Creolization means more than just mixture; it involves the creation of new cultures. And more than elucidating cultural transmission under situations of displacement and de-territorialization, it suggests the unplanned and unfriendly symbolic take-over of symbols of power of powerful others in situations of physical invasion and conquest. Appalling as slavery and many other dreadful situations of uncalled human "contact" have been, the mimetic and homeopathic faculties of magic provided a complex source of creative empowerment, which I would like to propose in revisiting the idea of creolization. Here I link the mimetic faculty of magic to symbolic piracy; that is, the strategic, unauthorized appropriation of symbols of power-religious or civil-which become empowering against their initial purpose. In the Caribbean this has yielded several innovative ways of political, economic, and cultural subsistence, which resonate with Roger Abrahams' notion of "culture with an attitude"(2002).
I propose to revisit creolization as a way to examine the ambiguity that subverts from within the imposition of one culture on other. As Michel de Certeau pointed out, subversion of Spanish religious laws and representations was accomplished by Indians, in many cases, "not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no choice but to accept (1984:xiii)." This was possible by means of a "rupture and revenge of signification" (Taussig 1987:5).
If cultural contact and transmission (Mintz and Price 1976) occurs in not-so-neighborly contexts, then I can characterize creolization-following its emic inception-as symbolic piracy, cannibalization and poaching (Bolland 1993, Romberg 2001), instead of the more neutral-and in my view, inaccurate- concepts of "borrowing" or "conversation" (Hannerz 1987) between cultures. As ethnohistorical records show colonial encounters were more complex than one group dominating or extracting the labor of others by sheer force (Abrahams and Szwed 1983). Defined by their precarious stability, always threatened by disruption and annihilation, economic exploitation and political domination were mediated by policing of cultural displays. In the process of settlement, metropolitan immigrants-marginal to their own societies-tried to reproduce the metropolis in the New world, imitating the old world's architecture, religion, fashion, way of life and etiquette. Resulting in imperfect copies, these were outrage attempts in an age in which purity and civility were being celebrated, depicted by travelers, military envoys and religious missionaries as forms of "Creole contagion" (Abrahams 2002), pollution, and "depravity"(see Dayan 1995). Meant to publicly assure the continuity of social and political entitlements in light of strong discontinuities, these forms of social control created its own seeds of transgression.
It is in the quest of reproducing faithfully as possibly legitimate white homogenous culture (not that it was such to begin with) that the threat and fear of mélange (racially speaking) and unauthorized copies and resemblance (culturally speaking), acquire disturbing proportions, inspiring the creation of draconian laws and edicts that were meant to restrict the opportunities for such abominations to occur. (The magic ascribed to the people who were located at the borders or inhabited social crossroads is well documented in anthropological works and can help understand the magic threats ascribed to dominated groups who were both feared and respected for their ability-real or imagined-to heal as well as poison)
On the other hand in light of the rupture and break from home cultures and ways of life, imitating the culture and religion of powerful others was not only a way of survival for the many underprivileged groups that were brought by force or cunning to the New World-as many have suggested-but also the source of a less disempowering form of adaptation. The creation of maroon societies and maroon cultures, and of pirating and privateering in the New world attest to the paradox arising from the simultaneous acceptance and rejection of metropolitan powers on the fringes of the social order. Initially, as a local Caribbean response to monopoly mercantilism, then clandestinely caught up in Creole uprisings, for example, "piracy" reflects on a typical Caribbean pioneering force, which resonates with emic "trickster" modes of economic as well as cultural survival, such as jaibería in Puerto Rico (see Grosfoguel 1997). Imitating the symbols and gestures of powerful others "with an attitude" (Abrahams 2002) is probably the closest characterization to these metaforces of creolization.
In this forum, I suggest digging deeper into the particular kind of "metaforces" (Silverstein quoted in Comaroff and Comaroff 1993) that create Creole culture, following Abraham's (n.d.) suggestion that it is through "creative imitation" that Creole cultures come to life. The imitated signs however acquire their potency precisely because of the historical circumstances in which they acquire their meanings. In my research on Puerto Rican witch-healing practices I have shown that at different historical circumstances brujos have appropriated religious, intellectual, bureaucratic, and commercial symbols of power. For example, it is in light of colonial religious and cultural hegemonic gate-keeping practices that the irreverent appropriation of Catholic signs and gestures by Creole brujos acquire their transcendental empowerment (Romberg 2001). But undoubtedly these were not the sole examples of "wicked" forms of partnership between centers of hegemonic power and their margins. For mutual dependency and ambiguity have inspired other parasitic relationships in the Caribbean since colonization, like those of slave plantation systems and maroon societies, and more recently global markets and informal local economies. It follows that the recognition of powerful others and the imitation of their symbols is essential to the dynamics of ritual change under coloniality (cf. Lionnet 1992; Stoller 1997; Taussig 1993, 1997). Interestingly, not only white Creoles despised and ridiculed blacks imitating them, but also metropolitan whites bitterly teased Creole elites for imperfectly imitating metropolitan society on the islands (see Wide Saragasso). Fear of these transgressions among the underclass created not only a "comedy"-as in the upper classes-but also a tragedy of color and race (Dayan 1995).
Magic, Sir James Frazer noted a century ago, is about producing similes or homologies or for taking significant parts to stand for the whole. Magical mimesis on the colonial frontier (Taussig 1993:59) points to a basic empowering effect to the imitation function-either through the production of similes by mimicry or by contiguity and contact- by which a copy partakes the power of the original. But there is more to it. There is an added component to mimicry or, as Homi Bhabha put it, to the "game of mirroring" (1994:85-92). What might look from the outside as successive acts of submission or mimicry might indeed be a form of cannibalization, or consumption through imitation, of symbols or parts that stand for powerful others, a trope-as noted earlier-not at all foreign to magic. Maybe it was against the fear of being cannibalized (at least symbolically) that the French in Saint Domingue, the English in Jamaica, the Spaniards in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the Portuguese in Brazil reacted so defensively by ridiculing those free-colored Creoles who they saw "aping" them (See Joan Dayan, 1995, for Saint Domingue, and Bastide, 1978, for Brazil. The numerous regulations that were created in Caribbean colonial and post-emancipation societies to prevent such unauthorized acts of mirroring from happening seem to be have been the response to essential, yet often subtle wars of entitlements over gestures, dress, and language (cf. Brereton and Yelvington 1999, Burton 1997).
It is striking to see how these initial emic notions of creolization, signifying broader notions of contagion, deviancy and abomination were transformed after emancipation within the new ideology of nation building into an index of a wholesome homogeneity of heterogeneous historically constituted multilingual, multiethnic, and multiracial societies and epitome of what modernity is (Brathwaite 1971, Bolland 1998). Furthermore, the reinsertion of creolization or creolite aesthetics by Caribbean Francophone writers as a trope with revolutionary potentials in postcolonial cultural politics (see Schwartz and Ray 2000, Yelvington 2001, Condé 1999) points to the relevance of revisiting the historical conditions under which emic notions of creolization were constituted.
Drawing on the inherent ambiguity in W. E. B. du Bois's "double consciousness" (Gilroy 1993), I wish to suggest its applicability not only to conditions of modernity but mainly to earlier colonial displays of mimicry and aping. Especially intriguing is the social price paid by white and colored Creoles alike for been "like but not quite" (Bhabha). What kind of powers could be derived and released from this form of "defacement" (Taussig 1999), from the parody that results in keeping the public secret behind imitation (even if it is known to all) away from public discussion, and from looking at refracting mirrors in which the object of desire gets further blurred as much as it is reflected back through a host of images in a chamber of mirrors? Keeping Herder's warning against "aping" in mind, asking these questions may add a Caribbean (distorting) mirror to the European stronghold on the origin of nationalism and modernity.
© Raquel Romberg 2002
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I treat a number of the issues discussed by Raquel Romberg--for instance, the cleansing from the notion of 'creolization' of its political dimension--in an article forthcoming in _Acta Ethnographica_.
- from Lee Haring: