- Ecology and Empire
Over the last half-dozen years, the convergence of ecocritical and postcolonial research has given an exciting new twist to both fields. If nature as an economic resource always lingered in the background of postcolonial literature, critics now give more sustained attention to the alterity of animals, plants, and landscapes than was common when poststructuralist thought dominated the field. Ecocriticism has not only vastly expanded its canon of texts under the impact of postcolonial scholarship, but also investigated in far greater depth how colonialism has shaped certain forms of nature appreciation, and what kinds of economic structures and human labor go into the exploitation as well as the conservation of nature. Graham Huggan, Robert P. Marzec, Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee, Rob Nixon, Susie O'Brien, and Helen Tiffin, among others, have incisively diagnosed the differences between the two fields and proposed forceful arguments for their synergy. Book-length studies such as Marzec's An Ecological and Postcolonial Study of Literature: From Daniel Defoe to Salman Rushdie (2007), Tiffin and Huggan's Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment, Mukherjee's Postcolonial Environments: Nature, Culture and the Contemporary Indian Novel in English, Bonnie Roos, Alex Hunt and John Tallmadge's edited anthology Postcolonial Green: Environmental Politics and World Narratives (all published in 2010), and most recently, Rob Nixon's Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011) have put this connection front and center. Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley, who had already collaborated with Renée K. Gosson on the earlier anthology Caribbean Literature and the Environment: Between Nature and Culture (2005), add another multifaceted collection of essays to this body of scholarship.
The fourteen essays in this volume address a remarkable range of writings from Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, and South Asia, and all of them trace the ways in which colonial oppression altered natural landscapes themselves as well their uses and perceptions on the part of both colonizers and colonized. In many of them, questions of genre, metaphor, rhetoric, or visual aesthetics play a central role so as to foreground how templates such as the picturesque or the Edenic garden shaped colonial nature, and to ask what role literature might play in addressing questions of current socio-economic inequality and ecological crisis. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert's masterful overview of the role the forest has played over more than three centuries of Caribbean literature in Spanish, French, and English, for example, or Rob Nixon's analysis of the South African game reserve as a contentious site of historical memory and amnesia highlight the link between material exploitation and cultural imagination. George B. Handley's fascinating analysis of Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier's portrayal of the baroque landscapes of the New World shows how nature both underwrites and eludes the author's invocation of a distinctive regional identity as a counterpoint to European domination. Counterintuitively, mesmerizing essays such as these are organized into sections with the stodgy headings "Cultivating Place," "Forest Fictions," and "The Lives of (Nonhuman) Animals," thematic groupings that owe more to ecocriticism and animal studies than to postcolonialism and obscure the most interesting theoretical challenges they raise. The last, more originally conceived section, entitled "Militourism," brings together laser-sharp diagnoses of intersections between conservation, disaster tourism, and war, including DeLoughrey's own brilliant exploration of nuclear rhetoric, which highlights how particular uses of metaphor might help to unsettle obfuscatory discourse about technological risk in the Pacific Islands. Conjunctions of nation and (counter)nature, risk and disaster, commodification and sacralization, violence and reconciliation, race and species recur across many of the essays and would have made for a more analytically compelling architecture.
Such an organization would also have helped to foreground the innovative ways in which DeLoughrey and Handley think through the postcolonial-ecocritical intersection in their introduction. Earlier comparisons of the two fields had outlined basic divergences in emphasis: ecocritics' interest in pristine nature as opposed to postcolonialists' investment in hybridization, for example, postcolonialists' focus on borders and migrations as compared to ecocritics' emphasis...