Reply to Miguel Gualdrón Ramírez’s review of Glissant and the Middle Passage

May 10, 2021
May 10, 2021 John Drabinski

Reply to Miguel Gualdrón Ramírez’s review of Glissant and the Middle Passage

This is a really thoughtful and interesting review. I appreciate it so much because it engages with the possibilities of my book, but also asks some key questions – critical in formulation, though, honestly, I think they’re more a matter of clarification. It’s interesting to read readers. They find ways that your book might be significant (Miguel does that here in ways I so appreciate), and they find aspects that aren’t clear or remain under-articulated (he also does that in important ways). Super grateful for his thinkerly work in this piece.

I really wanted this Glissant book to have what, for me, is the feature of a genuinely good book: produce new horizons of research and thinking. In particular, I wanted the book to point to or suggest things for areas I can’t do with deep competence, namely, to draw Glissant’s thinking across the Atlantic to Africa as well as into the continental Americas and indigenous/borderlands thought. There is a lot there. I hope the book gets us somewhere that way, even a little bit. Philosophy is patient discourse. I believe in contributing to tiny steps. I’m thrilled Miguel thinks it helps take a step or two.

Two critical questions came up, though for me they feel more like points of under-clarification on my part. So, a word or two on that…

1. Miguel asks about the use of “we” in the book. Fair question. Part of the answer is that it’s a stylistic choice. I don’t like overly doing the proper name thing in writing, which means the “we” functions rhetorically. Boring response and not really the heart of the query. The substantial part of the question is much deeper and I gather the book isn’t clear enough on it. That answer has to do with the entanglements of colonialism, which is the preoccupation of my previous book and carries over into this one. The entanglement of colonialism is typically pitched as the anxiety of the colonized, who are tasked with thinking through and disentangling relations with colonial social, political, and cultural systems. But that goes both ways. The colonizer is also entangled with the same system. The “we” emerges here, and in my Glissant book the “we” refers to Atlantic theory – Europe and the Americas, in particular, and specifically in Glissant’s own work (he says so little about Africa…for real reasons) how that in between that is the site of anxiety, pain, and hegemony, but also creolization, transformation, and the new of the New World of the black Americas.

I think the review is right in that way, namely, that I supposed too much about the implied structure of Atlantic theory and how north/south collapse in Glissant’s thinking, not as a matter of sameness, but as a matter of chaos-monde, tout-monde, and the dynamics of creolization. The entire Atlantic world is in that “we.” The attributes I ascribe to the we – fixation on root-thinking, retrieval of the past, and so on – are not particularly stable or even possibly stable after Glissant. A good set of paragraphs at the outset would have helped make that clear. Miguel is right to raise that query. It did make me think about the specificity moment I missed, a moment missed that’s especially lol’poignant for a book essentially about specificity: in the intro, I should have used “Between Europe and the Black Americas” instead of “Between Europe and the Americas.” The entanglement, such as it is, between colonialism and the indigenous Americas or Africa is very different than entanglement with the black Americas. I covered this under the rubric of what’s “new” in “New World,” but some finer grained articulation would have elevated some insights.

Tl;dr, the “we” refers to Glissant’s understanding of Atlantic subjectivity and the entanglement structure of colonialism. A few sentences here and there would have made a difference in the book, I see that now.

2. This is related to the first, which is Miguel’s second critical issue raised: why read Glissant in relation to the thinkers I choose? 

A first reply is that my own sensibility as a scholar is to read relations however you want, that’s what makes the book your book. It’s your book when you read from your best literacy. Unexpected critical confrontations produce new strands of scholarly debate. I definitely avoid, for better or worse, the self-reflection that describes motivations for decision. A style question, really, but this review reminds me that some clarity would help. 

A second and substantial reply, then, would have to address Miguel’s deeper query about situating Glissant “in a tradition.” I actually didn’t want to do or imply that kind of thing at all. In fact, the opposite. It’s comparative studies work, work that in this case sets up contrasts to implied interlocutors – it is important to me that Glissant is carrying on decades long quiet debate with German and French critical theory, I wanted to excavate that – in order to expose the colonial presuppositions of that theory. I wanted to see how the position from which, say, Heidegger or Benjamin work is entangled in colonialism, and then to see how Glissant’s differentiation from and dis-assembly of that work clarifies the unicity of Caribbean history and memory. In other words, comparative work in an anti-colonial register. That anti-colonial register reframes how one might re-read Heidegger or Benjamin, but also, to the key point in the book, is a way to clarify Glissant’s own position. Out of that clarity one can then generate a sense of ÉG’s contributions to a whole host of theoretical debates on history, memory, trauma, and so on.

For me, this is completely different work than situating Glissant in a tradition. To what tradition does Glissant even belong? That’s a genuinely fascinating and not at all straightforward question to ask. Part of the book’s argument, and of my previous book on postcolonial theory too, is that Glissant belongs to the tradition of Atlantic theory and that, as such, he is an insurgent thinker who blows up both the European pretension to self-possession AND the colonial hangovers in Caribbean thought before him (Aimé Césaire, René Ménil, and Frantz Fanon, in particular). I hadn’t thought to clarify this particular feature of the book, but, as all good reviews do, I’m reminded of how some things remain a bit too implied at key points. Unfortunate in this case because it is something about which I care very deeply. It’s also a reminder of how with comparative work you can’t assume an understanding of what’s done in such a critical approach. What I wanted to do with comparative work and how that impacts our understanding of Glissant, as well as his place in Atlantic theory debates, emerges across the text. But telegraphing it, I now see, would have avoided some misunderstandings and made the book stronger.

The irony for me: I always warn my students about this in their essays and encourage a more deliberate introductory apparatus, along with purposefully threading elements together as you proceed. At the same time, I explicitly (to myself) wanted to write a less blueprinted, less telegraphed book this time around and engage in a more exploratory mode and with associative logic. Perhaps this is one of the costs of such an approach to writing.

All that said, I’m super grateful for Miguel as a present and future interlocutor. This is a thought-provoking review that underscores some bits in the book that need clarification, but, for me, more than that it underscores the utter complexity of thinking about the Americas and the Atlantic world more widely. There is no stable footing. There is no pre-prepared language for relation, Relation, and the cultural politics of all that. We who care about such things are making that language and setting (or unsettling) footing for future discourse. Glad to have Miguel as a companion traveler. Years to come talking about this, my friend. Books are short, life is long, and ideas are always trailing off into a future we can’t know.