Césairean Transcripts

Counter-response by Yarimar Bonilla

[Prompt: Whither or Whether Postcolonial Sovereignty?]

As Gary Wilder’s elegant paper suggests, the historical juncture in which Aimé Césaire engineered the project of departmentalization was a time of political possibility. In the 1940’s decolonization had not yet been reduced to political independence, nor had it become the exclusive domain of the colonized. Indeed, as Wilder shows us, in many ways Césaire’s political cohort sought not just to decolonize the Antilles but to decolonize and de-imperialize the modern world.


Césaire in the present landscape

Césaire in the present landscape


But how are we to view Césaire’s legacy today? One entry point is to consider the mass labor strikes that unfolded in the French Antilles in 2009, about which I’ve written elsewhere

From January to March of 2009 a coalition of labor, civic, and cultural activists paralyzed Guadeloupean society for 44 days effectively carrying out the largest general strike in French history. The grievances of the 2009 movement index the many social and economic cleavages that continue to divide the mainland and the Outremer as well as the frustration that Antilleans feel with the inattention of the French government to these persistent inequalities. The political platform for the 2009 movement was a list of 120 demands geared at offsetting what activists described as la pwofitasyon – a polyvalent Creole phrase that semantically unites profit, exploitation, and abusive power. The coalition of actors that led the strike in Guadeloupe took on the name of Lyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (LKP), which can be loosely translated as the Alliance Against Profiteering.

At first blush the massive upheaval that shook the Outremer in 2009 might suggest that Césaire’s project has failed. Indeed, Césaire himself had expressed his discontent with departmentalization a mere decade after its implementation. By 1956, Césaire had begun writing and speaking critically about the failures of the project, and particularly of the refusal of the French government to provide not just abstract equality, but material socio-economic parity for its Antillean citizens. The 2009 search for greater “purchasing power” can thus be seen as a direct echo of the Césairean project.

Like Césaire, these contemporary activists eschew a search for political independence. Their political and economic landscape is however sharply distinct from that of their predecessor. Whereas in the 1940’s the political script of decolonization was yet to be written, in our contemporary moment postcolonial sovereignty has become a future past. Steeped as they are in the sober reality of their Caribbean neighbors, contemporary Antillean activists are well aware that both the projects of integration and independence have failed to deliver on their modernist economic and social promises – in the Caribbean and beyond. The strike of 2009 was thus an effort to move beyond the stale debates over political status in order to reimagine political possibilities that could transcend the confines of either a French or a Guadeloupean nation-state. However, the leaders of the movement recognize that they do not have the conceptual apparatus with which to define their new political horizon. They realize that they are in the process of prefiguring worlds that they cannot describe, much less guarantee, through the categories of decolonization and postcolonial sovereignty.

In their efforts to forge a new political project they often rely on the same political strategies as Aimé Césaire – even while never overtly naming him as an influence or model. Like Césaire, they engage in what Wilder describes as “Radical Literalism” through which they seek to re-constitute French Republican concepts, promises, and guarantees. Thus, while Sarkozy might have read their project as a separatist one, their demands were actually often couched in a search to transform abstract promises of “national solidarity” into material and economic policy that could effectively transform the quotidian life of the Antilles.

Like Césaire, these activists have forced French administrators to reimagine and transform their own political forms and institutions. In 2009 they literally summoned the minister of the Overseas Departments to sit at a negotiation table with his compatriots in Guadeloupe. They were thus able to stage historic negotiations between representatives of the national government, local governing bodies (the Regional and the Departmental Council), local elected officials (mayors and parliament members), and local business leaders – all of whom came together around a common table with representatives of a coalition of 49 different political and cultural associations. These historic 3-day negotiations were transmitted live on all television and radio stations and streamed on the Internet to a global audience.

At present it is still unclear what the long-term impact of the LKP will be. Although activists were able to sign historic agreements with employers, elected officials, and government representatives on 165 points of negotiation, these agreements have not been fully implemented. Four years after the general strike many participants feel disappointed by the gains of the movement. Many of the concessions that were won have proven difficult to implement, food prices have been lowered on some items but they have spiked on others, and promised development projects have failed to materialize. LKP leaders asserted that the strike had been “suspended” rather than completed, and in fact,the slogans on the t-shirts and banners that appeared at the end of the strike in Guadeloupe did not proclaim victory, but offered instead the ambiguous slogan: ayen pé ké kon avan (nothing will/can ever be like it was before). However, the fact remains that the LKP (and its leaders) have become important emblems of hope for social transformation in Guadeloupe. In a place where the traditional political formulas of independence and departmentalization had long lost their promise, the LKP sparked hope in an alternative model.

In many ways these activists are both the inheritors and the product of the Césairian project – they have inherited a world where decolonization has in many ways “failed” yet they have also inherited an approach to politics that is non-dogmatic, experimental, and simultaneously radical, pragmatic, strategic, and utopian. Their approach to political power – one that deploys negotiation as a mode of combat – speaks directly to the political pragmatism of Aimé Césaire. As Wilder states “The point is not that a pragmatist is willing to compromise on ends, but that he or she does not presuppose the necessary route to reach any given end.” Like Césaire these activists are unsure what the future holds, nor what maneuvers, discursive and otherwise, they will deploy to get there. Thus, although they may not claim it, I would argue that in many ways they draw heavily from the pages of a Césairean transcript past.


☞ See the rejoinder by Gary Wilder and/or leave your own response below!


10 thoughts on “Césairean Transcripts

  • Yarimar this is a fascinating little thought-piece that, like Gary’s, throws into relief the need to ask ourselves about the conceptual content of the Antillean languages of the political. We really have made no sustained inquiry into the ways in which European languages of political discourse translate — or don’t — into Caribbean political terrains. (Gary may not find Chatterjee’s idea of “political society” helpful, but the motivation, importantly, is to try to think through the slippages between our normalized languages of political modernity and the political specificities of various postcolonial realities.) And this curious fact becomes startlingly evident precisely in the interregnum in which the language of “independence” appears exhausted, and there is nothing coherent (nothing that does the kind of oppositional work around ideas about autonomy or self-determination we want to retain; nothing that won’t drive us into mere cosmopolitan complacency) with which to replace it. I always wonder, in such moments, whether we really know what we meant, in the first place, by such terms, whether we don’t need a genealogy that reconstructs (in the light of the present) the political uses of the language of sovereign independence. (Clearly this is one reason we feel the impulse to re-read Fanon’s “Les damnés de la terre”. What did he think he saw on the coming horizon? And why did he use the language he did to articulate his hopes and his fears?) I look forward to the discussion …

    • I very much agree with David Scott’s observation that both Gary Wilder’s and Yarimar Bonilla’s insightful pieces touch on “the Antillean languages of the political” and point to the “slippages between our normalized languages of political modernity and the political specificities of various postcolonial realities.” Though the question of “sovereignty” poses itself quite differently across the Caribbean, it is often similarly informed by the normalized language of political modernity (arguably the same holds true for other key modern political terms, such as “democracy,” “equality,” etc.). This is perhaps not inherently problematic, but the slippages between this normalized language and local realities often give way to particular uses (and misuses) that call for an Antillean language of the political beyond the normalized language and conceptual apparatus of political modernity. The urgency of this is evident to me in how, for example, the language of sovereignty is currently being mobilized by the Dominican government to defend its supreme court’s ruling on citizenship that will affect the legal status of hundreds of thousands Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/world/americas/dominicans-of-haitian-descent-cast-into-legal-limbo-by-court.html?_r=0). Indeed, evocations of the defense of Dominican “sovereignty” resonate more strongly in the country than the officialist evocation of the right to regulate immigration. While this latter justification is clearly articulated with an eye towards the U.S. and its current immigration debates, the language of sovereignty plays on an older political language that was powerfully wielded by the Rafael L. Trujillo dictatorship (1930-1961), but which also must be understood as a defiant response to U.S. imperialism, including to the 1916-1924 U.S. military occupation. In this sense, the current evocation of “sovereignty” in the Dominican Republic is, as Gary Wilder so usefully puts it, an “untimely” discourse. As Wilder states in his first post, “Untimely processes also lead social actors either to misrecognize or deliberately conflate one historical period for another, to act ‘as if’ they inhabited an epoch that had already passed or had not yet arrived. These untimely practices, unconscious and symptomatic or intentional and strategic, could serve either transformative or conservative ends.” The Dominican state’s strategic use of the untimely language of “sovereignty” is clearly put to conservative ends at this point. Many Dominicans are greatly troubled by these recent developments, yet their discontent has not found so far the effective political rallying term that Yarimar Bonilla describes unifying the strikers in Guadeloupe (“la pwofitasyon – a polyvalent Creole phrase that semantically unites profit, exploitation, and abusive power”). Both Wilder’s critical attention to the untimely and Bonilla’s attention to how productive new political names surge locally both (with the help of Césaire) take us a step further toward thinking through and understanding better the slippages and the conceptual content of Antillean political language called for by David Scott.

      • Thank you Maja, this is a great comment. Indeed the contemporary “uses of sovereignty” in the DR show the inherent problems in assuming the logics of the nation-state model as a territorially bound site for a culturally, racially, and linguistically homogenous population. I can only hope that the attention brought to this case, and the questions it raises about citizenship, mobility, and diaspora will help us think through these questions as important problems across and beyond the Caribbean. There are certainly historical particularities to the context of Hispaniola that have to be kept in mind but indeed these policies are rooted in practices and ideologies that haunt the Caribbean region as a whole….

    • Hi David, I fully agree. In my larger work I am thinking at length about the problem of not just “exhausted options” but an exhausted political vocabulary. In the case of the activists I study I have found that they turn towards to the past in search of new conceptual tools – particularly to the concept of marronage as a model of entangled autonomy. Interestingly, Césaire too used the language of marronage to think about his own literary and political acts. His call to Depestre to “turn maroon” against the French literary establishment being perhaps the most notable instance. It is telling also that his trilogy on Caribbean sovereignty begins with Et les chiens se taisaient which focuses on the figure of the rebel slave… In the larger work I advocate precisely for a genealogy of the kind you suggest – one which would necessarily address the entwinement of the problem of freedom (in Holt’s terms) and the problem of sovereignty in the Caribbean… I suggest that marronage in some ways operates as a conceptual alternative to both in the case of the Antilles… (And, interestingly, marronage has also been deployed to think about armed struggle and guerrilla movements. Although Fanon is the emblem of the revolutionary option, the armed struggle groups that emerged in the Antilles – were often referred to as the “modern maroons”…

  • Dear Yari: A great engagement here, through the 2009 Guadeloupe strikes and social movement, with this broader question. It’s exciting to see how these activists are very much engaging with the same problems that confronted Cesaire about simultaneously re-inventing the future and the past. This whole dialogue is fascinating — thanks for the contribution!

  • Yarimar, I am curious about the relationship between success and failure in your piece. You explain it very well, but it leaves the nagging question that if the decolonization/departmentalization project failed, and yet Césaire’s politics were largely right, visionary, and so on, how was it that those politics led to the failures he remarked on in the 50s, as stated in your piece?

    I am sure the answer is quite straightforward, but it may help in identifying what was and remains useful in Césaire’s politics and what he got wrong.

    • Thank you for the question, Martin! First of all, let me say that the question of failure/success is one that concerns me broadly – and an important issue for thinking about social movements. Often times movements are judged only on tangible and measurable outcomes: i.e. economic advantages, policy transformations etc… but in my work I try to examine the importance of the transformational experience of activism. I argue that in judging the success of movements like the 2009 strike we have to look not only at the demands that were met but at the subtle transformations experienced by the participants and how these subjective experiences open up new horizons for change.

      Moreover, I think our notions of failure and success are also conditioned by that other modernist political category: revolution. As a result anything less than total sweeping change is bound to disappoint. In our search for new political vocabularies we might thus also want to fashion new ways of thinking about the goals of social action and our measures of success…

      In terms of Césaire: when I suggest in my piece that contemporary activists are “both the inheritors and the product” of the Césarian project I am trying to suggest that the Césairean project made their activism possible. In many ways this is one of Césaire’s successes. He created a space in which this political project could be imagined.

      In terms of what Césaire “got wrong” or where he failed… the question reminds me of something I once heard Angela Davis remark in regards to the political project of her generation: she noted that clearly they had failed, they did not achieve the revolution they had hoped for, nor had they managed to eradicate the racial and class politics they were tackling. However it is impossible to say that they had no impact, indeed it is impossible to say that they did not change the world, and transform the possibilities we now imagine for it. I think the same is true of both Césaire and the 2009 strike. Their success should be measured not just by their outcomes but by their transformative impact. This is why I pointed to the slogan on the t-shirts at the end of the LKP strike. They did not proclaim victory, they merely stated : ayen pé ké kon avan (nothing will/can ever be like it was before). Perhaps this can offer us a clue of new visions of not just political action, but political success as well.

  • Thanks Yarimar, great answer.

  • Pingback: Wynter’s Cesaire: From the Universal/Particular to the Transcultural Human | A New Ceremony

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