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Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory
Theory and Cultural Studies
Celia Britton. Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory. Charlottesville: U Virginia P, 1999. 224 pp.
The title of Celia Britton's study of the Martiniquan theorist and writer Edouard Glissant signals this book's important contribution to the growing body of writing on Glissant. Hers is the first book-length work to situate Glissant in the context of contemporary postcolonial theory, noting how his writings can be read alongside those of more widely known theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak. Britton complements her comprehensive study of Glissant's theoretical writings with a detailed examination of how his theory is realized in the practice of his fiction. While not superseding the pioneering work of J. Michael Dash on Glissant, Britton's elucidation of Glissant's theories in particular will significantly broaden the scope of current critical understanding of his oeuvre.
Britton's study is organized thematically, beginning with an introductory chapter that "outlines those aspects of [Glissant's] theoretical writing that relate to the question of language and cultural resistance" and juxtaposes them with other postcolonialist theory. This problematic becomes the organizing principle for the remaining chapters, which explore the strategies of resistance that emerge in Glissant's critical and creative writing. The introduction elucidates four main concepts that emerge from his "complex, ramified, proliferating, and constantly evolving body of ideas": relation, opacity, detour, and counterpoetics. Those acquainted with Glissant's writings will have some familiarity with these terms (although translators are not consistent in their English renderings of his French), but Britton's definitions serve both as an introduction to and a further elucidation of the implications of these terms. [End Page 553]
In succeeding chapters, Britton situates Glissant in the current debate over the viability of Creole as a national language. According to Britton, Glissant presents Creole as one of the more complex forms of opacity, a language that conceals meaning while loudly proclaiming to reveal its meanings. The "ruses of Creole" are in its secrecy and cunning; for Glissant, Creole exemplifies language as a strategy of resistance. Yet he stops short of advocating Creole as the "natural" language of the people; in contrast with créolistes such as Chamoiseau and Confiant, Glissant states, "Creole was not, in some idyllic past, and is not yet our national language." Creole, a language developed in response to inequality, oppression, and cultural repression, is not in itself sufficient to counter that inequality. Instead, for Glissant, both Creole and French, the language of the colonizer, produce in Martiniquans "an unsuspected source of anguish." His response to this linguistic anguish comes from what he terms, variously, "anti-poetics," "forced poetics," and, most commonly, "counterpoetics." Here Glissant's distinction between langue and langage comes into play: "Forced poetics emerges from this opposition between a langue that one uses and a langage that one needs." As Britton explains, counterpoetics does not solve the problem of the lack of a natural, authentic language but instead serves as a "constrained and contradictory response to a constrained and contradictory social situation."
The most problematic of the four basic terms that structure Glissant's theoretical writings is that of opacity. He presents this as the fundamental unknowability of the other; he rejects the notion that we can presume truly to "understand" another, precisely because these acts of understanding have, in the history of colonialism, proved synonymous with oppression and objectification. Instead, Glissant advocates opacity as an active strategy of resistance (in contrast to Spivak's writing on the subaltern's inability to speak). Opacity can take the form of simply hiding from the surveillance of the colonizer, but the more complex forms of opacity involve a deliberate obscurity. Britton quotes this line to demonstrate Glissant's thinking--"We demand for all the right to opacity"--a claim that Britton lets stand without any interrogation of its viability. One might ask exactly how opacity differs from the concept of the "alien other" and whether opacity can be deemed an active strategy of...