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  • Stubborn Shadows
  • Nicole Simek (bio)

Writing in 1981, Édouard Glissant identified a difficult methodological problem confronting him and fellow critics of the particular neocolonial situation in which his native island of Martinique found itself, namely the problem of finding a way to approach invisible modes of cultural and economic domination whose seeming naturalness and imperceptible density rendered them all the more pernicious. Faced with the dilemma of uncovering the hidden, he argued, “Banging away incessantly at the main ideas will perhaps lead to exposing the space they occupy in us. Repetition of these ideas does not clarify their expression; on the contrary, it perhaps leads to obscurity. We need those stubborn shadows where repetition leads to perpetual concealment, which is our form of resistance” (1989, 4).

This demand for stubborn shadows, for what Glissant also famously termed the “right to opacity” (“nous réclamons le droit à l’opacité” [1991, 14]), frames transparency as a problem rather than the unmitigated social or political good the term has come to evoke in an array of contemporary discourses. Much French Caribbean writing and political activism upholds this framework, privileging opacity and, often, the poetic as its primary mode of expression. At the same time, calls for the right to opacity co-exist within this writing with a perceived need for transparency, the need to uncover, to make manifest and visible the subtle mechanisms of domination that characterize Martinique and Guadeloupe’s political and cultural situation. In the following pages I would like to take up this relationship between opacity and transparency in order to raise some questions about the forms resistance to neocolonial and neoliberal uses of transparency can take today. How might we conceive of literature’s capacity or responsibility to elucidate or to preserve shadows? Can neoliberal deployments of transparency be countered by opacity, and if so, in what forms?

Transparency and its Discontents

Transparency has become so widespread an ideal, valued and invoked by diverse constituencies in so many sectors of contemporary life across the [End Page 363] globe (from government to business to education), that its moral authority often appears obvious. Though deploying it to different ends, neoliberal, liberal, and leftist discourses all frequently take transparency, or disclosure, to be a key principle of good governance and social relations. This contemporary trend draws heavily on a Western Enlightenment current shaped most prominently by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jeremy Bentham, who theorized transparency as a tool of liberation ensuring the proper functioning of representative government. On this view, transparency serves a normative purpose first by rendering the few, the governing, visible to the many, the governed, and thus in principle subject to judgment and repeal by the people.1 Moreover, in associating clarity with rational thought more precisely, the Enlightenment principle of transparent governance conceived of responsibility, or answerability, as involving both accountability and accounting. Transparency was not merely thought to expose the actions of the governing, but relied on, and sought to bolster, rational modes of conduct. As Christopher Hood puts it, transparency has become associated not only with “governance that is intelligible and accessible to the ‘general public,’” but also with “decisions governed by clearly established and published rules and procedures rather than by ad hoc judgments or processes; [and] methods of accounting or public reporting that clarify who gains from and who pays for any public measure” (qtd. in Birchall 2011, 61). Transparency is as much about rule-governed, predictable and reproducible modes of reasoning and acting as it is about visibility in itself.

As a check on the arbitrary exercise of repressive power concentrated in the hands of the few, transparent, or publically visible, rule-governed practices have obvious benefits. Transparency’s roots in egalitarian principles have contributed to its enduring moral authority in the United States, while its manifestation in repeatable techniques of accounting have led to its enthusiastic exportation by Western governments, the World Bank, and numerous transnational agencies, as well as anti-colonial activist groups. If the 1980s saw what Aradhana Sharma describes as “a turn toward good governance […among] mainstream development institutions,” who faulted developing countries’ governmental secrecy, corruption, and inefficiency for the failures of structural adjustment programs (2013, 309), the decades...


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pp. 363-373
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