- The Living and the Poetic IntentionGlissant’s Biopolitics of Literature
In this sense, life is that which is capable of error…. With man, life has led to a living being that is never completely in the right place, that is destined to “err” and to be “wrong.”—Michel Foucault, Life: Experience and Science
Ah ! La connaissance est là, si loin, mais qu’importe: voici que tout est vivant, dans toutes les directions, et sur les hauts plateaux!—Édouard Glissant, La terre le feu l’eau et les vents
Nothing is True, Everything is Living
This statement, seemingly so radical and definitive, recurs as both a motto and an admonition in the later publications and lectures of Édouard Glissant. It is used as the epigraph to the Tout-monde poetry anthology La terre le feu l’eau et les vents, the final work to be published during the author’s lifetime. Glissant himself suggested that in 2010, this phrase should be the theme for the annual seminar cycle of the Institut du Tout-monde, the institution he had founded in Paris. In this seminar cycle, he gave a keynote lecture with the same title, “Nothing is true, everything is living” (“Rien n’est vrai, tout est vivant”), and it is this speech which will structure many of the reflections developed in this article. Glissant’s 2010 lecture was intended to be part of a larger work in progress—”a great poem,” as he defined it, which would hinge on the relationship between the true and the living. Reflections on life and living, particularly in their often conflictual relationship with truth, historic sense, rational consciousness, and the discourse of knowledge, became increasingly important in Glissant’s later works. However, as we shall see, this theme runs through his entire oeuvre and, at a deeper level, constantly structures—and destructures—his literary language.
Glissant had accustomed us to these sudden shifts, to these abrupt movements, to ruptures which could paradoxically co-exist alongside recurrences and continuity. These genuine detours, where theoretical and conceptual investigations cannot be separated from the generative force of poetry, serve to create a breach in the logico-argumentative [End Page 916] fabric of the discourse, sometimes reaching a veritable point of vertigo. A new concept or figure—that of the “living” in contrast with the notion of the “absolute of truth”—surfaces here, exposing what had previously been thought and written to new perspectives. Borrowing a term recently applied in the Italian context by Roberto Esposito, it can be defined as a “living thought”: an uninterrupted movement characterized by continuity and rupture, analytic rationality perpetually open to the unexpectedness of the event, and alert to the vertigo of the unimagined. Glissant represented this a number of times through the baroque metaphor of the spiral which, as we shall see, is the very form of the living’s inherent coming-into-being, as well as the form of language generated from this transition. Language crosses the living and allows itself to be crossed by it, establishing a relationship that both separates and articulates: this is its immanent and impersonal “form-of-life.” In using this term, I am drawing from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben: “What I call a form-of-life is a life which can never be separate from its form, a life in which it is never possible to separate something like bare life” (“Forma-di-vita” 89, my translation).
This openness toward the living in the last phase of Glissant’s work produces a double movement that is both hermeneutic and theoretical. It represents a return to several particularly significant moments in his work. These can be reinterpreted through an analysis which focuses on the relationship between life and form, between origin and history, and also between the living body—in its indomitable opacity—and poetic language. This requires a new, innovative approach, and can be best achieved by relating Glissant’s oeuvre to contemporary thought on biopolitics. The latter, driven by the later writings of Foucault and Deleuze and other philosophers working mainly in France and in Italy—including Agamben and Esposito—has shaped the more recent critical discussion on power...