- Ben EtheringtonBen EtheringtonWestern Sydney University, School of Humanities and Communication Arts
Creolization is a key concept in studies of cultural change in colonial conditions. Most typically, it refers to a mode of cultural transformation undertaken by people from different cultural groups who converge in a colonial territory to which they have not previously belonged. This was especially pronounced in the slave plantation economies of the Caribbean basin, where the indigenous peoples largely were wiped out or deported during colonization and the societies that replaced them were largely developed from the intermixture of transplanted Europeans and enslaved Africans. Creolization has been theorized in many different ways by scholars in disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. Three common features can usually be discerned among the diversity of uses found for the term: (1) Creolization involves a “double adaptation” as those arriving into a colonial territory adapt to the new environment and to each other. This usually is driven by those who have no prospect of returning to their home culture and who suffer the effects of racial domination. (2) Creolization has a “nativizing” trajectory according to which the cultural practices formed through the process of mixing and adaptation become a group’s “home” culture. (3) Creolization is incessant: it never arrives finally at a stable cultural compound, but continually undergoes further inter-culturation and transformation.
That a diversity of disciplines have found productive use for the concept has made for both rich interdisciplinary exchange and a complex and often contradictory array of different understandings. To navigate the terrain, it is helpful to distinguish between maximalist and particularist positions and between analytic, descriptive, and normative modes of usage. Maximalists tend to abstract from the exemplary creolizing processes found in the Caribbean basin to think about how cultural mixing operates across a world shaped by globalizing imperialism. Particularists tend to stress the uniqueness of the Caribbean (and a small number of other colonial plantation contexts) and local specificities of intermixture, cultural practice, and identification. This polarity often corresponds to modes of interpretation and analysis: particularists tend to use creolization in a descriptive capacity, and maximalists in an analytic capacity. Normative uses can go both ways, affirming either the specificity of Caribbean cultural mixing or the condition of global modernity writ large as being one of mixture and hybridity. In the literary sphere, the contest between particularist and maximalist positions was starkly evident in a heated debate over the term Créolité. This was sparked when a group of male Martinican writers placed Caribbean Creole identity at the center of a creative manifesto.
Literary studies of creolization have tended to borrow heavily from creole linguistics (“creolistics”) and cultural theory. For some, literary creolization is simply the literary use of a creole language. This places emphasis almost entirely on linguistic criteria. Cultural theory, and especially the speculative work of Édouard Glissant, has given others a way of thinking inventively about creolization as a space of cross-cultural cultural emergence. A quite different approach can be extrapolated from the historical work of the poet Kamau Brathwaite on “creole society.” In it, creolization is conceived not as a single process but as a totality of concurrent and interacting processes. Understood this way, literary creolization can be studied as one form of creolization within an ensemble of creolizing processes, one that proceeds according to the technical, formal, and aesthetic demands specific to literary practice.