Migration and Mondiality

Interview with Edouard Glissant, by Landry-Wilfrid Miampika

Paris, 29 June 2002
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Martinique poet, novelist and philosopher Edouard Glissant offers an enlightening interpretation of the issues involved in cultural globalisation. Through his reflection on migration, exile and wandering – as necessary prerequisites for understanding Creolisaton in the face of globality (rather than globalisation) -Edouard Glissant proposes ways of resisting the current standardisation of cultural values by focusing on artistic and literary imagination.

What does the word « migration » evoke for you?
Firstly, personal experience, that is, successive waves of migration from the Antilles to France. This type of migration is very unusual because since 1946 people from the Antilles have been French citizens and are even called upon to work for the French government as customs agents at the Orly and Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airports, as theatre nurses or for the postal services. As a result, immigrants from the Antilles have a privileged status compared with other immigrants in France, such as the Portuguese, Senegalese or Africans in general. Of course, their living conditions, while being a little better, are more or less the same since people from the Antilles are concentrated in poor suburban housing projects like Sarcelles or Créteil, a bit like everyone else. However, their situation isn’t as bad the others’. That would be my first observation.
My second observation is that the very condition of being an immigrant is pretty bad all over the world. Except in countries where the status of being an immigrant is, in some way normal, like in the US where everyone is an immigrant. When you’re walking around New York no one can tell anyone to « go home » in the way a French person can to an African, or a German to a Turk or an English person to a Nigerian. In New York, you can’t say that because everyone is an immigrant. So, there the immigrant’s condition is more normal except that immigrants often – like the poorer sectors of the population – have more trouble finding work. As a result, their basic financial situation still invites discrimination. In Europe immigrants have a far from enviable status.
My third basic observation is that there are two attitudes to immigrants in most European countries: the first is total rejection (the fascist position). The second is to expect the immigrant to conform fully to the norms, rules and even customs of their new country. I think that’s a big mistake because what makes a country great is not its military or economic power but rather it’s capacity for accepting foreigners. This has to go so far as to accept of that immigrants have a fundamental right to cultural expression, that they should be able to retain their culture – while adapting to the conditions of their new home country, of course. Cultures adapt and that’s what I call « creolisation » but total integration is a major error in my opinion. We therefore still have a long way to go. I don’t mean economically, but rather in making it possible for a community in a given country to exercise their cultural freedom.
There has always been migration – since ancient times, in all cultures and throughout the history of all peoples. Why are people more afraid of migration these days? Especially in Europe, where fear of the immigrant Other is manifested by the rise of extreme right wing groups?
Because today the migrations are bigger than they ever were. In ancient times, the concept of a country shut off in itself that has to defend itself against an invasion of poor wretches simply didn’t exist. Back then, immigrants were often slaves and the other tribes or nations needed slaves. Likewise, at the turn of the century, immigrants took all the lowest jobs. They were street cleaners, road workers and factory workers. For example, after the Second World War, France needed North African, African and Antillian immigrants to work in the Renault factories and build roads so they put out a call for immigrants. Today, however, the quota of basic workers has been filled and the influx of immigrants is seen as a menace, especially since something is happening that never happened before. Immigrants now come with claims to their own culture and have pride. This wasn’t the case previously. This therefore causes conflict and resistance. On the other hand, the financial conditions in African, Asian and Latin American countries have deteriorated dramatically and there is a considerable influx and immigration pressure on European countries, which are seen as means of salvation. And now there are Eastern European immigrants as well. We still haven’t found a way of balancing out this phenomenon, which leads to all the kinds of excesses we find today. Ultra-nationalism is an example of this. It occurs when people succumb to the temptation to turn inwards, to close the borders and stop the poor and the destitute from entering the country.
What difference is there between the terms « migrant », « emigrant » and « immigrant »?
« Migrant » is a more general term. Some who moves to another country and has all the power of their money behind them can be a migrant. An emigrant could be considered a more or less temporary visitor who stays indefinitely, whereas an immigrant is someone who is driven by poverty or need. Immigrants are the people that are watched for at the borders and who are stopped. The Europeans who immigrated to the United States were emigrants, for example. They were also immigrants because they were forced to immigrate because of poverty. However, they were also emigrants because they were not turned away at the border. They were allowed to go to the United States and work. Basically, I’d say that an emigrant is an immigrant who has work and integrates into a given society.
Where the Americas and the Caribbean and are concerned, you talk about the « naked migrant », the « founding or armed migrant » and the « family or domestic migrant »?
On the American continent in general, there are three sorts of migration. There were the « armed migrants » who arrived on the Mayflower with their canons, guns and other weapons. These immigrants are behind North American capitalism. And there were those I call the « domestic migrants » who came with their pots and pans and photos of family back home and who probably created the commercial capitalism of the South. These are the Italians and the Chinese. Then there were the « naked migrants », that is, migrants who came with nothing, who were totally destitute and had lost everything – their instruments, their customs and their Gods. These were the African slave immigrants. As a general rule the « armed migrant » created what is known as « Euro-America », that is Canada, the United States and probably one or two South American countries, like Chile and Argentina whose constitution was very European. The « naked migrant » gave birth to « Neo-America », that is, Creole America, the America of Creolisation – Brazil, the Caribbean, and part of Mexico. These three groups also overlap. In Euro-America, the « naked migrants » are the black Americans. However, everything is intermingled and interwoven and we haven’t yet started to really define the structures and chains of various types of migration.
How is migration different from exile and wandering, two other notions that often come up in your works?
Wandering is always a lifestyle choice, whereas migration is often provoked by need. Wandering is a choice, a way of thinking or living. I don’t necessarily mean that people choose to wander, but there is a tendency to consider wandering as a value rather than a need. Migration is something different – you’re really forced into migration either out of financial need or political need. You flee the situation in your own country and, it’s not the same thing as a consequence. Exile is something that can affect both the migrant and the wanderer. The feeling of exile comes from a feeling of « non-need » in your new country, that is, the feeling that in the new country you can’t rebuild the cultural conditions of your life in your country of origin. It’s then that the feeling of being exiled comes into play.
So would you say that « Creolisation » and « narration » are the consequence of migration?
Absolutely. But not just of migration. You can feel like you’re wandering in your own country. That’s what I call an inner exile. You can be in your own country and never have travelled anywhere else; you can stay there, and still be cut off from the movement of the country. A lot of people are in inner exile in their own country, that is, they can’t adapt to the conditions there. Creolisation can occur when someone who is in their own country and can’t get used to it, starts dreaming of elsewhere, even if they don’t move, even if they don’t leave. That person then starts to undergo a process of creolisation. And their creolisation intensifies through contact with other cultures. However, contact between cultures is not only caused by migration. Contact between cultures can occur through television, film and eating habits that change. You don’t need to emigrate to undergo creolisation. Creolisation has no moral rules. It comes in all sorts of forms. There is no good or bad creolisation.
Are political and financial measures capable of stemming migration, and should Europe continue to be scared of foreigners?
Those kinds of measures can’t stop migration. The only way to stop migration is to fundamentally improve the living conditions in countries that are a major source of immigration. As long as the situation remains unchanged in Africa and Asia, there will always be migration. Border controls and laws against immigration won’t stop migration. If Europe did what it has to do, that is, stop exploiting third world countries and contribute to their development, migration would stop. Or it would be voluntary and wouldn’t create as much pressure as now. Regardless of how much they crack down on immigration, it will continue because the intellectual and financial conditions in Africa and Asia are such that people are pulled towards the mirage of Europe. In my opinion, there aren’t any measures capable of stopping immigration. The only solution is to make life normal in these countries. African countries aren’t normal from that point of view. They have immense natural resources and an unfathomable degree of poverty. Even if the West as a whole has a vague idea of what to do, Western countries are incapable of getting together to put their ideas into action.
Do you think that the presence of foreigners or of the Other in Europe is capable of modifying the concept that Europe has of its own identity?
Absolutely. Even if people aren’t aware of it, they’re changing. Europeans have, for example, stopped dancing the java. Now people dance to reggae and listen to rap. These days, there’s French rap and German rap and that necessarily changes people’s mindset. Even racists and fascists are influenced by the conditions under which immigration is expressed in Europe. In the United States, white fascists even dance like blacks. They don’t dance like the Swedish. There’s an entire process of impregnation and mixing, which means that things don’t stay as they are or were.
Are there any obvious reasons why the far right is gaining so much strength in Europe?
The obvious explanation is that everywhere people are used to a system of territorialisation and nationalism, which is an extremely powerful system because it has been around more or less since the 17th Century. All of Europe has experienced nationalism and territorialisation, which has lead to horrendous internecine wars. And because of all these experiences they can’t just suddenly accept the concept of sharing and exchange. It’s normal that there be a kind of surge of feeling and a rejection. And it’s going to continue for a while yet. You can’t just expect it to stop overnight. This very movement of exchange means that creolisation is implacable. And that, more and more, resistance to creolisation is going to shrink, and maybe even shrink considerably in size while gaining in intensity because the more the candle wanes, the more it shoots up flames.
You contrast globalisation with what you call globality. What is the difference?
For me it’s obvious. Globalisation means people’s living conditions in an All-World that has finally been achieved, a completely whole All-World. We know every inch of the map. There are no unknowns. There is no Terra Incognita. We know everything all that there is. Even if we don’t concretely understand the plight of the Amazonian Indians, we know about their plight. Of course, because of this something frightening happened– the way people were exploited changed. They were no longer exploited according to the rules of Colonialism, that is, invaded and their territory divided into military divisions. Now, trans-national companies that no one really knows, and whose core and real methods remain invisible, carry out financial exploitation. There is an invisibility about the systems of oppression, although the oppression itself is very visible because we can clearly see it for what it is. As a consequence, this globalisation is a kind of transfer of old forms of oppression by nations, to modern forms of oppression by systems that are both undetectable and invisible. Even if countries like the United States, China, Germany or the European powers appear to be decision-makers, we know that the decision-makers are not really in these places. We know that people that we never hear about make the real decisions. Therefore, globalisation is a reduction from the bottom up, that is, an attempt to make the entire world have the same desires, whether for food or in sport. As a result, we try to even out the constituents of creolisation from the bottom up, that is, to make the Chinese dress the same as Lapons, and Lapons dress like the French, and the French like the Senegalese. We are made to consume internationalised products that everyone consumes. For example, on TV, everyone has seen Dallas at some time or other. Everyone has consumed products that were not particularly distinctive other than the fact that they are acceptable to everyone. That’s what globalisation is about.
Would you say that globality is the best solution for countering or reacting against this terrible globalisation?
The best way of reacting is to not confine ourselves within the boundaries of our own identity and its specificities. To my mind, the best way of fighting globalisation is with the poetics of globality, that is, to tell ourselves and know that it is only by pooling the imaginaries of the entire world that we’re going to be able to fight against the downward spiral and bottom-up equalisation inherent to globalisation. Globality is therefore the feeling that my imaginary and the imaginary of my neighbour meet, that they complete each other and mutually provoke exchange. It is in this exchange, in this mutual completeness, that we will find a space to live out our diversity, while ensuring that our diversity fits with that of others. The poetics of globality are the opposite of globalisation. Globalisation is therefore the negative side of globality, which is a poetic of today’s All-World.
What can countries do if they are to an extent technologically inferior in order to resist the standardisation of values imposed on them by globalisation?
This is a factual, punctual problem. It is likely that in many countries people are being worn down by an excess of technology that they have no control over. We will find the solution in refusing the technology imposed on us. It may take a wealth of imagination for the communities upon whom technology is imposed to find their own path within this framework. A lot of small countries are doing this. Yesterday I saw a TV documentary about the Isle of Mann. The Isle of Mann is situated between England and Ireland in the North Sea. It’s very remote but has managed quite remarkably to impose itself, with its scenery and nature, as a leading filmmaking venue. In the same way, at one time, Pacific countries imposed themselves as IT hubs. They were so successful in this that they succeeded in preserving their culture and found a way to use their culture to make a living. In other words, they didn’t reject globality, but rather they tried to work around globalisation. This may be successful or it may fail, but in any case it seems to me that in this sense, people have to go with it, that is, use globality to protect what they’ve got.
On a financial level, globalisation is often summed up as liberalism?
Globalisation is the totally negative and pernicious side of what I call globality. As a result, globalisation is synonymous with multinationals, and the multinationals represent neo-liberalism, that is, a system in which the strongest always win. However, globality shouldn’t be placed on a par with globalisation. Globalisation is totally negative. There is no advantage to globalisation.
Do you think that despite its negative impact, globalisation could provide a chance for continents like Africa to gain access to technology?
This is an indispensable condition. However, you have to access technology with the belief, conscience and lucidity that this access should be adapted to the conditions of the country. This is an advantage if you can adapt the book or the Internet to the conditions within the country.
Maryse Condé said that negritude was for black cultures an initial form of globalisation because blacks from all over the world were trying to unite in a single project.
I don’t know much about Maryse Condé’s ideas. I think that negritude, as a movement, was totalist and globalist. This is some of what I reproach it for. As far as negritude is concerned, all blacks are the same. As the whites said at the beginning of the century, all blacks look alike. In my opinion, a black Brazilian is not the same as a black American or a Senegalese black. There are differences. The generalising, globalising nature of negritude is, to my mind, outdated.
Today, the rich European countries are united in a single policy, a single economy and a single currency, whereas Africa hasn’t succeeded with Pan-Africanism.
Pan-Africanism failed because Africa tried to build this project from an ideological point of view. Europe implemented theirs concretely, with real foundations – the currency. Of course, [the single currency]was rejected by some countries but Europe didn’t have an ideology such as Europeanism. Europe has always considered itself to be an economic and social mechanism totally unrelated to ideology. Pan-Africanism couldn’t have worked because it’s pure ideology and doesn’t take into account the real conditions of each country.
Could Pan-Africanism be reworked in a much more real and pragmatic way to give new meaning to Africa’s history? Or, as a project, could it feed what South African President, Thabo Mbeki, called the African renewal.
That’s what we’re hoping for. We keep telling ourselves that it might work, but I’m not sure it can because the conditions in each country are not what you might think. The world is unpredictable and the many Africas are unpredictable too.
Should we rethink the Nation State and ethnicity within the context of this new project for Africa?
In my opinion we have to go beyond the nation state. Africa’s misfortune is that it decolonised along the lines of nation states. And immediately afterwards, these nation states began fighting each other, killing each other and cutting each other’s throats when Africa’s cultural genius, in my opinion, doesn’t adhere to the concept of the nation state. For example, the great African empires were sorts of confederations that integrated the idea of nation-peoples, but not the idea of nation-states. With decolonisation came nation states, largely under the influence of the former colonisers who defined their characteristics and borders. It appears to me that one of the major dramas of decolonisation in Africa is the creation of nation states that in no way correspond to African culture.
September 11 could be seen as a catastrophe in the history of the United States. What are the consequences for globalisation, migration and identity?
I think we’re still thinking along 19th or 20th Century lines. I think that the world is unpredictable. I think that anything can happen anywhere. It’s something that we’re not used to. Five minutes before the fall of the Soviet Union, no one would have dreamed that it would implode. Three seconds before the first strikes to the Berlin wall, no one would have thought the Berlin wall would fall. The economic powers are incredibly fragile. The United States could also implode. We all now live with the perspective, or at least the possibility of disaster striking at any moment. This could be economic disaster, natural disaster, political disaster or military disaster. So, the very idea of disaster is fundamental to us. We have to learn to live with this idea: what do we do if disaster strikes? For example, when there was the earthquake in Lisbon in the 17th Century, if they hadn’t read Voltaire’s texts, no one else in Europe would have known about it. Now, when there’s a flood in China, we know about it instantly. We even know how many victims there were. Our sensibilities are impregnated with it. There have always been floods but we didn’t know about them. Our conscious wasn’t impregnated with them. September 11 was all the more shocking because disaster struck at the centre of world domination. These days we live with the idea that disaster can strike in the form of political or military disaster or horrendous fires.
In the face of inevitable migration, in the face of globalisation – which you contrast with globality and unpredictable disasters – how can literary or artistic poetics construct or deconstruct a new human imaginary?
I think that given the current conditions, hope lies in the mind, and as a consequence, art and literature should propose radical changes to the imaginary of human kind. The first change is that identity can no longer be fixed, definitive or exclusive. This is what I summarise by saying, « I can change by changing with the other, without losing myself and without compromising myself. It’s hard to imagine and it’s hard to accept, and I think this is the role of art, literature and thought to provoke this change, which is fundamental and without which no other change would be possible. I don’t believe any political, military, economic or cultural solution is possible in this world without this change to the imaginary. The second change to the imaginary is the suggestion that we have to give up on the idea that we’re going to plan the world, that we’re going to foresee everything and anticipate solutions. Western thought has existed since the 17th Century with the idea that you have to know the world in order to be able to change it. However, we now know that we can’t know the world because it’s unpredictable, because it’s disastrous. We can’t know the world because ours is a world of chaos. The third way to change the imaginary is to relinquish the idea that we’re going to wholly know the world to change it. And it seems to me to be in thought and literature that we can begin to put these functions, these changes to humanity’s imaginary into action.

* Cf, Maryse Condé, « Globalisation et diaspora », Afrique: regards croisés, regards pluriels, issue 184 of the journal Diogène, Gallimard, Paris, 1998, pp. 29-36.///Article N° : 5677


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