Preface to Glissant and the Middle Passage

Here is a preview of my new book Glissant and the Middle Passage: Philosophy, Beginning, Abyss, due out from University of Minnesota Press in June. The book offers a long argument for understanding the Middle Passage as a philosophical event, transforming our understanding of memory and its constitutive relation to subjectivity, aesthetics, and the nature of intellectual work. I put Glissant’s work in conversation with a number of Atlanticworld thinkers of catastrophe and its aftermath, including most centrally Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Walter Benjamin, Antonio Benítez-Rojo, and George Lamming. But the primary focus is on offering a philosophical treatment of Glissant’s non-fiction work in order to center the question of disaster and its production of an abyss at the heart of thinking. How, then, to begin thinking with the abyss? This is Glissant’s work. This is the orientation of Glissant and the Middle Passage.

A link to the uncorrected proof of the Preface is below. Thank you to the folks at University of Minnesota for letting me share this snippet.

The beginning words …

“THIS BOOK is a long meditation on and philosophical treatment of the work of Édouard Glissant, with special attention to the poetics developed in his nonfiction writings. A bit has been written recently on Glissant and philosophy in French, but English-language commentary has been of a decidedly different character. This is a critical gap in the literature.

Glissant’s work is profoundly philosophical. There can be no doubt about this, and it makes the gap all the more noteworthy. As well, Glissant’s sustained engagement with the central trends of Atlantic thought—from Négritude to various kind of existentialism to ethical-political critiques of modernity to the poststructuralist moment—places him at the center of many debates. I want to argue in part across this book that Glissant’s conscious and deeply critical movement across both the north and south Atlantic intellectual worlds makes him a uniquely important figure. The engagements are always critical; central, for Glissant, will always be Caribbeanness considered on its own terms. But the terms of the Caribbean are always unstable, chaotic, and fractal in character, which delinks Glissant from … “

[download Preface to Glissant and the Middle Passage]

Derek Walcott, In Memory

Rest in peace, Derek Walcott.

A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, he needs no new recognition. He was as great a poet as one can imagine. His non-fiction is fantastic. In a post-Fanon, post-Césaire world, he refashioned the meaning of the Caribbean for more than one generation of intellectuals. That is the world. For me, right here, there was no greater influence on my work in Africana studies. Continue reading “Derek Walcott, In Memory”

Philosophy, Decolonization, #NotAllWhites

When I posted this response to Garfield and Van Norden’s piece to my site, I figured it was a small concern, but worth writing out. I’m super gratified that it attracted a lot of interest and responses – some criticizing my claims, some ridiculing my motivations, some affirming the programme-of-sorts I tried to lay out in a short post (it’s an enormous project; blog posts can only be a first sketch of an entry point). All of this stuff is worthy of ongoing discussion. It’s a conversation that the profession needs. Philosophy as a discipline is in serious crisis.

It is interesting, though, how the critical function of whiteness – what I’d hoped would be the central something of my post – slipped past a number of the criticisms. Part of that is no doubt due to my need to write more clearly, and part of that is no doubt due to the problem of invisibility and whiteness. If whiteness is defined, as I’d define it, not only by its invisibility but by its imperative to hide from visibility, then sustaining its visibility will always be a difficult task.

I liked how John Protevi’s summary of a day of intense discussion both focused on the question of visibility and (rightly) extended that question to other kinds of cultural hegemony that inform the formation of not just the canon of white Western philosophy, but the very idea of what counts as philosophy, philosophical reflection, and proper philosophical inquiry (formulation of problems, kind of argumentation, etc.). Leigh Johnson does something of the same, but sidesteps the question of whiteness in order to raise questions of sexuality and gender as preconditions of the Western tradition. Making the hegemonic and exploitative conditions of the white Western tradition visible is an enormous project. I hope the project moves to the center of the profession. It’s a good and right thing from a political point of view. It’s also interesting, engaged, and very relevant type of scholarship.

Eric Schliesser posted a longish and interesting piece just today. The piece raises critical questions against my post, and I think they are worth responding to in a bit of detail. They are worth responding to because I think they reflect a problematic re-disappearing (then problematic re-appearing) of whiteness at the very moment I tried to move a critique whiteness to the center.

(Schliesser misspells my name once. I appreciate that (smile, just kidding around). It’s part of the Polack experience! Sincerely, John E. Drabinksi, Drabinki, etc. – fwiw, your name autocorrects as “Schlepper,” but I think I caught and corrected all of them.)

Schliesser raises two objections: that what I call for is not actually thinking, but rather prosecutorial historicism, and that what I call the white Western canon is in fact more diverse and complex than generalizations can capture.

First, the question of the prosecutorial. I’m not sure why this seems the case, except that raising issues about race and racism near-always registers as prosecution and shaming. I’d not meant to do that, though I also think feeling some shame about the racism of one’s personal, national, and cultural history is an altogether good thing. Such shame is not an end in itself, but surely that’s the right affect for getting started (I wrote on this vis-a-vis Stokely Carmichael awhile back). What I’d meant or hoped to do is call for a decolonization of texts. That means decolonizing ourselves as readers, and from that moment of reorientation – one that now sees with a critical eye to historical, political, and cultural context – re-read key texts as entangled with the dominant issues of their era: slaving, conquest, mass killing, colonialism, and global subjugation. Decolonization is not simply identifying moments and sites of entanglement. It is, further, about critical re-reading that dis-entangles, if one is so inclined, and argues about what (if anything) is left for thinking in the wake of entanglement and dis-entanglement. I tried to do this in my Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation, Other in some detail, focusing on one particular thinker (Emmanuel Levinas) and finding what is meaningful about the ethical after an entangled reading. It’s a thought-full book. It’s not a prosecution, though, with the anxieties that are part of any discourse about race in white spaces, it has sometimes been read that way. Alas. I think we can do better, fellow white people. We really can.

I know that Schliesser says something kind of like decolonization when he notes, at the end, that “[b]y all means let’s detect and strip Whiteness away.” I only want him and others to sit a long, long time with that whiteness. It’s not a quick and easy process, nor do I think “stripping away” is the right figure. Stripping away imagines the relation to enslaving, conquest, and subjugation to be a veneer or exterior feature that conceals the true meaning of something, as when you strip off the paint on an old piece of furniture to re-discover the lovely wood grain. Entanglement is messier and, as we all know from disentangling string or ribbon or wires, it means you probably snap and break stuff when trying to tease out what is still useful. This is a long process. No small blog post captures what’s at stake, and in fact I like to think of decolonization work as particularly patient, diverse, and (as with all serious scholarly practice) fraught with debate about basic methods. Patience and long sitting with the whiteness of the white Western tradition is crucial. Especially when so little literature in philosophy works in this direction (there is plenty outside the discipline, which is why I think philosophy needs to become a quasi-interdisciplinary discipline – but that’s for another post).

(For what it’s worth, there is some really interesting stuff that does just this disentangling work: Fanon’s appropriation of Sartre in Black Skin, White Masks, Du Bois’ work with Hegelian models of history and race in the early writings, Suzanne Césaire’s and Aimé Césaire’s creolization of Breton’s surrealism, Senghor’s re-reading of life philosophy in France, Heideggerian motifs in Glissant, recasting of Deleuze and Guatarri in Benítez-Rojo’s theoretical work, and so on and so on. This is work that entangles, dis-entangles, and re-deploys. I’m not proposing we reinvent the wheel.)


Second, the problem of generalization and “canon.” What Schliesser says is plainly true: there is always a complication to any one story, always variations, always people forgotten when telling a big story. Perhaps part of our task, and I take this to be Schliesser’s suggestion, should be to introduce those complications, making minor figures into major ones, and so forth. At the same time, the white Western canon is a very real thing, an existing hegemonic force in education and scholarship, and can be addressed as such. That white Western canon or tradition is not a place or a thing, however. It is a project. And as a project, I argue, it conceals its whiteness and its deep involvement with the viciousness of white Western history. The white Western tradition (I prefer tradition to canon, but let’s leave them interchangeable for now) is ideological, insofar as it is a reflection, production, and reproduction of existing social forms. All projects can be questioned because they are ideological through and through. I think the racial dimension of the white Western tradition is a base structure of “the West” as a project, so questioning it at its base is a form of fundamental, perhaps radical, critique.

But the turn to other white people as a form of response to what was, from me, a critique from the texts and critical concepts of the Black intellectual tradition is itself an odd, even deeply problematic orientation. It’s one of those #NotAllWhites things. For Schliesser, it means that, hey, there were abolitionists and critics of colonialism, so why not discuss them when you discuss the white Western tradition? Well, sure there were. But why is the first impulse here to return back to the white Western tradition to find resistance? Is it to prove that not all whites were bad? That some whites did good? Okay. I got that. My home country has made a whole sub-industry out of white savior movies. And yet I wonder if that isn’t one of the whitest things you can do, to hustle and get white people back at the center of critique at the very moment in which non-white people are introduced as critics and thinkers who expose the racial project called “the Western tradition.” I also wonder if white texts are the best texts for thinking through this all as a racialized project. Actually, I think they’re not. I should just say that.

I don’t think this is a matter of what Schliesser somewhat derisively calls “the latest moral and political insights.” Those insights have been a part of the Black intellectual tradition for two centuries or much more, after all. So, I’m not promoting a “self-aggrandizing narrative of progress,” as Schliesser puts it. I’m saying that there’s been this critique for a long time, one that is not simply a counter-narrative or tradition-at-the-margins, but instead a tradition that, in addition to having tons of positive exposition of its own positions and disputes, also exposes in no uncertain terms the white Western tradition for what it is: entangled in the worst violence in world history. The fact of contrary voices in the white Western tradition – the abolitionists and similar types – only deepens that entanglement. That is, we can’t say Kant was simply a product of his time. There were also objecting voices…and so? And so maybe Kant’s (or whomever else’s) big project was about responding to and crushing those critics in the interest of empire and its enslaving, colonial needs.

Important: this is not claiming that, in Schliesser’s phrasing, “philosophical acuity” must “entail a proper functioning moral and political compass.” Making questions of decolonization into moralizing or checking into the political street cred of a given thinker cheapens the project. Moralizing, such that it is, is only starting point, a point of shame, a point of outrage, or even just a point of curiosity – how could this thinker, who thought all these amazing things, also be such an unapologetic defender of the basic ideas of conquest, enslavement, and subjugation? I take thinkers to be whole and coherent. Even as I want to take away from them in the end, this is a moment of interpretative generosity. Not boy geniuses. Just real smart people who had a lot to say and were systematic about it. Let’s take them at their word, that they meant all of it, and work from there.

But let’s not do the #NotAllWhites thing and try to retrieve the good side of whiteness. There’s been plenty of that work. I say let’s turn elsewhere.

All of this also puts questions to us. I recall reading someone’s Facebook status update a few years ago, in which the person asked how we Africana studies professors will be viewed by the generations that follow if our teaching and our scholarship ignores what he sees as the central issue in contemporary Black life: racialized mass incarceration. I found that question to be chilling (and I promptly created a new course and embarked upon a massive reading project; it genuinely moved me morally and politically). How does our own work situate in relation to the crushingly difficult, awful issues of our time? Racism, imperial wars, massive income inequality, reactionary shit on sexuality and sexual identity, dialing back progress on women’s issues, unchecked state violence, and so on. We will be read as entangled. Without a doubt.

It is a terrifying thing to imagine that we might be read in the future.

But maybe it’s also motivating.

To be more responsible in what we do.


Privacy, coloniality, identity

Here are my remarks from the roundtable discussion on James Baldwin and Privacy at the American Studies Association meeting in Los Angeles. They are short (a 5-8 minute slot), but I try here to think about colonialism as hyper-visibility and publicity and how Baldwin’s conception of Black cultural formation in the United States operates with a sense of privacy that complicates, if not out rejects, the relation between coloniality and the social and political practice(s) of anti-Black racism in the U.S. Continue reading “Privacy, coloniality, identity”

Beauty, pain, and A Small Place

I’ve been stuck in a particular section of this project – a long critical introduction to a new translation of Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphael Confiant’s Éloge de la créolité (contracted with SUNY). The section is on Édouard Glissant’s contribution to and critical appraisal of the creolists. On the one hand, this is the most straightforward section of the introduction. Unlike other sections on Négritude and surrealism, black existentialism, and my own conception of the afro-postmodern, this section – which I title Theorizing the Black Atlantic – has plenty of texts for dialogue, extrapolation, and analysis. Still, as it goes with writing, sometimes it is hard to start and find the right motif. Continue reading “Beauty, pain, and A Small Place”

On Fanon’s birthday

Today is what would have been Frantz Fanon’s 89th birthday – born in 1925, died in 1961, but in that short time he completely changed how we think about embodiment, freedom, resistance, identity, and so much more. I’ve always been partial to Black Skin, White Masks, which I consider his greatest work. As with all ambitious work, it is flawed and is full of oversteps, oversights, and under-theorized concepts. But that’s exactly what I like about it: it thinks more than the book can contain. Continue reading “On Fanon’s birthday”

Grandin on slavery and freedom

From Greg Grandin’s fantastic The Empire of Necessity (Holt, 2013)

“Writing in the 1970s, Yale’s Edmund Morgan was one of the first modern historians to fully explore what he called the “central paradox” of this Age of Liberty: it also was the Age of Slavery. Morgan was writing specifically about colonial Virginia, but the paradox can be applied to all of the Americas, North and South, the Atlantic to the Pacific, as the history leading up to and including events on the Tryal reveals. What was true for Richmond was no less so for Buenos Aires and Lima—that what many meant by freedom was the freedom to buy and sell black people as property. Continue reading “Grandin on slavery and freedom”

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. Continue reading “Édouard Glissant, in memory”

Derrida, Eurocentrism, decolonization

While I am not the biggest advocate of Aimé Césaire’s work, I’ve always been taken in – in ways that would take more words than I write below to explain – by his comment at the beginning of Discourse on Colonialism that European culture is sick. That bit from Césaire came to mind when I came across this short piece by Simon Glendinning the other day, which discusses Jacques Derrida’s work on Europe, Eurocentrism, and deconstructive critique. Continue reading “Derrida, Eurocentrism, decolonization”

Decolonizing the colonizer: three aspects

What does it mean to decolonize the colonizer? In a previous post, I asked the question – which has largely been suppressed in white European thought – of what would it mean to decolonize the colonizer. First, there is the question of why this hasn’t been asked of the colonizer, but only of the colonized. My sense is that this question has only been for the colonized because at every level whiteness works as invisibility, in that it is never seen as whiteness in discourse about knowing and being, and also because the colonized are always framed (for better or worse) in terms of violence, whereas white people (the colonizers) are somehow located outside the very frame their (our) imperialism produced.

Continue reading “Decolonizing the colonizer: three aspects”