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Remember Glissant

Moses März writes of Édouard Glissant, Martinican, poet and compatriot of the more celebrated Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, who devoted his life to the decolonial project, to studying the French Caribbean predicament, and to shattering the glass globe of the “exotique” that kept his birthplace perpetually confined and in servitude to a very French construct.   

A massive glass globe has been placed over the island. Planes can enter through a window that is opened and closed at fixed intervals. The air is conditioned to prevent harmful microbes from entering. When visitors arrive, they find themselves in a tropical paradise. They are greeted by a reassuring announcement: “You have nothing to fear, there is no danger here, you can experiment and try out new things, provoke the natives to see how they react, everything is under control. We proudly present to you a colony in its original state, the way it existed since the times of the plantations. Nothing has changed, everything is completely authentic. We wish you a pleasant stay. For any further information during your stay our sociologists and psychiatrists are at your disposal.” The tourist-investigators roam about the island, questionnaires in hand, asking the inhabitants: “Do you by any chance know the names of some of the neighbouring islands?” “In which year did you decide to be recolonised?”

This nightmare, a parable told by Mycéa in the novel Mahagony, is the horror scenario against which Édouard Glissant fought. He was born on Martinique—an island in the Caribbean and a French Overseas Department—in 1928 and he died in Paris in 2011. Since the official end of slavery in 1848 and the collapse of the sugar plantation industry, any attempts to foster national autonomy have been systematically undermined in Martinique. The economic power remains in the hands of a tiny elite of white béké. Its privileged access to the Elysée Palace dates to Napoleon’s wife Josephine, the daughter of a béké family, who reinstalled slavery after its abolition during the French Revolution. As official French citizens, Martinicans receive social grants geared to absorb chronic levels of discontent and unemployment. They allow Martinicans to afford the baguettes and croissants arriving ready-made from France in the form of green-grey frozen dough—ready to be reheated in the microwave. In tourist brochures, Fort-de-France, the island’s main town, is advertised as the Paris of the Antilles. The view from the neighbouring islands confirms Martinique’s exceptional status in the Caribbean. As Derek Walcott from neighbouring island Saint Lucia wrote in his short story Café Martinique: “Across the blue channel from our island, we sometimes saw the haze that was Martinique. Civilization, French wines. Sidewalk cafés for disenchanted love. I went there briefly and saw what I had imagined.”

When Glissant began Le discours antillais, his main study of the French Caribbean predicament, with the statement that “Martinique is not a Polynesian island,” this was not only meant to assert the importance of the islands of the so-called Lesser Antilles that General de Gaulle once dismissed as “dust specks on the sea”. It was to tear down the glass globe that confined the island to an exotic tourist destination and cut it off from the surrounding world. From its neighbouring islands, with whom it shares the legacies of slavery and marronage, and the creole cultures emerging from them. From the African ancestry of most of its inhabitants, a history that was systematically erased by a colonial education system. From of the natural rhythms of single season in which everything grows, and in which the practice of importing fresh produce from more than 6,000km across the Atlantic Ocean is absurd. From the idea that there is only one civilisation, one history and one language. When Glissant wrote that “It is the poet’s task to create rhizomes between his place and the world’s totality, to diffuse the totality in his particular place”, this was not a retreat into a poetic universalism, but Glissant’s formulation of a decolonial project.

Where to begin with this work? Glissant began by inventing his own langage to describe the landscape of his island, by dreaming up the conflicts and social entanglements between maroons who fled into the hills and slaves who stayed on the plantation, and by singing the song of creolisation, not a happy intercultural mixture, but “the unstoppable conjunction despite misery, oppression and lynching, the conjunction that opens up torrents of unpredictable results.”

In contrast to his Martinican compatriots Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, the political legacy of Glissant’s life and writing is vague at best, even to those familiar with his work. In postcolonial studies his name adds an exotic flavour, a French touch. In militant circles, few have heard of him and even fewer would consider him to have carried on the tradition of Martinican decolonial thought traced by his predecessors.

A walk through Fort-de-France suggests that this might have to do as much with Glissant’s reluctance to write in prose—his exercised “right to opacity” (“As for my identity, I’ll take care of that myself”)—as with the position Césaire occupied in Martinique and la Francophonie. The portraits of a smiling bespectacled Césaire are omnipresent on the island. The airport carries his name, a massive banner of Césaire in conversation with Georges Pompidou (“The men of good will cast a new light on the world”) covers five floors of the town hall’s main administrative building, and his former office has been turned into a museum that also houses the Aimé Césaire theatre. The Librairie Alexandre, in the town’s main shopping street, Rue de la Republique, where, according to legend, André Bréton once spotted the Tropiques journal edited by Aimé and his wife Suzanne Césaire, is permanently closed. A note with a small blue arrow on its green wooden door indicates that there is a bookstore in the shopping mall 200 metres further down. Next to the collected works of Césaire and the younger generation of creolité writers, such as Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant, books by Fanon or Glissant are missing.

After co-signing the laws that turned the former French colony into a French department, Césaire remained the mayor and deputy of the French National Assembly for more than 50 years. Although he eventually admitted that he was mistaken in seeing departmentalisation as a way to bring about equality between French citizens and the inhabitants a small island off the coast of Latin America in the spirit of the US civil rights movement, the decisive turn away from the Caribbean archipelago and towards the colonial centre had been made. The experience of Haiti, of freedom in poverty in the world’s first black republic, haunted Césaire and the majority of Martinicans with him. Repeatedly most of the island’s population voted against independence. Servitude in tranquillity over independence with danger. The arithmetic worked. While the most abject material issues were quickly addressed, the problems of identity and culture, of what Glissant called désiquilibre mental, and what Fanon diagnosed as the black-skins-white maskssyndrome, would not go away as easily. The rhythm of downtown Fort-de-France is dictated by cruise ships discharging hundreds of tourists into its shopping streets. Yellow, blue and red arrows lead the way: SHOPPING, INTERNET, BEACH.

After supporting Césaire’s election campaign as a 16-year-old and chanting his poems in front of the mansions of the béké with his friends of the activist group Franc Jeu, Glissant turned against Césaire’s politics after his move to Paris in 1946. Together with writer Paul Niger and lawyer Marcel Manville, he co-founded the Front Antillo Guyanais pour l’autonomie (FAGA) in 1961, following large scale protests across the island sparked by racist police violence in December 1959. At the time Glissant had already received the Renaudot Prize for his first novel, La Lézarde, in 1958. He also had represented Martinique at two conferences of black writers and artists in Paris and Rome organised by Présence Africaine in 1956 and 1959.

The FAGA was immediately banned by the French government and Glissant was confined to mainland France for four years. Paul Niger, the movement’s political leader, died in a plane crash in 1962 that bears the marks of the French states’ secret military wing, the Organisation Armée Secrète. With the official route towards decolonisation in the French Antillean effectively blocked, Glissant channelled his political project through the cultural realm. Upon his return to Martinique, he founded the Institut martiniquais d’études (IME) in 1967 as a space for critical social, historical and cultural studies by Caribbeans about the Caribbean. Former students such as Juliette Éloi-Blézès remember the place as an actualised heterotopia.

Together with family members and friends from neighbouring islands and Latin America, Glissant tried to launch a small cultural revolution with the IME, breaking with the authoritarian French pedagogical model and fostering a Pan-Caribbean consciousness through a collective research project resulting in the ACOMA journal, and a street theatre group that performed regularly at the regional cultural festival, Carifesta. Art works by friends Victor Anicet and Roberto Matta also turned the IME into an experimental art gallery. Glissant worked as director for the IME for more than 14 years, but felt his work increasingly undermined by Césaire’s bureaucracy. In the early 1980s he returned to France where he took up a job as editor-in-chief of the Unesco Courier.

Glissant’s relationship with Fanon, three years his senior at the Lycée Schoelcher, was less complicated than the one with Césaire, who initially worked as teacher in the school. In 1961 Glissant met Fanon for the last time in Rome where Fanon was on a stopover to meet Jean-Paul Sartre before flying to the US for treatment, and into the hands of the CIA. Fanon had also been in the room with Paul Niger when Glissant told Césaire of their plans to launch the FAGA in Rome 1959. Fanon sent a letter of support at the founding conference of the FAGA. Glissant had supported the Algerian struggle by signing the Manifeste 121, and intercepting Martinican conscripts into the French army, providing them with false papers and channelling them across the border between Morocco and Algeria to fight for the National Liberation Front (FLN). Glissant then travelled to Cuba where he received instructions about applying the Cuban revolutionary model to Martinique. If Fanon had lived a longer life, Glissant speculated, he would have returned to confront the Martinican colonial problem with the same ferocity.

Fanon died in 1961. Glissant’s conversation with his “brother, friend, or quite simply the associate or fellow countryman” continued. Traces of it can be found in the interactions between Mathieu and Thaël, two of Glissant’s fictional protagonists. In La Lézarde. Thaël is tasked with the assassination of a colonial agent whose house blocks the source of the island’s main river. Descending from a family of maroons, Thaël is a homme d’action, whose vocation to act on his ideas eventually lead him to fight in Indochina and Algeria. Mathieu wants to be a poet and keeps having to defend his chosen vocation to Thaël. In Tout-Monde, a debate between them takes places on a train between Le Havre and Paris.

“So you think poetry will saves us? What does that mean for you?” asks Thaël.

“First of all it won’t save us, that’s not it’s role”, responds the poet.

“And what is it’s role?”

“It is to reveal what cannot be seen, to foresee that which most people do not look for, to search the landscape, to bring together rhythms that remain unknown, like the voice’s measured tempo and the drum’s disorderly excess.”

Thaël disappears in Algeria and Mathieu lives on.

Glissant lived for another 50 years after Fanon’s death. As with the short-lived FAGA, it would be tempting to tell the story of Glissant’s subsequent political projects as a series of failures. The alternative educational approach endorsed by the IME could not be maintained for long. The ACOMA journal, named after the tallest tree of the island that is now extinct only lasted from 1971 to 1973. Thirty years later, after a detour via the US-academy, Jacques Chirac assigned Glissant with the task of setting up a national centre for the memorialisation of the slave trade in 2005. The plans Glissant drew up were rejected by the government of Nicolas Sarkozy. Instead, the so-called Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration was inaugurated in 2014, tellingly housed in the old Musée des Colonies.

A similar fate befell Glissant’s project of a Musée martiniquais des Arts des Amériques, M2A2, whose exhibition space—a vacant factory—was destroyed shortly before its first installation. Proposed in a series of newspaper articles and television appearances, another of Glissant’s projects was to transform Martinique into a pays biologique du mondeanother failure. The Institut du Tout-Monde, which Glissant set up in Paris in 2006, was initially envisioned as a grand house of creole cultures in central Paris. After Ségolène Royale lost to Nicolas Sarkozy in May 2007 the institution was relegated from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Overseas France. Instead of taking over a building in downtown Paris, the Institut hosts its events at the Maison de l’Amerique latine, with a reach that remains limited to a small group of Glissant’s disciples.

Glissant’s blocked institutional projects stand in contrast to his popularity in literary, academic and artistic circles. With the translations of Le discours antillais and Poétique de la Relation into English in the early 1990s his work became quickly incorporated into the postcolonial canon, as the French pendant to Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic and Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s The Repeating Islands. The citeability of his key mantras (“The world creolises itself “, “I can change in exchange with the other without losing or denaturing myself”, “Think globally, act locally”), the compatibility of his concepts with mainstream postmodern theories, and his self-stylisation as the prophet of creolisation, turned Glissant into an easy hero of liberal cosmopolitanism.

In the heated social atmosphere of the early 2000s, when the Indigènes de la République unsettled the French political establishment with their attack on structural anti-black discrimination in France, Glissant’s moderate and reconciliatory voice met the needs of mainstream French media for a Mandela figure. The Institut du Tout-Monde’s former director,Francois Noudelmann, writes disconcertingly about this stage of his career, “An unconditional sympathy greets him in the seminar rooms and auditoriums, a respect mixed with tenderness towards this old man, coming from another century from a far-away land, delivering a message of love, even if he does not use the term, insisting on the beauty of relation and on the benefits of the encounters of differences”.

Remembering Glissant 10 years after his passing means to counter this Mandelaisation and the sense of singularity Glissant created around himself. It also means to see where the 60-year-old meets the 30-year-old Glissant and tried to carry on the decolonial struggle in a different mode. It also involves mapping Glissant in relation to other radical Caribbean intellectuals, instead of going on about his friendship with the French postmodernists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Towards the end of his life Glissant spoke about how he perceived himself to continue the tradition set out by Césaire and Fanon. Building on the work of conscientisation pursued by Négritude, and the radical break from France towards violent resistance by Fanon, Glissant was convinced that a third step would consist of exploring what he called another imaginary of the world, where big ideologies had to make way for the respect of small differences. In a 2009 documentary, which director Manthia Diawara made to make his philosophy more widely accessible, Glissant insisted that “It is the alliance of differences that creates the fabric of the living and the canvas of cultures”.

It is easy to dismiss the utopian side of Glissant’s theory of creolisation as esoteric culture talk that leaves colonial structures of power untroubled. It is also easy to get turned off by his description of the Tout-Monde as a “non-totalitarian totality”, or the definition of relation as “an awareness of all the differences of the world, without excluding a single one”. What academics who are in the business of “understanding Glissant” tend to forget is that, despite the Latin roots of the word relation, Glissant’s philosophy draws on ancient relational world views from both sides of the Atlantic that in essence oppose the Western paradigm of “I think therefore I am” with “I know as I relate” and “I am because I relate”. Glissant spoke about the shift from singularity to multiplicity as Africa’s legacy to the world: “Africa’s vocations to be a kind of foundational Unity which develops and transforms itself into a Diversity”. Despite all the unpredictable changes and transformations, the breaking of boundaries and binary oppositions, Glissant’s politics relied on a fundamental division between those who are for or against multiplicity as the forces and enemies of the living. The engraving “nothing is true, everything is alive” on his tombstone expresses this simple truth.

This is also why some of the best writing on Glissant have not been produced by academics, but by the late Jazz musician Jacques Coursil, who knew that any attempt to write about and not with Glissant is bound to fail. In his essays and talks Coursil freely improvised using some of Glissant’s favourite mantras as themes. This kind of literature must be read déyé do pawol, beyond the words, as the poet Monchoachi said. Glissant’s contribution to the struggle can then less be found in his theorisations of creolisation or relation but in his practice, his vocation to do something else and to create new kinds of communities along the way: relation-nations and federations, small communities that meet in the institutions he created, and more elusive world-communities of readers and writers that share an imagination of the world’s radical diversity. It is in affirming that the same creativity it takes to break through the boundaries of literary genres must be applied to the political realm. The same energy it takes to intuitively imagine the interactions between slaves and maroons centuries ago must be invested to dream up utopian alternatives to the living arrangements we find ourselves in.

As a footnote in Le discours antillais reminds us, the “The West is not a place but a project”. Its glass globe is big enough for all of us.


Read more on Glissant in Chimurenga Chronic: The Corpse Exhibition and Other Graphic Stories, as well as Chimurenga Chronic: Imagi-nation Nwar. Both are available at our online store.

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