At a conference in Pennsylvania a few years ago, I attended a panel on An Yountae’s compelling 2016 book The Decolonial Abyss: Mysticism and Cosmopolitics from the Ruins. In the panel’s Q&A session, I asked him where in the work of the Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant he saw a sense of the sacred. He responded, “Where in Glissant’s work is there not a sense of the sacred?”
Until that moment, I had been reading Glissant’s theoretical essays for a politics and an ethics more than for a theology, so An’s response caught me off guard. But it also offered a different way to approach Glissant’s work. I returned to his books.
In Poetics of Relation, after a discussion of the most influential texts in the West, such as the Book of Genesis and Homer’s Iliad, Glissant does indeed call for a new form of the sacred:
“I began wondering if we did not still need such founding works today, ones that would use a similar dialectics of rerouting, asserting, for example, political strength but, simultaneously, the rhizome of a multiple relationship with the Other and basing every community’s reasons for existence on a modern form of the sacred, which would be, all in all, a Poetics of Relation” (16).
What called to my attention in this passage was the productive tension between politics and ethics, what Glissant calls a dialectic between “political strength” and “a multiple relationship with the Other.” I wondered how these routes could work together—how could there be a foundational political claim wider than a rooted nationalism yet stronger than a free-floating cosmopolitanism? And I wondered how the ethics at play here was “multiple.”
I found an answer in another one of Glissant’s concepts, one that he develops not only in Poetics but also previously in Caribbean Discourse and later in Treatise of the Whole World, namely, his idea of a “right to opacity.” Here again I saw a productive tension. “Opacity” suggests what stops light, a central metaphor for knowledge in the West. In this way, “opacity” functions to block comprehension. But rights claims are political and public, perhaps especially in the Francophone tradition in which Glissant writes, and thus rights claims tend to be transparent, accessible, and certainly knowable. What, then, could a right to opacity mean?
I offered an answer in my book Choose Your Bearing: Édouard Glissant, Human Rights and Decolonial Ethics. There I suggest one “founding work” that helps us get beyond nationalism but remains stronger than cosmopolitanism is a radical archive of Black Atlantic and Indigenous human rights claims. I see these claims as part of a robust sense of humanity and thus in line with the new humanisms Glissant’s Martinican forebearers Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon offered. In that way, I read Glissant’s right to opacity as a human rights claim, what some philosophers of law would call a third-generation or cultural rights claim.
To draw out the right to opacity, which Glissant does not explain, I read “opacity” as including cultural practices that are difficult to understand for Western paradigms of knowledge, such as many Indigenous cultural/legal/spiritual traditions that are irreducibly connected to land. This reading of opacity also includes cultural practices that challenge market logics, which rely on “knowing” or “comprehending” the needs and preferences of workers and consumers.
At the same time, I stress that justice-oriented actors in the West should not focus on opacity to the point that we forget that Glissant situates it in a right, and thus he suggests that we err on the side of political solidarity more than cultural description, which risks essentializing other cultures and people in their difference. Indeed, too strong a sense of difference can ultimately prevent us from trying to learn from one another in the first place, and so can function in an anti-relational way.
Put differently, Choose Your Bearing reads rights claims as an invitation to defend the cultures of different peoples, which are “opaque” because their traditions are not our own and so we do not have a native familiarity with them. Nevertheless, we can learn about and defend other traditions by standing against the bulldozing effects of, for instance, chain hotels, homogenizing English, and Nestlé’s attempts to control palates (and water) on a global scale.
I have argued elsewhere that the rights claims at Standing Rock provide one example of using human rights in order to defend the diversity of others. The human rights work at the prayer camps there was not a narrow nationalism, and it was not an elite cosmopolitanism. Instead, it was both grounded, by situating itself amidst the land, and relational, by making connections to other human rights efforts across the Americas and the world. Using Glissant’s concept of a “right to opacity” to think about the human rights work at Standing Rock, we could say that the ethics offered there was “multiple” in asking each of us to reach beyond our local starting points and to link up with other traditions, places, and struggles.
But returning to Glissant’s line about the sacred that An’s response asked me to re-examine, we can also see that I still looked at Glissant’s Poetics through my own lens. Even when I returned to his idea of “a modern form of the sacred,” I remained focused on reading Glissant for a politics and an ethics, not for how he presents the kind of a sacred that is so needed today, what he calls, somewhat mysteriously, “a Poetics of Relation.”
As is so often the case, it is only after finishing the essay or book that one starts to see its limitations in fuller relief. For me, it often takes not just a conversation, but time and a shift in perspective to return to a text anew. I wrote Choose Your Bearing from Toronto and St. Louis between 2019 and 2022, thinking largely as a historical materialist, and thus always trying to bring Glissant’s abstract claims down to earth, as it were. Consequently, I understood “poetics” in its etymological sense of “making,” such as in making pottery or food in community, and I understood “relation” in terms of organic entanglements, such as my material—but often obscured or rendered invisible—connection with whoever sewed the t-shirt I am currently wearing or picked the beans for the americano I am currently drinking.
Now, as I write this essay on the Fourth of July, I sit in the café of the Durham Hotel, which is empty. My fellow Americans are out celebrating, enjoying the holiday, and perhaps waving the US flag, that old sign for freedom or dispossession, depending on where you stand. Writing from North Carolina today, as I return to previous conversations, and as I try to think with Political Theology readers about a new form of the sacred beyond the nation, I hear “poetics of relation” differently.
In his Decolonial Abyss, An writes that “[p]oetics in the colonial abyss is not a glamorous, apolitical escapism but a mode of being in the world, a mode of recreating the self amid unrealized possibilities” (7). Beyond this quotidian and material sense of “poetics,” he goes on to discuss its “theological possibility,” including how when poetics blurs with politics,
“it indicates perhaps the possibility of conceiving the name of the divine right at the site where cosmopolitical struggle of the creolized masses creates, uncreates, and recreates itself and its ground for a future of cosmopolitan justice and solidarity” (7).
Re-reading these lines on this national holy day, on which we are taught to elevate our nation to Godlike status in ritual worship and ultimate concern, I am more apt to stay with the “theological possibilities” of An’s decolonial poetics. I find these possibilities inspiring in how they locate divinity amidst the struggling masses. And I wonder, to borrow a phrase from Beatrice Marovich, what new possibilities could open up when, instead of grounding Relation materially in entanglements, I acknowledge that it is “a thing whose contours I could not grasp” (xvii).
Now, and again, I return to Glissant’s books. There is a moment in Treatise of the Whole World where he says, “My hope lies in this voice of the landscapes” (144). And later he says in Philosophy of Relation, “Act in your place. Think with the world” (87). There he explains that this method involves thinking with “[t]he relationship of detail to whole. From my detail (the rock of water) to my surroundings (the country). From my detail (the place) to my surroundings (the world)” (102). What I am starting to see—perhaps in light of how An’s response has swirled around in my mind for many years—is that the details of both human rights and humanism in Glissant are related to, and rely on, a larger whole, namely, the landscape.
In Glissant, the landscape itself guards memory. And so the rocks and the trees and the water—details connected to any given country(side)—can (and should) inform how we think. To acknowledge this larger holder of life is to place human rights in a wider political/theological tradition on the Left, which Ernst Bloch would call “natural law.” It is to suggest that Glissant could be read as an oblique contributor to what Vincent Lloyd has called “Black natural law.”
If this new sacred is found in the leaves and the birds and the waves, in the voice of the earth itself, then how would we honor it through practices and rituals? And how is it “modern”? What forms of worship could both contest modernity’s constitutive ties with colonialism and be equal to the present moment? Might this form of the sacred be at once anti-colonial in its receptivity to the land and to others—in its acknowledgment of the unknown histories a tree has witnessed, of the mysterious directions in which ginger grows, of the hidden shadows within us that remain strange even to ourselves—but still “modern” in its creativity toward a new understanding of who we are? What forms of textual myth would tell the story of this new sacred, and how might we read “texts” that are embedded in—or that simply are—the land, the shores, and the sea?
As Valérie Loichot has suggested, Glissant’s grave, located in a modest coastal cemetery in Southwest Martinique, offers a place to start. She writes, “When I first saw the grave, the lowliness (not in a submissive but in a welcoming sense), the integration with the environment through the easy erosion and fusion with stones and moss, and the echo in black and white of the surrounding graves struck me.” She continues that “it is in this humility, in a sense of closeness to the humus, that the grave invites the visitor to get closer to the earth, squatting or kneeling, and to pick up a handful of tiny seashells to arrange on the grave as a new sign” (1021).
With An, Marovich, and Loichot—three of my teachers, whom I thank in this little essay—I have begun to see in Glissant a sacred of possibilities. While this is a sacred whose contours remain unknown to me, Glissant (in life and death) also teaches that, through listening and lowering ourselves closer to the earth, it is a sacred in which we can participate, to which we can contribute, and from which we can learn.
My hope—perhaps my prayer—is that through hearing this voice of the landscape, and through the new signs we create in invitation and humility, we will re-make our political communities in celebration not of one nation, but of all humanity and the earth on which we depend.
The author would like to thank Shadi Anello and Lauren Guilmette for conversation around this essay.