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The Right Not To Be Understood

With the passing of Edouard Glissant last week, it was a tweet from @public_archive that got me thinking again of that slogan of his: Nous réclamons le droit à l’opacité.

Image of Edouard Glissant by Emmanuel Baker

We demand the right to ... to what, exactly? Opacité is no more a household word in French than opacity is in English. It doesn't seem appropriate for the kind of motto you would expect to see sprayed on public buildings or hear chanted in the streets, though that jarring of registers is, I imagine, quite deliberate. And so if we propose an alternative, we should not banish this, the most literal equivalent, from our minds.

The phrase appears in the first section of the opening essay to his Le Discours antillais (1981), a book only partially translated into English: J Michael Dash's Caribbean Discourse (1989).1

Glissant begins with three anecdotes (two fragments of dark humour and one somewhat dismissive response to a query from a French psychiatrist) that seem to indicate a certain all-pervasive Martinican cynicism or nihilism. This is the dead-end (situation "blôquée") that serves as his starting point.

He does not characterise this mind-set directly, but does indicate that this is the object of his study (l'objet de mon travail): his purpose is to trace (pister) the various aspects of what he calls the web of nothingness (toile de néant) in which such an apparently educated people are trapped (s'englue) today. Note the use of the passive voice. The web has been woven for a people (tissé pour un peuple): Glissant does not suggest who or what has woven this web.

His next paragraph refers to the '"intellectual" effort' that this - his - project requires. In what seems to be a succinct description of his own method and writing style, he refers to repetitions, contradictions, imperfections, and a certain obscurity, as a way of insisting that 'the attempt to approach a reality so often concealed does not proceed simply by means of a series of clarifications.'

And then the celebrated phrase: Nous réclamons le droit a l'opacité. What is most immediately striking is that this is the first use of the first person plural in an opening that is relatively free of personal pronouns. Glissant has talked of 'my work' (mon travail) and we might reasonably assume that this 'we' is the royal 'we' of academic discourse, but is perhaps deliberately ambiguous, aligning the work of the single intellectual with broader social forces. After all the form of his slogan is surely meant to remind us of more conventional political slogans (say, a nation insisting on the right to self-determination), which suggests that this '"intellectual" effort' is not exclusively his, but of all those people in the Caribbean who are determined to escape this nihilism.

And this sense of collective endeavour indeed becomes more prominent in the next sentence, when he writes of (to quote Dash's translation) 'the creativity (élan) of marginalized peoples who today confront the ideal of transparent universality (l'universel de la transparence), imposed by the West, with secretive and multiple manifestations of Diversity.'

Here Glissant seems to align himself more clearly with the energy or momentum of peoples who are marginalized (a rather weak translation of néantisés, recalling the toile de néant in which they are trapped: the idea is that their very existence is disavowed), and suggests that the opacité he is referring to is characteristic of - and appropriate to - not only his own project but that of oppressed peoples more generally. The sentence also invokes transparence, the opposite of opacité, placing the terms in a dramatic relationship that suggests an ongoing struggle between these marginalized peoples on the one hand and the West on the other. The contrast is also a more philosophical one: on the one hand, genuine diversity; on the other a general principle of transparency that insists all difference can be comprehended within a single interpretive scheme.

In her fine essay on Phillis Wheatley, June Jordan notes how the opening lines of her poem 'On Being Brought from Africa to America' partakes of the kind of 'iniquitous nonsense' she had imbibed from her reading of white literature that coded this transition as a passage from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge:
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Savior too.
But then follows this with 'something wholly her own, something entirely new':
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew
by which, Jordan writes, she asserts: 'once I existed beyond and without these terms under consideration. Once I existed on other than your terms.'2

In translating Glissant's slogan, Dash avoids 'opacity' and prefers 'obscurity'. In some ways this is unfortunate because it could be interpreted as a demand to be forgotten or ignored, which is rather too close to the marginalization or annhiliation that opacité is supposed to resist. The demand for opacity is not a demand for invisibility but an insistence that I exist on other than your terms. It is an assertion of the right not to be understood.

When President Mubarak recently berated Barack Obama: 'You don't understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now ... If I resign today, there will be chaos.' As zunguzungu and others so eloquently pointed out, this is to 'understand' Egyptian culture entirely within the familiar terms of western orientalism. And terms which one will find it hard to dissociate from the other word Dash uses for opacité: 'inscrutability' (a characteristic normally reserved for the Chinese).

All too often, we seem obliged to think of people as either just like us (or what we think is 'us') or the exact opposite. Or indeed as somewhere in between. Nowhere on this continuum will we find anything really different that might trouble our imagination or test our intelligence. If that is what being 'understood' entails, then the logic of Glissant's position surely begins to make sense.

And this includes the famously 'difficult' nature of his writing, full of poetic allusion and conceptual invention rather than empirically testable propositions. Glissant's work often seems to aspire to the condition of music and other non-representational forms. Invoking the art of the drummer, he speaks of the value of repetition, its capacity not to clarify ideas but to render them more opaque.

Much later in the book Glissant appears to celebrate a raw energy that is (stereotypically) a hallmark of African-derived cultures - 'the rhythm of the drum, the provocative intensity of the scream'. But then he goes on to target the 'pathetic lucidity' of folk-tales in a demonstration of just how conservative 'transparency' actually is. In the breathless thrust of their narratives, the landscape is never described or worked-on. The trickster does not pause to consider his or her surroundings, and as a result the tales suggest not merely a resignation to colonial rule but a justification of it.

For Glissant the reactive development of Martinican Creole in the shadow of French meant that it gradually lost its distinctiveness. Nowadays it offers a poor basis for a radical poetics. The best we can do, he says, is to render the two languages opaque to each other (les rendre opaques l'une à l'autre). Which is one reason he chooses to write in French.

But it is not that he avoids Creole completely. It's just that when he does - in his play Monsieur Toussaint, for example - the chants and incantations he incorporates are syntactically incoherent and indiscriminately mix sounds from Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique. They are not meant to be decoded. Above all they signify 'the unbridled pleasure of finally writing down a language as it is heard.'3


1. Eduouard Glissant, Le Discours antillais (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981); Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, translated with an introduction by J Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989). The passages I discuss here are pp11-13 and pp238-45 (translation: pp1-4 and 120-34). Translations from the French my own unless otherwise indicated.

2. June Jordan, 'The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley', On Call: Political Essays (London: Pluto Press, 1986), p91.

3. Edouard Glissant, Monsieur Toussaint [1986], revised edition (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), p12.

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