Serubiri Moses: “A Useful Landscape”

[Seascape c.1835-40 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Here is an insightful article by Serubiri Moses (e-flux, #111). See full article (with notes) at e-flux. Here are a few excerpts:

1. Language

How is one to conjure an imagination of a world? Édouard Glissant responds by affirming the power of the word. Language seems a natural place to begin given Glissant’s advocacy for words, self-expression, and poetics. This impulse in Glissant’s thought echoes the Biblical statement “In the beginning was the word.” The author’s attention to language reveals a site for interventions, refusals, dismantling totality, and bringing “one’s world” or “the world” into being. This evokes the term “conjuring” to mean calling an image to mind, or calling a spirit to appear. Glissant calls this an essential process when he suggests that for Martinican people, the Creole language is “our only possible advantage in our dealings with the Other.” Glissant’s notion of a “world” relates to his theory of literature, in terms such as tout-monde (all-world), and chaos-monde (chaos-world). These terms emerge from the theorist and poet’s engagement with the Martinican landscape (“Our landscape is its own monument: its meaning can only be traced on the underside. It is all history,” and “The landscape of your world is the world’s landscape”), where he describes contrasting images and forms of décalage. Language, which Glissant holds in sacred regard, is a conjuring of images of world(s) in self-expression, and certainly a site for creation. The sacred and its conjuring recall the Bible’s opening statement: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

Self-expression, for Glissant, is an advantage to the Martinican people and mirrors the broader political aims of his statement (“We have seized this concession to use it for our own purposes, just as our suffering in this tiny country has made it, not our property, but our only possible advantage in our dealings with the Other—but having seized it does not make it into a means of self-expression, nor has our only advantage become a nation”). I use “political” here to suggest that for the Glissant self-expression is understood politically, considering it to be the rightful inheritance of Africans in Martinique. Indeed, Glissant’s references to the “scream” recall the experience of slavery. Rather than the inheritance of land and property in the French colony, he speaks of an affective and intellectual inheritance through sound, language, and expression. 

[. . .]

6. Exodus as Double

Glissant’s awareness of the law is tied to his understanding of legitimacy. After describing the massacre of the Arawak, the indigenous people of Martinique, Glissant suggests that Martinican soil does not belong to African descendants. He describes the forced movement of millions of people to the Western hemisphere using a legal term: “deportation.” Deportation is a legal form of expulsion involving border authorities and state governments. It is defined as the act of removing a foreigner from a country. Is Glissant commenting on the laws in Africa when using this term? Does he imply that the millions uprooted were foreigners in Africa? Or does “deportation” become ambiguous in describing national laws that are also Biblical? Answering these questions is not the aim here. I am merely drawing attention to the way Glissant addresses the forced movement of Africans.

Glissant’s narrative of diaspora unfolds as a Biblical exodus in which an Egyptian pharaoh enforced laws upholding slavery, and in which those who fled Egypt did so to escape captivity. According to literary theorist Hortense Spillers, this interpretation of “fleeing the scene of captivity and dismemberment” is prominent in African-American sermons. Using “exodus” as a term of ambivalence, Poetics of Relation reveals a situation of “suffering without witnesses.” Glissant, who was teaching in the United States at the time, and who later wrote a book on William Faulkner, presents a theory of literature with a double ambition: (1) to inspire creative practitioners to form this Antillean literature of mélange, creolization, and chaos-monde as a model to rethink language and alterity; and (2) to serve as a political manifesto that opposes the re-colonization of the islands, expands on economic and political questions concerning land, borders, and states, and calls attention to the predicament and suffering of Martinicans in the post-slavery period.

[. . .] Given that King’s sermon is a rebuke of racism, segregation, white supremacy, and the various US administrations that enforced Jim Crow laws, “Pharaoh” here is not the historical Egyptian pharaoh of the Bible, but rather US law enforcement and political leaders who excluded African-Americans from civic life. It is in this double sense that Glissant’s Egypt is not situated in the real Africa, but in an imagined one. This imagined Africa, for Glissant, shapes the political urgencies of the post-slavery Caribbean. Poetics of Relation thus attempts to “flee captivity” by reconstructing the history of the Martinican people through a sea-and-island narrative that consists of “exodus” and the mélange of island landscapes.

Serubiri Moses is a writer and curator who lives in New York. He is cocurator of “Greater New York 2020,” MoMA PS1’s survey of contemporary art. Moses was part of the curatorial team for the Berlin Biennale X (2017–18). From 2013 to 2017, Moses traveled extensively to participate in curatorial residencies, conferences, and juries across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. In 2015, Moses held the position of Stadtschreiber at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies, and in 2014 he cocurated the second public art biennial in Kampala, KLA ART—entitled “Unmapped”—and organized a four-part public program at the Goethe Zentrum Kampala. Moses completed his Masters of Arts in Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Art Department at Hunter College.

For full article, see

[Shown above: Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Seascape”, c.1835–40. Oil on canvas. 90,2 × 121 cm. Photo: Tate. Copyright: CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).]

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