- Re-thinking the Haitian Other in Relation as prochain:A Reading of Édouard Glissant and Lyonel Trouillot
“Rares, les États ayant cultivé le long de leur histoire une telle somme de déshonneurs” (Rare are the states that have cultivated in their history such an abundance of dishonor).1 With this ironic statement Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot criticizes the long tradition of neverending prejudices and sterotypes about Haiti. In Western discourse the country is still frequently represented as the “barbaric” antipole of modernity, condemned to an endless story of chaos and violence. From this notion arises the perpetuity of a (neo)colonial construction of the Haitian Other in strict opposition to a Western identity, a construction that has left its mark on Haiti’s reputation in the global opinion until the present.2
Lyonel Trouillot and other Haitian intellectuals have vehemently criticized this vision of Haiti based on stereotypes and binaries because it results in a distorted view of the country that largely ignores the complexity of both the Haitian past and its present. Therefore, Trouillot envisions transcending such binary thinking in order to assign Haiti a new place in the global public perception. And this can be achieved by re-thinking the Haitian Other as “prochain” (a concept related to “fellow human” but enveloping an ethical component) (cf. EH 14).
This paper explores Lyonel Trouillot’s idea of the “prochain” as an innovative vision of the Other, using Éduard Glissant’s Poétique de la Relation (Poetics of Relation),3 which permits the recognition of the Other as entangled in a network of identité-relation (relation identity) in an (ethical) relation to the Self (cf. PR 158, 169). Furthermore, based on a decolonial critique of the discourse of Western modernity, this paper will analyze to what extent the current vision of Haiti is based on a dichotomy of Western identity and Haitian alterity that imagines the country as the “uncivilized Other” and as such dominates the global perception of this Caribbean nation. Subsequently, this paper examines how Édouard Glissant transcends binary constructions of identity and alterity in his Poétique de la Relation and asks us to envision the Other “in relation” to ourselves. Finally, Glissant’s [End Page 139] idea of the Other “in relation” will be linked to Trouillot’s request to inscribe Haiti as “prochain” into global knowledge; thus enabling us to think of the difference of the Other in relation to our own identity.
Haiti as an “Uncivilized Alterity”? Stereotyping and Coloniality of Power
Beverly Bell depicts the popularity of a distorted vision of Haiti as a hopeless case: “The nation is often characterized, overtly or through inference, as a troubled, Godforsaken place, where troubling, Godforsaken things happen.”4 Such a bias stems from colonial times and the allegedly “unthinkable” event of the Haitian Revolution, which according to Michel-Rolph Trouillot defied Western categories of thinking of the time.5 Such a stereotypically affected perception of Haitian history has for the most part persisted until the present. It has become manifest in the country’s reputation as a “place of violence” and in the consideration of its history as a “neverending story of carnage and brutality.”6 This view then became evident again following the earthquake of 2010, when in a “plethora of ill-informed speculation,”7 the topoi of the “cliché d’une Haïti maudite” (cliché of a cursed Haiti)8 and its “unending tragic destiny”9 joined in the tradition of the global North’s stereotypical and prejudiced discourse about Haiti:
The news that emerged in the first few days after the earthquake salivated over ‘looters’ and ‘criminals’ set loose on a post-apocalyptic wasteland. This is the same story that has always been told about Haiti, … since the slaves had the temerity to not want to be slaves anymore.10
However, the persistence of such a discourse, which still imagines Haiti in terms of “unthinkability” and “malediction,” fails to recognize the complexity and multifacetedness of the country’s past and present-day situation. The discourse therefore seems to downright refuse to believe in ways out of the violence. In analogy to the event of the Haitian Revolution during the...