Toward an Aesthetics of Earth

Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley, eds., Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); 360 pages; ISBN 978-0-19-539442-9 (hardback).

• August 2011

Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley open their new collection Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment with epigraphs by Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, two luminaries who emphasize that colonization and anticolonial struggles have long been rooted in land and locality. They quote Fanon, who writes, “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity” (3). The editors’ use of these lines to open their volume foregrounds an intellectual tradition in which the literary is inseparable from the social, the material, and the real.

This collection, then, is part of an intervention in a critical discourse that has been regrettably reticent about the causes of the crises that have compelled its growth: though increasing consciousness about climate change and worldwide environmental degradation has popularized ecocriticism, the discourse has too often skirted specific functions and belied obvious political prerogatives. And while some scholars may see this as a gesture of ecumenical good will, broadening the contours of the discourse and the terms of inclusion, it seems to me like a political concession, an act of bad faith in a moment of unprecedented urgency.

If ecocriticism does require a corrective, it is perhaps because its origins are located in naturalism and conservationism and because it has been concerned almost exclusively with literature from the United States and Europe. In recent years, however, following the reparative critiques of environmentalism proffered by ecofeminists, who saw environmental degradation as part of stratified social life, scholars have attempted to overlay postcolonial and ecocritical perspectives. In Postcolonial Ecologies, DeLoughrey and Handley treat this new intersection as a methodological imperative: in their introduction, they argue that postcolonialism is the critical school most practiced in redressing the artificial oppositions between human and nonhuman, civilized and uncivilized, that have long constituted discourses of difference. Further, and most important for this volume, postcolonial theory is uniquely equipped to negotiate between the local and the global and to interrogate the ways in which the everyday variously reflects and destabilizes worldwide and world-forming events and phenomena. Compelled by the global scale of many ecological crises, the editors turn to Gayatri Spivak’s notion of “planetarity,” which conceptualizes the global as a mosaic of local realities, and endorse Edouard Glissant’s emphasis on thinking alterity; borrowing Glissant’s “aesthetics of turbulence,” Doloughrey and Handely term this novel postcolonial-ecological perspective an “‘aesthetics of earth’—a discourse of transformative self-conscious disruption that calls attention to the universalizing impulses of the global” (28).

The critics in this collection interrogate local literary and cultural genealogies and explore the possibility of a global consciousness characterized by both new and long-held anxieties. Accordingly, the body of works under consideration in these essays is capacious and diverse; it includes poetry, fiction, essay, visual art, and reportage. But in its best moments, this collection also engages with physical (contested) spaces and historical trends and events, revealing the social and geographic conditions for the production of literature and literary culture.

The volume is broken into four sections. In the first two, “Cultivating Place” and “Forest Fictions,” contributors look at the ways authors and artists have interpreted myths—colonial, but also indigenous, nationalist, and neocolonial—of Edenic tropical space. The Caribbean, especially, is a site of constant negotiation between discourses of home and of displacement, between the supposed fixity of the natural world and the constant change that characterizes manmade spaces such as the plantation and the city. These essays reveal the falsity of such oppositions and underscore the way nature and culture have and continue to alter each other materially, even if they remain at odds in popular discourse. The best essays of this section, in fact, are about those works that seek to commensurate the concept of “paradise” with the slow accumulation of environmental violence that has taken place since initial colonial contact.

For example, LeGrace Benson writes of Haiti’s urban Kreyol painters whose ironic visions of an “earthly paradise” are shaped not by their intimacy with the land but by their alienation from it—what Benson calls the “triple exile from paradise, from Eden, from Africa, and, lastly, from family land in rural Haiti” (63). And Elaine Savory argues that for Derek Walcott the materiality of the natural world functions as poetic metaphor for a transatlantic literary genealogy; Walcott looks to figures of English poetry and folklore who resisted systems of enclosure, and sees even in the Caribbean’s teeming flora evidence of colonization’s lingering ontological scars. Especially strong in this section is Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s “Deforestation and the Yearning for Lost Landscapes in Caribbean Literatures.” Paravisini-Gebert surveys landmark political and literary writings from throughout Caribbean colonial and postcolonial history and finds patterns of mourning for the perennial manipulation and destruction of land. This trope, which operates by turn as a nostalgic and resentful reason for writing, has not only cultivated an ecological vocabulary for Caribbean writers but spurred political action throughout the region, shaping the decolonizing present.

Handley and DeLoughrey are both Caribbeanists (along with Renée Gosson, they edited Carbibbean Literature and the Environment: Between Nature and Culture [University of Virginia Press, 2005]), and the writings in the first two sections reflect a deep knowledge of the region’s political and literary history and a rigorous engagement with important concepts such as flow, hybridity, and the Rhizome. The last two sections, however, without a similarly rich critical heritage and untethered from Caribbean discourse, are less consistent if at times more compelling.

“The Lives of (Nonhuman) Animals,” especially, ventures into provocative terrain and contains the volume’s most problematic concepts. Because colonized peoples have long been used to determine the supposed divide between human and nonhuman, and because, too, the commodification of colonized people has accompanied that of animal life, the convergence of animal and postcolonial studies raises rich theoretical questions. But it creates major problems, too: though each of the authors warns against imbuing indigenous perspectives with an esoteric environmental or animal consciousness—constructing the “ecological Indian”—too often their arguments hinge on just such a mythology or, worse, fall into the kind of New Age conceits that gesture toward universal truths while projecting human contrivances onto arbitrary natural phenomena.

Jonathan Steinwand, for example, in his “What the Whales Would Tell Us,” a reading of the “cetacean turn in postcolonial literature,” attempts to unite animal and postcolonial studies by observing commonalities between sea mammals and indigenous peoples, “liminal figures negotiating the boundaries of the dominant ‘civilization’ and wild nature, of traditional pre-modern and postmodern late capitalist lifestyles.” He argues that this reading challenges the “sentimentalized tendencies of environmentalism,” but he acquiesces to an oppositional framing of modern and pre-modern, natural and civilized, indigenous and “dominant”—all while uncritically assigning human characteristics to whales and dolphins (184–85). This may be an oversight indicative of animal studies’ still-nascent stage as a critical discourse; but it is also a major hurdle for the ecocritical-postcolonial exchange and, regrettably, may affect perceptions of its legitimacy in the Humanities.

Rob Nixon’s essay serves as a compelling corrective and an example of how best to approach this hazardous theoretical intersection. “Stranger in the Eco-Village” is a series of vignettes and reflections about game reserves in postapartheid South Africa, sites of what Nixon calls the “ecological archaic” (32). These reserves, he argues, are spaces of staged temporal and racial stasis that at once emphasize the supposed purity of the African Bush and lament the end of the apartheid era. It’s the play between dominant but nevertheless artificial conceptions of human and nonhuman that is at issue in this essay, and Nixon offers a necessary critique, steeped in the logic of postcolonial theory and mapped onto a space that is vital for reasons ecological and cultural.

The volume’s final section, “Militourism,” considers the way the kinds of binaries mentioned above have been deployed in the interest of capital by industries of the developed West. Tourist spaces are the sites par excellence for reckless consumption, for the gendered and radicalized exploitation of labor, but also, as Caribbeanists have observed for decades, for enacting colonial fantasies. One of the most insightful essays in the collection is Elizabeth DeLourghey’s articulation of the “heliotropic,” the centrality of the sun in the global collective imaginary, indicative of the ways solar and atomic energy have produced both environmental crises and their potential solutions. Comparing responses by writers from the Pacific Islands to the emergence of the nuclear testing in the postwar period, DeLourghey engages in a literary-political critique of the colonial military apparatus, the globalized tourist industry, and the effects of both on the questions of survival and toxicity. Her essay is followed by Dina El Dessouky’s piece on the inscription of ecological concepts in Hawaii’s literary and linguistic traditions, which reveals in a central passage the skepticism of indigenous communities toward US and European researchers.

This skepticism is extended not just to hard scientists or the engineers whose presence accompanies development and military practices but to those in the humanities who may obscure subjectivities and marginalized discourses in their attempts to expand and enliven the field or, in this case, to combine critical valences. This is an essential critique, and one that, I suspect, will resonate with scholars of the Caribbean—scholars who, as Delourghey and Handley show, have a special role to play in this necessary important theoretical convergence.

 

Nicholas Gamso is a doctoral student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He teaches writing and literature at Queens College.

 


Works such as Juan Martinze-Alier’s The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2002) foreground environmental movements distinct from those that emerged in the industrialized West, and recent volumes such as Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin’s Postcolonialism and Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (Oxford: Routledge, 2010) explicate a number of commonalities between issues ecological and postcolonial. Rob Nixon’s essay “Environmentalism and Postcolonialism” has also proven especially useful for its warnings about “ecoparochialism,” an impulse among scholars to dwell on specific ecological sites without looking to relationships that permeate their immediate geographic boundaries (in Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul, Matti Bunzl, Antoinette Burton, and Jed Esty, eds., Environmentalism and Postcolonialism [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005]).

 

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