States of Failure: Reading Promise, Provision, and Environmental Harm in the Global South

From drought to hazardous waste dumping, the global South has borne the brunt of environmental calamity. The archives of postcolonial and global Anglophone writing have been produced alongside such disasters and, I argue, bring enduring environmental harm into focus as an object of address and redress, rather than the speculations of a bad sublime. To this end, my research shows how perspectives from postcolonial and global Anglophone literature enrich our understandings of agency, politics, endurance, and futurity amidst environmental harm as well as how the environmental humanities can reshape key concerns in postcolonial literary studies.

"States of Failure: Reading Promise, Provision, and Environmental Harm in the Global South" argues that postcolonial writers and subaltern citizens use failure to resist the inertia of environmentally damaged presents and to demand better environmental and political futures. The failure of postcolonial states to care for or protect 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 failure as anything more than straightforward negative critique. But "States of Failure" shows that political failure is neither self-evident nor singular; rather, failure appears in an array of forms like hierarchy, promise, and revision, through which writers, activists, and victims engage with the very states that have harmed them. Rather than treat failure as an occasion for pessimism, I consider how failure takes on distinct political forms that produce investments in the state despite its failures as well as ideas for new versions of the state that might respond more adequately to environmental damage.

Such forms of state failure are activated and made visibly foremostly through what I call an aesthetics of complaint. Lauren Berlant has been the foremost theorist of complaint; but while she suggests that complaint is a juxtapolitical act outside the sphere of politics proper, I argue that complaints are often avowedly political and that they directly engage both bad and potentially good forms of the state. Complaints make many things happen: they give voice to deep investments in the state as a site densely laden with affects and symbolic attachments, they make disenfranchised subjects into citizens claiming rights, they reinforce the desire for good versions of the state that circulate publicly, they denounce the state’s bad versions, and they articulate alternative forms of the state that contest the realpolitick experience of bad presents. Complaints about the state therefore reveal how the state is imagined from below, by those it has failed most egregiously. Rather than a confirmation of the bad present, evoking state failure often becomes a rhetorical and imaginative technology of resistance to combined realities of environmental harm and national marginalization in India, Nigeria, and the Pacific. In the aftermath of Bhopal’s 1984 pesticide factory explosion, the ongoing oil pollution of the Niger Delta, and the imminent threat of rising seas on the Pacific’s low-lying atolls, complaining about political failure allows postcolonial subjects to contest, navigate, demand a future beyond the material continuity of accumulated harms.

I am at work on two other projects, one on apocalyptic realism across the global South and the second on infrastructure and genre in global South megacities.