Theory Teacher's Blog

Eduoard Glissant and the Work of Mourning

Two days ago, the world-renowned theorist and poet Édouard Glissant died. He was 83 years old, and his death was honored publicly by the Prime Minister of France [here]. Coincidentally, last semester, I taught Glissant’s book Poetics of Relation in my Caribbean literature and theory course, though I can’t claim to have much expertise since I taught the class in order to learn what I didn’t know and almost everything I assigned was by authors I hadn’t read before. Glissant’s death has provoked me to think about the recent deaths of other theorists, poets, historians, and cultural critics who have been inspirations to me — Howard Zinn in 2010, Claude Lévi-Strauss in 2009, Aimé Césaire in 2008, Edward Said in 2006,  Jacques Derrida in 2004. Reading the obituaries of such outstanding theorists and public intellectuals is perhaps in itself a subject for theoretical inquiry. For most of these writers, their deaths became occasions for heated and sometimes even vicious public debate in mainstream newspapers about the significance of their intellectual legacy, and consequently their deaths also became occasions for further reflection and theoretical work.

It may seem odd to think of a person’s death in terms of the intellectual labor it spurs us to undertake. As Derrida himself reflected on the deaths of his colleagues in one of his last books, The Work of Mourning, the death of a friend, parent, or writer one has read asks us to come to terms with our debt to them, the debt of our own existence that we owe to those who preceded us. These are the people through whom we think about our ethical relationship to the world, and in a sense our mourning is how we keep ourselves alive as we attempt to continue speaking to the dead and to our loss and to the possibility that their work will eventually be realized — a work that is always incomplete and unfinished just like any life, a work for which they have struggled, a work that they hoped, and we continue to hope, might possibly and actually come to be. Like Derrida, for Glissant too death is an occassion for reflecting on our complex relations with the world, the totality of Relation, as our own lives are constituted by these relations, not all of them positive yet nevertheless still part of who we are and who we are becoming.

For those of you who don’t know Édouard Glissant, he was born in Martinique and travelled to Paris after the second World War to study and get his doctorate. He was influenced by the Négritude cultural movement begun by his elder Martinican Aimé Césaire, but Glissant is most famous for his criticism of Césaire’s Négritude as too fantastically essentialist. Along with other Caribbean writers, Glissant instead conceptualized creolization, which emphasizes both the rootedness of Caribbean culture and its complex relations to world cultures — in other words (always in other words, we might say), Caribbean identity as a becoming, not a static thing to be compartmentalized. Before formulating his theories in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Glissant participated in a separatist political movement in the 1950s for the independence of the French colonies. This led Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle to bar Glissant from returning home between 1961 and 1965. From the 1980s until his death, he was professor at universities in Martinique, France, and the United States, and tended to divide his time between these locations. He was shortlisted for the Nobel prize in 2002, which was instead awarded to another Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott.

In 2006, Glissant was asked by France’s president M. Jacques Chirac to oversee the establishment of a new cultural center devoted to the history of the slave trade. You can read Chirac’s speech at this event [here]. The establishment of such a center perhaps speaks to the work of mourning. We create these centers not simply to record the centuries of past horrors or to feel glad that we no longer live in those times, but in order to work towards a more just civilization. Part of that work involves recognizing our debt to the past, our relation to it — how our being is constituted in part by something so horrible that we would prefer to see it as determinately other or outside ourselves. The legacy of the slave trade is still with us, not only as a past event but as a still present reality, as Chirac had the courage to admit. And this is why remembering the work of Glissant is also important for our own work.

Returning to the list of recently deceased theorists in my first paragraph, all the giant figures whom I was assigned to read in college, I can’t help but wonder what the next generation of talent will be. Who will follow these poets, philosophers, and historians who came into being during the postcolonial moment and civil rights era, 1947 to 1965, when colonies and people of color across the world were asserting themselves and demanding their rights? Our moment now might be called the moment of globalization or globalism, and has been called that by various theorists (including myself), but I’m not sure that name explains much. Glissant has provoked me to think harder about my own work. And I suppose that’s why I felt I should read him last semester. At the beginning of this blog post I mentioned that I am no expert and read Glissant for the first time just last year. And so, we might think of the unfinished work of mourning not only as a literary engagement (the double meaning of engagement is intentional) with those friends and writers with whom we already know and have established relations, but also as an engagement with those people whom we never got to know when they were alive. It is our debt to that larger Relation — the relation we have to people we’ve never met or never read before — that I think is the ongoing and never finished work of mourning.


February 5, 2011 - Posted by | death, Theory--capital T


  1. Nice post, which reminded me of Butler’s words in Undoing Gender:

    “I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I’m certain, though, that it does not mean that one has forgotten the person, or that something else comes along to take his or her place. I don’t think it works that way. I think instead that one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be the one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance. So there is losing, and there is the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned” (18).

    Comment by Dave | February 5, 2011 | Reply

    • Dave, yes, I’m glad you noticed, because Judith Butler’s obituary of Derrida was my model for what I wrote today.

      Comment by steventhomas | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  2. Hey Steve,
    nice post.
    Not to nitpick, but De Gaulle was president. Chirac’s speech on slavery and related decisions constitute one of two things in his legacy he will never have to blush about. The other is that he was the first French head of state to recognize French involvement in the Holocaust. We don’t do memory so well. Glissant’s forced exile in France, for example, is something I wish was more talked about, because then the 1950s independentist movement would be talked about, and so would the way De Gaulle dealt with it: i.e. a pretty thorough political crackdown, and by imposing West Indian exodus to the metropole. A very interesting and seldom discussed page of French history.

    Comment by Greg | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  3. Check out Glissant’s “Tout-Monde” stuff, an interesting take on global/ization/ism. I haven’t read it but heard him speak about it on TV.
    Which brings me to the other point: I wonder to which extent, or in which ways, rather, writers (poets, academics, philosophers, etc…) will be influential theorists of current and future generations, and to which extent other forms of narration will support the formation of theories and be a vehicle for those. To those you mentioned, I am sure, writing initially probably meant taking pen to paper. I imagine that they hand-wrote their theses and dissertations, and might have typed them later on (if not having them typed by someone else).
    I am not saying that keyboards altered things radically (I also imagine them typing their stuff later on in their careers), nor am I going with the old “music videos ruined attention spans,” but I do wonder whether the physical disappearance of these figures will do something to the legitimacy of a discipline that they were kinda the last ones to be born into: writing proper. Now, as writers, we could all end up being pale copies of those who preceded us, although we could still form and affirm our own thing, or make “writing” (and by extension (poet-ing, philosoph-ing, etc…) mean something else.
    That being said, I realize I just did what I just did in writing.

    Comment by Ziad | February 5, 2011 | Reply

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