Édouard Glissant, in memory

On the anniversary of his passing, I’m posting here part of a piece I wrote on the occasion of his passing for Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy. What follows is an excerpt from that short essay. The full PDF of the article can be downloaded HERE and is open access, so no paywall is present and no password is needed. Rest in peace, Professor Glissant. Thank you for a genuinely remarkable life of writing and being.

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Édouard Glissant passed away on 3 February 2011 at the age of 82. A few words of memory.

As a person and thinker, Glissant lived through, then reflected with meditative patience and profundity upon some of the most critical years in the black Atlantic: the aesthetics and politics of anti-colonial struggle, the civil rights movement in the United States, postcolonial cultural anxiety and explosion, the vicissitudes of an emerging cultural globalism, and all of the accompanying intellectual movements from surrealism to negritude to existentialism to those varieties of high modernism and postmodernism for which Glissant himself is such a generative, founding resource. His life bears witness to those years, events, and movements with a poet’s word and a philosopher’s eye. And so Glissant, like all important thinkers, leaves for us an enormous gift – in his case, a new, enigmatic vocabulary of and for the Americas.

Glissant offers us in his life, and also now with his passing, an astonishing set of reflections in poetry, theater, novels, cultural criticism, and philosophy, all of which rewrite the histoire of the Americas and obligate us to think otherwise. The Americas require a very different sense of knowing and being, and so a very different sense of poetics and aesthetics. The New World is mixed and mixing, an inheritance of violence, survival, reinvention, and invention. In rewriting the Americas, Glissant also rewrites the identity of Europe by asking if the project (and not place) called “the West” can genuinely be thought outside the entanglements of empire. Perhaps so much involvement for so long and with such dependency alters the meaning of the identity of a nation and culturally constructed “region.” No, not perhaps. It must be so. Five centuries of entanglement cannot be disentangled from identity. Europe lived both economically and intellectually from a machine of exploitation and violence. Can we imagine European wealth without the slave trade and colonial exploitations? Have we begun to fathom the significance of the fact that all aspects of European culture intervened (with few critiques) to justify slavery and colonial subjugation? Yet, questions of European national and regional identity typically excise entanglement and imagine a bordered place to have a unique, centralized meaning. What colonial fantasies underpin such an imagined purity? There is no meaning to “Europe” without the violence of conquest, subjugation, and domination, just as Caribbean identity (which has always wrestled with entangled cultural forces as an analytical starting point) is entwined with the complicated legacy of colonial power. Glissant’s challenge to us, no matter our location or cultural milieu, is to think, live, and create in this incredibly complicated, entangled, and intertwined intellectual space. A poetics of the mangrove, we might say.

early glissant

For these reasons, one cannot write without Glissant. Or at least one should not. To write without Glissant in mind is to miss, then eclipse some of the most overwhelming and system-overturning conceptual critiques to be found on the contemporary scene. He has fundamentally transformed how we understand history and memory in the New World (and, by implication, the Old World and the global south more generally. The world is tout-monde.). Glissant’s account of New World history and memory requires so much of us as thinkers. Space and time curve and fragment, rather than loop and fold. Continuity is broken and the imagination, working with fragments, becomes a kind of intellectual djobber. Nomads and rhizomes replace homes and roots, putting a decisive and compelling twist on Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s revolutionary reinvention of philosophy. In the wake of curves and fragments, in the space of nomadic movement and rhizomatic contact with place, the historical experience of the New World produces (and is produced by) a creolized and archipelagic space. This space is defined by its creative chaos and fractal character, rather than by fixity and continuity. Creolized space is what emerges, in Glissant’s work, after so much violent and traumatic history. Memory of pain, he argues, is not just remembrance of the dead and their unspeakable suffering, but also the memory of a great re-making of the world in the strange temporality of a globalized and globalizing geography. The Caribbean, after all, is that first geography – writing the geos – of globalized culture, language, and meaning – a strange and terrifying experiment in devastation, violence, and creation that has produced a creolized space. A mixed space of becoming, exceeding so many of the philosophical categories one finds in Western philosophy. These are Glissant’s great and foundational insights. These are the insights to which we who work in his wake have to answer and must continue, not only out of a reverence for a great thinker (though that would be sufficient), but also and firstly out of respect for the pain and beauty of history and memory in the New World context.

How did Glissant come to conceive this productive chaos? Some context.

later glissant

Glissant’s life and work are in many ways just so singular, and yet, from the beginning, it engaged all of those critical issues and moments of anti-colonial struggle and decolonization. He was born in Martinique in 1928, just three years after Frantz Fanon and two years before Derek Walcott, then moved to Paris in 1946 to study philosophy, history, and ethnology. We see all of that and more in his work – so much theory, so much reflection on the meaning of history and historical experience, so much serious study of culture. While in Paris, Glissant famously got involved in radical anti-colonial politics with Paul Niger and others, which led Charles de Gaulle to forbid Glissant’s return to Martinique and then dissolve their group Front des Antilles-Guyane pour l’autonomie (FAGA). Glissant returned to Martinique after the ban was lifted in 1965 and founded the Institut Martiniquais d’Études in 1967, then the journal Acoma a few years later. In the 1980s and 1990s, Glissant relocated to Paris (working on the UNESCO Newsletter), then later took a position at Louisiana State University, then eventually settled at City University of New York in 1995. His work in the first decade of the twenty-first century included theoretical interventions in poetics (La cohée du Lamentin, Une nouvelle région du monde, others), philosophy (Philosophie de la relation), politics (a series of pamphlets co-authored with Patrick Chamoiseau, the masterwork Mémoires des esclavages, which featured an avant-propos by Dominique de Villepin), and the utterly enigmatic, adventurous collection of what Glissant calls la poésie du tout-monde entitled La Terre, le feu, l’eau, et les vents – a collection that includes selections from Socrates, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Perse, Muhammad Ali, Neruda, Ibn Arabi, Gandhi, and so many more. This last collection, published in 2010, tells so much of Glissant’s intellectual story and is a fitting way for him to leave our world. La Terre, le feu, l’eau, et les vents brings the playful, erudite, and global character of Glissant’s poetics to the page, creating for the reader a swirling, chaotic play of words that testify, in writing and voice, to a genuinely global sense of vernacular poetic expression. There is no center, only poetry. As well, in his last years, the questions of poetics and thinking through what he called simply tout-monde turned increasingly more toward direct political work. Pamphlets on nationalism, memory, and even Barack Obama’s election give political bite to Glissant’s poetics, just as his writing on the memory of the slave trade in Mémoires des esclavages and its accompanying cultural projects puts traumatic remembrance back in the center of France and French history and identity.

Poetry, theater, novels, philosophy, aesthetics, politics, and provocative editorial work. Glissant leaves us with much to read, much to consider. So, I want to say a bit more about those ideas as a form of memorial. First, a short personal note.  READ MORE