Charles V. Carnegie

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar

1996–1997

Postnationalism Prefigured: The Social Border Zones of Caribbean Nation States

When he was an undergraduate at Cornell, Charles V. (Val) Carnegie began to question some of the anthropological models he was being taught in light of his experience growing up in Jamaica, West Indies. "Traditional kinship categories, for instance, don't apply to the Caribbean, where the boundaries between kin and non-kin are blurred," Carnegie said. "Anthropology's focus on groups that are separate and constant in structure seems to be both its strength and its problem."

In Postnationalism Prefigured: The Social Border Zones of Caribbean Nation States, Carnegie presents a critique of the social science paradigm that views cultures as fixed and unchanging. Drawing on a wide range of Caribbean social historical and contemporary ethnographic materials, including his own fieldwork, Carnegie proposes a more flexible approach to the concept of nation states, one that emphasizes heterogeneity and border transgression.

"The book explores a number of areas that point to the persistence of transterritorial and transnational currents in Caribbean social life over the past few hundred years," Carnegie said. These areas include the history of social interaction between Europeans and African slaves; the black diaspora political movement founded by Marcus Garvey in the early twentieth century; and the contemporary inter-island traders, most of them women, who build social networks that cross national lines. Postnationalism Prefigured closes by urging anthropologists to consider models of world community, discussing the Baha'i faith as one example of an international community that seeks to balance unity with diversity.

Carnegie argues that some of the most central tenets of Western scholarship—the assumption that things fit into neat categories, and the focus on countability, homogeneity, and distinctness of categories—do not fit the modern Caribbean situation. "The social sciences," he writes, "tend to neglect, erase, or want to regulate social phenomena of the sort this book makes visible: the crisscrossing of frontiers by slaves before emancipation, the activities of inter-island traders, and the pariah treatment accorded to albinos whose presence is a glaring anomaly for the racial classification system."

Carnegie further suggests the existence in the Caribbean, and perhaps in human nature, of a pervasive resistance, at once conscious and unconscious, to prevailing Western paradigms. "The modern assumption that we can explain everything and solve every problem has within it so much that is counterhuman, that is demeaning and draining of art and poetry," he observed. "Why do so many people like to visit Santa Fe, with its narrow, irregular, crooked streets? We are attracted to places that confound; we long for inefficiencies. Spiritual pursuits too attract because they offer a frontier that is unattainable and mysterious."

During his SAR residency, Carnegie took advantage of analogous opportunities to explore the offbeat in writing his book. "Being here has allowed me to go off on intellectual tangents I really wanted to go off on," he said. "The School is an incredible place for daydreaming, which, by allowing me to imagine and conceptualize differently, is a vital part of my work."

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine


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