by Peter Redfield
(University of California Press) $55
In the middle of the 19th century, French Guiana was a penal colony. Today, it is the home of a billion-dollar space program run by the French government. From the very jungle where the bones of convicts rest, one may now watch the glorious rise of rockets destined for "the tropic stars."
This implosion of the old world and new world, First World and Third World, has produced a site, an area, a space that is invaluable to anyone who wants to see, firsthand, what globalization is really about.
The new book by anthropologist Peter Redfield, Space in the Tropics, recognizes the significance of this site that "sits on the boundary of [the] West," surveying it in the way a pleased scientist may survey a UFO crash site. Here at last, the scientist says as he holds the dismembered green arm of an alien, are some answers to the universe we live in. The "tools" Redfield uses to perform this survey are diverse: he uses direct experience (visiting bars, watching rocket launches, driving around Kourou, "the city of the stars," and picking up talkative hitchhikers); literature (Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe); and current and historical documents (prison records, the space program's pamphlet literature, and postcards). This is an anthropological survey in the most traditional sense--the only difference being Peter Redfield is not observing a tribe that lives at the end of a remote river, but us: the consumers and investors of this vast dream we call global capitalism.
The book starts by explaining how France, envious of Britain's success with its penal colony in Australia, decided that it, too, would establish a prosperous penal colony. After searching all over the world for a place to deport its political activists, beggars, and inveterate criminals, France decided French Guiana would be the best site for a "penal paradise." But it wasn't. As Redfield explains, "[of the] 8,000 convicts [who] crossed the Atlantic in the first five years of French transportation... half [wound up] in tropical graves." The experiment was an utter failure, and the French had to live with the mortifying fact that their civilization failed to give birth to a "French Australia."
One hundred and ten years after the first convicts were abandoned in the jungle, the French, now envious of America's space program, decided to look for a place to test and launch rockets. In a manner that paralleled the search for a penal colony, France considered several locations around the world before settling once again on French Guiana. After a bumpy start, the program blossomed in the '80s, and since then France has become a serious player in the space race, particularly in the area of commercial satellite launches.
What Redfield hopes to produce by noting (1) "the structural similarities and differences between the two projects [the penal colony and space program]," (2) the "intersections between nature [and] technology" (or "rainforests and rockets"), and (3) the chaotic overlapping of the First World (villas for the white engineers) and Third World (a shantytown for the brown locals), is not so much a theory but a kind of "ethnographic collage." Redfield observes things like the architecture of Kourou, and then states exactly what these things mean or how they fit into the composition of this space society. Only when he has collected all of the "odds and ends" does Redfield remark on how they are connected to the global economy.
As a consequence, the book is filled with marvelous details of the "life-world" of Kourou. Redfield describes a group of tourists who are about to watch a rocket launch: "Equipped with a round of drinks, [the group] occasionally glances up at a series of televisions that displays shots of stern men sitting before machines or offers the view out along an open corridor toward a small, brightly lit object in the horizon about the size of a match. The atmosphere is of a garden party, at the edge of an immense golf course." True, a more theoretical approach would have produced profound conclusions (a Foucault-inspired reading would have seen the penal colony as a product of disciplinary society, and satellites as a product of "control society"), but it would be at the price of these delightful little details. With his charming prose style, Peter Redfield is the sort of researcher you would like to meet in a bar on the edge of the Western world.