08 September 2023

Conceptualising New Imaginaries of the “International”: A Dialogue with Glissant

In his master’s dissertation, Devarya Srivastava provides an elaborate, precise and creative approach to political theory through a close reading and “translation” of Edouard Glissant. His original conceptual contributions to fundamental questions regarding political knowledge, subjectivity, agency and creation won him the 2022 Prize of the Department of International Relations/Political Science and are now published in open access thanks to the support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation.

How did you come to choose your research topic? 

I came to the Institute (and to the discipline of IR) amidst a rising call to variously “globalise” “diversify” and “pluralise” the perspectives informing the study of international politics. Over the past few decades, a burgeoning number of scholars have been advocating for an IR discipline that challenges and moves beyond the hitherto parochial and ethnocentric frames that conventionally undergirded the study of the “international”. And yet, even as these interventions have promised some crucial openings, what I found particularly disorienting (albeit in a generative sense) was how “difference” as an analytical, methodological and political category remained ensconced within a framework that glossed over the way asymmetrical power relations continued to structure how and by whom the study of the “international” was studied, imagined and theorised. What interested me was the political stakes of taking difference (and multiplicity) seriously, to not simply expand the canon but to problematise and even renew thinking about and around the “international”. With this in mind, I turned to the work of the theorist, philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant to conceptualise new imaginaries of the “international”. My contention was that Glissant offered not only a renewed lens with which to approach the study of world politics and the multiplicity of perspectives and lifeworlds therein, but also a critical repository of conceptual and critical resources for doing so. 

What methodology did you use to explore this contention? 

My study proceeded through a series of problematisations, with each chapter being anchored around a central category of political thought like “space”, “time”, “freedom” and “relation”. Following the work of Dionne Brand and Robbie Shilliam, I termed my approach as akin to “sitting in the room with Glissant” whereby I entered into a critical dialogue with Glissant, while allowing, in some sense, Glissant to speak back. By sitting with Glissant, I sought to discover, map and plot new histories of non-unitary relationalities anchored in an ethico-political bond towards alterity to discover new ways of feeling, inhabiting, seeing and imagining the world. This allowed me to confront the ethical and epistemic status of those we read and research about by not treating Glissant as an object to research and write about, but by imagining Glissant, as a figure capable of thinking, writing and answering back. Sitting with Glissant and at times even against him then was a deliberate strategy that led to a broader conversational praxis, limited not just to an exercise in contextualisation, but a creative pursuit centred around listening closely to how Glissant’s formulations about critique, ontology and poetics might help us devise frameworks which reflect upon related phenomena in the contemporary present.

Can you tell us more about these frameworks? 

There are three modalities through which Glissant might provide us with lessons in how to inhabit and live in/with difference. First is the notion of space or location. Throughout my study I stress the importance of the “Caribbean” and the Middle Passage for Glissant. For Glissant, the memory of the pain associated with the abyss of the Middle Passage in the Caribbean was constitutive not only of abysmal loss, but also formed the beginning of a new world. Rising from the shorelines of the Caribbean archipelago, Glissant crafts an enigmatic and compelling vocabulary of and for the Caribbean. Importantly (and this is the second modality I want to highlight), this is a theoretical and poetic vocabulary that, rather than folding identity within roots or lines of descent, produces a rhizomatic and creolised ontology of the subject that is best characterised by multiplicity and becomings. Finally, while Glissant draws the imaginative strength of his vocabulary from the openness of the Caribbean, he constantly subjects his work to that which is opaque. “Opacity” not only supplements his theories with a crucial qualifier, but also contributes to contemporary conversations around the philosophical question of difference. With his notion or rather his demand that the Other be granted the “right to opacity”, Glissant encounters Otherness without folding the difference of the Other into colonial regimes of visibility. Working instead with a poetics of difference, he imagines difference not as that “which is”, but in and through its always incomplete, partial and inconclusive movements.

What are you doing now?

I am currently a PhD student in the International History and Politics Department at the Institute. While in my MA dissertation I walked the shorelines of the Caribbean archipelago with Glissant, my PhD thesis attempts to recover the aesthetic worlds of a group of South-Asian writers/poets/painters as was imagined, charted and negotiated during the period of decolonisation in the Indian subcontinent. Among these artists was Rashid Jahan, about whose wayward poetics I’ve just published an article as part of the Gender, Sexuality, and Decolonization Resource Page blog

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Sitting in the Room with Glissant: Imagining, Relating, and Translating the World was published thanks to the financial support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. It reproduces Devarya Srivastava’s master’s dissertation in International Relations/Political Science (supervisor: Anna Leander), which won the 2022 Prize of the Department of International Relations/Political Science.

How to cite:
Srivastava, Devarya. Sitting in the Room with Glissant: Imagining, Relating, and Translating the World. Graduate Institute ePaper 50. Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, 2023. (open access).

Banner picture: part of Slave Ship (1840), by J. M. W. Turner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.