Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice

David Scott’s thoughtful study of the collective memory of the Grenada Revolution and its demise in 1983 complements and develops his work on the anthropology of temporality, memory, and radical politics. Steering away from what Michel-Rolph Trouillot has called the tyranny of the facts, Scott’s focus is not on the historical period itself but on the ways in which academic, political, and judicial discourse has historicized the New Jewel Movement and the Revolution, and how this history has reflected, but also shaped, experiences of temporality and notions of political morality and justice. As Scott proposes in his 1991 critique of anthropological attempts to verify authentic pasts, the relationship between “That Event, This Memory”, the process of constructing a collective memory of a fundamentally important moment or figure deserves anthropological attention, because it reveals how people employ the past for present and future purposes. The methodological choice to limit the discussion to textual sources aligns with Scott’s theoretical interests in memory rather than event: although he has interviewed Bernard and Phyllis Coard, central figures in the Revolution, the conversations are not referenced in the chapters and are in fact only mentioned in his acknowledgments.

Scott continues the exploration of tragedy and temporality of political action he initiated in Conscripts of Modernity (2004) in connection to C.L.R. James’s history of the Haitian revolution by drawing on archival sources ranging from newspaper articles and memoirs to reports by the US government, Amnesty International, and the Grenada Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as academic studies and fiction. In Omens of Adversity, he invites his readers to think with a conceptual framework based largely on Benjamin, Arendt, Hegel, Freud, Mannheim, Halbwachs, and theorists of transitional justice. While his narrative does not underline points of entry into contemporary anthropological conversations on time, politics or memory, the potential links to these literatures abound. In his first chapter, Scott reads the end of the Revolution as tragic action, a Hegelian collision of ethical powers that does not, however, lead to a resolution. Merle Collins’ fiction in Chapter Two allows Scott to address Grenadians’ experiences of this lack of resolution, of ruined time that has trapped them into a stagnant present. Chapter Three continues his close reading of politically charged historiography, opening avenues towards alternative interpretations of the traumatic events of 1983. This discussion of ethical, constructive mourning and remembering is contrasted with a provocative analysis of the politics of transitional justice in the fourth and final chapter of the book.

The haunting, nuanced chapters add to historical and anthropological literature on agency and power in the Caribbean, although references to related movements in the region are at best implicit. The Grenada Revolution can be read as the end of an arc of radical politics in the Anglophone Caribbean during the Cold War.  The left was disillusioned with the persistent colonial legacy of social stratification and political culture in nominally independent nations, and sought alternative directions in the spirit of the non-aligned world. The movements and activists of this new left of the late 1960s and 70s were eradicated or marginalized by the early 1980s, victims of state violence as well as more or less direct foreign interventions. The experiences of rupture that Scott discusses are framed by the quelling of the Black Power revolution and the subsequent guerilla activity in Trinidad, the US-induced destabilization of Michael Manley’s democratic socialism in Jamaica, the assassination of Walter Rodney, the Guyanese intellectual and activist, and the dissolution of the Bandung movement. The loss of the political ideals of the New Jewel Movement and its sympathizers at the revolution’s catastrophic end was deepened by the crumbling of a temporal orientation in which a remembered past could lead towards an envisioned, revolutionary tomorrow. This experience may be particularly acute in Grenada, but a similar sense of a collapse of political temporality and disorientation that followed the loss of anticipated futures has been palpable across the region. The left in the Anglophone Caribbean has not managed to recover its relevance and political imagination and rationales remain confined in a static, neoliberal present. Scott’s focus on temporality adds an important perspective to scholarly understandings of the political landscape in the region, but also encourages anthropologists to ask more general questions about political action in time.

Scott makes a powerful argument about the act of ethical remembering while critiquing the assumption that transitional justice is automatically emancipatory. The political biases of reconciliation become obvious in his reading of the prolonged trial and imprisonment of seventeen revolutionaries and soldiers charged with the murder of Maurice Bishop and his seven colleagues, as well as the report of the Grenada Truth and Reconciliation Committee of 2001. The trial and the Committee’s investigation served to criminalize and demonize socialism as a political ideology and to naturalize liberal democracy as the only possible option for the political present and future. In contrast to sanctimonious and teleological processes of transitional justice, Scott proposes that new generations may not be disoriented and paralyzed by the temporal rupture of 1983 like their parents, and thus can revisit past events and tragedies through reparatory remembering. Non-recriminatory political action can emerge when those producing collective memory are not driven by revenge or tainted by experiences of shame and defeat.  Scott discusses a fascinating school project by a group of Grenadian secondary school students in Chapter Three.  This project suggests strategies for challenging and putting into perspective the single story of the revolution and its aftermath, and perhaps also the normative status of liberal democracy. It is here that Scott’s readers can detect “cautious hope” (p. 126), possible avenues towards different memories and different futures. The conditions for ethical, reparative remembering might deserve further probing in societies like Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago, where the revolutions of 1970 and 1979-1983 are not part of school curricula.  In addition, many parents have not discussed these events with their children, and official remembering – newspaper articles, public speeches and performances – seems to reproduce a moral story of potentially good intentions marred by incompetence, chaos, and violence. Omens of Adversity brings to the fore the political work such silences perform in post-revolutionary societies and provides conceptually potent models for anthropologists, historians, political scientists, and others interested in probing such questions further.

Maarit Forde, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine

Scott, David. Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice. Duke University Press, 2014. Read more at Duke University Press.

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