Some Notes on a Fall in Los Angeles
It is a cold night in the end of October 2009. Los Angeles is nowhere in my mind, nor is it anywhere in the future of my possibilities. I funnel with my friend Simone, bulky in down jackets scarves hats, into a modest lecture hall on Washington Square. The Institute of African American Affairs at New York University is hosting a series of panel conversations dedicated to Édouard Glissant. This one is the first: on opacity.
I have followed Simone here, likely resisting being out, mostly to be with her, somewhat to see Glissant, and also our recent boss at a Bard summer teaching gig, the poet and scholar Joan Retallack. Joan blows it open that night: articulating a view of what she identifies as Glissant’s “ethics”––one not based on the Judeo-Christian metaphysical (colonial) notion of understanding (putting yourself in an other’s shoes) but instead configured around the radical notion that ethics must stem precisely from non-understanding, from not being able to reduce or render transparent the experience of others. It is from this place that I extend belonging and care to the beings I encounter: because I cannot know, because I cannot understand. This tears me open and the space that’s left in the torn up place feels like breath.
A number of other panelists speak after Retallack and it’s a long time before Glissant crosses the stage. The night is the darkest blue: his scarf, his jacket, the air, the cold. I bundle my body into our scarves, into Simone. He speaks in French when he arrives at the mic. He is tall, elegant, slow moving, but not with age, something more like ground. I understand nothing. And still, something about integrity and together-being enters into me that night. That was the first and only time I saw him speak, on an unexpected night in New York City less than two years before his death.
I have had the strange experience of being across the world and feeling more at home on streets where I cannot read the street signs––something about the foreignness I habitually feel inside me matching up with actually being foreign somewhere and so being treated that way, from the outside in. When I am here, I pass constantly as if I belong but, inside, I am far from belonging. This may be part of why Glissant’s opacity haunts me. There is something about not being assumed to be familiar, not being assumed to be understood, that offers space. The pressures of transparency, the violent legacies of “understanding” that are ubiquitous (and for the most part un-critiqued) here, hurt.
I return again and again to his words, “…perhaps we need to…Displace all reduction. Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity that is not enclosure within an impenetrable autarchy but subsistence within an irreducible singularity. Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components. For the time being, perhaps, give up this old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures. There would be something great and noble about initiating such a movement, referring not to Humanity but to the exultant divergence of humanities. Thought of self and other here become obsolete in their duality.” A together-being predicated on the right to opacity rather than the insistence on exposure, transparency, what we think of as “understanding.” I carry this around with me like an ember that waits to catch.
This piece was originally published in the inaugural issue of Sublevel Magazine.