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Ariel's Ecology

Ariel's Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics

Monique Allewaert
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Ariel's Ecology
    Book Description:

    What happens if we abandon the assumption that a person is a discrete, world-making agent who acts on and creates place? This, Monique Allewaert contends, is precisely what occurred on eighteenth-century American plantations, where labor practices and ecological particularities threatened the literal and conceptual boundaries that separated persons from the natural world. Integrating political philosophy and ecocriticism with literary analysis, Ariel's Ecology explores the forms of personhood that developed out of New World plantations, from Georgia and Florida through Jamaica to Haiti and extending into colonial metropoles such as Philadelphia. Allewaert's examination of the writings of naturalists, novelists, and poets; the oral stories of Africans in the diaspora; and Afro-American fetish artifacts shows that persons in American plantation spaces were pulled into a web of environmental stresses, ranging from humidity to the demand for sugar. This in turn gave rise to modes of personhood explicitly attuned to human beings' interrelation with nonhuman forces in a process we might call ecological. Certainly the possibility that colonial life revokes human agency haunts works from Shakespeare's Tempest and Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws to Spivak's theories of subalternity. In Allewaert's interpretation, the transformation of colonial subjectivity into ecological personhood is not a nightmare; it is, rather, a mode of existence until now only glimmering in Che Guevara's dictum that postcolonial resistance is synonymous with "perfect knowledge of the ground."

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8900-2
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction: Tempest in the Plantation Zone
    (pp. 1-26)

    Full fathom five thy father lies,

    Of his bones are coral made;

    Those are pearls that were his eyes;

    Nothing of him that doth fade

    But doth suffer a sea-change

    Into something rich and strange.

    —William Shakespeare, The Tempest

    Perhaps the most well-known lines of William Shakespeare’s colonial play The Tempest (1609), Ariel’s lyric account of the transformation of the European traveler Alonso’s body might seem the spun stuff of fantasy. After all, Ariel sings it to enchant Alonso’s son Ferdinand so as to further Prospero’s plan of dividing the Europeans shipwrecked on the island. Yet Ariel’s lyric also offers...

  4. I

    • 1 Swamp Sublime: Ecology and Resistance in the American Plantation Zone
      (pp. 29-50)

      In the description of Georgia’s sea islands that opens the second part of his Travels (1791), William Bartram imagines that the marshlands that connect the mainland to these islands are part of a swampy archipelago that extends from Virginia to Mississippi to Vera Cruz.¹ This vision of geographical continuity either anticipates Manifest Destiny or, on the contrary, presages the dissolution of the North American continent: “Whether this chain of sea-coast-islands is a step, or advance, which this part of our continent is now making on the Atlantic ocean,” Bartram muses, “we must leave to future ages to determine.” The advancing...

    • 2 Plant Life: Tropical Vegetation, Animate Matter, and Cosmopolitical Form
      (pp. 51-82)

      One of the most animate protagonists of Alexander Humboldt’s labyrinthine Personal Narrative [Relation historique] (1814) is tropical vegetation powerful enough to overpower human life.¹ During his 1799–1804 travels through Tenerife, Venezuela, Columbia, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and finally the United States, where he spent time in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Humboldt experienced the vegetation of tropical and subtropical regions as a pervasive force whose exuberant range and dense mesh contravened botanists’ taxonomical projects. “If you carefully transplanted all the orchids, all the epiphytes that grow on one single American fig tree,” Humboldt writes, “you would manage to cover an...

  5. II

    • 3 On Parahumanity: Creole Stories and the Suspension of the Human
      (pp. 85-114)

      In April 1764, Fenelon, the governor of Martinique, wrote:

      Je suis arrivé à la Martinique avec tous les préjugés d’Europe contre la rigueur avec laquelle on traite les nègres et en faveur de l’instruction qu’on leur doit pour les principes de notre religion … Je suis parvenu à croire fermement qu’il faut mener les nègres comme des bêtes.¹

      [I arrived in Martinique with all the European prejudices against the severity with which we treat the negroes and in favor of instructing them in the principles of our religion … I’ve come to firmly believe that it is necessary to guide...

    • 4 Persons without Objects: Afro-American Materialisms from Fetishes to Personhood
      (pp. 115-140)

      Phillis Wheatley, much remarked-upon during her own life and later as the first African American poet, is particularly notable for the disappearances performed by her poetry. Her elegies never mourn the end of life on earth, as life on earth is scarcely described and best left behind. And she hardly bothers spinning fancies about the spring, as the seasons pass swiftly into meditations on failure (“Imagination,” “A Hymn to Morning”) or, in her more optimistic poems, the spiritual union of persons with God (“To a Lady on the Death of her Husband,” “A Funeral Poem on the Death of C.E.”)....

  6. III

    • 5 Involving the Universe in Ruins: Sansayʹs Haitian Anabiography
      (pp. 143-172)

      In the opening scenes of Leonora Sansay’s travelogue Secret History (1808) as well as the novel sometimes attributed to her, Zelica (1820), the Haitian revolutionary general Henri Christophe sets Saint-Domingue’s capital city Cap Francois on fire.¹ In Zelica, some of the white creole women fleeing the fire sit “in mute anguish” on the mountains that rise behind the city “and contemplate the city, which appeared from the [mountain] heights that crowned it to float on the sea—that sea was calm as a mirror, reflecting in one broad blaze the golden light of the sun.”² If this vision of the...

  7. Epilogue: Afterlives of Arielʹs Ecology
    (pp. 173-182)

    In the opening chapter of Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), Poe’s protagonist, Pym, is swept from the brig Ariel when it is run down by the whaler Penguin. Pinned to the keel of the Penguin, Pym rides the Atlantic, facing downward to the sea’s depths and drowning. Pym’s opening sequencing of storms, shipwreck, and the delivery of the Anglo-European Pym to the sea by the agency of an Ariel, this time a ship rather than a spirit, recalls Shakespeare’s play, which is one of Pym’s several literary precedents. Like the other literary precedents circulating...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 183-186)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 187-244)
  10. Index
    (pp. 245-254)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 255-258)