Transcript: 133 - John Drabinski on Glissant

The author of an important book on Glissant joins us to talk about his approach to this major Caribbean thinker.

Audio Episode:

Transcript: History of Africana Philosophy 133. John Drabinski on Edouard Glissant


Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


Peter Adamson: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. You are the author of the important recent book on Glissant, which is called Glissant and the Middle Passage. And we obviously encourage listeners to check it out. Let's actually start by talking about the title. So you aim in that book to show us how philosophical thinking differs when we, as it were, begin from the Middle Passage. So let's begin with that. So first of all, how would you define the Middle Passage? And second of all, how would you summarize its significance to Glissant?


John Drabinski: Well, I appreciate you saying recent book, as you know, as academics, the book's a few years old and it already feels like 'where's my next book?' So I'm going to hold on to this idea that it's a recent book. Well, let me just say this about the title. Anyone who's published an academic book with the university press knows, and I assume other commercial presses too, you go through title transformations. The press doesn't always want the same title as you. I'd been talking about this book for a number of years with the title Abyssal Beginning. I think presses generally like to have, in the case of a single author study, the author's name in the title. But it was Abyssal Beginning, and then the subtitle was 'Glissant - Philosophy in the Middle Passage.' And I like the 'Glissant in the Middle Passage.' I think that's a fine title. But this idea of Abyssal Beginning was really something that had captivated my theoretical imagination for many years. And it was a notion that I got from his Poetics of Relation thinking about the Middle Passage. I've also always been interested in thinking about questions of beginning, like how does thought begin? What sort of events in Heidegger's sense of "Ereignis?" How do events appropriate thinking such that we think really in the wake of some kind of the event, right? Whether it's for somebody like Heidegger, the event of technology, or for post-World War II Jewish thinkers, how do we begin after the Shoah? Or in the case of Glissant, how do we think after the Middle Passage? And so for me, I started to think about how both the age of technology, modernity, and the Shoah in sort of Atlantic philosophy. So I'm just saying that to think widely about Europe and the Americas and Africa. I think that the Middle Passage hasn't been something that we've talked about much, if at all, philosophically. I think some of the most important thinkers in the Black Atlantic tradition - you think of like Du Bois or Fanon. Really the Middle Passage doesn't function in their philosophical imaginations. And that's fine, they have other kinds of projects. But what I really loved about Glissant was his movement across time to think about the Middle Passage, which is that place between continental Africa and arrival in the plantation Americas. The Middle Passage is that movement between two sides of the Atlantic world, but also two sides of experience. One side the experience of rootedness in a continent for millennia. And on the other side, this absolute new beginning in the Americas. And so that idea of there being this absolute rift or break with the past, and Glissant really taking that to its full conclusion and exploring it in all of its complexity, he just stands out for me as a particularly rigorous thinker around this idea that the Middle Passage functions in such a dramatic fashion. I think he's right about that. And so that's part of what drew me to it. Also as I said, this question of beginning, I've just been interested in the problem of beginning as a philosophical question since I was a graduate student in the early 90s. But also I think this may be something we come back to as we go along. This way that for Glissant, it's not simply that the Middle Passage is important for the Black Americas, but for the very idea of 'the Americas' itself, that along with conquest, the Middle Passage is what makes the Americas the Americas. And so for me, it's obviously the book is a single authored study. What does Glissant largely in his nonfiction or critical essay writing say about the Middle Passage, say about the problem of beginning and how does it impact how we think philosophically? That's the main focus. But along with that is also, how do we even think about place in a region like the Americas with the Middle Passage as a centerpiece? Not necessarily as conquest would be for me the other centerpiece, but that's not an indigenous studies book. But thinking about how the very formation of a name like "Americas" is linked to this catastrophic event. And so what would it mean to link the place we are and how we think from this place to this catastrophic event? I think as a philosophical problem, this is massively important. And Glissant's literary works, poetry, and especially his critical nonfiction really just gets out a depth I haven't seen in other thinkers. And for me, it changed the way I think philosophically. And I was like, let me make a book out of this.


Peter Adamson: The idea of philosophizing in the wake of a trauma, that parallel you draw to the Holocaust or the Shoah, I think that's very powerful. And of course, also, there's a lot of philosophy about how to come to grips with the Holocaust. Is it even possible to still write poetry and make art, philosophize in the wake of an event like that? Can you say a little bit more about that parallel or maybe just in general, the idea of philosophizing in the wake of a trauma or an abyss, as you put it?


John Drabinski: Yeah. So, you know, the first two chapters of the book are on trauma. The first chapter is trauma and its relation to the past. That deals with Glissant in a sort of comparative and contrasting relationship to thinkers around trauma and the Holocaust. So I explore in that first chapter that sense of trauma in the past in a comparative sense. And at bottom, like as a writer and thinker, I'm a comparativist. So this is my sort of go-to as an analytic, right? But then the second chapter, especially around Walter Benjamin's notion of ruins, I think about like the notion of ruins after the Holocaust and trauma in relation to Glissant's work on ruins in the New World and thinking about how these things signify differently, whether trauma is relation to the past or trauma is relation to the future - its interval to the future. For me, this was important because I think there are huge resources for thinking about traumatic experience. And I mean, it's a field, you know, trauma studies, especially in the 80s and 90s around the controversy in Germany around how to write history of the Holocaust and of German imperialism that then became philosophically so interesting among non-historians, you know, whether it's Derrida, Paul Celan, Delisacs, or most importantly for me, Claude Lanzmann. And initially when I finished my first book, Sensibility and Singularity, which was on Emmanuel Levinas and Phenomenology, I had formulated a new research program to talk about mostly Claude Lanzmann, but also other filmmakers around trauma and the Holocaust. But then through other readings and some really, I won't go into it, but very particular conversations, I started to think about the Americas as a synonym for trauma, right? As I had said just a few minutes ago. And so that redirected my reading, actually just gave up this, you know, substantially written project, but beginning project on thinking trauma after the Shoah. How do you represent? What does it mean to live after? What does it mean that life goes on? To shift that to thinking through Glissant about the Middle Passage. For me, why I think traumatic historical experience is important for how we think philosophically is because I do think that philosophy and philosophical thinking is linked to a sense of place, to its history and what it means to stand on the terrain you stand on. There was a moment where I realized that the way I was talking about trauma and what it means to go on, what it means to live and what it means to think after, I was thinking about this in a European context, which for me is absolutely distant. Although my family's heritage is largely European, my family is like multi-generational Los Angeles, right? Sort of where ethnicities of Europe go to die, right?


Peter Adamson: It's about as un-European as it gets, Los Angeles.


John Drabinski: Yes. It's deeply American. I know Adorno loved and hated that part of LA. I just had this realization in a conversation with Solomon Lerner at Lima Peru at a conference, this random conversation, where he just asked me, said, "are you thinking about these questions of trauma at a real arm's length because you're talking about a whole other part of the world?" But don't you know, he was the one who first said to me, "don't you know that these concepts and these ideas you're interested in around trauma are just synonyms for the Americas?" There was that moment where I thought for all the ways I had talked previously, the link between thinking and place and the historical experience of place, I hadn't actually thought myself as part of a place. That's where I started to think about what are those traumas of the Americas, right? One can't do both conquest and the Middle Passage responsibly in a short window, but I was like, you know, the Middle Passage has made the Americas what it is. And what does it mean to think from this place and think with thinkers who write from and about the Americas without coming to terms with or thinking about the impact on this historical experience on the very conditions of thinking? In this case, Glissant and the Middle Passage by its title is a book about Edouard Glissant. It's not a book about John Drabinsky thinking about the Americas. But it is a book that is so deeply embedded in a sense of place, the Caribbean, or what he also calls "the plantation world," that the way it unfolds from the traumatic experience of the Middle Passage, this absolute break of any sense of roots, any sense of identity through language, any other kinds of cultural form and political form. The absolute break with that and what it means to both register the melancholy and pain of that, that's him as a poet in many ways, but also the humanity of what it means to have lived after that for so many generations, for so many centuries. So I think what intrigues me about Glissant's engagement with trauma is how it's different than the Holocaust notion of traumatic experience and living after, but also the way that at the center of that is the humanity of those who lived after, right, in the plantation, under colonialism and in the post-colonial moments. So that's what it means to have lived after. It's just the sustained treatment he has of that for me gives this window into what it means to think in the Americas that I think is not singular, but it has a depth that stands out really a lot for me.


Peter Adamson: That idea that the Middle Passage for him is a kind of radical rupture seems to give us a contrast between Glissant and the thinkers of the Negritude movement, not obviously that they denied there was something traumatic that happened there and that there was a rupture, but they believed that they could tap into some kind of authentic spirit of African-ness or indeed Negritude, right? And I'm wondering whether, and so obviously Glissant actually talks about this, he talks about Negritude, would it be too simplistic to just think of him as the other side of that coin, just rejecting that whole project or is it more nuanced than that, the way he's responding to them?


John Drabinski: As with most theoretical movements or intellectual movements, they're often better, I think, put in the plural, right, that there are Negritudes. And there are some versions of Negritude that I think are just so massively different than Glissant. I think Leopold Senghor, he just said his vision of Negritude is so deeply rooted in the vernacular life of Africa. I think that it's an absolute contrast. But I think his real interlocutor in this is, of course, Aimé Césaire, who with Senghor was the most important figure in the Negritude movement. I think there are some interesting points of breakage there between Glissant and Césaire. In particular, I always go back to, and it's in the book as well, Césaire's essay, Culture and Colonization, from the 1956 Paris Congress. I teach that essay all the time, so if any former student of mine is listening to this, 'oh, here he goes, can't forget the 56th Congress...' To me, the most important cultural event of the mid-century. But in that essay, there's that distinction Césaire makes that's central to a vision of Negritude from the Caribbean perspective, which is that distinction between culture and civilization. And civilization is really where Césaire picks up Senghor's big idea about this, this big animating spirit or force or vital energy called Africa. But there's also cultural difference. That doesn't mean that Martinique and Senegal are the same. It means that they're animated by the same spirit. And I think that moment that Césaire says something about cultural difference is where Glissant steps in and pulls in a very different direction. And he pulls that notion of cultural difference in the South Atlantic world, so we call it the African diaspora, that he pulls it back to the archipelago and not back to Africa, as Césaire does. And I think this is for a couple of reasons. I think one is existential and one is maybe epistemological. I think the existential for him is just that Caribbeans are not Africans, that Caribbeans have to be thought on their own terms, right? That he, as a Caribbean, wants to think the Caribbean as a region, as an ethno-racial category or identity on its own terms and not look to a second or supervening explanation of identity and experience to lay over that. That's very much Césaire's move in that Caribbean version of negritude. But I think epistemologically, and this for me is, and I'll try to be brief on this, but brevity is not my strong suit, sorry. But in some ways, the difference between Césaire and Glissant on this comes down to the question of what does it mean to work with traces? Traces for Césaire literally lead the diaspora back to its origin. That traces are literally a trail that one can cross back across the Atlantic. We can figure it on a map.


Peter Adamson: Like undo the Middle Passage, as it were. Do the Middle Passage in reverse.


John Drabinski: Yeah. To reverse the Middle Passage. And in that way, I think Césaire, certainly it's true in Notebook, that he sees the Caribbean as a fundamentally abject space that needs some form of salvation, that needs some form of metaphysical and ontological intervention in order to save it. And that's what that undoing the Middle Passage, that moving back, does for Césaire. It has a redemptive power. I think it's very Christological that way. It's like this moment of really messianic force. But for Glissant, traces don't lead back to a place. They are rather reassembled on their own terms in the Caribbean. And that's the creative work of cultural production in the Caribbean context, is to take these traces, which for him could never be reduced to quote unquote, "Africa." Because when he talks about the plantation, one of the things he emphasizes is that no one on the plantation, none of the enslaved people spoke the same language. So they are already incompatible traces. But yet out of those incompatible traces comes the formation of Caribbean culture, of Caribbean languages. Everything from cuisine to religion to marriage rights to expressive culture. Add to that the way the Caribbean is also the crossroads of the world generally, that these islands, multiple languages flow from them. In Trinidad, the sort of everyday official language is English. But of course, Trinidad is the Spanish name, because it's gone through multiple colonial powers, which infuse that place, like all of the islands, with all of these other kinds of languages that come in, and they do real work on who and what it means to be a person. Then you add in South Asia, the multiple parts of Europe, as I said, the Middle East. And at some point, Glissant's like, look, we've made a world out of these traces. We've reassembled them in the way that we've reassembled them. And we have never reassembled them in order to represent where we came from centuries ago. And in that way, I think it's epistemological, because it's like just to know what the Creole language is or what a patois is, is to know that it's assembled of these fragments.


Peter Adamson: And is that what he means by Creolization, that kind of assemblage of the traces that have been left over? There's this other thing going on, which is these other people who write this work in praise of Creoleness, Créolité. And as you point out in the book, he distinguishes between Creolization and Créolité. And I guess that that has something to do with the idea that Creolization is an ongoing process that never reaches an end point. Is that right?


John Drabinski: Exactly. Yeah. And so that process of Creolization is that play of fragments. And that, oh, when I say play, I think that's really important. And part of what Glissant is trying to acknowledge as the really profound humanity of everyone after the Middle Passage, right? That there's this play with these fragments, that they're not just signs of melancholy. The actual worlds being made out of these fragments. There's a famous thing in Derek Walcott's Nobel lecture "the Antilles fragments of epic memory," where he says, you know, "we are just these shards of a vase that have been reassembled. But the vase reassembled is more beautiful than the original." And I think that captures what Glissant is thinking about with traces. But that vase, that image, right, which Walcott moves on from pretty quickly. But I think Glissant wouldn't want the vase as the representation or figure of that. I think he likes that idea of assembly, but he would want it to be broken again and reassembled in the sense of that's what cultural vitality in the Caribbean has always been. This ability to take in the other, right? And that other interrupts and reignites this process of mixture that creolization is about. So in an interview, he talked about one of the things that's hard about spending so much time away from Martinique and then going back, is that the everyday creole language and everyday creole communication changes over years. So he would have to go back there and he would have this really old-fashioned, you know, it's just like, you know, whatever age you are and you go back like 30, 40 years and you use your slang today and it's like weirdly out of date. You know, there's that sense of creole then as a whole life form is in that constant sense of movement. But the manifesto that Jean Bernabe, Raphael Confiant, and Patrick Chamousseau, the In Praise of Creoleness manifesto, very much articulates that creole as an identity. And I think they do that for political reasons. They're like Chamousseau's School Days novel is about the alienating force of like speaking creole at home and in your community, but then you go to school and your school is in French. And so I think that In Praise of Creoleness kind of is this argument of like if we assert creole as an identity, we are creoles, we speak creole, our world needs to reflect that. Schools and institutions need to be in creole. I think they have for political reasons have a very static idea of that notion of creolization. Whereas for Glissant, you know, he's interested in the way the Caribbean is a model for where we are in the 21st century in terms of constant transcultural contact. And I think for him, creolization is like that's what's happening everywhere, but the Caribbean has been doing this for centuries and is ongoing doing it - Caribbean music is constantly taking in different musical forms and becoming different because of that. And so that sense of it being dynamic and open-ended and chaotic, really showing in the senses the influence of Felix Guattari and notion of chaos and chaosophy. Because that sense of open-endedness and non-closure is essential for Glissant, but I think for the creolists, a more static idea is more politically powerful. And so they had really emphasized that side of this argument.


Peter Adamson: Reminds me of some of the stuff we've covered recently. So definitely the stuff we did on cultural studies about postmodern combination of different influences, but also the conversations we had with Ngugi wa Thiong'o recently. He actually mentions this phenomenon of being made to speak the colonial language when you go to school and not your native language. And then if you lay on top of that, the fact that the native language is creole, which a lot of people would tell you isn't even a real language, right? It's often seen very dismissively, nothing other than the kind of detritus of several languages mashed up together. And it's amazing that Glissant turns that all around and he values what has been disvalued. Can I ask you about another concept and how it relates to what we were just talking about? This is opacity. So as in being opaque, right? He says something kind of amazing, but also elusive to me and what it means, which is that someone might have the right to opacity. So it sounds like you have the right to not be seen or not seen through, the right to not be understood maybe? What exactly is going on?


John Drabinski: Well, if we think about creolization as this moment of transcultural contact in which something new is produced out of that contact. In his later work, he calls it this notion of "tout monde" or like the whole world. And so thinking about creolization as this formation of the entire globe, the whole world is in this process of creolization. And there's been criticism that I think is not unfair, that it's utopian and apolitical. I think his notion of opacity and the right to opacity, because 'right' there is a political term. It's juridical. It's a thing you can't take from me. And so when you think about that transcultural contact in a flattened space, that's just simply creatives, musicians, artists, poets, exchanging forms of inspiration and words and figures. But of course, that's not the way the world is structured, right? There's a sense of vulnerability and asymmetry built into that, say the French and the Martinican. That sense of exchange is so deeply informed by historical power, but also economic and political and cultural power today. That I think one of the things Glissant wants to hold on to is this idea that in those moments of contact, we, meaning Caribbeans, so I'm speaking in his voice, we have the right to withhold. Maybe even better, part of what we have rights to is that part of us that can't be seen, that part of us that Caribbeans know, but non-Caribbeans don't. And I think there's a very deep kind of ethic to that, right? Part of it's the politics I just said, but also at one point, he talks about the danger of contact and creolization is comprehension or understanding, depending on how it's translated. And the French there is "comprendre," and he emphasizes that "prendre," right? "To grasp." The idea of being grasped. And he says, you know, for black people in the Americas, this is an image of terror, right? To be grabbed and snatched and pulled away and taken somewhere else. That's what comprendre means, right? It means to literally seize it upon it, to be seized upon. And he's like, we have to find ways of articulating both why one would resist total transparency and understanding when we talk about creolization or cross-cultural contact, both why one would assert a sense of opacity and protectiveness, non-transparency, but also the way it already functions that way. You know, that way that there is across real differences, however we configure differences, part of what the word difference means is there's a part that you just don't understand. I mean, even just two individuals, you and I, I can explain myself for days and there'll be parts of me that you don't understand, right? And so the question I think for Glissant is when you're talking about identities and regions and global exchanges of insight and culture, how do we actually assert that right? At the right to our languages and the right to not be understood in a transparent sense, but the right to be seen, heard and engaged?


Peter Adamson: He also makes this contrast between the thinking that is characteristic of the archipelago and the kind of thinking that's characteristic of the continental. Is that a related point? So it's the idea that, you know, if you're a continental person, there's something you'll never quite get about what it is to be an "archipelagic," that's the word, person and vice versa, I suppose.


John Drabinski: I think so, but I think that the way he would tweak that is to say that those of the archipelago who understand themselves as archipelagic, which is already a series of qualifications, you know, Césaire was a continental thinker, right? That's the whole point of negritude.


Peter Adamson: Because he wants to identify with Africa, which is a continent and not, if precisely not with the Caribbean, which he thinks is debased and needs to get back to its roots. Yeah.


John Drabinski: And so that root of Africa, what he called civilization in the 56 essay, that notion of civilization is the root from which everything grows, right? You know, so Glissant would say, I think that the archipelagically attuned thinker, of which he is the innovator, the theoretical level, they don't have the delusions of people who work on a continental model. Because I think that he actually is committed to this idea, especially the later in his work we get, that there is no such thing as actual continental thinking. That this idea of a single root actually is not testimony to the kinds of histories of these places that think on a continental model, right? That it ends up being a fantasy. Whereas in the Caribbean, the archipelagic is this big traumatic event, right? In history, the birth of the Caribbean, the genocide of indigenous people and the repopulation of the islands with enslaved Africans. So that's this big historical event. One of his interlocutors and the person who I could have written the same book about is Antonio Benitez Rojo, his book, The Repeating Island. I love that book. I think he's a really underappreciated thinker, really brilliant writer, novelist and theorist. But he has this aside that I think Glissant picks up on in places where Benitez Rojo says, we in the Caribbean are (Benitez Rojo is Cuban), we in the Caribbean are archipelagic, not continental. We don't have roots in an ancient civilization like Europe has with ancient Greece. And then he sort of says that's a parenthetical, but of course, ancient Greece itself was archipelagic, wandering across the Middle East and Northern Africa for their ideas. But I think that at that moment when Benitez Rojo says that, it's like, well, everybody's archipelagic. It's just the fantasy of the continental, which for Glissant is a really dangerous political move, is a source of authoritarianism of the most destructive forms of identity and racial purity. In the end, like Europe doesn't have, and Africa doesn't have an actual continental sense of a single root. Again, because one of his big influences in addition to Benitez Rojo is Deleuze and Guattari. This is the origins of fascism as the single root. And it's the rhizome that actually both phenomenologically describes the being of people, but also the being of our historical experience. And I think Glissant very much picks up on that, but it's just going to resonate differently because he's writing that from the Caribbean as a direct description of the archipelago rather than Deleuze and Guattari trying to undermine, sort of May 68 style, all of these post-war fantasies of French identity.


Peter Adamson: One thing, just stepping back from all the kind of details of this theory, one thing that I wanted to ask you about in closing is the way Glissant thinks and writes, because it seems very characteristic of him that is full of these images like archipelagos, the one we've just been talking about. But there's a lot of them, like the shoreline, the mangrove, the sea, the ship, the slave ship, obviously. And on the one hand, these read kind of literally, I mean, the Middle Passage is literally about slave ships coming across the sea. But on the other hand, they always have this additional meaning. And I'm sort of tempted to call them metaphors, but that might not be right. There's only images. It's very imagistic. Of course, he also writes poetry. Is this somehow an expression of an underlying aesthetic theory, or is it just because he's a poet who's writing philosophy?


John Drabinski: That's a tough question. I think that Glissant, not unlike a lot of Caribbean writers, his thinking is so intimately intertwined with landscape that it's always going to be part of his writing, just because of his sensibilities, I guess, that's what I'm trying to say. But also because I think that for him, the Caribbean landscape is its own kind of epistemology, right? That the mangrove, which is a rhizome, it has multiple roots, and it lives at the shoreline. It's not killed by the sea. It's not killed by salt water, right? It lives in the brackish. It lives in the salt water. It lives in the sand. And so I think he just looks at that. I mean, you can call it a poet. You can call it just a reckoning with the way identity and landscape are so entwined. It's like, there's a whole theory of the person right there, sitting on the beach and seeing this tree thrive, just in ways that you think it shouldn't be able to, in the way that, so maybe it is a metaphor, in the way that enslaved Africans never should have been able to survive this level of trauma. But they never should have been able to emerge as a cultural force in world history. Right. So it's like, you know, the beauty of the mangrove, the beauty of the shoreline, which is also unforgivingly hot and inhospitable, right? It's the paradox, the paradox of being Caribbean, right? That you should never have made it. And yet you did not only made it, but thrived and became something really beautiful.


Peter Adamson: That's great. So actually, those are all the questions we had about Glissant. But there's one other thing I thought we could discuss. And actually it goes back to identity. This is what you were just talking about. So you're not from the Caribbean. Neither am I. In fact, we're both white American men. I mean, you're someone who's been working in African American studies for the better part of two decades. I can't say that, but I mean, I've been doing this podcast on Africana philosophy together with Chike for years now. How do you feel about the position of being a white man who's working on this kind of material?


John Drabinski: It depends for me on how you mean that question. Because there are lots of ways to think about the question. You know, it's like, you know, you may ask it in the way of why is John, a white man, talking about Glissant when there are Afro-Caribbean writers writing on Glissant as well? You know, that's because you asked me. And so I came to talk. So I mean, that's one level of question. I think you need to talk to everybody, hopefully at some point. I have such an extensive podcast. I have to say I have a lot of numbers envy when it comes to your podcast.


Peter Adamson: It's starting to feel like I've talked to absolutely everybody... We haven't!


John Drabinski: Then there's the question of who has the right to speak. For me, that question of who has the right to speak. When people ask me about that, I usually ask, well, what is the kind of speaking that worries you around racial identity, right? That me as a white person who works with black materials as a teacher and scholar, what kind of speaking would be worrisome? And usually what people mean by that, maybe you have something particular in mind or other people have other things in mind, but is speaking for other people, right? Trying to articulate what the black experience is. And that's not an interest of mine as a writer. It's not within my purview, my capacity, or even my ethical horizon to do such work. However, working with texts, I think there's a standard. Like how well do I work with the text? Do I do good intertextual work? Do I do good comparative work? Is the scholarship solid? Do I do close readings? Do I take him seriously as an intellectual? I had a black writer, Glissant. I have a book I'm finishing up on James Baldwin. Same question. So I think that's part of it. Have I been a responsible scholar? I would also say that, and I'm not sure how this fits into the question, but two things. I had said this a little bit at the beginning, the Middle Passage and the way Glissant talks about it, the Middle Passage made the Americas and I'm of the Americas and I'm not of anywhere else. And so for me, this is something that I think we all need to take very seriously and think very hard about, whether we're intellectuals or just casual people in conversation. And so in that way, I think that both there's an imperative to think about it and that I don't know what it would mean to say that I don't have anything to learn from Glissant or from a black writer about anti-black racism in the case of Baldwin, the Middle Passage and the plantation in Glissant. Obviously, Glissant is one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century. He has everything to teach us. And I think 'us' has to be thought expansively. I think anybody in the world, but I think especially somebody in the Americas, it's all but required reading, certainly required thinking. So I don't know if that's exactly what you had in mind. I'm curious how you think about this because I don't feel defensive about it at all, but I also feel like the precision of the question and the particular ways that it resonates are so different.


Peter Adamson: Yeah, that's a good point. I mean, I think that one reason it seems relevant here is, well, actually, we haven't had that many interviews where, on this series at least, when I was talking to another white American man, right? So it just kind of seemed like a point to bring it up. But I think also it is relevant to Glissant. It goes back to this thing about opacity. So if you think that part of what Glissant is saying is, 'well, look, I have the right to not be fully understood.' Often, we think that the academic's job is to fully understand and maybe then convey what they've fully understood to an audience which hasn't read all the books and had the time and luxury and privilege of doing what we do. You could say, well, are we somehow, to put it really provocatively, are we violating the right to opacity in the sense that we're claiming for ourselves the ability and the right to do exactly what he's saying that we can't actually do?


John Drabinski: One thing I would say is that the way Glissant himself understands opacity is that opacity would be built into the text itself. And so there are obvious opacities. I mean, I mentioned landscape. That's an abstraction when I talk about it. When I read other interlocutors with Glissant, in particular the Creolists, Chameausault or the little bit that Raphael Confiant talks about Glissant, the level of, I don't know how else to put it, the level of intimacy about place that goes on in that conversation is for me this reveal of what I already know is there, but it's an explicit reveal of the limits of my own reach as a scholar. What I can talk about is my relationship to the text. But the text has a relationship to itself and its own place in the Caribbean that is not the same as my own approach to it. Truth and method, I take Gadamer's articulation of the hermeneutic situation really seriously, that the text speaks to us, but we also speak to the text. And that when we write and read and understand and reflect that understanding in our writing, it's about that event of how we meet the text, how my voice and the text's voice meet. But if you think about the way a voice goes out from my body and out from the text, that also means something lies behind it. And so I think where this kind of thing would get really sketchy and really questionable is in those moments of exceeding that limit that the text already inscribes and that limit of the hermeneutic situation, which for me is built into the very event of reading, but also reflected in the way different kinds of scholars engage something like landscape, something like Creole language. I'm not a Creole speaker. I have some of the Creole translations of Glissant's poetry, and it's interesting to read and see what I can and can't read. It's these experiences of opacity and revealing. And so for me, that play is part of the multi-vocal scholarship that some scholars say different things. And that for me is a good, but I guess in the end, what I'm most concerned about is 'am I my best scholarly self' in relation to Glissant's texts, which he has made available for us to read and think about. And being at my best is not at all the imperative to understand anything and everything in the text, but to also understand my own limitations. I think when I talked before about staging it in terms of the Holocaust and the Middle Passage, that for me functions as almost like a hermeneutical confession. It's like, this is how I got to the project. This is how I think and frame. This is not how you have to think about Glissant or how Glissant thinks about the Caribbean. This is how I got into these texts. And so as a text worker, I think that sense of transparency as a writer is absolutely essential. And always being mindful of the limits of the kinds of things that you can and can't know, precisely as you said, because the questions of opacity.


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.