BREAKING THROUGH THE STASIS
A Review By RAWLE GIBBONS
The following review was presented at the book launch at the Normandie Hotel on August 20, 2010
Policing the Transnational:
Cultural Policy Development in the Anglophone Caribbean (1962 – 2008)
Lambert Academic Publishing, Berlin, 2010
“You think they could go the States and say we got oil? You mad, oh me laad,
Texas have more oil more than Trinidad, oh laad,
So why neglect your culture? You making me feel sad, oh me laad
Calypso and steelband are the culture of Trinidad.
I cyah understand/Every week they sending away delegation
To talk bout what i ain’t know/Tell why they getting on so
They wouldn’t say they promoting steelband/or even send two or three calypsonians
But gone to other country/ And anything we say, they have twice time more than we.
You think they could go into Cuba and say we got sugar? You mad, oh me laad
Cuba have more sugar than Trinidad, oh laad
So why neglect your culture? You making me feel sad, oh me laad
Calypso and steelband are the culture of Trinidad.”
‘Culture of Trinidad’, 1965)
This was Mighty Power’s critique of the economic development model pursued by Trinidad and Tobago in the early years of nationhood. Almost half a century later, with, arguably, fewer natural resources and increasingly globalized market forces, the nation may be disposed now to listen to Power’s exhortation. ‘Culture’ may yet prove the golden egg in the region’s survival basket in this 21st century.
Dr. Suzanne Burke certainly thinks so. Her newly published book, ‘Policing the Transnational: Cultural Policy Development in the Anglophone Caribbean (1962 – 2008)’ confronts the questions: What is culture policy? What does it mean for the Caribbean? What is the Caribbean? How can a policy be shaped for the benefit of all stake-holders? In so doing she fills a chasm in the literature/information available to the region’s practitioners, policy-makers and others involved in the practice, transmission and development of arts and the creative industries.
The fundamental argument Dr. Burke advances is that culture policy development in the Caribbean is in a situation of ‘stasis’. This is so because traditionally, a) governments have been lackadaisical about culture policy; b) action in the culture sector tends to be ‘catalysed by factors external to the region’ (p.19); c) there has been little/only slow recognition of the economic value of culture; d) Caribbean policy concerns are ‘nationcentric’ and so fail to come to terms with the transnational nature of Caribbean existence. These factors are complicated by contemporary global challenges: ‘The forces of globalization, trade liberalization, rapid technological change and the convergence of telecommunication media…’ in addition to ‘the expanded role of international trade regimes’. These imperatives have brought focus to the ‘cultural policy domain’ as ‘a vehicle for fostering diversity, building cultural confidence and creating wealth in developing countries.’ (p.20)
Other sources lend support to the viability of this view. The late Rex Nettleford often stated that we have more artists per capita in the region than any other part of the world. He put it as ‘having more artists than is probably good for us.’ Another factor which Dr. Burke herself presents, is that the Caribbean is ‘the most tourist dependent region in the world where gross tourism receipts are 1/3 of exports and where close to one million people are employed in the sector.’(p.21) In addition, she quotes a World Bank study which affirms that with 5.3% of the region’s population living abroad and accounting for 29% of all voluntary immigration, the Caribbean has the highest immigration rate in the world. (p.19) The ‘Caribbean’ historically, has always been a ‘transnation’. These are the realities on which the researcher bases her arguments.
The book is divided into three sections.
Section 1 deals with “Theoretical and Practical Approaches to Cultural Policy Development”. The first chapter reviews current trends/theories in the field of cultural policy, while the second presents US, British and Senegalese policy models. This section provides the important theoretical underpinnings of the book. Dr. Burke does this in a way that is both academic (in the best sense of the word) and at the same time, urgent. She leads us immediately into the midst of current debates in the field. We therefore see the multiple definitions and applications of the issues and terms and the various theoretical positions contributing to what becomes a dynamic field of study, one still very much in the process of defining itself. Also important to her discussion at this point are the role and significance of UNESCO conventions. The picture that we see only in bits – WTO and GATS agreements in some north European country, information-sharing workshops on cultural industries, government ministers signing international conventions and our own output in one area or another of the arts or creative enterprise – all begin to fit together. This approach is reflective of the challenge faced in fashioning an appropriate cultural policy model that must be holistic and consensual:
“This methodology also necessitates a multi-disciplinary concentration that involves practitioners, activists, intellectuals and politicians from a broad spectrum of commercial, public sector and community-based organizations. It is clear that the coalescing of these various actors will not be easy, but it appears that only through such an approach that a more robust, respected and useful cultural policy model will emerge.’ p.58.
This section also affirms that ‘the most recent contributions….have put creativity at the core of the ‘new economy’, a point well worth noting to which we shall return later. The theoretical approach adopted for the study is one based on ‘cultural diversity’ recognizing the history and realities of the region.
This is a strong beginning – immediate, informative, authoritative and, most of all, clear.
Section 2 deals with the Caribbean Context. Here Dr. Burke presents an historical encapsulation of the region and the theories of the evolution of Caribbean society – the Plural model, Creole model and Plantation Economy model – establishing the transnational or ‘borderless’ nature of Caribbean identity. In the next chapter she structures three phases for the evolution of Caribbean cultural policies. Phase 1: The Creolization Policy Model with its ‘all ah we is one’ imperative that accompanied the nationalist/Independence movement; Phase 2: the Plural Society Model that followed the ‘winds of change’ in early to mid 1970s in recognising the cultural diversity within the region and being more ‘people-centered’. Phase 3: Cultural Industry Model with the growth of the cultural industry sector in 1990s, in spite of economic downturn in the region.
In this current phase, the author identifies two streams of policy activity: a) addressing issues of cultural development (low levels of cultural confidence); b) economics of culture framework addressing the economic dilemmas of the region. Even in this phase of need and awareness, however, policy is found to be still lacking or at best, inadequate.
Privileging the view of Derek Walcott in ‘The Schooner Flight’ to anchor her account of Caribbean history lends tone to this section and re-inforces the aesthetic underpinnings of the subject. However, while the three policy phases seem clear, there is little reflection/appreciation of the role of people in the movement and change from one phase to the next. Any change in cultural policy/practice in the mid-70s would have come out of the pressures of the Black Power Movement. While this historic event is mentioned, it is merely as a footnote (p120) with no meaningful explication of the link between people’s action and state policy. Similarly, there is a people’s factor in the change to ‘creative industries’ in the 1990s that was given recognition by the policy gatekeepers, but had been growing for decades. It is a truism that under pressure people tend to be more creative. Much of our own creativity in the region resulted from our resistance to historically structured impoverishment. The 1990s may have brought this people’s activity to political/academic attention. I also don’t see these shifts as neatly sequenced as the analysis here suggests. Best Village, for instance, was started in 1963, and as such, should belong to the first and not second phase where it is placed. So, too, the Jamaica Festival Commission which was also instituted for Jamaica’s Independence. If these ‘people-centred’ mechanisms were there in Phase 1, it may be necessary to ask again how was the post-1970 Phase different from the preceding period?
Section Three devotes each of its four chapters to case studies of different arts industries in the Caribbean: the Carnival complex, the Performing Arts, Literary Arts and Book Publishing, the Jamaican Popular Music Industry. These analyses are really the meat of the book. In each study, Dr. Burke gives us an overview of the global performance of the industry, before looking at the specific characteristics of the Caribbean phenomenon. Finally, she discusses Caribbean policy relationships with/within the industry.
In the Carnival chapter the author examines each of the three art forms comprising the whole, the linkages and operational strategies employed that made them trans-national in character, decades before any policy intervention – interference really – by the State. Her research allows her to conclude: ‘Therefore the Trinidad Carnival is at once a celebration of the people, the state and the transnation…..the carnivals pose the same policy problems that confront many other sectors in the Caribbean cultural industries that have been globalized – they generally resist subjugation to national imperatives.’ P.172.
The case of the Performing Arts is particularly depressing. The book focuses on three specific types of policy/operational structures represented by CARIFESTA, Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company, and Lordstreet Theatre Company, a micro-sized theatre organization based in Trinidad and Tobago, but with international connections. None of these models proves up to the challenge of surviving at a global level. While recognizing the resilience of Caribbean peoples in creating art in spite of a generally incompliant policy environment, she notes that even these minor gains may be lost in ‘the increasing encroachment of global cultures coupled with a hostile operating environment at home’, p.210 ‘…In this regard a more relevant and dynamic policy regime can only be achieved if the key stakeholders give full cognizance to the intrinsic value of art to society……framing of a truly Caribbean aesthetique.’ We remain hopeful.
The Literary Arts and Book Publishing study shows greater government support for the former, given its longer history in the region, than the latter. The case for publishers and the need to see linkages within the industry as well as with other sectors is strongly made. The conditions pertaining to this aspect of the sector are almost as challenging as those in Performing Arts. This sector suffers from the same misperceptions:
‘Generally, large segments of Caribbean people, including the policy makers still view culture and its ancillary products as commodities that are owned and shared by the community – as a public good . As such, the need to subject art and creativity to industrial imperatives to generate wealth and well-being is a concept that is still difficult to envisage or activate.’ p.244.
These are the entrenched realities of the work of which all involved need to be conscious, if any change is to be made. In the author’s discourse though, one missed the voice of the writer as a principal stakeholder in this industry. That inclusion may have brought other complexities to the interpretation of the industry as presented, as well as a further interrogation of some perceptions.
The analysis of the Jamaica Popular Music Industry reveals, above all, the degree to which this industry is the playing field of big transnational integrated-media labels. It also shows how high the stakes are in terms of class and economic elite structures in the Jamaican context. As advanced as the perception of Jamaican policy in this industry may seem to the rest of us in the region, it comes up woefully short in meeting the challenges of making the ‘cultural supernation’ tagline a reality. The conclusion this section offers should serve as the guideline for policy development in all the industries described:
‘Given these facts, it appears that the real challenge of Caribbean cultural policy is to identify, analyse and eventually give better support to the alterity that makes its music industry so distinctive.’ p.290.
If by ‘alterity’ we understand how we distinguish ourselves in relation to the other, with our own specifics of being, such a state falls between two other unworkable policy positions in the region: what is described as ‘nation-centric’ and (perhaps the same group) looking outside for solutions:
‘…the policy stasis in the Anglophone Caribbean is a direct result of the dominance of certain power elites in the policy making process. Throughout the period following Independence this group has consistently exhibited the tendency to look outside of the Caribbean for policy solutions.’ p.292.
The solutions proposed in this study are then of a different order.
Dr.Burke advocates a transnational approach that must recognise and incorporate the diaspora within the policy map of the Caribbean. In this respect, she advises we can all learn from Haiti’s recognition of its diasporic citizens in the establishment of a ‘10th Department’ by the State. The recommendations for change in the regime, developing cultural resources and gaining competitive advantage are all based on this proposition. One may add to this that the inherent richness and complexity within the region itself remains unexplored by Anglophone policy makers, if not practitioners. Annexed as we are to Latin America, in particular, Brazil in the south and, even closer to us, Cuba and Haiti, as well as the French Caribbean Departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and New Orleans to the north, there may exist possibilities for mutual learning, training, trading, policy initiatives and innovative models born out of the synergies of historical heritage that should not be taken for granted. Clearly, it was such a possibility that Rex Nettleford recognised when he responded to the New Orleans disaster with what would become his final major choreography ‘Katrina’. I am not regarding the absence of such an exploration in this book as an omission, but the subject of another study built on the base so proficiently provided by Dr. Burke. That other study, or yet another, may also bring the visual arts, as long established sites for trade and profit, as well as film, into its industrial survey.
The substantive argument however, is that ‘the direction of cultural policy in the Caribbean has been heavily influenced by external agendas and agencies.’ p.292. While this may be so, one is also aware of internal and popular factors that give people agency in their own destiny. This would have been evidenced in reference to a) the social and popular movements (see above) and b) the Trinidad calypso. It is surprising that no use is made of calypso, an art form which has consistently offered a critique of every aspect of Caribbean life – including culture policy. Two brief examples here support the author’s arguments.
Mighty Power’s ‘Culture of Trinidad’, quoted above, clearly undercuts the policy formula for socio-economic development in the nationalist phase which Dr. Burke herself has criticised as ‘making the right mistakes’. In Power’s analysis, the root of the problem is the suppression of the indigenous arts in their very birthplace by an uncreative, oppressive social elite – euphemistically referred to in the literature as ‘lack of cultural confidence’. This very ‘lack of cultural confidence’ is at the root of the ‘stasis’ in cultural policy development that Dr. Burke identifies. Also, back in 1973, Black Stalin (Dr. Leroy Calliste) wrote his own view on this stasis into the public imagination. He offered one simple, perhaps ‘nation centric’, imperative to all:
Love Your Own
One of these days when you wake up
Hear wha’ you go find
Canada is the land of calypso
Britain in the home of the limbo
Sweden is the land of the steelband
There is nothing for Trinbagonians
Then you go hold your head and you go bawl if I did know, if I did know, if I did know
I woulda hold on to me steelband and calypso.
Bally, in the upbeat soca mood of today is joyfully optimistic of the future:
Whenever the oil run out on we
Culture will drive the economy
Whenever the gas evaporate
Culture will fuel the ship of state
(‘Culture Energy’, 2010)
Apart from giving birth to Calypso, Trinidad and Tobago is probably singular in respect of the number of aborted attempts to bring into being a national cultural policy. Perhaps this failure can now be put to good account by creating the kind of cultural policy that copes with both historical realities and current trends in the contemporary world. This thesis argues strongly and sensibly for the arts and culture sector as the fulcrum for a shift in the economic re-positioning of the global Caribbean:
‘In fact, the forms of transnationalism that are a constitutive part of being Caribbean in the world are to be celebrated…..it is only by understanding and embracing these histories, identities, ways of life and creative capacities that the region can come to a more sophisticated understanding of itself by turning dispossession into possession.” p.302. This complex identity is at the crux, in my view, of Sparrow’s paradoxical mask in ‘Labour Day’ (1968):
Even though I feeling home sick, even though I tired roam
Just give me meh calypso music, Brooklyn is meh home.
This book establishes its importance by its appeal and value to different stakeholders in the cultural sector – which, in the final analysis, includes everybody. It provides practitioners with a sense of global trajectory and ammunition for advocacy. Entrepreneurs gain from it some sense of market intelligence, economic potential and the challenges therein. It provides policy makers with knowledge of what parts must be connected to make up the whole. For the arts educator, it becomes a source of information; for the academic it offers a framework for research and interpretation in the field of study. For all of us, it articulates the need to come to terms with who we are, before we can even hope to become what we can be.