Opacity

Today the choice between ‘opacity’ and ‘transparency’ has become the subject of increasing critical engagement in the realms of both contemporary art and politics. Should art works reveal their cultural origins and references or should they hide them? Do political claims still depend upon making identities visible?

In his last collection of essays Philosophie de la Relation (Philosophy of the Relation, 2009), the late Martiniquan writer and poet Édouard Glissant presented his final statement on opacity. A response to the text by the critic and curator Ulrich Loock.

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Rocher du Diamand (Fotografie: Claude Ries)
Der „Rocher du Diamant“ (Diamantfelsen) liegt vor der Küste von Martinique. Die Vulkaninsel verdankt ihren Namen ihrer abgeschrägten Form und den glitzernden Reflektionen auf ihrer Oberfläche. Obwohl unbewohnt, wurde sie 1803–4 während der Napoleonischen Kriege von der Britischen Armee besetzt, die sie zur „H.M.S. Diamond Rock“ taufte – einem bewegungslosen Schiff aus Stein.

Rocher du Diamand (Photograph: Claude Ries)
Rocher du Diamant (Diamond Rock) is located off the coast of Martinique. A volcanic formation, the island earned its name from its oblique shape and the lapidary reflections on its surface. Although uninhabited, it was occupied by the British in 1803–4 during the Napoleonic Wars and designated as ‘the H.M.S. Diamond Rock’, an immobile ship made of rock.

The late Martiniquan cultural theorist and poet Édouard Glissant (1928–2011) came to the attention of many in the art world in 2002 in connection with documenta 11. Artistic director Okwui Enwezor had set himself the task of finally breaking down the hierarchies of global art, and Glissant’s notions of ‘creolity’ and ‘creolization’ – the mixing and intertwining of peoples and cultures – seemed to offer a suitable model: a vision of globalization intended as an antidote to the militant eruption of the margins into the centre (as prefigured shortly before the exhibition by the attack on the World Trade Center) and the neo-imperialist totalization of that centre.

By emphasizing language and literature, Glissant gave his global political project of creolization an aesthetic dimension. At the same time, he provided the concepts of French Post-structuralism – rhizome, difference, alterity – with a fresh playground and an exemplary story: the diaspora of African slaves, the archipelago, the ‘Creole garden’ where, in contrast to the monocultural plantation, a diverse range of plants protect and support one another.

The aesthetic dimension of Glissant’s thinking is best captured in his concept of opacity, originally used in optical theory. In Manthia Diawara’s film Un monde en relation (One World in Relation, 2009), Glissant remarks that he claimed the right to opacity as early as 1969 at a congress at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. ‘There’s a basic injustice in the worldwide spread of the transparency and the projection of Western thought. Why must we evaluate people on the scale of the transparency of ideas proposed by the West? … As far as I’m concerned, a person has the right to be opaque. That doesn’t stop me from liking that person, it doesn’t stop me from working with him, hanging out with him, etc. A racist is someone who refuses what he doesn’t understand. I can accept what I don’t understand.’

Faced with the demands of what the philosopher Byung-Chul Han recently called the ‘society of transparency’, Glissant defends a lack of transparency. It is the fundamental prerequisite for the constitution of the Other, just as uncircumventable difference is the basis for relations between all things. Glissant’s name for the relations between all things is the world, which appears threefold: as tout-monde (the world in its entirety), écho-monde (the world of things resonating with one another) and chaos-monde (a world that cannot be systematized).

Imagining the world in terms of opacity as a chaotically resonating whole appears as an unparalleled challenge to current notions of the global. In this light, it was striking to see the terms used in the exhibition catalogue for The Global Contemporary (2011) at the ZKM in Karlsruhe to describe the artistic aims of individual works in the show: examine, uncover, unmask, expose, reveal, reflect, illustrate, comment – a language of transparency that translated the works themselves, whichever part of the world they came from, into a dominant aesthetic of allegory. By contrast, this year’s dOCUMENTA (13) showed the isolation of artistic curiosities (as the reverse of uniformization) which results from succumbing to the fascination of solitary approaches.

In De l’entretien (On Conversation, 1997), Louis Marin names opacity as the secret key to his studies of the painting of the Renaissance, an age that sought to understand the painted image as a window onto a reality that lay elsewhere. Departing from the concept of the frontal gaze governed by perspective, he focuses on the gaze‘s lateral roaming which touches on everything denied by representation: the ‘presence of matter’, the ‘traces of the painter’s gestures left behind in the brushstrokes’, the ‘accents, distances, arrangements, concealments and obscurations’ and the ‘crumbs, drips and discharges, scratches, incisions and splashes’. All of these elements, Marin claims, constitute ‘opacities’. One can well imagine some of them and more in the Creole garden. It should be noted that the clouding provoked by this incredible wealth of differences cannot be understood as an alternative to the transparency of representation. Instead, they have their place within the mechanism of representation itself. For the ambivalent thinking of opacity, the art work is at once autonomous and linked to everything else, just as much a part of the world as a picture of it.

The following passage – ‘The Thinking of the Opacity of the World’ – is the eleventh chapter in Glissant’s last major publication Philosophie de la Relation. Poésie en étendue (Philosophy of the Relation. Poetry in extension, 2009). The 150-page book – an extension of his earlier Poétique de la Relation (1990; Poetics of Relation, 1997) – was celebrated by French critics as the culmination of a lifetime of thinking, writing, resisting. Throughout, Glissant uses not only the eponymous philosophy and poetry but also aphorisms, quotations, chronicles, recitations, even conversations. He occasionally addresses the reader with the familiar French tu instead of the formal vous: ‘When you find the word, without limits […] you go crazy shouting it.’
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

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Édouard Glissant, (Fotografie: Jacques Sassier / © Gallimard Editions)

Édouard Glissant, (Photograph: Jacques Sassier / © Gallimard Editions)

Édouard Glissant, Philosophie de la relation. Poésie en étendue Phases XI. La pensée de l’opacité du monde © Editions Gallimard, Paris, 2009; translations © frieze d/e, 2012

Ulrich Loock teaches at Bern’s University of the Arts and has been working as a critic and curator. He lives in Berlin. His publications include the monograph Thomas Schütte. Public/Political (Walther König, 2012).

Issue 7

First published in Issue 7

Winter 2012

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