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Voicing Memory: History and Subjectivity in French Caribbean Literature (review)

From: French Forum
Volume 31, Number 3, Fall 2006
p. 170 | 10.1353/frf.2007.0022

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Most if not all work in postcolonial literary criticism seeks to combine principled political commitment (in a context marked by the eclipse of Marxism and the waning of anti-colonial struggle) and contemporary theoretical sophistication (in a context still mainly marked by the influence of Adorno and Foucault). Nick Nesbitt's book on francophone Caribbean literature is unusually successful on both counts. Wide-ranging and impressively documented, it revives a broadly dialectical conception of historical agency and artistic innovation in terms that retain both a sharp political edge and a respect for contextual specificity and constraint.

Nesbitt's point of departure is a pessimistic assessment of the cultural alienation and political dependency of contemporary Guadeloupe and Martinique. The directly anti-colonial promise once associated with revolutionary figures like Guadeloupe's Louis Delgrès has long since been incorporated into an ever more commodified local folklore (a process described in Nesbitt's first and perhaps most original chapter). Against the progressive consolidation of neo-colonialism in the Caribbean, Nesbitt presents Aimé Césaire in particular—and after him more recent writers like Edouard Glissant, Daniel Maximin, Maryse Condé and Edwidge Danticat—as struggling to recover a relational subjective autonomy through the "aesthetic construction of historical experience." The key philosophical inspiration behind this effort is Hegel, who as Nesbitt points out exerted a direct and lasting influence upon both Césaire and Glissant. As opposed to the more acontextual frameworks of both Kant and Heidegger, Hegel seeks to articulate the universal directly through the mediation of the particular. Nesbitt uses Hegel to explain how "self-consciousness arises from the specific experience of lived contradiction," and in particular from the concrete Caribbean experience of slavery and exploitation. This explanation is the basis, in turn, for the account that Nesbitt develops, as much from Glissant as from Adorno, of the process whereby this alienation is overcome through its conversion into a semi-autonomous aesthetic construction. Nesbitt's Hegel privileges recognition of the opacity or non-identity of the other (Adorno's "preponderance of the object") over the claims of an absolute subject who sees in its objects only the manifestation of its own creative consciousness (Kojève's "end of history").

Most of Nesbitt's book consists of detailed interpretations of the work of Césaire and more recent Caribbean writers as successive contributions to this broadly Hegelian and tendentially global project. Césaire figures here as a fundamentally ambivalent figure. Nesbitt acknowledges his early work, in particular his landmark Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, as the inaugural affirmation of an anticolonial subjectivity in the francophone world. But he sees his later work in particular (most notably the play that dramatizes the corruption of Haiti's Roi Christophe) as tempted if not compromised by leanings towards a Kojevian or absolutist Hegelianism. This sets the stage, in duly dialectical fashion, for Glissant to emerge as the more consistently relational artist and thinker. Unlike most admirers of Glissant, Nesbitt recognizes that his recent writings are themselves susceptible to the lure of the immediate or absolute, albeit less in a Hegelian than in a Spinozist or Deleuzian vein. Nesbitt prefers, however, to privilege Glissant's concern for local specificity, artistic construction and political engagement. Although the present (and rather more skeptical) reviewer doesn't find it entirely persuasive, the result is a sympathetic portrayal of Glissant as the champion of an "aesthetic constructionism," i.e., of a painstaking effort to respect the "opacity" of the other, to secure the "autonomy of objects by passing through subjective experience, maximizing its determinations in a poetic quasi-logic rather than eliminating subjectivity in deference to an engulfing scientific positivism."

Exactly who or what is threatened by such engulfing, however, isn't always clear. More substantial grounds for skepticism may be signaled by the fact that the period (mainly the late 1980s and 1990s) during which Glissant no doubt became the single most influential figure in francophone Caribbean literary studies was also witness to the intensification of those very forms of dependency and alienation his work is meant to oppose. Just coincidence? Maybe. The problem is that Nesbitt's account offers no clear way of deciding the point either...

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