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Creole Modernism? On Aimé Césaire and Wifredo Lam

January 14th, 2013

Against a model of singular and unilinear diffusionism, social theorists have proposed that we approach global modernity by understanding European modernity itself not as ’self-producing, self-referential system’ but rather as ‘part of a world system’ and thus in dynamic, even dialectical tension with the peripheries it has produced (Dussel). Yet a model of diffusionism and unidirectional “influence” persists in comparative studies of artistic and literary modernism in the humanities, with “indigenization” as the governing concept. A critique, or style, or disposition is born in Europe, travels to the colonial periphery usually through an elite intellectual and there eventually mixes with local forms and becomes indigenized. This lecture will explore instead the idea of creolization and “transculturation” as concepts adequate to a modernism in sync with the dynamic tension of modernity as a world system and with the political edge of anticolonial modernist experimentation. My primary focus will be on the chance encounter of two pre-eminent anti-colonial artists in the Caribbean of the early 1940s, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire and Cuban painter Wifredo Lam.

Natalie Melas, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature (English, French, Ancient Greek) from UC Berkeley. Her areas of interest include transcultural theory (between postcolonialism and globalism), the politics of disciplinary histories, cultural comparison, postcolonial neo-formalism, turn-of-the-century English literature, Anglophone and especially Francophone Caribbean literature and theory, modern reconfigurations of antiquity, Homer. She has published essays on the fate of the humanities in the contemporary university, on incommensurability, on Joseph Conrad, and on French Caribbean Literature. Her book, All the Difference in the World: Postcoloniality and the Ends of Comparison, is forthcoming with Stanford University Press. Her current project, provisionally entitled The Poetics and Politics of Untimeliness, addresses the formation of alternative modernities in the broken link between modernism and colonialism around two incommensurable figures, the modern Greek poet Constantin Cavafy and Aime Cesaire.