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  • Crossroads PoeticsGlissant and Ethnography
  • Christina Kullberg (bio)

Édouard Glissant’s work seems to actualize the metaphor used by French ethnographer and writer Michel Leiris to capture the Caribbean: it is a poetics of the crossroads between several discourses and forms of expression. But the intersection between history, sociology, philosophy, poetry, and other areas often occurs without the author fully explaining the mechanisms behind his appropriations of discourses that usually lie outside the realm of literature. Ethnography, for example, appears with such inconsistency in his writings that it is even difficult to speak of it in terms of one single discourse.1 In the same book he condemns ethnography only to dream of a “Caribbean ethnography” to come a few pages later. Ethnography is sometimes treated as a science and sometimes characterized as part of literature’s “movement towards the other.” Clearly, not only does Glissant’s appropriation of other discourses remain unarticulated; it is often also highly ambiguous.

In Poétique de la Relation Glissant claims that ethnography stems from the need to understand foreign cultures but that this understanding may be reductive (Poetics 26). According to Glissant, ethnography belongs to the colonial powers, providing them with a discursive structure to map Caribbean reality and its people for a foreign (European) audience. The problem is that Caribbeans internalize this external vision and see themselves not as subjects but as objects of knowledge. Thereby Glissant saw ethnography as contributing to the distortion of the Caribbean peoples’ visions of themselves and their reality, thus contributing to alienating Caribbeans from themselves and the world they inhabit. At one point in L’Intention poétique he writes, “We hate ethnography: whenever, executing itself elsewhere, it does not fertilize the dramatic vow of relation” (Poetic Intention 122). The statement is a general critique of “traditional” ethnography for not contributing to an exchange between cultures, one shared by many postcolonial writers. The ethnography Glissant loathes is always distanced in regard to the “drama” of cultural interconnectedness. Nevertheless, the vocabulary he uses is inflected with his own concepts, notably the notion of relation. In saying that the negative ethnography does not add to relation, via a sort of negative dialectics, he hints at the possibility of another kind of ethnography that could add to the process of relation.

Significantly, when Glissant underscores the similarities between ethnography and literature, the negative connotations of ethnography, seen as a colonial discourse reducing others to objects of knowledge, fade into the background. He writes in an article on Leiris that these two discourses represent a “striking unity in a method that covers two domains: the expression and the voyage, the self and the Other. Literature and ethnography will follow the same stream, the first contributing to the latter and reciprocally” (“Leiris ethnographe” 611). [End Page 968] Both ethnography and literature are here understood in broad terms as approaches to the real, and the difference between the two is localized in their respective expressions. Glissant places the idea of démarche, method, at the forefront. The underlying method behind both ethnography and (some forms of) literature implies a double movement: writing and travelling, the self reaching towards the other. They must both operate simultaneously on several levels. Ethnography is always connected to something else, whether it is the peoples that are studied, the travel necessary for fieldwork, or the art of writing needed to convey the acquired knowledge to the reader. But aside from these general rapprochements between literature and ethnography based on a broad, common, initial desire, Glissant stresses that “ethnography is not literature”; they belong to different “sectors” in a general search for the world and ethnography must not be “intermixed with the ‘literary’” (Poetic Intention 118). What can we make of this? First of all, if ethnography is problematic, why then not simply do away with it? What is the appeal of ethnography? Second, to what kind of ethnography is he referring? How is the notion of ethnography transformed and distorted in his writings?

Roumauld Fonkoua has already shown in “Édouard Glissant: Naissance d’une anthropologie au siècle de l’assimilation” that Glissant was inspired by ethnography as a framework to articulate a particular form of Caribbean...