BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 09 NOV 12
Featured in
Issue 7

Perfect Strangers

Should difference be hidden or visible?

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 09 NOV 12

The encounter with radical difference has haunted both the Enlightenment and Modernity, which moved between strategies of obscurity and exposure. Compare the mad woman locked in the attic with the freaks of nature – including those ‘discovered’ in the colonies – paraded through royal courts and circus tents.

Before mass migrations – forced or voluntary – society discovered differences from within: outsiders to occupy centre stage or remain in the wings. ‘Eccentric’ still describes the joker who entertains and the recluse who elicits fear. Over the last century, new differences – based on gender, sexuality, race – haunted democratic societies as they failed to universalize rights. Political demands made differences not only visible but also commonplace. Take the slogans of the gay and lesbian movement: from ‘coming out of the closet’ to ‘Silence = Death’, at the onset of the AIDS crisis, to ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.’

In the history of difference, the late Martiniquan writer Édouard Glissant took an exceptional position by demanding the right to opacity. Not invisibility but opacity, which rejects obscurity and exposure for a presence that must not explain itself, nor others. By his own account, recorded in Manthia Diawara’s film Un monde en relation (One World in Relation, 2009), Glissant made this demand in 1969 during a conference with Octavio Paz at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. It could not have been easy, if one considers race relations on both sides of the Atlantic, then and earlier. In the 1930s in Paris, Glissant’s compatriot Aimé Césaire co-founded the Négritude movement, which claimed a specific black identity and culture, a Blackness distinct from Frenchness (and which Glissant had criticized). The American Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952) – an account of life under segregation – seemed to suggest that racial equality would lead to equally visible men. And around the time that Glissant called for opacity, the German scholar Hans Mayer was researching the essays for Außenseiter (1975; Outsiders, 1982). Mayer, whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz, focused on three figures – women, gay and Jewish outsiders – in literary portraits, yet race also marks his study. ‘Was humanity truly made out of only egalitarian men and women, races […] ? In short: did the monstrosities of all kinds belong to humanity, so that they, too, could be permitted to shine in the light of Enlightenment? [Mayer’s italics.] The Enlightenment failed on this antinomy, right up to the present. It failed the outsiders.’

Glissant – carrying a French passport while living with the legacy of French colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean – was uninterested in the ‘success’ of basking in Enlightenment Thinking, whose tropes connote Blackness as a shadowy antithesis. Compare the verbs to ‘shed light on’, ‘clarify’, ‘illuminate’ with to ‘obscure’, ‘darken’, ‘blacken’. When Glissant claimed the right to opacity, his demand was condemned as ‘barbaric’, only to be embraced almost three decades later. ‘Because people came to understand that what was barbaric was imposing one’s own transparency on the Other’, Glissant explains in Diawara’s film, before adding a trope from his own Relation Thinking. ‘Everyone likes broccoli, but I hate it. But do I know why? Not at all. I accept my opacity on that level. Why wouldn’t I accept it on other levels? Why wouldn’t I accept the Other’s opacity? Why must I abso­lutely understand the Other in order to live next to him and work with him? That’s one of the laws of Relation. In Relation, elements don’t blend just like that, don’t lose themselves just like that. Each element can keep its – I won’t say just its autonomy but also its essential quality, even as it accustoms itself to the essential qualities and differences of others. After 30 years, people understood that, but before, they never stopped saying how stupid it was.’

What is the legacy of Glissant’s opacity? In literature, it might well be found in the work of the American-Nigerian author Teju Cole. ‘The mind is opaque to itself, and it’s hard to tell where these areas of opacity are,’ says Julius, the first-person narrator of Cole’s Open City (2011). The novel, recently translated into German, follows a German-Nigerian psychiatrist as he wanders through New York and Brussels, chatting with old friends and perfect strangers who reveal their histories. While Julius cannot hide his racial identity, his character remains opaque and is repositioned through the differences of his interlocuters: racial, religious, sexual, political. Blackness is no longer universal, but Nigerian, Ugandan, Moroccan, German … Cole’s narrator operates beyond Négritude, Identity Politics and perhaps his own conscience.

Opacity has implications for art, too, whatever the origins of the artist. In his October article The Right to Opacity (Summer 2009), the historian T. J. Demos adopts Glissant’s term to analyze the Otolith Group’s film about the Jenin refugee camp in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Nervus Rerum (The Nerve of Things, 2008) captures only labyrinthine passageways, ‘without positioning the camp’s Palestinians as transparent subjects of a documentary exposé. […] Where one would expect anthropological insights and cultural access to Jenin’s inhabitants, there is only blankness and disorientation.’

Could opacity come between the art work and its many interlocutors? The past decade has seen a rise in the information accompanying art works, even those outside documentary and research-based practices. A certain retromania – paintings based on movie stills, sculptures reviving avant-garde works, readymades as artefacts – marks many works, illuminating their origins and shedding light on how we should understand them. Perhaps too much light, too clearly.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.