- Toward an Environmental Phenomenology of Diaspora
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else, even in Italy.Derek Walcott, "In Italy"
Sarah Casteel and Elizabeth DeLoughrey have produced important criticism in relation to some of the most pressing questions of our time: How can we continue to wrestle with the problems of neocolonialism in an age that has so fully embraced the deceptively benign promises and seeming inevitability of transnational globalization? How are we to understand the meaning of diaspora when critics have so universalized it as a category of identity as to render it meaningless? How can we afford to ignore the relevance of geography [End Page 649] in shaping cultural practice in an age of rampant environmental degradation? For that matter, what can it possibly mean any longer to long for home, to believe in a sense of place, in the face of ethnic nationalism's long history of violence and intolerance? Why is the relevance of indigenous experience so persistently ignored in wrestling with these problems?
These questions have emerged in the most recent conflations of interest between postcolonialism and ecocriticism, two fields whose seeming need for a long-term relationship of trust has been undermined by what feels like their rigorous demands for prenups. Ecocritics have decried the absence of a sense of place in modernity, lamented the degrading effects of an increasingly virtual, mobile, and anthropocentric society, and looked to nonwestern cultures as sources of inspiration for Western reinvention. Postcolonial critics like to point out the absence of sufficient consideration of the social, political, and historical contexts in which such yearnings take place, but, despite their suspicion of environmentalism, they have had to admit the inextricable relationship between environmental degradation and social injustice and the fact that, as Casteel notes, the "deterritorialization of cultures has produced an urgent need for new narratives of belonging" (192).
Casteel and DeLoughrey have not written ecocritical books (not overtly anyway), but their understanding of the relationship between geography and culture, between routes and roots of identity, places them at the forefront of diaspora studies and provides vital insights for those interested in reconciling the human and natural histories of our current age. They agree that diaspora studies, in the words of Casteel, tend "to polarize mobility and sedentarism" and "to put an exaggerated stress on displacement, dislocation, and movement at the expense of place" (2, 3). For these authors, mobility always means at least one of two things: it is a symptom of being victim to global and imperial forces beyond one's control, and it is also a privilege of class. Concomitantly, emplacement can signify a vital connection to history and land, intolerant territorialism, or enforced entrapment. Comparing the rural experiences of immigrant and minority writers from the Caribbean, the US, and Canada, Casteel does not deny the importance of urban space but explores a wider "range of experiences of current cultural geographies" that avoid facile assumptions about diasporic identities (191). This approach valorizes "the insights that might be generated were we to return the two poles of mobility and stasis, or city and country, to a more dialectical relationship" (6). DeLoughrey concurs: a balance is needed so as not to "romanticize indigeneity or pathologize diaspora," a balance implied in her use of the term tidalectics, which describes the dialectic between land and [End Page 650] sea, stasis and movement, geography and culture, and across cultures (xi). DeLoughrey similarly avoids the pitfalls of over-generalization and over-theorization of diaspora by comparing Caribbean efforts to forge roots in the wake of colonial routes and her analysis of the history indigenous routes of mobility in the Pacific islands, among populations wrongly presumed to be merely rooted and sedentary.
Casteel and DeLoughrey articulate the risks as well as the urgency of what Rob Nixon in his essay "Environmentalism and Postcolonialism" calls a "transnational ethics of place," one that recognizes colonial and...