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

“Reading Better States” responds to the challenge that slow environmental violence poses to futurity in the global South. Long term environmental harms such as oil pollution, toxicity, and risings seas are accretive, invisible and unspectacular (Nixon). But perhaps most obviously, they are slow. Their effects distend in time and constrain how futures are imagined from the present.  

In such contexts of long term harm, I argue that postcolonial subjects have turned to an unlikely resource to demand change and to imagine different environmental futures: the postcolonial state. Postcolonial states have largely been theorized through negative critique in a range of disciplines, including law and literature, postcolonial studies, and political science. But whether characterized as weak, ethnically fractured, corrupt, or as neoliberal handmaidens, postcolonial states are rarely viewed as a resource or site of desire and struggle. In relation to environmental harm particularly, postcolonial states have almost singularly been considered for the ways they perpetuate environmental violence.  

In contrast, “Reading Better States” shows how Global South states have been both bad actors and sites of appeal. On their surface, this book’s primary cases - Bhopal, the Niger Delta, and the Pacific - may seem merely like examples of state violence and inefficacy. Yet in such disparate places, writers and activists have called upon postcolonial states to intervene in on-going environmental damage. Bringing together a diverse archive of novels, poetry, documentaries, popular declarations, legal cases, and legislation, the chapters of “Reading Better States” track how states have been aesthetically and popularly imagined in complex ways and how postcolonial states have responded in different ways to pollution, toxicity, and sea level rise over time. “Reading Better States” considers paradoxical investments in the state by those who have been harmed by it, and follows the way demands for state provision and intervention contest slow violence’s cannibalization of the future.  

To do this “Reading Better States” deploys a version of what Fredric Jameson has called “utopian method,” a way of reading obviously negative circumstances for their positive potentialities. It combines this with a recursive orientation toward the state. Recursiveness or nonlinear and overlapping time has been an important postcolonial heuristic, but it has rarely been used to consider postcolonial states and their interventionist potentials. By considering fictional, political, and popular responses to long-term harm from a utopian and recursive reading method, “Reading Better States” highlights how postcolonial states themselves have responded to environmental damage in contradictory ways and how writers and subaltern citizens have imagined the state beyond its violence. “Reading Better States” thus makes a case for reading postcolonial states beyond negative critique. Rather than reifying the state and equating it only with its role in environmental harm, the book argues that postcolonial citizens and writers have also turned to states as important sites of appeal, and as occasions for imagining better ecopolitical futures.  

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.  

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