Opacité / Opacity (Édouard Glissant)

Opacité/Opacity is a concept developed by the Francophone writer Édouard Glissant from Martinique. During the last decades, his voice has gained wide recognition in the fields of Postcolonial and Transcultural Studies and World Literature (Apter 2013; Arndt 2009; Nesbitt 2013). Best known for his concepts antillanité (1981) and creolisation (1990), both of which focus on cultural hybridity in the Caribbean, Glissant has also had an impact on the theoretical discussions about globalization and the ongoing process of cultural diversification and cross-cultural encounters. In Poétique de la Relation (Poetics of Relation, 1990/2006) he develops a vision of a transcultural world determined by transversal movements and heterogeneous realities that altogether shape a “chaos-world” (chaos-monde) of unforeseen and unsystematic relations (see also: Introduction à une poétique du divers – Introduction to a poetics of diversity, 2006).

The “right to opacity” (le droit à l’opacité) constitutes an important part of Glissant’s poetics of relation. As an antonym of transparency, this notion questions the possibilities of intercultural communication. In a multirelational world, recognizing difference does not mean understanding otherness by making it transparent, but accepting the unintelligibility, impenetrability and confusion that often characterize cross-cultural communication. Opacity thus tries to overcome the risk of reducing, normalizing and even assimilating the singularities of cultural differences by comprehension. Within this framework, Glissant challenges the rational epistemic of Enlightenment and its assumption of universal truths by calling into question the etymological meaning of ‘comprehension’ (com-prendere) as an act of appropriation. Opacity, instead, offers a de-hierarchized world-vision as well as a discourse complementary to universal or systemic approaches to globalization. It reflects on uncontrollable “confluences” and an increasing intermingling of diversities, both of which oppose monolithic worldviews.

The author makes clear that the right to opacity is an ethical and political claim. Therefore, it is often understood as a form of postcolonial resistance against domination (cf. Murdoch 2013). It has to be pointed out, though, that ethics and aesthetics are intertwined in Glissant’s writing, so that his essays cannot be reduced to political claims alone (cf. Britton 1999; Kuhn 2013). According to his Poetics of Relation, literature, as a medium, is best designed to foster a communication characterized by opacity. In this fashion, the Caribbean writer also approaches opacity by practicing a poetic style. Thus, his writing embodies the movements and processes of multidirectionality from which his theory of diversity evolves. Like transcultural identities that cannot be essentialized or tied down to one origin, the practice of opaque writing produces a multiplication of directions and meanings.


Apter, Emily (2013): Against World Literature. On the Politics of Untranslatability. London: Verso.

Arndt, Susan (2009): “Euro-African Trans-Spaces”. Transcultural Modernities. Narrating Africa in Europe. In: Elisabeth Bekers, Sissy Helff, Daniela Merolla (eds.). Amsterdam: Rodopi, 103-120.

Britton, Celia (1999): Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory: Strategies of Language and Resistance. Charlottesville & London: University Press of Virginia.

Glissant, Édouard (1981): Le discours antillais. Paris: Seuil.

Glissant, Édouard (1990): Poétique de la relation. Paris: Gallimard.

Glissant, Édouard (2006): Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing and Ann Arbor. Michigan, Michigan University Press.

Glissant, Édouard (2006): Introduction à une poétique du divers. Paris: Gallimard.

Kuhn, Helke (2013): Rhizome, Verzweigungen, Fraktale: vernetztes Schreiben und Komponieren im Werk von Edouard Glissant. Berlin: Weidler.

Murdock, Alain (2013): “Edouard Glissant’s Creolized World-Vision. From Resistance and Relation to Opacité”. Callaloo 26.4: 875-890.

Nesbitt, Nick (2013): Caribbean Critique: Antillean Critical Theory from Toussaint to Glissant. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Andrea Gremels (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt)

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