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The Challenge of Opacity

Glissant’s concept of “the right to opacity” challenges how anthropologists have historically approached the study of non-Western cultures. He argues that people have a right to withhold information about themselves and their cultures, particularly when dealing with cultural imperialism and colonialism. Glissant believes cultural differences should be respected and celebrated instead of being analyzed and assimilated.

He emphasizes the need for anthropologists to respect the agency of the people they study. On pages 189 to 190, he submits that anthropologists should judge and compare based on transparency. This is only possible if they first accept their differences and clear any biases regarding the community under study. In his words, anthropologists should be able to “… create afresh” the people they study. It is an approach that not only sets the ground for an extensive understanding of the community but also eliminates preconceived thoughts about the community or a people (p. 190).

Further, Glissant posits that anthropologists should learn not only the right to difference but also the right to opacity. He says, “Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics” (p. 190). To understand this, one must look beyond a community as a whole. He must focus on the fine details that define a community. This refers to a community’s fundamental way of life, individual people, the kind of animals reared and why, and people’s beliefs and perceptions. Disintegrating a whole into small manageable units allows anthropologists to understand the natural foundations that define a community or a people.

It is also crucial that a dialogue with the West be held, and a complimentary discourse of whoever wants to live on and in with be added to the West (p. 191). Glissant says this regarding the fact that historically, countries in the West have subjected other jurisdictions in the East and other parts of the world to ideas they had defined as ‘universal.’ The universality aspect needs to be revised, basing the argument on vast differences within communities, not to mention that the communities in the scope were far from the West. The case becomes even more interesting when one realizes that even within its claim that the idea they peddle as truth is universal, the West keeps contradicting its ‘truth.’ Thus, their universal ideas do not fit the description and lack the effective ingredient that may qualify them as fit for inscribing to other people.

Glissant breathes more life into his argument by positing that the West’s mission has been, is, and might always be to engulf and consume other ideas while projecting their own as appropriate. In this course, they apply absolutism, which Glissant refers to as “totality” (p. 192). According to him, the idea of totality is propagated through multiplicity. This approach creates a union of its ideas – spreading the same vision and concept from community to community and state to state. Thus, it is seen as fact or truth. As Glissant describes it, “… it is the opacity of diverse animating the imagined transparency of Relation” (p. 193). This is how researchers create a blueprint of what they think is the right approach to studying people. Glissant insists on anthropologists becoming conscious of this fact and working to prevent it or reduce its influence in their research.

In summation, the choice to be opaque is everyone’s right. What is not everyone’s right is the decision to force a notion, idea, or concept on them, painting as a universal truth. Although this approach has proved worthwhile in some aspects and in some places, in the larger picture, it has yet to be successful. Thus, for anthropologists and researchers within this and other fields, recognizing the vast differences among communities and people is the first step towards writing their stories as told by them and not based on some lucid truths.


Glissant, É., 1997. Poetics of relation. “Opacity”. University of Michigan Press. p. 189-194


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