- Hungry Ironies in the French Antilles
The following was obligingly said to a French psychiatrist who voiced his concern about the ravages of mental disorder in Martinique, by a prefect who was no less French: “That is not important. The essential thing is that material poverty has visibly diminished. You no longer see malnourished children on the roadside. The problems you now raise are almost irrelevant.”
Any human life that is even the least bit balanced is structured around, on the one hand, the immediate needs of drinking-surviving-eating (to put it plainly, the prosaic); and, on the other, the aspiration to self-fulfillment, where nourishment takes the form of dignity, honor, music, songs, dances, reading, philosophy, spirituality, love, and free time for fulfilling the deepest longings (to put it plainly, the poetic).
From the starving island of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (1947) to Simone Schwarz-Bart’s sun-swallowing beast in Ti-Jean L’Horizon (1979) to Maryse Condé’s voracious narration in her more recent novel, Story of the Cannibal Woman (2007), hunger’s capacity to evoke both material suffering and immaterial desire has given it a prominent role in French Caribbean literature. The evocation of hunger has long functioned, particularly in social realist texts, as an embodiment or trace of historical violence, as a call to conscience, and as an indictment of a contemporary society or political system that valorizes human rights in the abstract while neglecting the concrete disparities between those who eat their fill and those who go without. Metaphorical hunger also occupies an important position within Guadeloupean and Martinican literary history as the motivating force driving the practice of literary cannibalism, a practice singled out by Suzanne Césaire as essential to the future of Antillean literature when she famously declared, in 1942, “Martinican poetry will be cannibal, or will not be” (“La poésie martiniquaise sera cannibale ou ne sera pas”) (50). In the [End Page 107] following pages, I would like to examine the relationship between hunger as a biological phenomenon and hunger as a metaphor for drive or desire. As the epigraphs above show, the seemingly self-evident prioritization of biological need over less “immediate” and “visible” political and psychological distress has become a source of concern for writers like Edouard Glissant and his colleagues, who have pointed out that prioritizing material necessities over other needs can subtly but dangerously lead to the exclusion of those needs altogether, to the inability to think those needs as needs. The 2009 Manifesto for the “Products” of High Necessity (Manifeste pour les “produits” de haute nécessité)1 confronts this exclusion in neoliberal discourse, and attempts to subvert or “short-circuit” this discourse, to use Slavoj Žižek’s term, in order to build a new, postcolonial, post-capitalist conception of hunger from its rewired parts. This attempt to redefine and revalue hunger relies heavily on irony, and, more specifically, on ironic reversals of meaning that arguably perpetuate rather than unravel or undermine the very distinctions and hierarchies at the heart of the current political and economic system that these writers seek to challenge. Irony can also be seen, however, as an instantiation of, or critical response to, what Žižek calls a “parallax gap,” the “key” to dialectics’ “subversive core” (4), and thus as an appropriate means for such a challenge. In what ways does the ironization of hunger function as a short-circuiting practice in Antillean literature and thought? To what extent do metaphors of hunger and short-circuiting themselves mutually elucidate or short-circuit one another as they intersect, overlap, and diverge?
Hunger as Parallax
In Žižek’s use of the term, short-circuiting is a metaphor and model for critical reading. As he puts it,
A short circuit occurs when there is a faulty connection in the network—faulty, of course, from the standpoint of the network’s smooth functioning. Is not the shock of short-circuiting, therefore, one of the best metaphors for a critical reading? Is not one of the most effective critical procedures to cross...