• “slow violence”: “By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. In so doing, we also need to engage the representational, narrative, and strategic challenges posed by the relative invisibility of slow violence” (2); note focus chiefly on temporality rather than spatiality here.
  • “‘The poor’ is a compendious category subject to almost infinite local variation as well as to fracture along fault lines of ethnicity, gender, race, class, region, religion, and generation. Confronted with the militarization of both commerce and development, impoverished communities are often assailed by coercion and bribery that test their cohesive resilience” (4).
  • “What I call superpower parochialism has been shaped by the myth of American exceptionalism and by a long-standing indifference—in the U.S. educational system and national media—to the foreign, especially foreign history, even when it is deeply enmeshed with U.S. interests” (35).
  • “Against this backdrop, I am leery of the widespread assumption that everything postcolonial studies has enabled can always be assimilated, without loss, to the more ambitious, more contemporary-sounding global studies. The notion of the straight swap—midsized postcolonial for supersized global—is too often accompanied by a blunting of the adversarial edge, the oppositional incisiveness, that has distinguished postcolonial work at its most forceful: (38).
  • Infrastructure: “The fraught issue of compensation connects directly with the infrastructural failures of the state: insurrectionary anger is repeatedly stoked when a community experiences technological modernization as extractive theft without service delivery. Under such circumstances, visible reminders of theft through modernity’s infrastructural invasions—by oil pipelines or massive hydroelectric dams or toxic tailings from mines—foment rage at life-threatening environmental degradation combined with the state’s failure to provide life-enabling public works” (42).


0. Introduction

  • Three major challenges of the book:
    • The representational challenge of slow violence (3): “In an age when the media venerate the spectacular, when public policy is shaped primarily around perceived immediate need, a central question is strategic and representational: how can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and that star nobody, disasters that are attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world?” (3).
    • “This book’s second, related focus concerns the environmentalism of the poor, for it is those people lacking resources who are the principal casualties of slow violence. Their unseen poverty is compounded by the invisibility of the slow violence that permeates so many of their lives” (4).
    • “The challenge of visibility that links slow violence to the environmentalism of the poor connects directly to this book’s third circulating concern—the complex, often vexed figure of the environmental writer-activist. In the chapters that follow I address not just literary but more broadly rhetorical and visual challenges posed by slow violence; however, I place particular emphasis on combative writers who have deployed their imaginative agility and worldly ardor to help amplify the media-marginalized causes of the environmentally dispossessed” (5).
  • “Ours is an age of onrushing turbo-capitalism, wherein the present feels more abbreviated than it used to—at least for the world’s privileged classes who live surrounded by technological time-savers that often compound the sensation of not having enough time. Consequently, one of the most pressing challenges of our age is how to adjust our rapidly eroding attention spans to the slow erosions of environmental justice” (8).
  • “Simply put, structural violence is a theory that entails rethinking different notions of causation and agency with respect to violent effects. Slow violence, by contrast, might well include forms of structural violence, but has a wider descriptive range in calling attention, not simply to questions of agency, but to broader, more complex descriptive categories of violence enacted slowly over time. The shift in the relationship between human agency and time is most dramatically evident in our enhanced understanding of the accelerated changes occurring at two scalar extremes—in the life-sustaining circuits of planetary biophysics and in the wired brain’s neural circuitry. The idea of structural violence predated both sophisticated contemporary ice-core sampling methods and the emergence of cyber technology. My concept of slow violence thus seeks to respond both to recent, radical changes in our geological perception and our changing technological experiences of time” (11–12).
  • I am skeptical of the neurobiological argument he’s levying here but it’s still worth to note how these two spatial scales are linked together habitually: “Over the past two decades, this high-speed planetary modification has been accompanied (at least for those increasing billions who have access to the Internet) by rapid modifications to the human cortex. It is difficult, but necessary, to consider simultaneously a geologically-paced plasticity, however relatively rapid, and the plasticity of brain circuits reprogrammed by a digital world that threatens to ‘info-whelm’ us into a state of perpetual distraction. If an awareness of the Great Acceleration is (to put it mildly) unevenly distributed, the experience of accelerated connectivity (and the paradoxical disconnects that can accompany it) is increasingly widespread” (12).
  • “Planetary consciousness (a notion that has undergone a host of theoretical formulations) becomes pertinent here, perhaps most usefully in the sense in which Mary Louise Pratt elaborates it, linking questions of power and perspective, keeping front and center the often latent, often invisible violence in the view. Who gets to see, and from where?” (15).
  • In the clash b/t official and vernacular landscapes: “I would argue, then, that the exponential upsurge in indigenous resource rebellions across the globe during the high age of neoliberalism has resulted largely from a clash of temporal perspectives between the short-termers who arrive (with their official landscape maps) to extract, despoil, and depart and the long-termers who must live inside the ecological aftermath and must therefore weigh wealth differently in time’s scales” (17).
  • “Security has become one of neoliberalism’s signature growth industries, exemplified by the international boom in gated communities, as walls have spread like kudzu, and the marketplace in barriers has literally soared, from Los Angeles to Sao Paolo; from Johannesburg to Jakarta; from Lagos, Lima, and Mexico City to Karachi. . . . Neoliberalism’s proliferating walls concretize a short-term psychology of denial: the delusion that we can survive long-term in a world whose resources are increasingly unshared. The wall, read in terms of neoliberalism and environmental slow violence, materializes temporal as well as spatial denial through a literal concretizing of out of sight out of mind” (20).
  • “In university life, we are witnessing an upsurge in these edge effects as interpenetrating fields proliferate at the borders between once separate disciplines, at times creating new dynamic combinations while also, depending on one’s perspective, inflicting casualties through habitat fragmentation. In the scholarly ecotone, as in the biological, one may detect an elevated concentration in the sheer variety of life-forms, but at the expense of less-adaptable, specialist species” (30).
  • “From a postcolonial perspective, the most startling feature of environmental literary studies has been its reluctance to engage the environmental repercussions of American foreign policy, particularly in relation to contemporary imperial practices” (33).

1. Neoliberalism and Animal’s People

  • One of Christina’s chapters, so skimming. This is one on Animal’s People and the Bhopal disaster.
  • “The power of Animal’s People flows largely from Sinha’s single-handed invention of the environmental picaresque. By creatively adapting picaresque conventions to our age, Sinha probes the underbelly of neoliberal globalization from the vantage point of an indigent social outcast. His novel gives focus to three of the defining characteristics of the contemporary neoliberal order: first, the widening chasm—within and between nations—that separates the megarich from the destitute; second, the attendant burden of unsustainable ecological degradation that impacts the health and livelihood of the poor most directly; and third, the way powerful transnational corporations exploit under cover of a free market ideology the lopsided universe of deregulation, whereby laws and loopholes are selectively applied in a marketplace a lot freer for some societies and classes than for others” (46).


Archive and Impact

  • Postcolonial studies, esp. Edward Said; Rachel Carson’s environmental writing;


Citation (list the author, title, and year of publication):

— Nixon, Rob. “Slow Violence, Neoliberalism, and the Environmental Picaresque.” and “Environmentalism, Postcolonialism, and American Studies.” Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard UP, 2001, pp. 45–68, 233–62.

Intellectual Problem (state the question being answered or relationship/confusion being investigated):

— How might we situate an environmental critique of literature within and in response to the lessons of postcolonialism? What might we learn about environmentalism through a focus on the developing world and the poor?

Key Concepts (name up to 3 terms that the author invented or employed and offer definitions):

  1. “Slow violence,” the violence of environmental disaster, pollution events, or climate change, which occurs on time and spatial scales imperceptible to normal human sensation, whether because it’s happening over many hundreds of years on on the cellular level.
  2. “Biological citizenship,” new citizenships and governance relations produced by the admixture of toxins and bodies (think the bureaucratic arrangements produced after the Chernobyl disaster), which in turn affectively unify the poor across the developing world (notes of Anzaldúa here) (47).
  3. “Bioregionalism,” an environmentalism responding to one’s immediate environments, “whose boundaries are determined by a location’s natural characteristics rather than arbitrary administrative boundaries” (238). While this approach can be useful in “instill[ing] in us an awareness of our impact on our immediate environment,” it more often than not opens “out into transcendentalism than transnationalism” (238).

Thesis Statement (quote 1-2 sentences that best encapsulate the main thesis/argument):

— “Such people, the illiterate poor above all, are thrust into a labyrinth of self-fashioning as they seek to fit their bodily stories to the story lines that dangle hope of recognition (possibly, though elusively), even recompense. In so doing, the poor face the double challenge of invisibility and amnesia: numerically, they may constitute the majority, but they remain on the margins in terms of visibility and official memory. From an environmental perspective, this marginality is perpetuated, in part, by what Davis terms “the dialectic of ordinary disaster,” whereby a calamity is incorporated into history and rendered forgettable and ordinary precisely because the burden of risk falls unequally on the unsheltered poor” (65).

Secondary ideas (summarize up to 5 pieces of supporting evidence):

  1. The durational quality of environmental disasters imposes new logics of temporality and citizenship on its sufferers, to say nothing of the “slow violence” that adversely impacts health, agriculture, and society more generally. In the developing world, these disaster generally occur because of first-world corporations: “What emerges, then, is a contest between the tenacity of corporeal memory and the corrosive power, over time and space, of corporate amnesia emboldened by a neoliberal regime of deregulation.” (51)
  2. Using Indra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People (2007), Nixon argues that the generic form of the “picaresque” with its focus on the “abject” of society “proves uncannily effective at dramatizing” the relationships between environmentalism and the urban poor, particularly with regards to temporality (58). New forms of biological citizenship combine with the already-existing underclasses in these spaces to produce new understandings of “what chasms divide and what ties bind the wealthy and the destitute, the human and the animal” (67).
  3. In the second chapter, Nixon turns to environmentalism’s relationship with postcolonialism. Typical American formations of eco-critique rely on images of imagined purity or timeless encounter/sublimity with nature in ways that erase historical and racialized indigenous specificities. Ethics of “place” then constitute “hostility to displaced peoples,” a key focus of postcolonial critique (238–39).
  4. These histories have made postcolonialism wary of environmentalism: the latter is seen as complicit with imperialism and nationalist imaginaries, particularly in North America. Nixon acknowledges these histories and counters with an environmentalism arising first from the developing world and with an engagement with key values from postcoloniality: the global south is the key terrain upon which questions of neoliberal power and transnational capital are being engaged, and as such we need to center these landscapes and peoples in our environmentalism (253).

Theoretical Foundations (list up to 3 theorists that the author relies on, explicitly or implicitly, and state what each offers the argument):

  1. Julia Kristeva, who provides the notion of “abjection,” or that which is cast off from the body of society, through which Nixon thinks the picaresque. The picaresque’s value is that it stages the work of abjection and can track those who have been cast off as abject from social formations.
  2. Nixon proposes the idea of “environmental double consciousness” as a moment wherein an ecological scene evokes both beauty and memory of imperialism violence (e.g. Jamaica Kincaid’s encounter with Kew Gardens). This term implicitly draws on du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness,” which he introduces as a problematic of Blackness.
  3. Spivak, particularly her later ideas of planetarity, undergirds Nixon’s turn to the postcolonial in thinking through an environmentalism of the poor. In particular, he cites her claim that “the local in the South directly engages global greed” (qtd in Nixon 253).

Theoretical Antagonists (list up to 3 theorists that the author responds against, explicitly or implicitly, and why):

  1. American-studies-centric environmentalist thinking, particularly those for whom environmentalism begins and ends with the 19th century transcendentalists and ideas of sublimity. Such an environmentalism is complicit with nationalism and imperialism.
  2. “The notion that environmental politics are a luxury indulgence available only to the world’s wealthy,” a political outgrowth of antagonist #1, and a formation that undergirds how unseriously questions of deregulation and neoliberalism are taken in the public sphere (253).

Implications (describe in 1-2 sentences the value, impact, or stakes of this text in cultural, political, ethical, or aesthetic terms):

— Nixon’s text is valuable on two levels: first, for modeling an environmentalist literary critique through its analysis of Animal’s People; and second, for situating an environmentalism of the poor in response to, rather than in contradiction with the lessons of postcoloniality. As such, his book is a vital text for linking literature, capital, and the ecological in ways that go beyond typical transcendental formations.