Since his death in 2011, Martinican author Édouard Glissant’s star has only continued to rise. A polymathic poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, and philosopher, Glissant’s discourse has become a touchstone across a variety of disciplines, and translations from his prolific and complex oeuvre have continued to pour forth. (Liverpool University Press has even established a Glissant Translation Project, which has published three titles to date.) In 2017, cultural theorist Fred Moten commenced the publication of a philosophical trilogy whose general title, consent not to be a single being, is drawn from Glissant’s work.
Glissant, whose lycée education in Martinique brought him into contact with Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, always centered the African diaspora, the middle passage of slavery, and Black experience in the Americas in his work. In fact, much of his philosophical writing can be seen as an attempt to undermine European ideas about being and unity that he saw as part of the ideological underpinnings of worldwide colonization.
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Take one of his key concepts, “relation.” In his Poetics of Relation, Glissant refers to the “thing recused in every generalization of an absolute, even and especially some absolute secreted within this imaginary construct of Relation: that is, the possibility for each one to be both solitary and solidary there.” Solitary and solidary: the formulation, borrowed from Camus, suggests both the personal and political stakes of taking a stand outside of the absolutes exported by colonial thought, and “relation” is explicitly posed as an alternative to the unitary metaphysical identities imposed by European philosophy. (“The West is not in the West,” as he writes in Caribbean Discourse. “It is a project, not a place.”) His work therefore intimates an escape from political struggle organized around the premises of identity politics.
Terms like “relation,” “creolization,” and “the whole-world” (tout-monde) proliferate across the author’s copious discourse, refusing a definitive formulation. For Glissant, that’s part of the point. He repeatedly defends the privileges of repetition (since to repeat is to revive resift a thought and examine it again) as well as commonplace formulations (since commonplaces are those areas of discourse where diverse cultures meet), and articulates himself in continuously evolving ways both in his texts and in the published lectures and discussions with different audiences and interlocutors.
It’s no surprise, then, that we find something like a compendium of this thought in The Archipelago Conversations, a volume of dialogues between Glissant and curator Obrist, long fascinated by the interview form, describes his relationship with Glissant as “one of the most important friendships of my life.” The Archipelago Conversations “compiles, edits, rearranges, and recomposes the complete recordings, transcripts, notes, and letters” between Obrist and Glissant from their first encounter in the late 1990s until the latter’s death. The textual result are six roughly topical interviews: on archipelagoes, creolization, and cities; utopia and “the One-World”; literature, landscape, and film; anthologies and curation; “trembling thinking” and the legacy of slavery; and, finally, a lengthy discussion of the Art Museum of the Americas, also called M2A2, proposed by Glissant, but never built.
The tone of The Archipelago Conversations is vivid and warm throughout, thanks to the long-standing friendship between the interlocutors, but the volume really comes alive in its final section in which Glissant outlines his idea for “a comparative encyclopedia of the art of the Americas”:
We want to put the art of the Americas in relation with each other precisely because time is not the same on a small island of the Caribbean or in Tierra del Fuego, in the north of Canada or in the east of Santiago. We don’t want to make equivalences, but rather connections between all these different times to try to see what pulsates and shimmers in the Americas, in the islands that make up the Americas.
Glissant explains that “we devised the idea of M2A2 for Martinique, but we began primarily by thinking about Latin America, about the art of Latin America.” A note appended to this interview explains that the Art Museum of the Americas “never saw the light of day”; however, Glissant’s vision continues to resonate and inspired a 2000 traveling show including work by Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta.
The Archipelago Conversations is not only a contribution to Glissant’s primary texts available in English, it’s also a worthy addition to the Isolarii series. When I was in my twenties one of the hippest presses was Hanuman, which distributed tiny volumes printed in India by countercultural heroes like Eileen Myles and Dodie Bellamy. Isolarii has quickly established itself as a worthy successor to the Lilliputian niche formerly occupied by Hanuman, though with a consciously international purview that includes authors like Can Xue and Yevgenia Belorusets. The publication of The Archipelago Conversations only underscores that Isolarii is a press to watch. Glissant famously wrote: “I still believe in the future of small countries.” Small books too!
The Archipelago Conversations by Édouard Glissant & Hans Ulrich Obrist is published by isolarii and is available online and from independent booksellers.