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Local Rock and Global Plastic: World Ecology and the Experience of Place

From: Comparative Literature Studies
Volume 41, Number 1, 2004
pp. 126-152 | 10.1353/cls.2004.0003

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Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 126-152

Columbia University

For several decades, the best-known slogan of the environmentalist movement has been "Think globally, act locally." This double imperative derives from environmentalists' attempts to propagate images of global ecology that might help to make the functioning of the planet as a whole accessible to average citizens, as well as to connect such an understanding with the experience of local places. From the enormous ease and frequency with which this popular slogan is quoted, one might assume that it proposes a smooth conceptual connection between the experience of particular places and an understanding of planet-wide ecological systems. In fact, however, different types of environmentalist thought diverge quite substantially in the ways in which they envision the global and its relation to the local; how the global and the local can and should be considered and experienced together remains as much of an open question for an ecological perspective as it does for other approaches to globalization. The objective of this essay is to explore how literary texts negotiate the juncture between ecological globalism and localism and how, from a comparatist viewpoint, they link issues of global ecology with those of transnational culture.

The analysis will focus on a novel whose narrative material as well as storytelling strategies situate it at the intersection of several national and regional literary traditions. Through the Arc of the Rainforest (1990), a novel by Japanese American writer Karen Tei Yamashita, draws on some of the conventions of U.S.-American ethnic writing, yet it has far stronger affinities with late twentieth-century Latin American fiction. Yamashita lived in Brazil for almost a decade and wrote her second book on Japanese immigrant communities in that country; the influence of both Portuguese and Spanish novels of Latin America is as unmistakable in Through the Arc of the Rainforest as it is in her more recent works Tropic of Orange (1997) and Circle K Cycles (2001). All three novels weave their storylines around transfers and migrations between the United States, Latin America and Japan and draw on North American multicultural writing and Latin American magical realism as well as, to a lesser extent, on the techno-postmodernism that flourished in both the U.S. and Japan from the 1980s onward. Through the Arc of the Rainforest, the work with the clearest focus on ecological issues, is therefore a particularly interesting springboard for a consideration of the connections between ecological and cultural globalism.

Section 1 of this essay will focus on the notion of "deterritorialization" as it has been defined in recent theories of globalization, and on the strategies of "reterritorialization" by means of which, as environmentalist literature and philosophy have suggested, this tendency should be resisted. Section 2 shows how Yamashita, in her exploration of international ecology and economy, cross-cultural migration, and the transformation of local landscapes, uses tropes and narrative procedures that imply a critique of certain forms of economic globalization, but which also question the possibility of reterritorialization as envisioned by environmentalists. Some of her narrative strategies derive from two earlier classics of twentieth-century Latin American fiction, Gabriel García Márquez' Cien años de soledad and Mário de Andrade's Macunaíma, whose reflections on regional identity Yamashita translates into scenarios of global connectivity and ecological alienation, as discussed in Section 3. Yamashita's reworking of these texts is reinforced by her unusual choice of a non-human narrator, which will be discussed in Section 4 in connection with the challenge that an environmentalist consideration of globalization poses: reimagining Earth from a perspective that does not privilege human voices over all others.

1. Deterritorialization, Environmentalism, and the Experience of the Local

The relationship between the lived and perceived experience of the local and the often difficult conceptualization of world-wide systems and spaces has been one of the analytical foci in recent theories of globalization and its association with processes of modernization and postmodernization. Many of the most important theorists foreground the tendency of modernizing and globalizing processes to detach social and cultural practices from their anchoring in particular places. Networks of international economic exchange, institutional structures, new means of...