States of Failure: Reading Environmental Harm in the Global South

Humanists often take for granted a unified and homogenous idea of the state as a basis for negative critique: the settler colonial state, the necropolitical state, the neoliberal state. Though anti-statism unites these models, they also suggest that it should be impossible to talk about “the” state as a singular form, to equate states with one function or to define them by one pattern of experience. And yet such singular imaginaries often underpin humanistic engagement with the state, and in particular the anti-statism found across many fields including postcolonial studies and the environmental humanities. While some scholars have argued that we should consider failed states an ordinary aspect of modern politics, I propose a more innovative approach to the negative critiques and singular forms that currently ground humanistic assessments of state violence and political failure.

My book, States of Failure, takes up postcolonial state failures and their imbrication in environmental harms to rethink both the state and failure. The failure of postcolonial states to care for their citizens in the wake of environmental damage is well documented, as are states’ own complicity in producing that damage. Therefore, it may seem counterintuitive to read environmental harm as anything more than a prime occasion for negative state critique. But by close reading an array of fictional and political texts, States of Failure shows that state failures are neither simple nor unidimensional; rather, state failures inaugurate a range of imagined state forms through which writers, activists, and victims engage with the very states that have harmed them.

The book’s primary cases include Bhopal, a central Indian city devastated by poison, Nigeria’s oil-polluted Niger Delta, and vulnerable low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific. These late twentieth and early twenty-first century cases are emblematic of the kinds of environmental crises that have disproportionately affected the global South. At the same time, their distinct experiences and histories of harm highlight how forms of the imagined state recur in otherwise disparate contexts. The project moves between this repeating cohort of sites to show that failure and the states imagined from it are structured by contradictory forms such as hierarchy, promise, and revision. With two chapters given to revision, each chapter of the book traces one form; together they show how failure is politically complex and culturally generative rather than merely an experience of ecopolitical violence.

By theorizing different state forms, I show that postcolonial writers and subaltern citizens engage with forms of the imagined state to pursue weak agency, resist environmental harms like oil pollution, toxicity, and rising seas, and to imagine better environmental and political futures. Across its chapters the book illuminates the simultaneity and incongruity of the state’s forms, attending to their situated contradictions and pluralities. Considering form broadly, as a repeating pattern that offers structure, shapes what can happen, or mediates effects and perceptions, I show how thinking about the state as a complex form offer opportunities to literary practices of reading. My interdisciplinary approach to form highlights the ways in which forms include but exceed the aesthetic, and States of Failure offers a model of how to trace forms as patterns of organization, expectation, and imagination that are shared between literature and the world.

Hierarchical, promissory, and revisionary forms of the imagined state reveal how states are never only one thing or imagined in one way. The state’s hierarchical form is the most familiar, having received much attention in postcolonial scholarship and elsewhere in the humanities. Hierarchy produces an uneven landscape of political enfranchisement, where robust citizenship and access to rights or protections are not universally available. However, this bad form is contradicted by other forms. The state’s promissory form is a productive misalignment between experiences and expectations of state provision, one where popular expectations of official promises remain unmet. This gap reinforces failure as a primary way in which the state is imagined and experienced; but broken promises also offer terms through which disenfranchised subjects make themselves politically visible. Finally, failure makes the state a form under constant revision, one imagined beyond its existing limitations. Each of the book’s four chapters takes up one of these forms as they repeat in Bhopal, the Niger Delta, and the Pacific. Through a comparative, multi-generic Anglophone archive that weaves together literature, grassroots or popular documents, juridical cases, and national legislation, I show that even when the state has worked as a hierarchical form, authors and activists turn to it to articulate ideas about environmental redress and political improvement, giving it also its promissory and revisionary forms. By pluralizing imagined states and their failures, States of Failure uncovers an archive of subaltern complaint that refuses to cede ecopolitical pasts, presents, or futures to the singularity of bad forms.

Such plurality matters because in an age of anti-statism, better state forms threaten to disappear from view. Rather than reifying the state and equating it with a single pattern of experience, States of Failure disaggregates the state into contradictory forms. In doing so I consider ongoing investments in the state by those who seem to have no reason to turn to it, and I follow demands for state provision and intervention that persist in the midst of histories of harm. Finally, I suggest that an interdisciplinary approach to form helps us consider how bad state forms are always contradicted by other forms in which the state might be better. 

I am also at work on two other projects: a cluster of articles on apocalyptic realism across the global South and a second book project on infrastructure and genre in the literature of global South megacities.