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  • What Is Trauma to the Future? On Glissant’s Poetics
  • John E. Drabinski (bio)

How then to do things with tears?—Deliver us Zion, from the mist. Kill us in the light.

Allen Grossman, “How to do things with tears”

In “The Formation of Intellectuals,” Antonio Gramsci writes:

It can be seen that the “organic” intellectuals which each new class creates with itself and elaborates in its own progressive development are for the most part “specializations” of partial aspects of the primitive activity of the new social type which the new class has brought to light.1

The question of individual and collective identity is at stake in these remarks. Intellectual work, on Gramsci’s account, is both self-articulation and collective transformation. That is to say, the function of the intellectual is both to articulate the un(der)articulated inner-life of a class and to begin with nearly nothing. The intellectual, at least potentially, both transforms and creates the relation of subaltern classes to history—that is, to their muted history. This relation is always something new and so is a characteristic that differentiates the transformative creator, the “organic intellectual,” from the bourgeois institution of “the thinker.” Whereas the institution [End Page 291] of the intellectual (professor, politician, labor organizer) reifies the given ideology of the ruling corporative class—buttressing what Althusser will later call ideological state apparatuses—the organic intellectual begins with another, perhaps “counter,” promise: the future.

This function of the organic intellectual turns, at least in part, on the bearing of an intelligible core upon the collective. The intellectual brings that bearing to language. As the gathering point of that bearing, language clusters the myriad forces of social and economic class—the works and labors of those without an articulated history—to an emergent identity with a new or renewed sense of collectivity. Indeed, this is why Gramsci, in “The Modern Prince,” demarcates the difference between corporative and hegemonic class in terms of the entrenchment of the former in history and the “moral and intellectual” transformation of the latter into the future.

In the following remarks, I would like to stage a confrontation between this account of the intellectual and the consequences of trauma for theory and theorizing. For trauma fundamentally alters the terms of the intellectual’s work, and so the conditions under which Gramsci’s organic intellectual labors must be reconceived. Only then can it be enacted in response to that wake within which shattered words are first born: living after catastrophe. Whose trauma and what wake? As we shall see in what follows, the question of specificity must be central to any account of trauma and its relation to time. My concern here will be with the trauma of the Middle Passage and the wake that goes by the name Caribbean, engaging both in the work of Édouard Glissant. His work begins with the Présence Africaine collective, which put him in close contact with the Negritude movement and its early detractors, including Frantz Fanon. As a poet, novelist, and essayist, Glissant is near singularly dedicated to excavating the long shadow of the Middle Passage in contemporary Caribbean poetics, politics, and matters of New World identity. How is it that an identity can be—or even could have been—formed out of such a painful, traumatic past? What does the cultural work of the intellectual, rooted in the geography of thinking (for Glissant, of course, Martinique and the West [End Page 292] Indies more broadly), produce in terms of a collective’s concern for a future? How is that future folded into the past?

With these questions, Glissant’s labors are situated precisely between these two forces: intellectual work as the formation of identity and the enigmatic situation of thinking after, and in the wake of, catastrophic trauma. And so we shall see how important it is to think the specificity of trauma in the transformation of wounds into a future.


The question of trauma has been central to various cultural, literary, and philosophical projects over the past decade-plus. Much, if not most, of that conversation is guided by two threads: the experience(s) of the Holocaust and the relation...


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pp. 291-307
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