Édouard Glissant attempted to undermine the European ideological foundations of colonization
Martinican author Édouard Glissant’s star has continued to rise since his death in 2011. A polymath poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, and philosopher, Glissant’s discourse has become a touchstone in a variety of disciplines, and translations of his prolific and complex oeuvre have continued to emerge. (Liverpool University Press even launched a Glissant translation project, which has published three titles so far.) In 2017, cultural theorist Fred Moten began publishing a philosophical trilogy, whose generic title Agreeing not to be a single beingcomes from Glissant’s work.
Glissant, who came into contact with Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon through his high school education in Martinique, has always focused his work on the African diaspora, the middle passage of slavery and the black experience in America. In fact, much of his philosophical writing can be seen as an attempt to subvert European ideas about being and oneness, which he saw as part of the ideological underpinnings of world colonization.
Take one of his key concepts, “relationship.” In his poetics of relationshipGlissant refers to the “thing withdrawn in every generalization of an absolute, even and especially an absolute, hidden in this imaginary construct of relationship: that is, the possibility for everyone to be there both alone and in solidarity .” Lonely and solidaric: Borrowed from Camus, the phrase suggests both a personal and political commitment to standing outside of the absolutes exported by colonial thought, and “relationship” is explicitly posited as an alternative to the unified metaphysical identities imposed by European philosophy. (“The West is not in the West,” as he writes in Caribbean discourse. “It’s a project, not a place.” His work thus suggests an escape from the political struggle organized around the premises of identity politics.
Terms like “relationship”, “creolization” and “the whole world” (tout-monde) multiply in the author’s detailed discourse and refuse a definitive formulation. For Glissant, that’s part of the point. Repeatedly defending the privileges of repetition (since to repeat is to revive and re-examine an idea) and banal formulations (since banal places are those areas of discourse where different cultures meet), he articulates himself in both his ever-evolving ways texts and in the published lectures and discussions with various listeners and interlocutors.
No wonder, then, that we find something like a compendium of this thought here the Archipelago Talksa volume of dialogues between Glissant and curator Obrist, long fascinated by the interview form, describes his relationship with Glissant as “one of the most important friendships of my life”. the Archipelago Talks “compiles, edits, arranges and reassembles the complete recordings, transcripts, notes and letters” between Obrist and Glissant from their first meeting in the late 1990s until the latter’s death. The textual result is six interviews roughly thematically arranged: on archipelagos, creolization and cities; Utopia and “One World”; literature, landscape and film; anthologies and curation; “Trembling Thoughts” and the Legacy of Slavery; and finally a lengthy discussion of the Art Museum of the Americas, also called the M2A2, proposed by Glissant but never built.
The sound of the Archipelago Talks is lively and cordial throughout, thanks to the long-standing friendship between the interlocutors, but it is only in the last paragraph, in which Glissant outlines his idea for “a comparative encyclopedia of the art of America”, that the volume really comes alive:
Precisely because time is not the same on a small island in the Caribbean or in Tierra del Fuego, in northern Canada or east of Santiago, we want to relate the art of America. We don’t want to make equivalences, we want to make connections between all these different times, to see what pulsates and shimmers in America, in the islands that make up America.
Glissant explains, “We came up with the idea of M2A2 for Martinique, but we started out primarily thinking about Latin America, about the art of Latin America.” A note accompanying this interview explains that the Art Museum of the Americas “never saw the light saw the world”; However, Glissant’s vision continues to resonate, inspiring a 2000 touring exhibition of works by Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta.
The Archipelago Talks is not only a contribution to the Glissant primary texts available in English, but also a worthy addition to the Isolarii series. When I was in my twenties, Hanuman was one of the hottest printers, selling tiny volumes printed in India by counterculture heroes like Eileen Myles and Dodie Bellamy. Isolarii has quickly established itself as a worthy successor to the Lilliputian niche formerly occupied by Hanuman, albeit with a deliberately international angle that includes authors such as Can Xue and Yevgenia Belorusets. The publication of the Archipelago Talks just underscores that Isolarii is a press to watch. Glissant famously wrote, “I still believe in the future of small countries.” Small books too!
The Archipelago Talks by Édouard Glissant & Hans Ulrich Obrist is published by isolarii and available online and through independent booksellers.