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Reading Better States: Utopian Method and Environmental Harm in the Global South

Postcolonialists love to hate the state. Site of collective disappointment, suspicion, and negative critique, the state has long dropped out of view as an object of desire. Or has it? Reading Better States argues that postcolonial critics must revisit and retheorize the state – not because it does not deserve our critique but because it is constantly being imagined beyond the violence that has come to define it in postcolonial scholarship and theory, and because it is one of the few institutions with the power and scale to resist capitalism’s expropriation of the environment. This book argues that despite its historic disappointments, postcolonial states across South Asia, Africa, and the Pacific persist as surprising sites of utopic desire and collective futurity.

To examine how postcolonial states appear as unlikely sites of appeal and desire, Reading Better States mobilizes Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch’s idea of “concrete utopias” or imagined forms of “surplus” “contradicting the badly existing” that cluster around demands for state intervention into the environment. Environmental concrete utopias highlight desires for state-driven change that are situated in place, foreground pain and death across human and nonhuman bodies, and envision amelioration for specific kinds of entrenched physical damage that dwarf individual agency and even community effort. Postcolonial states across the global South are invoked in these contexts to remediate material harms and capitalist processes that resist transcendence or transformation, and in whose wake better forms of futurity appear almost impossible.

Such concrete utopias are limited and situated rather than totalizing. But they make it possible to attend to a changed scale of interventionist imagining in the present and to specific forms of betterment that are oriented toward the potential of the state. As climate changes like water scarcity, toxicity, pollution, and sea level rise increasingly threaten imaginable futures in the global South, this book shows that postcolonial states are sites through which culture makers and ordinary people envision better environmental futures and sometimes, futurity at all.

To do this, Reading Better States lays out a case for seeing the state through the concrete utopias imagined through it and through a version of critical reading called utopian method. This method draws on Fredric Jameson’s call in “Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future” for a way of reading that reads patently negative circumstances against the grain for their positive potentials. The book’s version of utopian method takes up this general impetus through several techniques, foremostly by reading complaints about the state as both catalogues of negativity and demands upon power. The other side of complaint is desire. It also involves reading the state recursively or nonlinearly beyond its present manifestations, refusing to see the state’s present versions as the limit of the possible.

The concrete utopias read in this book have arisen at a time when, in scholarship and in theory, postcolonial states are predominantly viewed as disappointing or dangerous. Viewing postcolonial states through an environmental lens and a utopian method of reading, conversely, offer opportunities to account for, but also look beyond, these conspicuously negative surfaces to the positive potentialities within them. It allows us, in short, to see the ways in which postcolonial states are Janus-faced, imagined as both bad actors and sites of appeal. Reading Better States thus argues for the need to reconsider the postcolonial state and the concrete utopias imagined through it, utopias of both material provision and capitalist accountability. These futures come into view by reading the state, that most familiar of negative objects, utopically.


I am also at work on new projects on apocalypse, genre, and infrastructure in the global South.

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