January 2019


We clamor for the right to opacity for everyone

Glissant,  Poetics of Relation, 194


In December 2018, I visited Athens, met people, went to places and listened to more stories of forced displacement. Something that struck me this time was the understanding of what Édouard Glissant has discussed as ‘the right to opacity’. For Glissant, the injunction of transparency in Western processes of understanding always involves a reductionism of complexities and multiplicities within the boundaries of conceptual norms: ‘If we examine the process of ‘understanding’ people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the idea scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgement. I have to reduce’. (Poetics, 189-190)

In the past I have written about narrative analysis beyond the imperative of coherence as the ultimate guarantor of the quality of narratives and as a restrictive norm for good life stories and narrative identities. Amongst other issues that we have traced in the narratological obsession with coherence, we have also raised the question: ‘what happens to the desire for textual coherence when place and location as material coherences par excellence, melt into fluid spatialities, forced displacement and diasporic subjectivities?’ (Beyond Narrative Coherence6).

Glissant’s argument ‘for the right to opacity’ however, goes beyond the imperative for narrative coherence, highlighting the importance of ‘relation without understanding’ as a ground for freedom. ‘Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics’ he writes, further adding that ‘to understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not the nature of its components’ (Poetics, 190). There were two levels where I encountered the moving experience of relating in opacity.

First, it was while listening to stories in a language I could not understand, in the short interval before translation, while I was looking the storyteller in the eye. During these fleeting moments, I felt that it was the rhythm of words, the musicality of the voice and the facial movements that wove the fabric of relation, the sapore in Cavarero’s conceptual vocabulary. It was in the interval between the opacity of unrecognizable speech and the clarity of translation, in the interstices of languages that I could feel ‘the texture of the weave’, the sound of words. Sounding does not create meaning, neither is it about conveying emotions, it is more about being exposed to the opacity of feeling the world and the other. For Arendt, the state of sounding can only be found in love and in poetry and it never lasts, it always flees, Cecilia Sjöholm has commented. (Doing Aesthetics with Arendt, 9697) In Whitehead’s philosophy, life emerges from spatial and temporal interstices: the in-between zones of every living cell, as well as the intervals, between contrasting moments, notes, acts or events. Rhythm, is what brings both the temporal and the spatial dimensions together, Didier Debaise has eloquently noted (Nature as event103): ‘rhythm of the living, rhythm of the creative process, rhythm of events’, and the rhythm of spoken words, I would add.

But there was also a second level of opacity, far more resistant to ‘transparency’ than the non-yet translated language, what I have tentatively configured as the will not to tell a story. ‘Life tells us that we cannot tell it while we live it, or live it while we tell it’ (The Distinction of Fiction96) Dorrit Cohn has written, creating a temporal tension between experience and narrative that a lot of narratological literature has revolved around. Galen Strawson has been more provocative in his anti-narrativist thesis that ‘the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being.’ (Against Narrativity, 447). The opacity that I encountered however in the will not to tell a story was more agential, grounded on a deep ambivalence around the power effects of storytelling. While I see the desire to tell a story as a deeply existential force, a Spinozist expression of the self, the will not to tell a story is a political gesture of non-disclosure, what paraphrasing Foucault I have felt as the idea that ‘the self must be defended’. It is this glimpse of a woman striving to defend herself against the pragmatic dangers of narration that the will not to tell a story has unveiled. Although I have written about narratives as ‘technologies of power’ (Discourse and Narrative Methods), I do not want to move towards any hermeneutics of opacity. Here I agree with Glissant that ‘the thought of opacity distracts me from absolute truths […] making me sensible to the limits of every method […] saves me from unequivocal courses and irreversible choices.’ ( Poetics, 192)

Please reference as : Maria Tamboukou (2019) ‘Diffractions, January 2019, https://mariatamboukou.org/revisiting-the-nomadic-subject-2/reflections-and-diffractions/january-2019/