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  • Taking Glissant’s Philosophy into Social Sciences?A Discussion of the Place of Aesthetics in Critical Development Discourse
  • Heidi Bojsen (bio)

Glissant as a Politically Engaged Philosopher of Aesthetics

Roger Toumson describes Glissant as combattant—struggling against oppressive hegemonic concepts and regimes of thought. By blending philosophical concerns with poetics, Glissant’s work also contributes to a combat—through the strategy of “putting-into-Relation” (mise-en-Relation)—against disciplinary territories and rigid epistemological regimes of thought. In Philosophie de la Relation Glissant describes in his own way how he links and relays political engagement with poetic thought and aesthetics:

Poetics never cease to struggle. Particular poetics that appear around the world can be realized politics everywhere: as poetics and as non-universal particularities…

The political is nourished by direct vision and by the imaginary of the world, and it consolidates its actions as it simultaneously embraces these two poetics, which refer to the non-totalitarian totality (this is not an internationalism of ideologies) and to a belonging to localities (countries and peoples).


According to Glissant, we may conceive the political as a combination of shared lived experiences that do not confine people in closed ideologies or social conformity because it will be informed by a poetics of the imaginary and thus remain open to variations, digressions, exceptions, and improvisations. As Celia Britton has already argued, Glissant’s advice that political and social action must take the local circumstances as its point of departure while taking in ideas from the world also appears in Poetics of Relation, in Introduction à une poétique du Divers, and Traité du Tout-Monde. In the latter this even translates into a discussion of education and social policy (Britton 10).

Toumson points out that the overall attempt to conceive political engagement and thought as a poetics or to be aware of the political implications and potential empowerment in poetic thought is apparent from Glissant’s first novel La Lézarde (1958) and other novels (115–16). [End Page 995]

Inspired by these and other contributions to the research on Glissant, I would like to discuss how Glissant’s particular linking of political engagement with social and cultural issues and aesthetic expression may be relevant in other disciplinary contexts than those of philosophy, literary, postcolonial, and cultural studies. My question is whether Glissant’s thought is relevant to debates going on within the field of social sciences, more precisely within the field of development studies, i.e. the study of how development work is theorized and practiced. Taking a few of Glissant’s numerous concepts and interventions, I am interested in how we may bring concepts such as Relation, opacity, and detour into the discussions of social scientists and development scholars, when they describe notions such as development, participation, partnership, and the position and strategies of the development worker in relation to the practical fieldwork. My contention would be that such a move might affect how we think of development studies. This will constitute the first part of my paper.

The final section will address Glissant’s use of aesthetics in his philosophical and political engagement and how this relates to the move into development studies. Reading Glissant is an invitation to think of cultural differentiation as an ongoing process which is at the same time situated in place and time. It is historical and, in many instances, marked by colonial and postcolonial pasts or contemporary histories. But reading his work is also an invitation to conceptualize this process of cultural differentiation through the means of aesthetics, through the meanings and images conveyed by poetics.2 This may seem much more at odds with the norms of social sciences. Yet, many of the social and cultural practices that are changed by or occur as reactions to development work manifest themselves through aesthetic expressions such as music, theater, various artifacts, and oral and written narratives. Leaving these manifestations aside or fixing them as passive objects to be studied and not as active proponents of new knowledge constitutes a discursive closure that is denounced in Glissant’s thinking. I will discuss this claim and its implications towards the end of the article.

Development Studies: A...