Perverts of Pressure in a Non-Place

This essay won the Bart Moore-Gilbert Post-Colonial Essay Prize 2018.

Perverts of Pressure in a Non-Place:

The deconstructed binaries of Jamaica Kincaid

Every time I read Jamaica Kincaid I feel a coin flipping, then as it hits – spinning and spinning, waiting to see which side it will land on – it shatters. It is no longer a coin, no longer with two sides. She doubly perverts binary dynamics of power in Antigua, in the world, in any society, between any people. Binaries are examined, reversed, and then obliterated. She treats them in a very similar way to Derrida, and Éamonn Dunne says of Derrida: ‘Something odd happens whenever the topic of “perversion” is brought up. The moment one mentions the word “pervert,” even “perversion” or “perversity,” all sorts of alarm bells go off, and perhaps rightly so, since it is a particularly virulent mode of injurious speech. In fact, […] once the word is uttered or written, the possibility of being anything other than controversial (a wonderful register that, since Derrida’s work is nothing if not contro-versial) is sidelined, gone, impossible to regain.’[1] He gives the meaning of perversion as ‘to turn aside from the correct meaning, use or purpose; to misapply, to misconstrue’.[2] To act this perversion is what Derrida calls the ‘perverformative’[3]; the act of ‘I’, the becoming-presence of the first-person speaker, is perverted by this strange non-I, this non-singularity, without identity and without place, and by that perverformative act of self-disappearance the speaker does not become obsolete, but rather becomes collective. Its perversion is its power. As Giovanna Covi notes, Kincaid’s characters untie themselves from the linearity of history, dismissing their own names, in order to become a universal non-specified non-I: a prism of endless possibility.[4]

            In this essay I will present Jamaica Kincaid as a Derridean writer (or possibly Derrida as a Kincaidian writer) who acts the perverformative non-I in order to create collectivity. To aid the collective support of my point, and the points of works analyzed, I will attempt to write this essay in the mnemonic modernist style of Kincaid.

            First I will look at the (perverse) structure of My Brother and A Small Place. Then the (perverse) collectivity/singularity in See Now Then and A Small Place. Then I will investigate the disappearance of the ‘I’ and its biographical precedent. I will conclude by aligning myself with Kincaid’s theoretical method: the (my) white man’s mouth and the (her) black woman’s ear will not just be arbitrarily reversed, but deco-pervo-structed; that is, we will together be worlded.[5]

Kincaid begins with the binary. In My Brother the resident of the Caribbean is sick, and stupidly sick, still having sex with people whom he could kill by being sick, while the resident of North America shakes her head at this inferior place, with the dirty hospital, the sick man who is jobless and careless, the broken roads.[6] It then becomes a turned binary, a perversion, a Derridean queering[7] of the ontological metaphysics and hierarchical dynamic of power we always expect from society. She, the American, the superior in this fixed binary, on the island becomes the foreigner, the outsider, the strange and the lost, and then finally the binary is broken as she mourns the loss of her brother, she is left simply unwhole, representor of neither side of the binary. This is not just the deconstructing of a family dynamic, though. As García Mendoza writes, Jamaica, the protagonist of My Brother (distinct from the empirical life of the writer herself),

already surrounded by the culture and norms of North America, assumes a paternalistic role towards her brother, whom she constantly infantilizes, thus she reproduces the hierarchical structure of domination/subjugation inherent in the North American imperialistic attitude towards the lesser developed countries of the South. [8]

This, Mendoza suggests, makes the personal suffering of the brother invisible, lost in the ubiquity of suffering that begins in Antigua but spreads to her, and so to America, metonymically representing the contaminative destruction of human relationships by the continued hierarchical dynamic of abusive power.

            So, she confronts a disease, becomes a disease, and then becomes undone into a totality of disease – the disease of despair after the disease of death. The structure is bound to some kind of centrifuge, and it spins around it, repeating its perverse message, its message of turning repetitions. But the nature of the centre is difficult to divine. Until it is compared with A Small Place. In this entire book there is only one semantic suggestion comforted by the present phenomenon: the book is small, and so is the place. Everything else is perverse.

            The book begins in the conditional, ‘If you go to Antigua as a tourist’,[9] unsure of everything: whether ‘you’ will go, what ‘you’ will be when there, and who this ‘you’ is. In My Brother it is Jamaica, the subject, the speaker, who has to get up and engage with the multiform other, becoming contaminated by it – literarily contaminated, socially contaminated, experientially contaminated – which creates the embracive unity of the novel. Here, however, the speaker is not only absent but unpresent, forcefully pushed out of presence by herself. She is not one single ‘I’, not here speaking, and not performing for an audience. The ‘I’ that exists somewhere, ubiquitously and absently, inside the text is shifting away from singularity. The first occurrence of ‘I’ is spoken by ‘you’ (SP 5), the second is spoken by all Antiguans (SP 8), and the third presents the narrator as the collective in opposition to ‘you’: ‘we Antiguans, for I am one, have a great sense of things’ (SP 8), presenting a solid uniformity in the collective, but then immediately blurring the lines again by negating the previous statement: ‘and the more meaningful the thing, the more meaningless we make it’ (SP 8). This is what Covi notices when remarking that Kincaid has

an agency that is not only capable of transforming the world she inhabits but also of presenting herself as an ever-changing subjectivity. Her empowerment comes also from a thorough confrontation with the absence/nothingness which constitutes her own origin and the discriminations she has suffered with her impossible and yet necessary dream of love for a collectivity of humans capable of sharing a world through the principles of ecological justice.’[10]

She disappears from the singular act of making presence by asserting the ‘I’, perverforming her existence not as singular but as collective, turning western humanist metaphysics around (perverting every philosophical tradition) and un-becoming the self. This makes her (or them) more like nature, everywhere, non-specific, pan-situational. And that is precisely part of her/their satire. This ‘you’, the readers (New York readers, which she specifically picks out, and where the book was published), are the singular self in their own perception – ‘you are a whole person’ (SP 16). But that starts to rupture, or there is a minor awareness that maybe this is not the ultimate completion – ‘that awful feeling of displacedness comes over you’ (SP 16). And then ‘you’ make it to that paradigm of otherness (where the place is small and the books are small, after the big books and big reading of that ‘busy street in the large and modern and prosperous city in which you work and live’ (SP 15)) and see the nature people, the non-I people, see the perversion of the ‘I’ being turned around: ‘you’ are ‘marvelling at the harmony (ordinarily, you would say backwardness) and the union these other people (and they are other people) have with nature’ (SP 16). The disappearing act of I, where there is ‘a dream of love for a collectivity of humans’ (Covi, as above) and where the ‘other people’ become like nature, is perverformance in itself: it contaminates, like the narrative of My Brother, everything around it using someone else’s weapon: you say I am like nature, that I am some primitive collective, unable to attain that ideal self of western philosophy, so here, see what you look like to this collective, because you are not the only one with eyes, she/they seems to say.

            She/they takes the myth that created her/their subjugation and uses it to undermine ‘your’ security, which is precisely the Derridean deconstructive technique. As J. Hillis Miller writes about queerness in Derrida, ‘Queerness undoes from within what Derrida called “phallogocentrism”. Deconstruction is not an operation performed on phallogocentrism. Phallogocentrism has always already deconstructed itself, queered itself.’[11] She/they reveals the weakness in the concept of the singular speaking ‘I’ not by an external attack but by an aggregative, immanent contamination. She/they perverts the ‘I’ from inside her own I. In See Now Then, her most recent novel, she is still questioning the singularity of the self and pushing her(their)self out of singular expectation – even of being in one singular time, in this passage becoming Penelope with her weaving and Alcmene, the mother of Heracles, controlled by an absent god (Zeus was the father of Heracles, but Alcmene was never with Zeus). She sits, repetitively, coming back in every paragraph, and ‘mended the socks, upstairs, […] and as she mended the socks, she did not think of what was imprisoned in each stitch, each stitch being a small thing in itself that would make up a whole’.[12] She/they has rejected the possibility of the singularity, recognizing it only as a potential unity, something ‘that would make up a whole’.

            Her/their act of Penelopian weaving, of narrative creation, is one of creating integral solidarity where previously only single things were ‘imprisoned’. This pattern in her novels – from the displaced sister returning to her brother who then becomes displaced from life, to the intangible and indefinite ubiquity of the ‘I’ narrator of A Small Place, to the woman without a history, without time, and only inevitable death in The Autobiography of My Mother – can be quite neatly slotted in to Jamaica Kincaid’s own life. As García Mendoza writes, ‘[Kincaid’s] journey to North America begins a process of emancipation [beyond the physical,] where she is capable of freely exercising her work as a writer, [and] of assuming new patterns of thinking[…]. Escaping from her original name is also a method of permanent abandonment and a search for a place in the privileged space offered by the United States. The writer’s geographical migration is of great importance on a symbolic-identitarian level.’[13] She/they moves away from the imposition of an originary state – moves away from the binary – to a place where she can redefine her/their/self, a place that does not require her/them to be the native and the woman,[14] or at least where she/they can play with the idea of what it means to be a woman. Then, in the new land and redefined with a new name, she puts her pen straight back towards Antigua, writing of her father as Mr. Potter, using his real name in the novel, becoming again the lost girl, not the successful woman who writes for The New Yorker. She/they turns the whole meaning around, redefining not only what life means in Antigua, what it means to be a woman, but then redefining what it means to redefine those original ideas. The entirety of the body of culture is contaminated. As Covi writes, ‘in Caribbean terms, her voice is that of a woman who is becoming her own mother, in order to become herself, birth herself, re-invent herself, celebrate the creativity and continuity of birth as the ingenious potential to re-define herself in her continuously changing being in the world.’[15] I would say, however, that she is becoming precisely not-herself. She is becoming everyone, everywhere, the very thing that is not ‘her’, ‘there’, ‘then’ or ‘that’.

            There is a school, she/they says, ‘that teaches Antiguans how to be good servants, how to be a good nobody’ (SP 55). The people around the school ‘cannot see a relationship between their obsession with slavery and emancipation and the fact that they are governed by corrupt men, or that these corrupt men have given their country to corrupt foreigners’ (SP 55). People are fixed in the binary: there are servants and there are masters; there is one ‘you’, there are many ‘I’s; there is slavery or there is emancipation. Kincaid’s texts break through this, from every angle. The binary of singularity/plurality is broken in her description of the linear line from servitude to anonymity: ‘good servants’, plural, become ‘a good nobody’, singular. The collective, under repression, under the master, loses its collectivity. She breaks all of it. There is no linearity, no singularity. Covi sees this total breaking thus:

The complicity of a linear concept of time in the violent mastering of the world is underlined not only by a sustained, non-logocentric development of the story, but also by continuous references to the cultural meaning of a Euro-centric, metaphysical structure of consciousness.[16]

It breaks from within, breaks everything, like Derridean deconstruction.

Terry Eagleton says of Derrida’s theories that, following the Frenchman’s ‘adolescent perversity’,[17] ‘deconstruction is a sexy form of common-or-garden scepticism’.[18] Kincaid pushes that ‘adolescent perversity’ toppling onto the reader. Everything is turned around, spun, broken, perversed. Eagleton’s comment is especially interesting in relation to Kincaid because of the ‘garden scepticism’. She wrote a book superficially about gardens, My Garden (Book):, which was, according to Giovanna Covi, erroneously ‘buried among manuals for gardening in bookstores’,[19] when it is in fact far more profound, continuing ‘the prismatic subject’s exploration of living conceived as a process which involves dying’,[20] again perverting the binary, this time between human and non-human life, turning all living things into becoming-dead things, in the way that Derrida does with his cat, giving it both male and female gender, and creating his own masculinity and aliveness around the presence of the cat.[21] Kincaid looks at her garden for the same reflection – Mrs. Sweet, she says, ‘could see her own self reflected: she was almost as big as an average-size garden shed’ (SNT 74). She looks at her past, pulls it out of time, becoming completely untimed: ‘and she was thinking of her now, knowing that it would most certainly become a Then even as it was a Now, for the present will be now then and the past is now then and the future will be a now then’ (SNT 13). She looks at her geography and moves it, unidentifies it, makes it anonymous. She/they becomes, in fact, a diverted river, a lost river that does not reach the ocean (SNT 13), the Atlantic Ocean which is near her house, and then she imagines her husband’s testicles being ripped off and thrown into the Atlantic Ocean (SNT 46), sinking in and contaminating the water. She does not flow towards the testicle, towards the husband. She becomes, like Derrida, non-human, non-specific, everywhere, contaminating from within the dominant body with her liberation.

We conclude. Jamaica Kincaid is ‘we’, is a non-I, is a garden who perverts the house and a small river who does not flow to the testicular ocean, and thus I think it would be against her own intention in writing to straightforwardly perform a biography of her life, a list detailing when she was born, where, what she did and what she continues to do. Instead we have tried to present her as literature, in her perverformance as non-I in a non-place.

We conclude. ‘I have not lived my life as a scholar’ (SNT 52), she says. But Giovanna Covi gives the scholarly title to Kincaid anyway, placing her

within feminist discourse in order to transform [it] and give to our contemporary understanding as a whole a permeable cognitive frame by which interpretation, change, dialogue, interruption, and even contradiction are included to develop the potential for inhabiting a world in which different cultures can enjoy equal citizenship.[22]

Kincaid, in her plurality, clearly lives her texts as a scholar, whether or not she lives her life that way. She gathers together every kind of liberation, like that Derridean queering that grows from inside the body until eventually it breaks the body. ‘Jamaica Kincaid’, says Moira Ferguson in our collectivity of scholarly Kincaid, ‘continually fuses diverse formulations of motherhood, maternality and colonialism. Reflecting on these crossover conjunctures, she demystifies the ideology of a colonial motherland.’[23] She gathers every kind of liberation together, satirizing the dominant discourse from within, turning mouths into ears and ears into mouths, perverting the pressure of power, and standing (everywhere, like nature) in the way of the linear narrative. Indeed, for her, ‘there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, back wind.’[24]

We conclude. Every time I read Jamaica Kincaid I feel a coin flipping. The coin is flicked by no hand, and is held by no air. It is always disappearing. ‘Jamaica Kincaid dissolves the economy of domination’, Ferguson says.[25] No more economy, the coin is not flicked. But I feel it being flicked, I feel it disappearing. There is, in Kincaid, in the text that is Jamaica Kincaid, an absence that has always been there, the absence that is always present. ‘In me is the voice I never heard, the face I never saw, the being I came from. In me are the voices that should have come out of me, the faces I never allowed to form, the eyes I never allowed to see me. This account is an account of the person who was never allowed to be and an account of the person I did not allow myself to become.’[26] We conclude, liberating ourselves from Kincaid’s negativity, in her pure liberation, into total Derrido-Kincaidian positive perverse liberation. Life is the only reality, for it is the only certainty, inevitable to all things.[27]

[1] Éamonn Dunne, ‘Deco-pervo-struction’ (pp.184-200), in Derrida and Queer Theory, ed. Christian Hite, p. 187.

[2] Ibid., p. 188.

[3] In Éamonn Dunne, ‘Deco-pervo-struction’, p. 189.

[4] Giovanna Covi, Jamaica Kincaid’s Prismatic Subjects: Making Sense of Being in the World (London: Mango Publishing, 2003), p. 12.

[5] The concept of ‘worlding’ is taken from Gayatri Spivak. Covi explains it as the destruction of ‘the individualist subject position [that] is constructed by means of exclusion of ‘the native woman’.’ (Covi, Jamaica Kincaid’s Prismatic Subjects, p. 20.)

[6] Jamaica Kincaid, My Brother (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

[7] I understand ‘queering’ as the deconstruction of binaries, the total rejection of facile categorization, as Calvin Thomas does: ‘The wrong-word “queer,” like the non-word “différance,” signifies the disturbance of identity that corresponds to the absence of the transcendental signified that extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.’ (Calvin Thomas, ‘No Kingdom of the Queer’, in Derrida and Queer Theory, ed. Christian Hite, p. 99-100.)

[8] Francisco García Mendoza, ‘VIH/Sida y relaciones de poder en Mi Hermano de Jamaica Kincaid’, pp. 339-351, in Revista de Critica Literaria Latinoamericana, No. 81 (Lima: Centro de Estudios Literarios Antonio Cornejo Polar), p. 340. My translation from the original Spanish.

[9] Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), p. 3. Hereafter cited in the text as SP.

[10] Giovanna Covi, Jamaica Kincaid’s Prismatic Subjects, p. 23.

[11] J. Hillis Miller, ‘Preposterous Preface’ (pp. 24-68), in Derrida and Queer Theory, ed. Christian Hite, p. 26-27.

[12] Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), p. 40. Hereafter cited in the text as SNT.

[13] Francisco García Mendoza, ‘VIH/Sida y relaciones de poder en Mi Hermano de Jamaica Kincaid’, p. 341-342. My translation from the Spanish.

[14] Francisco García Mendoza, ‘VIH/Sida y relaciones de poder en Mi Hermano de Jamaica Kincaid’, p. 342. García Mendoza suggests that Kincaid felt somewhat liberated from a strict patriarchal society upon moving to the USA.

[15] Giovanna Covi, Jamaica Kincaid’s Prismatic Subjects, p. 67.

[16] Giovanna Covi, Jamaica Kincaid’s Prismatic Subjects, p. 37.

[17] Terry Eagleton, ‘Marxism without Marxism’, in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, ed. Michael Sprinker (London: Verso, 1999), p. 86.

[18] Ibid., p. 87.

[19] Giovanna Covi, Jamaica Kincaid’s Prismatic Subjects, p. 18.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Carla Freccero, ‘Les chats de Derrida’ (pp. 132-164), in Derrida and Queer Theory, ed. Christian Hite, p. 160. Freccero is referring to Derrida’s essay ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’, trans. David Willis.

[22] Giovanna Covi, Jamaica Kincaid’s Prismatic Subjects, p. 7.

[23] Moira Ferguson, Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meet the Body (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994), p. 1.

[24] Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother (London: Vintage, 1996), p. 3.

[25] Moira Ferguson, Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meet the Body, p. 6.

[26] Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, p. 227-228.

[27] This final sentence is an inversion of the final sentence of Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, substituting ‘Death’ with ‘Life’.