On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the death of Édouard Glissant
With his faith in the beauty of cultural hybridity, Édouard Glissant became one of the most influential postcolonial theorists. In dystopian times, his philosophy of relation gives rise to hope.
He would have enjoyed the poem that Amanda Gorman read at Joe Biden’s inauguration. Not least when the 23-year-old poet evoked the arrival of “diverse and beautiful” people who, after centuries of slavery, segregation, and structural violence, would emerge “aflame and unafraid” from the shadows of American history. For the Martinique-born poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant (1928-2011), the “cry of the world” sounded like this. And the beginning of a song of creolization, formed by a multiplicity of suppressed voices of the world. Once set in motion, its disturbing beauty carries itself forth. Even the backlash of racist fanatics, as can be observed with Donald Trump and the strengthening of nationalist movements throughout Europe, cannot change this.
In a letter to Barack Obama shortly after his first inauguration in 2009, Glissant told the new American president that the creolization of the world was not to be confused with simple multicultural coexistence. Rather, he said, it was “the unthinkable, when the imaginaries, the imaginary worlds, come into relation with each other.” For Glissant, Obama, as the ‘son of the abyss’ of slavery and colonialism, was the personification of a world-historical development that began more than 500 years ago with Columbus. In 1957, in one of his first television appearances, Glissant proclaimed, “Christopher Columbus set out for the New World and I came back.”
The philosophy and poetics of relation that Glissant developed in the second half of the 20th century emerged from his engagement with Caribbean landscape and history. With his ‘archipelagic thinking’, he wrote against those continental traditions that would see themselves as the centre of the world. Glissant transferred the blending of European, African, Indian, and Indigenous Caribbean influences – as expressed in the different varieties of Creole – to the world throughout his career. To this end, he devised philosophical concepts like relation, opacity, and tout–monde (all-world). In the wake of the English translation of his key work Poétique de la Relation, his writing inspired a new generation of Caribbean writers from the early 1990s – including, in particular, Patrick Chamoiseau, also from Martinique – as well as influencing linguistics, cultural studies, and the art scene. At documenta 11, the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, for one, introduced the thinker of relation by saying that Glissant had the same significance for his generation and the 21st century as Foucault and Deleuze had had for the previous era.
Although significant parts of Glissant’s work have been available in German since the 1980s through the translations of Beate Thill, Glissant himself has remained largely unknown even to German audiences interested in postcolonial issues. This is partly because his name is overshadowed by two canonical thinkers also from Martinique: Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), the co-founder of the Négritude movement, and Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), whose work has influenced decolonial initiatives across the globe for more than half a century. Furthermore, Glissant’s poetic writing style and often obscured frames of reference are challenging for most readers. For the boundaries between genres – essay, novel, play, and poem – are as permeable in Glissant’s work as he wished those between nation-states to be. In this he differs both from Césaire’s generalizing recourse to an African essence, and from Fanon’s strategic opposition between white and black, colonizer and colonized. Glissant contrasts fixed definitions and clear friend/foe images with the principle of differentiated and unifying both/and. He described his understanding of relation as “the effects of cultures on each other, whether symbiotic or in conflict, through oppression or liberation, they open before us something unknown, at once near and distant.”
Glissant’s work does not present a manual for armed resistance, as Fanon did with The Wretched of the Earth in 1961. All the same, Glissant’s thinking should not be equated with a liberal cosmopolitanism, as he was often accused of towards the end of his life. On the one hand, a close reading of Glissant offers a review of the changing strategies of Afro-Caribbean poets and thinkers who resisted both neocolonial political, and neoliberal economic, structures. Glissant was committed to the autonomy of the French overseas department of Martinique, and alternative educational institutions such as the Institut martiniquais d’étude; he called for an ongoing confrontation with slavery and colonialism, thereby provoking proud national memory cultures in France and the United States. Again, his relational thinking dissolved simplistic juxtapositions, exclusive demarcations, and identity constructions by emphasizing the importance of cultural entanglements, as well as the value of proliferating identities. Next to his mantra “the world is creolizing,” he placed the programmatic sentence: “I can change in exchange with the other without losing or falsifying myself because of it.”
When, until his death, Glissant championed the causes of minorities and the right to self-determination of ‘small countries’ such as the Caribbean islands, he did so in a tone that set him apart from polemical and polarizing varieties of postcolonial criticism. Because of this, he liked the comparison of his literature to jazz. Instead of dwelling on a critique of violence, Glissant was concerned with transforming our imaginative worlds, and bringing them into contact with each other, by experimenting with language and the blending of literary forms. He wished for the same approach on a political level. Glissant’s poetics of relation is thus an effective antidote in dystopian times.
This essay appeared in the original German at faust-kultur.