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  • Glissant and the Middle Passage: Philosophy, Beginning, Abyss by John Drabinski
  • Kris F. Sealey (bio)
Glissant and the Middle Passage: Philosophy, Beginning, Abyss. John Drabinski. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-1517905989. 272 pages. $27 USD.

What does geographic thought do to philosophy? What should philosophy do with a geographic way of thinking? John Drabinski's reading of Édouard Glissant's work—a body of work shaped through and by a geographic thinking—invites readers to consider these questions. Glissant and the Middle Passage makes clear the ways in which theoretical explorations of both modernity and possibilities of breaking with modernity's historical violence fall short when theory fails to heed to the centrality of a Caribbean geography. By extension, Drabinski's book lays out Glissant's singular interventions as vital for the completeness of these theoretical explorations. That is to say, Glissant and the Middle Passage not only makes the compelling case for placing the Caribbean—its attendant histories of Middle Passage, plantation, movement and migration—at the center of questions about and for modernity. It also argues, quite effectively, for why this endeavor requires Glissant, why the intervention of Glissant's poetics of errantry, opacity, and Relation (to name but a few) better enables philosophical thinking to fully theorize the constitution of meaning in the modern context. On that question of meaning, the five chapters of Glissant and the Middle Passage will tell us that any method concerned with possibilities of radical futures, or how to make sense of a decolonial possibility (a break, as [End Page 369] it were) emerging from and against modernity's colonial violence, is one that ought to seriously engage with Glissant's placement of the Caribbean as a unique site of geographic thought. To say this differently, Glissant and the Middle Passage foregrounds Caribbeanness as, itself, a method that is necessary for navigating these and related question sets.

In that vein, Drabinski's account positions the geography of the Caribbean—the islands, their shoreline, the Atlantic Ocean, and the trace of haunting history that lies on its floor—as the "crossroads of modernity" (x). As with all crossroads, the Caribbean becomes a site at which something otherwise emerges, new and unanticipated, in what at that crossroads signifies as movement through material history. Negotiations with history and memory emerge otherwise. Conceptions of world-making against the backdrop of history and memory emerge otherwise. How identity is lived through the passage of time, and in relation to place, emerge otherwise. Ultimately, Drabinski's book offers Glissant's philosophy as a methodology for tracing these various modulations of "otherwise." But perhaps most importantly, in turning to Glissant for this methodology, Drabinski shows that this—the emergence of modulations of "otherwise" is what thinking encounters when it begins with the Caribbean. And this is because, at the site of the Caribbean (modernity's crossroads that it is), beginning begins otherwise. Readers of Glissant and the Middle Passage read this as the work's first premise—that beginning as concept, as imperative, as possibility, and as event signifies differently when the geography of the Caribbean is where the project of (and prospects for) thinking begins.

What that means is that, with the Caribbean as ground and frame, "abyss" is where thinking begins. Drabinski's work gives an account of how Glissant is informed by this abyssal thinking, and ultimately why, as philosophers, we need his poetics in order to think in terms of abyss. This is where everything must start, that from which everything must begin. We might even say that as readers of Glissant and the Middle Passage we are asked to understand everything in the wake of the histories that constitute the Caribbean (that constitute modernity's beginning) as abyssal—the subject, her relationship to place, world-making endeavors and their socialities. This centrality of the abyssal ultimately centers the Middle Passage, or more specifically, the ways in which the Middle Passage presents to thought a catastrophe that must remain un-representable. Or, to put this differently, this founding premise of the abyssal is the Middle Passage as founding premise, given over to thinking as what, in its singular violence...


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pp. 369-376
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