Carissa Ma reflects on the continuing significance of the seminal text in postcolonial ecocritcism.
Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin, Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment, 2nd edition (Routledge, 2015), 294pp.
The battle against single-use plastics reached a fever pitch last year, beginning with straws. Marriott, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Burger King, among others, are all phasing out straws for a combination of reasons, including a viral video showing a poor turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. The material recalcitrance of plastics renders them a highly visible reminder that, to quote Gay Hawkins in The Ethics of Waste (2005), ‘disposability is a technical and spatial fantasy’. Plastic bags typify the ecological crises of throwaway consumerism (for an example, one need look no further than Marie Kondo’s ‘home detox’ show on Netflix that has been all the rage recently), inviting consideration of how humans live, materially, in the Anthropocene.
The so-called ecological turn in humanities and social sciences has inevitably informed recent developments in postcolonial ecocriticism, which increasingly engages with the planetary dimensions of ecological crises. The second edition of the foundational work Postcolonial Ecocriticism, by Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffen, examines relationships between humans, animals, and the environment in postcolonial literary texts by authors as diverse as J.M. Coetzee, Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, Jamaica Kincaid, and V.S. Naipaul, addressing such key areas as climate change studies, disability studies, and queer ecology.
The ‘Introduction’ provides an overview of continuing imperialist modes of social and environmental dominance—forms of ecological imperialism—such as ‘biopiracy’, ‘planetary management’, ‘environmental racism’ (4). Recognising that the current ecological crisis requires urgent practical action rather than just a re-articulation of theoretical concerns, the book begins modestly by establishing that postcolonial ecocriticism’s intrepid attempt to balance the study of literature, the application of science, and the role of social activism is precarious at best, if not downright impossible. Notwithstanding the contradiction inherent in the postcolonial/ecocritical alliance, it performs a socially transformative ‘advocacy function’ (13) and demonstrates the significance of imaginative literature as a catalyst for social action by highlighting natural elements as self-standing agents rather than support structures for human action.
Postcolonial ecocriticism at once preserves the aesthetic function of the literary text and draws attention to its social and political usefulness, i.e. its capacity to set out ‘symbolic guidelines’ for the material transformation of the world (14). To writers such as Robert Young, Pablo Mukherjee, and Dean Curtin, critical intervention, or ‘decolonisation of the mind’ according to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, can be considered a form of activism. These writers, in doubling as cultural and environmental activists, represent a new kind of concern for the environment emerging in the post-colonial era; they are attuned to histories of unequal development that render a clear connection between ‘the colonization of nature’ and the ‘range of conceptual strategies […] employed within the human sphere to support supremacism of nation, gender and race’ (91).
The first chapter is concerned with one of postcolonial ecocriticism’s most central tasks—contesting western ideologies of development. The book fruitfully discusses what the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar calls the discourse of ‘Developmentalism’—a mechanism of discursive control and an agency of economic management following the end of the Second World War that involves the ‘developmentalization of the Third World, its progressive insertion into a regime of thought and practice in which certain interventions for the eradication of poverty became central to the [late-capitalist] world order’ (30). According to Escobar, under the global-capitalist development apparatus, development is characterised by a ‘top-down, ethnocentric, and technocratic approach’ that reduces people and cultures to abstract concepts and statistical figures (31).
Crucially, the book asks, what do we mean by ‘sustainability’: sustainability of the Earth or that of the market? And just how colonialist is the world market system that ‘effectively spreads inequality at the same time as it champions its own adherence to freedom, democracy and human rights’ (32)? Upon a closer look at the politics of the carbon economy, Peter Newell and Matthew Paterson astutely point out that contemporary developmental initiatives as carbon trading effectively double as new forms of colonialism through which ‘land and resources in poor countries [are acquired in order to] sustain the profligate consumption of the rich’ (81). With reference to Saro-Wiwa’s sustained critique of state power in contemporary Nigeria, the book examines the rampant ‘state vampirism’ (39) and ‘domestic colonialism’ (40) in the oil-rich state, where corrupt bureaucrats funnelled vast amounts of money and resources into the bank accounts of a neo-colonial elite.
The book also goes on to consider the role of publicity as discussed in Arundhati Roy’s fulminating essay against the Narmada Valley Development Project, ‘The Greater Common Good’ (1999), which interrogates the mediated language of the common good/ the national interest, used for creating the fiction of ‘national progress’ and a developmentalist mythology. Notwithstanding Roy’s international literary celebrity status, she remains cognizant and critical of the role of the global media in constructing highly visible human/ecological catastrophes as newsworthy ‘events’. Roy’s text draws attention to an important tension within ‘committed literature’—or literature of dissent—between aesthetic play and weighty ethical issues, which confronts us with the unique difficulties of representing catastrophes, whether they be social, political, environmental, or all of these combined.
For both postcolonial theorists and ecocritics, global warming—dubbed ‘the ecological trauma of our age’ by Timothy Morton (80)—opens up a crisis that registers as not only ethical and political but also definitional and representational. As Emily Brady suggests, the ethical dilemmas associated with global warming are largely due to the dispersal of causes and effects and ‘a fragmentation of agency’ (81). That we are waking up to our entanglement with the world we have been destroying, Morton says, is brought on by our encounter with the reality of hyperobjects, which are ‘massively distributed in time and space’. Global warming cannot be reduced to independent manifestations, e.g. extreme weather, submerged cities, vanished species, lakes turned to deserts, etc.
Planetary changes have increasingly led journalists to situate their environmental reporting in the context of geohistory, re-inscribing human activity in the perspective of what the environmental historian Tom Griffiths terms ‘deep time’ (82). In Ursula Heise’s words, the phenomenon of global warming ‘poses a [serious] challenge for narrative and lyrical forms that have conventionally focused above all on individuals, families, or nations, since it requires the articulation of connections between events at vastly different scales’ (81). Despite the apparent difficulty, the book makes a case for literature’s capacity to work across different spatial/temporal levels and scales that makes it well suited to representing global warming. Notably, the book appraises the use of a magic-realist aesthetic—however problematically defined—to paint an ‘alter-catastrophist’ vision of a radically transformed earth (83). Without neglecting the inadvertently colonialist and European biases in the label magic realism, the book calls attention to the genre as a ‘literary practice […] closely linked with a perception of living on the margins, encoding within itself […] a concept of resistance to the imperial centre and its totalizing systems’ (84).
With reference to Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006), the book demonstrates how catastrophes, however destructive, carry within them a powerful regenerative force and may operate as a catalyst for change. The oeuvre of Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite links catastrophe to the aesthetic and ideological paradigms of magical realism, presenting the former as a disruption of western progressivist history and as a creative exercise in cross-cultural cosmology. The idea of an ‘alter/catastrophist’ poetics is an intriguing one that I personally would love to see further fleshed out. As we continue to contend with a socially precarious and ecological endangered world, this book has done an estimable job of enjoining us to ponder, not just the ongoing history of inequality on the planet, but of the future of the planet itself.
Carissa Ma recently completed her MSt in English at the University of Oxford. She is interested in postcolonial literature in English from the 20th century to present and ecofeminist literary criticism.