- Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics by Monique Allewaert
Connecting William Shakepeare’s Ariel and Edgar Allen Poe’s Ariel, Monique Allewaert builds on and explores Ariel’s lyric lines in The Tempest—”Nothing of him doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange”—to make a thorough argument about alternative considerations of personhood in and around plantation spaces: “Bodies and persons pulled apart, trespassed, and brutalized in these regions produced modes of story (parahuman tales), artifactual creation (fetishes), and fantasy (of decomposing and recomposing bodies) that gave rise to a minoritarian mythos of the Americas in which the autonomy of parts engenders new fusings” (25). Allewaert’s ecocritical reading of tropical bodies pushes the boundaries of well-established arguments by Frantz Fanon, Edouard Glissant, Nancy Ruttenburg, Srinivas Aravamudan, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as well as other recognized scholars in the fields of early American literatures, ecocriticism, and the subaltern. Allewaert supplements this scholarship in a compelling and successful monograph that questions a priori categories of subjecthood. Using texts as diverse as William Bartram’s Travels (1791), Alexander Humboldt’s Personal Narrative (1819–29), Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West Indian Proprietor (1833), Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects (1773), Leonora Sansay’s Secret History (1808) and Zelica (1820), and Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1837), Allewaert argues that disaggregated bodies signify in relation to conceptions of individual subjecthood to create an alternative understanding of personhood in the colonial tropics.
One of the most important contributions of Ariel’s Ecology is Allewaert’s definition and discussion of the parahuman. In chapters 3 and 4, “On Parahumanity: Creole Stories and the Suspension of the Human” and “Persons without Objects: Afro-American Materialisms from Fetishes to Personhood,” the author fully explores parahumanity and its implications through her investigation of “the identificatory processes and the strategies of resistance that developed through the performances of those designated parahuman” (86). Although contextualizing her argument within the [End Page 601] known definitions and traditionally oppressive use of the term parahuman, Allewaert moves from this usage via Creole (his)stories to argue that the latter “indicate modes of inhabiting the colonies and colonial histories that depart from the logic of colonialism and the modes of redress possible within it.” Through awareness of these modes, one comes to understand that the category of the parahuman “recalls and keeps open the category of the human and at the same time makes it a nonexceptional category, by which I mean configures it as a not entirely anthropic category” (110). Parahumanity becomes the portal that forces open the colonial categories of subject and object and radicalizes personhood and, through it, politics.
In examining fetishes, for instance, Allewaert uses the idea of “combinatory power” discussed in previous chapters to argue that the power of a fetish “develops from the relation of disparate bodies and substances: the fetish is, above all, a combination of things” (125). Allewaert begins her examination of the fetish within its historical context and through the groundwork laid by scholars such as William Pietz and Srinivas Ara-vamudan to make the claim that diasporic African artifacts were a part of a “deviant materialism that precedes and exceeds capitalist exchange” (120–21). Because discussions of fetishes appear in colonial texts from different plantation ecologies, Allewaert is able to conduct a thorough review of fetish practice through the perspective of the colonizer, but she enlarges this view with anthropological studies and contemporary accounts of fetish construction. Through this wide lens, she can see that fetish use “insists on the relation between interiorities and exteriorities such that the inside cannot serve as a metaphor for an unworldly, private, and wholly human personhood” because “fetishes are arrangements in which insides pass on to outsides and back again” (133). The nature of the fetish is to be representational, but not necessarily to provide a miniaturized, one-to-one metaphorical, or even essentialist, representation; rather, fetishes mediate between bodies and...