My regular readers would have understood that I develop a certain amount of quasi-pathological obsessions for a certain amounts of ideas or concepts that tend to come back regularly in my articles, in such a way that one could say that each article tends towards an attempt to articulate always the same idea. Among these obsessions is the idea of the archipelago and you will soon see that I did not finish to articulate a few thoughts around this idea yet, since an ambitious project of the same name will soon complement my writing on this blog.
In the following text, I would like to approach the archipelago through the same way that I first did, through a philosopher that has been highly influential to me in this last decade, Édouard Glissant. The archipelago is for him a geographical figure towards which the world should tend in order to construct a politics of “the relation” rather than a politics of the universal. Of course, an archipelago is a very evocative example of territories that constructs simultaneously the difference between each island, and a collective identity as a group; that is what makes it a strong figure for a new paradigm of sovereignty (see past article). However, according to Glissant, there is an additional complexity to it that enriches this territory of an exemplary ideology. In order to look at it more closely, we need to first observe its opposite, the continental sea — etymologically, the archipelago is also a sea before being a group of islands. The paradigmatic example of the continental sea, because of both its history and its contemporaneity is the Mediterranean Sea. The following excerpt is what he writes about it in one of his only translated books in English, about which we might want to observe the difficulty to translate the language — Glissant was talking about translation as an emerging art in itself — that Betsy Wings brilliantly managed to translate from French to English:
Compared to the Mediterranean, which is an inner sea surrounded by lands, a sea that concentrates (in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin antiquity and later in the emergence of Islam, imposing the thought of the One), the Caribbean is, in contrast, a sea that explodes the scattered lands into an arc. A sea that diffracts. Without necessarily inferring any advantage whatsoever to their situation, the reality of archipelagos in the Caribbean or the Pacific provides a natural illustration of the thought of Relation. (Édouard Glissant, The Poetics of Relation, trans Betsy Wing, Ann Harbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997)
When one looks at maps of the history of the Mediterranean Sea, whether dominated by the Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, the Muslims, the Ottomans, or the European colons (French, British and Italians), one can easily understand the consistence of the efforts that have been deployed for centuries to force the multiple into the uniform. In this regard, the Mediterranean itself a sort of virtually neutral territory that each nation, one by one, attempts to dominate in order to bring one’s identity to the rank of universal norm. The fact that the three largest monotheist religions — two of which are still the most populated in the world — emerged and developed around the Mediterranean, is symptomatic for Glissant of this obsessive will to unify. The geography of the region is, of course, not alone to blame, but one understands that in the case of the Mediterranean Sea, the territory of water constitutes a certain object of covetousness for the nations that surround it.
The Caribbean, as an archipelago constitutes, on the contrary, a layout of islands for which the water is the environing milieu; there is therefore no desire to dominate it since it has virtually no limits, and thus does not constitute a territory per se. History has not been ‘tender’ with these islands as they were the first territories discovered in the late 15th-century by Christopher Columbus who enslaved the indigenous population. Starting in the beginning of the 18th-century, during the colonial domination of the Spanish, the French and the British, hundreds of thousands of African slaves were brought by boat — the vessel of colonial uniformization for Glissant — and provided the manpower of the colonies until the first part of the 19th-century when slavery was progressively abolished. In the meantime, in 1791, Toussaint L’Ouverture and the slaves of Saint-Domingue won a historical war against the French colons and created an autonomous territory on what is now Haiti. The current blockade on Cuba from the United States is also revealing the various tensions that are still operative around this special territory.
Nonetheless, the Caribbean is also the territory of a concept that Glissant work his all life around, the one of creolization. Creole itself often refers to one of the local languages spoken in the Caribbean as something that emerged from the encounter of the colonial language (mostly Spanish and French) and the various languages spoken by the slave population. In general, creole can refer to a similar linguistic evolutionary process between any number of languages (colonial/colonized or not), and even at a broader level, the phenomenon of creolization, as understood by Glissant, constitutes a process in which any aspect of an individual or collective identity encounters another to create a new one, richer because integrating the difference, if not opposition, from which it is born. The jazz is one of the mot evocative example of such a process, as it was invented in the American plantations by slaves after their encounters with European music instruments. This music cannot possibly be considered without the resistive struggle that its birth constituted, since any act of freedom — creativity being at the paroxysm of it — accomplished by the slave materializes by definition a negation of his or her status.
The archipelago is the territory of creolization par excellence, as it embodies a geography of islands whose coast are in continuous contact with the unexpected — another important component of Glissant’s philosophy/poetry — of the otherness. The processes of exchanges — pacific or violent — that occur on it are a form of recognition of the difference with the otherness, that then construct voluntarily or not new aspects of individual and collective identities that are richer than a simple synthesis of the two original ones. In this regard, Glissant’s philosophy of the Relation can be understood as the social interpretation of Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy of affects that I have been evoking many times in the past. Just like Spinoza, Glissant starts by analyzing the world in a ‘neutral’ way, unfolding the nature of exchanges between humans and nations, and only then establishes an ethics based on this philosophical scheme. For Glissant, the archipelago constitutes the territory of his ethics.
For more in English about the philosophy and history of the Caribbean, consult the excellent Public Archive edited and written by Professor Peter Hudson.