Beyond Universality and Particularity: Glissant, Creolization, and Caribbeanness

Essay, 2004

13 Pages, Grade: Distinctio

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Beyond Universality and Particularity: Glissant, Creolization and Caribbeanness

According to Victor Li, many contemporary postcolonial critics are wary of “any discourse that seeks to explain or represent anything other than itself” (Li 1995:167). Being suspicious of “a universalizing tendency in metropolitan postcolonial theory” they oppose what they see as the “threat of cultural assimilation and domination” with ideas of what Li brands “cultural separatism” (Li 1995:167). He cites a statement by Simon During as an example of such a tendency:

It is important not to forget that the postcolonial paradigm appeals largely to whites and diasporic Indian intellectuals working in the West. It does not appeal to those closest to the continuing struggle against white domination – to Koori activists in Australia or the South African PAC, say; to offer another instance, I do not think there is a Maori word for “postcolonialism.” (During 1992:348 cited in Li 1995:167).

The dangers inherent in a universalizing postcolonial narrative, which is produced by intellectuals within the Western academia while it pretends to explain and represent those struggles that are farthest away from its sphere of influence, are obvious. Li, however, argues that the opposed strategy of cultural separatism also ignores two interrelated dangers. First of all, cultural separatism may fall prey to “the oppressive rigidity of apartheid” and second, it may consider “cultural authenticity as an unchanging essence” leaving no room for historical and cultural (ex)change (Li 1995:168). Accordingly, we have to resist two extreme poles and their respective inherent dangers: on the one hand we are confronted with a potential reproduction and perpetuation of imperial patterns through universalizing discourses, whereas, on the other hand, narratives of cultural separatism, which are sometimes based on notions of cultural purity and essentialist forms of identity, often tend to ignore the dynamics of cross-cultural contact and exchange and may even turn unwittingly into forms of cultural racism. We should, however, bear in mind that processes of cross-cultural contact (the examples of colonialism itself and the practices it gave rise to, such as for instance the transatlantic slave trade, immediately spring to mind) more often than not involve stark asymmetries of power.

In order to find out whether Edouard Glissant’s ideas clustering around the interrelated concepts of creolization and Caribbeanness open up ways of thinking beyond the aforementioned dichotomy, this paper will explore some of the arguments he puts forward in his Caribbean Discourse.

Edouard Glissant also takes a very critical stance on “the ideal of transparent universality, imposed by the West” (Glissant 1989:2). Demanding “the right to obscurity” for people who have been condemned to silence by a transparent Western universality, he seeks to analyze and study “the discourse of such communities (those shadowy threads of meaning where their silence is voiced)”, to construct a discourse on the discourse of people who have been silenced by the universalizing discourse of colonialism (Glissant 1989:2). Although his main concern seems to lie with his native Martinique, the itinerary of his ideas is a Caribbean, American, or even global one.

The processes of cross-cultural contact brought about by colonization and its products such as slavery and the plantation economy both divided and unified the inhabitants of the Caribbean. The following two quotations are quite illuminating in this regard. Stuart Hall writes:

The paradox is that it was the uprooting of slavery and transportation and the insertion into the plantation economy (as well as the symbolic economy) of the Western world that ‘unified’ these peoples across their differences, in the same moment as it cut them off from direct access to the past (Hall 1990:53).

Glissant on the other hand argues:

But in fact colonization has divided into English, French, Dutch, Spanish territories a region where the majority of population is African: making strangers out of people who are not. The thrust of negritude among Caribbean intellectuals was response perhaps to the need, by relating to a common origin, to rediscover unity (equilibrium) beyond dispersion (Glissant 1989:5).

What do make of this contradiction? It seems as if both writers focus on completely different aspects of colonization. While Hall stresses the common historical experience of uprooting brought about by the “Middle Passage”, Glissant emphasizes the dispersal of peoples with a common African origin across different colonial territories, while he apparently ignores the fact that “the slaves were also from different countries, tribal communities, villages, languages and gods” (Hall 1990:53). Although Glissant seems to be influenced by “the modernist aesthetics of Césaire and Fanon’s negritude”, he attempts to move beyond their notion of a common African origin (Nesbitt 2003:170). Instead of “relating to a common origin”, Glissant focuses on “the basic symptom of the cross-cultural contact that is creolization” (Glissant 1989:140). The complex and dynamic semantic field opened up by the term creolization seems to correspond to the “unceasing process of transformation” triggered by the cross-cultural contact of colonization (Glissant 1989:142). That is why he does not pin the term of creolization down by giving it any fixed, positive meaning, but rather defines it negatively:

If we speak of creolized cultures (like the Caribbean culture for example) it is not to define a category that will by its very nature be opposed to other categories (“pure” cultures), but in order to assert that today infinite varieties of creolization are open to human conception, both on the level of awareness and that of intention: in theory and in reality. Creolization as an idea is not primarily the glorification of the composite nature of a people: indeed, no people has been spared the cross-cultural process. The idea of creolization demonstrates that henceforth it is no longer valid to glorify “unique” origins that the race safeguards and prolongs. (Glissant 1989:140).

He argues that an awareness of the global reality of creolization negates creolization as a category which safeguards cultural and racial purity. Rather than occupying a kind of non-space between the boundaries of two pure spaces, creolization describes an endless flow which cuts across and transgresses the boundaries of delimited, “pure”, exclusive, cultural identities. Glissant’s concept of creolization seems to be inextricably bound up with his notion of Caribbeanness. According to Glissant, Caribbeanness seems to consist in a violently repressed memory of the collective experience of creolization – an experience which has to be transformed into discourse in order to make the “intellectual dream” of Caribbeanness a reality (Glissant 1989:139).

Nowadays most critics consider memory as “a representational construction of the past in the present and thus to some degree as an inherently aesthetic process” (Nesbitt 2003:4). Also for Glissant the problem of a collective Caribbean memory is not a question of an erased memory, of something that is or was already there, it is rather the lack of an adequate poetics which prevents the realization of a collective Caribbean identity which has to be based on the articulation of the shared memory of creolization (Nesbitt 2003:178). In describing Caribbeanness as an “intellectual dream, lived at the same time in an unconscious way by our peoples”, he underlines the fact that what is at stake is not the excavation of the meaning of a latent presence, for as Slavoj Žižek reminds as “[t]he essential constitution of dream is thus not its ‘latent thought’ but this work (the mechanism of displacement and condensation, the figuration of the contents of words or syllables) which confers on it the form of a dream (Glissant 1989:139; Zizek 1989:12). Dreams are marked by a triple structure comprised of “the manifest dream-text, the latent dream-content or thought and the unconscious desire articulated in a dream” (Zizek 1989:13; italics in original). Thus the meaning of a dream or the unconscious desire it articulates is present neither in its manifest text nor in its latent content, but is retroactively conferred on it by working through the mechanisms of its formation. The same applies to the meaning of memory and history:

[…] the past is always present in the form of historical tradition and the meaning of these traces is not given; it changes continually with the transformation of the signifier’s network. Every historical rupture, every advent of a new master-signifier, changes retroactively the meaning of all tradition, restructures the narration of the past, makes it readable in another, new way (Zizek 1989:56).

As a consequence, we may read Glissant’s concern with Caribbeanness and Creolization as an attempt to give a new meaning to the different traces and elements of the colonial experience, or more precisely to articulate a collective Caribbean subjectivity through the use of creolization as a new master-signifier. Creolization as a master-signifier, or rather as an empty signifier (a signifier without signified) serves to fix the meaning of the free-floating, dispersed elements of the Caribbean experience. However, creolization as a master-signifier that comes to structure a collective Caribbean subjectivity implies the emancipation of the signifying elements from the domination of the old colonial master-signifier. The term creolization itself has a kind of colonial history stamped into it, so Glissant seeks to wrest it from its colonial context. In giving it an all-embracing, global meaning he trans-codes the term, or rather empties it of any specific, positive meaning, for if we acknowledge that all cultures are creolized, that there are no “pure” cultures, the term creolization becomes an empty signifier.

Moreover, we have to note that national independence is another important factor in the formation of a Caribbean identity. Caribbean nations can only fully realize their Caribbeanness by first of all emancipating themselves from any sort of colonial domination, by imagining their own communities and not having them imagined for them by a colonial metropolis (Anderson 1983:14-16). This is the reason why Glissant stresses the importance of a Martinican nation which is truly independent from France:

One is not Martinican because of wanting to be Caribbean. Rather one is really Caribbean because of wanting to become Martinican.


The hope for a Caribbean cultural identity must not be hampered by our people not achieving independence, so that the new Atlantis, our threatened but vital Caribbeanness, would disappear before taking root (Glissant 1989:224).

Martinique which was departmentalized alongside other French overseas territories on March 19, 1946, is still closely tied to the French metropolis (Nesbitt 2003:6). Vis-à-vis “the transcendental presence of the Other, of his Visibility – colonizer or administrator – of his transparency fatally proposed as model” arises the need for obscurity, for a deconstruction of colonial discourse to free up the traces and elements of the Caribbean experiences in order to newly unite them in their difference (Glissant 1989:161). The process of re-appropriating the signifying elements of a Caribbean memory and the desire to retroactively confer a new meaning on them through the idea of Creolization requires a new means of expression, a new poetics structured by the cross-cultural logic of creolization. According to Glissant, Martinique still lacks such a poetics: the two languages French and Creole are incapable of this immense task. In his discussion of the differences between a free or natural poetics and a forced or constrained poetics (or counterpoetics) he argues that although a counterpoetics may be a useful ploy for a community to subvert the language imposed by the colonizers, it must still develop into a “natural, free, open, cross-cultural poetics” to become an adequate means of collective expression (Glissant 1989:132). Such a cross-cultural poetics or ethnopoetics has to reconcile three different procedures. First, one has to make Creole and French opaque to each other corresponding to the general need of obscurity vis-à-vis the colonial power. Second, one has to take into account “the functional nature of language” which implies a transformation of the conditions of production giving Martinicans control over the means of production, “so that the language may truly develop. Finally, one must not seek to return to “the innocence of a primitive community”, but rather construct a new and liberated means of expression (Glissant 1989:133). Glissant thus contends that only an emancipated cross-cultural poetics which asserts its difference from colonial discourse and is based on a redistribution of land and economic resources can become the basis of a Caribbean identity. Being structured by an awareness of the cross-cultural logic of creolization such a discourse would be able to move beyond the binary logic of universality and particularity – it could truly articulate unity in difference.

Glissant’s closely entwined ideas of creolization and of the Caribbean as “a multiple series of relationships”, allows us to think about Caribbeanness in terms of both unity and difference. In his essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” Stuart Hall outlines two different ways of conceptualizing cultural identity. First, we may think about identity in terms of an underlying unity, “in terms of one shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’, hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’, which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common” (Hall 1990:51). This position is adopted by adherents of negritude who think that a common African ancestry, a collective African identity underlies the differences imposed by colonialism. Second, we can think of identity as relational, as always contingently positioned vis-à-vis the Other. This second position holds that identity is structured by difference, that there is no fixed, trans-historical essence, but identity is “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being’” (Hall 1990:52-53). In his brief excursion into ancient Greek philosophy Glissant also posits a link between the principles of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’:

Neither the formula from Parmenides, “Being never changes,” nor the related view by Heraclitus, “All is in a state of flux,” through which Western metaphysics were conceived, but a transphysical poetics that could be briefly expresses as – that which is (that which exists in a total way) is open to change. Total existence is always relative (Glissant 1989:142).

The two principles of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ correspond squarely to the two vectors which according to Hall ‘frame’ Caribbean identities:

[T]he vector of similarity and continuity; and the vector of difference and rupture. Caribbean identities always have to be thought in terms of the dialogic relationship between these two axes. The one gives us some grounding in, some continuity with, the past. The second reminds us that what we share is precisely the experience of a profound discontinuity (Hall 1990:53).

Glissant’s ideas in general and his idea of creolization in particular provide us with the conceptual tools which enable us to think about the Caribbean exactly in terms of a dialogical relationship between these two vectors. Creolization as a historical experience, which was brought about by the heinous reality of the transatlantic slave trade and the plantation economy, occupies precisely the force-field between a uniting shared experience and the divisions and fragmentations created by a dispersal across different colonial territories, whereas creolisation as an idea opens up global ways of thinking about cultural identities as complex, multi-faceted, dynamic fabrics woven out of many different strands. The theoretical power of Glissant’s arguments lies precisely in the fact that he weaves both the specifically historical, Caribbean (or American?) aspect of creolization and its abstract, universal, global dimension together.


Anderson, B. (1983): Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

During, S. (1992): "Postcolonialism and Globalization."Meanjin 51 (2):339-353.

Glissant, E. (1989): Caribbean Discourse. Translated by M. Dash. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Hall, S. (1990): "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." In Identity and Difference, edited by K. Woodward. London: Sage Publications.

Li, V. (1995): "Towards Articulation: Postcolonial Theory and Demotic Resistance."ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 26 (1):167-189.

Nesbitt, N. (2003): Voicing Memory. History and Subjectivity in French Caribbean Literature. Edited by A. James Arnold, New World Studies. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Zizek, S. (1989): The Sublime Object of Ideology. Edited by E. Laclau and C. Mouffe, Phronesis. London: Verso.

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Beyond Universality and Particularity: Glissant, Creolization, and Caribbeanness
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M.A. Markus Kienscherf (Author), 2004, Beyond Universality and Particularity: Glissant, Creolization, and Caribbeanness, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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