Wandering the shoreline with Édouard Glissant

Poet-philosopher Édouard Glissant’s life was defined by the project of rethinking the relation between self, other and world: creating an entirely new form of being together.

The sea is visible from the Lycée Schoelcher, the school best known for having hosted Frantz Fanon as a student and Aimé Césaire as a teacher. The poet-philosopher Édouard Glissant also studied here, on the small island of Martinique in the Caribbean, before moving to Paris to study philosophy and ethnology. In the French capital he became involved with the radical anti-colonial movement Front Antillo-Guyanais pour l’Autonomie, whose publications were banned by the French government and for which connection Glissant was forbidden from leaving France until 1965.

By the time he was allowed to return to the Caribbean, Glissant was already an established writer, but although he published more than 20 books of fiction, poetry and theory before his death in 2011, and was twice a finalist for the Nobel Prize in Literature, his work remains far less well known in the Anglophone world than that of his anti-colonial contemporaries. This is in part an issue of translation, with, for instance, The Collected Poems of Édouard Glissant only now reaching English publication, but it is perhaps also because his thought offers us something profoundly unfamiliar, troubling commonsense ideas of identity, place, history and belonging.

The project of rethinking the relation between self, other and world that defined Glissant’s life can already be found in his 1956 collection of essays, Soleil de la conscience (Sun of Consciousness) – a series of reflections on Antillean identity, colonialism, past and future – although it is in L’Intention Poetique (The Poetic Intention), first published in 1969, that its profound scope becomes clear. Glissant situates his work as a specifically Caribbean response to the triple abyss experience wrought by colonialism: the abyss opened up by the violent enslavement that tore people away from their homes in Africa; the abyss of the Middle Passage where those captured lay in the dark holds of ships – the “womb of the Caribbean” where the past was gone and the future unknown; and the abyss of arrival as slaves in the New World.

Thinking from the shoreline

For Glissant, the unspeakable trauma suffered by those who have been to the abyss undoes any relation to the past and thus, contra Cesaire’s idea of négritude, forecloses the possibility of a project of authenticity – of locating origins and traditions. The past is drowned and all that remains are fragments; with no possible return across the endless sea a thinking from the shoreline, at the place of arrival, thus becomes necessary. However, deep roots cannot take hold in the loose sand and so the thought that emerges is fragmented, a bricolage of different elements that does not form any fixed system or linear continuity.

Transforming the idea of the rhizome from the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (he dedicated his 1993 book, Tout-Monde to Guattari), Glissant proposes that thinking in the specificity of the Antillean context, which he also refers to as the practice of creolization, or as archipelagic as opposed to continental thinking, only happens in Relation, across dense, decentred networks of connection that relate other to other, le’divers (different) to different, without reducing them to the same. This is thinking and practice as a necessary response to life after uprooting, a mode of survival within the Plantation and the colony that necessarily involve a digenesis of multiple origins and a complex intermingling of languages, values and ideas – a composite that does not become a fixed identity but, true to the constant creative unfolding of possibility that defines the world as process, or what Glissant calls the chaos-monde, remains open to new beginnings and otherness:

“Though this experience made you, original victim floating toward the sea’s abysses, an exception, it became something shared and made us, the descendants, one people among others. Peoples do not live on exception. Relation is not made up of things that are foreign but of shared knowledge… no matter how much distance we may keep, the abyss is also a projection of and a perspective into the unknown. Beyond its chasm we gamble on the unknown. We take sides in this game of the world.”

The necessity of opacity

This mode of relation, or relation-identity, in turn forms the ethical framework of Glissant’s most well-known (and only English-translated) works, Poetics of Relation and Caribbean Discourse. In these late texts he challenges the idea of liberal cosmopolitanism, seeing the dominant Western conception of universality as a mechanism of ideological conformity that turns difference into sameness in order to dominate it, and calls instead for a practice of opacity as a necessary component of political projects that seek to overcome oppression and create new possibilities for life:

“We demand the right to opacity. Through which our anxiety to have a full existence becomes part of the planetary drama of Relation: the creativity of marginalized peoples who today confront the ideal of transparent universality, imposed by the West, with secretive and multiple manifestations of Diversity.”

These multiple manifestations of diversity are nowhere more apparent than in the sprawling text that best exemplifies Glissant’s singular mode of thinking, La terre, le feu, l’eau, et les vents (Earth fire, water and winds). In this book-rhizome, he draws together fragments of Frantz Fanon, Pablo Neruda, the Bhagavad Gita, Ezra Pound, Socrates, Shakespeare, Ovid, Gandhi, Montaigne, Muhammad Ali, Ibn Arabi and others in a vast cosmopolitanism of the different as such, a thousand archipelagos in a rallying cry against sameness, and it is perhaps this cry, of “the world gathered to itself, open and exposed in each site of contact,” that we so urgently need. Because, as many parts of the globe drift towards authoritarianism and intolerance, with Big Men touting totalising fascist narratives of cultural homogeneity and revisionist myths of fixed identity and belonging, there is a sense in which we have all found ourselves on some strange shoreline.

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Some of us were brought here by force, others shipwrecked on the rocks of capital, and many are simply lost, but all of us have the open sea at our backs and the unknown before us, our sandcastles washing away with the rising tide. Instead of clamouring to locate ourselves and those like us on a map, drawing firm lines between inside and outside, ours and theirs, self and not-self, we could instead choose to nurture the fragile rhizomatic shoots of the other world that break through the soil here and there. This other world is Glissant’s tout-monde or all-world – a mondialite (worldliness) against globalisation, a space of creative possibility outside of projects of territorial expansion both geographic and existential, a place for nomadic thought and an ethics of novelty and becoming with others in opaque togetherness.

There can be no totalising system here, for “what Relation relates, in reality, proceeds from no absolute, it proves to be the totality of relatives, put in touch and told.” We cannot, therefore, yet know what an ethics of us-with-others, a world of identity-relation, will look like. Will it look like Capital? A State? A (post)colony? All that is certain is that “diversity needs the presence of peoples, no longer as objects to be swallowed up, but with the intention of creating a new relationship. Sameness requires fixed being. Diversity establishes becoming.”


The project Glissant asks us to share with him is therefore not a strictly political or ideological one, but a poetics of Relation, nothing less than the creation of an entirely new form of being-together. If violence is nurtured by ideas about roots, it is in practices of relation that we can find hope.

Root identity
– is founded in the distant past in a vision, a myth of the creation of the world;
– is sanctified by the hidden violence of a filiation that strictly follows from this founding episode;
– is ratified by a claim to legitimacy that allows a community to proclaim its entitlement to the possession of a land, which thus becomes a territory;
-is preserved by being projected onto other territories, making their conquest legitimate-and through the project of a discursive knowledge.
Root identity therefore rooted the thought of self and of territory and set in motion the thought of the other and of voyage.
Relation identity
– is linked not to a creation of the world but to the conscious and contradictory experience of contacts among cultures;
– is produced in the chaotic network of Relation and not in the hidden violence of filiation;
– does not devise any legitimacy as its guarantee of entitlement, but circulates, newly extended;
– does not think of a land as a territory from which to project toward other territories but as a place where one gives-on-and-with rather than grasps.”

– Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation

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