Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey. Allegories of the Anthropocene. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2019. x + 269 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0471-4.
Reviewed by Ana Baginski (University of California, Irvine)
Published on H-Environment (September, 2020)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
The concept of the “Anthropocene” and the discourse it has generated have come under fire in recent years, especially from humanities scholars. In the wake of these criticisms, a series of readjustments of the Anthropocene have been proposed. Some of the resulting euphemisms that Elizabeth DeLoughrey lists and engages in her book Allegories of the Anthropocene include the “Manthropocene, Capitalocene, Necrocene, and Plantationocene.” DeLoughrey does not propose her own environmentalist periodization in what she describes as the “academic contest for the historical primacy of the Anthropocene” (p. 196). Instead, she considers these terms and the discourses they engender as narratives and applies a literary critic’s approach to contextualize and complicate them. Instead of an alternative grand narrative for periodizing human activity in relation to geological history, she offers a critique of the “positivist, universalist modes of thinking about the human as species” encouraged by these narratives (p. 11).
In a 2011 restatement of the importance of redescribing our current geological era as the “Anthropocene,” atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and journalist Christian Schwägerl explained some of what they see as the wider implications of the perspectival shift they have argued for. In their terms, redescribing the current geological age of the Holocene as Anthropocene would signify successful recognition that “the long-held barriers between nature and culture are breaking down.” In this view, the trope of man versus Nature no longer applies to human activity. “Instead,” they write, “it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be.” DeLoughrey would diagnose this claim as an example of a kind of origin story about man’s alienation from nonhuman nature. As an origin story, the Anthropocene gestures to the birth of a new species-level subject, defined by its complicity in its own destruction. This kind of periodization, the conversion of history into natural history and vice versa, relies on the centrality of a human figure who stands, synecdochally, for the species. As such, it constitutes an example of what she identifies as an allegory, in a similar sense given to the term by Walter Benjamin. Read as allegories, Anthropocene discourse’s claims to novelty and applicability “re-universalize” “specific and select cultural histories,” namely of the European Enlightenment, as “authenticated” by their “appearance in the strata of the Earth” (pp. 20-21).
The questions raised by Anthropocene discourse—questions about totality, modernity, the relationship between individuals and the species— resemble the “same questions raised by globalization” (p. 16). Additionally, DeLoughrey tells us, “if we have learned anything from globalization studies, it is that a planetary scale needs to be placed in a dialectical relation with the local to render their narratives meaningful” (p. 10). But Anthropocene discourse’s insistence on historical rupture and origin meets up with “an aporia in the representational capacity of the human ability to reckon the totality of the planet” (p. 11). This aporia appears in terms of the difficulty of representing the relations between individual and species, between weather and global climate, between local environmental conditions and planet as human territory. Donna Haraway gives us another way of thinking about this aporia when she describes the “constant question” that must be borne in mind when considering “systemic phenomena:” “when do changes in degree become changes in kind.” Allegories of the Anthropocene argues that this aporia is frequently allegorized through the figure of the island, which “engage[s] the scalar telescoping between local and global, island and Earth” (p. 6). Narratives that figure the loss of island as world, as a kind of part-for-whole substitution for loss at a planetary, ecosystemic scale, accomplish, in Benjaminian terms, “the suturing of nature-history into allegories of decay” (p. 91).
The stakes of this approach to the Anthropocene through allegories that produce “constellations of anthropogenesis” are clear (p. 22). In treating Anthropocene discourse as a series of allegories, DeLoughrey wants to “parochialize” Anthropocene discourse, to show its limitedness and particularity. This parochialization is one version of what Sylvia Wynter would call “de-universalizing” the Western tradition of which Anthropocene discourse is a recent outgrowth. One way DeLoughrey proposes to do this is by reading “counterallegories” in texts written by islanders that trouble the figure of the island as it has functioned in “the western imagination as a space for allegorical forms such as utopia and dystopia” (p. 31). Complicating this reliance on the “boundedness” of island territory for figuring narratives of decay (or of Edenic, ecosystemic wholeness), she instead offers more ambivalent examples of island allegories. The book’s first chapter, for example, counterposes Caribbean provision grounds to the plantation system in order to complicate “the recent turn to the Plantationocene which overlooks the more sustaining—and feminized—underground narratives of earth/Earth” (p. 38).
Scholarly articulations of the Plantationocene identify the rise of monocrop agriculture made possible by the transportation and implementation of racial slavery as a historical “inflection point” for the Anthropocene (Haraway). DeLoughrey complicates this environmental historiography by considering the role of the provision grounds that developed alongside the plantation system as a site of subsistence, where cultivars like the yam smuggled from Africa, as well as “cashews, bananas, calabashes, calalu, okra, organges, and other fruit and spices,” flourished in a communal site that sustained “the noncapitalist sensibility of Africans” as well as a “folk culture” (pp. 44, 41). The provision grounds are important to Caribbean studies for thinking about “how to position African roots” as a “counterallegory” to the plantation plots and a potential source of diasporic genealogy (p. 43). DeLoughrey analogizes Caribbean ambivalence towards the inseparability of provision grounds and plantation system to a similarly ambivalent orientation towards the literary form of the novel, which, “like slave society, is both critique and product of the market economy” (p. 45). She interprets this “critical ambivalence” about the “mutual imbrication” of plantation and provision grounds in Erna Brodber’s book The Rainmaker’s Mistake as it challenges “the realist plot of liberation history” (p. 47). DeLoughrey argues that the novel “foregrounds the earth and woman as the primary but invisible cultural progenitors who must be excavated by the community/reader” (p. 55). This underground network of reproductive labor is positioned as a critique of the “androcentrism” of Benjamin’s theory of allegory, in which the “figure of nature is reduced to death and decay” (p. 58). In this chapter, DeLoughrey contrasts the process of creolization, which, she argues, has provided sources of nourishment, community self-narration, and partial liberation to narratives which the plantation system as the beginning of a self-inflicted end for an anthropogenic species-subject. It may be the case that DeLoughrey’s positive recuperation of the idea of creolization situates it too neatly as a counterallegory to the allegory of planetary decay, which may arguably have been inaugurated by the transatlantic slave trade. DeLoughrey’s point that narratives of decay obscure other relations to the present—relations of reproduction, refuge, and subsistence—is well taken, but it may also be the case that there are alternative narratives of loss obscured by Anthropocenic allegories of decay. In this sense, Allegories of the Anthropocene does not always succeed at stepping outside of the closed economy of conscious conservation and complicit destruction advanced by much contemporary environmental thought.
In her second chapter, DeLoughrey turns to the “daemonic allegories” authorized by the development of nuclear power (p. 90). The term “daemonic” invokes an intermediary figure between the human and divine and, as such, “daemonic allegories” offer a “suggestion that human technology emanates from the divine” (p. 84). Again, here, the suggestion is that counternarratives parochialize Anthropocene models that historicize “geological agency” of the human species in terms of the development of nuclear technology (p. 48). Instead of offering an “objective” natural historical marker, DeLoughrey suggests that any such periodizaton of the development of the human as natural force vis-à-vis nuclear capacity simply reinforces a metaphysical elevation of a specific version of human society, in this case the North American militarized nation-state capable of outsourcing fallout from nuclear tests to the South Pacific. The conflation of visibility with the presumed self-evidentiary nature of the statigraphic record’s registration of the “wars of light” cannot begin to account for bodies, “like those destroyed by irradiation,” which “will leave no fossil traces for the Anthropocene” (p. 97). This chapter implies that the privileging of nuclear-militarized nations as particularly anthropogenically significant or active obscures histories of settler-colonial expansion across the Pacific and also obscures Indigenous histories or counterallegories that are not rendered visible to the historical record, especially when it is collapsed into the geological record. The view of history as it is construed allegorically in light of nuclear experimentation is a history of decay, of waste products, and of affected bodies and ecologies. Again, DeLoughrey argues that this collapse of history into “fully enlightened” and illuminated nature-history and, as a result, into ruins suggesting decay, invisibilizes alternative histories and allegories of survival and resistance (p. 63). These alternative relations find their clearest figure in the photographs taken by the character Etta in Māori novelist James George’s book Ocean Roads (2007). These moments in the novel, accompanied by a diegetic “Click,” supposedly “offer a caesura to universal linear narrative,” opposing moments of partial or provisional illumination to the “excess illumination of the earth” (p. 89). Here again we find figures of transience and partial illumination positioned as resistance to the “fully enlightened” earth allegorized as the planetary habitat of a species whose actions register on a geological scale (p. 67).
The following chapter turns to “Caribbean artists and writers as collectors of techno fossils and narrators of waste” (p. 100). Despite the previous chapter’s implicit argument about the historiographic hegemony produced by privileging the visible, this one suggests that “turning to figures of waste” may in fact “render visible” the effects and “mystified by-products of late capitalism and regimes of state disposability” (p. 101). Attending to the liminal qualities of waste, as something which exists on the threshold between human and nonhuman nature, DeLoughrey nevertheless falls into the epistemological trap that her previous chapter seemed to critique. “To call attention to wasted lives,” she argues, “is not to relegate people to waste but to foreground the political and social systems that deem certain humans ‘matter out of place’” (p. 103). Certainly, viewing industrial modernity and late capitalism from the perspective of waste calls into question any narrative of “colonial and neoliberal development” or technological and historical progress (p. 104). Additionally, viewing modernity, as the novels DeLoughrey turns to do, in terms of the maintenance of the boundaries between “disposable and enduring objects, citizens and refugees,” troubles narratives of social and economic development. But this framing is surprisingly totalizing, given the introduction’s insistence on the importance of troubling ideas of totality (p. 105). This chapter turns away from an anthropogenic and monolithic species-being to a contest over the representability of those who register in the historical/geological record, a “powerful minority of human beings,” and, on the other hand, “the majority of the Anthropos who will not be authorized by the Athropocene archive” (pp. 5, 132). Here the project of the book takes on the appearance of another corrective gesture, which, rather than articulating “an aporia in the representational capacity of the human ability to reckon the totality of the planet,” frames different groups’ representation in the historical/geological record as a problem of inclusion and exclusion (p. 11).
The final chapter moves the furthest toward articulating this aporia which is brought into relief by a “politics of finitude, a recognition of spatial and inhabitable limits for both island and globe,” and which plays out in allegories about “sinking islands” whose cultures and peoples are threatened by climate change (p. 169). It locates these allegories in a series of documentaries and films that “frame the Indigenous island subject as an ‘endangered species’ in the wake of anthropogenic sea-level rise” (p. 169). These narratives draw on persistent tropes of the “vanishing native” to satisfy a desire on the part of audiences in the global North for representations of “imperialist nostalgia” (p. 169, 189). By analogizing threatened island to threatened globe, the situated white, Western viewer of this kind of “salvage environmentalism” is invited to mourn “the loss of what the global north has effectively destroyed” (pp. 170, 169). DeLoughrey suggests that these representations “mystify the causal links between industrialized continents and sinking islands” by naturalizing a narrative of loss that privileges those forms of loss that can be visualized, for example in film media, while avoiding “what is ‘latent’ and ‘immanent’ such as radiation damage and other forms of slow violence” (pp. 170, 176). Within the kind of narrative that privileges the visible register of loss, viewing nature in terms of ruin and decay, the island serves as a figure for extinction, irreversible damage, and imminent disappearance, emphasizing disjuncture. On the other hand, from the perspective of the Marshallese poet Jetñil-Kijiner’s poetry, mobilized in the book’s introduction and conclusion, the island is a site of continuity, especially of violence—as, for example, sea-level rise threatens the structural integrity of sealed caches of nuclear waste created and collected there by the US military—whose inhabitants will not “accede to discourses of extinction and migration” (p. 195). From this second perspective, as from the perspective of many Indigenous cultures, a climate-related apocalypse does not threaten only in the future but in the past as well.
DeLoughrey’s practice of allegoresis shows how allegories “render a universalizing transcendent figure of ‘Nature’ into a more localized nature-history," (p. 165). She implements a “dialectical historicism” to interrogate the presumed rupture between people and place that Anthropocene discourse frequently relies on to emphasize the new and original challenge posed by environmental crisis (p. 165). This approach represents a refreshing appeal, in the environmental humanities, to critical theoretical tools that can interrogate the supposed givenness of nonhuman nature and of natural scientific accounts of human behavior. These tools help DeLoughrey assess the role that island subjects are being asked to perform for a Western audience in contemporary media and literature. In her words, islanders are often “expected to be the visible evidence of the reality of global warming,” presented as “the harbingers of climate change, rendered as figures of an isolated, precapitalist and nature-loving culture … to provide… ‘a human face of climate change’” (p. 180). The idea that visible evidence of anthropogenic climate change must be accompanied by a performance of human culture as isolation, which is to say untranslated and premodern, in the documentaries and performances discussed in the final chapter, shows how the allegory of the disappearing island is incomplete without a “human face” that attests to its own extinction (p. 180). The logic of exemplarity that accompanies Anthropocene discourse requires both that loss be experienced as apocalyptic and world-ending (with the island operating as a figure for world) and that it be incomplete—someone must be there at the end to attest to the experience of loss. While DeLoughrey seeks to parochialize Anthropocene discourse, providing an alternative to the “transcendence of place” its allegories insist on, she proposes a critique informed by “feminist/Indigenous ontologies:” “it is not from distancing ourselves from place but, rather, re-engaging its animation in the ordinary that provides for the navigation of oceanic futures” (p. 157). But this turn to the locally specific as a kind of respite from crisis or insulation from harm does not succeed in evading the logic of exemplarity according to which those who, in Sylvia Wynter’s terms, “have nothing to do with global warming” become overrepresented as its human cost in a paradox described by DeLoughrey. Positioning islander subjects and texts, as DeLoughrey does, as either offering resistance to universalizing linear narratives of anthropogenic climate change and/or as in need of inclusion into the parochialized conception of the human registered by climate change discourse reinforces its totalizing effects, suggesting that there are no relations of indifference to the Anthropocene or no place outside its logics.
Not only is Anthropocene discourse generic, or universalizing, in its recentering of an “unmarked masculine species” subject but, as a discourse, it demobilizes negativity (p. 12). No one can not matter to it in the sense that everyone must be affected. As a result, those who don’t form part of the “powerful minority of human beings” which, DeLoughrey affirms, citing Sylvia Wynter, “overrepresents itself as if it were human,” are refigured as the most affected. This, then is an economy of overrepresentation, where not being represented by and being indifferent to the Anthropocene are equally impossible. Complicity of the global North, industrialized or nuclearly militarized nations, or colonial powers is the other side of, to borrow Denise Ferriera da Silva’s term, the affectability of the global South. Narratives that emphasize this complicity re-entrench the form of an explanatory dialectic that Kathryn Yusoff explains, “positions blackness as a stratum or seismic barrier to the costs of extraction.” The thrust of Yusoff's formulation also raises questions about modes of argumentation which must be downplayed in a book that works quickly and expansively across disparate zones and histories of disposession, implicitly comparing texts by writers from the Marshall Islands, Jamaica and Haiti. It is not enough, as DeLoughrey hopes, to supplement an Anthropocene discourse that “privileges positivist methods,” with “humanities approaches that are attuned to cultural and historical context, and especially human difference,” a formulation which reproduces the division between natural scientific and cultural truths (pp. 2, 12). Instead, what needs to be articulated is the way racializing conceptions of the human underwrite this disciplinary split, positioning natural history and the geologic as an alibi for the ongoing violence of racial slavery and displacement, which global climate change enforces.
. Paul J. Crutzen and Christian Schwägerl, “Living in the Anthropocene: Toward a New Global Ethos,” YaleEnvironment 360, January 24, 2011, https://e360.yale.edu/features/living_in_the_anthropocene_toward_a_new_global_ethos.
. Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 159-65.
. Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick, “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations,” in On Being Human as Praxis, ed. Katherine McKittrick (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015): 22.
. Kathryn Yusoff, preface, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), xi.
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Ana Baginski. Review of DeLoughrey, Elizabeth M., Allegories of the Anthropocene.
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