship of Small Axe and the directions of my own research and writing.

NL: From the beginning there have been critics who complain of the register of the writing published in the pages of Small Axe — of too much academic jargon. They make the point that predecessor journals such as New World Quarterly in the 1960s and Savacou in the 1970s were more accessible to ordinary readers.

DS: The fallacy in that criticism of Small Axe has always seemed to me that journals like New World Quarterly and Savacou employed languages that in their own moment of intervention were hard languages, unfamiliar languages, and languages that one had to learn to employ in order to see the world anew. [New World editor] Lloyd Best’s essays of the 1960s were written in theoretical languages that sought to break with an older familiar language of political- economic development, certainly as understood in the Caribbean. And Lloyd himself, as he told me, was much criticised at the time for using language that seemed obscure to many.

NL: He was criticised for that up until his death in 2007. Strangely, it became a commonly accepted notion here in Trinidad that Lloyd was a “bad” writer, because his sentences were too long and too convoluted, and there was too much punctuation in them. Yet they appeared in the daily press, and ordinary people read them and grappled with them and got something out of them.

DS: I think that in the Caribbean, as elsewhere, it is important not to trivialise conceptual languages, and not to believe that writing ought to be simply transparent, and that what writers are trying to convey in languages ought to be transparent. Reading requires its own labour, and readers themselves ought to be more patient and more considered and more considerate, and willing to be open to the difficulties that are involved in a writer’s attempt to shift the way in which we understand the world in which we live.

What we’ve just said about Lloyd and the moment of New World would go for Kamau Brathwaite and the moment of Savacou. In Kamau’s essays — “Caribbean Man in Space and Time” is a fine instance of this — he is trying to break with an older modality of thinking about the relationship between criticism and society, and is trying to get us to think anew about how theoretical languages can help us to open up cognitive space for rethinking the Caribbean. That language in the 1970s, his language, was fairly novel. By the time we get to the 1980s, as Kamau himself is being absorbed into the canon, that language has become more and more familiar. I think the same principle goes for Small Axe.

Small Axe occupies a different kind of historical-political moment than did either Savacou or New World, and our historical-political moment has challenges for the languages of criticism. One of the things that Small Axe has been trying to do over the years is to be self-conscious about criticism as a question.

NL: One of the things that always struck me about Lloyd Best was his optimism. He would often say, in speaking and in writing, that he was an optimist, and that he took the long view of things. He said it might take a century before the various factors came together to make some kind of real change to the political landscape of the Caribbean, but he was optimistic that it would happen. Do you personally, does Small Axe as an institution, have a sense of optimism right now about the Caribbean, about the politics of the region, the intellectual activity going on here?

DS: I can’t here speak for the Small Axe collective as a whole, except to say this: that inasmuch as we persevere and inasmuch as we press on in a difficult climate to insist that we be heard, and insist that we want to be participants in transforming the landscape of knowledge production in and about the regional and diasporic Caribbean — inasmuch as that is the case, yes, I think Small Axe as a whole is optimistic.

It’s hard for me personally, though, to express optimism about any individual island-state political project. There is not one in the region that I think offers a sense of self-consciously seeking to re-imagine futures alternative to the ones being foisted upon us by the transformations in the global conditions of political, social, and economic life.

But what is refreshing to me is that there are young people writing, thinking, experimenting in fiction, in the humanities, in visual registers, and that certainly gives me reason to be optimistic — optimistic that the Caribbean has never ceased to produce creative and critical intelligence. I don’t think any longer that there is a straightforward teleological relationship between one historical moment of political defeat and some future awaiting us. Politics doesn’t run along those lines. I don’t have a progressivist optimism about a future waiting to arrive.

There is no direct or simple relationship between those generative minds that are producing creative work along disparate avenues in the regional and diasporic Caribbean, and the new politics that might be embraced. But I imagine that new languages of political possibility and new ways of thinking regionally and diasporically about what the Caribbean might be, what the Caribbean might become, will emerge more clearly in years to come.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008

Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.