The indigestible and the opaque

Since our discussion on Tuesday, I have returned again and again to the following quote from “Interview with an Empire” by M. NourbeSe Philip:

“And if the reader stumbled, stopped and started again. If s/he choked, and gagged on the words, then it was successful.”

As we talked about in class, “inconsumability” is central to Philip’s poetic project. By choosing not to adopt the lyric voice (and all its smoothness), she rejects and resists the colonial project of “consuming,” “digesting,” and “transforming” the developing world. In other words, she writes a poetry that is “indigestible,” because, as she states, “in such a world to be indigestible—to have the ability to make consumption difficult—is a quality to be valued.”

This notion of “indigestibility” reminds me of the concept of “opacity” laid out by Édouard Glissant, the Martinican poet, author, critic, philosopher and theorist. I only recently encountered Glissant, and I am still trying to wrap my head around his “poetics of relation.” But from my current understanding, he sets up a dichotomy between opacity and transparency. In his book “Poetics of Relation” (trans. Betsy Wing), he has a chapter called “For Opacity”, where he talks about opacity as a right that allows for a freedom from reduction. In other words, he says that people have the right to be opaque. To not be “understood.” To not be “reduced.”

This, I think, becomes less vague if we look at the way he discusses transparency in the context of western colonialism. As he states in “For Opacity”:

“If we examine the process of ‘understanding’ people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgements. I have to reduce.”

In other words, within Western thought, the attempt to understand the “Other” requires a reduction. In this way, there is a certain violence associated with the act of “looking through” someone in order to “understand” them. Is the “reduction” associated with understanding analogous to the process of colonial “digestion” discussed by Philip? Can we read Philip’s “indigestibility” as a form self-asserted opacity? If I am understanding (uh-oh!) Glissant’s terms, then I think the answer is yes.

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One Response to The indigestible and the opaque

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Yes, yes yes! Opacity as a refusal too of relatability – demanding that one be accepted on one’s own terms. Not reduced, and not consumable. The Africans in Zong! are not available for continuous re-consumption, their pain, suffering, tragedy, etc. reduced to image or metaphor. NourbeSe rejects the fetishization of African and black suffering, as a way to engage with and “understand” (reduce/consume) history.


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