The Birthplace of Relation: Edouard Glissant's Poétique de la relation
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The Birthplace of Relation
Edouard Glissant's Poétique de la relation

To begin is an act of gravity and an act of responsibility, especially if a new world is about to begin. I mean this literally: to begin a world is to ground it, to pull it down—with gravity—from an area of flux onto the firm ground where any subsequent creation can rest its feet. To begin a world is also to render it responsible—bound to respond and desirous of response—to the worlds that preexist, follow and surround it. Gravity, which I mean here as the pull of and to a place, together with responsibility as dialogue, mark the manner in which Edouard Glissant conceives and writes the location of the Caribbean into the global context. This aspect of Glissant's writing, which I intend to explore, focuses on the dialogue of places, the serious and lasting polyphony of geographical and poetic sites, across worlds and across history.

When, in the opening to his Poétique de la relation, Glissant begins this new world in an open boat ("La barque ouverte"), he does so by imagining and marking a beginning not just of his collection of essays, but of an entire culture. This certainly is a grave and responsible act: an act of creation. Unlike his literary predecessor Aimé Césaire, Glissant refrains from putting Africa at the origin of all things Caribbean.1 He does not deny or silence Africa, but he sees it where it is—across a vast ocean that ships traverse, as the other shore of the Atlantic slave trade—which matters precisely as origin and not as ground. To do otherwise would amount to ignoring or forgetting the slave ship and the ocean itself, while displacing the Caribbean by rooting it elsewhere. Above all, Glissant is concerned with the gravity of place as such, of this concrete, deictic place, continuously and contextually related to all other places, at all times.

The opening image of the slave ship connects, once and for all, despite and against the will and being of its human cargo, two geographical points: Africa and the New World. From this line of spatial bonding through bondage, Glissant constructs the language of spatio-temporal images that will serve to structure and set apart his poetic philosophy, which challenges and redefines many contemporary theories of postcoloniality. Although he imagines the slave ship as the initial matrix of suffering and destruction, Glissant also defines it as a generative matrix, and therefore a womb, that produces an indissoluble link between the multilingual and initially disconnected peoples for whom the unknown and abysmal experience of slavery and deportation will become a source of the "unanimité" of shared suffering. Beyond this local union, Glissant suggests that the knowledge of the abyss, i.e., the oceanic depth of pain and devastation survived and remembered, creates not only the specificity of the cultures sprung from slavery, but also their profound and enduring connection to the world as a whole, "le Tout." [End Page 475]

In re-imagining the experience of the ship as matrix or, literally, womb ("la barque-matrice") and its trajectory, Glissant plays with two important aspects of spatial imagination: origin and destination. This ship connects the African origin, which Glissant calls "la Terre-d'Avant," to the lasting immediacy of the New World, frozen in an enduring deixis of "cette terre-ci." Instead of designating Africa as the sole origin and mother-country, however, Glissant unexpectedly transforms the ship itself into a womb, from which a "new" people will emerge. In the opening chapter of Poétique de la relation, the slave ship is suspended in the generative void of the ocean between Africa and the New World. In this manner, Glissant reinvents the inaugural moment of postcolonial imagination that places spatial and geographical in-betweeness and relationality at the center of his theoretical concerns. But how does Glissant move beyond this moment of dislocation into a theoretical space that allows him to claim: "Non pas seulement connaissance particulière, appétit, souffrance et jouissance d'un people particulier, non pas cela seulement, mais la connaissance du Tout, qui...