This post, like a great many (all?) of the posts on this blog, is about my trying to figure something out for myself. What follows is the rambling that I need to do in order to work my way through Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. This book is hard for me, maybe the hardest book that I have read in a long time, and I think that I am going to be struggling with it for quite some time. But struggling is good; at least I argue that all the time. So, now you can see me struggle, in hi-def, right here on your screen.
At the end of Poetics of Relation, Glissant draws our attention toward the fact that he has used a number of different oppositions in order to explain the condition of the subject in life. The two that I am concerned with, which I think “govern” most of the rest of the oppositions, are “opacity/transparency” and “totality/Relation.” I am going to ignore the first for right now and run right into the second.
First, I think it is important to understand the metaphysics that Glissant is working under. As best I can understand, he begins from a fundamentally Deleuzian point: there is a virtual (or immanence), which Glissant calls “Chaos,” and there is the actual, which is Relation/totality. Glissant writes:
We were circling around the thought of Chaos, sensing that the way Chaos itself goes around is the opposite of what is ordinarily understood as “chaotic” and that it opens onto a new phenomenon: Relation, or totality in evolution, whose order is continually in flux and whose disorder one can imagine forever. (133)
This might be a good time to point out that Glissant is a poet who is fixated on transitions, translations, chaos, and opacity. For lack of a better word, he is slippery. In any case, what I see happening here is a movement from the virtual (Chaos) to the actual (Relation). Chaos is an ordered movement that realizes itself in the material world through Relation, which is wholly revolutionary, never standing still, never consisting of a totality. The words “opens onto” signify an existence in a material world, a movement onto a plane of existence where things are forced to interact with one another.
In other words, what Glissant is showing us here is that Relation is a force that makes things messy.
Totality is described in a similar way. Glissant notes that “Relation is active in itself” and that totality is “in danger of immobility” (171). Glissant’s language needs to be taken a step further–totality is the danger of immobility. If Relation is the immanent acting in the world, a pure movement that is not defined by objects but by force (you know it when you feel it), then totality is the power of a thing at rest. It is the opposite of revolution, the opposite of activity, the opposite of self-assertion, even.
Glissant complicates the language I have been using by suggesting that “only rest. . . could. . . be legitimately of totally virtual” (171). What he means by this is that only an object at rest can be understood as incomplete, as able to evolve or change. That is because, definitionally, Relation cannot be understood to change because it is the very force of change, internal and external, in the real. The force of change cannot change; it is never stable enough to be given qualities, to be understood as having limits.
It does not precede itself in its action and presupposes no a priori. It is the boundless effort of the world: to become realized in its totality, that is, to evade rest. One does not first enter Relation, as one might enter a religion. One does not first conceive of it the way we have expected to conceive of Being. (172)
I don’t want to suggest that there is some primal liberation occurring when Relation is acting, however. Just as Deleuze and Guattari explicitly tell us that deterritorialization is not liberation, but merely a process in the world, Glissant wants to make sure that we understand that Relation is an acting force that has no particular goal outside of itself:
Relation relinks (relays), relates. Domination and resistance, osmosis and withdrawal, the consent to dominating language and defense of dominated languages. They do not add up to anything clearcut or easily perceptible with any certainty. The relinked (relayed), the related, cannot be combined exclusively. . . . What best emerges from Relation is what one senses. (173-74)
Glissant has an entire chapter of aphorisms that “generalize” the book toward the end of it. One of the aphorisms is
Someone who thinks Relation thinks by means of it, just as does someone who things he is safe from it. (185)
I think this is a good place to end.