- Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics by Monique Allewaert
Marlene L. Daut, Monique Allewaert, Ariel, Colonialism, Personhood
This is a provocative and elegantly written book. As the symbol of the “elemental natural world,” in Ariel’s Ecology Monique Allewaert argues that the figure of [End Page 99] Ariel provides a distinct metaphor for thinking about the relationship among plants, animals, objects, and those human beings who were conceived of as persons, as well as those who were not, in colonial spaces. Allewaert opens her work with one of Ariel’s famous songs from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which she goes on to use as an allegory for describing a mode of personhood developed by “Afro-Americans” that she says was both “minoritarian” and “anticolonial” (2). Over the course of five chapters, Allewaert provides a detailed analysis of what she conceives of as an often assumed, but in her view, ultimately reductive, opposition between personhood and objects, especially plants.
The heart of her claim is that both the natural habitat of the American tropics and the material world created by the American colonists unwittingly forged an “alternative materialism of the body” (3). Allewaert asserts that this “alternative materialism” can be glimpsed in detailed descriptions of plant life in the Americas penned by naturalist scientists like William Bartram and Benjamin Rush. They are also found in what she calls the “creole tales” of the “Afro-American artifact makers and storytellers” (6) who populate the colonial works of Matthew Lewis, as well as of those of African diasporic writers like Phillis Wheatley, Ottobah Cugano, and Olaudah Equiano.
This claim is important to Allewaert’s work in several different ways. First, it challenges the dominant idea of personhood as a sine qua non for subjectivity and agency, especially with respect to the body. By decoupling personhood from its conflation with the physical body—and from the seemingly natural assumption that what is human is distinctly different from and can always be immediately distinguished from what is not human—Allewaert contributes to scholarship concerned with examining the vital role that naturalist travel writing played in the early national body politic of the United States, and to a growing field of hemispheric American literary criticism and historical study that employs ecocritical perspectives.1 Second, using the concept of creolization as an organizing principle allows Allewaert to explore the tensions and conflicts between understanding creolization as a “cultural phenomenon” and understanding it as a “material phenomenon” (7). The former paradigm allows for the creation of new and divergent traditions out of the many kinds of cross-cultural contact that occurred among the various groups of people who populated the colonies. The latter takes into account [End Page 100] diverse conceptions of life that might newly emerge when plants, people, and the economy of the material world are forced to try to inhabit the same spaces.
Allewaert argues that those who were not configured as fully embodied persons by the dominant cultures of various colonial plantation economies left behind distinguishable traces, much of which was oral and material rather than written or literate, in which their “strategies of resistance” to and cooptation of nonpersonhood can be located. These nonliterate forms of resistance, however, are most often found in her study in printed works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet, still, Allewaert insists that in focusing on the representation of African materialism in largely Anglo-European writings, as well as the second-person tales from Afrodiasporic “informants,” so to speak, to be found in such writing, she can engage in a form of “transversal reading that cuts across but not against, a work’s stated interests, allowing the excavation of the set of desires and fantasies that cannot be reduced to the more dominant interests that move through that same work” (24).
Allewaert’s perspective serves as a necessary reminder, in a field absolutely obsessed with subjectivity, personhood, nation-building, and citizenship, that over-arching concern with one’s own interiority and agency is perhaps...