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The Caribbean as contact zone: Transculturation and creolization

In this section, the argument will turn into the Caribbean and the Americas as entangled geographies we conceptualize as a contact zone. We owe the theorization of the Americas as contact zone to Mary Louise Pratt, who in her book Imperial Eyes extends the concept of transculturation beyond the nation, to the North-South space of uneven developments and unequal exchanges in the Western Hemisphere. I understand imperial space not simply as formed by geo-political domination and capitalist exploitation, but as a complex process of transculturation where subaltern bodies, ideas, movements, and aesthetics travel in different directions, and influence cultural, intellectual, and political spheres that constitute contested terrains. Transculturation becomes a category that reveals relations, flows, travels, exchanges, and straggles, patterns and contradictions, processes and products, crossing symbolic and material borders of state, capital, and empire. Hence, it is no accident that transculturation and creolization are keywords in Caribbean critique for reconceiving power, geography, subject, and community.

The concept of transculmration has a rich history since coined by Fernando Ortiz in his 1940 classic Cuban Counterpoint of Sugar and Tobacco. Bracketing a widespread signification of transculmration as a staple of a discourse of mestizaje, as a melting pot of diverse ethnic-racial sources in a national culture, that for Ortiz was the foundation of cubania, we rather work within a critical elaboration of the category. In this beat, Jossiana Arroyo argues that transculturation is a complex cultural process implying a power discourse in which two cultures intermingle, such as White Europeans and Black Africans. In her analysis, transculmration becomes cultural travestism: a strategy where the integration of the body of the other into the national discourse poses the problems of racial, sexual and gender representation of said body, and the various masks to which the subject has to resort. Here the prefix trans expresses a process of multiple mediations of power (class, ethnic-racial, gender, sexual) that constitutes culture as a contested terrain, and the subject as the active foci of a plurality of relations and struggles, as in the migrant subject of Antonio Cornejo Polar.4 In this key, transculmration is a category of traveling theory and as such a resource of border as method.

The concept of transculturation is comparable to creolization, a key category in the Caribbean critical repertoire, and in the African diaspora. The ideas of creole and creolization are age-old, have a long history and a variety of meanings. I am using the concept of creolization in a fashion akin to Martinican writer Edouard Glissant, as a process of containment... [which is] deeply framed in the history of slavery, racial terror and sub-alternate survival in the Caribbean that involves an addition of conflicts, traumas, ruptures and the violence of uprooting. He differentiates it from simple processes of linguistic articulation and from cultural and genetic miscegenation. Glissant bases creolization on the principle of Caribbean pluriversality, and argues that its complexity and fluidity must be researched with an analytics of transversality and a poetics of relationality. This relational and processual method is formulated from a cosmopolitan standpoint of the totality, a world-historical perspective that Glissant conceptualizes with his concept tout monde.5

In this cadence, creolization is unpredictable, produces no synthesis and is a continuous, fluent and contradictory process. This does not imply that creolization means uprooting, a loss of vision, a suspension of the sense of being, because transience is not an errant quest, and diversity is not a dilution. In this key, Glissant argues that ambiguity was the first survival strategy in the silent universe of the plantation, where oral expression, the only possible form of expression for the enslaved, was organized in a discontinuous manner, and discontinuity is struggle, the same rupture turned on by that other deviation we know as marooning, a supreme expression of the ambiguity and discontinuity of the process of creolization. This leads him to conclude that the ambiguity and the fluidity of creolization are not signs of weakness, but unprecedented conceptions of identity.

On syncopated tuning with Glissant, Michel Rolph Trouillot argues that creolization is a vital construct to understand and become involved in key processes of creative selection and cultural struggles in the Caribbean and the African diaspora. In counterpoint to Occidentalist binary logics masking relations and processes, while facilitating the - social, cultural, ethnic-racial, gender, sexuality - hierarchies that constitute the modern/colonial power matrix; creolization represents a resource of method in which the archipelago thought that Glissant calls philosophy and poetics of the relationship is being resorted to. Glissant counterpoints archipelago thought (combining diversity and relationality, where the whole does not exist without the specificity and articulation of the parts, as if they were islands) to continental thought, which characterizes the systemic and totalizing logics of the Westernizing imaginary.

I contend that creolization and transculturation are useful categories to conceptualize and investigate power constellations and formation of identities on a decolonial key. Both categories are based on critical visions of imperial/colo-nial domination and the logics of capital to elaborate analytics of intercultural interaction and identity formation, as complex and contradictory processes that interlink different dimensions of power. They are historical categories created to explain the heterogeneity and fluidity of cultures, memories, identities, and power processes in the Caribbean and have been elaborated and translated beyond the Antillean archipelago.

Transculturation - as formulated by Ortiz - is a category useful for analyzing the contradictions and possibilities of the national, elaborated in such a way that it is now valuable to interpret translocal spaces with the strategy of counterpunctual representation that it was conceived with. The concept of creolization was coined from the West Indian historical scenario, in an archipelago logic that is similar to a diasporic perspective which does not privilege the national, placed on a translocal spatial-temporal matrix. From the viewpoint of the archipelago, Glissant affirms that

creolization continues to work in our megalopolises, from Mexico City to Miami, from Los Angeles to Caracas, from Sao Paulo to Kingston, from New Orleans to San Juan, where the inferno of cement ghettos are but an extension of the hell of sugar cane or of the cotton fields.


Intoning this beat, James Clifford argues “now, we are all West Indians in our urban archipelagos". The Caribbean, that Federation of African, Asian, Arab, and European diasporas, is a prime space of creolization and transculturation, a heteroglossic, polyphonic, chaotic, and contradictory historical territory; paradise and inferno of oppression practices, contested by an infinity of liberation politics and projects. It is not by accident that both major modem revolutions of the Americas (Haitian and Cuban revolutions) took root in Caribbean circuits, in this quintessentially diasporic crossroads of modernity/coloniality where identity, culture, and power projects are articulated as syncopated polyphonies, through counterpointings that express and generate severe contradictions and complex harmonies.

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