Anagrams of annihilation: the (im)possible writing of the middle passage in NourbeSe Philip and Édouard Glissant

published in the Special Issue of International Journal of Francophone Studies, vol. 17, numbers 3 & 4, co-edited by Louise Hardwick and Alessandro Corio, entitled ‘Race, violence and biopolitics in Francophone postcolonial contexts’, pp. 327-348.


William Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840



This article aims to analyse how an event like the Zong massacre and its uncomfortable traumatic memories can be used to investigate and unlock the biopolitical nature of the transatlantic slave economy and its literary representations. Given the centrality of the slave trade in the development of modern capitalist societies, the article questions why and how recent theories of biopolitics – which underscore the ambivalent relation between power and life in modern societies – have avoided considering slavery and the plantation system as pivotal aspects in the genealogy of the contemporary forms of sovereignty and governance. Inside this wider framework, the article considers how the specific engagement of several Caribbean writers with the unspeakable core of dehumanisation and silencing produced by slavery is paradoxically capable – through a turbulent and painful confrontation with language, memory, ‘bare life’ and the historical unconscious – of developing effective responses to those overwhelming structures. In particular, the work of NourbeSe Philip in her poem Zong! and Édouard Glissant’s poetic and philosophical confrontation with the abyss of absolute loss, show us how writing can specifically engage with the inherent ambivalence of biopolitics: the language of the Law, with its tremendous power of capturing and sometimes undermining or destroying life, and the creative power of language itself to reshape identities and subjects, both on a personal and on a collective level. Those openings allow us to imagine and perform empowering and creative relations between life and its forms, which can be considered as attempts to inaugurate an affirmative biopolitics in our present.


Cet article vise à analyser comment un événement tel que le massacre du Zong, avec ses mémoires pénibles, peut fonctionner de manière paradigmatique pour révéler la nature biopolitique de la traite transatlantique et de ses représentations littéraires. Étant donné le caractère central de l’économie de plantation esclavagiste pour le développement des sociétés capitalistes, l’article se demande pourquoi et comment les théories biopolitiques les plus récentes – lesquelles s’interrogent sur la relation entre le pouvoir et la vie dans les sociétés contemporaines – ont évité de considérer l’esclavage et la plantation comme des aspects centraux dans la généalogie des formes contemporaines de la souveraineté et de la gouvernementalité. Dans ce cadre plus large, l’article examine comment l’engagement spécifique de plusieurs écrivains antillais avec le noyau indicible de déshumanisation et de silence qui est au cœur de l’esclavage est capable – à travers un affrontement douloureux avec le langage, la mémoire, l’inconscient historique et la « vie nue » – de développer des réponses effectives à ces structures accablantes. L’impressionnant travail de NourbeSe Philip sur le langage dans son poème Zong ! et l’affrontement poétique et philosophique de Glissant avec l’abyme de perte absolue du sens, nous montrent comment l’écriture peut faire face à l’ambivalence constitutive de la biopolitique : le langage de la Loi, avec son pouvoir de capture et parfois de destruction de la vie, et la puissance créatrice du langage, capable de refaçonner les identités et les sujets sur un plan individuel et collectif. Ces ouvertures nous autorisent à imaginer et réaliser des dynamiques créatrices entre la vie et ses formes, qu’on peut considérer comme des efforts d’inaugurer une biopolitique affirmative dans notre présent.


Race, violence and biopolitics in Francophone postcolonial studies

Special Issue of International Journal of Francophone Studies, volume 17, numbers 3 & 4, 2014

A volume that problematizes the construction of race and power. Biopolitical readings here provide new insights into a range of postcolonial situations, and point the way to new enquiries into dominant powers’ persistent and insidious grip over life.

Fort-de-France, Martinique

Fort-de-France, Martinique


Charlotte Baker, Necropolitical violence and post-independence Guinean literature

Alessandro Corio, Anagrams of annihilation: The (im)possible writing of the middle passage in NourbeSe Philip and Édouard Glissant

Judith Misrahi-Barak, Biopolitics and translation: Edwidge Danticat’s many tongues

Michael Wiedorn, Death and the creole maiden: Do Chita and Youma haunt today’s creolization?

Louise Hardwick, Creolizing the Caribbean ‘Coolie’: A biopolitical reading of Indian indentured labourers and the ethnoclass hierarchy

Chong J. Bretillon, ‘Ma Face Vanille’: White rappers, ‘Black Music’, and race in France

Dominic Thomas, Fortress Europe: Identity, race and surveillance

Michel Foucault’s anniversary and the CCCS conference

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Michel Foucault. I am currently writing the Introduction of a special issue of IJFS (International Journal of Francophone Studies) on biopolitics and Francophone postcolonial literature, which is substantially based on Foucault’s work on the relationship between power, knowledge and life, especially in his essays and seminars at the Collège de France from 1976. I post here a very short excerpt from the Introduction, as a tribute to the great French intellectual.


“According to Foucault, in this period of modernity, the old forms of the sovereign power ‘de faire mourir ou de laisser vivre’ were supplemented by a new kind of power: ‘un pouvoir de faire vivre ou de rejeter dans la mort’ (La volonté de savoir: 181). What happens in this shift, and what Foucault wishes to signify by the term ‘biopolitics’, is ‘ce qui fait entrer la vie et ses mécanismes dans le domaine des calculs explicites et fait du pouvoir-savoir un agent de transformation de la vie humaine’ (188). For the first time, life itself ‘passe pour une part dans le champ du contrôle du savoir et d’intervention du pouvoir’ (187); life itself becomes the object of political technologies and disciplinary apparatuses and it is shaped, developed or reduced through regulatory and normalizing procedures. In short, power becomes the management and government of the living, for productive (economic) purposes and for increasing health and wellness. Accordingly, the connection between biopolitics and capitalism emerges as inherent, and suggests potential links with the capitalistic ventures of colonialism and imperialism, which nonetheless, remain unexplored by Foucault.

This grip of power on life has been practised in two main forms since the 17th century. These two poles of development are ‘reliés par tout un faisceau intermédiaire de relations’ (183). The first is the disciplinary power that is exercised directly on the ‘docile bodies’, which are shaped, controlled and used for productive ends: ‘une anatomo-politique du corps humain’ [original emphasis] (183). The second, which developed later, corresponds to the focusing of power on the body-species, that is to say on the regulatory control of populations: ‘une bio-politique de la population’ [original emphasis] (183). This can be understood as a kind of social medicine, administered to the population with the aim of governing its biological life. In this project, an important role is played by the control and regulation of sexuality, not only through a continuation of the marriage alliances which are an established socio-historical feature of western societies, but also with the production of knowledge, through pedagogy, medicine and demography, which intervene in an all-pervasive manner in the biological processes of birth, reproduction, disease, longevity and death. This double technology of disciplining individual bodies and regulating the biological processes of the human species – a new technology of power centred on life – produces a normalised society and, consubstantial with it, a new form of normalised racism. The relationship between the statalisation of biological science, that is to say the use of the sciences of life in order to govern the State, and the birth of modern racism was explored during the lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France in 1976, published posthumously with the title Il faut défendre la société (1997).”


Today it’s also the second day of the conference that celebrates the 50 years from the foundation of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). You can find the program of the conference here.

stuart hall

Callaloo 36.4 – A Special Issue on Édouard Glissant

IMG_4892A special issue of Callaloo. A Journal of African Diaspora, Arts and Letters on Édouard Glissant has come out, edited by Celia Britton. I have just received it, and after reading Celia’s introduction it seems to me that this is first of all a great achievement worthy of Glissant’s memory. It includes essays by the most important scholars working on Glissant and it especially adresses the relation between poetics, philosophy and politics in Glissant’s work. The main contributors are Celia Britton, Maryse Condé, Heidi Bojsen, Charles Forsdick, Christina Kullberg, Alexandre Leupin, Valérie Loichot, Carine Mardorossian, Adlai Murdoch, Nick Nesbitt, François Noudelmann and Michael Wiedorn. I quote Britton from the introduction: “The relations between poetics and both philosophy and politics are never straightforward and not always harmonious; but it is precisely the tensions between them that constitute the central dynamic and the continuing relevance of Glissant’s thought”. You can find the issue on MUSE.

The title of my contribution is: “The Living and the Poetic Intention. Glissant’s Biopolitics of Literature”.

Well, I must say that I am quite proud and honored to be among such great scholars!

In my next posts I am going to say something more about this volume and other journals that have recently dedicated a special issue to Glissant, such as the Revue des Sciences Humaines (special issue edited by Valérie Loichot) and Francofonia (special issue edited by Carminella Biondi and Elena Pessini). They are all so interesting and so rich in analysis and interpretations, opening new paths for the study of this great writer, that they need the right time and space to be reviewed. Coming soon …

Postcolonial Studies : modes d’emploi

postcolonial studies modes d'emploi

Vient de paraître chez Presses Universitaires de Lyon.

Il s’agit des actes d’un très beau colloque auquel j’ai eu l’honneur de participer en mai 2010. Il a été organisé par le collectif « Write back » de l’École Normale Supérieure de Lyon.

Vous y trouvez mon article, intitulé : Subalternité et représentation aux Antilles : le « devenir-subalterne » de Marie Celat.

Voici la présentation du livre et du collectif :

À travers la mise en avant de leurs sources plus ou moins reconnues (French Theory, Subaltern Studies de Delhi, traditions intellectuelles d’Afrique Noire, Cultural Studies, écrits anticoloniaux de Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, Aimé Césaire, Albert Memmi) et de leurs connexions avec d’autres champs de recherche contemporains (Queer Studies, études francophones, Black Studies), les études postcoloniales sont apparues comme une sorte de laboratoire expérimentant des perspectives pluridisciplinaires : étrangères à toute orthodoxie, elles se placent à l’intersection de diverses problématiques, politiques, linguistiques, ou encore identitaires, non sans une certaine propension à faire retour sur leurs propres fondements théoriques. Le travail proposé ici, par sa dimension internationale et polyphonique, participe à son tour d’un dépassement des étiquettes nationales et académiques rigides : autant de « modes d’emploi » qui invitent à de nouveaux usages des Postcolonial Studies, de nouvelles explorations esthétiques et intellectuelles, dans les champs de la littérature et du cinéma en particulier.

Le collectif Write Back (en référence à l’ouvrage fondateur de Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths et Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back, 1989) rassemble les sept membres du « Laboratoire des jeunes chercheurs en littératures et études postcoloniales : les outils théoriques à l’épreuve des textes », créé en 2007 à l’École normale supérieure de Lyon : Florian Alix, Anne-Sophie Catalan, Claire Ducournau, Tina Harpin, Estelle Olivier, Myriam Suchet et Cyril Vettorato. Outre les contributions des membres du collectif, le volume propose des articles de chercheurs de divers horizons, en particulier la traduction inédite d’un article de Graham Huggan et un texte inédit de Kathleen Gyssels.