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Huon Wardle

Language use – the control of speech, the ability to transfix an audience with rhetoric and narrative – has been integral to how lower class Creoles translate the post-emancipation values of freedom, equality and fraternity into something akin to a reality in the West Indies (Wilson 1995; Riesman 1974; Abrahams1983). Very often the well told story enables a displacement of socio-economic inequality and subordination by way of an imaginative reintegration of self in place (Wardle 1999, 2000). Of course, the emphasis in urban Creole cultural expression on demonstrating autonomy and freedom, whether evidenced by metaphoric flight within the personal tale of adventure or by buying a ticket for New York or Toronto or London, creates its own paradoxes. Both kinds of escape, fantastic and real, may entail disillusion as, at the moment of ‘arrival’, socio-economic ties once more aggregate themselves around the West Indian self in movement. Given, though, the emotional, conceptual and symbolic centrality of freedom and autonomy in the Creole ethos this is unlikely to invalidate the quest itself.

This chapter begins with an evocation in depth of language use, conversational, rhetorical and narrative as essential to the flow and rhythm of life in a lower class urban Creole setting. I describe a ‘day in the life’ of my fieldwork location: a speech diary showing how spoken language on the street and in the yard and the bar provides a dynamic ‘contrapuntal’ medium in which social relationships and cultural images acquire an active morality and aesthetics (Riesman 1974). The importance of drop pan, the betting game, which is the focus of the second section, lies in its symbolic potency. Drop pan has been described in Marxist terms as characteristic of how mass Jamaican society falls victim to parasitic capitalism (Stone 1977). Here I suggest that it is better understood as a language of the concrete (Levi-Strauss 1963) allowing a particular kind of imaginative telling, and concretization, of lower class experience. As such, drop pan becomes one amongst an array of venues for the mastery of self-narrative required of the city dweller.

Seen through the totemic categories of drop pan, the flow of street life is momentarily arrested and a particular way of organising, and reflecting on, experience of the city becomes available to the city-dweller. Specifically, drop pan provides the framework for a religioaesthetic dialogue regarding the relationship of the urbanite with the super-totem of capitalist society – money. On the one hand, access to money is a pressing concern of lower class urban life inasmuch as it enables certain kinds of relationship and exchange to happen. On the other hand, money quantifies and classifies individuals acting as an, often arbitrary or ambiguous, judgement on human relations. The symbolism of drop pan re-shapes money according to a self-oriented narrative: it momentarily re-personalises money which, nonetheless, retains its unpredictable tricksterish quality. The transient character of drop pan reflects the contingently concrete status of street life more widely. A street corner stall like Marshy’s, mentioned here, which is not only a business but a hub for social relationships - camaraderie, recreation and mutual assistance - can fade or flourish within weeks in the same way that the concrete meaning-coalitions of drop pan can fade or flourish within hours.

By constituting a subjectively valid configuration - a narrative gestalt - from the varied matter of daily life, lower class Kingstonians are able to establish an imaginative bridge between their immediate conditions, emotions and understandings and the web of potential social relationships into which they are tied through friendship, kinship or employment (typically all three intertwined). This individual work of imagination and its aesthetic expression (in the form for instance of an account of a dream or portent) makes possible the connection of pasts, presents and futures. Drop pan is, in this sense, a framework and an outlet for the excess of imaginative content that experience of the city throws up. It is also a definitive example of what I have elsewhere termed ‘ambiguation’ – the negotiative mode of culture generation characterised by fantasy, joking and displacement that I have suggested is one key to Creole cultural communication and is particularly central to urban West Indian social interaction (Wardle 2002).

The delineation of context that follows, then, does not attempt to give a coherent account of the socio-economic framework (Wardle n.d.). Instead it evokes street practices and ‘make-shift creativit[ies]’ (De Certeau 1988:xiv) from a subjective point of view; that is to say, the perspective of an ethnographer encountering chance conjunctions and situations - the shifting ground where meaning happens (Wardle 2000:24-42). I have enlarged on some speech acts and contexts and obliterated others, mimicking the emergent and contingent processes of attention and obliteration that are typical of subjective experience.

Speech and the flow of urban life

It is almost 7 a.m. The temperature still cool, we are standing next to the charcoal stove andwooden shed which constitute ‘Marshy’s Fish and Bammy’. A small crowd is eating corn beef and cabbage with fried dumplings from paper plates or drinking steaming tea from bluestriped paper cups. A discussion is in progress: ‘Move and go’way with politics, man – people dead for hungry!’ ‘Right! We help out the politician them, but them no want help we out!’ Such and such a minister is ‘too dunce’. ‘Too much bribery and corruption business, man - them too thief’. Meanwhile, Marshy grudgingly fills the plastic food containers of Lee and his brother Cudjoe; grudging because Lee has once again appealed to the ties of friendship to demand a larger portion on credit. As Marshy’s customers pay and leave for the nearby bus terminus (‘alright Marshy, later’), Marshy grumbles to me ‘me no sell to Cudjoe again, man; him no pay for the something them. Him no see me are struggle here-so?’

Lee returns; we walk together toward the clamour of the buses and he takes me inside the market complex to one of the tiny tucked away stalls stacked with canned sardines, corn beef and bottled drinks. ‘What’appen Boss!’ ‘How t’ings Lee!’; Lee and the owner exchange pleasantries. Here, out of the gaze of Marshy and other friends (who would expect to be treated also), Lee orders a cigarette and two glasses of white rum with water. Then he lays a ten dollar bet on a sequence of drop pan numbers complaining light heartedly that his last choices had failed to win anything because the ‘Chineeman’ who runs the game is a ‘jinnal’, a trickster. The owner reads out a news story from the Star: a man has suffocated himself while trying to kill a rat with exhaust fumes. ‘Some people love kill creature that no do them no harm’, comments Lee, caustically. He tells me about his work that day, re-painting a smart new apartment block in New Kingston, and his contact there, a brown lady whom he sweettalks and who finds him small jobs. We finish our drinks and agree to meet later on (‘little more’).

Late morning. Next to the shanty town below the market, running across the road, a dog is hit a glancing blow by a passing car. Yelping and limping it is pursued by derisive laughter and shouts: ‘run! run ‘way out o’here! – beca’ you don’ know the road good!’ The police are searching the locality: a jeep is parked up on the sidewalk and two policemen in blue fatigues are sitting atop carrying automatic rifles. A young woman officer points a revolver at a youth who, hands raised, jokes with her and pretends to take the weapon away. From a cart a man sells ‘box juice!, box juice! – ten dollar!’.

A striking feature of Jamaican street speech, to anyone habituated to the European city, is its character as a provocation. The language of the street is rarely couched in morally or emotionally neutral terms: it demands an answer from others around who are treated as partners in an ethical dialogue whether they are known to the speaker or not. The performance of moral and emotional invisibility found in London or New York is ethically unacceptable in Kingston, Jamaica, where failure to signal recognition shows an absence of moral reciprocity. Whether it is to affirm or contest, when another is drawn into the street conversation, by contributing to the rhythm of the poly-logue, they are demonstrating their own individual prowess in, and mastery over, morally commanding speech (Wilson, 1973, Riesman 1974, Abrahams 1983).

As the discussion of politics around Marshy’s stall indicates, at the centre of Jamaican street speech is a concern with equality, fraternity and freedom expressed, often forcefully, in terms of the autarchy of the individual in the face of downpression (subordination) and the malicious intent of others. Two examples show the emphasis on equality in both negative and positive lights. A stricken dog is pursued by shouts of ‘run! run away – because you don’t know the road good!’ However, of the man who died trying to kill a rat with exhaust fumes Lee observes ‘some people love kill creature that have not done them any harm’. The dog is judged in terms of a self-mastery expected of humans also. Lee’s comment reveals the rejection of arbitrary hierarchies – a rat has a right to life and freedom if it is not harming anyone.

Afternoon. Outside Marshy’s stall, on the plank bench, John is gloomy; ‘me are just sit here in-a me sufferation’, he responds to my greeting. John has a large boil on the side of his nose which he blames on witchcraft: ‘one o’me cousin them are put obeah ‘pon me’. Marshy is slopping out. The return on breakfast has been poor: ‘if me don’t sell, me lose’ he states ruefully. Up the road, from inside Cudjoe’s cobbler shop, laughter; Nan is telling the story of a nine night (wake) he attended recently. ‘The wife and the brother say him dead. We sing half the night. And him not dead a-bloodclat!’ Three young girls arrive and Cudjoe presses some banknotes into the fist of each one – a selection of Cudjoe’s children by different women.

Dusk. Below the window of my lodging, a lone voice is crying out. It is Miss Jean washing her clothes and declaiming against the gossips who have maligned her two sons, Chuchu and Benji. After Jean has uttered one sentence she stops. In the interlude one can hear the sound of a scrubbing brush working on wet cloth. Then she delivers the next statement:

‘You John Crow people! Shit house! Because you are go on like you are chat people and when you done you are run in a yard like a old dungee. Beca’ you not the only lady in here! [in this compound]. Cecile are so talk… are talk to Chuchu and Tawani: she out here are say ‘some men are big up them chest and them no wear them own clothes’. Cause them want wear… them want wear all for me drawers when them ready too, you know! Because for me pussy them come out… so me don’ know what you come fast with. All for me drawers them free for wear when them ready! I tell you all the while: I don’ want you for come and molest my brains because me no molest nobody in here! Anything at all I feel for tell my pickney I tell them it come out of my mouth whether it go so yes or no. All you know [is] what people are say and do and [then you] come out of yard with it. Oonoo all dead oonoo!! Damn fast! All that you are for do – go on the street go talk it now! Are there-so me know for you craal and for me raal are go meet. So, you stay there!’

Jean’s monologue continues in intermittent bursts to an invisible audience. There is no response.

Jean’s speech exemplifies how shared spaces are taken over by the charismatic force of the individual orator. It is a primary function of language use in Kingston that speech is deployed to project moral significance outward from the self onto these spaces. Jean’s deployment of the term ‘yard’ is multivalent. She uses the yard as a public arena for oratory, but she also accuses her unseen adversary, Cecile, of skulking into her own ‘yard’ as if it were a dungee – a dungeon. Jean’s selfhood expands as her adversaries retreat from the yard.

The yard is the site of her inviolable bond and reciprocity with her children - ‘because it’s my pussy that they came out of’. Her self-expanding rhetoric reaches an apocalyptic crescendo – ‘All of you are dead all of you!!’ – then recedes. She accuses Cecile of taking knowledge private to the yard onto the street – ‘go on the street and tell everyone about it now!’ And, it is on the street that Jean threatens to confront Cecile – ‘your tooth and my claw are going to meet there’. The moral emphasis on autarchy – the right to live and be free – is the centre point around which Jean’s verbal reformulation of these lived spaces as moral spaces unfolds.

Outside Cudjoe’s shop, night. Cudjoe seated on a paint tin looks out on the dark street and smokes in the company of friends Mouse and Cuppy. A youth lopes past head held high singing a song of the moment ‘From me hole him to when me kill him!’ ‘Ah! what the ras him are talk ‘bout “kill” people?’ demands Cudjoe scornfully, and exhales a stream of smoke through his nostrils. The group of friends amble down the darkening road toward Balive’s bar.

Bam! Bam! Brother Watt makes the formica dominoes table jump, slamming down the winning pieces triumphantly, clicking the crucial ivories together to show that he has ‘killed’ his opponents hands. ‘Ah, you know the game, man!’ comments his partner appreciatively – ‘The man can play’. ‘But are how you play 6|3, man?’ complains loser Cudjoe to his opposite number Marshy: ‘you kill my hand, man: you no know domino afart’. Meanwhile, Leaning over his rum and water, Lee is telling me about Central Village, the shanty town where he lived during the 1980s:

‘In ‘80 me have for run from gunshot in Marr Valley, and me are run go up-a Sufferites, and when me go up there it are worse. Man, them drape me up in-a one short cut there and say ‘where you come from?!’ Me say ‘me live a Marr Valley and is my brother me are come look for’. They say ‘you have brother live up here?’ and the other one say ‘hold it, boy’ and the man them draw out the gun out of they waist and hold them in my face, man. And the other one drape me up on-a trouser back. ‘Boy you are go have for prove it, man; and we are go go up there and any time we learn that your brother not up there, kill we are go kill you man’. And the man are push me over them hills as we are walk up, you know, through them rock stone there. And when we reach up at there the whole of me shoe-back buck off.

So, when them come right up to the gate now (you see them did-a drag me up at the gate there: are where my brother live there-so) they say ‘wha’ you name?’ Me say ‘me no tell you already?’ The man are chop me up you know: the other one are jook me in the side with the gun. I feel it, man: all couple of day me feel the pain in my side.

So, when my brother come, my brother say [to them] ‘what happen, what wrong you are do now (sucks teeth)? are who you have there? They say ‘you know that man here sir? He say ‘are me brother, man. So wha happen? Hope you don’t lick him, you know.’ ‘Ah, no, we just bring him up here for find out, you know’. And me say me live over that place for five year; and if a man take up in there him dead over there, man. Me say, that place are more of an education than UC [University College, now the University of the West Indies]. Boy, over there you have the foolishest set of people – pure M16 and revolver. Me hear say that the boy that did drape me did shot himself. The dog there so hungry them are nyam [eat] mango skin. Young girl sell they body for a bulla [spiced bun].

Are [char]coal me are go into bush for burn you know. Sometime it are all eight, nine oclock we did left out at the woodland there at Caymanas there – out at the golf – where them play golf. That time me brother’ wife gone-a Canada – the one me did tell you about. It come in at eight o clock we go for water, we gone-a shop and we cook all much food for the two of we. We carry it a bush because we no come home back till night. Chop a good amount of wood. And, [after] another three day we go back up at the kiln. Me and my brother pop one kiln now where, when we tear it down, are twenty eight bag of coal. At the time coal cheap y’know – a one bag of coal are for six dollar. About a hundred dollar for a bag now! One lady buy the coal and sell it back – down at Central Village, Big lane.‘

Street speech allows the constant reworking of the public space as a moral arena through the projection of morally charged language. The passing youth expands his presence by loudly chanting a song of the moment replete with exaggerated violence. With his lightly intoned riposte to the sadistic imagery of these lyrics - ‘Ah! What the backside is he talking about killing people for?’ – Cudjoe re-values the street in terms of the morality of a group of middle-aged friends. Albeit that Cudjoe frames his protest quietly in a cynical, non-committal form.

The ubiquitous West Indian dominoes game likewise channels antagonism, as well as cooperation and negotiation, contrapuntally. But the more quietly told personal narrative, instanced here by Lee’s description of life in Sufferites, is equally important as a vehicle for expressing fundamental values. Lee recounts a widespread experience of enforced displacement due to political terrorism (Eyre 1986) in terms of the loyalty between brothers. Having escaped the hell of Sufferites, Lee is able to reassess, in bitterly comic vein, his experience there as ‘more of an education than UC’. As Bruner shows, autobiography is the mode in which the individual’s relationship to society takes on its most self-sufficient shaping (Bruner 1996). The betting game drop pan, though highly symbolic in content, provides a form capable of condensing personal meanings within a specific kind of narrative reflection on the experience of the city.

Drop pan

As Chevannes has demonstrated, drop pan, provides a valuable entry into the symbolic worlds of ordinary Jamaicans (Chevannes 1989). Drop pan is a game of Chinese origin consisting of 36 numbers to each of which is attached a string of significances. Similar games, such as the Cuban rifa chiffa described in detail by Caillois (1962:148-152) or bolet in

Haiti, are found across Central America and the Caribbean. Chevannes provides a list for the Jamaican game and a valuable preliminary analysis (1989). Unaware of his sequence, I collected my own drop pan list in 1991 from two Jamaican friends, Lee and Nan. In 1997, Lee provided me with another brief version of the ‘meanings’ of the numbers.

Immediately it is clear that many of the significances are shared in the two lists, either absolutely or with a very high degree of similarity. We can understand these correspondences (or otherwise) in terms of rote, conceptual and transformed elements (Bartlett, 1932). Rote recollection is indicated where signifiers are repeated, not only exactly, but also in the same order, such as number 7, ‘married woman, hog’, or number 11, ‘boy, dog’. A conceptual ordering is clear where meanings are grouped or classed, for example (in my list), number 8, ‘anything round’, number 31, ‘anything long’. Transformations seem to have occurred in several cases, ‘head, common horse’, appears to have become, ‘head, common puss’, numerous meanings appear on one list and not on the other (Chevannes’ list is more extensive for all instances). A key meaning of number 22 for my informants was, ‘saltwater

(anything salt)’: the priorities of Chevannes’ interlocutors did not include this idea. Differences of emphasis include fowl meat as opposed to simply fowl, or batty (anus) versus battyman (homosexual).

Working class Jamaicans dream numbers and they are beset by the portent of a number or numbers during the day (Chevannes 1989:46). One friend, Pat, told me how she dreamed a sequence of numbers before the birth of one of her children which won her enough money to pay for her baby clothes. These elements together suggest that drop pan, as a cultural form, has certain clear commonalities with Levi-Strauss’ description of totemic thinking (1969). Levi-Strauss famously characterises totemic thought as bricolage, meanings available in a given cultural ecology are built together into an intersignifying framework which is at once unifying and at the same time incorporates particularities. As a familiar example, Lienhardt shows how specificities of cattle colouration for Dinka can index singular quiddities of human experience within the unifying conception of a human-cattle homology (Lienhardt 1962). While we might respond that drop pan is comic and trivial by comparison, comedy and ambiguation is integral in the Urban Creole milieu (Wardle 2000, 2002). And, the triviality of drop pan is itself only superficial.

One day in 1997, noticing my notebook, Lee told me to write down three sequences of numbers 6-8-13-24-28-31, 16-18-20-24-25-34, 15-30-10-11-22-33: these had come to his mind during the day. The number strings with their meaning relations are certainly ephemeral: they are tried out against the betting ‘pan’ then, most likely, discarded. They form, though, if only momentarily, a schema - a metaphorical matrix - tested against the objectivity of the winning number known only to the ‘chineeman’ who runs the game. LeviStrauss conceives of totemic thinking as a struggle between experiential flux and conceptual discontinuity (1963: 171-172). He argues that it is in a moment of perceptual arrest or discontinuity that the mind assembles the world into classes or species – Iron, A Hole, A Police, Fresh Water, Fowl Meat, A Machete (in the case of Lee’s first sequence). The seeming ephemerality of drop pan by comparison to the systems Levi-Strauss describes is a facet of the relational flux of urban life with its density of immediate contingencies, and of modern experience in general. In particular, drop pan is a response to money as the fluctuating and classifying coefficient of this modern state of being: the self-money homology lies at its centre.

Under modern conditions, Simmel argues, money becomes the most objective gauge of human relationships; and control over money is the chief marker of the self’s ability to validate its existence in a shared social framework of space and time (1997:84-85). Drop pan players traverse their lived ecology for significance, take note of immediate contingencies; order these by way of the thirty six numbers; then test out the cash value of their metaphorical schemas by waiting for the winning number. These subjective schemata are in play against the social ordering of money itself. I think here of Lee sitting at the bar and upending a bottle to look closely at the number 9 stamped on the bottom – where did this clue fit? To play drop pan is to search for signs which connect the immediate and utterly contingent elements of Creole experience within an ordering of meaning which, nonetheless, is itself gauged against the shifting evaluations of money as a social principle. Levi-Strauss describes totemism as a concrete vehicle for understanding abstract relational systems. Simmel’s analysis of money reverses this. Money is a (relative) abstraction, which works because it is able to encompass concrete human connections. Drop pan is a game of concrete symbols played against the abstract master index, money.

Particular drop pan numbers initiate some comic mental associations: listing a married man with a bull in a pen, or a small house with a big boot may invite amused reflection even if this association need not occur. And players experiment with the ambiguities of the game: a juvenile friend of mine was nicknamed Papa; on his behalf, Lee and Nan informed me, I should play number 13, old man. Every time I visited Papa’s yard I would play 13. Later, I realized that I had misunderstood part of the aesthetics involved – my repeated plays were the equivalent of reiterating the same joke over and over again, though nobody corrected me. The archetypal figures of drop pan reappear in day to day narratives: a man poisoned while attempting to kill a rat, a dog hit by a car, the appearance of a local madman are all grist to the drop pan mill. The capacity for ambiguation and comic reversal which is such an fundamental aspect of creole cultural communication finds its way, unsurprisingly, into the numbers game. In the game these qualities acquire a unified order of meaning, if only temporarily. The player counters the objective ambiguity of the world with his own subjectively posited ambiguities and metaphoric rankings. For a moment, these take on the character of a law for the self.

It follows that I would argue against a feature of Chevannes’s interpretation which

assigns specific cultural significance to particular numbers. For instance, Chevannes points out that number 8, ‘belly woman’, also means bag or hole. He explains this by reference to a masculine view of the pregnant woman as a receptacle for the male’s child (Chevannes 1989:45, see also Austin-Broos1997:146). I consider this type of interpretation to be flawed since the symbolic values cannot be reduced to one set of associations over another. In the list I collected, number 8 conveys ‘anything round’ (including perhaps a woman’s pregnant stomach). I would suggest that these symbols do not mean anything intrinsically: they mean only in combination and within a particular subjectively oriented narrative framework (Sperber 1975).

Austin-Broos similarly over-determines the meanings of drop pan when she notes, for example, that ‘number thirty-one stands for the pulpit but is also a central sign for the phallus’ calling on this as evidence that, for Jamaicans, church leadership is male and phallic while church followership is female and vaginal (1997:155). In my own list number thirtyone represents ‘anything long’ including a machete. Of course, a machete can be a metaphor for a penis as can a pulpit, or a rope, or a stick, but so can a stick play the part, in imagination, of a rope: it depends all importantly on what story is being told by whom. I do not exclude the possibility that, for specific Jamaicans, the penis-pulpit association may be the most salient: the question is what cognitive purpose does drop pan serve for the people who play it.

Uncertainty in a money economy is likely to be a much greater object of metaphoricintellectual activity for those unprotected from the market by state institutions. For Lee, a rural-urban migrant juggling one informal work task after another - one locale and set of family and friends after the next - drop pan was an integral form of metaphoric reflection which accompanied the many stories of his life on the move. This displacement in the experience of social relationships runs parallel with ‘ambiguation’ as a mode of culture generation in the West Indies (Wardle 2002). Drummond describes a characteristically Caribbean scenario in which a Guyanese Christian puts on a jokerish performance as a bridegroom at a Muslim wedding ceremony (Drummond 1980). The scene exhibits well a creole cultural framing of dissonances; a framing which recurs at a more structured metaphoric-poetic level in the dissonant coalitions created by drop pan - a crowd, a policeman, fowl meat, a pretty girl baby.

As I have demonstrated, knowledge of the drop pan list is not shared exactly, neither

is this particularly important at the level of cultural communication (cf Bartlett 1932). Instead, various modes of reproduction and transformation of the list are at work. As Chevannes indicates, thousands of meaning permutations are possible (1989: 45). The cultural creativity of the drop pan game (from the analyst’s perspective) consists in its adaptability as a nexus of symbolic relations for the self within shifting networks of social relations and cultural communication. It is, again, notable that the chosen numbers are commonly arrived at through the dissociation involved in dreaming or portent. These moments of perceptual arrest, cognitive displacement, give back to the self an imagistic schema which the individual deploys to contest his or her subjective positioning vis a vis the objectifications of the money economy. As such the game reinforces a West Indian cultural pattern in which the immediate moment is invested with powerful revelatory value for the subject (Austin-Broos 1997, Wardle 2000).

Drop pan and the context of culture generation and social relations

From its inception Caribbean ethnography has had its ears open to Creole ways of talking. One of the earliest monographs, Herskovits’ Trinidad Village, demonstrates this in its attention to island phrasings and rhetorical modes. The 1960s and 1970s proved to be an especially rich period in Caribbean ethnography during which spoken narrative and the counterworking of oral rhetoric came to the fore in the interpretation of West Indian cultural life. Narrative based ethnographies such as Mintz’ study of cane worker, Taso (1974), M.G.

Smith’s edited autobiography of ‘Dark Puritan’ Norman Paul (1963), or Wilson’s account of Providencian Oscar (1974) complemented the emphasis on verbal prowess in Riesman’s analysis of Antiguan ‘contrapuntal conversations’ (1974). Riesman drew on Cassidy and Le Page’s recently published dictionary of Jamaican English in his attention to the adaptability and creativity of Creole usage (1967).

In turn, the last thirty years have seen an increasing emphasis on the dynamics of speech while the importance of narrative has ramified in multiple areas of West Indian ethnography. For instance, the emphasis in kinship studies has moved away from a formalistic mapping of relations and structures to a concern with how people speak of their family relationships (Smith 1988, Barrow 1996:458-464), or of migration experiences, for instance (Olwig 1993). In this way, the sounds of Creole narrative and linguistic performance continue to enmesh themselves irrevocably with the analysis of social relations in the region. In this chapter I have added to that intellectual history by evoking the dynamics of contrapuntal speech flow in an urban Creole neighbourhood. The street, the bar and the yard form overlapping arenas constantly claimed within the morally weighted oratory of individual speakers. Provocation is elemental to these modes of speech - an insistence on the responsiveness of others as individuals capable of moral rhetoric. Only by contributing to the counter-rthythm of speech can individuals show their own moral self-mastery. Here, then, is a form of individualism quite distinct to the performance of anonymous ethical neutrality essential to life in the Euro-American metropolises.

It is this flow of contingent aesthetic and moral framings which forms the groundwork for the betting game drop pan. I analysed the cognitive-experiential processes involved in drop pan as a narrative form, showing how this game of chance provides an imaginative bridge between the self and the socio-economic framework. The weak tolerance of hierarchy and profound emphases on self-legislation, freedom, equality and fraternity in street expression all find an affinity with drop pan as a fleeting poetry of urban experience. The essence of drop pan is the transformation of ephemeral images, dreams and portents through the symbolic array of drop pan into a contest between the individual West Indian and money as a measure of the individual’s social potential.

The symbols of drop pan represent fragments of the web of everyday social relations, which the self regroups according to moral and emotional priorities that hold good for that moment in the centrifugal flux of city life. Money, reified and abstracted from human relationships, judging without being judged, is, in drop pan, rewoven into the fabric of personal narratives. Like God’s power (Austin-Broos 1997) the power of money to ‘trick’, is seized and channelled. The player attempts to trick money itself by an intuitive reading of chance situations and coalitions. The aesthetic work of being an individual in Kingston entails this comi-tragic struggle with the ever-dispersing differentiae of social relationships. It is through this narrative struggle that the ‘pressure’ (felt as a physical sickness) that can be produced by the ‘downpression’ of reified social relations bearing on the self can be relaxed. These objectified relations (the ‘shitstem’ in Rastafarian parlance), are reordered and displaced in the imagination within a story protagonised by the self. And this form of individualism, again in part, explains the allowing attitude toward the extremes of selfhood - ‘madness (eccentricity, deviance, highly dramatized personality’ - which Price regards as highly ‘salient’ in West Indian life (1998:157). The street corner poet or rhetorician, the local ‘crazy genius’, the divinely inspired ‘sister’ preaching on the bus, are given licence because they show the work of symbolic self-mastery required in a morally fraught social context. In this way, drop pan presents us with one of the ways in which ambiguous values and cultural meanings can be negotiated according to an ethos that places high value on self-legislation over hierarchical orderings.


This chapter was written in memory of Lee Watson who died of lung cancer in 1998: he was 46, I am grateful to Jean Besson and Karen Fog Olwig for all their constructive criticisms and to Keith Hart for prompting me to knock the argument into shape.


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