Daniele Lorenzini | Against Essentialism

Je suis de la race de ceux qu’on opprime.

Aimé Césaire


I would really like to thank Romuald Fonkoua and Souleymane Bachir Diagne for their wonderful presentations. As far as I am concerned, I will be very brief and just raise two general issues before opening the floor to discussion. I will mix up English and French, since in this session of Nietzsche 13/13 (probably more than in any other) the question of the language we use is a political one – or, at least, it was clearly a political issue for the writers and thinkers of the Negritude movement. I am referring to the well-known idea of Negritude as a “littérature mineure” (in Kafka and Deleuze’s sense), that is, of a tactical appropriation of French language and a transfiguration of it from an instrument of domination into a creative, revolutionary tool: c’est une minorité qui écrit dans la langue de la majorité. This is why I do not feel like speaking (or writing) about Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor only in English.

The first issue I would like to raise has to do with a very old querelle about the nature and aims of the Negritude movement itself. Defined in different terms by the main thinkers who gave it voice and life, it is possible to find in Césaire and (even more clearly) in Senghor’s ways of describing Negritude a tension that has already emerged several times during our Nietzsche 13/13 seminar: the tension between Being and Becoming, Identity and Difference. It was and still is quite common to interpret the Negritude movement as defending a more or less radical form of essentialism – a sort of “counter-essentialism” opposed to the European one, but an essentialism nonetheless. Sartre speaking of a “racisme antiraciste” in his “Orphée noir” (the preface he wrote to Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, published in 1948) greatly contributed to this kind of reading. Of course, it is undeniable that Césaire and Senghor often used, at least apparently, an essentialist language and essentialist formulae (“l’être nègre”, “l’art nègre”), but at the same time – and I wonder whether the reference to Nietzsche could be relevant in this respect or not – they were also interested in highlighting the importance of conceiving of Negritude as a movement, or better, as movement, that is, as becoming, as a perpetual self-overcoming. A “devenir-nègre”, as Deleuze would have said.

Seen in this light, the “civilisation de l’universel” they aspired to, far from being the opposite, the contrary of European (scientific) universalism, should perhaps be interpreted as a (Nietzschean) overcoming of such a universalism – and I say “Nietzschean” because we are not confronted here, it seems to me, with Hegelian dialectic, but rather with the will to affirm and create new values for life itself. At page 161 of Césaire’s text “Poésie et connaissance” uploaded on our website, Césaire quotes André Breton:

Tout porte à croire qu’il existe un certain point de l’esprit d’où la vie et la mort, le réel et l’imaginaire, le passé et le futur, le communicable et l’incommunicable, le haut et le bas cessent d’être perçus contradictoirement. Et c’est en vain qu’on chercherait à l’activité surréaliste un autre mobil que l’espoir de détermination de ce point.

And Césaire comments: “Jamais au cours des siècles ambition plus haute n’a été exprimée plus tranquillement. Cette très haute ambition, c’est l’ambition poétique elle-même”. Ici on voit donc clairement que le schéma que l’on applique n’est pas du tout dialectique : le problème est plutôt celui d’une unité, d’une « fraternité primitive », avec l’idée – que Césaire exprime dans ce même texte – selon laquelle l’arbre qui dit « oui » à la vie est supérieur à l’homme qui dit « non » ; et bien sûr, c’est le poète qui est capable de dire « oui », de consentir à la vie, de s’installer en ce point de l’esprit dont parle Breton où toute contradiction (apparente) cesse d’être perçue comme telle et s’ouvre ainsi la possibilité pour un épanouissement vital. Voilà ce qu’est la connaissance poétique d’après Césaire : c’est cet art as philosophy, cet art as knowledge dont nous a parlé Bachir. Therefore, the question I have is very simple: since essentialism seems to have no part at all in this kind of discourse, how can we reconcile – and should we do it? – the (seemingly) essentialist language of Negritude thinkers with their reject of any reference to “essences”? In other words, how can we reconcile – and should we do it? – Nietzsche and Heidegger, Becoming and Being, within the history of the Negritude movement?

The second issue I would like to raise is linked to the first and has to do with the role played by theater at the same time as an artistic practice and as a way of conceiving of (and practicing) philosophy itself. In the Deleuze session of our Paris reading group on Nietzsche, we discussed at length a very interesting passage in the introduction to Différence et répétition (pp. 18-19) in which Deleuze oppose Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Hegel, en disant que ce qui compte, ce qui est important chez les premiers, c’est le mouvement, l’activité : leur problème – le problème de Kierkegaard et Nietzsche – est de faire du mouvement lui-même une œuvre, tandis que chez Hegel on n’a que du faux mouvement, celui de la médiation, de la dialectique. Ainsi, d’après Deleuze, Kierkegaard et Nietzsche font de la philosophie un « théâtre de l’avenir », un théâtre dont l’essence est le mouvement perpétuel, la répétition, la différence, alors que la dialectique hégélienne n’est qu’un faux théâtre – théâtre de la représentation, du concept, de la généralité. Si Hegel « représente » les concepts, Nietzsche de son côté « dramatise » les idées – la référence de Deleuze étant ici, bien entendu, à la fois Zarathoustra (conçu pour la scène, où tout est sonorisé, visualisé, mis en mouvement, en marche et en danse) et Naissance de la tragédie, avec l’antagonisme bien connu de l’Apollinien et du Dionysien, du Rêve et de l’Ivresse, de l’art plastique et de la danse (mais aussi du chant et de la tragédie). In the first chapter of The Birth of Tragedy (at page 18 of the edition uploaded on our website), speaking of the Dionysiac, Nietzsche writes:

Now the slave is a freeman, now all the rigid, hostile barriers, which necessity, caprice, or “impudent fashion” have established between human beings, break asunder. Now, hearing this gospel of universal harmony, each person feels herself to be not simply united, reconciled or merged with her neighbor, but quite literally one with her […]. Singing and dancing, man expresses his sense of belonging to a higher community,

a community that cannot but make me think of Césaire’s “unité primitive”, or of his “Discours sur l’art africaine” (1966), in which he describes African art as a non-imitative art, as an art exploring dynamic and movement themselves and thus succeeding in being really creative. Hence, my second question is extremely naïve: to what extent, for Césaire, art itself is a way of practicing philosophy? And how exactly is it linked to the issue of the creation of a (higher) community? How exactly “donner une histoire à la société antillaise à travers le mythe, à travers la tragédie”, as Romuald Fonkoua convincingly explained, can be seen as part of Césaire’s (and Senghor’s) attempt to create a “civilisation de l’universel”?