Reconstructing Ruin as Future: Rethinking the Spatiotemporality of Race and Gender in Glissant and Spillers' Middle Passage
2021, Vol. 13 No. 03 | pg. 1/1
Intersecting Edouard Glissant’s poetics with Hortense Spillers’ theory of race, gender, and sexuality alchemizes a new conception of the Middle Passage’s spatiotemporality. With the slave trade haunting the living, this paper attempts to orient a rupture in the fabric of spacetime, through which implosion leads to a new future. The destructive and destabilizing abyss of the Middle Passage, in itself, creates a philosophy of alterity, where linear, universalizing logics of the West become ruin through which new paradigms emerge. In Poetics of Relation, Glissant delineates three distinct loci for these metamorphoses. Memory abyss, through which culture and language dissipate, enabling an ethics of anti-colonial opacity. Ocean abyss, through which death and disorientation create a future that necessarily arises out of past trauma. And, finally, womb abyss, through which subjectivity turns to flesh. Glissant’s discourse can be interwoven with Spillers’s discourses of gender in Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: Spillers posits that the severance of patrilineality and the dehiscence of the gendered subject to ungendered flesh enables monstrosity, and therefore living laboratories for the formation of queer relationality. This paper thus outlines a philosophy of trauma and identity, in which the annihilation of colonial universalism creates openings for novelty and change, unbounded by hierarchy and structural oppression. In a world haunted by the horrors of the past and present, Glissant and Spillers offer a way to move forward, a radical invitation to a new and unknowable future, seedlings nourished by the past’s soil.
The first abduction began an unbeginning, a transformation that annihilated and generated with equal fervor. The theft of black bodies from West Africa by Portuguese sailors at the eve of the Atlantic Slave trade, an initial moment of contact between the white, European man with the Other, established a strict hierarchy; centered around the self with unwavering hegemony, this solipsistic encounter constructed identity via remarkable differences in skin color (Spillers 66). From then on, melanin became the demarcation between humanity and non-being per the West’s violent coloniality. Within this cruel episteme, black African bodies are transformed into slaves—instrumentalized property for capital production and world-building. As New World expansionism and resource exploitation accelerated, once semi-humane transportations of slaves across the Atlantic, in small quantities and open-air decks morphed into horrifically deep holds beneath the slave ship where enslaved persons were packed like inanimate cargo (Little, 2018). Disease, excrement, and hunger seeped and permeated throughout these spaces, inducing death and physical deterioration so distressing that more than 15% of captive bodies die during their trans-Atlantic journey (Cohn, 1985). Cultures, families, and customs were permanently disrupted, as sociality fragmented and the oppressive universality of Christendom and its logic of globalizing colonial empire reinscribed an binding legal code among subjects. In the wake of historical violence and stolen time, Caribbean thinker Édouward Glissant (1928-2011) theorizes a geographical philosophy of difference to imagine new futures which might emerge from the past, while black feminist Hortense Spillers conceptualizes being for black women both during and after the Middle Passage. Placing Spillers alongside Glissant, violence and the slave ship become sites of ungendering, configuring a form of being lingering on the margins between life and death, engendering liberatory identities that allow for queer origins. Within and beyond the torment of the Middle Passage and the slave ship exists the abyss, a site of simultaneous becoming and unbecoming that disrupts linear and subsequent filiations with trauma, loss, and vertigo, creating out of irretrievable pain fecund apertures of Relation and subjectivity, and for Spillers, a fundamentally altered phenomenology of blackness along with a geographical and historical cosmology.For Glissant, the Middle Passage can be symbolically represented as a bilateral fibril with a singular, static line between two ends—Africa and the Caribbean (5). Culture, history, and social connection expand, grow, and bifurcate into complex structures on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, connected by the invariable oceanic segment which is analogous to connective tissue that vehicularize the “body” of the slave ship. In this straight, incessant line, African history converges into symbolic absence, its fibers bundled and destroyed, transformed into a single line. At the other shoreline of the ocean, nothingness unfurls and germinates into elaborate new roots, a new creation arises from the Middle Passage’s reservoir of potential, internally filled with the chaos of everything yet nothing at once. Within this schematic, the trans-Atlantic journey of the slave ship is a site of annihilation and genesis, unbecoming and becoming, its uncompromising trajectory consisting of contradictory processes: irresolvability which constitutes Caribbeaness. Drawing from those lived experiences, Glissant claims that the slave trade irreversibly transformed philosophy and thought; for him, the Middle Passage presents one of many abysses, or “painful, traumatized, and traumatizing past[s] disconnect[ing] us from disconnection” within history (Drabinski 10). Akin to the fibril’s anatomy of forced convergence and liberating divergence, however, the abyss “can become so saturated with sadness that it drowns expression at the same time that one thinks of the beauty of inheritance, survival, and creation,” capable of beginning from the context of loss (Drabinski 26). Abyssal foundations are uniquely geographical, ungrounded spaces of free fall contextualized within specific history; thus, there exists three forms of abyss within the Middle Passage: the memory abyss, oceanic abyss, and womb abyss, all localized topologies of loss and difference.
The abyss profoundly alters memory, severed from the past and now volatile, mercurial reactions where states transform in operations of coexisting decay and formation to dynamic equilibria. In the abyssal Middle Passage, “language vanish[es], the word of the gods vanish, and the sealed image of even the most everyday object...vanish. The hounded scent of ochre earth and savannas” (Glissant 7). Phenomenological knowledge of the past dissipates for the abyssal subject, becoming ghostly milleus from which only faint contours can be remembered and traced. The agony of remembrance in the slave ship, then, lies in the irreplaceable sense of place and history which the traders tore away. The enslaved person can never hope to regain their home—the plantation constitutes an inescapable prison. Ingrained within codified law and social ordering, the black subject cannot expect to return to their home or become free, entrapped within a cruel existence. Trauma suffocates remnants of intelligibility within memory, its merciless affliction unexplainable by reason and language alone (Drabinski 25). The Holocaust, Middle Passage, and Plantation become evocative memories whose essentially traumatic character elude overarching, chronologically progressive historical discourse; nevertheless, they transform history permanently. Glissant claims that “you still preserve on your crests the silent boat of our births, your chasms are our own unconscious, furrowed with fugitive memories” (7). In this sense, the abyss propagates beyond the immediate sensation of pain and becomes constitutive of memory itself, its existence far outlasting its onset. Its affect and effect ring out spatially and temporally, on territories where new beginnings have blossomed; America, founded on land tilled and tended by enslaved subjects and indigenous genocide, is haunted by the Middle Passage’s looming shadow forever. Consequently, recollection is collective, the descendants of abyss becoming unconsciously informed by its function as “the alluvium for [transformative] metamorphoses” (Glissant 7). Then, the abyss is not only the trauma of the past but the locus of change, fertile soils where seeds of imagined futures sprout. Populations which formed out of the abyss, whether they understood the ravaged trails of those who came before them or met unrooted inhabitants first deported from stability, wove a sail of hope out of free will, in utter contrast with the despairing sails of the Middle Passage (Glissant 7). Bounded in a genealogy of negation and forceful dispossession, they sail “this undreamt of the sail, finally now spread… watered by the white wind of the abyss… the absolute unknown… in the end became knowledge” (Glissant 8). The abyss’s breeze is colored white, signifying a void composed of nothing, yet infinite potentiality, the destabilization of meaning and history and an omen for what is to come. While the murky abyss irreversibly destroys intelligibility within it, a new method of knowing forms aboard out of chaos, the re-emergence of subjects outside it generates a new episteme, a form of shoreline thinking which lingers in the liminal zone between land and sea, transient and destabilizing while prolific and expanding. Knowledge becomes “whole, greater from having been at the abyss and freeing knowledge of Relation within the Whole” as well as specific to the suffering, delight, and knowledge of one people (Glissant 8). Relation becomes an ethics of alterity, through which interaction and difference could function together in liberated harmony. This denotes a geography of reason, constructing specific and interrelated ways of knowing, accounting for difference while creating dense unity among sites of knowledge production. As such, the structure of knowledge becomes rhizomatic: bundles of roots horizontally dispersed throughout soil, vegetation springing from certain nodules, each nodule connected to the other through joint roots. This starkly contrasts with the arborescent thinking of the Enlightenment West, where knowledge originates from basic, assumptive truths through which every other piece of information is learned, growing vertically like a tree and branching out into specificities of knowing. Instead, a rhizome has no origin nor end, each nodule of geographic knowledge thoroughly linked to the next, resistant to destruction (Deleuze & Guatarri, 3). In this way, abyssal memory opens a form of knowing and Relation which enables dynamic multiplicities and obstructs the vertical nature of domination. Thus, the fundamental nature of Relation mutates, from a line bridging two elements to complex correlates residing in both tangible materiality and the inexplicable trauma of the abyss, a synchronic existence that permits poiesis.
The ocean is oxymoronic, an abyssal expanse of death and birth that envelops two shorelines of golden sand, a tautology of beginning. As the slave ship departs from African coasts, setting off onto turbulent waves and fraught undulations of the Atlantic current, land shrinks beyond the horizon, the ocean embracing the ship in a vast, open landscape of water and sky. Enslaved subjects, packed the slave ship’s voidal belly, experience the motions of the ocean, at times stormy and violent and others lulling and asphyxiating. Some would become the ocean themselves. Unexposed to sailing and condemned by the ship’s belly, they experience the abject sensation of vertigo—a motion sickness marked by intense, dizzying feelings of disorientation. For Glissant, to envisage vertigo is to “imagine vomit, naked flesh, swarming lice, the dead slumped, the dying crouched,” a state of physical deterioration that produces delirium and disordering (5). Experienced internally through the cochlea even when the subject is unmoving, the vertigo begot by the Middle Passage and ocean is sustained, philosophically, long after the trans-Atlantic journey. The enslaved subject, deracinated from language, history, culture, and family, is physically and philosophically lost and directionless. From this spatial context, the abyssal subject necessarily abandon all understanding of the orientation of their reality (the belief that a common set of knowledge and signification exists for every rational being), universality (the belief that a set of moral laws dictates all of reality) and grounded reality; within the confines of the slave ship, senseless suffering and dizziness displaces the subject so that only the underbelly of the vessel and the ambiguous blue of sky and sea retain temporarily meaning. Signification and semiotics decompose, no longer “rational”—for how could the philosophical edifices of the very imperial entity which caused them pain explain the pain and lost that is felt at the verge of life and death, how would universality justify the state of exception in slavery? The transgression of the Middle Passage cannot logically justify itself against the humanity of its subjects, thus losing “rational” power in this mode of life.
As a result, the ocean abyss becomes existentially turbulent, unable to grapple with the subject’s occupancy of a specific location: within this confounded spatiality, archipelagic thinking is at once possible as a fragmented reality in which the specific lived experience of vertigo could be posited. During the Middle Passage, the sheer powerlessness of vertigo leads to the “most petrifying face of the abyss…far ahead of the slave ship’s bow, a pale murmur; you do not know if it is a storm cloud, rain or drizzle, or smoke from a comforting fire,” the unknown of the destination (Glissant 6). The “cargo” within the slave ship has no knowledge of location—there are no windows in the abyss, foreclosing the belly of the ship sensory perception’s externality, allowing only the sensation of tactile trauma. Psychical horror produced by the unknown is excruciating, for the Middle Passage can only be temporary while fate, the trajectory of the future, is immutable: a lifetime of suffering which can be extended indefinitely. Glissant clarifies that “there is no sense of arrival in-world… terror marks this birth as traumatic with the vanishing of the intelligible—it is ‘linked to the unknown’” (Drabinski 51). This affective bewilderment opens up a form of rhizomatic thinking that nullifies the intelligibility of current discourses, miscomputations in paradigm: legibility is no longer attainable in an abyss where indeterminacy is the way of life and thinking. It is possible to think only in affect and emotion. Thus, the abyss creates room for opacity: in dismantling oppressive structures of language with the unimaginable realities of brutality and paranoia, the abyss refuses impositions of Western intellect and revises a history that does not require legibility or legitimacy.
Lived vertigo disrupts temporality by means of confusion and complication. The existential disorientation and directionlessness of the Middle Passage rupture the continuous genealogy of time, rendering it to the mere passage of moments in the present. Glissant argues that “if legitimacy is ruptured, the chain of filiation is no longer meaningful, and the community wanders the world, no longer able to lay claim to any primordial necessity. Tragic action absorbs this unbalance… [in an] art of unveiling” (52). Thus, tragedy and trauma function as cathartic junctures within the temporality of succession—in the case of Hamlet, the “broken” line of succession demanded release. The fragility of linear time implies the mythicality of European genealogy, severed and disfigured by traumas of plague and war. The genealogy of Europe is all but a myth, severed and disfigured by traumas of plague and war. In this framework, “the future… offers less than nothing as wreckage within which a movement to the future can take root” and temporal movement is equated with the impetus of trauma to propel the angel of history forward (Drabinski 38). Therefore, temporality oriented always towards the trauma and wreckage of the past, moving forward only through pain and the ruinous remnants of violence. In the Middle Passage, for instance, “the entire ocean… make one vast beginning, but a beginning whose time is marked by… balls and chains gone green” (Glissant 6). Time in the Caribbean and Americas flow through the physical artifacts of the slave trade, marked by the gradual, viridescent oxidation of balls and chains that sunk flesh and bone deemed unhuman to the abyss of the sea. The green rust of metal symbolizes life, renewal, and energy, the conditions to which ruin serve as prolific force. In contrast, vertigo’s “swirling red” and “black sun” emblemize the mystery and violence of the slave ship, fiercely immediate and forceful. These differing tints reflect Glissant’s conception of temporality in trauma: the trauma’s lived experience is dehumanizing and deadly, transforming history with its abyssal darkness. However, “trauma is for the dead,” subtending the present through altering history and tearing an “utterly devastating absence” within the fabric of time for beginnings to materialize (Drabinski 52).
The Middle Passage is a womb, simultaneously the site of birth and death. The displacement of subjects from the African continent was “nothing yet” (Glissant 6). The Middle Passage’s horrors transformed the possibilities of the future, the abyss through which personhood and its associated properties metamorphosed into the terrifying unknown. From the moment the enslaved subject forcibly boards the ship, logic and lived experience become paradoxical, thoroughly disintegrating assumptive truths and inverting agencies through sublimation and deposition. The belly of the boat “dissolves you, precipitates you into a nonworld from which you cry out,” analogous to rebirth (Glissant 6). It’s the space of simultaneous (re)birth and unbecoming; the living, breathing human forcibly regresses to the status of embryo within the womb, a traumatizing experience which lyses knowable subjectivity. Such a process does not occur naturally; rather, it represents a new and mechanistic metaphysics of dehumanization, a “nonworld” which has germinated from the boat. It is worthy of note that not only does the thoughtful capacity of the subject unbecome and become, the entire organism transfigures: as such, the Middle Passage reforms the body alongside history and memory. Two free, autonomous feet are constricted in the unrelenting chains of bondage, sensual epidermis is altered to unfeeling, non-living skin on which lacerations, cuts, and gashes accumulate.
Within this womb, the subject pleads to be heard, suffocating an unwitting, inescapable imposition. However, cries can only ever arise out of despair, as “[the womb] generates the clamor of protests; [but] also produces all the coming unanimity,” a double-bind which adamantly seals lines of flight from the womb itself (Glissant 6). Such a condition induces a sense of cruel optimism, where resistance against the ship’s totality is ineffectual against the cargo’s unanimous fate —the spatiotemporal convergence into chattel, prisoners of the plantation. Although the subject is “alone in this suffering, [they] share in the unknown with others whom [they] have yet to know” (Glissant 6). This ontological ambiance structures relation and history in the new world, relating populations in diaspora with common descent from the Middle Passage, weaving connections that recover people from natal alienation. As “captive persons were forced into patterns of dispersal, beginning with the Trade itself, into the horizontal relatedness of language groups, discourse formations, bloodlines, names, and properties,” Relation among them becomes horizontal, rhizomatic, and rooted in exchange (Spillers 75). The nonworld of the slave ship, in addition to disrupting the hierarchical organization of culture and language, generates possibilities for hybridity analogous to the horizontal transfer of genes. Transformation enables plasmids of foreign knowledge integration in the subject, transduction allows the virality of loss and disease to spread among abyssal life on the verge of death, conjugation permits the reciprocal trafficking of knowledge directly between subjects. The pathology of infrahuman subjectivity within the womb capacitates the rapid evolution of sociality, novelty which responds to the agonizing environment of the Middle Passage.
The boat “repels” its children, birth that introduces subjects to a new shoreline and geography of time. As a womb, the slave ship gives birth to “as many dead as living under the sentence of death,” offspring destined for lives of pain and unfortunate ends. This ironic coexistence of birth and death underscore the disparate frameworks in which blackness is perceived: for the European colonizer, the slave ship productively generates endless stocks of capital and economized bodies. Yet, for the enslaved subject, the slave ship is an abject ruling of death, both literally and socially. Born into living death, the abyssal subject experiences “a loss of the sense of loss… Healing and reconciliation with the past vanishes as a teleology,” a parturition that severs and destroys (Drabinski 52). Thus, objectification begins within the hold of the slave ship, through which the body turns out as fungible property without claim to Western humanity—with this violence as a heuristic, Spillers intervenes and analyzes the lived phenomenology of black womanhood before, through, and after the Middle Passage.
The captive and liberated subject position is determined by its dehiscence of “body” and “flesh[:]” before the body, flesh, “the zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse” (Spillers 61). The captive subject expresses the phenotype of flesh, as an Other which occupies no position of subjectivity, pornotroped into space-occupying matter but not as agents able to influence time. As such, the process of ungendering begins, marked by the deconstruction of gendered bodies into sexualized flesh*. This occurs at several locations within the lived experience of the enslaved subject. First, as the abduction and kidnapping of the enslaved subject comes to the port where the slave ship was anchored, they are ungendered. In the blueprint of cargo in the slave ship, human bodies become fungible. In the belly of the ship, there is no segregation by gender or age; all bodies are packed alongside each other, different physical variations of the same commodity (Spillers 69). Complicating Glissant’s view of the abyss as a space in which only history and culture are unrooted, Spillers advances the argument that humanity as it is conceived, both in African and European contexts, is irreversibly transformed. In this quantification of the flesh, corporeality is determined by white gaze. The woman becomes “quantified by the same rules as her male counterparts,” counter to the sacralized separation of gender within the Eurocentric West, where gendered difference is all but socially and religiously ordained (Spillers 70). Since gendering “takes place within the confines of the domestic,” the abyssal subject is by essence ungendered, without access to the social spheres which construct its very concept. Further, gender is culturally defined by a “common origin” which situates personhood in a particular place, the deracination of the Middle Passage ruptures the fabric from which gender is formulated (Spillers 69).
In a confounding antimony, the slave ship came to be personified as “she,” though its cargo remains ungendered. Importantly, the abyssal womb was assigned a feminine connotation, even as Western epistemologies identify the origin of life and the universe as prototypically sexless, analogous to an egg (Puglia, 1980). The word “womb” by itself implies a keen interest and recognition of gendered difference; acknowledging that human ontogeny, and that of all eukaryotic organisms, is irrevocably maternal. This, along with the historical association of womanhood with “reproductive mothering” and a “patriarchilized female gender,” render gender in the slave ship (Spillers 71). Trauma arises out of the incompatible relation between the ship and its ungendered cargo when we examine the misogynistic treatment of women as a “factory” of life, and within the colonialist and capitalist framework, the reproduction of property—that which possesses no agency or culture, ungendered and unable to reclaim their previous identification. Bodies with wombs served as reproductive apparatuses through which the disoriented and disconnected subject emerges. There were no longer familial connections between the maternal and the child. In the abyssal metaphor, the connection between the maternal and its baby extends outside of the womb as a melancholic memory of unmanifested, unrealized relation and love. The slave ship symbolizes a mother ripped apart from her offspring and a maternal function ripped apart from a maternal subject—analogous to black motherhood’s lived experience in the New World. Maternity is fractured, shattered, and segmented, forced into a drastic powerlessness over filiation. Violence, then, becomes the pretext for maternity—the relegation of womanhood to dispossession of its children, un/gendering in terms of reproduction, and dehumanization—a radical difference resulting from Euro-patriarchal ways of existence. This upends the architecture of a linearized temporality. Western time functions in subsequent moments, one event leading to the next in a single hierarchy from past to present; in the context of Eurocentric patriarchy, filiation passed patrilineally without exception. However, this inheritance and descension come to be thoroughly fractured in the violent lived experience of blackness, where the “matriarchal” family structure becomes a “tangle of pathology” in the white gaze, a poison which inhibits the socioeconomic advancement of the race (Spillers 59). In a society that “presumes male leadership,” maternal lineage is conceived of as backwards and disadvantageous, infecting persons living under its structure. As a result, the black child becomes a bounded subject without relation, their lack of kinship underscoring the intentional structure of slavery to deprive them of the opportunity of inheritance through the paternal. They are opened to the “social ambiguity and chaos” of a denied family, thoroughly destabilized, their survival dependent upon the gamble of fate, a melancholic, empty landscape. Within the social violence of filiation, such a discontinuity becomes an opportunity for new ways of being to take place, deconstructing the hierarchy of European relation. In its place, a deprived subject cleaved from the web of kinship exists, unable to locate itself hierarchically and embracing the “anarchistic violence of clashing cultures'' which undoes legitimate succession (Glissant 61). Furthermore, blackness has been assigned a mythical time so ingrained and deeply overdetermined that “to speak a truer word [regarding blackness], [we] must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made and excess in time, over time” (Spillers 57). Ethnicity “freez[es] in [temporal] meaning” and taking on constancy. Race’s paradox resides in its contemporaneous dismissal as “belonging in the past'' and contemporary material impacts.
Violence is the origin of maternity and ungendering, deforming the universalized, rational contours of subjectivity, and carving, out of brutality, interstices through which imagination could appear. Violent theft of bodies from their birthplace “sever[s] the captive body from its motive will, its active desire… we lose at least gender differences in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become… absen[t] from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of ‘otherness’” (Spillers 60). In the reduction of subjectivity to bare life—flesh which is infrahuman—the properties of agency transmute. Their free will is displaced. Their desires exist in a contradictory state of erasure and hypersexualized impulse. Their identity defined by the white other, while teetering on the brink of collapse. The flesh, then, marks a harrowing space between life and death, the reduction of the human to living death. This biopolitics of the new world relegates black flesh to the status of animals, ripping apart the mythology of the protected, delicate female body. The sadistic crimes against the flesh “lacerate[d] the skin… tear[ing] out small portions of the flesh,” leaving in its place a hieroglyphics of the flesh—scar tissue, cuts, and brandings on the skin which mark the captive body (Spillers 61). Extrapolating from Spillers, for bodies to diminish to flesh, physical, ontological, and epistemological violence must rupture the skin, exposing the vulnerability of dermis underneath. It would appear that basic humanity presiding in language, corporeality, and history ought to be placed on the liminal space between life and death for eternity for the body to become flesh: only piercing brutality can produce such annihilation and genesis. The flesh, while physically marked, lost its dimensionality of ethics and personhood by virtue of lacking cultural inscription. Through this transformation of the body into flesh, “the slave ship, its crew, and its human-as-cargo stand for a wild and unclaimed richness of possibility” (Spillers 70). For although the lived experience of blackness remains prone to violent destruction, it generates fugitive perforations and gashes within the universe of white patriarchal dominance through which queer, feminist theory of difference could emerge. The abyssal Middle Passage reconfigures ungendered subjectivity to that which is undifferentiated in all respects but size and uninterrupted with social normativity. It is relentless negation from which the subject becomes void of coherent identity, partially detached from the constraints of rationality, capable of becoming everything yet nothing at the same time. Ungendering incinerates the pre-existent social spheres through which gender operates, opening up the possibility of gender outside the Western binary; the flesh, represented by an erasure of relational desire, enables new constructions of gender rooted in corrosive, hypersocial desire. In such a Relation, “the ungendered female, in an amazing stroke of pansexual potential—might be invaded/raided by another woman or man,” a position of vulnerability (Spiller 79). In the milleu of hypersociality, relation is horizontally structured, its subjects endangered but nonetheless capable of relation, a destabilizing condition which prompts the proliferation of difference. Gender and sexuality can no longer be affiliated with “dubiously appropriate, manageable, or accurate … familial arrangements,” a destructive drive which decenters the margin, weaving out of it an ontological spacetime of the margin in and of itself (Spillers 77). This new constitution of gender opens and unravels radically, unrestricted by static semiotics of Western linguistics, earning an articulation which creolizes expression and culture, an ineffable recombination which liberates the prison of language. The implosion of patriachilized filiation and nuclear family structure’s dissolution pave the way for queer interrelatedness, severed from reproductive futurity by virtue of its ungendered status. The flesh becomes a “living laboratory” in which the unrecognized subject can claim monstrosity, reclaiming lost autonomy and interrupting dichotomy’s convenient narrative, ascribing a space for transness and intersexuality (Spillers 85). The black female, uncontent in reincorporation into the colonizing hierarchy of the West, gains insurgent ground with the capacity to change and restructure society. Deemed a destructive monstrosity, black female empowerment gains a potential to be and become otherwise by interfering with politics and the cannibalistic appetite of Western discourse and dialectic. Within the ashes of temporal relation, ruins where maternity and social construction burnt and dismembered, queerness stands as the hypersocial impulse, an unstable but freeing future born out of abyss and pain, a coterminous violence and opening.
The abyss, as a womb birthing new filiations and shorelines, becomes the metaphysical origin of space and time itself. Thus, beginning becomes inextricably intertwined with the maternal. Continental ideas of origin are associated with the appearance of the real out of the vacuous, imaginary void, a birth out of infinitum externalities. On the contrary, Glissant’s elucidation of birth suggests a genesis brimming with water. As a geological and localized birth in the archipelagic space of the Caribbean, this birth is surrounded by ocean, inescapable from the amniotic fluid of ontology. This birth, drawn from water in the ocean, represents the shift towards change: water, having been upcycled through meteorological processes, living organisms, and contamination, creates a historical origin point. Life is formulated out of the very physical matter which materialized from the beginning of time, cradled in a continuous metamorphosis of form, never detached from the earthly universe. Aquatic beginnings signal a genesis inseparable from the past, instead constructed out of the very matter of the past, interpenetrated with the materiality of its trauma, joy, and history, bound to those preceding it. As such, the womb abyss itself is historically fabricated, fashioned out of the temporality of the present, informed by trauma and lived experience. Unattached to cisgender, female bodies, carrying an implicit modality of maternity within it which orients around formation, regardless of gender. Out of this fluid ontology emerges subjects composed of liquid, unknowable and constituted by queer desire that impel them towards each other. The unknown and the womb become synonymous, the infusion of novelty and creativity into new humanisms, compounded with the desperation of death and suffering.
Despite the annihilation which the Middle Passage instantiates, Glissant posits that creative potential emerges out of the ash and corpses it has left behind, a primary ecological succession which could start anew. In the estuary shorelines between streams and ocean resides the mangrove tree, knowing and being which originates from Glissant’s poetics. Drenched in saline water, threatened with decadent death by way of hypertonicity and necrosis, the mangrove lives, adapting to the geographical convergence between ground and sky, continent and sea. Roots which are suspended from soil, multiplicitous with no central relation. Its existence “intertwining time and sadness, the recurrence of beginning” in the new world, a poem of “death and life intertwined without melancholy” (Drabinski 48). The womb abyss has its roots submerged in water, drenched in the darkness of becoming, absorbing matter which would be transformed into nourishment and life for the mangrove. The roots converge into the ocean abyss’s trunks and branches: extend towards the sky, inwardly constructed of concentric rings, cortical artifacts of a past and history gone by and a future to grow from the past’s spatiotemporality. From the branches, brilliant, waxy green foliage vegetate, creations of the infinite memory abyss. Evergreen leaves become memory and history, expressions of vitality and futures that flourish and senesce in response to environmental trauma and stress, new leaflets germinating in its place. Star-shaped, milk-colored blossoms become hopeful openings, possibly producing bountiful fruit or decaying into brown organic matter, the sociality of politics, flowers of pain of ungendered flesh transforming into free, queer potentialities. Spillers diverts these delicate buds into intricate patterns among the branches, working through the very roots of the mangrove tree; her account of violence and the ungendered flesh complicates the Middle Passage as much more than lived experiences of pain and loss of loss in a psychical sense but the mutilation of subjectivity and ethics. For within this context and only this context can black womanhood be fully understood, her Relational alterity fully reckoned with the entire mangrove, her potentialities in the universe’s expanse fully realized. The mangrove sways in gentle winds and ruinous hurricanes of the Caribbean, the gentle currents and torrential waves, alive.
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Drabinski, J. E. (2019). Glissant and the Middle Passage: Philosophy, Beginning, Abyss. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
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