The question of Édouard Glissant’s political legacy has produced contradictory responses among scholars interested in his work, and in the field of postcolonial literary studies more generally. While advocates of his work have pointed out how he adjusted his political strategy from a resistance to colonialism to developing new forms of political action in a globalizing world, some of his fiercest critics have come to the conclusion that Glissant’s work, especially in the last decades, was devoid of any political value.1 This article supports the former position by sketching a way in which Glissant’s life and work can be read from a political angle and in a holistic fashion. In line with an inclusive understanding of the political, this angle is not limited to an interest in Glissant’s activist engagements or explicit responses to specific political actors or systems. Instead, it is more fundamentally interested in how his work relates to everything that constitutes a community. In theoretical terms, this enquiry thus combines recent debates in political philosophy on the conceptual difference between the official political system (politics) and the larger political realm (the political) with the black radical tradition’s commitment to combine discursive interventions with organizational actions.2
A consensus shared by advocates and critics of Glissant’s politics holds that his political practice can be differentiated between an early and late phase. This periodization mainly hinges on the publication of Poétique de la Relation in 1990 and is characterized by different degrees of political intensity, a shift from local to global concerns, and an abandonment of militant nationalism towards the endorsement of cultural politics.3 I argue that this division implicitly draws on a narrow conception of a littérature engagée tied to critical interventions in established political discourses geared towards decolonial nation-building projects, thereby preventing a more comprehensive view of the changing political strategies Glissant pursued throughout his life to emerge. On this basis, this article is mainly concerned with mapping dimensions of Glissant’s work that have hitherto been relegated as personal or professional engagements - thus as lesser versions of what Peter Hallward in his influential critique of Glissant posited as a ‘proper political action’.4 The aim of this work is to conceptualize the politics of relation as an integral part of Glissant’s overall poetic project, and as a term that could be employed to describe the practice of other postcolonial writers, intellectuals, and artists who deliberately merged textual and extra-textual political interventions.5 The proposition advanced in this regard is that the concept of an intellectual marronage into the world offers a possibility to describe Glissant’s politics of relation without recourse to evolutionary or digressive models. This takes Glissant’s ambition to create a wholistic oeuvre into consideration,6 while being aware that such an undertaking has to be limited to a rough sketch in the context of this article.
By proposing Glissant’s intellectual marronage as worldly, in the larger context of revisiting Glissant’s world thought, this article interrogates the political implications of Glissant’s claim that the world equally constituted the highest or ultimate purpose of his poetry and politics:
S’agissant de poésie et de politique, je crois avoir toujours obéi à un instinct qui me portait d’abord à considérer que l’objet le plus haut de la poésie était le monde: le monde en devenir, le monde tel qu’il nous bouscule, le monde tel qu’il nous est obscur, le monde tel que nous voulons y entrer.7
What does it mean to connect the movement of marronage with Glissant’s imagination of the world as Tout-monde, and what implications does this connection have for his political legacy? These are the main questions this article seeks to address.
Glissant and the meanings of a marronage into the world
The conception of marronage I employ draws from the historical phenomenon in the Americas, abstract conceptual usages circulating in Caribbean, American, and Africana studies, as well as the conceptualization emerging from Glissant’s fictional work and theoretical statements. In a 2006 interview, Glissant summed up the importance of the notion of marronage for his oeuvre:
Marronner c’était prendre des chemins de traverse de la pensée. C’est à dire ne pas accepter les systèmes d’idées qu’on nous imposait, ou qu’on voulait nous imposer, et essayer de trouver dans le panorama du monde, essayer de trouver d’autres traces que les chemins bien damés et bien goudronnés qu’on voulait tracer pour nous. Et pour moi, le marronage, c’était ça, dès le départ, la volonté d’aller vers le monde avec des traces que nous allions frayer nous-mêmes.8
In this quote, Glissant translates the historical movement of flight away from the annihilating confinement of the plantation to a conceptual and epistemological level as a movement into the world. Instead of viewing the maroon’s radical rejection of the plantation system as a primarily defensive strategy of retreat and isolation, as maintained by colonial historiography,9 and complementing works that have engaged with Glissant’s fictional and theoretical interpretations of marronage,10 this article applies Glissant’s understanding of marronage to his own textual and extra-textual practice. Alluded to as a ‘marronage créateur’ in Poétique de la Relation,11 I perceive this kind of marronage to be a highly productive and complex political strategy that is inextricably linked to the project of inventing alternative ways of being human and forms of community that are inspired by the historic existence of creole maroon societies. In this sense, the ensuing study is equally concerned with the imaginary, conceptual, and actual faceto-face communities to which Glissant’s literary oeuvre and extra-textual practices gave rise. Choosing, in the following, to refer to this central aspect of Glissant’s politics as a practice of community creation, in line with Achille Mbembe’s call to faire communauté as part of a contemporary decolonial project,12 I seek to make the characteristic vagueness of the community concept productive, by referring to smaller and larger, fictional and non-fictional collectives alike.
In terms of method, I perceive mapmaking to be particularly apt for this interdisciplinary mode of study, since it can take the textual and extra-textual dimensions of Glissant’s political practice into account, while emphasizing temporal and spatial dimensions in which the movements shaping Glissant’s political practice operates. Moreover, as a method that traditionally combines scientific and artistic ways of knowing, decolonial forms of mapmaking actively practice the pensée du tremblement which Glissant described as being opposed to epistemologies that rely on fixed truths.13 In line with the gesture of donner avec, rather than the imperial gesture of seizure and control Glissant associated with the verb comprendre,14 the map described in the following is meant to be placed next to others in a complementary fashion. A visual rendition of this map, which serves as an illustration for the ensuing discussion, was produced for the Chimurenga Chronic issue imagi-nation nwar (
Map of Édouard Glissant’s politics of relation produced by the author and published in the Chimurenga Chronic issue imagi-nation nwar (2021).
Direction 1: From the struggle for national autonomy to the pursuit of Caribbean non-sovereign futures
Responding to the question of how Glissant’s political practice could be framed as a marronage into the world, I suggest beginning by tracing the networks and organizations Glissant joined or created, as well as the larger imaginary communities he conceptualized and sought to foster throughout his life. The movements conjured up by this map are marked by a series of blockages that forced Glissant’s political initiatives to continue in other directions and in adjusted modalities. This indicates an important characteristic of Glissant’s political strategies, namely that in cases where specific political initiatives did not bear the desired results, moving on and exploring alternative avenues was always an option. The relational nature of this set of movements highlights that Glissant conceived marronage as a movement that establishes connections, links, and associations, thereby revealing the collective and community-building element of his type of intellectual marronage. In the process, the singularity of Glissant’s intellectual project - to which he, according to François Noudelmann’s controversial biography, contributed through a self-stylization as a ‘prophet of creolisation’ - is counterbalanced by pointing out the network of support and intellectual exchange on which he relied.16
In abstract terms, this map could be depicted as a rhizome branching out in different directions, with the basic source of energy, the decolonial drive of Glissant’s oeuvre, remaining constant. Instead of taking place between specific geographical entities, it traces Glissant’s trajectory as a pursuit of more general political visions. Standardized conceptions of space and time, and a reliance on a central anchor point, have to be destabilized in the process.
As a point of departure, the map sets out with Glissant’s engagement for Martinican autonomy and the fostering of Pan-Caribbean cultural and political unity. Glissant’s early activism as part of the youth group Franc Jeu, with whom Glissant supported Aimé Césaire’s electoral campaign in 1946, forms part of this general direction. With Césaire’s endorsement of the policy of départementalisation being increasingly perceived as a cul-desac and cover-up for neocolonial dependency on France - a sense that became heightened after the violent confrontations between Martinican protesters and the police in December 1959 - Glissant co-founded the Front Antillo-Guyanais pour l’autonomie (hereafter FAGA) together with the lawyer Marcel Manville and writer Albert Béville, also known under his pen name Paul Niger. Although the movement was influential in pushing the radicalization of related political movements in Guadeloupe and French Guyana, the death of Niger in 1962 led to its dismantling. Instead of sticking to a militant nationalist strategy in the face of a dominant adversary upon his return to Martinique, Glissant’s pan-Caribbean commitments took the form of an alternative educational project, the Institut martiniquais d’études (hereafter IME), which he founded in 1967 and which comprised a sustained effort in civic engagement through outlets such as its nomadic theatre group.17 In terms of Glissant’s vocation to create communities, the IME’s teachers and students could be cast as constituting a miniature heterotopia in Michel Foucault’s sense of the term,18 as much as they directly contributed to the regional project of pan-Caribbean unity by repeatedly performing at the regional cultural festival CARIFESTA in 1976 and 1979.19 According to Noudelmann, Glissant’s vision of turning the IME into a more fully-fledged research centre was blocked by Césaire’s administration, which repeatedly withheld institutional support.20
Although several critics have interpreted Glissant’s engagements following his return to Paris in the early 1980s as a turn away from Martinican and Caribbean political issues,21 Glissant’s organizational actions can also be read as circumventing the institutional blockage posed by official politics. As in other islands of the French Antilles, such as neighbouring Guadeloupe, where armed resistance against French neocolonialism was increasingly replaced by labour activism and cultural resistances such as the promotion of creole language and gwoka music,22 Glissant’s continuous investment in the promotion of a pan-Caribbean consciousness, theorized as Antillanité,23 can be discerned in his plans to establish the Musée martiniquais des Arts des Amériques in the late 1990s. The project could not be realized because the designated exhibition space, a vacant factory in Martinique, was destroyed before its first installation. It currently lives on as part of an art collection housed by the Mémorial ACTe museum in Guadeloupe, as well as in exhibitions hosted by the Institut du Tout-Monde, founded by Glissant in 2006.24 Although these initiatives are geographically focused on the Caribbean region, I consider them as forming part of the worldly direction of Glissant’s politics in the sense that they are invested in breaking down the segregation between Caribbean islands, their attachment to exclusivist nationalisms inherited from colonialism, and the Eurocentric world view corresponding to this political imagination.
Another political initiative by Glissant, that mainly operated at the level of the island, was the Manifeste pour un projet biologique du monde, which he published in a series of newspaper articles. Also located on the branch of Glissant’s intellectual marronage concerned with fostering Martinican autonomy, the worldliness of this initiative can be attributed to the way in which it advocated for a profound reconnection with the natural world by institutionalizing a relational imagination, which Glissant described as an awareness of ‘la quantité réalisée de toutes les différences du monde, sans qu’on puisse en excepter une seule’.25 Met with little interest by the Martinican public, the utopian idea to turn Martinique into an island marked by a biologically sustainable economy lives on in the literary realm, where Glissant’s novel Ormerod fictionalizes the episode,26 as well as in the digital realm, where the website of the Institute du Tout-Monde functions as an archive in which Glissant’s initiatives are stored and can potentially be taken up by future generations.27 The same applies to the pamphlet Manifeste pour les “produits” de haute nécessité, which Glissant co-wrote with several of his friends following the general strike in Guadeloupe in 2009.28 As Glissant pointed out, at this stage in his career he no longer placed his political hopes on the question of the political status of Martinique. In conversation with Claude Couffon, he stated:
L’attachement à la France, unilatéral - c’était réellement un cordon ombilical - était tout à fait acceptable, dès l’instant où la Martinique s’insérait dans le contexte de la Caraïbe. Il y a là une force dynamique qui est beaucoup plus important que nos disputes politiques pour savoir s’il faut être départementaliste, autonomiste, indépendantiste…29
In her research on the strategies pursued by labour activists in Guadeloupe, Yarimar Bonilla has theorized this strategy of turning away from the pursuit of political independence towards the exploration of ‘non-sovereign futures’ as a contemporary form of maroon politics practised by younger generations, who are committed to fostering tangible cultural and economic transformations in order to counterbalance structural forms of economic and political dependency on France.30 An important aspect to note about the worldliness of these political projects is not their cosmopolitan character in a classic liberal sense of the term. Instead, this worldliness forms part of a decolonial effort to work against the dystopian view of Martinique, which is evoked in the opening pages of Le Discours antillais and in the novel Mahagony. Covered under a giant glass globe and advertised as the museum of a colony, the island is cut off from its neighbouring islands and sanitized to the point that the air is conditioned to prevent harmful microbes from entering.31
Direction 2: From the nation-state to the nation-relation
A line of movement branching out sideways from Glissant’s organizational action towards non-sovereign Caribbean futures heads towards the construction of alternative forms of community that I propose to frame as nations-relations. As instructive as the failure of the project to foster cultural and political unity in the Caribbean was for Glissant, he also closely observed the results of the decolonial struggle on the other side of the Atlantic. Following the official independence of African countries in the 1960s, he observed the actualization of Frantz Fanon’s prophecy of the pitfalls of national consciousness on the part of several African liberation movements,32 many of whose leaders Glissant knew well through his active involvement in the Société Africaine de Culture.33 Instead of inventing new political forms and transnational solidarities, along the lines of what Glissant would later theorize as nations-relations, most of the newly independent African nation-states adopted the conceptual political framework invented by the colonizer and adopted the boundaries set by the Berlin Conference in 1884-85 - with the effect that a more substantial kind of cultural and economic autonomy still remains to be achieved. These geopolitical observations are instructive for the kind of community projects Glissant pursued outside or across the dominant conceptual framework of the nation-state.
An important direction to trace towards his engagement for the creation of the nations-relations consists of his commitment to discursively intervene in the existing framework of nation-states in a critical manner, making the case for transforming their borders into permeable structures and for transforming their internal set-ups in ways that would accord conceptual space for more plural forms of political belonging, a stance Glissant shared with many other postcolonial theorists. In political theory terms, Glissant’s engagement in the project of a French Centre national pour la mémoire des esclavages et de leurs abolitions in 2006 and the pamphlet Quand les murs tombent, co-written with Patrick Chamoiseau,34 alongside his engagement with racism in the USA - as evidenced in his 1996 monograph on William Faulkner and the letter to Barack Obama, also co-written with Chamoiseau35 - belongs to the same line of political efforts. In the case of his engagement in the project of the Centre national, which was never realized due to the electoral victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, Glissant envisioned that a museum dedicated to the memorialization of slavery could contribute towards a radically pluralistic sense of French nationhood shaped by rhizomatic conceptions of identity. By equally addressing the descendants of the colonizers and colonized, it could in his view perform a reconciliatory and unifying function by setting different histories in relation to one another, thus presenting an alternative to exclusionary modes of national memorialization. In Glissant’s view, such an initiative offered a rare opportunity for the institutionalization of anti-racist politics.36 In abstract terms, this kind of practice is invested in bringing about a discursive shift from the established concept of the nation-state, and the self-centred concept of national interests, to the utopian notion of a nation-relation, which Glissant and Chamoiseau described in terms of their relational intensity. Whereas the construct of the nation-state has been increasingly associated with the perpetuation of neocolonial political and economic asymmetries as well as with extreme forms of violence, by maintaining exclusionary external relations and pursuing a homogenizing internal agenda,37 the nation-relation as imagined by Glissant deliberately conceives of its borders as permeable and as inviting relations. In this way, it fosters multiple forms of belonging and a respect for radical diversity among its citizens.38
Direction 3: The creation of world-communities of readers and writers
A markedly different direction of Glissant’s politics, which complements its aforementioned critical thrust, lies in his investment in imagining altogether different forms political communities could take. In this regard, Glissant transferred the formal creativity he applied in his poetics to the legal-institutional realm. Instead of being a private or professional footnote to his philosophical project, Glissant’s engagement as editor-in-chief for the UNESCO Courier from 1982 to 1988 plays a pivotal role from this perspective. Bypassing the danger of adopting the nation-state model as the sole valid form of a political community, his editorial work creates an alternative world-community of readers and writers who are connected by a shared sense of the egalitarian nature of the cultures of the world, which the UNESCO Courier under Glissant sought to foster by depicting the greatest amount of cultural and linguistic diversity possible. On a formal level, this strategy can be detected in the increase from twenty-five to thirty-five languages in which the Courier was published in the 1980s, and in its inclusive selection of themes. While some titles clearly express Glissant’s philosophical preoccupations,39 these are integrated into a larger programme aiming at a democratic representation of all the cultures of the world. As Glissant points out in the endnotes to Poétique de la Relation, the notion of culture endorsed by the UNESCO under the leadership of Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow controversially broke with equating cultures with individual nation-states. Instead, it sought to promote the view that each culture is a totality, ‘un echo-monde participant’,40 an approach that jeopardized singular and hierarchical notions of ‘culture’ associated with Western modernity, as well as the privilege of a few powerful states to dictate global cultural politics. In theoretical terms, Glissant articulated the basis of the community-creating project associated with this kind of editorial-political practice towards the end of his study on Faulkner, where he argued that the ‘world-community’ was the only community that was threatened in its very right to exist, and that he considered it to be the poet’s responsibility to bring it into existence by creating a non-exclusionary kind of epic.41
Glissant’s work indicates that this world-community could take different forms. For example, several passages in his fictional and essayistic work suggest that indigenous societies living in a radically interconnected way with nature already perform the kind of relational imagination he upheld as a standard for a politics of relation.42 Referring back to his organizational work in the 1970s, the world-community he imagined could also take on the form of small and concrete face-to-face communities such as the one created by the IME. In a more geographically dispersed and elusive way, Glissantian world-communities could also be modelled along the notions of the small country or the archipelago, which Glissant conceived as abstract political paradigms where no island dominates and every island develops its identity in relation with others.43 These kinds of communities could be ‘imagined communities’ in the sense that they share a conception of the world and but are not represented on an official level.44 Similar to the fictional Batouto people, which Glissant wrote about in his novels Sartorius and Ormerod, the UNESCO Courier readers could thus be seen as forming a nation that does not conceive of itself as such, but one in which people are connected to one another by a shared appreciation of the radical diversity of the cultures of the world.
Initially depicted as a precolonial community living in the small town Onkolo, roughly 500 BCE in Central Africa, the Batoutos spread their relational world view into the world in the course of the transatlantic slave trade. After several centuries, they are said to form an invisible nation that is aware neither of its collective Batouto identity nor of the historic existence of a Batouto people. As a people that exists in the contemporary moment, the defining characteristic of the Batoutos is that they share an intuition of the world’s radical diversity.45 The invisible Batouto nation is therefore characterized by not having the power associated with modern states: ‘aucun pouvoir, il n’intervient nulle part, il n’a ni armée ni finances, aucun reporter ne rapporte où son territoire commence, où il finit. Les Batoutos sont parmi nous’.46 Since any certainty about biologic genealogy has become destabilized in the course of the 500-year long history of creolization, any sense of belonging is based on intuition, which is why the two novels include ongoing speculations that some Batoutos can be identified through the ‘o’ in their names. The highly symbolic use of a single sign as a cipher of an alternative world-community indicates that Glissant’s literary politics has to be considered as encompassing the smallest units of literary production.
Glissant’s work for the UNESCO Courier came to an end with the dismissal of M’Bow, which he commented on in the endnotes of Poétique de la Relation as a missed opportunity to institutionalize a poetics in an international organization.47 Instead of ending in a cul-de-sac, a connecting line can be traced from his work for the UNESCO Courier to his collaboration with the International Parliament of Writers (hereafter IPW) from 1993 to 2003, which transformed itself into the International Cities of Refuge Network (hereafter ICORN) and is still in existence today. From the perspective of the community-building vocation of Glissant’s intellectual marronage, the collective of writers working together under these organizational umbrellas appear, once more, as an actualization of Glissant’s goal to create world-communities that do not have to be reflected on a political level, that is without power and without an army, as in the above description of the Batoutos.
Studying Glissant’s engagement with the IPW as forming part of a politics of relation thus forces an important shift away from a conventional view that frames this aspect of his life as constituting a traditional form of human rights activism. Through the lens proposed by this article, the concrete as well as highly symbolic nature of the work of the IPW can instead be interpreted as institutionalizing Glissant’s belief in the political power and responsibility of poets, in Glissant’s inclusive sense of the term. Meanwhile, the ICORN’s network of Cities of Asylum, which offers refuge to persecuted writers and artists, can be interpreted as expressing Glissant’s belief in the future of small countries and the archipelago as progressive political models on the level of modern cities. Today, the more than seventy cities forming part of the ICORN network constitute a transnational archipelago operating on a sub-national scale.48 This network is based on the willingness of individual mayors or donors to finance the travel and living expenses of writers who are persecuted in their respective nation-states. Jacques Derrida expressed the political theoretical potential of the city as a ‘small country’ in his speech given at the 1997 conference of the IPW against the background of a sense of disenchantment with the idea of the nation-state. In the speech, published as Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!, he claimed that a ‘new cosmopolitics’ would lead to the creation of ‘‘villes-refuges’ nombreuses et surtout autonomes, aussi indépendantes entre elles et indépendantes des États qu’il serait possible, mais de villes-refuges néanmoins alliées entre elles selon des formes de solidarité à inventer’.49 In the contemporary moment, the experience of the pragmatic policies of hospitality endorsed by several sanctuary cities, especially in the context of the ongoing migration crisis around the borders of Europe, lends further support to the proposition that urban islands offer political and theoretical potential in the sense of Glissant’s nation-relation. Glissant himself drew a direct connection between such concrete networks of solidarity and their importance as abstract political models, as is evident in his speeches at the IPW conferences. As Glissant indicates in La Ville, refuge des voix du monde, a speech that is included in Traité du Tout-monde,50 for him the ICORN’s ‘cities of refuge’ were intended to be more than charity organizations or the expression of humanitarianism. Instead, what mattered to him politically was the possibility of creating a community of writers in the form of a global network, one that would allow for mutual exchanges and the sharing of knowledge to take place, which, for him, would constitute a truly militant exercise.51
From the perspective proposed by this map, Glissant’s project of setting up the Institut du Tout-Monde (hereafter ITM) in 2006, forty years after the establishment of the IME, can be considered as another movement towards creating a world-community of readers and writers. On a theoretical level, this movement can be traced back as early as L’Intention poétique, which was first published in 1969, where Glissant conceptualized his specific brand of world literature, as a literature by writers whose work expresses a relational imagination of the world, a line of work that culminated in his 2010 anthology of the Tout-monde. This work could be framed as an attempt to create an ‘unfinished home of the living and the dead’, of a world-community of poets existing in planetary time.52 Reflecting this vision of world literature on an institutional level, Glissant envisioned the ITM as a space for encounters and exchanges, a kind of community centre, a space nourished by loyalty and friendship. For Noudelmann, who was charged with managing the ITM’s operations for several years, its collaborators constitute ‘une petite communauté à la fois éphémère et fidèle qui s’agrège et se désagrège selon les voyages, les exils, les allées et venues de celles et ceux qui, consciemment ou non, déploient cet archipel souhaité par Édouard’.53 Although the ITM actively fosters transnational collaborations, the worldliness of this small community of friends is defined neither by its size nor by its reach but rather by its shared imagination of a world, as defined by a respect for the totality of differences and the unpredictable forces of creolization shaping the Tout-monde.
In order to complement the focus on Glissant’s organizational engagements in the map presented in this article, other maps warrant being placed over it, or side-by-side with it. These could take, for example, the general concerns and characteristics of his fictional creativity and poetic style into consideration and trace their connection with Glissant’s life-long commitment to creating alternative forms of community through a synergy of written and extra-textual work. These maps would accord the argument about Glissant’s politics a depth and complexity which the above sketch was not able to conjure up. While this is arguably the most important aspect of Glissant’s work, mapping it also requires the greatest degree of abstraction and reduction, a line of work that would go beyond the scope of this article.54 This study however prepares the ground for such work by asserting the global orientation of Glissant’s engagement as a constant point of reference for a holistic intellectual practice that considers the literary and political realms as inseparably bound together.
By tracing how Glissant’s world thought was reflected in his political engagements for the creation of alternative world-communities, what it means to posit the world as the ultimate point of reference for his politics of relation has become discernible. It not only means taking into consideration the totality of differences and the egalitarian manner of the world’s cultures while designing specific political interventions, but it also means positing a relational imaginary that can be harboured by individuals as much as by small and larger collectives as the standard for a relational politics. By demonstrating how an inclusive political reading of Glissant’s oeuvre can aid in shifting the debate on Glissant’s brand of universalism to more stable grounds, while still according room for alternative readings in the spirit of Glissant’s pensée du tremblement, the findings of this article can thus complement studies that engage with Glissant’s world thought on a more thoroughly literary and philosophical plane.