Césaire and Senghor alongside Deleuze: Postimperial Multiplicity, Virtual Assemblages and the Cosmopolitan Ethics of Negritude

The Western academy typically disdains the anticolonial theorists of Negritude, Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor, as essentialist nativists or naïve humanists, with Negritude being understood as an affirmative theory of African ethnicity grounding an identitarian politics of decolonization. Postcolonial critics find the anticolonial poetics expressed by these insurgent thinkers of Negritude difficult to reconcile with their various capitulations to a moderate politics of neo-colonial compliance. This paper finds an unrealised potentiality in Negritude, freshly understood as a cosmopolitan ethics of decolonisation that refuses to base postcolonial self-determination in state sovereignty. Césaire and Senghor sought new types of postcolonial and democratic political association in the decentralised, interdependent, plural conditions of the French empire itself, as a transnational form of cultural multiplicity and complex social assemblage. By reading Césaire and Senghor alongside Deleuze, I bring into alliance diverse conceptual resources coexisting in the mélange of the French empire. I interpret the political poetry of Negritude in the light of Deleuze’s work on signs that escape semantic discipline and with reference to his various figurations of beatitude involving Spinozan ‘knowledge of the third kind’; I use Deleuze’s concepts of ‘multiplicity’ and ‘assemblage’ to consider the anticolonial disinclination of Césaire and Senghor towards nationalist sovereignty, as well as their inclination towards an alternate conceptualisation of postcolonial existence involving social entanglement and shared enrichment through ‘common notions’; and I rely upon Deleuze’s temporal philosophy to explain the continuing virtual potentiality of Césaire’s and Senghor’s notions of liberation, transnational democracy and pluralist solidarity. This fertile conceptual milieu allows us to understand how Negritude, like French poststructuralism, is an unmaking and reworking of the transcendent universals of imperial modernism. Negritude does this in the form of a situated alter-humanism that expresses, in the surrealist poetry of political life, the dispersed and decentred subject after empire. This anticolonial subject professes liberty in a virtual ethos of complex interdependence, yet to be actualised in democratic practices constituting a transcontinental republic.

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