[Caribbean Literature]

Antonio Benitez-Rojo and the Politics of Polyrhythm

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

In his introduction to The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Post-Modern Perspective, Antonio Benitez Rojo seeks to define the Caribbean region and its overarching cultural patterns without essentializing oversimplifying. He employs Chaos theory, which basically asserts that despite the heretofore unimagined complexity of every situation, basic patterns do exist that underly large, complex processes. As he puts it, Chaos "includes all phenomena that depend on the passage of time," (3). Along the way, Benitez-Rojo targets polyrhythm as a means of describing the nature of the Caribbean without limiting it to certain historical or political binaries which the west has traditionally affixed to the region.

In order to set out his definition of the Caribbean, Benitez-Rojo first attepts to dispell the notion that the Caribbean is simply a product of its complex roots. To do this, he takes up the notion of Deleuze and Guattari's machine, a device made up of innumerable smaller machines working together, which in turn revolve around even smaller machines and parts:

Which is to say that every machine is a conjunction of machines coupled together, and each one of these interrupts the flow of the previous one; it will be said rightly that one can picture any machine alternatively in terms of flow and interruption. (6)

Using this metaphor to explore historical links (upon links) between supposedly isolated cultures, Benitez-Rojo begins to dismantle the notion of finding precise roots for a given culture. He cites the example of the cult of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, a group whose beliefs derive at first glance from three different cultures, but in reality each of these developed its beliefs by synthesizing the thought of previous cultures. But Benitez-Rojo attributes this form of synthesis to a creative energy on the part of each culture. In other words, as in hypertext writing an author may not write anything, but instead find a creative link between two existing texts or lexias, so do cultures find their own unique ways of synthesizing the culture of their predecessors. Benitez-Rojo explains this in terms of copied machines, which seem "of the same model" but actually possess "an extra bolt here and a bellows over there" (6) -- minute adjustments which constitute the beginnings of a unique, syncretic culture.

If Benitez-Rojo demonstrates then that the Caribbean aesthetic factors not simply to the products of root X (say Europe) and root Y (say Africa), but also its own variable Z, how then can this Z be defined? In order to put forth a definition, he isolates three important processes: performance, improvisation, and, most important to this discussion, rhythm or more precisely, polyrhythm. Benitez-Rojo seeks to discover in improvisatory (hence free) cultural performances (writing, dance, music, etc) a polyrhythmic current that best sums up the people of the Caribbean, or the "People of the Sea" as he calls them.

Benitez-Rojo sees this polyrhythmic performance as based on two factors: first, the diverse nature of the roots of Caribbean society, and second, an underlying desire to sublimate violence. This acting in "a certain kind of way" (a "Caribbean way") has its origins in various traditions

All of them defusing violence, the blind violence with which the Caribbean social dynamics collide, the violence organized by slavery, despotic colonialism, and the Plantation. (23)

These performances act to resist violence even today, though of a different kind. Through them, the Caribbean, according to Benitez-Rojo, evades the violence of the limiting binaries of Postcolonialism which the West would stamp upon it. How is this achieved? Benitez-Rojo credits a mingling of European thought with that of the Caribbean:

Unlike what happens in the West, scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge coexist as differences within the same system. (17)

Caribbean performance thus does not limit itself to "the opposition Peoples of the Sea/Europe and its historical derivations" (28). Rather, through its ability to integrate difference, to harmonize opposing rhythms, the Caribbean avoids the limitations of these damaging categories:

The Caribbean text...is a text that speaks of a critical coexistence of rhythms, a polyrhythmic ensemble whose central binary rhythm is decentered when the performer (writer/reader) and the text try to escape "in a certain kind of way". (28)

In the end, once one has accepted that the Caribbean is not simply a Postcolonial society, not a society forever writing back to the imperial center, but rather appropriating that center within a new, Caribbean world, a kind of Deconstruction is achieved. Benitez-Rojo describes how damaging binaries must needs fall away in time:

With matters in this state, the opposition of theoretical machine versus poetic machine...power machine versus resistance machine, and others of the like will be quite other than fixed poles that always face each other as enemies. In reality, the supposed fixity of these poles would be undermined by an entire gamut of relations that are not necessarily antagonistic, to open up a complex and unstable kind of existing that points to the void...(28)

Thus we have seen just how essential the notion of polyrhythm becomes in political and social contexts. No longer can the Caribbean exist merely as the margin struggling to take precedence over the traditional center. No longer can the Caribbean allow the labels of the West (such as Postcolonial) and the remnants of conquests predominate. Rather, "like a ray of light with a prism" (21), these labels and legacies have been picked up and incorporated by Caribbean performance, have become but one beat within the polyrhythmic swirl of the islands of the Caribbean.


Benitez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and Post-Modern Perspective. Durham: Duke Unversity Press, 1992.

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