Book Review: Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation

No matter where one is, no matter how strong the force of errantry, one can hear the mounting desire to “give-on-and-with,” to discover order in chaos or at least to guess its unlikely motivation: to develop this theory that would escape generalizations.[1]

In Poetics of Relation, Édouard Glissant sets himself a project that is both immense and ineluctable. If, as Glissant supposes, we cannot help but ponder our place in the world, such thoughts cannot avoid the realisation that our contemporary reality is one of accelerating multiplicity: the only universality today is one of relations based upon diversity rather than unity. The philosopher’s task then is to offer a framework to comprehend the totality of this condition – le Tout-monde – without resorting to generalisation or homogenising universals. To achieve this, Glissant incants the state of Relation: an amorphous category that he describes as “an open totality evolving upon itself … In Relation, the whole is not the finality of its parts: for multiplicity in totality is totally diversity.”[2]

By Glissant’s own admission, Relation cannot be defined, only imagined.[3] Poetics of Relation is an extended attempt to circle round this indefinable, that it might find focus in the margins where the text points to the fabric of its own construction. Glissant’s writing is fragmentary, filled with interjections, repetitions, and other tactical devices designed to delay or suspend the unilinearity of his argument. As his translator Betsy Wing notes, Glissant constantly destabilises French, creating new linguistic formulations in order to mimic the transformations of a living language and the collisions of culture that he sees as productive of Relation.[4] This circuitousness is intended to build a body of examples that intimate Relation without ever fixing it to the totality of a single definition.

Glissant’s argument is subtley woven, careful at every step to avoid generalization. As such, it is a perilous task to attempt to pin down his theory of Relation into a concise summary. Nevertheless, proceeding with caution one can note that the encounter with the Other is central to the emergence of Relation. For Glissant, all identity is produced and extended in relation to the Other. It is through the meeting (and clashing) of cultures that they evolve, creating the circumstances for Relation: “evolving cultures infer Relation – the overstepping that grounds their unity diversity.”[5] In the classical sense, identity was atavistic: constituted on the principles of origin (filiation) and territory. This meant that culture’s self-conception was dualistic; the Other was not considered to be different, but contrary, produced only in opposition.[6] Glissant contrasts this to the composite cultures of creolization, which unfold new forms of identity guided by the principles of errantry and hybridity. In these instances the Other is considered as one part of a multiplicity of difference that recognises our “unity-diversity.”[7] Put simply, “Relation is the moment when we realize that there is a definite quality of all the differences in the world.”[8]

As Relation is the result of encounter with the Other, it remains engaged in a complex relationship with the atavistic identity (and its attendant colonial oppressions). It is only through the spread of the atavistic identity that the encounters that lead to Relation are made possible. Thus, Relation has its genesis in the hulls of slave ships crossing the Atlantic, while the atavistic identity contains within it the antinomies that create the preconditions for the emergent subject positions that would eventually undermine its unified identity.

Glissant is careful not to suggest Relation as a counter, but equally dualistic identity position. This poses certain difficulties, for Glissant recognises the value of stable identity positions as the sites of decolonial resistance. Relation is an attempt to move beyond the dialectic positions that such identities have tended to assume (such as Negritude, Historical Marronage or even Aboriginality), recognising that such subject positions are necessarily limited from the very beginning by assuming subject position made available only in opposition to the oppressor.[9] This is not to suggest that Glissant is opposed to identity, as he explicitly notes, Relation is neither a rejection of identity, nor “inconsistent with the will to identity.”[10] Glissant recognises that concrete identities (just like the specific places of the archipelago) are a necessary part of exchange. For Glissant, identity construction enforces the sense of Relation, but this self-realisation is not enough, it requires the realisation of Relation.[11] Thus, although Glissant clearly sees Relation as a political intervention, it can never be an organizing form of resistance.[12] In part, this is because Relation takes its fullest expression in the poetic realm, where poetic thought safeguards the particular, relating all possibilities.[13] This poetics is exemplified in the process of creolization, where the emphasis is placed upon the processes and not by the contents on which these operate.[14] Open to constant transformation, for Glissant, creolization represents the clearest illustration the concept of a poetics of human relations.

As it is open to all possible particulars, creolization necessarily excludes the possibility of futurity. For Glissant, futurity is one of the driving forces of the atavistic identity, which reaches exhaustion in Relation. While concluding that the age of classicism is past for all cultures,[15] the importance of this antinomic relationship between Relation and the era that precedes it, suggests that Glissant is not only interested in defining the contemporary situation, but also in revising our understanding of modernity.[16]

Despite its elusiveness, Relation provides a most useful framework for considering decolonial identity beyond the polar terms of resistance or submission to the dominant colonial power. For although Relation is the ultimate tool of decolonisation, Glissant notes that it was also born from the long and painful quest to assert identity “in opposition to the processes of identification or annihilation triggered by these invaders.”[17] That this tendency has led to a dialectical tension within decolonial self-identification can be seen clearly in Marcia Langton’s canonical discussion of ‘Aboriginality,’ in which she intuitively recognises both the political power of identification to “lessen the pressure of assimilation,” while simultaneously noting that this only has meaning when understood in terms of inter-subjectivity that dissolves particularlity in favour of the unity of a singular Other.[18] In the concept of Relation, Glissant offers a framework to move beyond these polarities, to instead see them as the first step towards recognising our shared world of infinite difference. Instead of fixed places of origin, he offers sites of connectivity, where multiple histories and ways of being can coexist. Instead of roots, he offers the dynamic process of creolization, a poetics defined by its openness to transformation. Instead of a world of nations, he offers the archipelago, an image of the world in which we are all connected while remaining distinct.

Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997)

[1] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 183.

[2] Ibid., 192.

[3] Ibid., 170-171.

[4] Betsy Wing, ‘Translator’s Introduction’, in Glissant, Poetics of Relation, xii.

[5] Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 1.

[6] Ibid., 14-15.

[7] Ibid., 79.

[8] Édouard Glissant and Manthia Diawara, “One World in Relation: Édouard Glissant in Conversation with Manthia Diawara,” Nka Journal of Contemporary Aftrican Art 28 (2011): 9.

[9] Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 17.

[10] Ibid.,18, 20.

[11] Ibid.,, 137, 147-8.

[12] Ibid.,200.

[13] Ibid.,32.

[14] Ibid.,89.

[15] Ibid.,91.

[16] See particularly Ibid., 78-79, where Glissant suggests that Relation has been present from the beginning of modernity, reaching its complete fulfilment in the contemporary moment.

[17] Ibid., 17.

[18] Marcia Langton, “Well, I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television…” (Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993), 32.

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