HOTB2020 Panel 5.3: Theorizing Urgency from the South



Panel 5.3: Theorizing Urgency from the South

“Urgencies of the Dry City: Cape Town in the Global Imagination”

Brooke Stanley (University of Delaware)

“Scientists and Fishermen: Environmental Theory, Myth, and Practice in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide”

Akua Banful (Columbia University)

“Postcolonial Apocalypse and Pessimistic Aesthetics”

Rebecca S. Oh (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)



Q & A

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16 replies
  1. Baron Haber says:

    Thank you Brooke, Akua, and Rebecca for this excellent presentations. I work on both Sinha and Ghosh and found all three of these talks extremely helpful in thinking through my own research questions.

    One common theme I saw in all of your presentations was the idea of grounded improvisational responses to the difficulties and depravations effected by neocolonial capitalism. Brooke, I saw this in your discussion of online groups where people challenge each other to minimize water usage; Akua, in your account of Pia’s ethical research plan at the end of The Hungry Tide; Rebecca, in your reading of the end of Animal’s People (“Tomorrow there will be more of us.) — both a great example of the novel’s pessimism but also a clarion call for global solidarity. My question is about the scalability of these responses: how do we negotiate between having responses that are grounded in particular material and cultural spaces, and having responses that are able to present a serious challenge to these global systems? This is also a question of translatability, obviously a major theme of both Ghosh and Sinha’s novels.

    Thanks again for your talks, and sorry if the question is a bit vague. I did want to make sure I passed along my thoughts and appreciation.

    • Rebecca Oh, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign says:

      Hi Baron,
      Thanks for your question! It’s a good one, and in the face of real as well as fictional injustices, an urgent one. Even though I don’t phrase it this way in the talk, the moments of greatest narrative pessimism in the novel also seem to be ones of agency and resistance, ones that are not as obvious as the hustling and community-building that I do address. So, the ending might be seen as a call to arms or confirmation of the continuity of global inequality; but the other moment that comes to mind is when Zafar (arguably at his most pessimistic during his fast when he is dying), says that there are many poisoned cities, each with their own Zafar. This similarly testifies to the ubiquity of global exploitation and harm, but, against the pessimism of what Zafar feels in this moment, testifies also to a distributed network of resistance that actually is only mentioned in that moment of pessimism. It does seem like the novel asks us to use a kind of doublethink, or perhaps doublevision given its motif of “listening Eyes” in which resistance often doesn’t appear as such and indeed doesn’t appear in the same forms or scales as the oppressions they confront. (I’m reminded here of Brooke’s “both/and” reading too). I think Zafar’s rhetoric in this moment suggests that a scaled-up, universal response isn’t necessarily the way to combat a big, top down problem.

      Similarly, the ethical research that Piya turns to at the end of The Hungry Tide does something similar; it democratizes expertise, making scientists and lay people, first worlders and third worlders, collaborators. John Marx has recently argued that this is something politically-minded literature does – bring up questions of who counts as an expert. I think my and Akua’s presentations foreground a questioning of scaled-up solutions but do suggest models for collective or collaborative responses that don’t resolve into yet more top-down solutions. Brooke suggests this too but also mentions that in theory at least, political institutions themselves might be reconfigured to foreground both the collective and the idea of bottom-up expertise and ethics. Thus I think our objects present a number of strategies or models by which better responses to climate change and environmental harm emerge by focusing on collectivity – in transnational networks, democratized expertise, or revamped institutions but one in which collectivity doesn’t obliterate difference and particularity. That’s a first thought, at least! 

      Brooke and Akua, I really enjoyed both your presentations!  

    • Brooke Stanley, University of Delaware says:

      Dear Baron,

      Thank you so much for getting our discussion started!

      Your question about scalability is really interesting, and tough to answer––not because it’s unclear, but because I think building from local to global (while still being attentive to local differences) is one of the central difficulties for environmental, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist politics. Some thoughts:

      I’m interested, in part, in how media has itself tried to “scale up” Cape Town’s drought, spinning it as an example with global relevance. It’s been presented as a kind of “lesson” for the rest of the world (whether that’s a lesson about accepting a “new normal,” or about avoiding a bad “future” that has already arrived in Cape Town). But the manner in which these media narratives move from local Cape Town to global climate change arguably strips down a lot about the local situation: for example, such media narratives often exclude any portrayal of improvisational responses on the ground. Perhaps this is because it’s necessary to these media narratives to present Cape Town’s situation as an apocalypse, rather than something that individuals could minimize (or adapt to) via creativity or community-building––so even if that’s part of what’s happening on the ground, it gets left out of the global narrative.

      But as Rebecca’s talk teaches us, more nuanced narratives of apocalypse can also be attentive to such improvisation. I think “Scenes from a Dry City” and “Dry, the Beloved Country” are both more attuned to the texture of local improvisation, which is part of what makes them interesting texts. To the extent to which these texts have a pedagogical imperative, I do think many of their “lessons” are scalable in the sense that they’d also be relevant elsewhere: building a gray-water system is a good way to save water; drilling a private borehole in your yard is NOT a scalable solution; environmental crises tend to exacerbate longstanding inequalities; trying to work together in community groups is crucial in order to develop an anti-hegemonic environmental praxis.

      These ideas are certainly exportable to lots of places, but they aren’t in and of themselves likely to overturn neoliberal capitalism or petro-modernity. Those systems will eventually result in their own demise––but with a lot of pain for a lot of people, a lot of damage to the planet, and the possibility of species extinction along the way. Is it the case that all we can do is work in localized ways to try to minimize that pain, to try to take care of our neighbors? Or can we actually put into practice versions of larger institutions that would be more in step with community-based ethics? I’m not sure, but I do think these texts document the former, while perhaps hoping for the latter.

      • Akua Banful says:

        Dear Baron,

        Thanks so much for your question, and thank you Brooke and Rebecca for your replies, with which I’m largely aligned.

        I think the call to theorize urgency from the South toggles between the local and global, but foreground the former, as Brooke points out. in some respects, it circumvents Said’s notion of traveling theory, which is modified by the context in which it is applied, by questioning the historic North-South flows of theory to begin with. My concerns surrounding scalability are concerns about the consequences of generalizability — if the scalability of neoliberal consumption patterns and resource management is itself questionable, as our current climate predicament suggests, perhaps part of the project of theorizing urgency from the south is to interrogate the politics of scale by emphasizing the local, and hopefully, disseminating these interrogations across varying contexts in a mushroom-like manner.

  2. Rebecca Oh, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign says:

    Hi everyone,
    Thank you very much for tuning in to my talk. This is derived from an article I’m working up on postcolonial/already lived apocalypses and what I’ve called pessimistic aesthetics. It’s a new direction for me and I’d love to hear about your reactions to the argument – what worked, what didn’t, what needs more elaboration. I am definitely not claiming that all apocalypses are historical or that all postcolonial literature is apocalyptic, but I think it is crucial to ask what happens to apocalypse or what apocalypse does when it is not speculative or about saving the future, and that this scenario is sometimes treated in postcolonial texts. Questions, comments, and recommendations for primary or critical readings are all welcome!

  3. Brooke Stanley says:

    Hi all,

    Thanks for checking out our panel, Theorizing Urgency from the South! I’m pasting in the overall panel abstract:

    Eurocentric views stemming from the Enlightenment and imperialism posit that civilizations south of Europe lag “behind” modernity. In Theory from the South, Jean and John Comaroff offer the opposite proposition: that in the neoliberal era, the global South is first to experience the new. They suggest “theorizing from the South” as optic. Nowhere does this provocation feel more relevant than in regards to climate change. Places in the global South are first to experience climate urgency, from the Maldives threatened by rising seas, to Puerto Rico barraged by amplified hurricanes, to Cape Town facing “Day Zero.” Similar patterns exist in the “South within the north:” marginalized communities in Euroamerica. We cannot address climate change through technocratic solutions dreamed up in the North. Instead, we need to theorize urgency from the South.
    Taking on this conceptual task, this panel asks: what can we learn from texts that grapple with postcolonial environmental urgencies? How might resilience and adaptation, as well as urgency, be theorized from the South? Such questions are variously explored across three papers: “Postcolonial Apocalypse and Pessimistic Aesthetics” (Rebecca Oh); “Urgencies of the Dry City: Cape Town in the Global Imagination” (Brooke Stanley); and “Scientists and Fishermen: Environmental Theory, Myth and Practice in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide” (Akua Banful). These papers also share preoccupations with futurity, present, and past; speculation versus history; the affordances of particular forms; apocalypse; and local versus hegemonic environmentalisms.

    Akua and Rebecca, thank you both for your wonderful talks! I’ll post some questions/thoughts to each of you below.

  4. Brooke Stanley, University of Delaware says:

    Hi Akua, thanks for your talk, which I really enjoyed!

    I wanted to ask for more of your thoughts on The Hungry Tide’s resolution, which I think you rightly frame as wrapping up some of the novel’s earlier tensions in order to advocate more community-centered modes of conservation. I was reminded of comments that Jennifer Wenzel has made about wanting to see literary texts as more than “blueprints” for how to fix our environmental politics [Wenzel, Disposition of Nature (Fordham UP, 2020), 18]. I’m curious how you would situate the end of The Hungry Tide in relation to that idea: do you see this novel as documenting past/present injustices and then providing a “blueprint” for a better future? I.e. does the narrative’s resolution reduce the novel to “blueprint,” or does Ghosh’s ending allow for more complexity/ambiguity than that?
    Or, as a related question, how do you see the relationship between the realist and (post)modernist elements of the novel? I’m tempted to feel like this novel’s modernist orientation to ambiguity/uncertainty collapses somewhat at the end, but what do you think?

    • Rebecca Oh, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign says:

      Hi Brooke – I’ll get to the excellent questions you left me in a bit but I wanted to ask about your question to Akua vis-a-vis your comment to Baron. What’s the difference between a lesson and a blueprint? I feel like, as humanists we both don’t want to just think in terms of ‘novels as models’ but at the same time we invest a lot in that idea because the models available in policy/politics are so violent/inadequate or, as you mentioned, end up leaving stuff out. Honestly, would it be so bad if literature could be a blueprint for politicians (which it pretty much never is)? I think we are leery of this idea often because it diminishes and leaves out so much about literary objects that we value (affect, form, etc) but it seems like we can have two different sets of expectations for what literature/art could offer to those in practical fields vs. ourselves. There’s so much hand-wringing about literature ‘not being reduced to practicality’ but I mean…does anyone aside from ourselves (humanists) even think about literature as a source of parxis? Maybe we should lean in to the idea that literature could be practical! (Even as I write that I’m not sure I agree with it – ha! – but interested in what you think.)

      • Brooke Stanley, University of Delaware says:

        Hi Rebecca––
        Absolutely! I was thinking something similar when I was replying to Baron’s question, in fact. I don’t think there’s much difference between a lesson and a blueprint in the way we’re talking about them here (although I feel very open to be pushed on that…). Baron, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I interpreted your question as being oriented towards real-world or material applications. and tried to answer on those terms. And I do think “Scenes from a Dry City” and “Dry, the Beloved Country” are both fairly didactic on that level.

        Personally, I find the ending of The Hungry Tide pretty didactic too––perhaps more so than the rest of the book. As a scholar I feel perhaps a little frustrated about that, because I think a didactic ending risks losing the richness of form, and the modernist sensibility of irresolution or unknowability, that characterizes much of the book. But as a teacher, I must admit that didacticism is a big part of why I like teaching The Hungry Tide: I DO want students to learn some “do’s and don’t’s” of equitable conservation practice from it; I do think there is a concrete “lesson.”

        So––maybe that’s another way of saying what you say above, Rebecca––that we can perhaps have different sets of desires about literature for ourselves, and for other kinds of readers.

        Akua, interested to hear what you think!

        • Akua Banful says:

          Thanks for your question Brooke, and thanks for your response Rebecca, which aligns with my thoughts on the matter. I do agree that the ending of The Hungry Tide is perhaps overly didactic, but like Rebecca I think the didactic novel occupies a useful place in EH pedagogy. I came to The Hungry Tide through teaching it, and found that some of the moments that my humanist sensibilities might not have responded to as strongly became the most useful entry points for my students with respect to conceiving of an environmental praxis that wasn’t limited to the Sierra Club’s vision. So, perhaps a little ironically, I actually do use the novel as a lesson and blueprint. I also teach it alongside excerpts from Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, and although the novel might not exactly answer for the “crisis of imagination” that Ghosh rightly singles out, I think as a pedagogical text it lays the groundwork for a more geographically expansive imagination with respect to climate change. The shorter version of my long-ish answer is that the novel’s didactic conclusion might be a little disappointing, but perhaps some texts are meant to be didactic.

  5. Brooke Stanley, University of Delaware says:

    Hi Rebecca, thanks for your excellent talk!

    I was really interested in your reading of “pessimistic aesthetics” in Animal’s People, especially your argument that rather than indulging hope for structural change or a better future, the novel suggests that things will pretty much stay the same.

    In particular, I noted your comment that Animal choosing not to have his back straightened might signify differently depending on whether we read it as a narrative or characterological feature. If we read it as narrative feature, you suggest, it’s indicative of the novel suggesting that the future will remain like the present. So this made me curious, what would Animal’s choice signify to you when it’s instead read on the characterological level? More broadly, is there some kind of divergence or discord between what the novel suggests on each of these levels––between its narrative arc and its use of characterization?

    It seems to me that in some ways (though not all), Animal’s character development resembles a typical Bildungsroman arc: anti-social individual learns to be a member of society and in the process grows as a person, etc. Depending how we read his choice at the end, I think it could confirm or disrupt that arc, with different implications … So, in your view, do the individual-and-society character arc and the EJ-activism plot arc diverge from each other? Are they in tension? Do they proffer different aesthetics or different suggestions about pessimism/optimism?

    If I can boil this down to one question, I think it’s this: how does the characterization of Animal relate to the “pessimistic aesthetics” that you identify with the narrative structure?

    • Rebecca Oh, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign says:

      Hi Brooke,
      Sorry for the delay in answering your question. I agree that Animal as a character/individual does seem to follow a bildung structure which contradicts what I see as the larger pessimistic aesthetics of the novel’s structure overall; I think this could also be said of the episodic narrative – it interrupts the idea of progression/forward progress. Perhaps this is a tension within apocalyptic realism itself, since as I mentioned in my comments to Baron’s question, a lot of the most pessimistic moments seem to also be moments where agency can be gleaned; so perhaps this tension between the minor possibility of better futures within a larger context of pessimism is one of the tensions the book is working out in the contradictions between Animal’s personal journey and its overall structure.

  6. Jessica Hurley, George Mason University says:

    Thank you Brooke, Akuah, and Rebecca for this terrific panel! I really enjoyed each of your talks and learned a lot from listening to them together. This is a question for Rebecca which might also extend outwards to Brooke and Akuah. Rebecca, I love your formulation of postcolonial apocalypse and how it differs from speculative apocalypse. My question is about the “realism” aspect of what you call “apocalyptic realism.” It seems like you’re using realism to mean “the representation of things that have happened or that could plausibly happen,” but the term obviously also brings with it an entire literary history that emerges from the spatial and temporal heart of empire. What does it mean, then, to use the term realism in the context in which you’re deploying it here? Expanding outwards to the other talks, perhaps this also connects with the documentary texts that Brooke is talking about and Ghosh’s deliberate swerve away from the epistemologies of realism in his use of the demon narrative in Akuah’s analysis. How do you both see realism and its alternatives working in these texts, and does this usage have a particular significance in the Global South?

    • Rebecca Oh, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign says:

      Thanks for your question, Jessica! You’re right, that is basically the way I am using “realism” in apocalyptic realism – apocalypse which is usually speculative actually becomes a genre of mimesis, the best access to the referential world when that world is actually apocalyptic. I’m not really thinking about realism as a genre that ‘belongs’ to European literature or that was imposed on the global South. In postcolonial scholarship I think the kind of question you’re raising has been taken up in mostly in relation to using English – the language debates between Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o for example about whether you could represent postcolonial experience in English or whether it just perpetuated colonial structures. A lot of folks including myself come down on the side that English can be taken back, inhabited, modified to represent experience outside the West, and it is itself also part of postcolonial history because of empire, not something that can be avoided. I think basically the same is true of realism. Folks like Ulka Anjaria and Pablo Mukherjee have argued for vernacular realisms that grew up in postcolonial contexts or which combine Western and non-Western formal elements and mediums (like Ghosh) to make it more adequate to postcolonial experience.

      • Akua Banful says:

        Thanks for your generative question Jessica, and for your incisive answer Rebecca.
        Rebecca, I have a question that has to do with the apocalyptic end of your theoretical proposition of “apocalyptic realism.” I found your dissociation of apocalypse from its speculative origins incredibly generative, and find that a useful tool for approaching pessimistic readings: pessimism is in a sense anticipatory, so what becomes of its practice when as you so aptly state, “the world has already ended?” The question about apocalypse has to do with the way in which I noticed you deploying the term in your reading of Sinha’s novel, where apocalypse functioned as a state of being, rather than as a cataclysmic event; I’m wondering what you think the stakes might be for considering apocalypse as a state of being rather than a singular event, something that is suggested by the novel’s closing line, “tomorrow there will be more of us,” which as you point out, could just as well signal resilience as it could future cataclysm. Would that then be an instance of pessimism as pragmatism, as Georges Sorel has argued, or would that simply become a cynical way to read for the persistence of apocalyptic realism in postcolonial fiction?

  7. Akua Banful says:

    Hi everyone! I’m a little late to the comment party, but can thankfully chime in before the conference itself ends!

    Brooke, thanks so much for such a rich and accessible talk; it’s always a pleasure to engage with your work.

    First, thanks so much for this fascinating talk that tackles theory and praxis surrounding the droughts that climate change is making all the more prevalent, through the medium of water as a resource that evades modern consumptive patterns, highlights the class disparities of the regime of excessive carbon footprints, and points in inspiring and apocryphal ways towards the ways in which commons are activated in response to water shortages. With respect to the overlaps of water, neoliberal impulses to privatization, and historic inequities, your two objects of study bring to mind Icíar Bollaín’s 2010 film “También la lluvia,” which wrestles with similar themes in the Latin American context. It seems to me that the water shortage inaugurates a theoretical tussle with respect to resource management: a tussle between a rainbow-nation coalition that strives to treat access to water as a human right, and the neoliberal, carceral state’s response to resource management that nines on intimidation, surveillance and the splintering of the commons.

    I found that I was especially struck by the closing montage of the “evangelical commons”(if one can call it that) as a rising unit of response to the consequences of climate change that traffics in blame-misplacing rhetoric. If these two documentaries you’ve shared with us offer food for thought with respect to the ways in which individuals and societies might respond to water shortages and other climate-change driven crises, what might we say the evangelical movement adds with respect to thinking through communal response? I ask this in part because turning to evangelical christianity in particular to grapple with global catastrophes is an ascendant tactic in the global south; for instance, the Ghanaian government sanctioned a national week of prayer for the coronavirus pandemic that trafficked in similar rhetorics of individual and national repentance that turns away from communal solutions even as it brings together a commons in prayer. Lastly, I wonder if you see touches of millenarianism in this response that may be reminiscent (in perhaps a perverted sense) of the prophetic movements that surrounded the Xhosa cattle killings.

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