Mondes caribéens

The Unpolished Diamond: The Utopian Dimension of Glissant’s Poetics of Relation

A little less than a decade ago, the Caribbean journal of criticism Small Axe published the special issue Relating the Francophone Caribbean (2009). Curated by Martin Munro and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw, the issue included a series of articles that engaged with Édouard Glissant’s notion of Relation, which at the time provided a framework which called to attention the urgency for a comparative consciousness in conceptualizing the literary and cultural history of the Caribbean and, in the words of David Scott, “to take seriously precisely the fractured, submarine historicity of ‘créolité”” (ix). Undoubtedly, Glissant’s notions are now counted as the most significant contributions for conceptualizing shared realities within the Caribbean region. Two years later, François Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih’s edited volume The Creolization of Theory built upon Glissant’s notions to advance their import beyond the demarcations of area studies and inquiries concerning prominent contact zones, points of entanglement and globalization particularly benefited from conceptualizations based on a Glissantian creolization.

While creolization has not gone unexamined partly due to, as Dominique Chancé suggests in the appendix to Lionnet and Shih’s volume, identitarian appropriations that Patrick Chamoiseau is regarded to verge with and the problematics associated with removing creolization from “the specificities brought to light by linguists” (262), recent publications have displayed a resurge in considering the much more expansive and encompassing Relation as the articulating node of their conceptual matrixes. Susan Stanford Friedman’s Planetary Modernisms (2015) asks for an “aesthetics of the earth” (79) drawn from one of Glissant’s formulation in Poetics of Relation (150), while Archipelagic American Studies (2017) deploys it and its cogent archipelagic thinking in all of its metaphorical and material manifestations to propose a transdisciplinary heuristic that abridges the social sciences and the humanities (Thompson 69). This recent proliferation of approaches articulated in terms of Poetics of Relation testifies the compelling force of Glissant’s notions. In both his philosophy and his praxis of imagination, Glissant’s poetics of Relation compels us to think on the potentialities of human imaginaries and formulates ‘elsewheres’ from the impasses that have characterized contemporary thought processes. While this utopian dimension stands at the core of much of the fascination that Glissant elicits, the philosophical lineages and underpinnings of his utopian thinking are often left unexamined. Correspondingly, the use of his terminology as the basis of frameworks of inquiry, while by no means objectionable, tends to obscure Glissant’s own praxis as one that is imminently poetic more than it is theoretical. The poetic force of Relation demands this inquiry and like Glissant’s genre poetrie – his neologism between the French poésie and the English poetry whereby conventional generic domains are blurred (IL 60)– it entices us to consider philosophy and praxis, politics and poetics as a continuous and inseparable interchange.

Approximately halfway through Poetics of Relation, “The Black Beach” exemplifies this intermingling. While Glissant’s dexterity to establish correlations never ceases to impress his readers, this passage stands out as significantly distinct tone and poetic beauty. The section, which is devoted to the small volcanic plug Rocher du Diamant, expansively encompasses the praxis of Glissant’s philosophical and poetic thinking while also suggesting the imaginary of an ‘elsewhere’ that instead being abstract and unlocatable as in Thomas More’s well-known coinage and elaboration of u-topia as non-place, is rather, to paraphrase Elizabeth DeLoughrey, simultaneously “rooted and routed”, beginning with the concrete material reality of the Martinican island while immersing it in the imaginary of his two most significant notions: Relation ––“the accumulation, without exception, of all the beauties, all the adversities, and all the values of the world” (my translation, IL 76)–– and dynamic configuration of the “non-systematic system” of the Whole-World that emerges from Relation’s processes (i)

Polished diamonds, closed utopias

In a 2006 interview entitled ‘Repenser L’utopie’ first published in Francophonie and later included in the collection L’imaginaire des langues (2010), Lise Gauvin remarks the repeated presence of the notion of utopia in La Cohée du Lamentin, Glissant’s most recent volume at the time. In particular, she points at a distinction between the traditional conception of ‘utopia as a system’ and Glissant’s own ‘utopia at the side of the imaginary’ (IL 75). While specifying that the notion of system is not the problem itself but that the system be systematic, Glissant clarifies the distinction between the classical tradition of utopias –including Plato’s Republic, St. Augustin’s City of God, and More’s Utopia– and his own. This tradition, Glissant states, establishes a normative system that tends to bestow excellence and finality to an object, be it human nature, the city or the state (IL 75-76), and therefore contains a desire for measure, normalcy, excellence and what functions best (IL 76), ‘utopian thought is a sort of desire for the eternal’ ( IL 76). Reading Glissant, however, reminds us of the inadequacy of these notions when thinking about the world as it is and not as it should be according to a political stance, a given identity, and even our own selves. As he clarifies, our world today is one ‘differences, contraries, oppositions’ (IL 76) and therefore the meaning of utopia today cannot consist of molding each of this differences into an ideal of the perfect object.

Before delving into the details of Glissant’s vision of utopia, it is worth taking a detour in order to expand his critique of the classical tradition of utopian thought. As Gauvin’s interview with Glissant advances, since its onset in Plato’s The Republic up to its formalization into a concept by Thomas More, the thought of utopia has been one that rests in prescriptive notions of what would constitute the ‘good’ humanity or the perfect social order. The thought of utopia is, therefore, one that dwells into the ideal qualities of a community, of what is posited as a universal Good against which all beings are measured. Therefore, in  Plato’s Republic the poets are measured against the conception of the ideal Truth, in Augustine’s The City of God the pagans are measured against the True religion of Christianity, while in More’s ideal state everything that did not fit the measures of the law has presumably been kept out of its premises, and everything else has been completely homogenized, the inhabitants of this self-enclosed island being ‘entirely identical in language, customs, institutions, and laws’ (More 43), under what could well be an early version of the nationalisms and closed borders that emerged in the 19th century of which we are inheritors. If we stretch it up to Hegel, we could consider that the end of history achieved with the institution of the citizen after the French Revolution as an already finalized utopia, in which the circle becomes finally closed and immutable with the achievement of Absolute Knowledge. The tenets of the tradition of utopia, therefore, rest on principles of the Absolute, be it the Truth, Religion, the Law, or Knowledge. They are models that operate on the exclusion of the elements that it deems superfluous or detrimental to a certain idea of order and perfection, or that mark the impossibility of further transformation. They smooth out differences, they polish the roughness of materials, weed out the impurities, eliminating all kinds of clashes or conflicts to produce a unidirectional and univocal system that is held as the teleological goal of every traditional utopian project, the extraction and production of a polished diamond.

From these perspectives, there are two easy stances that one could be compelled to take. First, one could claim that every utopia is an unattainable ideal anyways–as More already advances from the inception of the term as no-place– and therefore every attempt to even envision these kinds of systems would constitute a futile enterprise. On the other hand, one could oppose the traditional models and immerse oneself in an endless critique backwards on the dangers of the tradition, assuming an extremely popular position in the contemporary imagination, thus producing a specular negative of the very tradition, a dystopia made up fully of negativities, a stance discursively immersed in critique and in lamentations on the lineal progress of humanity towards nothingness, loss of agency and death. In this case, the reversal of the tradition of utopian thought achieves the same result: it proposes immobility, fixity and ultimately death as the results of its inversion. One could be content to assume the unproductive stasis of these attitudes and be stuck in an impasse which is ultimately characterized by the absence of hope, a resistance to account for the past and present to produce a future oriented thinking that does not subsume its vision into an exclusively positivist or negativist system. Indeed, the tradition of utopian thought itself falls into this principle, since in its envisioning of a finalized ideal product, it stands at a point where the future and hope cease to be desirable or even to exist. In what Glissant calls ‘a poetics of excellence and normality’ (IL 76), it stifles any desire for future transformation and blocks the potential of imagining otherwise.

If these are the prospects, why speak about utopia? Is there a way in which one can try to seek new significations to something that has been invariably qualified as unattainable or, if achieved, fatal, as in the case of the Soviet Union? (ii) The fact that Glissant terms the tradition of utopia a ‘poetics’ rather than a fixed and solidified ideology, to me, highlights the powerful relevance of this notion when thinking about the potential for transformation, for it is indeed in poetics that he finds the space to revise that tradition and to open up avenues for a possibility of thinking utopia otherwise. To formulate that the ideal systems of the utopian tradition are not only the result of the rational planning of the perfect republic, city or state, but also a product of the poetic imagination, suggests that just as these were imagined so can any other being, people or poet create different imageries. If Glissant’s work communicates anything akin to an ethical imperative, it is not one composed by fixed normative system, rather it is the stirring of a desire to produce open processes of thought where hope and the potentialities of every single being without exception can flourish. Glissant’s positing that poetics is a product of high necessity in Manifeste pour les “produits” de haute nécessité (2009) is not what at first appears to be an act of extravagance, and neither is it a claim to justify the usefulness and purpose of intellectuals in society –Glissant would never approve of the appellation itself. It is not a question of looking at how authors are the detached representatives of the ubiquitous labels of ‘the oppressed’ or ‘the voiceless’, which in their abstraction eliminate differences and subsume them into a homogenous totality that presupposes a complete lack of agency. Conversely, Glissant’s poetics elicits a serious reflection on how, as beings with the capacity to create, we imagine our place in the world, transforming processes of thought and envisioning new ways of being in the world.

“Utopia will be an acute sense of a poetics of Relation”

What is poetics exactly for Glissant? As if listening to the possible questions of his readers, he replies in Poetics of Relation:

Poetics? Precisely this double thrust, being a theory that tries to conclude,a presence that concludes (presumes) nothing. Never one without the other. That is how the instant and duration comfort us. Every poetics is a palliative for eternity (PR 183).

The notion of poetics here reveals the dialectics of Glissant’s thinking. It constitutes the ambition towards a theory of totality, but always accompanied by the realization that it will never be closed, either by imposing a finality, or by imposing any previous determinations, and in so doing, it does not take any thing for granted, but rather compels us to engage with each and every detail that makes up a life. Poetics becomes ‘a palliative for eternity’ in that ‘double thrust’, in the constant becoming in which the living is immersed. Eternity, the fixed ideas and concepts of being that seek to immobilize the becoming of life, can be mitigated by the poetic imagination. Thus, utopia for Glissant, as he explains to Lise Gauvin, consists of ‘the accumulation, without exception, of all the beauties, all the adversities, and all the values of the world […] an acute sense of a poetics of Relation’ (IL 76). This is no other than one of the multiple variations of the kernel of Glissant’s thinking, and the very definition of Relation, a dynamics of becoming of the Whole-World that include ‘the realized totality of all possible particulars‘ (PR 32). Glissant’s non-systematic system is not, however, not a mere celebration of unencumbered hybridization, métissage, or as he formulates it, in an undifferentiated “purée or porridge of all identities or all places” (IL 78) as found, for instance, in the discourses of multiculturalism that emphasize a model of tolerance to difference that fails to take into account the historical clashes or negativities that are or have been patently present. For example, Glissant sees the event of the European arrival to America as immersed in this dialectics, its Relation bringing about the indisputable violence of colonizations as well as an unprecedented contact of peoples through migrations (RI 10). In stating that “Relation has no ethics” (RI 10), Glissant’s stance becomes immediately an ethical one as he refuses to impose an exclusionary moral direction or finality. Rather, he posits Relation as a force that is as destructive as it is creative, and it is precisely this dialectical instability what enables the possibility for a future to come.

In addition to reminding us of the pitfalls of excluding all positivities or negativities through the imposition of a model as the traditional utopian and dystopian models do, the multiplicity of values in Glissant’s Relation compels us to think of the processes of negotiation in all the differences and valences of the living, as well as the potential of establishing links among differences instead of building walls to neatly divide and isolate them. Here again, Glissant’s vision becomes fundamentally different from that of the tradition. Literally and figuratively, More’s imaginary of utopia is predicated on the logic of insularity, its overriding image being the self-contained island that either fully assimilates or excludes an outside. Glissant’s archipelagic imagery stands precisely as a counterpoint to this logic. If “the reality of the archipelagos of the Caribbean or the Pacific provides a natural illustration of the thought of Relation” (PR 34), it is because in its constant departures and arrivals, its passageways and openness, it presents a dynamics that radically differs from the inside/outside divide of the island. In the non-systematic system of the Whole-World, its correlative quasi-synonymous principle of Relation, what Glissant puts forth is the possibility of a formulation of immanent existence where nothing can be said to belong to a realm outside of the world-totality without arresting, however, their multidirectional movement.

Le Rocher du Diamant: Poetics of the inextricable

If there is a particular passage in which Glissant presents a reformulation of the utopian tradition in Poetics of Relation, it is a section entitled ‘The Black Beach”, where he creates an imaginary of the Rocher Le Diamant, a very small volcanic plug off the southern shores of Martinique. The imaginary that Glissant creates around Le Diamant is not that of the perfect polished island that More envisioned, but a poetics of the diamond that remains inextricable beneath the uneven texture of the rock that conceals it. Rather than the rationalized and self-enclosed space of the island that we see in More’s work or the narrative of Martinique as an isolated territory, Glissant elaborates his imaginary parting parting from the very specificity of the island while at the same time opening it to Relation through his poetic praxis. The first words of ‘The Black Beach”, the chapter in which Glissant creates what I contend is his vision of a situated elsewhere, correspond to the surroundings of the island, the ‘black sand’ that seems to have come from the volcanic Mount Pelée, the solidified lava that quells into the sea, and a suggestive evocation of an underground relation between the sea and ‘the volcano’s hidden lava’ (PR 121), all accompanied by the sudden presence of a ‘secret wind’ (PR 121). The poetic imaginary of the elements, underground, hidden, secret, inextricable, decompose and recompose themselves in the dialectics of the carême ––the dry season–– and the hivernage ––the rain season.

As in Glissant’s notion of utopia, his praxis is not a question of looking at how to best represent the island, in other words, of capturing the essence of its landscape and people. In the midst of the Relation in which the elements are immersed, Glissant presents a wandering man who “does not answer to any given name” and “no longer admits the possibility of any given language” (PR 122). In his movements up and down the shore and opaque to any sort of determination, embodies what Glissant elaborates as errance: “that which inclines a being to to abandon the systems of thought in favor of […] the investigation into the real, the thinking of movement, which is also the thinking of ambiguity and uncertainty that protects us from the systems of thought, their intolerance, and their sectarianism” (IL 37-38). At one point, the ‘I’ that Glissant presents claims that ‘it doesn’t seem right to have to represent someone so rigorously adrift, so I won’t try to describe him’ (PR 122). Here, an ethics concerning the notion of representation emerges. To subsume this man under the frame of a representation would be to freeze his movement, it would be to extract him from Relation, to render him transparent to his subjectivity. We are predetermined by questions like, as Glissant claims in Faulkner, Mississippi, ‘“Whom do you write for? Do you write for the working class? For the bourgeois? For your race? For the White?” (16). We are constantly called to position ourselves, and to position others, to immobilize the possibilities of Relation in the categories of the question ‘who do we represent’, equivalent to other commonplace questions own our own subjectivities like ‘who we really are’, ‘finding our true self’, unaware that as we pose these questions, we impose parameters that close our potentialities, what we can constantly become. Glissant’s poetics is one that seeks to account for “the inextricable of the world, without reducing them to one’s own drives or interests, be they individual or collective” (IL 78).

This ‘Forgetting ourselves any way possible at any kind of speed’ (124) may sound terrifying for the imageries that rely on the preordained identities and subject positions. Indeed, Relation has a certain threatening dimension, what Glissant formulates as a ‘constant movement between threatening excess and dreamy fragility’ (PR 122), but it is only from this new way of imagining our being in the world that it is possible to move away from the systems of thought that, while discursively advocate for transformation, still privilege the stability and comfort of established paradigms. It requires an effort, an ethics that does not seek to represent, but to be attentive to the dynamic changes that constantly occur in our surroundings, without the ambition to impose the stable framework of our subjectivities to immobilize them. In this ‘attentiveness to such changes’ (PR 124), Glissant’s ‘I’ is not constitutive of relation, but immersed in it, thus consenting to the becoming of ‘the rhythm of the world’ (PR 124) without trying to ‘measure or control its course’ (PR 124). In his relation with the black beach’s wanderer, Glissant’s ‘I’ moves away from any attempts to communicate through the known significations of a transparent and utilitarian vision of a so-called vehicular, and therefore, neutralized language. Rather, the man’s opacity rekindles the desire to find new connections, new ‘systems of relation’ (PR 122) and ways of communication that do not limit possible meanings by the imposition of a single given language, but that enable the emergence of ‘all the possible meanings that chanced along’ (PR 122), in a language that ‘preceded all spoken language’ (PR 122).

In Glissant’s imaginary, the rough unpolished Le Diamant becomes connected, as in Relation, to “all the landscapes and all the times of the world” (IL 63). Glissant’s notion of the Whole-World thus expands its dimensions to include a multiplicity of temporalities. In his reference to a language that precedes all spoken language, Glissant points once again to the dialectics of past and present, as well as to his utopian desire to “recompose” or reinvent what Alexandre Leupin formulates as Glissant’s vision of a poème primordial that preceded the instauration of rationality as the prime measurement of truth and which excludes poetics to establish its normative system of thought. One may recall Plato’s exclusion of the poets from the ideal republic as an inaugural point of scission between different orders of discourse, and its simultaneous movement towards the separation of the ideal and material worlds. Glissant’s praxis of the generic melange poètrie comports the desire to return to the accumulation of all the orders of the linguistic imaginaries in Relation in a constant weaving of multitudes of meanings that preceded the formalization of communication into atomized linguistic expressions that follow from not only the Platonic imagination, but also from the Christian post-Babelian one.

This desire is not to be confounded, however, with a mere longing for a transcendental lost pure origin as one finds in, for example, Heidegger’s search for a Being. Neither it is a nostalgia for a lost mythical unity in the form of a universal language. Rather, it is a poetics that delves on the immanent presence of a multiplicity of interactions and clashes that already makes itself felt in the living. Thus, the poème primordial –like Glissant’s own poetrie– is constituted by nothing other than all the differences of the world, seen and unseen, positive and negative:

the fear, the wasting away, the tortured extinction, the obstinate means of resistance, the famines that go unmentioned, the naive belief, the trepidation, the stubborn determination to learn, the imprisonments, the hopeless struggles, […] the slums, the sophisticated techniques, the simple games, the subtle games, the desertions and betrayals […] the strokes of luck, the ghettos, the assimilations, the immigrations […] the musics of passion, the rages of what we so simply call libido, the pleasures of our urges and athletic pleasures (PR 125)

the ‘infinite variations of life and death’ (PR 125) that are not subordinated to each other, neither in Glissant’s imaginary nor in his syntax, but horizontally assembled in the infinite litany of the imaginaries and differences that make up the multiplicities of Whole-World. In this clashes among the multitude of pleasures, pains, grievances hopes and desires, what Glissant calls ‘Roar’ (PR 122), differences do not come to form a homogeneous and absolute totality, but a moving and mutable one where all the languages and beings of the world can be felt, and where a multitude of new ‘quantifiable myriads’ (PR 122) can emerge. Thus, when Glissant claims that utopia is ‘that which is lacking in the world’ (IL 76) he is not alluding to an ideal world outside of this one as the traditional models imagine; nor to an insubstantial and completely obscure ontological gap that, just as complete transparency, would block any sort of desire in its utter inaccessibility; rather, for Glissant, utopia is the opacity of a felt material presence –of the primordial poem, of the hidden relation, of the inextricable language– that ‘allows to move towards the accumulation of the quantity of elements that constitute the Whole-World’ (IL 77); the masses of connectedness that permit the continuous openness to new possible relations. In this imaginary of extensive movements and temporalities, even the most minute and imperceptible realities can constitute sites of exchange and change.

Glissant does not ingeniously regard the poetics of Relation as “a panacea [or] the means to solve the problems of politics and economics” (IL 80), at least not in itself. However, Glissant’s utopian ambition remains to “change the orientation of the imaginaries of man” (IL 80), one which drives us to the encounter of the fundamental force that the poetic imagination exerts in the way we conceive any of the realities of human and non-human life. The imaginaries, for Glissant, constitute the very substance of each of the practices of every humanity and, as such, the basis to find ‘much more fundamental, permanent and durable solutions to the political and economical than military occupations or the global decisions of economies can find’ (IL 80). The abstract, technocratic and ideological logics of politics and economies may attempt to solve, with or without success, the structural shortcomings embedded in its systems, but the ability to engage with the minute, inextricable details of the living and enable the reemerging of the realities that those same systems of thought tend to obscure. In fact, for Glissant, the notion of country is certainly a political one, but it is also a “poetical entity” (IL 64) whose imaginaries have the potential to determine the isolationist or relational attitudes of its communities. The insistence on the imaginaries and on poetics does not mean, however, a separation of them from profoundly political preoccupations. “The Black Beach” returns to present Martinique and particularly to its economic development, which have remained unsolved and which “no planning of an ideological order could ever remedy” (PR 126). It is again in Relation and poetics, as the creative potential of cultures and their imaginaries, that Glissant finds the possibility for change, in this case, in the form of “subsistence economy as it existed on the Plantations fringes; to a market economy as the contemporary world imposes on us; to a regional economy in order to reunite with the reality of our Caribbean surroundings; and to a controlled economy whose forms have been suggested by what we have learned from the sciences” (PR 126). As the cyclical and mutable geographical reality of Le Diamant, Glissant proposes an economic imaginary that is deeply tied to its specificities, its movements, and its realities.

Glissant’s utopian vision is not the unrealizable or finalized thinking of the no-place but, like the traces of Le Diamant’s wandering man, a poetics of the ‘not-here’ (PR 123); a locus that is concretely situated here and yet everywhere, infinitely connected to the movements and sways of the Whole-World. This is precisely the position that Glissant’s philosophy and poetics compels us to take: an elsewhere/here that calls for our willingness to immerse ourselves in the details and clashes of Relation, in the fragile yet liberating position of no longer answering to any given name, identity, representation or determination. In this ethics of opacity of ourselves and others, Relation allows for the realization of possibilities of transformation without closing off the multitude of paths, routes and directions that becoming can take.

The diamond must remain inextricable, imperfect and unpolished if we are to be left to imagine the possibility of the interactions that emerge in Glissant’s work and the Whole-World. The desire to ‘dream or to act’ (PR 131), to imagine otherwise, is the ethical imperative that the opacity and potentiality of Relation leave open.


i All translations are my own, except for those works which count with published translations in English; i.e. Poetics of Relation Betsy Wing and Faulkner, Mississippi trans. by Barbara B. Lewis and Thomas C. Spear.

ii As with other utopian models, Glissant formulates the Russian Revolution as the imposition of an abstract generalization: ‘Stalinism, by taking the Revolution back into a single country, reactivated the generalizing universal –always ethnocentric and absolute. The Third International was the tragic instrument of this generalization’ (PR 222). The seeds of this problematic can be found in Marxism itself, in particular in its vision of history as lineal and in its programatic approach to the liberation of nations. (PR 223). This is not a full condemnation of Marx’s thought on Glissant’s part, but a critique of the finality of his thinking, as well its focus on the obtention of transcendental power: ‘the Marxist imaginary, if it had been separated from its obsession with seizing power, would have had the opposite effect, providing for Relation’ (PR 223).