An interview with Monique Allewaert, Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, on her new book, Ariel’s Ecology: Personhood and Colonialism in the American Tropics, 1760-1820, published by University of Minnesota Press.
Angela Last: When reading your book, I found that your interpretation of Ariel differs from existing mobilisations of this figure in interesting ways. Obviously, you are focusing more on the nonhuman connection, but, I thought, also on the inhuman (or assumed inhuman) aspects of subversion, negotiation and revolution. Much recent materialist writing seems to shy away from questions of violence, especially human violence. Could you talk a bit more about this?
Monique Allewaert: For me Ariel is not a human character but an elemental force that evokes and manipulates not entirely substantial but still absolutely material forces like lighting, thunder, and climate. My insistence on Ariel’s materiality means to resist interpretations that entirely etherealize Ariel and then divide him from the obviously material Caliban. I see this intensely material Ariel as a sort of Hermes-like character who passes through media like air, water, fire, and vapor (here I mean media in the Aristotitilean sense as Shakespeare is thinking about things like water or air as media) in order to produce connections that transform those entities touched by his mediation. I think Ariel’s power of transformative mediation is one of the capacities we should glean from his famous song. Although Prospero imagines all this mediating magic should serve colonial ends, it’s interesting to me that the media Ariel is associated with – water, air, climate — are those that colonials found particularly threatening because they were thought to deform of European bodies and minds. So, even if the play attempts to have readers understand Ariel’s mediating power as serving the colonial project, his powers clearly have the potential to disrupt the colonial organization of the material world, as we see in several moments of the play. As you point out, Ariel’s mediating power can produce subversions and even revolutionary transformations, either on its own or when mixed with human ambitions. The important point for me is that the media Ariel evokes are coeval with and not submissive to human agents, which means that neither is fully determining of the other.
It’s true that some recent materialist writings, especially new materialists, are not focusing much on human violence. I think this is mostly because right now new materialists are busy flattening the field between actors in order to reconceptualize agency. Obviously, a new theory of agency will require a new theory of violence, and although I did a little of this work in my book, I think that as new materialisms further develop they’ll have to offer more robust theories of violence, which I suspect will require turning back to Marx whose interests ally with the new materialists more than they’ve been willing to acknowledge to date.
AL: The ‘parahuman identity’ that you present in the book – a disruptive human-nonhuman assemblage – seems to map onto some of the imagery of Afrofuturism or Afrofuturist influenced work. I am thinking here especially of Detroit’s Drexciya or Ellen Gallagher’s art, which refer to ex-slave underwater civilisations and re-imbue mutilated figures such as Peg Leg Bates with revolutionary qualities in terms of human-world representations. Were you in dialogue with such contemporary images and stories at all, and, if yes, how do you see the cultural reception of such visions in terms of their subversive qualities?
MA: Afrofuturism didn’t consciously influence me, but it’s interesting that you ask as while I was writing the book I’d often think of works by Parliament, Sun Ra, Samuel Delaney, Kara Walker, or Doctor Octagon. So, they were probably an unconscious influence, particularly their production of an Afro-American aesthetics that pretty radically departs from idealizations of the human, instead giving us a field peopled with extraterrestrial, grotesquely stereotypical, or weirdly serialized visual or audial arrays. I actually did not know of Ellen Gallagher’s work until now, but I’ll definitely check it out as I have a project on Afro-American Atlantises on the back burner. The Afro American Atlantises project is particularly interested in non-linear, anti-Hegelian models of history that are used to utopian ends, so in a way that project closely allies with Afrofuturist work.
AL: At the moment, there seems to be an evolving dialogue between postcolonial studies and various materialisms, especially around ecology and ‘planetarity’. How has your proposal of the ‘parahuman’ been received so far?
MA: For me, the term parahuman is less interested in naming a specific stage of colonialism as it is in offering a trajectory that can help us to depart from the idealization of the human that occurred in literature and politics at the turn of the eighteenth century, ossified in the nineteenth century, and that continues to structure a number of fields of humanistic and scientific inquiry. If the term parahuman works, it marks the emergence of a mode of existence that is beside the human and that better allows a critique of the racist and colonial parameters through which the human and human rights have developed.
What interests me in the para is that it’s a sort of offshoot from and perversion of some previous category. So for me, it marks the emergence of a trajectory that cannot be assimilated back into its ancestral category. By way of analogy, consider an offshoot of a branch in the Darwinian genealogical tree: once that offshoot occurs, the new life category cannot go back to or be converted into its ancestor and it is not sufficient to explain the new form in terms of its genealogical ancestors.
I think race studies could benefit from the term because it stops short encomiums to a triumphant human spirit that I think limit the power of critique and creation by obscuring the material economic and environmental import of racism and colonialism. I also think the environmental humanities might benefit from the term as it attempts to re-conceptualize its work in light of the Anthropocene. Yes, we need to name homo sapiens in some way or another. However, if the geological sciences and the humanities do move toward the term Anthoropocene, we need to develop an alternate ontology for the anthropos and we need alternate histories and mythologies to ground this ontology. I worry that without a shift in the way we understand the anthropos, the term Anthropocene could end up becoming an affirmation of a philosophy that conceives the human against the nonhuman, and this term that should encourage humility and a correspondent shift in philosophy, politics, and science, could end up becoming the apotheosis of the Cartesian and Lockean legacies that are to some degree responsible for getting us into this mess.
Since the book was only released in July, it’s too early for me to know if the term parahuman has proven helpful to others looking at these problems. I hope it might be useful toward getting us to think of humans and nonhumans differently, and doing so via an analysis of the historical period and historical actors that are often enmired in older and in my opinion problematically nostalgic conceptions of the human.
AL: In your discussion of parahumanity you stress that the (intentional) parahuman identity is potentially open to any human, though not necessarily desired, because it places one outside the dominant socio-economic system. With current developments such as increasing marginalisation and securitisation on the one hand (against terrorists, refugees, poor people etc) and growing demands for earth rights on the other, do you feel that there is a connection to and future of the eighteenth century parahuman?
MA: The term human and the politics of human rights have historically been powerful tools for fighting the increasing privatization of the common in order to argue against marginalizations of all sorts. I don’t think that a term like parahuman – which is a heuristic through which to produce a different ontology – will or should be used in its place right away and perhaps not ever, both because – as you point out – it is an identity many would resist and also because it has no political history right now. So, I don’t think the term parahuman needs to be imposed onto the political and legal spheres (if political groups or activists were to take up the term, that would be interesting, but I don’t think my job is to produce terms that others should feel compelled to use; if my terms are good for thinking with and help us see and maybe act differently, that is enough for me). Nor is the eighteenth-century parahuman the only model through which we might recognize and shape an alternate anthropos. It is one thread of many through which a different configuration of the human, the nonhuman and rights can be woven.
I think that some of the most effective ways that politicians and activists are thinking of the questions related to the parahuman now is by arguing for things like earth rights or creating electronic disturbance theater in which human-technological nexuses facilitate some passages and blocks others. Bolivia’s extension of rights to the earth or even PETA’s arguments for the rights of nonhuman animals are important as they put pressure on legal systems to recognize interests that are not the interests of property and of human beings, which are currently the rights that are routinely recognized by law.
AL: In terms of ‘blind’ parahumanity – which could almost be read as a refusal of an already existing human-nonhuman assemblage – are you planning on further destabilising the Euro-American concept of personhood? Also, what are you working on at the moment?
MA: Ariel’s Ecology is really offering a pre-political model of the person. I decided to work on a problem that I understood put me in the realm of pre-political because I thought we needed to reconceive the foundational terms through which we understand politics in order to reconceive politics in a real way, in a way that’s not presuming the adequacy of existing conceptions of the person and the human as a starting point and in so doing limiting the possibility for transformation from the start. If the conception of the person I offered in Ariel’s Ecology is pre-political, I am really interested in what sort of political formations this sort of parahumanity took. Right now I’m making my way through a number of archives I didn’t get to spend time in during the writing of the book in hopes of showing how this pre-political mode finds political form.
I am also at work on a new book that focuses on figuration in the Atlantic World, particularly personification – or the rhetorical, material, and legal operations – through which persons are produced and also on synecdoche – the operations through which the relation of parts and wholes is produced. In a way, I am trying to bend the work I did in Ariel’s Ecology to the literary and to show to literary scholars that the way I understand persons and matter should change the way literary scholars understand really basic operations like personification. For a long time literary scholars have taken for granted that we know what personification means, but I’m convinced that my own and other scholars work in science studies, in the environmental humanities, and in race studies really dramatically changes how we understand those terms, making evident their centrality to processes at once literary and legal. I’m not only speaking to literary scholars in this new book: I’m also trying to show how terms like personification or synecdoche, which might seem to describe a sort of decorative literary embellishment that’s not essential to more important literary operations like story or generating affect is in fact central to these supposedly higher order operations and also to producing the material organizations that ground political or legal codifications.
AL: There is a parallel development in geography, politics and international relations around the material dimensions of geopolitics – with the planetary or nonhuman dimension being considered in more constructive ways. In many ways, this seems to mirror the arguments for a new geopoetic to counter imperialist geopolitics. How do you perceive this relation between poetics and politics?
MA: Poetics, broadly construed as the creation and consideration of myth, image, pattern, and story, gives shape, direction, and momentum to politics. In Ariel’s Ecology I drew heavily on existing mythologies of the Americas, particularly those concerned with Caribbean and Latin American contexts – the writings of Edouard Glissant, Maryse Conde, or Wilson Harris – in order to try to reorient the mythologies of the Americas, including North America. Existing mythologies of the Americas were too much about the inevitability of co-option and the main sort of response they produce is scholarship that is entirely descriptive, scholarship that is defeated by the horrors of the past, or scholarship that is entirely in the mode of critique. I think all of these kinds of scholarship are important, but they don’t have enough energy to recognize and help to build pan-American cultural and political communities. I was trying to offer a story and mythology that helps nourish an American studies that is resistant, that takes diversity seriously, and that works to find those nodes in story, politics, and history from which we can produce a change in direction.
The relation of poetics and politics is central to my new book too, although here I focus on a smaller unit – on the encoding and transmission of pattern that is made possible by personification and synecdoche. One sort of canonical text in which we could think about the upshot of this new work in is Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative. In his discussion of how a slave becomes a man he sequences three forms of resistance, first his famous personification of sailboats in the Chesapeake Bay, second, his acceptance of a fetish root from another slave, third, his willingness to fight the slave breaker who makes men into slaves. I put a lot of pressure on this first form of resistance, the personification of sailboats, which I see as central to understanding the importance of the fetish technology and Douglass’s willingness to fight to the death. Although it’s quite possible to read Douglass as advocating literacy and masculinity as the only viable modes of Afro American resistance and personhood, I think this apostrophe – which was one of the most noted aspects of the book in the 19th century – shows that the deliberate deployment rhetoric that was increasingly being dismissed and associated with the feminine was central to this effort. Moreover, this particular personification keeps in circulation the Afro American animacies that a more cursory reading of the Narrative might image Douglass disparages.