A Search for Repair in the Wake of the Plantation

Ceramic and glass mosaics of two faces on a blue concrete wall

This is the second piece in a series on the Plantationocene—a proposed alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.

Four Days in West Kingston is an audio-visual essay that uses the 2010 state of emergency in West Kingston, Jamaica—popularly known as the “Tivoli Incursion”—to raise a number of questions: What does it mean to be human in the wake of the plantation? How do people confront the pressures of colonialism and slavery, nationalism and state formation? What forms of community and expectation are produced in and through violence? In what ways can we meaningfully bear witness to these processes?

Plantation Politics

New World plantations, it has been extensively argued, provided the basis for modern social and economic arrangements in the Western hemisphere and beyond. Contemporary claims and complaints regarding humanness in the Caribbean are therefore being made within a modernity generated through the movement of Europe (with Africa, conscripted) toward the Americas, and the establishment of new forms of genocidal violence as the basis of a changing transnational capitalist political economy. Mercantilism inaugurated material, religious, political philosophical, scientific, and ideological processes that indelibly linked the “New World” and the “Old” in a common project of defining modern humanity in racial terms. These were processes that became institutionalized through extractive labor regimes and constellations of citizenship that excluded non-European groups. The initial racialized elaborations of what it meant to be human would be subsequently mobilized to serve late 19th century projects of indirect imperial rule throughout Africa and South Asia, as well as the emergent imperialist project of the United States.

What does it mean to be human in the wake of the plantation?

Anti-colonial and nationalist projects have sought to interrogate, critique, and ultimately revise these original delineations of the relationships between personhood, value, and political legibility through the development of new forms of community cultural consciousness, if not always substantially new economic arrangements. In Jamaica, a nexus of customary rights related to land use and heritability, and forms of patronage and clientelistic loyalty, forged the ground on which and mechanisms through which nationalist citizenship claims developed in the twentieth century. Today’s garrison politics in Jamaica are grounded in a system of political authority that operated on sugar estates—one oriented toward loyalty to a powerful figure and reliance upon that figure for work, benefits, and protection. In garrison politics, votes are exchanged for benefits that flow to the politically homogenous and territorially-bounded “garrison” community through a relationship between an elected politician and a local “don.” The plantation, then, was not only foundational to modern economic production and labor organization; it was also this phenomenon that shaped the infrastructures, practices, and processes of politics within post-colonial New World nation states.

An Archive of Affects and a Search for Repair

Four Days in West Kingston is a shorter and more abstract version of a longer experimental documentary, Four Days in May, by Deborah A. Thomas, Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn, and Deanne M. Bell. Four Days in May features narratives from West Kingston community members who experienced the 2010 state of emergency. On May 24, 2010, members of the police force and the army entered Tivoli Gardens and surrounding communities in an attempt to apprehend Christopher “Dudus” Coke—the local “don” who had been ordered for extradition to stand trial in the United States on gun- and drug-running charges—and in the process killed at least 75 civilians. Our aim in this project has been to juxtapose visual, oral historical, and narrative archives of state violence in order to get at something about the relationships among the psychic, material, prophetic, and political dimensions of sovereignty—past and present. We have sought to bear witness to these relationships, and to explore the ways particular pairings of sound and image produce affective responses.

An archive of affects opens spaces of potentiality.

An archiving of affects is not quite the same thing as building a counter-archive. Rather than being oriented toward external audiences, an archive of affects opens internal spaces of potentiality that might illuminate connections previously unexamined or re-order the relations we take for granted, like those between time and space, politics and justice, or the very terrain of humanism itself. Assembling archives of affect should tell us something about how the sphere of the political has been imagined and felt at various junctures, and about the kinds of politics that have been possible at these junctures. Archives of affect, because they are nonlinear and thus unobligated to the teleologies of liberalism, can shift the politics of reparations away from discretely local and legally verifiable events and toward the long and slow processes undermining our ability to forge social and political community together.

They can urge us to be more skeptical about nationalist narratives of perfectibility, whereby we triumph over past prejudices and injustices through a force of will and commitment to moral right. They encourage us instead to turn our vision to the messiness of sovereignty at different moments. They address an audience that extends beyond the juridical limitations of the nation-state, thereby encouraging demands for a more comprehensive form of justice. At the same time, by inspiring us to see and hear differently, archives of affect can help us to focus on the everyday ways people innovate life without constantly projecting today’s struggle into a future redemption. Whatever else they might do, archives of affect should especially be used to cultivate a sense of repair that exposes forms of complicity and demands collective accountability that is grounded in a daily practice of recognition and love. Can you feel it?

Featured image: A still shot from the audio-visual essay Four Days in West Kingston highlights community artwork on the grounds of Liberty Hall, a museum and community space in downtown Kingston that honors Marcus Garvey’s legacy.

Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology, and the Director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Exceptional Violence, and Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and The Politics of Culture in Jamaica. Her new book, Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation, will be published in October 2019 by Duke Press. Thomas co-directed the documentary films Bad Friday and Four Days in May, and she is the co-curator of a multi-media installation titled Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston. Contact.