Ghosts in the Posthuman Machine: Prostheses and Performance in the Chosen Place, the Timeless People

When scholars consider performances within Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, they tend to subscribe to its easy execution—either the revelers in town or the Bournehills residents who reenact Cuffee Ned’s uprising. In thinking about Marshall’s text from a posthuman perspective, in which I consider the posthuman to be the joining, and interaction, of a human and an intelligent machine, I posit that the performance that warrants greater scrutiny in a twenty-first century environment, in which humans gravitate toward the posthuman condition, is Vere’s racing of a USAmerican car upon his return from the U.S. plantation labor scheme. During the race the Opel’s performance eventually gains it a kind of sentience that outstrips Vere’s and enables both of their destruction.

This kind of destructive performance is seen in another machine in the novel, the cane rollers that extract the juice from the sugar cane plants on the island. The difference between the cane rollers and the Opel lies in their types of performance: while the cane rollers’ actions are repetitive, the Opel’s performance relies on reenactment. Both, however, are extensions of the colonial mission, and both result in the subjugation of the descendants of Bournehills’ slaves. For these descendants effective resistance comes in the form of the reenactment of Cuffee Ned’s uprising through their carnival performance. This mode of reenactment is limited, however, to the period of time in which the carnival operates.

Another mode of resistance to the destructive impulse of the machines lies in the deployment of Caribbean folklore characters and their characteristics that tend to feature enhanced modes of mobility. Because the descendants of the sugar cane estates still rely on the cane rollers in order to extract their cane, this also becomes a limited mode of reenactment. The only true way to usurp the colonial authority of either machine is for the descendants to develop, like Merle, a vibrant mode of mobility that allows them to escape the machines’ valence by leaving the island. For most of the descendants, however, this proves difficult, and it results in a cycle of dependence underscored by high rates of character mortality in the novel.