Francosphères

From chaos-monde to the Tout-monde

Ontological discordance in the poetics of Édouard Glissant’s ecological turn

Francosphères (2022), 11, (1), 85–103.

Abstract

This article offers an interpretation of Édouard Glissant’s conception of the world as, in certain instances, the product of an innovative poetics containing a latent ecological ontology. Locating the advent of his eventual ecological turn in the early works, Soleil de la conscience (1956) and Le Sel noir (1961), this turn is initiated in occupations of placement and displacement as a basis for asserting the multiplicity of human singularity challenging assumed interconnection. These questions are subsequently developed in Glissant’s archipelagic thought on the conscious levels of perception, cognition, and expression.

Glissant’s master concept of Relation and his world formation, chaos-monde, then provide a bridge to formulating a stochastic aesthetics representing terrestrial disorder and contingency - including their own autotelic expression in his last poetry collection, Les Grands chaos (1993). Accordingly, this reading then turns on Glissant’s ontological distinctions in the essay, ‘Images de l’Être, Lieux de l’Imaginaire’ (2006). I argue that by coming to ambiguously ascribe the completed totality of differences as an ontological rather than poetic prospect of Relation, Glissant’s prior ecological ontology has its identity threatened with dissolution. I conclude that at best this offers an unpredictable and mutable identity, but at worst, is destined for a substitute universalism - the problematically structured Tout-monde.

Published Open Access under a CC-BY licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Cet article propose une interprétation de la conception glissantienne du monde comme, dans certains cas, le produit d’une poétique novatrice incluant une ontologie écologique latente. Situant l’avènement de son tournant écologique dans les œuvres de jeunesse, Soleil de la conscience (1956) et Le Sel noir (1961), ce tournant s’amorce à travers des préoccupations de placement et de déplacement comme fondement pour affirmer la multiplicité de la singularité humaine défiant des interconnexions présupposées. Ces questions sont ensuite développées dans la pensée archipélique d’Édouard Glissant aux niveaux conscients de la perception, de la cognition et de l’expression.

Le concept maître de Relation chez Glissant et sa formation du monde, chaos-monde, fournissent ensuite un lien pour formuler une esthétique stochastique représentant le désordre et la contingence terrestres - y compris leur propre expression autotélique dans son dernier recueil de poésie, Les Grands chaos (1993). Ainsi, cette lecture porte sur les distinctions ontologiques de Glissant dans l’essai « Images de L’Être, Lieux de l’Imaginaire » (2006). Je propose qu’en venant à attribuer de manière ambiguë la totalité achevée des différences comme une perspective ontologique plutôt que poétique de la Relation, l’ontologie écologique antérieure de Glissant voit son identité menacée de dissolution. J’en conclus que cela offre, au mieux, une identité imprévisible et muable, au pire, un universalisme de substitution - l’organisation problématique du Tout-monde.

From chaos-monde to the Tout-monde

Ontological discordance in the poetics of Édouard Glissant’s ecological turn

Abstract

This article offers an interpretation of Édouard Glissant’s conception of the world as, in certain instances, the product of an innovative poetics containing a latent ecological ontology. Locating the advent of his eventual ecological turn in the early works, Soleil de la conscience (1956) and Le Sel noir (1961), this turn is initiated in occupations of placement and displacement as a basis for asserting the multiplicity of human singularity challenging assumed interconnection. These questions are subsequently developed in Glissant’s archipelagic thought on the conscious levels of perception, cognition, and expression.

Glissant’s master concept of Relation and his world formation, chaos-monde, then provide a bridge to formulating a stochastic aesthetics representing terrestrial disorder and contingency - including their own autotelic expression in his last poetry collection, Les Grands chaos (1993). Accordingly, this reading then turns on Glissant’s ontological distinctions in the essay, ‘Images de l’Être, Lieux de l’Imaginaire’ (2006). I argue that by coming to ambiguously ascribe the completed totality of differences as an ontological rather than poetic prospect of Relation, Glissant’s prior ecological ontology has its identity threatened with dissolution. I conclude that at best this offers an unpredictable and mutable identity, but at worst, is destined for a substitute universalism - the problematically structured Tout-monde.

Published Open Access under a CC-BY licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Cet article propose une interprétation de la conception glissantienne du monde comme, dans certains cas, le produit d’une poétique novatrice incluant une ontologie écologique latente. Situant l’avènement de son tournant écologique dans les œuvres de jeunesse, Soleil de la conscience (1956) et Le Sel noir (1961), ce tournant s’amorce à travers des préoccupations de placement et de déplacement comme fondement pour affirmer la multiplicité de la singularité humaine défiant des interconnexions présupposées. Ces questions sont ensuite développées dans la pensée archipélique d’Édouard Glissant aux niveaux conscients de la perception, de la cognition et de l’expression.

Le concept maître de Relation chez Glissant et sa formation du monde, chaos-monde, fournissent ensuite un lien pour formuler une esthétique stochastique représentant le désordre et la contingence terrestres - y compris leur propre expression autotélique dans son dernier recueil de poésie, Les Grands chaos (1993). Ainsi, cette lecture porte sur les distinctions ontologiques de Glissant dans l’essai « Images de L’Être, Lieux de l’Imaginaire » (2006). Je propose qu’en venant à attribuer de manière ambiguë la totalité achevée des différences comme une perspective ontologique plutôt que poétique de la Relation, l’ontologie écologique antérieure de Glissant voit son identité menacée de dissolution. J’en conclus que cela offre, au mieux, une identité imprévisible et muable, au pire, un universalisme de substitution - l’organisation problématique du Tout-monde.

Glissant’s ecological turn

In La Cohée de Lamentin (2005), in a daily notebook reproduced from 2002, Édouard Glissant commented on global capitalism’s suppression of its apparent self-destructive desire and its resulting environmental corollary. He noted:

[l]a terre tremble de partout, les volcans s’éventrent, les inondations rasent les pays, les tornades déracinent les bourgs, les épidémies sont inarrêtables, la température flambe, l’eau s’épuise et se pollue, les famines fauchent des communautés sans recours, et tout cela est le plus souvent la conséquence de l’œuvre des hommes.1

Recognizing the Earth’s naturally chaotic state whilst accounting for historical and contemporary forms of subjugation in events such as localized famines - hence implicating a specific demographic of ‘l’œuvre des hommes’ - Glissant prefigured increasingly realized portents on an unusual kind of apocalyptic, collective suicide. Now, early in the twenty-first century’s potentially defining decade for the climate emergency, its unpredictable course remains a curious paradox for human existence, both energizing and enervating, inviting (of collective resistance) yet simultaneously alienating.

Glissant foresaw that an alternative direction was needed in an immediate world said to be for the first time both ‘multiple et un, et inextricable’.2 For the Hegel-evoking inextricable, Glissant imagined the human subject as a multiple singularity for which there is a necessity to adapt to ‘concevoir, de vivre et de réagir, dans ce monde-là’.3 Building upon his master concept of Relation, and its antecedent, Tout-monde, as his work was increasingly alert to environmentalist concerns, this article seeks to examine the latent prospect of a radical and still very urgently necessary ecological ontology within Glissant’s conception of world. The premises of this ontology rest on a nuanced articulation of the placement and displacement of human being through occupations which, stretching back to his first publications, embody Glissant’s expression of the multiplicity of singularity.

It is my contention that within Glissant’s theoretical texts and his poetry a latent ontology appears which is simultaneously antagonistic and dialectical, a wholly apposite figure for the entangled projects of rampant late capitalism and cultural colonialism. To help untangle such variants and their production of economic inequality and seemingly boundless environmental degradation, Glissant’s work then offers a largely unrecognized critical prescription. Whilst necessarily over-simplified - if in accord with Glissant - this reading must necessarily sidestep a (post-, anti-, counter-, or de-)colonial aegis.4 However, it can be attached to numerous critical observations specific therein to both Glissant’s work and its Caribbean context: Malcom Ferdinand’s call for collapsing the Cartesian paradigm for a ‘differentiated unity’ containing ‘environment, memory, political actions, and cultural identity’, wherein heritage is coterminous to the production of political subjectivity;5 and Carine M. Mardorossian’s endorsement of a marriage between ‘ecologically conservationist ethics’ and certain Caribbean ‘creolizing impulses’.6 Presupposing this connection can then add contextual gloss to Peter Hallward’s critique of Glissant’s theory of Relation as indicative of a ‘self-regulating transcendence of location’, for him, one engendering radical simplification and a ‘refusal of worldly complexity, not the reverse’;7 or else, at the other end of the critical and spatial scale, Sam Coombes’s aligning of Glissant’s late theory as offering a ‘radical critique of contemporary globalization’, replete, as it is, with his caveat of perceiving no ‘comprehensive blueprint for much-needed progressive political thought’.8

Other than deeming it a way of ‘apprehending the world’,9 as Coombes’s reading offers a poetics of resistance which disarmingly absents discussion of Glissant’s actual poetry, it overlooks how its vision of world is emblematic of a contemporary ravaged Earth. Poetry inherently participates in Glissant’s evolving concerns across his theoretical work of the 1980s. It is the outset, in Le Discours antillais (1981) of locating ‘un monde à créer mais qui est déjà là, et dont nous n’avons pas encore une connaissance disons évidente’,10 and come the decade’s end, in the resounding affirmation of Poétique de la Relation for cultivating an aesthetics of the Earth.11 The preceding complex tension - creation of the already there - remains, seemingly, a productive paradox, yet paradoxes also provide one of the prevailing discords between Glissant’s subsequent advances of the aesthetics of chaos-monde and Tout-monde formation. As with the difference in reading an ecological ontology poised between location as either verb or noun, chaos-monde and Tout-monde formation both create and think, theorize and write an anti-systematic planetary space, conceived otherwise. Yet, I shall argue, both must be understood as poetic vehicles challenging the sometimes inherent holism of cultural ecology and its limited iteration of interdependence and assimilated interconnection.

Whilst very much sharing cultural ecology’s break with the self-other dichotomy of Cartesian subjectivity, Glissant pushes the capacities of human pensée and its attending imaginary into more expansive theoretical waters. Present, real-world conditions have arguably rendered impotent other pre-existing formulations of world subjectivity: in an abstract fashion, Kant’s universal reason and Hegel’s dialectical totality; and subsequently, and a little more concretely, Marx’s material transformation and Heidegger’s representation of the thinking and begin of Dasein. However, world relation, between any given subject and their inhabited place, still rests on a mutable scale. In one manner or another, interrogating such measures was Glissant’s major occupation since his very first texts.

Elements for a poetics of Relation: Soleil de la conscience (1956)

In Soleil de la conscience, Glissant depicted his eight years studying in Paris. Drawing a correlation between a vertiginous scale of logical, subjective placement, and indicating how displacement from Martinique - itself an historical displacement, of course - created ‘une réalité dont je ne peux pas m’abstenir’, he expressed a different measure in the flow of meteorological seasons and a subsequent shift from consciousness to ‘connaissance’.12 Glissant used this transition as an allegory to scrutinize an assumed ideational measure of difference. Raising a mutable, exterior measure concerning reality’s content rather than its form, and by signalling the inadequacy of its supplanted tradition, Glissant asked, ‘[n]’y a-t-il pas perte de vie, déviation, étouffement, qu’à ce moment seulement où on en vient à faire de la Mesure la matière même sur laquelle il ne faudrait que l’exercer?’13 This is a question - of existential alienation - which he reformulated through a chaotic conception of writing considered a testament synonymous with being, that is to say, a dual ontological disequilibrium of the written and, as such, the lived or existent. Such writing would better reflect spatial disorder and the difficulty of producing interior sens: ‘la quasi-nécessité d’un chaos d’écriture dans le temps où l’être est tout chaos’.14 In Glissant’s subsequent formulation of displacement, chaos stands for thousands of directions from which contingent order emerges within one variable. He described this thus: ‘physiquement déporté de son centre d’aventure, le déséquilibre s’accentue, mais dans le même temps accélère la reprise de soi’.15 Constrained in faithfully describing mobility and what remains constant for the displaced subject, any measure is subsequently bifurcated. Not only is it split into an impossible grasp of self-identity, but, resident within matter’s general equivalence, measure is also split into identification with its chaotically contingent invariants. This duality seems to be the origin of Glissant’s ecological ontology.

As an émigré in France and displaced from a then only recently decolonized satellite of its republic, Glissant considered misplaced existence subservient to the ideological measure of his own being. He posed how ‘ainsi suis-je l’ethnologue de moi-même’ - making him ‘à la fois objet et sujet’.16 This second duality is a germinate representation of his ecological ontology’s multiple singularity. However, in giving his signs of interior experience as prose, chaos, measure, knowledge, and poetry, with each opposed to the homocentric exteriority of, in his case, French(-language) truth, rather than ontological measure standing as a false figure of liberty, Glissant recognized self-emancipation operative through a reconceptualization of the outside (and by that, contra Hegel). He proclaimed that ‘la connaissance est de matière libérée qui se retourne sur soi, s’examine et s’ordonne - sans se buter pour autant dans un catalogue de formes fixes’.17 This resistance makes for a nuanced form of epistemological revolution. Any given subject perceives the space of their changing place and posits for themselves and their environment a new poetic intention. On Glissant’s terms, ‘[t]oute poésie qui, en ses structures les plus profondes, stimule la Mesure […] est liberté’.18 Applied to changing place, poetic connection to the Earth’s elementary matter (‘je m’abandonnai à l’élémentaire’)19 becomes crucial. This connection enables expression of the multiple singularity of renewed, because pre-existent, ontological measures.

Such a reprisal appears to repeat an Heideggerean move,20 but as an immeasurable subject uses their environment to forge a non-imposed identity (a point on which, unsurprisingly, Glissant stands in almost total opposition to Heidegger), a growing poetic knowledge facilitates this attainment:

[n]ul art tant que la poésie n’est lié à la course apocalyptique des connaissances humaines. Nul art n’a besoin à ce point d’être davantage mandé à ouvrir sur l’homme cette raison de toutes choses, qui sublimera la raison.21

This sublimation offers a similar, if poetic, reason to Heidegger’s attempted deconstruction of Hegelian sublation,22 whereby identity is apocalyptically opened up via poetry to the sublime scale of terrestrial things. But the question for Glissant’s poetic measure is whether it surpasses a materiality of world through transcendence (as Hallward perceives), or instead, actually allows a subject to adapt, materially, even immanently, to the Earth’s chaotic unpredictability.

Glissant suggests that, as a constant invariant, measure’s invertible mutability, that it can just as easily extend outwards as inwards, guides the subject back to rediscovering themselves. Consequently, an ontological equivalence between the corporeal and any matter residing beyond it, symbolic or otherwise, is the ‘lieu commun de la rupture qui éclabousse et de la mesure qui réunit’.23 This extremely prescient sense of ontological, ecological equivalence - a (self-)affirmation of morphological selfhood - never abandoned Glissant. In his last public lecture for the Institut du Tout-Monde, reinforcing a point previously acknowledged as incomprehensible,24 he still interpreted terrestrial energies as poetic forces. But this last lecture also addressed an outstanding question of ontological equivalence, clarifying how its thinking is ethical - ‘parce que les Éléments ne conçoivent de durer que dans l’éclat de justice, la justice est un élément puissant de l’ordre et du désordre du monde, qui fait lever le rire noir et jaune des souffrants’ - but also practical, given how poetry shares such elements through knowledge acquisition and experience - ‘les divisez, les révélez aussi, en noyaux et particules’.25 In the fifty years between Soleil de la conscience and this lecture, Glissant’s poetic thinking revealed a wide spectrum for the inextricable reason of other invariants of a potential ecological ontology. Focusing, albeit briefly, on archipelagic thought as a tributary of Relation outlines how the latter’s ecological vision dovetails with the formations of chaos-monde and Tout-monde.

Le Sel noir (1961) and archipelagic thought

Glissant’s early poems provided a foundation for archipelagic thought, and, through its ideational triad of perception, cognition, and expression, its evolution towards Relation. These early ecological analogies challenge assumed ideas of origins and develop the preceding measure of Soleil de la conscience. Here, I shall focus on how Glissant’s defining geological figure of the archipel plays a central role in correlating the poetic subject’s intent with the chaotic contingencies of natural events - be they micro- or macro-cosmic.

Given, as Glissant later argued, that human existence is never suspended, and ‘je ne peux jamais faire le tour de mon lieu, le contenir, le contourner, c’est-à-dire l’enfermer’, the archipel stimulates the imaginary to reconnect the world’s places.26 Imagining their form of interconnection, a schema emerges for immaterial belonging as material relation, because both actually and as a figure for thinking, the archipel is ‘diffracté, nécessaire dans sa totalité, fragile dans son unité: un état de [sic] monde’.27 Until a point this fractured-totality bind maps onto an ecological ontology’s paradoxical status of inequivalent equivalence - the point Glissant addressed in his last lecture. What completes that mapping, contingently, is the individual imaginary - and for Glissant, explicitly not the imagination. It functions through the non-totalizing expansion of archipelagic cognition as set in a necessarily non-determined place. This cognition’s ideation, in its pre- or non-verbal function, then allows the subject to grasp their potential planetary imaginary by perceiving a worldly, relational radiality. As with the measure depicted in Soleil de la conscience, archipelagic thought subsequently recodes poetic intention. However, opposed to the Western inheritance of self-generative narratives into which the subject is merely inserted (primarily, history, religion, science, art, and politics), it is a response to a landscape of trauma which evolves the external, personal face of Glissant’s ecological turn.

His unique genotype is connected to a phenotypical chain which leaves traces of the slave history embedded in the landscape - sea, shore, and other nautical signifiers. In a nuanced inversion of Soleil de la conscience, however, Glissant’s first poems, collected in Le Sang rivé,28 used Martinique’s poetic imagery with appended negative ascriptions to dialectically complement his already depicted displacement. Proximity to the landscape contained two functions: identity formation through measure of the elements, and contingently figurative separation from a material place. Both functions depict how past suffering and present (but also past) displacement make a subject’s represented, yet impossibly native, landscape a site for intercepting the energies of natural forces.

In resuming the story of his ancestors in ‘Afrique’, both functions appear constrained as Glissant’s speaker portrays leaving behind ‘la flamme les rites l’éclat’ which suggests self-mimetically that ‘[c]e chant n’est pas de poésie, oyez / C’est parabole et chose d’alentour’.29 This distinction between perception and poetry’s environment concerns difference’s rhythm if not yet its measure. But using parts of the Earth’s local symbolism, by replicating the assembly of ‘fleuves’, the speaker reprises poetry’s historically suppressed possibility (for a black subject) to state how ‘nous nommes / Le temps dans toute chair’.30 This temporal embodiment arises because

Les terres ont croulé de cette voix, c’est poésie Et de la mer à nous la route fut levée, à toi Vouée au temps et à la voix qui pour chacun supplie.31

As Glissant seeks affinity with it, the landscape produces natural poetry - and has it expressed through human creation’s co-opted verbalization of it in poetry. Sharing what in anthropocentric terms is its silence, the concluding stanza depicts retrospective as well as projective ecological relation as a connection which, again, resists imposed meaning:

Afrique Afrique Ô plus joyeuse ô strophe beauté drue Moi je rêvais, en toi l’homme nouait son lourd exil Maintenant j’ai quitté l’épaisseur pour le plat visage Les gypses pour le fer et le corail pour le poisson Voici, la nasse est nue, voici au sable l’Africaine Et elle prend le sel dans ses cheveux beau geai beau fruit Et peut-être enfin le cueillerons-nous, ô peut-être.32

These lines could suggest that such phenomena project their own intentionality (a chimerical ecocentric ontology might argue this). However, in a differentiated ecological (but equally historical) reading, the concluding double peut-être highlights the arbitrary event of human, autotelic judgement on deciding to belong to a place - its ever-suspended possibility. Beyond Glissant’s elegiac register, through the parataxis of exchange - ‘le corail pour le poisson’ - it is clear that the human subject is grounded neither in any singular landscape, nor amongst its surrounding objects - either hostile or hospitable - and cannot ever conclusively decide which space is native. Rather, empirical perception of the otherness of any given environment is always subject to the measure which recognizes a chance relation to place and, for a species denied any biospheric niche, this absence’s alienating constancy.

To modify negative conditions into a positive affirmation, ‘Lecture sauvage’ then acknowledges poetry’s material inscription of place. Given how ‘ma pauvreté sourit des pouvoirs / de la terre’, the speaker seeks equivalence by figuratively folding their body into the elements, granted speech such that ‘[l]’eau tant de fois clamée rougit de l’attouchement de / ma voix’.33 Another text, ‘Roche’, also folds the subject into the aquatic. Engaging with the eponymous rock and the sea, even if its haptic connection can only be figurative, a créole-inflected apostrophe rolls into the grammatical mélange of ‘je roule calloge l’eau la vague l’écume je me lave roche moi roche la mer paresse dans mes golfes la mer inonde ma presence’34. The past horizon is given as a primordial place, but it changes as symbolic cleansing - a ‘patiente rumination’ - is relayed back through the screen of trauma’s epigenetic memory and configured in the reunion of disparate meaning, the speaker declaring, ‘[e]t mes sens réunis ma peau granuleuse j’exhale’.35

‘Éléments’ takes the theme of conjoined matter yet disjointed meaning to produce material folding from the image screen of epigenetic memory’s archipelagic cognition (or re-cognition). Its first part posits corporeal equivalence, given how ‘[d]e chair, les animaux me sont amis’, and further the figure of ‘[l]es fleuves passent à travers moi vers la transparence des terres me voilà’.36 The subject now expresses identity with river and rock, referencing the latter’s impenetrable alterity as ‘[c]’est moi la rivière la roche impassible et dans son sein l’ardeur de la terre’, haptically connecting to environment again in ‘la main qui caresse l’éclair la main qui offre c’est nous’.37 Belonging to a non-genealogical place whilst being necessarily separate from it, the collective pronoun slips as the speaker states that ‘le sable et le ciel est contre moi’, but, in appearing set against nature’s materialism, the speaker explicates the poetic reason of separation.38 The Earth imminently surges, ‘par-delà les eaux respirables du poème tu joues le soleil, tu gagnes’, and after the anthropomorphic apostrophe of ‘ô liberté des larmes dans la terre parmi les arbres réconciliés’, the speaker recognizes poetry’s constant possibility, ‘par le cran d’arrêt de la logique suspendue’.39 In this quasi-violent figure, ‘entre mes bras ses boussoles multipliées […] Je dis que la poésie est chair’.40 Through an archetypal ecological proximity, the Earth, and specifically Martinique, becomes less a transcended entity, as Hallward would have it, than a material locus for the creative relation of ecology’s disjointed expansion throughout planetary space. Archipelagic thought become a poetics of relation which presupposes dialogic encounters between the voiceless, where the speaker, born of a ‘démarquage poétique’ advances to witness ‘splendeur morale’.41 Indicating identity’s possible dissolution under the weight of expression, however, the penultimate section of the poem ‘Éléments’ posits ‘soudain / la peur d’être deux / dans la beauté’ but concludes by configuring the poem’s creation existing between the poetic subject’s archipelagic thought and its mirrored creation in the archipel.42 As the corporeal border of their union, the speaker awaits speech open-mouthed, absorbing and retransmitting the elements, portending exile but also its positive hermeneutic, that which is always potentially passing ‘d’autres continents’.43

Poetry’s mobility - belonging in not belonging - represents what Glissant termed the spatial oscillation of aller-retour, a chaotic errance projected from place to totality, and inversely where ‘[l]’œuvre ne va pas dans le monde sans retourner à sa source’.44 Its pre-measured rhythm in ‘Afrique’ designates ‘sa vraie parabole’, and in a shared optic figure, measure must always include ‘l’approche de l’Autre dans une vision de la solidarité au monde’.45 Glissant’s practice of aller-retour strives to reappropriate the equivalence conquered by globalization’s colonization of similitude, and it does so using infinite invariants - excess and chaos.

Formation of the chaos-monde

Potentially infinite lines of displacement within planetary space have, for Glissant, a material corollary in the archipel. Subsequently, Martinique’s polymorphic configuration with its neighbours serves as a spatial figure serving to conceptually fracture border constraints. However, Glissant’s increased push in late works towards a totalized, quantitatively realized figure of difference raises questions for archipelagic thought and provokes discordance with its potential for ecological ontology. In Traité du Tout-monde (1997), Glissant asserted how

[l]e monde en sa totalité accomplie ne peut pas être considéré comme raison suffisante, généralité enfantant sa propre généralisation. La trame du monde s’avive de toutes les particularités, quantifiées; de tous les lieux, reconnus. La totalité n’est pas ce qu’on a dit être l’universel. Elle est la quantité finie et réalisée de l’infini détail du réel. Et qui, d’être au détail, n’est pas totalitaire.46

Later, Glissant defines the archipel’s crucial role in Tout-monde formation as that which occupies infinitely, ‘où nous grandissons sans limites’.47 He deduces that archipelagic thought’s empirical perception of connection differences is conjoined speculatively to the imaginary’s infinite, immaterial capacities, hence creating a conception of world without limits. However, revealing a complex syllogistic leap, in Philosophie de la Relation, he eventually proposed how

[l]’imaginaire de mon lieu est relié à la réalité imaginable des lieux du monde, et tout inversement. L’archipel est cette réalité source, non pas unique, d’où sont sécrétés ces imaginaires: le schème de l’appartenance et de la relation, en même temps. L’archipel est diffracté, nous pousserons jusqu’à répéter, à la manière de ces praticiens des sciences du chaos, qu’il est fractal.48

The archipel’s chaotic reality is pre-figurative of the world’s totality, but through poetry’s creation, subsequently configurative of the Earth’s quantitative as well as qualitative fractured-totality.

Such a chaotic formation of the Earth is that where ‘l’archipel n’est pas de chaos, si ce n’est qu’il est imprévisible, et qu’il n’assigne aucune fin à ses structures’.49 In this sense, the change and exchange of place as allerretour recognizes the unpredictable but always constant value of errance - its invariant point of return. In his theory for a Poétique de la Relation (1990), Glissant called for poetics to produce a textual equivalent of world, and hence enter into the equivalences of relation. Prefacing legitimate concerns on a structurally chaotic organization which will lead to ecumenical detachment and a resulting, problem-proliferating totalité-Terre,50 Glissant’s response, although already ambiguous - positing Relation as totalizing, but not absolute51 - sought such threatened equivalences deemed latent in the hidden, aesthetic order of the chaos-monde.52 Such variable invariance53 is a logical precursor to an adjunct of the chaos-monde. In the chapter, ‘Les écarts determinants’, Glissant wrestles with the subsumption of a specific form of chaotically engendered equivalence into a difference-flattening, origin-repeating ecology. Alternatively, he formulated three specific approaches to an ecological vision of Relation: ‘le rapport à l’entour naturel, la Caraïbe; la défense de la langue populaire, le créole; la protection de la terre, par mobilisation de tous’.54 Concerned with the West’s problematic prevalent ecology - overly and overtly political and quasi-mystical - he listed concerns for an aesthetic of the Earth and sketched a (plausibly, ontological) base of change and exchange as an aesthetic of turbulence preceding an ethics.55 This chimes with the expression borne out of an element poetics, but as Glissant subtly called for equilibrium, he initially sidestepped the conceptual problem of equivalence itself (in that, unless carefully formulated, it logically flattens difference).56

The outline for a poetics of Relation, then, very abstractly negated an ecology of incohesive space: Relation is force, and its product is not being; repose is virtual, Relation is movement; Relation is the limitless efforts du monde; Relation does not affirm being. Yet inversely (hence the ontology of subjectivity), it affirms the subject, and finally, with repercussions to be discussed in this article’s conclusion, being of the world realizes being - in beingness.57 Resolutely grounding poetics in the monde, through Relation the imaginary at least relays a kind of infinitely finite provision of the same mutable matter. Although more commonly applied to the appellation of monde, it is the chaos of the Earth, and affirmation of it, which provided a poetic reason of irreducible meaning. In the poetry collection, Les Grands chaos (1993), this irreducible excessiveness gave form and content to each of the anthology’s five long poems.

Prefacing the first, ‘Bayou’, Glissant describes the Atchafalaya River, ‘qui en Martinique va de Balata au Mount Pelé, par la route de la Tracée’, and a primordial time in which land and water were mixed, where ‘le rythme de la voix est élémentaire’, and where everything coalesces in an ‘écho monde’ which ‘parle indistinctement’.58 The emergence of language and matter conjoin in a shared figure of turbulence:

Le nid où sont nassés les mots Turbulence tourbe nouées Dans une faille qui chavire.59

Yet in the dialogic section, ‘Désode’, of the following, eponymous ‘Les grands chaos’, the dilution of identity reappears, threatened by lived but also nominal chaos:

Passant, n’ayez que de chaos Vous déhumiez la chair des mots N’y laissant mie que les os…60

However, in the third text, ‘L’œil dérobé’, the precept of poetry as redemptive recurs as response to historical suffering and pain. With Earth and flesh remaining victims, Glissant’s speaker states that

le poème a bridé les chairs hier allouées en crue nilique et qui portaient limon au cœur L’œil dérobé vient à méfait! Le laps des ans nous a paru d’éternité, il n’est de tant de mots qu’amas dénudé, fol.61

This leads to the explication of how human language and the materiality of the world are, on Glissant’s terms, mutual but also decisively separate, the latter designed to outlast the former, such that

L’œil dérobé nous a suivis, où l’eau dormait en son givre: l’ordre des mots ne distrait pas le monde.62

Into the lyrically sparse ‘Boisées’, with its ‘Présentation’ describing the river Lézarde, Glissant delivers a poetic rather than military, economic, or judiciary sense of force, his speaker insisting that speech ‘dire l’en-aller des choses’:

[l]’énigme aussi de ceux qui s’en furent au loin d’eux-mêmes: faux soleyeurs, faux décideurs, parleurs de rien. La ressource est au ravage de la terre, où aucun sens n’a décidé. Ne pas craindre les obscurs. Toute voix s’entrame à l’eau, primordiale ou tristement polluée. Génératrice du poème […]. Mottes de mots, gravats de terre.63

The text concludes with the quasi-Dantean, yet resolutely terrestrial closing poem, ‘L’eau du volcan’. Brought back to the disarming present, the speaker surveys ‘Laves. Sévies de feu, d’eau alenties’, and Glissant’s voice emerges in adding, as if in engendering the term, ‘Et a surgi Celui qui manqué au sable et court à l’erre du Tout-monde’ - the term’s emergence potentially eclipsing the previously configured chaos, but with a final elliptical logic appended -

Et toute vie à vif, au vieux cyclone de l’année!… Il monte en mer, il a piété… Il a noué gorge de mont à foulard piètre… Et cette idée qui va tonnant le fiel et le courant jauni… Comme semence de chadron!… Comme lait de bécune en folie!… Jusqu’à hausser, où joue la roche avec le rouge des maïs, la baille d’eau qui fut nacrée d’un lourd de mots, tout à veille de la Tracée…

- to which the final line, returning to the text’s opening, states simply the renewal of the cycle, ‘Failles, qui surgissez’.64

If the Tout-monde opens up as a moveable destination, then chaos-monde grounds relation, yet ‘[l]e chaos n’est pas “chaotique”’, instead it is a natural aesthetics which can be organized to

globalise en nous et pour nous les éléments et les formes d’expression de cette totalité, elle [l’esthétique du chaos-monde] en est l’action et la fluidité, le reflet et l’agent en mouvement.65

The cultural expression of this aesthetic is ‘le chaos-monde qui (se) relate’ and it ‘pressent, suppose, inaugure, rassemble, éparpille, continue et transforme la pensée de ces éléments, de ces formes, de ce mouvement’.66 In its relentless kinetics of formation, then, the chaos-monde integrates displaced movement within rediscovered planetary space. It produces an infinite, stochastic aesthetics of imaginable extension contained in ‘une énergie renouvelée de la matière du monde, ou à une manière de régénération’, its differences accumulated in ‘ces éléments de la relation entre toutes choses connues et inconnues’.67 However, an unexpected inclination towards transcendence stimulates an ambiguous ontology of Relation which continues to threaten non-verbal identity with sublated dissolution.

Ontological discordance

Contained within Une nouvelle région du monde (2006), the essay ‘Images de l’Être, Lieux de l’Imaginaire’ sees Glissant posit an unfixed identity destined for the planetary space of the Tout-monde but in a way by which the unpredictable formation of its relation seems potentially annulled. In Glissant’s ontological distinctions, Être is resisted for being absolute, unattainable, transcendent, or sublimating, while Étant is valued for being relative and variable. Beingness contains a prior potency for being spatial, with Being viewed in two parts.

This duality enhances the ontological resonance of archipelagic thought. Glissant suggests that, seen as endemic in systems thinking, traditional uses of the border (which are to be resisted) designate ‘celle à laquelle il s’adosse et celle vers quoi il tend’, giving it a narrow, pre-determined linearity.68 Whilst this is not strictly true (cybernetic feedback loops are one prominent example of non-homeostatic kinetics), Glissant proceeds to critique predominantly Western monist ontologies for striving to dissolve the difference of ‘ce qui est le même et ce qui est l’autre, promis à part, de manière radicale et infranchissable’.69 In this, however, he overlooks retaining the potentially generative capacities of Being’s ontological doubleness - an elusive conjuration which Jacques Derrida termed ‘hantologie’.70

Glissant’s earlier conceptions of archipelagic passage are then eclipsed by an unexpected identity composite. Étant is taken as divested of dividing borders, for Glissant ‘une structure inexplicable, en révolution sur elle-même’, where even the border is no longer one of Being’s possible givens but ‘une envolée de passages, et d’entre-deux, qui sont aisément ou malaisément franchissables’.71 Referring to transdisciplinary poetic thinking, he asserts that ‘[l]’inextricable des humanités dans le monde nous autorise ces sauts’.72 The subjectivity of Étant is said to be governed by radial movement, growing in a self-image of continuous expansion. Positing Être and Étant as a mutation between stages of micro- and macro-cosmic atomism, Glissant observes how, although the former is static and the latter is growing, they both follow the same course. For the processual imaginary, ‘même si l’hypothèse est fausse, ou irrecevable, la seule possibilité de son évocation rend dramatique l’exercice de la pensée’.73 Glissant cogently argues for substituting for self-said static Being the fluidity of Beingness, relegating the former’s universalizing essentialism or reductive monism for constant, stochastic, processual, plural movement. However, to simply substitute Beingness for Being overlooks how these two ontological modalities are possibly closely related. Glissant does not appear to recognize how as an adjunct of Being, however chaotic, Étant may require some form of repose, in other words, a relational ontology’s own invariance - expressible, if only poetically. Although his rationale is understandable, Glissant conspicuously sidesteps recognizing this possibility, but perhaps only inclines towards universalism, regardless. He iterates opposition to a conception of borders in traditional ontologies in which they are present ‘non pas certes de l’être mais dans l’être’.74 Presenting an equally cogent case of how affirmations of being-as-relation are epistemic heresies for positing beingness ‘en expansion continue’, he attributes static being back to a perspective of naïve thinking and a lasting enclosure of self-same identity.75 Even if only contingent, however, an account of the at least intermittently necessary thermodynamic stasis of Beingness, tied to Being’s own expansion, could express Relation’s radial extension more obviously through the imaginary - especially for mutable place-orientation and Relation’s poetic configuration. This would explain how autotelic judgements on difference, that of the same and other, can proceed to compare identities in an interconnecting schema whilst still sharing an equivalent expression of analogy which expands Relation but, for the ontologically singular, maintains an ecologically necessary multiplicity, diversity, or difference. Although Glissant describes Être as intuitively forming an image, and Étant as operating by the fluid imaginary, other than iterating that this shift is poetic, he does not explain, at least seemingly adequately, how the apparent transcendent sublation of Being into Relation takes place. Rather, most unfortunately, he seems to allow for a surely inadvertent return too willingly to ontologically preserved origins, à la Heidegger.

By making Tout-monde the realized quantity of all differences, but also opposed to ‘l’universel qui était la référence à la qualité réalisable d’un absolu du monde’, Glissant appears to renege on the affirmed fertile disorder of the chaos-monde.76 Far from holding ontological singularity to an immutable substance, its invariance could be a constant process of stochastically changing ecological identity, one humanly performed in multiplicity through analogy - its archipelagic (self-)difference. Such would perhaps be a true poetics of relation, by which identity can retain the potential to (self-) express (its) ontological, ecological difference in the changing, adapting constancy of an auto-téléiopoétique of identity. This reflects the kind of element poetics so fertile in Glissant’s early texts and still present in his final poetry. Those texts recognize that for beingness, by being-in-affirmative-relation-to-others, the autonomous topology of ontology provides a spacing that runs parallel with poetic expression. Glissant’s poetry displays a mutable move to and from same and other in which being, becoming, and, in some way, an invariant’s remaining, are subject to constant stochasticism, retaining components of the same, namely, the poetics of an ecological ontology. On the materialist terms of the chaos-monde, however, it is difficult to conceive where in the world Relation is destined, and how its ontology is formed, if not by the trap of poetry’s traditional, specific dialectics of identity negation.

Glissant’s final major work advanced in this direction as Philosophie de la Relation (2009) inclined to supersede the latent possibility of its poetics. By presenting Étant as dissolved into the Tout-monde, the quantity of differences realized in complétude obfuscates the marriage between poetics and a comparative politics. Seeing poetics as revealing singularity’s reason supposes a pre-existing, anthropic interconnection, something political in the original image of the polis. Glissant does consider this interconnection as contingently chaotic and an excess inaccessible to meaning, but despite changing its geometry, his Relation’s telos remains poised ‘comme la quantité réalisée de toutes les différences du monde’; he even adds, ‘[e]lle n’est pas d’élevation mais de complétude’.77 It is regrettable that Glissant’s ecological turn moved away from the possibility that Relation could modulate ontological singularity into an inequivalent equivalence, a schema operative through poetic expression which always proceeds step by step analogically, as opposed to proceeding with speculative, dialectical leaps.

The ecological turn within Glissant’s oeuvre is comprehensible given how it responds to a mutable conception of place potentially inhabitable otherwise. It opens an inclusive, expansive topology for the active pensée of world formation. Reappropriating global capitalism’s driving force of inequivalence remains a complex task for thinking the scale, measure, and excess of the ontological relation of this world formation. However, although Glissant’s Relation only partly succeeds in connecting planetary space to the subjectivity of an efficacious ecological ontology, in his forecast for Mondialité, where between ‘[l]’Empire ou le Tout-Monde, la balance est devant nous’, the urgency of this task remains no less imperative.78 Accordingly, there is immense value in at least imagining the poetic formulation of Glissant’s ecological ontology, if not perhaps lucidly theorizing it as an efficacious antidote working against the climate emergency’s ticking clock.

Édouard Glissant, La Cohée du Lamentin: Poétique V (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), p. 23.

Glissant, La Cohée du Lamentin, p. 25.

Glissant, La Cohée du Lamentin, p. 25.

Cf. Lise Gauvin and Édouard Glissant, L’Imaginaire des langues. Entretiens avec Lise Gauvin (1991-2009) (Paris: Gallimard, 2010), p. 64.

Malcom Ferdinand, ‘Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism in Martinique: The Discourse of an Environmental NGO (1980-2011)’, in The Caribbean: Aesthetics, World-Ecology, Politics, ed. by Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016), pp. 184-86.

Carine M. Mardorossian, ‘“Poetics of Landscape”: Édouard Glissant’s Creolized Ecologies’, Callaloo, 36.4 (2013), p. 983.

Peter Hallward, Absolutely Postcolonial: Writing between the Singular and the Specific (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), pp. xv, 69-70.

Sam Coombes, Édouard Glissant: A Poetics of Resistance (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), p. xii, p. 5.

Coombes, p. 18.

Édouard Glissant, Le Discours antillais (Paris: Seuil, 1981), p. 63.

Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la Relation: Poétique III (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), pp. 165-66.

Édouard Glissant, Soleil de la conscience: Poétique I (Paris: Gallimard, 1956 [1997]), p. 16.

Glissant, Soleil de la conscience, p. 16.

Glissant, Soleil de la conscience, pp. 16, 20.

Glissant, Soleil de la conscience, p. 20.

Glissant, Soleil de la conscience, p. 21.

Glissant, Soleil de la conscience, p. 25.

Glissant, Soleil de la conscience, p. 25.

Glissant, Soleil de la conscience, p. 43.

Specifically, the argument for art’s truth-unveiling in Martin Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes [The Origin of the Work of Art] (Stuttgart: P. Reclam, 1960).

Glissant, Soleil de la conscience, p. 49.

Cf. Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. by Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), pp. 49-51.

Glissant, Soleil de la conscience, p. 50.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, pp. 173-74.

Édouard Glissant, ‘La Route bruissante: silencieuse’, in La Terre le feu l’eau et les vents: une anthologie de la poésie du Tout-monde (Paris: Galaade Éditions, 2010), p. 18.

Cf. Aliocha Wald Lasowski, Édouard Glissant, penseur des archipels (Paris: Pocket, 2015), p. 499.

Gauvin and Glissant, p. 63.

A series of eight, these were originally published in 1945 in Jean-Paul Sartre’s review Les Temps modernes, appearing later, revised, in Le Sel noir (1961). Cf. Lasowski, p. 82.

Édouard Glissant, Poèmes complets (Paris: Gallimard, 1994) p. 206.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 208.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 208.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, pp. 208-09.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 15.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 17.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 17.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 25.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 25.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 25.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 26.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 26.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 28.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 28.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 29.

Édouard Glissant, Traité du Tout-monde: Poétique IV (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), p. 183.

Glissant, Traité du Tout-monde, p. 183.

Glissant, Traité du Tout-monde, p. 192.

Glissant, La Cohée du Lamentin, p. 87.

Édouard Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation: Poésie en étendue (Paris: Gallimard, 2009), p. 47.

Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation: Poésie en étendue, pp. 54-55.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, pp. 37, 43-44, 45.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, pp. 47-48.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 108.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 116.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 160.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 169.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 171.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, pp. 174, 185-86, 200-01.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 399.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 402.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 417.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 431.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 433.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 443.

Glissant, Poèmes complets, p. 470.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, pp. 108-09.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 109.

Édouard Glissant, Une nouvelle région du monde : Esthétique I (Paris: Gallimard, 2006), pp. 21-22.

Glissant, Une nouvelle région du monde, p. 180.

Glissant, Une nouvelle région du monde, p. 180.

Cf. Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx (Paris: Galilée, 1993), p. 255.

Glissant, Une nouvelle région du monde, p. 180.

Glissant, Une nouvelle région du monde, p. 182.

Glissant, Une nouvelle région du monde, p. 183.

Glissant, Une nouvelle région du monde, p. 181.

Glissant, Une nouvelle région du monde, pp. 182-83.

Glissant, Une nouvelle région du monde, p. 186.

Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation, p. 42. Glissant’s emphasis.

Glissant, La Cohée du Lamentin, p. 162.


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La Vedrine, Sam