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Édouard Glissant’s Right to Opacity in Practice

dateNovember 29, 2023 timeWednesday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
  • The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
  • Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought
email address [email protected]
  • Free and open to the public
  • Registration required. See details.

In several places across his work, the Martinican poet, novelist, and essayist Édouard Glissant calls for a “right to opacity,” which he vaguely explains as that which protects diversity across humankind. In this way, Glissant’s right to opacity could be understood as a standard cultural rights claim. But in his 1997 Treatise of the Whole World, Glissant adds about the right to opacity, “Let it be a celebration.” Because activists and lawyers frequently invoke rights claims, the traditional sites of human rights practice are often thought to be oppositional protests and international courtrooms. How, then, could a rights claim be a celebration?

In this talk, Benjamin P. Davis proposes that recent prayer camps at Standing Rock and on Anishinaabe treaty land in northern Minnesota expand how we understand theories of cultural rights. When the celebrations at prayer camps are included as sites of practicing rights, critical theory gains a wider imaginary for understanding and transforming the relationship between the state and social movements. Further, attending to the orientations at the camps, ordinary citizens are called to live differently in our everyday lives. Benjamin P. Davis suggests that these rights claims, as first situated amidst the land, are part of honoring what Glissant calls “a modern form of the sacred.” Thought this way, the right to opacity resonates with the German critical theorist Ernst Bloch’s radical reading of natural law as connecting right and revolution, law and utopia. And thought this way, the right to opacity could be a tool to connect and organize across struggles that, without a larger guiding framework, by and large remain fragmented and unconnected performative assemblies.


Benjamin P. Davis is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of African American Studies at Saint Louis University. His first book, Simone Weil’s Political Philosophy: Field Notes from the Margins, reads Simone Weil as a key political theorist. His second book, Choose Your Bearing: Édouard Glissant, Human Rights and Decolonial Ethics, presents the poet Édouard Glissant as an important voice for the theory and practice of human rights.


Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a Professor of French and of Philosophy and the Director of Institute of African Studies at Columbia University. He received his academic training in France. An alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he took his Ph.D (Doctorat d’État) in philosophy at the Sorbonne (1988) where he also took his BA (1977). His field of research includes Boolean algebra of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature.