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Automne / Fall 2020

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Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey. Allegories of the Anthropocene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. Pp. 280. ISBN: 9781478004711. (Michelle Keown)

Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey. Allegories of the Anthropocene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. Pp. 280. ISBN: 9781478004711.

Michelle Keown

michelle.keown@ed.ac.uk

University of Edinburgh

Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s Allegories of the Anthropocene is a strikingly timely book, given that within four months of its publication, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its alarming Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (in September 2019; see www.ipcc.ch). DeLoughrey’s monograph draws extensively on the climate science invoked in such reports, but seeks to address a lacuna in Anthropocene discourse by focusing specifically on the interface between (social) sciences and the humanities, within a field that has, until recently, been dominated by masculinist, ethnocentric, and geological perspectives (20). Further, DeLoughrey emphasizes her exploration of Caribbean and Pacific ecologies as an important counterbalance to the disproportionate bias towards the global north in Anthropocene discourse. As she points out, the islands and archipelagoes she investigates are at the forefront of climate change impacts, in spite of contributing minimally to the carbon dioxide emissions that have precipitated our current climate crisis.

In responding to recent debates focused on the temporal dimensions of the Anthropocene, DeLoughrey asserts that its origins should be dated back to western imperialist expansion into the Americas in the early 1600s, rather than being linked with more recent developments such as the invention of the steam engine. She roots this argument in the work of more recent scholars of the Anthropocene such as geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, who argued in 2015 that colonization of the Americas “ ‘made industrialization possible owing to the unprecedented ←377 | 378→inflow of new cheap resources’ ” garnered through the exploitation of the lands and peoples of the “New World” (qtd. in Deloughrey 21). A decade after the term Anthropocene was coined, DeLoughrey notes, we can now associate it with a range of processes entrenching socio-economic inequalities between the global north and the global south, including capitalism, empire, patriarchy, white settler colonialism, twentieth-century globalization, and the accelerated processes of production and consumption following the end of the Second World War. DeLoughrey’s book is designed as a corrective to the “lack of engagement with postcolonial and Indigenous perspectives” that has “shaped Anthropocene discourse to claim the novelty of crisis rather than being attentive to the historical continuity of dispossession and disaster caused by empire” (2, emphasis in original).

The book is divided into six chapters, the first of which offers definitions of the central terms and debates – focused on the Anthropocene, allegory, ecology and other key concepts – explored throughout the volume. Subsequent chapters are structured around what DeLoughrey terms “constellations” of the Anthropocene: chapters one to three focus on anthropogenesis through explorations of agriculture; radiation / militarism; and waste, while the final two chapters explore oceans and islands – spaces in which, DeLoughrey argues, the Anthropocene is rendered “most visible.” Drawing on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential study Provincializing Europe (2000), she argues that given the “enormous scales” invoked in discursive figurations of the Anthropocene, it is important to “ground” our understanding of ecological relations in specific places, in order to help us navigate what can seem an overwhelming and discursively abstracted ecological crisis. Each chapter in the book duly undertakes this “provincializing” process by offering a series of close readings of Caribbean and Pacific literature, film and visual artistic material rooted in specific island and oceanic modalities in which climate change is registering most acutely. Her approach is avowedly “multiscalar,” situating these careful contextualized readings alongside the macro-discourses of climate change, the Anthropocene, and allegory, and “telescoping” between “space (planet) and place (island)” to explore how they “mutually inform each other” (2).

DeLoughrey argues that allegory is the “fundamental rhetorical mode for figuring the planet,” as well as the “rift between part and whole that is symbolized by the Anthropocene” (18). This configuration is rooted in the work of key theorists of allegory including Fredric Jameson – who, in ←378 | 379→The Geopolitical Aesthetic, argued that “the world system […] is a being of such enormous complexity that it can only be mapped and modelled indirectly” (Jameson 169) – and Walter Benjamin, who argued in The Origin of German Drama that allegory emerges in times of acute historical crisis, and asserted that modern allegory “triggered a new relationship with nonhuman nature that recognized it as a historical rather than an abstract ideal,” as DeLoughrey puts it (5). DeLoughrey builds on Benjamin’s “radical shift” from the figuration of “universalized nature” to its “parochialization” (5), arguing that an analysis of narrative allegory (in the novels, short stories, artworks and climate change documentaries she explores) can reveal crucial modalities of climate change in the Caribbean and Pacific locations she explores.

Although the chapters are not arranged chronologically as a rule, the first chapter explores plantation slavery as “an early marker” of the Anthropocene, analyzing the “radical social and ecological climate change” (24) that attended plantation slavery (or the “Plantationocene”) in the Caribbean. In exploring the various strands of Caribbean discourse focused on “routes” and “roots,” and the relationship between plantation cultivations and provision grounds (where slaves grew their own crops), DeLoughrey offers an extended close reading of Erna Brodber’s The Rainmaker’s Mistake (2007), a densely allegorical “cli-fi” novel commemorating the bicentennial of the British abolition of the slave trade. Refiguring Benjamin’s assertion that allegory stages a “natural history” signified by ruins rather than symbols of progress, DeLoughrey posits Brodber’s novel as an allegory of plantation history in which roots, soil and rot become “visible ruins of the past” (25). With reference to the work of influential (male) theorists of the Caribbean environment (Edouard Glissant, Kamau Brathwaite, Wilson Harris), DeLoughrey asserts that Brodber offers a markedly feminist critique of the legacies of slavery in the Caribbean, by featuring a complex plotline involving a post-emancipation community that begins to question its phallo(go)centric origin stories after unearthing the corpses of female ancestors.

Chapter Two returns to the subject of nuclear technology explored extensively in several of DeLoughrey’s previous publications, this time focusing more specifically on radiation (represented through allegories of light and energy in atomic discourse) as a figure of the daemonic – a liminal entity that moves between the realms of the physical and the spiritual, the mundane and the divine. Noting that militarized radiation is now widely recognized by scientists as a stratigraphic marker of the ←379 | 380→Anthropocene, DeLoughrey traces the ways in which indigenous Pacific authors such as Hone Tuwhare, James George and Chantal Spitz counter the strategies by which Cold War discourse “naturalized” military radiation through heliotropes (which figured the light and heat of nuclear detonations as equivalent to solar radiation), thereby occluding what Rob Nixon terms the “slow violence” of the destructive effects of this military technology upon the indigenous communities and environments located at the testing sites in Micronesia and French Polynesia.

Chapter Three explores the “technofossil” – non-biodegradable waste that now permeates the world’s oceans and waterways since the “Great Acceleration” of manufacturing, consumption, and “disposability” following the Second World War – through a nuanced analysis of works produced in the 1990s by Dominican artist Tony Cappelán (who has created a montage installation from recycled waste materials such as plastics and barbed wire), and Orlando Patterson’s first novel Children of Sisyphus (1968), which explores the slums of Kingston in 1960s Jamaica. Here DeLoughrey draws on Benjamin’s notion of the allegorist as collector (one who assembles the “ruins of uneven human history to provide new possibilities for meaning for our present and past as well as to ‘augur’ the future” (100)) to explore the ways in which both artists reveal how human beings (as well as inorganic refuse) have been relegated to “figures of waste” in a “spatial collapse between the human and nonhuman nature” effected by late capitalism and “regimes of state disposability” (100–101). DeLoughrey locates Cappelán and Patterson within a tradition of Caribbean writers and artists who “have long examined how the region, often relegated to a backyard and (often literal) junkyard of the United States, has utilized the material and discursive constructions of waste as political and formal critique” (104). She situates Cappelán’s work within the context not just of increasingly severe climate change impacts such as sea level rise (resulting in floods which deposited the hundreds of flip-flops used in Cappelán’s installation Mar Caribe along the Dominican shoreline), but also the contemporaneous crisis precipitated by the refusal of entrance into the U.S. of Haitian (and other) asylum seekers, many of whom drowned in the Caribbean sea.

Chapter Four marks the turn from the “historical remnants” of the Anthropocene to explore “allegories of our planetary futures” (134). The focus of this fourth chapter is the ocean, approached through an overview of the consolidating field of what DeLoughrey terms “critical ocean studies,” and a discussion of the burgeoning corpus of books, films ←380 | 381→and photography offering apocalyptic visions of the consequences of sea level rise, followed by detailed close readings of several stories from New Zealand Māori author Keri Hulme’s collection Stonefish (2004). Whereas popular western conceptions of the open ocean represent marine space as “profoundly exceptional or alien to human experience” (146), DeLoughrey takes Hulme’s work as exemplar of the ways in which indigenous Pacific ecologies acknowledge the intricately intertwined and quotidian “multispecies” relationships between humans, the sea, and its nonhuman inhabitants. Noting that the ocean is increasingly becoming a “renewed space of empire and territorialization” (339), DeLoughrey also situates Hulme’s work within the context of legal disputes over New Zealand’s 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act, which “sought to naturalize state appropriation of the foreshore and seabed” from Aotearoa’s indigenous peoples (144).

The final chapter of the book turns to the context of islands and archipelagoes, places where the impacts of anthropogenic climate change are registering most acutely and visibly in the form of sea level rise, increasingly extreme weather events, and species extinction. DeLoughrey explores ways in which a flurry of documentaries produced since 9/11 have posited various low-lying Pacific islands and atolls (in particular, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands) as synecdochal figures for the threat climate change posits to the world as a whole, enlisting stereotypes of endangered Pacific “paradises” as harbingers of eventual globalized mass extinction. Noting that these films peddle well-worn clichés of the “vanishing native,” occluding the colonial and military-imperialist histories that have contributed significantly to the climate change impacts in these islands, DeLoughrey ends the chapter – and the book – by invoking the poetry of Marshall Islander Kathy Jetñil Kijiner as an example of cultural work that resists colonial stereotype and exhorts a global audience to share the responsibility for anthropogenic climate change.

Overall, this is a meticulously researched, compellingly argued and richly suggestive book that builds on various strands in DeLoughrey’s previous research to produce an important and timely intervention into ecocritical, indigenous and literary / visual studies. DeLoughrey has an enviable ability to summarize and synthesize enormous bodies of scholarship across multiple disciplines, and to bring them into productive relation, also deploying highly nuanced close reading skills in relating (social) scientific discourses to specific literary, artistic and filmic ←381 | 382→“texts.” Given the vast volumes of material with which DeLoughrey has engaged in researching this book, it is inevitable that there are occasions on which bodies of scholarship, or social movements and historical events, are summarized with less nuance than one might hope for (this is notable, for example, in the claim that the “antinuclear movement has adopted a homogenising one-worldism” (89), which glosses over significant cultural and regional differences within the Pacific alone), and although in her introduction DeLoughrey commendably commits to a sustained engagement with feminist and indigenous perspectives, the volume as a whole invokes fewer indigenous critical voices than one might have hoped to see. Further, the meticulous historical and theoretical contextualizations that open and inflect each chapter, while hugely suggestive for future scholarship, do at times threaten to swamp the analysis of “primary texts,” with the weight of exemplification carried by a relatively small number of works in some chapters. However, inevitably sacrifices have to be made in a work of this magnitude, and on balance this exciting new monograph upholds the usual standard of brilliant scholarship witnessed in DeLoughrey’s existing critical corpus, generously offering readers a rich range of critical frameworks to carry forward in their own research and teaching.

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Lewis, Simon and Mark A. Maslin. “Defining the Anthropocene.” Nature 519 (2015): 171–80. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14258

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