- Reproduction and the Universal in Glissant's Later Work
Édouard Glissant's intellectual biography is a compelling story of movement between politics, cultural politics, and poetics. Writing between anticolonial struggle, the complexity of departmentalization in Martinique and Guadeloupe, and postcolonial questions of cultural and national formation, his work is not easy to characterize in relation to the varieties of Marxism and left radicalism that represented significant parts of the Cold War Global South. Independence, yes, as well as new conceptions of "the people." Also, however, poetics and the question of culture. In this way, Glissant is more typical of many ambitious mid-to-late-century postcolonial creative writers. He was a student of Aimé Césaire in more than one sense: in the classroom for sure, but more importantly in terms of the tutelage that comes from writing poetry and criticism as at once a metaphysics of history, anticolonial critique, and the imagination of the next or the new people. People of the future. People [End Page 1] to come. Afro-Caribbean people. Glissant was present and engaged with so many of the key trends in black Atlantic thought, attending, as a young intellectual, the 1956 Congress of Black Artists and Writers in Paris, a conference dedicated in large part to the articulation of Négritude as cultural and political revolution. In the wake of that conference, Glissant's early poetics, poetry, and novels are dedicated to exploring the meaning of Caribbeanness (Antillanité) and registering its political significance. The animating spirit of his work, which from the beginning resisted the lure of Négritude's conception of trans-Atlantic blackness, was, early on, largely surrealist in the tradition set by René Ménil and Suzanne Césaire.
But his interests lay elsewhere, ultimately, and the turn in Glissant's work following the publication of Poetics of Relation (1990) was motivated by a deep encounter with the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—in particular, around notions of rhizome and nomad. Like Antonio Benítez-Rojo in his The Repeating Island, in many ways a companion text published just two years after Poetics of Relation, Glissant saw two key insights in Deleuze and Guattari. First, notions of rhizome and nomad offered, with some key creolizing transformations, a direct description of the cultural composition of Caribbean history, memory, and life. Rather than, as it was for Deleuze and Guattari, a strategy for the decomposition of macro and micro forms of fascism, rhizome and nomad give a concrete description of the dynamics of Caribbean cultural formation: the repeating island, the crossroads of the world, chaotic transformation, the reality of the storm and recovery, and the mangrove tree living at the edge of the sea and drawing life from its multiple roots. Second, as the subtitle of Benítez-Rojo's book has it, Deleuze and Guattari's critical vocabulary puts the Caribbean in postmodern perspective. Thinking as fragments, making-dismantling-remaking identity and expression on the model of the archipelago, the swirl of time, deferral and detour as conditions of like and creation—this is the afro-postmodern, rendered through a deployment of rhizome and nomad in the element of the history and memory of the Caribbean. Glissant's late work globalizes this archipelagic motif in conceiving a poetics of tout-monde.
What began, for Glissant, as the anticolonial work of articulating Caribbean unicity and telling its anti- or ante-epic story becomes, after Poetics of [End Page 2] Relation, a poetics dedicated to Relation and its vicissitudes. What becomes of politics and the political in this moment? Is poetics politics? Or have questions of race, nation, and historical justice fallen away, replaced by a speculative sense of aesthetics and cultural formation? This is one of the central concerns of Glissant critics, in particular Peter Hallward and (to a lesser extent) Nick Nesbitt. For both, Glissant's turn toward poetics for the sake of poetics marks a departure from—or even betrayal of, in the case of Hallward—the material struggle of anticolonialism and its iterations in the postcolonial. To be sure, this critique, if we take politics and the political to be paramount concerns for...