The afterwor(l)ds of Édouard Glissant

Francosphères (2022), 11, (1), 105–121.


A decade after Édouard Glissant’s passing, how have his self-proclaimed intellectual heirs and scholars of his work placed this work in the contemporary Western, francophone, Caribbean, or global theoretical landscape? What role does his historical and biographical contextualization, such as describing the thinker as Martinican, Black, or francophone play in shaping his legacy? What are the unacknowledged hierarchies and ideological assumptions that shape these different interpretations of the same body of work? How do notions of influence, filiation, and debt affect the reception and the world-making potentialities of key concepts such as ‘Tout-monde’, ‘chaos-monde’, or ‘Relation’?

Published Open Access under a CC-BY licence:

Dix ans après la disparition d’Édouard Glissant, comment son œuvre est-elle perçue et située par ses héritiers spirituels dans les différentes traditions de pensée: occidentale, européenne, antillaise ou mondiale ? Comment considérer la classification historique et biographique du penseur en tant que martiniquais, noir, francophone ou postcolonial ? Quels sont les axes de valeurs et les cadres épistémologiques, déclarés ou implicites, qui infléchissent et délimitent sa réception posthume ? Comment les notions d’influence, de filiation, de dette façonnent-elles la postérité et la conceptualisation d’un monde à partir du vocabulaire philosophique glissantien du « Tout-monde », du « chaos-monde », ou de la « Relation » ?

The afterwor(l)ds of Édouard Glissant


A decade after Édouard Glissant’s passing, how have his self-proclaimed intellectual heirs and scholars of his work placed this work in the contemporary Western, francophone, Caribbean, or global theoretical landscape? What role does his historical and biographical contextualization, such as describing the thinker as Martinican, Black, or francophone play in shaping his legacy? What are the unacknowledged hierarchies and ideological assumptions that shape these different interpretations of the same body of work? How do notions of influence, filiation, and debt affect the reception and the world-making potentialities of key concepts such as ‘Tout-monde’, ‘chaos-monde’, or ‘Relation’?

Published Open Access under a CC-BY licence:

Dix ans après la disparition d’Édouard Glissant, comment son œuvre est-elle perçue et située par ses héritiers spirituels dans les différentes traditions de pensée: occidentale, européenne, antillaise ou mondiale ? Comment considérer la classification historique et biographique du penseur en tant que martiniquais, noir, francophone ou postcolonial ? Quels sont les axes de valeurs et les cadres épistémologiques, déclarés ou implicites, qui infléchissent et délimitent sa réception posthume ? Comment les notions d’influence, de filiation, de dette façonnent-elles la postérité et la conceptualisation d’un monde à partir du vocabulaire philosophique glissantien du « Tout-monde », du « chaos-monde », ou de la « Relation » ?

In the years that have followed Édouard Glissant’s death in February 2011, his peers, exegetes, and spiritual heirs have striven to shape the reception of his work and to establish his place in various philosophical and literary traditions. This phenomenon of posthumous reevaluation and reassessment, which is not unusual in the process of a writer being canonized, takes on in this case a distinctly personal, sometimes intimate tone, coupled with a singular sense of intellectual and even political urgency, born out of the necessity to reaffirm the writer’s exceptional place in the Pantheon: ‘la mort fait émerger de l’œuvre d’inépuisables magnificences’.1 Glissant’s influence on certain areas of the contemporary intellectual landscape that stretch from literary analysis to cultural, gender, postcolonial, and posthuman studies is widely acknowledged and his protean œuvre is often credited with having opened up new avenues for defining or profoundly redefining key ideas such as subjectivity, sovereignty, identity, language, community, or globalization, to name but a few. Yet the posthumous strategies of appraisal and eulogy of his life and work are often deployed to support a corrective and restorative reading against what is assumed to be a restrictive, mistaken, or false interpretation, such as Peter Hallward’s 2002 critique of Glissant’s move away from national specificity toward postcolonial singularity as a form of political disengagement and universalist dispossession.2

In what follows, I propose to examine a small but relevant corpus of texts published by Patrick Chamoiseau, Sam Coombes, Alexandre Leupin, and François Noudelmann, focusing on how strategies of appraisal and eulogy are combined to support a restorative view of the thinker’s contribution to a worldwide political project against what authors assume to be a mistaken or restricted interpretation such as limiting Glissant’s relevance to the areas of ‘francophonie’, or postcolonialism, isolating him from his French, Western, or world peers, or denying his worldwide philosophical or political influence.3 In the vast bibliography of Glissant studies, this exegetic corpus is in toto or in parte hampered by the gender and racial homogeneity as well as the arguably shared cultural horizon of its authors. It nonetheless offers a cross-section that ties together an explicit corrective, sometimes even polemical, agenda, a clear focus on the philosophical legacy of the writer, and, for three out of four (Chamoiseau, Leupin, and Noudelmann), a deeply personal ad fontem claim that derives interpretive value and legitimacy from a spiritual kinship or filiation facilitated by the direct access to the man and his ethos. By looking at the interdependence between evaluative judgements and rhetorical techniques employed in these writings, I will attempt to address a series of questions including: How have these scholars placed Édouard Glissant in the contemporary Western, francophone, Caribbean, or global theoretical landscape? What role does historical and biographical contextualization, such as describing the thinker as Martinican, Black, or francophone play in shaping his legacy?4 What are the unacknowledged hierarchies and ideological assumptions that shape these different interpretations of the same body of work? How do notions of conceptual influence, filiation, and debt influence the reception of key concepts such as ‘Tout-monde’, ‘chaos-monde’, or ‘Relation’? Does the rhizomatic legacy of Glissant’s philosophical language enable or obviate a ‘Relation [qui] n’est pas d’étrangétés, mais de connaissance partagée’?5 Ultimately, this is an attempt at understanding how his posthumous reception bears the imprint of discontinuous subjectivities and divergent vocabularies while heeding his early yet still urgent call for ‘écrire le monde’.6

I must clarify from the outset that this is but an incipient effort to examine the rhetoric of legacy surrounding Glissant’s works which cannot address the full spectrum of issues that either define or dovetail with it. A more comprehensive investigation would have to situate his posthumous appraisal in the wider scope of Glissant reception studies that include, among many, Laurent Jenny’s stylistic reading of monolingualism; Celia Britton’s investigation of theoretical resistance; François Noudelmann’s discussion of counter-genealogical projects; Jane Hiddleston’s study of post-structuralism, post-theory, and redefinition of community; Christy Wampole’s reading of rootedness; Achille Mbembe and Sara Nuttall’s reading of postcolonial ‘entanglements’; or Mbembe’s conceptualization of necropolitics. Such an examination would delve into the ways in which Glissant has been situated in relation to a late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century theoretical framework by looking at specific examples of comparative readings and connections established between his thinking and that of his contemporaries such as Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida, Dereck Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri.7 It would also take stock of the political and ethical possibilities afforded by these exegetic undertakings as they cast light on the racialized interpretations and applications of theoretical frameworks and their attendant concepts depending on the perceptions and representations that shape the figure of their authors, skewing the discussion towards more general or more restricted readings of the works they generate. In their critique of the political pragmatics and cultural semiotics of ‘le grantécrivain noir’, Étienne Achille and Lydie Moudileno draw attention to the deliberate choice made by Aimé Césaire’s heirs to reject the overtures of the Sarkozy administration and counter them with their own commemorative action:

Par ce geste contestataire, la famille de Césaire redirige ce dernier dans la lignée d’autres illustres prédécesseurs, Caliban, Toussaint Louverture, Malcolm X, ou Lumumba, le faisant ainsi entrer dans un Panthéon alternatif, celui panafricain des grands hommes noirs.8

Glissant’s spiritual heirs also chose to counter what they consider the dominant or misleading interpretations of universalism, provincial regionalism, or depoliticization, as mentioned above, with new forms of critical commemoration that situate his legacy in a worldwide Pantheon. After evoking the need to address the connections between Glissant, Fanon, and Césaire, Alexandre Leupin focuses instead on ‘la relation intime qu’entretient Glissant avec la tradition philosophique “occidentale” - relation à la fois conflictuelle et accueillante’,9 arguing that this reading has been hitherto overlooked. Meanwhile, Patrick Chamoiseau carves out of his own sentimenthèque, the formative library that has modeled his literary persona, a poetic and imaginary universe generated by the magnetic links rooted in and taking flight out of the Caribbean among Glissant, Césaire, and Perse.10 As divergent as these approaches may be, they seem to agree on the non-identitarian nature of this imaginary space: not limited to national borders yet rooted in a local consciousness, not reducible to race or ethnicity yet attuned to the diversity of humanity and the living world.

In this article, I will highlight the ways in which Glissant’s readers have found it vital to underscore his contribution to a worldwide project in which the political is not only inseparable from but is and must be consubstantial with the poetic. As Celia Britton, Valérie Loichot, and Carrie Noland have shown, world-construction contributes to the elaboration of a counterpoetics11 while also underpinning a poetics of living or ‘entour’12 in the age of the anthropocene that transcends both the nature/culture division and the human/non-human divide.13 In addressing the conceptual assumptions and rhetorical strategies of these exegetic undertakings, I therefore propose to investigate the posthumous wor(l)ding of Glissant’s work. This article’s main objective, inevitably provisional from the larger standpoint of Glissant studies, is to reflect on the interplay between his readers’ varying appropriations of his world-making language and the different afterworlds of his work born of their interpretive interventions, from ways of being in the world to being of and with the world.

Amongst the plethora of publications issued in recent years, some adopt a more traditional academic format and stance (such as the studies signed by Loïc Céry and Buata Malela, or two volumes of conference proceedings, all published in 2020), others avow a more personal inspiration (François Noudelmann’s biography or Patrick Chamoiseau’s critical essay), while others yet seek to combine the impetus of a personal tribute with a scholarly approach (Alexandre Leupin’s philosophical study). Some of them cut the figure of interpretative ‘sommes’, offering extensive and expansive volumes that appear to emulate the magnitude and complexity of their chosen topic. However different in stance and topic, they all share the consensus about the ‘inclassable’, uncategorizable nature of Édouard Glissant’s writings:

‘Exigeante’, ‘foisonnante’, ‘déroutante’: la littérature de Glissant et diversement qualifiée pour suggérer une certaine difficulté de lecture que les critique mettent sur le compte d’une ambition créatrice ou d’une spécificité créole.14

François Noudelmann’s Édouard Glissant. L’identité généreuse provides a highly controversial and deeply flawed biographical undertaking in which the author makes statements or puts forth interpretations unsupported by sources, employs a series of novelistic techniques, such as distorting the linearity of the conventional life narrative, and alternates between intimate and informational chapters whose differing stances and tones are reinforced by distinct typographical settings. The volume’s publication sparked a strong critical backlash from family members and scholars alike. In her brief but incisive book review, Britton captures the tone and tenor of the debate:

Noudelmann […] strongly implies that he was Glissant’s closest confidant in the last eleven years of his life. (This is hotly disputed by Céry.) In so doing, he is in effect presenting his account of Glissant’s psychology as having a unique truth status - the opposite of a “subjective”, novel-like biography.15

Yet, there are reasons for a deeper engagement with L’identité généreuse beyond, and because of, the immediate reactions of the ‘critique d’accueil’. First, Noudelmann was and remains an authoritative voice in the fields of philosophy and literary criticism whose interest in Glissant’s work predates this ‘biographie romancée’, an intellectually and ethically problematic formal choice in the contemporary context, which places him in the company of André Maurois rather than Tiphaine Samoyault or Jean-Yves Tadié. Second, the volume’s publication by Flammarion in the well-established series ‘Grandes biographies’ indicates a level of popularity, both in terms of institutional recognition and commercial impact, that cannot be discounted and requires instead a closer scrutiny of the book’s potential impact on Édouard Glissant’s image and place in the cultural Pantheon, indeed his ‘after-world’, among the general French-reading public. Third, despite its obvious flaws, the volume displays a series of convergent views - or, to reprise Glissant’s expression cited above, ‘shared references’ - with other interpreters, such as the refusal to associate its subject with any ideological or political labels, or the persistent effort to define the singular worldliness or non-universalist universality of his œuvre.

At the same time as he extols the awe-inspiring nature of the overall œuvre, Alexandre Leupin highlights its internal dynamic based on an internal isomorphism that causes a monadic mirroring between the parts and the whole: ‘quelque chose de stupéfiant dans cette capacité à composer tout ensemble, ce qui fait que le moindre fragment renvoie au parcours de la pensée et en opère la synthèse’.16 However, the critic immediately points out the dangers of interpretive ventriloquism when faced with such an object and the need for methods that would sacrifice its organic integrity for the sake of intelligibility:

pour pouvoir parler intelligiblement d’un rhizome où « tout est dans tout », où la moindre parcelle renvoie à son ensemble, il faut distinguer, fragmenter, découper, tronquer pour ne pas tomber dans une informe bouillie.17

Whereas the ‘rhizome’ constitutes a privileged theme of Glissant’s philosophical reflection, it also becomes a metaphor for the type of writing that, much like an artwork, creates a captivating world that elicits the reader’s ideological adherence, intellectual consent, and emotional attachment but requires detachment and analysis on the part of the critic. The risk is either severing truncated blocks of meaning from the body of the work or slavishly mimicking the author’s words depleted of their signifying energy. Before such a totalizing work, the first lesson one learns is how not to be a theoretical agonist but rather to be a humble and inevitably partial reader. If Glissant’s work is a textual ‘totalité monde’, its organizing principle is ‘la pensée de l’opacité’, which entails renouncing one’s certainties: ‘renoncer à ramener les vérités de l’étendue à la mesure d’une seule transparence’.18 Yet this renouncing is a far cry from a complacent surrender, for stepping into this world encourages deviation and derivation, stepping aside, swerving, or wandering away: ‘Entrer en monde, c’est aussi bien y demeurer qu’y dévirer, y dériver’.19

An almost programmatic desire to decouple Glissant’s work from labels, categorizations, and efforts to facilitate transversal, worldwide associations is particularly salient in the case of Leupin, Chamoiseau, and Noudelmann. ‘Il faut lire Glissant hors étiquettes’, declares Leupin, ‘[n]i la francophonie, ni le postmodernisme, ni l’anticolonialisme ou le postcolonialisme ne sont en mesure d’éclairer les textes’.20 Drawing on the writer’s own words in defence of the process of creolization and against the mechanics of hybridity and the fixity of biological métissage, the critic swiftly moves to draw the ideological lines between his vision of a ‘relativisme culturel’ and the much-maligned Anglo-American ‘multiculturalisme’ associated with identitarianism, segregation, and isolationism.21 At the outset of his essay, Chamoiseau forewarns readers that any attempt to perpetrate interpretive violence or, in his striking words, ‘infliger de la compréhension ou de la transparence’ on Glissant’s writing will only result in utter failure.22 Indicative perhaps of a modern francophone tradition, a cultural reflex even, of rejecting institutional labels and conventional categories, this oppositional stance, in contrast with a cumulative one that builds on previous efforts, favours a certain type of ‘indisciplinarity’ that allows for each reader to un-classify the object under investigation and re-envision it anew, ultimately asserting a new form of authority over it. There is a paradox intrinsic to this double motion that claims, on the one hand, to offer a non-categorizing way of approaching a text or a body of texts while, on the other hand, providing a new reading frame. Arguments in favour of reassessing Glissant’s work are also subtended by the imperative to take the full measure of its significance in the context of his life. His sentence ‘Rien n’est vrai, tout est vivant’ is cited by all three of these exegetes as the cornerstone of a radically different understanding of the relations between the intellect and the body, philosophy and poetry, theory and art, knowledge and experience, truth and life. Chamoiseau’s testimony casts light on how this sentence, suggestive yet intangible, gains a seminal value at the moment of its encounter with reality. His meeting with Glissant, which takes place during a time of literary beginnings, self-doubt, and intense quest in his life, becomes the epitome of the event when life and truth come together:

La rencontre avec Glissant se produisit lors d’une période de grande nécessité: j’avais commencé d’écrire et je cherchais encore une voie, une voix. La lecture de son roman Malemort allait m’ouvrir d’infinis horizons, dont celle d’une découverte des plus déterminante [sic]: celle du maître et de l’ami qu’il allait devenir.23

Decades later, the two of them, along with seven other Caribbean intellectuals, will co-author in reaction to the 2009 strikes in Guadeloupe a manifesto that puts forth a critique of the combined destructive effects of neocolonialism and neo-liberalism in calling for a political re-envisioning of what are considered essential or necessary products for life. The text advocates instead for ‘produits de haute nécessité’, that is, values that both accompany and transcend categories such as buying power or growth rate, going to the heart of a true existential need - une ‘exigence existentielle réelle, […] un appel très profond au plus noble de la vie’.24 One could trace a rhizomatic series of lines from the basic needs of homo economicus through the great needs, both symbolic and material, of the budding writer to the high needs of a community’s quest for a meaningful political project.

Further erasing the conventional lines that separate lived experience from the expression of truth, Glissant’s own words are incorporated into Chamoiseau’s 2013 critical essay without quotation marks, through the use of indirect speech or italics. This does not break up the flow of the text, creating instead an organic, almost synergetic fluidity that acknowledges the debt while claiming it as an active legacy.

While biographic narratives are part and parcel of any project of (re)legitimation and canonization deployed around a major cultural figure, retellings of Glissant’s life are almost always geared toward determining his impact on a shared understanding of the specificities, discontinuities, and heterotemporalities that define our world. The writer’s own life, with its lack of a single defining centre, is offered as an example of multipolarity and lived experience of the ‘chaos-monde’. Counter-genealogy for Noudelmann, the imprint left by the poet’s body and voice for Chamoiseau, and the grave as a site of living memory for Loichot are examples of metonymical interpretations that considers the work neither a mere by-product nor a scholastic illustration of life, but rather a new type of utterance that allows for the ‘trembling’ of what is and what is no longer, of absent abstraction and being in the world in an ‘unbroken continuum of living memorialization’.25

In Noudelmann’s book, the first exegetic chapter, ‘La chute du morne (1928-39)’, underscores the challenge encountered by the ‘genealogist’ or ‘archivist’ trying to retrace the writer’s existence back to a single origin. Glissant’s existence eludes genealogy with its fixed schemas and clear mappings because, in Martinique, ‘les arbres ont de curieuses racines. Infiniment tordues, elles reviennent sur elles-mêmes et se croisent en directions désordonnées’.26

The very ‘entour’ of Glissant’s birth, that is, the interlocking of nature and history, turns upon its head any expectation of linearity or transparency:

Naviguant plus loin dans l’histoire de ces parentés, en quête d’origines et de sonorités africaines, le secrétaire des familles légitimes se noieraient dans les profondeurs de l’océan, dans la cale des bateaux négriers où les filiations furent broyées.27

And yet, as Noudelmann’s critics have pointed out, this attempt at an anti-genealogical biography28 encounters the dual pitfall of the Freudian family plot (as reconceived by the likes of Marthe Robert though the prototypes of the Bastard and the Foundling) and the colonial comparison.29 Key to understanding ‘Édouard’, as the book calls its main character, is the frustrated relationship both to his mother and to France. The former will always remain a distant object of veneration:

même lorsque l’écrivain la dépassera d’un demi-mètre de hauteur, lorsqu’il sera devenu un homme célébré de par le monde, il demeurera toujours ce petit garçon obéissant et peureux, assis à côté de sa mère au visage austère.30

The latter will be the source of career highs and lows that combined a ‘plaisir ambigu’ with the recurring disappointment of never gaining acceptance by at least some of his peers, as exemplified by the challenging public clashes with Jean-Luc Nancy31 and Jacques Derrida.32 These antagonistic encounters betray a malaise that goes beyond a quarrel between high-profile, world-renowned intellectuals fighting over authority and recognition. While the source of this malaise remains implicit in other instance, its becomes quite explicit in the case when Glissant is cited as having retorted, ‘Je suis aussi philosophe que vous et vous êtes aussi sauvage que moi!’33. As to Leupin, he threads the anti-genealogical needle to connect ‘digénèse’ with worldliness. To him, Glissant’s trajectory is defined by a biological and an institutional birth, a ‘double naissance, aux Antilles et en Sorbonne’.34 Moreover, his journey toward the West is unencumbered by any of the exilic or traumatic marks that define the postcolonial experience: ‘Le voyage vers l’Occident et sa culture n’est pas vécu comme traumatisme, diaspora ou déracinement d’un terroir fondateur, il s’agit d’une double greffe […] véritable digénèse’.35

Noudelmann’s fictionalized biography brushes against issues of institutional double-bind, individual trajectory and political commitment, counter-discourse and intellectual resistance, but instead of unpacking the historical and political context which defined Glissant’s ambivalent position towards French hegemony, it employs the rhetoric of familiarity, reactivating the complexes of illegitimacy and youthful aspiration.36 Moreover, it explains the writer’s reaction through a set of literary tropes such as the artist’s insolence being at odds with his desire for fame. The only passing reference to the postcolonial conditioning and neocolonial dependency that overdetermine francophone writers’ career choices is described as an almost ‘natural’ phenomenon of cultural ecology with Darwinian overtones: ‘Le cercle des écrivains francophones est en effet une région particulière à l’intérieur du domaine littéraire et chacun défend son territoire’.37 The French biographer thus attributes Glissant’s turn away from Caribbeanness after the publication of his Discours antillais and during the era of the Éloge de la créolité to his discomfort at seeing ‘certains de ses disciples martiniquais promouvoir une identité créole sur le modèle des nationalismes’.38 Leupin echoes this view when he emphasizes that ‘[s]on œuvre vise à prévenir la naturalisation de ces filiations que sont les traditions esthétiques nationales ou ethniques’.39 In his view, moreover, Glissant refuses to follow the paradigm of victimization presumably associated with postcolonial studies which can only reinforce the prejudice about the dominated subjects’ lack of agency and deny their ability to produce any ‘chefs-d’œuvre’; instead, he foregrounds Glissant’s belief that these ‘peuvent surgir de partout, imprévisiblement’.40 Choosing the path of philosophy, Glissant authors Philosophie de le Relation in which his engagement with the history of the slave trade and Caribbean cultures reaches a new level, transforming a traumatic experience into a liberatory model that rallies the world-making potential of language. Some caution, however, against delving into Glissant’s work, be it poetic, novelistic, or philosophical, for the sheer joy of wordsmithing, transformative as it may be, and contend instead that his interventions in the language operate through subtle distortions and can, for this very reason, be all the more consequential: ‘pas de mots rares, pas de mot précieux, pas de déraillements spectaculaires, juste des distorsions de sens subtiles […]. Le refus du moindre délire verbal’.41

Verbal subtlety and linguistic creation can nonetheless denote aesthetic disinterestedness and political detachment. Arguing against the idea that Glissant’s writings on ‘Relation’, ‘Tout-monde’, ‘l’identité rhizome’, and ‘la pensée archipélique’ betray a disengagement from the concrete realities of the world, Sam Coombes maintains that ‘[f[ar from being an expression of apathy in the face of the growing systemic problems of global capitalism, the later Glissant’s œuvre offers vital strategies for countering them and proposes valuable alternatives’.42

Coombes rejects the criticism of scholars such as Nick Nesbitt, Chris Bongie, or Peter Hallward who have seen in these works an abdication to the pressures of postmodernism and neo-liberalism, using as chief evidence Glissant’s desertion of the conceptual and strategic importance of the nation in favour of an ‘absolutely singular’ vision detached from any ‘specificity’ and, thus, of any political relevance. Instead of diluting the oppositional counter-discourse of the 1980s in the Deleuzian waters of a thinly disguised universalism,43 Glissant manages to offer a counter-narrative of globalization while displaying hostility towards the chauvinist nationalism of both colonialism and neocolonialism.44 Moreover, when Glissant’s critics take him to task for his swerve towards a philosophy of deterritorialization and insist on his indebtedness to the co-author of Mille Plateaux,45 one is left wondering about the implicit biases of equating theoretical influence to ideological subalternity and about the types of expectations ascribed to postcolonial intellectuals versus their Western or ‘white’ peers.

This reconstructive reading seeks to restore the meaning of Glissant’s philosophical language by bringing out its synergy with the lexicon developed by other thinkers, such as Amin Maalouf’s ‘passerelles’ as forms of reciprocity between different cultural values;46 Hamid Hosseini’s relationality that describes an ‘alternative globalization’ achieved through horizontal communication networks akin to those conjured in the idea of creolization;47 Paul Gilroy’s counter-narrative of modernity; or Alain Badiou’s communist ideal, a utopia similar to the ‘Tout-monde’ that allows progressive politics to reclaim a space in the collective imagination.48 Objecting to the assumption of a belated return to politics as demonstrated by Glissant’s co-signing in 2009 of the Manifeste sur les produits de haute nécessité or L’Intraitable Beauté du monde: Adresse à Barack Obama, Coombes points out that such a reading presupposes the ‘separation of the political, ethical and cultural spheres’,49 discounting ‘the extent to which Glissant sees substantive political issues and a certain kind of aestheticist outlook to be intertwined’.50 Rather than trying to reconcile this tension in a dialectics that would subsume poetic diversion into political action, other interpreters underscore its key role and argue that one of the philosopher’s defining contributions is affirming the unapologetic equivalence of the poetic and the political. As Chamoiseau puts it, Glissant swiftly moved away from the description of ‘nos misères’ better to elaborate, through a necessary ‘détour’, a vast poetics that assembles in an open totality all the possible denunciations of all that is inacceptable the world over.51 ‘La pensée du tremblement’52 challenges existing political models to come to terms with the vacillating, ungraspable, transitory, and unsettled modes of being in the world. Leupin draws particular attention to the chiasmatic structure which operates and radically upends the assumptions about the social and the individual, charging the political with the care for the latter and entrusting the duty of shaping the collective to the poetic: ‘Le rapport de Glissant au politique prend la forme d’un chiasme: il faut se dégager d’une poésie politique engagée pour proposer une politique de la poésie’.53 Reimagining the world as an infinite network of connections between geographic spaces, states of being, and forms of life can only be accomplished through poetic thinking: the latter fulfils not an additive but indeed a substantive function. ‘Qu’est-ce ainsi, une philosophie de la Relation?’ asks the thinker in his eponymous book, ‘[u]n impossible, en tant qu’elle se serait pas une poétique’.54 The political afterworld of Glissant relies on the non-hierarchical simultaneity of the philosophical and the poetic.

Whereas such contentions may be countered with the writer’s own admission that, to paraphrase Poétique de la relation, ‘nul imaginaire n’aide à prévenir la misère’,55 Noland’s exploration of Glissant’s lyrical language provides a persuasive argument for ‘teasing out the theoretical implications of his poetic strategies’.56 His poetry is not the repository of a transparent or translatable message but the laboratory of cognitive models for resistance to ‘congealed meanings’.57

What Noland calls Glissant’s ‘poetics of the entour’ defines ‘an approach to meaning-making’58 achieved though sedimenting heterogeneous types of knowledge and experience to generate a ‘cognitive map’ of Martinique.59 As a space shaped by sensible discontinuity and historical disconnectedness, both overladen with the extraneous transparency of the imperial desire for mastery through map-making, and teeming with gaps, silences, and illegible traces, the island calls for an open and necessarily incomplete process of naming, renaming, and unnaming the world. Glissant’s poetry, Noland contends, relies on the ability of words like ‘pays’, ‘souche’, ‘jardin’, ‘végétal-fétiche’, and ‘la terre’ to relay and relate the sensorial, the intelligible, and the experiential. In Chamoiseau’s deeply personal essay on the ‘liaisons magnétiques’ that connect the author of Un champ d’îles (1953) and Les Indes (1956) to Aimé Césaire and Saint-John Perse, the ‘entour’ becomes an inherent organizing principle for describing how ‘la grammaire du Tout-monde’60 alters the reader’s relation to time and space. Chamoiseau’s book is attuned to the gradual changing of the island’s seasons, to how their gradations affect and challenge the subject’s ability to relate to the surrounding world. Outside of any explicit theorization of the nature-culture connection, it suggests that poetry is experienced both as an ongoing rememoration as well as a daily re-historicization of its latent meanings and as a lived sensorial reality. As Loichot observes: ‘Not only do landscapes constitute monuments, but, more crucially, monuments in an unbroken continuum of living memorialization’.61

Chamoiseau writes of the poet’s body not as a presence that looms large and reflects through physicality the extraordinary spirit of its bearer, as in Glissant’s own quip about being called ‘double-maître’, quoted by other biographers and critics,62 but as a site of fragility under the eroding action of time: ‘Son corps était tenu, observé et manié à distance, il en parlait peu, s’étonnait parfois de ses faiblesses, de ses manques grandissants’.63 Yet it also contains an inexhaustible energy, acquired and manifested through poetic inspiration, and deployed toward ‘une éternité d’ouvrage’.64 The poet’s aging body symbolizes a physical lieu commun between the intemporality of creation and the trans-temporality of the radical dispossession, what Glissant himself calls ‘le gouffre-matrice’, of the Middle Passage, whose survivors, though stripped of every trace of humanity, find in their own bodies the source of a new being in the world and ‘vont en dansant récupérer la seule mémoire qui leur reste et qui atteste à leurs yeux qu’ils sont encore des hommes: la mémoire du corps’.65

These passages, as many others in Chamoiseau’s text, teem with what I propose to call affirming negations, conveyed through adjectives and nouns that make use of the privative morphology to erase the boundaries around the original word stem: indéchiffrable, imprédictible, imprévisible, indéniable, incomprenable, inatteignable, intact, inconnaissable, indéfinition, inacceptable, inexplicable, inexprimable, impensable… At times, this lexical pattern generates an entire sentence such as ‘Le monde, immédiatement inconnu!66 or ‘La relation exige cette esthétique de l’imprévisible, de l’inconnu, de l’incertain, de l’impensable’.67 This rhetoric of expansive negation singles out the event of Glissant’s legacy that strives to free from the fixity of a given system - verbal, conceptual, or political - ways of speaking and thinking (of) the world. Instead of reversing the hegemonic order through deconstructive negation, this language replete with what we might identify as ‘positive notions’, such as ‘échos-monde’, ‘Diversalité’, and ‘opacité’, is achieved through a continual erasure and erosion of previous conceptual limitations. Glissant’s rewording of the world seeks to release ‘les incertains de la Relation’, whereby the term itself ‘ne figure pas l’échec, il ne limite ni ne denature. Il est cela même qui dans la Relation se pose comme frontière du vécu au pensé, sans qu’aucune définition ne vienne y faire frontière’.68

In lieu of a conclusion, I would like to turn to one more facet of Glissant’s wor(l)d-making legacy, his living testament according to which ‘[i]l est donné, dans toutes les langues, de bâtir la Tour’.69 Just over forty years ago, he wrote:

Aujourd’hui le Divers ouvre les pays. Quand j’examine la production littéraire en France à l’heure actuelle, je suis frappé de sa méconnaissance d’un tel élan, d’une telle assise des rapports nouveaux au monde, c’est-à-dire enfin de son manque de générosité.70

Glissant’s seemingly antiquated reference to the concept of generosity, laden as it is with genealogical, even atavistic overtones inscribed in the word’s etymology which has evolved from the Indo-European ‘begetting’ into the Latin ‘race’ or ‘stock’ and the Old French ‘of noble birth’,71 may be striking a dissonant note in his anti-genealogical and rhizomatic discourse. Yet by calling attention to generosity as a form of engagement with the Other, both human and non-human, the philosopher of Relation adumbrates a form of hospitality in which the unthinkable - imprisonment and forced exile, dispossession, the Middle Passage, colonial genocide, and slavery - has happened, marking a tear, a definitive caesura in the finite historical time. Generosity does not belong to the regime of the irrepresentable sublime nor to that of the undecidable. Instead, it introduces a type of relation that is without ethics, not before or beyond but outside of it, since ethics presupposes a shared nature, customs or, in Glissant’s terms, a moral comparison and a mechanical exchange of contents. The enormity of the crimes committed does not allow for a comparison and could not be mitigated through an exchange. Glissant’s idea of generosity describes the only possible relation that can occur when one’s identity is defined not by the place of birth but by the place of death. In the wake of the colonial event, hospitality has definitively forsaken any fiction of sovereignty, inviolability, or self-ownership. Colonial xenia, the generational pact that spells out its laws and duties, deconstructed in Derrida’s reading of Oedipus, was predicated on the barbarity of the xenos whose death was in fact a pre-requisite for the foundation of the colonial dwelling place.72 Glissant’s proposition thus vacates the idea of a hospitality by rights, relative, duty-bound, and based on a potentially fatal exchange, or by Law, self-sacrificial and absolute, inviting us to consider the untheorizable and innate stance of generosity as a model for envisioning the world-in-relation.

The afterworlds of Édouard Glissant tremble between the seminal discontinuity of the words and their expansive, errant interplay. They offer shared spaces (lieux-communs) for truth and error, reading and misreading, understanding and misunderstanding to clash, collapse, dehisce, and germinate new ways of thinking life and living thought.

Patrick Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques (Paris: Éditions Philippe Rey, 2013), p. 12. The French government decree issued in 2014 to declare Édouard Glissant’s archives a ‘Trésor National’ confirms the patrimonial value of his work. See ‘Les archives d’Édouard Glissant classées Trésor national’, September 2015, >> [accessed 10 March 2022]. However, this official act does not foreclose the debate over his intellectual and political legacy. It can have quite the opposite effect as demonstrated by the controversies surrounding other acts of official recognition like the inclusion of certain writers in Le Livre des commemorations nationales, also placed under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture.

Peter Hallward, Absolutely Postcolonial: Writing Between the Singular and the Specific (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002).

Glissant’s work is often approached by scholars and students, particularly outside of France, as an example of postcolonial francophone writing. For an overview of his treatment in the mainstream French critical discourse, see Oana Panaïté, ‘La Querelle des bibliothèques ou la gêne de la critique française face à la littérature en français’, Nouvelles Études Francophones, 28.1 (2013), 145-61.

It is particularly important to raise this issue not only in the global context of tokenistic recognition afforded ‘minority’ intellectuals, but more specifically in light of France’s more recent efforts to employ traditional strategies of recognition in order to reclaim important figures of its postcolonial culture, thus reappropriating and domesticating their symbolic powers of resistance. When examining the factors at play in the ‘Pantheonization’ of Black writers such as Aimé Césaire, Dany Laferrière, and Alain Mabanckou, Étienne Achille and Lydie Moudileno observe: ‘Ces auteurs constituent des incarnations différentes de la figure de “l’écrivain noir” au vingt-et-unième siècle. Leur présence et le discours qui les accompagne sur leur singularité dans la sphère culturelle française - discours auquel ils contribuent eux-mêmes -, invitent à examiner de plus près la pérennité d’un attachement singulier de la France à cette figure, entre d’un côté les velléités d’intégration à une Histoire littéraire française, notamment par la reconnaissance institutionnelle et, de l’autre, une racialisation systématique qui les maintient dans une différence francophone’. Étienne Achille and Lydie Moudileno, Mythologies postcoloniales. Pour une décolonisation du quotidien (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2018), p. 112.

Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la Relation (Paris: Gallimard, 1990) p. 20.

Édouard Glissant, Le Discours antillais (Paris: Folio Gallimard, 1997[1981]), p. 485.

Such a task was undertaken by John Drabinski in his monograph Glissant and the Middle Passage: Philosophy, Beginning, Abyss (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), which relies not on polemical reassessments but on a demonstrative scholarly stance based on ‘textual exposition and close reading’ to buttress his argument on the ‘geography of reason’ as the writer’s signature contribution to philosophy. Drabinski, pp. xviii, 188.

Achille and Moudileno, p. 117.

Alexandre Leupin, Édouard Glissant, philosophe: Héraclite et Hegel dans le Tout-monde (Paris: Éditions Hermann, 2016), p. 13.

For the extensive biographical, literary, and critical use of the concept, see Patrick Chamoiseau, Écrire en pays dominé (Paris: Gallimard, 1997).

Celia Britton, Édouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999).

Carrie Noland, ‘Édouard Glissant. A Poetics of the Entour’, in Poetry After Cultural Studies, ed. by Heidi R. Bean and Mike Chasar (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), pp. 143-72.

Valérie Loichot, ‘Édouard Glissant’s Graves’, Callaloo, 36. 4 (Fall 2013), 101-32.

François Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse (Paris: Flammarion, 2018), p. 265.

Celia Britton, ‘François Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse’, New West Indian Guide, 93.1-2 (2019), p. 152-53.

Leupin, p. 12.

Leupin, p. 13.

Édouard Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation: Poésie en étendue (Paris: Gallimard, 2009), p. 69.

Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation, p. 34.

Leupin, p. 34.

Leupin, p. 34.

Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques, p. 16.

Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques, p. 13.

Collectif Lyannaj, ‘Manifeste pour les “produits” de haute nécessité’, Étonnants Voyageurs [online], >> [accessed 2 February 2021].

Valérie Loichot, ‘Édouard Glissant’s Graves’, p. 1018.

Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse, p. 27.

Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse, p. 28.

François Noudelmann explored the issue of the widespread ingerence of genealogy, filiation, and lines of descent outside of the family realm and into history or politics in Pour en finir avec la généalogie (Paris: Léo Scheer, 2004), where he also discusses Édouard Glissant’s work from this perspective.

Marthe Robert, Roman des origines et origines du roman (Paris: Grasset, 1988). Britton concludes her review with this rebuke: ‘If one adopted his crudely Freudian account of the relationship between Glissant and his mother and extended it to his own “filial” relationship to Glissant, one could perhaps explain the unflattering aspects of his portrayal of the latter as a kind of displaced Oedipal resentment. I would not go as far as this, but I do think that Noudelmann’s fantasy of himself as Glissant’s son further undermines his claim to having privileged access to Glissant’s thoughts and emotions’. Britton, ‘François Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse’, p. 153.

Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse, p. 28.

Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse, pp. 307-08.

Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse, p. 350.

Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse, p. 308.

Leupin, p. 40.

Leupin, p. 41.

The model is used to explain Glissant’s reaction to being denied the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008 in favour of J.M.G. Le Clézio: ‘Le fait qu’une dizaine d’obscurs Suédois ne l’aient pas reconnu a réactivé son angoisse d’être le mal-aimé et sa demande tyrannique de preuves d’amour’. Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant. L’identité généreuse, p. 376.

Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse, p. 265.

Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant: L’identité généreuse, p. 294 ; also see pp. 295-310.

Leupin, p. 28.

Leupin, p. 29. Glissant’s own dismissive terms toward what he perceives to be the self-segregating dichotomies of postcolonialism are brought to bear against the attempts to read his works in this light: ‘Rien n’est plus étranger aux notions du Tout-monde et de la Relation que le cantonnement dans le ghetto postcolonial, que la logique d’une “naïve revanche”’. Glissant, Introduction à une Poétique du Divers, p. 38.

Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques, p. 48.

Sam Coombes, Édouard Glissant. A Poetics of Resistance (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), p. xii.

Coombes, p. 89.

Coombes, p. 97.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Capitalisme et schizophrénie 2, Mille Plateaux (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1980).

Coombes, p. 82.

Coombes, p. 169.

Coombes, p. 166. For a comparative reading between Glissant and Nancy centred around the ideas of the subject and subjectivity, see Celia Britton, The Sense of Community in French Caribbean Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008). Britton points out that ‘Nancy’s focus on “beings”, stripped down to the finitude of their bare existence, results in a rather abstract conception of collectivities, as existing in a social and cultural vacuum; and while this is in a sense the whole point of his representation, it means that he has nothing to say about culture. For Glissant, on the other hand, the elements which interact in Relation are preponderantly cultures, rather than human beings’. Britton, The Sense of Community in French Caribbean Fiction, p. 38. Sam Coombes goes a step further when contending that Glissant’s thought is not ‘subject-based’ and that his insistence on structures cancels out the meaningful existence of agents. Coombes, p. 172.

Coombes, p. 105.

Coombes, p. 90.

Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques, p. 62.

Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation, p. 54.

Leupin, pp. 32-33.

Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation, p. 82.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 197.

Carrie Noland, ‘Édouard Glissant. A Poetics of the Entour’, p. 146.

Noland, p. 147. The biographer does not fail to grasp, laconically but astutely, the connection between the poetic rewording of the world and the power of non-expository pedagogy: ‘En poète, Édouard contrebalance son désir d’enseigner par ses diversions coutumières qui partent en tous sens et introduisent du désordre dans les concepts. Il a inventé le mot « irrué » pour les qualifier, un mixte d’interruptions et de ruades’. Noudelmann, Édouard Glissant. L’identité généreuse, p. 327.

Noland, p. 162.

Noland, p. 145.

Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques, p. 16.

Loichot, p. 1018.

Loichot, p. 1019.

Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques, p. 167.

Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques, p. 167.

Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques, p. 71.

Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation, qtd in Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques, p. 100.

Chamoiseau, Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques, p. 86.

Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation, p. 97.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 123.

Glissant, Le Discours antillais, p. 333.

‘Generous’ in The Oxford Dictionary of English [online], >> [accessed 2 February 2021].

Jacques Derrida, De l’hospitalité: Anne Dufourmantelle invite Jacques Derrida à répondre (Paris: Calman-Lévy, 1997), p. 35 and passim.


Author details

Panaïté, Oana