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  • Neoliberalism, Slow Violence, and the Environmental Picaresque
  • Rob Nixon (bio)

It is only right, to my mind, that things so remarkable, which happen to have remained unheard and unseen until now, should be brought to the attention of many and not lie buried in the sepulcher of oblivion.

—Anonymous, Lazarillo de Tormes

A quarter of a century ago, Raymond Williams called for more novels that attend to "the close living substance" of the local while simultaneously tracing the "occluded relationships"—the vast transnational economic pressures, the labor and commodity dynamics—that invisibly shape the local. To hazard such novels poses imaginative challenges of a kind that writers content to create what Williams termed "enclosed fictions" need never face, among them the challenge of rendering visible occluded, sprawling webs of interconnectedness (Writings 238). In our age of expanding and accelerating globalization, this particular imaginative difficulty has been cast primarily in spatial terms, as exemplified by John Berger's pronouncement, famously cited in Edward Soja's Postmodern Geographies: "Prophecy now involves a geographical rather than a historical projection; it is space and not time that hides consequences from us. To prophesy today it is only necessary to know men [and women] as they are throughout the world in all their inequality" (qtd. in Soja 22). [End Page 443]

Yet the legitimate urgency of spatial prophecy should not, in turn, distract us from the critical task—especially for environmental writers—of finding imaginative forms that expose the temporal dissociations that permeate our age of neoliberal globalization. To this end, Animal's People, Indra Sinha's fictional reworking of the Bhopal disaster, offers a powerful instance of a writer dramatizing the occluded relationships of transnational space together with time's occlusions. Sinha's novel stands (to adapt Williams's phrase) as a work of "militant particularism," yet it discloses through that dwelt-in particularity temporal and spatial webs of violence on a vast scale (Resources 115).1 Sinha's approach to the aftermath of the catastrophic gas leak at Union Carbide's Bhopal factory in December 1984 throws into relief a political violence both intimate and distant, unfolding over time and space on a variety of scales, from the cellular to the transnational, the corporeal to the global corporate. Animal's People can be read as a novel of risk relocation, not just in Susan Cutter's spatial sense but across time as well, for the transnational offloading of risk from a privileged community to an impoverished one changes the temporal topography of fear long term.

The power of Animal's People flows largely from Sinha's single-handed invention of the environmental picaresque.2 By creatively adapting picaresque conventions to our age, Sinha probes the underbelly of neoliberal globalization from the vantage point of an indigent social outcast. His novel gives focus to three of the defining characteristics of the contemporary neoliberal order: first, the widening chasm—within and between nations—that separates the megarich from the destitute; second, the attendant burden of unsustainable ecological degradation that impacts the health and livelihood of the poor most directly; and third, the way, under cover of a free market ideology, powerful transnational corporations exploit the lopsided universe of deregulation, whereby laws and loopholes are selectively applied in a marketplace a lot freer for some societies and classes than for others.

A neoliberal ideology that erodes national sovereignty and turns answerability into a bewildering transnational maze makes it easier for global corporations like Union Carbide to sustain an evasive geopolitics of deferral in matters of environmental injury, remediation, and redress. Thus, among the many merits of Sinha's novel is the way it gives imaginative definition to the occluded relationships that result both from what I call slow violence and from the geographies of concealment in a neoliberal age.3 [End Page 444]

Slow Violence, Chernobyl, and Environmental Time

The role of what I call slow violence in the dynamics of concealment derives largely from the unequal power of spectacular and unspectacular time. In an age that venerates instant spectacle, slow violence is deficient in the recognizable special effects that fill movie seats and flat-screen TVs with the pyrotechnics of Shock and Awe. Instead, chemical...


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