Here is the pre-print of my essay “On the Fecundity of Small Places,” due out in a volume Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures, edited by Grant Farred. It’s a fantastic volume. I like this essay, which argues against privileging of translatability and transparency, embracing instead the opacity of vernacular culture and its sense of place.
Small places are fecund and speak back to empire and imperial notions with the assertion of place—the particularity and peculiarity of time, mem- ory, and space. “The land of our forefathers’ exile had been made, by that travail, our home,” as Baldwin puts it in “Princes and Powers.” In this quick, even offhand, yet transformative statement, Baldwin restarts a conversation about identity that effectively decenters and destructures the work of empire—even on questions of diaspora. The travail that makes home, that work and existential effort that reconfigures space across memorial and historical time, speaks back to empire by asking what sort of work empire has done to make land into home, a conventional, though always radical, insight drawn from the lordship and bondage chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: through his work, the bondsman captures a sense of identity that the lord cannot claim. Namely, a connection to place.
The decolonizing work here is worth noting. In theorizing the function of small places in cultural formation and the labors of identity making and world making, we move away from the long shadow of empire in languages of domination (eurocentrism, white nationalism, white identity and politics) and languages of liberation (diaspora, remnants of racial essentialism, nationalisms of all sorts), not to establish a new center or cluster of centers— the fantasy of reversed and inverted forms of nationalism), but to contest the idea of center itself. Small places do not refer to anything other than them- selves. This is the ethical and epistemological work of opacity. In that particular form of kath auto, as it were, every place is revealed to be a small place, and the very notion of a center or a pure culture is self-aggrandizing, chauvinistic mythmaking. We here arrive at one of Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s great insights from The Repeating Island—namely, that every culture is syncretic, there are no single roots, and what makes cultural production interesting is the dynamic of response to the component parts of syncretic work. And so in the wake of the decolonizing work of decentering, uprooting the explicit and implicit work of empire, we are returned again to the question of influence. small places are not atomistic sites or cultural entities. Rather, every site and cultural entity emerges from syncretic work in the past that, when calibrated for identity and nation formation, becomes singular, unique, and to some extent unifying. so how do we think about the dynamics of influence and confluence in a decolonizing register? Again, Glissant: the thought of tout-monde. Perhaps in a twist on his phrasing, recalling Derrida’s refrain tout autre est tout autre, we can say it: tout monde est tout-monde.