Édouard Glissant’s Right to Opacity in Practice

Join us on Wednesday, November 29, for an in-person lecture and discussion with Benjamin P. Davis and moderator Souleymane Bachir Diagne. To access the reading for the lecture, please click here.

Date: November 29, 2023 

Time: Lunch served at noon. Lecture and discussion beginning at 12:15 pm.

Location: Common Room (2nd Floor) of The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities

Columbia University
East Campus Residential Center
New York, NY 10027

Please RSVP here.

Abstract: In several places across his work, the Martinican poet, novelist, and essayist Édouard Glissant calls for a “right to opacity,” which he vaguely explains as that which protects diversity across humankind. In this way, Glissant’s right to opacity could be understood as a standard cultural rights claim. But in his 1997 Treatise of the Whole World, Glissant adds about the right to opacity, “Let it be a celebration.” Because activists and lawyers frequently invoke rights claims, the traditional sites of human rights practice are often thought to be oppositional protests and international courtrooms. How, then, could a rights claim be a celebration? In this talk, I will suggest that recent prayer camps at Standing Rock and on Anishinaabe treaty land in northern Minnesota expand how we understand theories of cultural rights. When the celebrations at prayer camps are included as sites of practicing rights, critical theory gains a wider imaginary for understanding and transforming the relationship between the state and social movements. Further, attending to the orientations at the camps, ordinary citizens are called to live differently in our everyday lives. I will ultimately suggest that these rights claims, as first situated amidst the land, are part of honoring what Glissant calls “a modern form of the sacred.” Thought this way, the right to opacity resonates with the German critical theorist Ernst Bloch’s radical reading of natural law as connecting right and revolution, law and utopia. And thought this way, the right to opacity could be a tool to connect and organize across struggles that, without a larger guiding framework, by and large remain fragmented and unconnected performative assemblies.  

Speaker Bio: Benjamin P. Davis is a Postdoctoral Fellow in African American Studies at Saint Louis University. He is the author of Choose Your Bearing: Édouard Glissant, Human Rights and Decolonial Ethics as well as of Simone Weil’s Political Philosophy: Field Notes from the Margins. With Kris F. Sealey, he is the co-editor of the forthcoming Creolizing Critical Theory: New Voices in Caribbean Philosophy.

Moderator Bio: Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a Professor of French and Romance Philology; Director of the Institute of African Studies; Department of French and Romance Philology at Columbia University. He received his academic training in France. An alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he took his Ph.D (Doctorat d’État) in philosophy at the Sorbonne (1988) where he also took his BA (1977). His field of research includes Boolean algebra of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature.