Créolité, « Eti »? West Indian Culture and Identity (Un)Manifest

Créolité (or Creoleness) is without a doubt one of the most significant concepts and movement to have emerged in the past two decades in the field of francophone studies. As a matter of fact, Eloge de la Créolité (In Praise of Creoleness), the literary manifesto that hosts the concept, may be one of the theories which, along with “Négritude” or “Antillanité” (Caribbean-ness), has tremendously influenced the larger field of postcolonial African and Caribbean studies and as such, has undergone extensive scrutiny. In Praise of Creoleness is, I believe, a text that possesses a profound poetic density, filled with societal and political insights and I would like my contribution to be seen as a particular positioning in a debate that took place from the very first hours of Créolité, regarding the status of various discourses on caribbean cultures and identities and the extent of their inscription into our globality.

By Mylène Priam

Topic, Argument and Objective :

Créolité is often described as a “discourse on identity and a new artistic practice” (Lewis 97). “Neither European, nor African, nor Asian, we proclaim ourselves Creoles. We are simultaneously, Europe, Africa, nourished by Asian, Levantine and Indian elements, and we also draw form survivals of precolombian America” (In Praise of Creoleness 13). In 1989, by popularizing a “definition” of creole identity being syntaxically constructed negatively, the discourse of the three martinican founders of Créolité –also called the “creolists”: writers Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant and grammarian Jean Bernabé- was aimed at allowing for Caribbean identity to be built on unlimited relational patterns while rejecting easily made syntheses. With such premises, it’s not surprising that Créolité weaved from the beginning a network of ambiguities in the contemporary field of literary criticism.

On the basis of these premises, we propose the following argument: it is the expectations created by the creole manifesto that offer the field of francophone literary criticism opportunities to rethink, re-theorize and reframe Créolité’s meaning(s) and application(s) in francophone literary history and Créolité’s position in our modernity. It is our contention however, that this understanding of Créolité is not reached solely by virtue of its position in the francophone literary landscape, nor by the definition given of it by its founders, but also by virtue of the choice of its vessel: the literary manifesto. Our ultimate goal remains to prove that the originality of the creolists ethics rests in their engagement to oppose the tyranny of forbidden relations and that, through their attempt to piece together some of the materials that take part in the formation of West Indian cultural identities, the creolists are influencing the way in which modern cultures in general are apprehended.

We will proceed by following three steps: Firstly, we will show that although most francophone literary critics stress what they believe is the inability of Créolité to impact the Caribbean reality upon which the creolists claim their manifesto is rooted -using this argument to neutralize the more general claim according to which art and literature have the power to inscribe themselves onto the political field and as such affect reality- this criticism fails to account for this irreducible quality of the concept: Créolité seeks to be grasped solely through the ambiguity of its form, the paradoxes of its construction, the contradictions of its (un)manifest destiny.

Secondly, we intend to show how the creolists’ faith in the federating power of their concept and of its role as a catalyst for individual and collective consciousness, contributes to erect In Praise of Creoleness as the praise of a relation between aesthetics and politics, a relation that rejects any adherence to the idea of definite paths to knowledge, stable origins or unvariable trajectories.

Finally, it is our contention that this very position demonstrates that the creole manifesto itself is the site of an ethics that attempts to destabilize and revise radicalizing and immobilizing systems of interpretations, in order to project a vision of West Indian identities and cultures as manifestly creole.

 

DESCRIPTION OF THE PROJECT : DEFINITION OF THE CONCEPT AND OUTLINE OF THE PROJECT 

Brief Definition of the concept:

To be creole means to gain awareness of one’s West Indian self as it exists in the world and to attain knowledge and understanding of this self (ibid). The cofounders of Créolité specify that Créolité is in fact the other degree of authenticity that was left to be named for Caribbean people and that Aimé Césaire’s concept of Négritude, though a necessary step, proved inapt to fulfill a fundamental need: that of a particular West Indian aesthetics. Yet, they claim to be not solely addressing writers, or artists, but all designers of the West Indian space. « Créolité is the interactive or transactional aggregate of Caribbean, European, African, Asian and Levantine Cultural elements which the yoke of History united on the same soil » (ibid. 26). This complexity, tell the creolists, “must serve to build the harmonious being of the world within diversity” (ibid. 52).

Créolité is composed of a fixed element, called “Antillanité” (which is anchored in an insular and continental geopolitical reality independently of cultural differences (ibid. 33)) and of another perpetually moving, unlimited and unending element: “Creolization”. Fixity and mobility form what the creolists call Totality, which itself is synonymous with Créolité (ibid. 27). For its fathers, Créolité is a permanent ontological and poetic questioning.

 

Outline

  1. MEANING MANIFESTED

Our first claim is twofold. It is based on the idea, firstly, that In praise of creoleness has generated such an abundant body of criticism that Créolité has almost become the intellectual property –and by contagion and at least partly, the invention- of critical academic as well as diasporic elites who have chosen to adopt a rhetoric whose objective is primarily to reveal Créolité’s discontinuities and unbalances. The limitation in nature of their criteria of interpretation, the failure to diversify their sources and resources, discloses a willingness to focus on the content of the message of the creolists to the exclusion of an appreciation of the form that shelters it. With the help of this critical apparatus, readers in turn are given the responsibility to test the authenticity of the creolists claims, encouraged to overlook both the impact of the genre –the literary manifesto- and the importance to locate the discourse they scrutinize, consequently suggesting a consideration of the manifesto primarily as an artistic tool instead of as a hybrid object.

It is our contention that Créolité cannot be perceived simply as a collection of critical discourses patched together to claim the authority of its meaning over the authority of the narrative of its vessel, for Créolité is in fact and primarily what is transmitted, professed and proclaimed in the manifesto’s own term: A written projection that finds its mode of translation in poetics, vows to move into the field of political action in order to touch an audience, real or idealized and that may or may not subscribe to the creolists ethical engagement. Criticism contribution to shaping Créolité, revealing the multiplicity of its layers, should not let us overview the fact that the nature of the manifesto itself engages its criticism. Contestation plays a significant role in the construction of meaning, but may prove insufficient if it acts alone. The manifest meaning of Créolité is the plurivocal product of that mediation. As one meaning manifests itself, countless of others slip away.

 

 

  1. OF THE APPLICABILITY OF A CREOLE AESTHETICS: THE IRRUPTION OF MEANING

The creole manifesto is this hybrid object, in which theoretical essay meets aesthetics, art and abstraction constituting the basis of a unique political platform materializable but not yet materialized. What is palpable, is the feeling of urgency that sustains the discourse of the creolists and leads its rhetoric, this creole ethics being based less on reality itself than on the intuition of that reality, aiming at testing this reality as much as affecting it, a professed desire that may explain the magnitude of the impact of the manifesto on the literary and critical scenes. The mixed nature of the creole manifesto is in turn echoed by the hybrid genetic card of the concept it accommodates. In this framework, West Indian cultures and identities emerge within a site the creolists call a “median space” (Raphaël Confiant in Ecrire la parole de nuit, 171), a territory freed of imposed frontiers of belonging –neither Eurocentric nor Afrocentric- or of forced past allegiances, and in which the conceptual translates into a poetics -of their literary work, as aesthetical applications of Créolité- that has the potential to materialize itself in reality.

The creolists do not wish to deny West Indian people and West Indian artists access to other paths of self-determination or to other affiliations, but it is their belief that in order to find a true liberating voice, adopting this mental posture remains critical.

 

 

III. OF THE PRACTICABILITY OF A CREOLE ETHICS: MEANING INTERRUPTED

Thus, although the hybrid nature of the object allows us to consider the intention of the creolists, it does not guarantee the observation of its completion. Since the discourse of the creolists is based on the intuition of the existence of the real, such configuration calls for a reevaluation of the relationship between ethical engagement and praxis, for, Créolité’s relationship to politics should not constitute the pale and disciplinable sediment of a theoritical and artistic “internal vision” (23). The manifesto transforms the median space of Créolité’s utterance into a site where the multiple interventions of the private word penetrate freely the public sphere and where the necessary practicability of the creolists ethics is abolished, free to remain an intuition, a project, a vision. Yet, the creolists also wish to appeal to a position of exteriority that remains necessary in order to restitute the possibility to create a “harmonious” Caribbean self.

Their position welcomes the possibility of scrutiny and critical interpretation free from the tyranny of truth, of a discontinuity or rupture of meaning that is to be seen as a manifestation of Créolité itself. The creolists posit West Indian identity as a manifest project, what they call “an internal vision.” By letting this internal vision come to the self –via the development of a creole aesthetics, the rehabilitation of the creole language or the creolization of narrative discourse- the creolists hope they can offer alternative readings of West Indian cultural identity. The latter has to be perceived as a work in progress, growing from fraternal echoes as much as hostile attractions, harmonies and dissensions, paradoxes and connections that are both internal and present in the external reality. West Indian identity nourishes itself from the contradictory interactions, interpretations and discursive representations that Créolité conjures or sollicitates. The real and the imaginary, far from being the reverse signifiers of one another, can become instead the two different dimensions of a same subjectivity, for the goal of the creolists is not to provide an objective definition of West Indian identity but to contribute to maintain its vividness.  Their wish is less to propose a fixed definition of what being West Indian signifies than it is to understand what West Indian cultures and identities are becoming.

 

 

CORPUS AND METHODOLOGY :

In order to design our corpus, we will draw our inspiration from the creolists’ heterogeneous textual production. The diversity of their production seems to mirror Créolité’s own heterogeneity. It is a very dense corpus comprising essays written collectively (Lettres créoles, 1991), or individually (Aimé Césaire: Une Traversée paradoxale du siècle by Confiant, 1993; Ecrire en pays dominé by Chamoiseau, 1997), and also but not exclusively a large number of novels both in French and creolized French. We will study more specifically Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnifique (1988) and Texaco (1992), as well as Confiant’s L’Archet du Colonel (2001). Between these genres, lies the creole manifesto: In Praise of Creoleness (1989). We also believe that it is essential to locate the concept in the context of a corpus of texts that were produced on various critical literary scenes (francophone, anglophone and hispanophone) soon after the appearance of the creole manifesto. From famous Guadelupean writer Maryse Condé’s Penser la Créolité (1995), to the wider francophone academic circles, reading Créolité via its critique should allow us to evaluate the concept’s signification while observing a common practice but different ways of thinking.

 

Discourse is the methodological template that should provide us with answers. Our methodological assumption is that six types of discursive practices will prove indispensable resources.

The first one being the overall narrative corpus of the creolists, built over a period of around 20 years. From the creole manifesto to their other theoretical essays and novels, we will attempt to see how Caribbean experience –the phenomenal aspect- is inscribed into the aesthetics of the creolists, not as a simple theme, but as what fundamentally nourishes their vision of the world. We will, for instance, take a close look at a selected number of the creolists’ novels in order to see to what extent the Créolité of their texts derives from formal discursive strategies.

We believe that it is important to trace back to the genesis of the creole manifesto by also investigating these manifestoes of another era and of another nature (literary manifestoes from Madame de Staël to the surrealists; political manifestoes, notably Marx’s inescapable doctrine). We will also look into the corpus of literary criticism because it seems essential to compare the discursive genres that criticism approaches. The objective here is metacritical. By making an inventory of a certain number of critical positions homogeneous in content, heterogeneous by their form, we will have at our disposal a certain number of linguistic and discursive resources. One contestation generates other opposition but should not be able to summarize the diversity of critical practices directed towards Créolité, nor of the meaning of Créolité itself.

Since the concept of Créolité has taken an increasingly prominent place in the study of postcolonial francophone identities, we will also consider what postcolonial theory has to say about Créolité in order to evaluate its ability to help to understand the concept within the postcolonial context of its utterance.

We will also appeal to another form of theory, postructuralism and notably philosopher Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of meaning in Of Grammatology (1967). We will also trace back the origins of the creolist ethics: Edouard Glissant’s theories of Antillanité, Relation and Creolization or Victor Segalen’s theory of the diverse.

One last discursive category will be the narratives of West Indians themselves. We will borrow Segalen’s approach in his essay on the aesthetics of diversity, to “interrogate the matter” (765), in other words, we will look for signs of the inscription of Caribbean experience and of the many expressions of its diversity inside the text. The field work started in the summer of 2007 with a trip to Martinique where we conducted a series of interviews. The goal was to obtain a generational appraisal of Créolité. Data was drawn from a questionnaire survey and interviews from a panel of 21 students at the Université des Antilles-Guyane in Schoelcher. The field work will continue in metropolitan France [For my recommenders only: in the summer of 2008 (Radcliffe)/in the Fall of 2008 (Fullbright-Hays fellowship, Milton Fund] to interrogate these particular nationals, these undomiciled or uprooted domestics: Martinicans and Guadeloupeans in Metropolitan France. The goal is to explore the perceptions of these populations about the dynamics and complexities of their identities in the juggling of global, national, local, and personal-social dimensions of their Créolité (Data will also be drawn from a questionnaire survey and interviews). In what way can the French-West Indian diaspora serve as a paradigm for analyzing and critically unsettling the creole postulate and the reification of creole identities in this new millennium? I have designed a questionnaire and gathered interviewees from various Caribbean backgrounds. They provide a range of significant opinions and experiences that will allow me to use an analytical framework in order to identify the conceptual and methodological issues associated with the treatment of Créolité or creole identity and to observe the various outcomes that different measurements of the concept (theoretical, aesthetic and empirical) may carry.

 

 

 

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