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The Archipelago Conversations, an excerpt
— Interview with Édouard Glissant
Hans Ulrich Obrist
19 December 2022
published in Issue Two

This is a selection from The Archipelago Conversations, as published by ISOLARII.

Encountering the French Carribean philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant would forever mark the trajectory of the Swiss art historian and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who heads the Serpentine Galleries in London. Until Glissant’s death in 2011, Obrist interviewed him nine times. These interviews became part of Obrist’s colossal Interview Project, a living archive of around 4000 conversations and counting, and they were on display last year at Luma Arles in the south of France. Filmed interviews with Édouard Glissant were shown on eight screens. Posters in homage to him by contemporary artists were presented as well. The avant-garde publishing house and media project ISOLARII edited and published Obrist's conversations with Glissant in their ongoing series of palm-sized books, with the title The Archipelago Conversations.

Here we publish a selection from The Archipelago Conversations, with a short introduction by Obrist on his late friend. 

Drawing on periods of collaboration, friendship and mentorship, these conversations highlight a shared belief that the exchange with the other can cause reciprocal change, and from thereon, conversation can be a means to produce new realities. A world in transformation, for Édouard Glissant, is an All-World that knows to listen and learn from each of its unique voices.

I was first introduced to Glissant’s thinking through Alighiero Boetti, whom I met right after turning eighteen in 1986. Throughout the second half of the 1990s I got to know Glissant in the company of our mutual friend agnès b. Our friendship started in Parisian cafés, and these meetings quickly became rituals. During this same period I adopted a daily fifteen-minute reading ritual of the writings of the poet-philosopher, a habit that I still practice. Our relationship was driven by a spontaneity that enabled us to collaborate on a dozen public conversations, interviews and printed materials. These projects led us to travel together across cities, continents and archipelagos.

Glissant was born in Sainte-Marie, Martinique in 1928, and was throughout his career an advocate for the island’s independence from France. His philosophy of Relation is rooted in the history and the geography of the Caribbean archipelagos that gave rise to a distinctly mixed Antillean identity. By favouring constant exchanges from one island to another, these archipelagos have provided the matrix for creolization, a process of continual fusion of languages and cultures that does not cause the loss of diversity, but enriches it through hybridizations. The most tangible outcome to emerge from this context is creole languages, resulting from miscegenation of several languages. Glissant later observed that similar cultural blendings occur all over the globe and that « creolization is a process which never stops ». While continental thought relies on systems and claims the absoluteness of its own worldview, the archipelagic thought recognizes and furthers the world’s diversity. Glissant had realised early on the dangers of homogenizing globalization, the engine behind the disappearance of cultural, linguistic and ecological diversity, as well as the dangers of the populist counter-current to globalization, namely new forms of nationalism and localism that refuse solidarity. To resist globalization without denying globality, he coined the notion of Mondialité as a plea for a continuous worldwide dialogue that equally encouraged the mixing of cultures and celebration of local identities. As Glissant says, archipelagic thought teaches us that one can change through the exchange with the other, without losing or diluting one’s sense of self.

Many of my curatorial projects are directly inspired by this concept of Mondialité as a perpetual process of relating. To mention a few, the exhibitions Do it (1993-ongoing), Cities on the Move (1997-1999) and It’s Urgent (2018-ongoing) are nomadic, heterogeneous and long-term projects that transform with each new encounter, location and instalment, encouraging continual « feedback effects » between the local and the global.

« à Hans Ulrich, sous le regard de mon Dieux »

So, Édouard, where do we start?

I would first of all like to say something about archipelagos. I think the idea of the archipelago — as a place where we can begin to understand and resolve the contradictions of the world — should be propagated. The archipelagos of the Mediterranean must encounter the archipelagos of Asia, and the archipelago of the Antilles. These archipelagos must encounter each other because, across their many islands, interdependence and difference coexist — and, in this way, they carry the energy that is necessary for our whole globe, our whole world. We might currently believe that this energy derives from military or economic force, but that is not so. It lies in the ideas and poetics of how we organize the world. Continents weigh us down. They are thick and sumptuous. Archipelagos are able to diffract, they create diversity and expansiveness, they are spaces of relation that recognize all the infinite details of the real. Being in harmony with the world through archipelagos means inhabiting this diffraction, while still rallying coastlines and joining horizons. They open us to a sea of wandering: to ambiguity, to fragility, to drifting, which is not the same as futility.

And you see the archipelago, this structure of islands, as the foundation of the community of the future?

Yes. The community that we have before us is no longer my community or yours, it’s the community of the world. That’s the new focal point of our future. That’s what I call globality, mondialité.

You oppose globality to globalization and the desire to create conformity amongst all the world’s cultures.

Globality does not homogenize culture. It produces a difference from which new things can emerge. Globality equips us to combat globalization, which, as you say, standardizes and dilutes. Globalization reduces communities to a single model, attacking them from the top down, diminishing them. So we need a sense of a world community, of globality, or we cannot combat globalization.

This is what led me to your writing: the understanding that it’s not by cutting ourselves off that we combat the uniformity of globalization.

Not only is cutting ourselves off the wrong approach, but it is bound to fail. Think of the « anti-globalists » in France, who had to regroup to combat the course of globalization — they transformed into « alter-globalists ». They understood that it wasn’t the idea of the world that needed to be combatted, but the mode of organization of the world — and that, as a result, if we are « alter- », we don’t simply oppose something and cut ourselves off from the world, but search for an alternative, and then we have the means to combat uniformity, the stranglehold of capitalist markets, etcetera.

Has anyone succeeded yet, do you think?

There are separatist movements that give rise to globality. The indigenous people of Chiapas who fight for their recognition, they don’t want an indigenous Mexico, they want a creole, or mixed, Mexico, they want to be part of the mix. They want an archipelago, « a world of many worlds » in their own words. This shows that from a political angle, the communities that defend themselves already have a sense of the diversity of the world. They are unlike the decolonial movements of Africa, which could not escape European conceptions of identity and sovereignty. With the exception of Nelson Mandela’s, all ended in catastrophe and show precisely why the diversity of the world must be harnessed when we fight against various forms of oppression.

I think this kind of diversity is what you call creolization. You wrote in L’imaginaire des Langues that creolization is « an infinite process. » How so?

Creolization is the means by which several distinct cultures, or their elements, come into contact in a particular place in the world. It results in something unexpected, completely unpredictable, born out of the encounter of their heterogeneous elements. In this way, it’s just like the Creole language. Creolization is necessary, we agree, because our actual world is a mixed one — it is entangled. The world is inextricable. At the same time, we need to confront a fact: our location is inescapable. Place is crucial. We are not floating in the air. So you cannot stay in the United States, here, and think that you are apart from the world. But you also cannot think that the world is here, in the United States only, and you are in the world. Really, the world is in me and I am in the world. The world is mixed.

But what kind of mixing? What kind? It interests me that you also identify a negative kind of mixing.

The negative kind is the most easy to see: the terrible mixity of financial and economic interests that is the same as that of the colonizer and colonized, by which the powerful and rich, in the rich countries of the world, exploit the poor, in poor countries, the pauvres. These are the relationships that have shaped, and continue to shape, the world. The situation of Africa, today, is the great scandal of our time. We all know that and we all know that it is the consequence of colonialism. This legacy, this mixity of colonialism and finance, is easy to conceive and to analyze. Why? Because this kind of mixity always has a predictable result. It is a mechanical mixing. On the other hand, the encounters, the conflicts, the harmony, the symbiosis, the love, the hate of cultures in the world — when they produce something new, that is what I call creolization. Creolization, the hybridity of cultures and not only of organisms, is a métissage with a product inattendu — an unexpected result. Let’s take jazz music, for example. People created it, and all the music of the world altered it, rock ’n’ roll, etcetera, came from that. And this is an unexpected product of creolization. Creolization is not a state of identity. It is a process that never stops. When I say the entire world is creolizing that doesn’t mean the world becomes Creole like me — a Creole from the Caribbean. Some of my friends in the Caribbean have taken my ideas of creolization and formulated a theory of créolité. And créolité is a kind of definition of what a Creole is in the Caribbean. But I’m not concerned with what a Creole is in the Caribbean. What is important for me is creolization in the world. And that’s what we can have, you and me, together [fingers touch]. That is what I mean by creolization and we are lost without it.

And so, what is there to do? Do you believe there is potential for the creolization of cultures and places in our world today, outside of globalization?

Take the United States as a whole culture. I think that the United States may be one of the greatest places in the world because it has the possibility of creolization. But this has not yet come to pass, not today. It is a container for many ethnicities, but rarely do they interact. There are Black people, Italians, Germans, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Chicanos, Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, but none mixes with the others. It’s not a land of mixity and creolization.

« dans tout ce Sud du monde... »

This is the difference between multiculturalism and creolization.

Yes. You can say it’s a multi-ethnic community, but not a Creole one. These cultures are there, present. But creolization is not. In the Caribbean, in Brazil, you have creolization — cultures where elements from all over the world mix to create something unexpected — but not in the United States. What is the community that is the United States? The community exists in the Constitution, the flag, the Founding Fathers, and the President. That’s what links all these groups and, paradoxically, it’s an ideology of root identity. It does not enter into the infinite possibilities of Relation. I think this country can be a great country — not because of its financial or political or military power — all of that can vanish from today to tomorrow, like the power of the Soviet Union, which vanished in one day. All of that can vanish. But what will not vanish is the possibility for a country to be for the first time a real country of creolization.

And how does creolization play out, already, in the world around us? How does it affect our interactions with each other and the way we organize our lives? I remember in an interview in Le Monde, you described a creolization happening in cities around the world. You said that amongst the children of Rio, Mexico, and the Parisian outskirts, we’re seeing the emergence of languages of the street, creolized languages. The outskirts are like those zones of islands where the water meets the sea. How does that come about?

Young people today have a new sensibility for language. Even if they listen to a language that they don’t understand, they know it can enhance the spirit of their own. They speak with the knowledge that there are other languages in the world. I laugh and I’m sad when people say that English is the only language. If English becomes the only language, it will die. Because one language cannot live alone; it would be an international code, without obscurity or diversity. Ten years ago, I decided to stop speaking English, because it is not the future of humanity — and it’s our duty to preserve multiplicity. In cities that are born abruptly, like Brasilia, there is no intermixing of languages. But in old cities — like in Paris, in the banlieues, or on the streets of Rio, Lagos, or Dakar — there is such a possibility. Is there a slang specific to New York or Harlem? Maybe, but the slangs of Rio, of Paris, of Lagos, of Dakar, are very long-lasting and constantly evolving. It’s like an energy that is perpetually consumed, that’s what happens in the old cities. In those cities, the official language — French, English, Spanish — is not the natural mother tongue. And so, we find new languages that are Creoles of the official language and the natural language — because there is regular contact, day after day. In the countryside, there are only dialects, because language distorts very slowly there. But in old cities, languages recreate themselves every day — they appear in the morning and die in the evening.

Because there is a sort of daily contact zone?

Yes, a contact zone. A sort of daily vibration that makes it so that the languages that crop up, the Creoles that crop up, are very strong Creoles, but also very unpredictable, changing rapidly, like patois. We might say that traditionally the city emerged from the countryside around it, either by constructing walls to protect itself, or by having what we call suburbs to facilitate a transition between the rural and urban. And thus, the city was constructed gradually, like a kind of blood that flows out of the countryside and coagulates. The city is a coagulation of what comes from the countryside. So old cities have these contact zones in architecture and language — they are places that allow for mixing and exchange. But what’s interesting is that this is not true for abruptly born cities, those sudden cities that have no connection to the countryside, no connection to the environment.

So the future, our future, cannot lie in these sudden cities. They’re « cut-off » in a way.

Cut off, yes, but not cut off by walls or by suburbs — cut off in the absolute. Many cities built today, in China for example, are constructed in the middle of swamps, where people rot. We are seeing the emergence of cities that don’t have venules, that don’t have little veins that run outside of the city. The inhabitants of those cities have no idea what’s going on elsewhere.

Like the phenomenon of New York, for example the culture of which, Rem Koolhaas noted, was born from its architecture.

Yes, they are ignorant cities, self-sufficient cities. In general, they are cities that can bypass the world and the idea of the world, and that’s the tragedy of today, because the fact that those cities are perfectly autonomous gives them a tremendous audacity to establish themselves, to rise. But they have no continuity with any past. So I wonder whether they are cities that will last and endure. The cities I’m talking about consume their time immediately. Does a city have an obligation to withstand time? Perhaps not.

Perhaps the city is ephemeral...

Limited, ephemeral, in such a way that it must restart elsewhere, or restart in the same place. In the end, these are cities that change, cities of total metamorphosis, while old cities experience a very slow metamorphosis, giving them time to evolve. It also brings about a new way of visiting cities. There’s a huge difference between how we visit sudden cities like New York — in which we are continually shaken from top to bottom, alongside the city itself — and old cities, like Paris or certain African cities — where we can stand alongside the past and the present. Like all the people of the Antilles, this question interests me because we have cyclones every year, or nearly, and one of the characteristics of cyclones is that they destroy houses. And we have earthquakes. And one of the characteristics of earthquakes is... well, that they destroy houses. And so, the interest in fleeting architecture is permanent in a country like mine.

« Dans l'archipel Caraïbe »

Thinking about the Antilles and the archipelago that is so central to your writing, what can writers do for their cities? I spoke to Orhan Pamuk who told me that Istanbul was perhaps invented by Gérard de Nerval. Is that possible? Can writers invent cities and is that their responsibility?

We can say that there are writers who evoke cities, but they evoke cities that already exist, which is to say that the writers wring out the significance of the city, its spirituality. I don’t think that Gérard de Nerval invented Istanbul, but he signaled to the general public what was distinctive about Istanbul. The great ancient cities have always been accompanied by their literature. François Villon, in the fifteenth century, was a writer of the city because he was a writer of Paris, and the writers of seventeenth century Paris were too. Incidentally, they knew nothing of the countryside or of the provinces. And then Balzac, in the nineteenth century, and then Proust. But cities are also known for things other than literature, for example: songs, folklore. Outside of literature, all these things created an image of a city.

These images of cities are often more persistent than the cities themselves. Typically, it seems we think of the city replacing the countryside. But maybe we don’t think about the countryside anymore because it’s hard to represent it, to write it. What are its forms? And is it our future?

Ultimately, I am a writer and so my perspective on this is a literary one: there is a literature of the plantation, of the countryside, that of Faulkner… And even Tolstoy. Well, War and Peace is a relentless back and forth. It’s not only a book of war and peace but also a book of the countryside and the city. The essential element of the book is the capture and liberation of Moscow. And there is also a literature of the city, like what Dos Passos tried to create. It’s a crushed literature, a broken literature. It’s not coherent like War and Peace. It makes me wonder if what will happen next in the countryside, in architecture, and in literature will be an amalgamation — a synthesis — or instead, a total break. It seems more likely to be the latter, because the countryside is disappearing from everywhere in the world. Even when it is still there, it has no fundamental presence in relation to the city anymore. And, as a result, the architecture of cities, at this point in time, in my opinion, tends toward two things: a total audacity, and, despite that, a nostalgia for what was there before, which is to say the countryside. Or else we might see a self-sufficient architecture resulting from this total break, an architecture of the autonomous and fleeting city, in which there is no need for the material or the buildings to last for centuries. Either way, I believe that architecture and language will be the two means of resistance in the future, of absolute invincible resistance.

How does this relate to the archipelago? What kind of architecture is required in our archipelagic world?

First we must consider that up until now, architecture has had a single commonality: the monument. The purpose of architecture has always been to show, to claim a space, and the monument is proof of that. Perhaps in our world today, our archipelagic world of relation and rhizomes, the basis and the role of architecture will no longer be to show the monument, but to show the invisible. The aesthetic of the invisible brings us back to the aesthetic of the void and the infinite, which need not produce anguish, but hope. That could be the new ambition of architecture.

Top portrait: Édouard Glissand by Ulf Andersen

« à Hans Ulrich, sous le regard de mon Dieux »
« dans tout ce Sud du monde... »
« Dans l'archipel Caraïbe »