The Walls The Idea of Identity’s Hazards and Neccessity

, par Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau

This article is published in it’s integrality by l’Humanité in English and was taken from Institut du Tout-Monde

One of the most fragile and most precious riches of individual or collective identity is the evidence that it develops and strengthens itself in a continuum. Nowhere do we find a static identity, it would not know how to establish or assure itself by rules, regulations or laws which make the basis of nature’s authority. The principles of identity are made up of, or sometimes unmade from regressive phases (loss of self esteem) or pathology (exasperation of a collective sense of superiority) the various ‘remedies’ do not come from decisions that are prepared, stopped then mechanically applied.

Let us try to approach this complex multiplicity that we call identity, which is never just given as a whole in one go. A people or an individual can be attentive to the movement of their identity, but cannot decide in advance about it by means of rules and regulations. We would not know how to handle a Ministry of Identity. Otherwise collective life would become mechanical, its future asceptisied, made barren by fixed rules, as in a laboratory experiment. Identity is above all a being-in-the-world, as the philosophers say, above all a risk that needs to be taken and so it provides a relationship with the Other and with this world whilst at the same time resulting from this relationship. Such an ambivalence feeds the freedom to undertake and supplies the nerve to change.

National Identity.

In the West and firstly in Europe, collectives constituted themselves into nations whose double function was to extol what was called the values of the communities, to defend them against all outside aggression and if possible to export them into the world. The nation became a Nation-State whose model little by little imposed itself and defined the fundamental nature of the relationship between peoples in the modern world. The community that live in a Nation-State know why they do so without ever being able to work it out by theories and legal definitions, that’s why it expresses itself by symbols (those famous values) to which it pretends to attribute a ‘Universal’ dimension. Such organisation was the principle behind colonial conquests, the colonial nation imposes its values and refers to an identity protected from all outside intrusion and which we call a single root identity. Even if all colonialisation is primarily economic exploitation, it cannot exist without this inflated identity which justifies the exploitation. Therefore the single root identity is always having to justify itself by defining itself, or at least attempt to do so. But this model is also found at the origin of anti-colonial struggles, it is within the revindication of a national identity, inherited from the colonial example that the dominated communities found the strength to resist. The Nation-State model has multiplied in the world, sometimes with disastrous results.

From this evidence, or commonality we can draw conclusions in two ways. Firstly that newly formed nations, or ones that have changed regime, find progress difficult towards a concept of nation that is not linked to an imperative identity that is rigid and exclusive. It seems to us that only South Africa has expressed the need for an organisation that is voluntarily mixed, where Blacks, Zulus, Whites, Metis and Indians could live together without domination or conflict : the vocation of a relation-identity. On the other hand it is only when the Nation-State’s existence is under attack that there is need to forge a full national identity as a means of defence (we can see who is or is not an enemy of the nation) or as a catalyst to come together without having to establish legislation for this identity. But to whom must we make believe that today the French nation is under attack in this way, somehow in danger, and that the flux of two or three hundred thousand illegal immigrants constitutes the hard kernel of this attack ?

We have heard about a young prodigious orchestra leader who was born in a garage : that his parents were practically homeless and immigrant, and according to the actual law possible targets for expulsion. We have had confirmed that the young boy who fell from a window whilst attempting to escape from immigration police was one of the top of his class. Does France coldly renounce or try to impose an illusory regulation on that which diversity, the unexpected and fertile world brings to it ?


So it is that in the middle of the 21st century, a huge democracy, an old Republic, the so called land of the ‘rights of man’ brings together in a Ministry, named for repression, the terms, immigration, integration, national identity, co-development. The terms clash, annihilate and condemn each other, leaving in their wake a hiccup of regression. In doing so France betrays a non codifiable part of its identity, one of its fundamental aspects, the other is colonialism, of its relation with the world : freedom for all. It is true that the democratic space is one of extremely virulent antagonistic forces. This least bad of all systems requires constant monitoring. It is also true that we have abandoned the idea of a rectilinear progression of the human conscience and learnt that regression and advancement are somehow inseparable ; there where the light shines brightest the shadow affirms itself in equal measure. Finally it is true that the 21st century is the moment when the world finishes FAIRE MONDE under the dismayful auspices of liberalism, this virulent capitalism which invests the idea of freedom in order to denaturalize it within a system which pushes the strong and the weak, those that have and those that have nothing, those that can and those that cannot, straight into the open mouthed Hell of the ‘Market’.

Establishing a system of freedom is no longer freedom. It is the crumbling of all, exposing each of us, alone and stripped bare to the monster’s appetite.

Finally it is also true that in this open market, this world-market, market-world, the depressions between penury and abundance incite intense migratory movement, like cyclones that no frontiers can block. Sapiens is by definition a migrant, emigrant, immigrant. They swarmed like that, took the world like that and like that crossed deserts, snow, mountains and plains, left famines to follow water and food. There is no frontier that we will not cross. That has been proven over millions of years. And it will be so up to the end ( and even more considering the climatic changes that are signalled ahead) none of these walls that are built all over, yesterday in Berlin and today in Palestine and the South of the United States, or in the legislation of these rich countries, will be able to block this simple truth : that the whole world is everyone’s home - Kay tout moun – that it belongs to everyone and that its equilibrium goes with the equilibrium of all.

Wall and Relation.

The temptation of the wall is not new. Each time that a culture or a civilisation has not been able to consider the Other, or to think with the Other, to include the Other in their thoughts, then these uptight protections in stone, steel and barbed wire, or closed ideologies are raised, torn down we return again to new forms of clashes. These fearful refusals of the other, these attempts at neutralising his existence, even denial of it can take the form of a corset of legislative texts, the allure of an undefinable Ministry, or the fog of a belief transmitted through medias who abandon in turn all thoughts of freedom, simply subscribing to their own expansion under the shadow of the powers that be and the dominant forces.

Even the notion of identity has for a long time serves as a barrier, to count up what we own , to distinguish what belongs to the other, erected against an ill defined menace, the footprint of barbarism. The wall of identity has provided eternal confrontations between peoples, empires and colonial expansion, The Black Slave Trade, the atrocities of transatlantic slavery and all genocides. The wall in identity has existed, and exists now within all cultures, all peoples, but it is the West where it has been the most devastating under the amplification of science and technology. The world has managed to make a Whole World. The cultures, the civilisations and the peoples have met, fought, mutually embellished and impregnated one another, often without knowing it.

The smallest invention, the smallest discovery has always been spread through people at an astonishing speed. From the wheel to sedentary culture. Human progress cannot be understood without admitting that there is a dynamic side to identity, that that is the Relation. There where the wall identity closes itself off the Relation Identity opens up in equal measure and if from the very beginning this side has been open to differences as well as darkness it has never been on the basis of humanism, nor following some religious bent. It has simply been a matter of survival ; those which lasted the longest, which reproduced best knew how to practise contact with the Other. Compensating the wall by the encounter of give and take and to ceaselessly grow from it ; this exchange where we change without losing or altering oneself.

The need for all identity to subscribe to this contact and this exchange. It is the inaptitude to live the contact and the exchange which creates the wall identity and alters identity. The ultimate refusal of contact and exchange comes from the mirror we break in order to no longer see ourselves. Refusing to see the Other starts a process of closing up of ourselves. Building from ourselves can only happen in relationship with the Other, with the presence of the world, in the effervescence of these contacts and exchanges.

The wall of identity can be enriched with the splendours of those tribes, ethnic groups, peoples or nations who were confronted with a hostile nature, a life threatening violence of their environment. It has been established by human groups isolated by founding myths, by national History, by vertical genealogy, but the measure with which the world has opened its presence to all, even the most obscure conscience has acknowledged the inevitable existence of all (that it is clear that an abundance in one place is the source of penury elsewhere, that the misery here engenders plenitude there) it is the Relation side of Identity which is the most viable. It is through this that we understand that no one escapes the explosions of the Whole World, and it is neither confusion nor abandon.

Walls and borders topple when the world works as the Whole World and it amplifies the flap of a butterfly’s wing in an unforeseeable way. The wall Identity might be reassuring. It can serve racist xenophobic or populist politics in a consterning way. But independent of some virtual principle the wall Identity no longer knows anything about the world. It no longer protects, opens for nothing except for regression, the insidious asphyxiation of the mind and the loss of oneself.

Free Imagination.

The walls that are being constructed today (under the pretext of terrorism or wild immigration or preferred god) isn’t going up between civilisations, cultures or identities, but between poverty and superabundance, drunken worried opulence and dried asphyxiation.

So ; between the realities of a world policy, doted by adequate institutions will it stem the tide, or even resolve it. What menaces national identity is not immigration, but by example, the unsharing united states hegemony, insidious standardisation driven by consumerism, merchandise made god, thrown on all the innocents, the idea of a western essence, exempt from all, or a civilisation exempt from all support from others and which would have become non human. It is the idea of purity, of divine election, pre-eminence, the right to meddle, in sum it is the Wall Identity at the heart of the united-diversity of humankind.

The hackneyed story of the shock of the civilisations is appalling. Civilisation have known each other, rubbed up against each other, changed and exchanged with each other inconscious or unconscious ways for thousands of years. Cultural or even identity archaeologies only reveal endless strata that go in indefinitely, nourishing each other, observing each other, fertilizing each other, emulsifying. The ‘West’ is in us and we are init. It is in us by suggestion, subjection, domination direct or silent. But it is also in us by the values that it has carried upon high, to a point of exasperation perhaps, (Reason, individualisation, rights of man, male female equality, laïcity) and which was present already in all cultures to varying degrees and infinite nuances. All cultures have their magicomythic projections linked to a rational and technical starting point. All these cultures are of madness and wisdom, prose and poetry. All these cultures have community spirit and individual participation. The west’s domination has been made as a brusk extension and an exasperation of these givens ; the worm was in the fruit – in creole Se kod yanm qui mare yanm ; its the vine that produces the yam which holds fast.

The great force of the vanquished of the market-world is to have also received the marvels and the shadows of the victors. The hardest has been hot to reject them but to get loose of their sterilising fascinations with a freed imagination, a poetic clairvoyance of the Whole world. An optimal plenitude, far from conquests, revenge or dominations which is called Worldliness. With that we are in the west but we are also orientating ourselves.


Worldliness (which is not the market-world) exhalts and lancinates, suggests to us a more complex diversity which cannot be signified by those archaic makers such as the colour of our skin, the language we speak, the god we honour or fear, the place we are born. Relation Identity opens up a diversity which is a firework display, an ovation of the imagination. The multiplicity, even effervescence of the imaginations rests on the life-giving conscious presence of all cultures, all peoples, all languages have elaborated in shadows and marvels and which constitutes the infinite material of humanity. True diversity today only finds itself in the imagination, the way of thinking of ourselves, of and in the world, to organise one’s principles of existance and to choose one’s native land. The same skin may dress different imaginations. Similar imaginations can accommodate different skins, languages and gods. Condoleeza Rice comes from the same imagination as George W.Bush, and has nothing to do with Mandela or Martin Luther King. In the same way no reproach could be made, under a pretext of political or racial solidarity to people with swarthy or dark complexion who accompany Nicolas Sarkozy, they are more like him than anyone else. The ‘Same’ play at being cameleons. The diverse confound identity rigidness, bowl over and reject the selective certainties in the rows of fragile ideologies.

The arts, literature, music and songs will fraternise via imaginary pathways which no longer recognise national geographies or proud stand apart languages. In Worldliness ( which is there, even if we have yet to found it), we don’t belong to exclusive fatherlands or to nations, least of all to territories, but from here on in, we belong to ‘Places’, linguistic storms, free gods who don’t ask to be loved, native land that we will have chosen, languages that we will have desired, geographies woven from lands and visions that we will have forged. And these ‘Places’ will become permanent, entering in relationship with all the Places of the world. It is the whispering of all these Places which lead to the infinite insurrection of free imagination ; to Worldliness.


Faced with such upheaval, there will be economic equilibrium, social random play, interior political demands to invent, maintain or repair. Excessive flux of immigration, poor countries towards rich countries that can be balanced with a huge number of measures which will neither be immediate or irrevocable, for example, the deliberate and announced undertaking of a just stabilisation of the world economy, the re-establishment of the income of raw material to the developing world. Set out here are great policies for a nation to adopt and grow. It is for each to measure their degree of pridence, the brightness of their audacity the height of their view.

It would be madness to think that diktats will stem the movement of immigration. In the word immigration there is a fresh breath. In the word integration is a vertical pride which demands the prior disintegration of that which approaches us, and leads to the impoverishment of the self. In the same vein is the idea to tolerate the differences which gets on its high horse to evaluate its surroundings and which doesn’t let go of its haughty pretensions. Co-development is simply a pretext aimed at calming possible economic disparity in order to expulse pre-numbered objectives, to humiliate from home in all calmness. The Co-development is only worth the simple truth ; we are all under the same yoke. No one can escape alone. No society, no economy. No language is without the concert of others, no culture, no civilisation can reach its peak without relating to Others.

It is not immigration which is the menace, nor does it lead to poverty, but the stiffness of the wall, the closing off of oneself . That is why we have stood up so that the national histories open up to the reality of the world. So that the national vertical memories can get drunk on the sharing of memories. So that the national pride can feed off the recognition of the shadows as much as the lights. That is why we say that repentance can’t be asked but it can be received and heard. The high conception of the things of the world is never stupid, proud or blessed. It is made of shaking, and it is built on the shaking of shaking that it rises by degrees to a clear return of conscience. The idea of repentance tends to diminish he who demands it, but it increases he who can deliver it. A poverty of conscience must be feared when one is incapable of daring to repent.

The Call.

The walls are threatening everyone, on both sides of their obscurity. It is the relation to the Other (to all Other, in its presence be it animal, vegetable, environmental, cultural or human) which indicates the highest, most honourable and the most rewarding realm within ourselves.

We request that all the human forces, from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe that all the stateless people, all the ‘Republicans’ – all the tenants of the rights of man, that all the artists, all authority founded by citizens of good will raise up by all means possible, a protest against this wall ministry which attempts to house us badly, to get us used to the unsupportable, to make us frequent, in silence, with the risk of complicity, the inadmissible. The complete opposite of beauty.

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