Sea Changes in Personhood

Emory University
Published February 5, 2014

Valérie Loichot reviews Monique Allewaert's Ariel's Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

Valérie Loichot
Emory University


Cover of Ariel's Ecology

While taking its cues from apparently minor literary events and artifacts, Ariel's Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics is a major intervention in literary criticism, political philosophy, and ecocriticism of the Americas. The book brims with theoretical and aesthetic insights on every page. It has the dense, compact, and rich qualities of basalt.

Ariel's Ecology embraces the zone of the American tropics, in which Monique Allewaert includes the United States and the Caribbean. Each of the chapters focuses on expressions of a "minoritarian colonial conception of agency," inspired by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's theory of the minor, stemming from human, parahuman,1 animal, plant, swamp, fetish, mountain, or coral sources, constituting what Allewaert discusses as an "ecologically inflected mode of personhood" (147). While most of the texts and artifacts analyzed were produced between 1791 and 1838, Ariel's Ecology illuminates legal, political, philosophical, and literary reflections on the status of personhood, agency, and race in our contemporary context of ecocide and ethnic reconfigurations. Allewaert, who teaches in the English department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, masters a variety of critical discourses such as post-structuralism (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari), Caribbean philosophy (Édouard Glissant and Wilson Harris), law and literature (Colin Dayan), ethnographic history (Richard Price), object relation theory and new materialism, and ecocriticism. Her rich archive is composed of published literary texts, manuscripts, non-written materials, botanical texts, medical texts, engravings, and drawings. Allewaert's ultimate purpose is to theorize the complex, shifting, and fluid personhood born of slavery, colonialism, and post-colonial contact in the American tropics.

Underwater sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor, Dragon Bay, Grenada, 2011. Photograph by Michael Brashier. Courtesy of Michael Brashier.
Underwater sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor, Dragon Bay, Grenada, 2011. Photograph by Michael Brashier. Courtesy of Michael Brashier.

Ariel's Ecology is built around an introduction, five chapters and an epilogue, each of which rethinks the borders between plant, non-human animals, and human animals that all provide a variation on the "parahuman." Her book is built, like the colonial, enslaved, or post-slavery subjects under examination, as "bodies disorganized and disorganizing . . . parts once organized into bodies [that] evince autonomy outside this organization" (2). Similarly, texts and artifacts resonate outside their immediate context to form a new composite body based on a disorganized reorganization.

Allewaert's argument begins even before her words begin with the book's cover image: the face of an underwater statue by the English-Guyanese artist practicing off the coast of Grenada, Jason deCaires Taylor. No other image could better illustrate the parahuman agency Allewaert theorizes. The statue's face has African features and closed eyes. It is covered by coral and sea moss and barnacles that create a visual illusion of alert, open eyes. The image embodies the book's epigraph in which Shakespeare's Ariel describes King Alonso's body:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
The Tempest

Wifredo Lam's The Jungle, gouache on paper mounted on canvas, 1943. Photograph by Kent Baldner. Courtesy of Kent Baldner.
Wifredo Lam's The Jungle, gouache on paper mounted on canvas, 1943. Photograph by Kent Baldner. Courtesy of Kent Baldner.

In the context of slavery—which challenged the personhood and humanity of the enslaved—Allewaert, instead of speaking of dehumanization, evokes the parahuman resistance of human subjects who were metaphorically as well as bodily dismembered. The enslaved resisted through parahuman assemblages, a liminal category between human and animal (85). The integration of the animal is not, for Allewaert, a source of dehumanization, but rather the formation and restructuration of tortured human agency. For example, the severing of human limbs, or trees, like in Wifredo Lam's Jungle (1943), puts "animals, parahumans, and humans, in horizontal relation (that is to say para or beside each other) without conflating them" (86). This provocative claim could, on the surface, entail the reaffirmation of the animality of slaves; however, through her careful readings, Allewaert insists instead that this alliance is a source of agency and power.

Allewaert takes her critical cues from the historical context of the tropical Plantation South. Here, slaves were amputated of their limbs and personhood through actual acts of torture and dismemberment but also while "living on the threshold of citizenship" (16), being considered, for instance, as three-fifths of a person in the 1787 US Constitution (11). She links this disaggregation to the process of creolization, which, for Martinican thinker Édouard Glissant, relies on the power of the composite. She helpfully extends Glissant's concept of creolization—which he would apply to cultural production—to the material and ecological world made of objects and landscapes, which thereby gains agency (9). In short, the introduction exposes the radical redefinition of subject and personhood in the American tropics.

The next chapter, "Swamp Sublime: Ecology and Resistance in the American Plantation Zone," is an expanded version of a piece Allewaert published in PMLA.2 Readers will take delight in the fact that all other chapters of Ariel's Ecology appear in print for the first time. This elaborately developed analysis bases its conclusions on the entanglement of land and humans, the loss of self in the tropics, and a drowned individual productivity that leads to an enriched collective subject in readings of American naturalist William Bartram (1739–1833). Bartram's drawings of flora, fauna, and Cherokee Americans are based on observations and notes taken during his journey to Georgia, South and North Carolina, and East and West Florida. Allewaert acutely observes that Bartram's illustrations and travel notes demonstrate the entanglement of human subjects "with the lowland as pleasurable loss of self" (31). Instead of a weakness or defeat, this leads to a strengthening of subjectivity, which becomes—through its entanglement with nature—a communal agency, similar in function to Glissant's notion of a composite collective subject. For Glissant, the self and the community, disjointed and fragmented by slavery, exile, and colonialism becomes an active multifocal agency built precisely on loss, breaks, and interruptions (see for instance the "Open Boat," in Poetics of Relation). Allewaert systematically and compellingly demonstrates that natural sites, with the primary example of the swamp, hold agency and "revolutionary significance" (41). The space of the swamp, relegated to a space of wildness and savagery in colonial discourse, finds a place in the construction of national agency. Allewaert's argument would be enriched by a dialogue with Martinican essayist Suzanne Césaire who, like her, defines the entanglement of plant life and the workers of the land as a productive agency that she calls "l'homme-plante" (human-plant), an agency that resists forces of slavery and colonial discourse by its vegetative and receptive attitude.3

Allewaert's rethinking of the swamp as a space of agency is of particular value for the study and teaching of many American literary and filmic productions in which the swamp, or other bodies of water, act as a main agent in cultural historical agency. These include William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, George Washington Cable's "Belles Demoiselles Plantation," Maryse Condé's Crossing the Mangrove, Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, or Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild. I have already used it successfully in undergraduate and graduate courses.

William Bartram, botanist. Bust portrait with sprig of fragrant jasmine tucked into his jacket below his cravat, c. 1808. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-38487.
William Bartram, botanist. Bust portrait with sprig of fragrant jasmine tucked into his jacket below his cravat, c. 1808. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-38487.

Allewaert also illuminates the controversial conception of vitalist materialism, which "verged on offering a scientific basis for an anarchy of forms" based on "a fluidized matter unendingly intersecting" (62), with a comparison to Deleuze's analogical thought that "presumes the identity or self-sameness of the terms that it puts in relation" (64). "Plant Life: Tropical Vegetation, Animate Matter, and Cosmopolitical Form" focuses on Alexander von Humboldt's personal narrative Relation Historique (1814–1825) and Benjamin Rush's "Lectures on Animal Life" (1799). Allewaert offers exquisite readings of botanical sheets through figures of style. For instance, she interprets Bartram's 1791 illustration of the American lotus as "a palindrome, a sequencing of plant-animal-plant that swallows the animal into vegetable life" (79). This reading of Bartram ends with the crucial conclusion that botanical illustrations, and more generally, the practice of the naturalist, has implications of a political and legal nature, that Allewaert calls "American cosmopolitics" (79). She convincingly demonstrates that Bartram, who recognized the "political stakes of natural history," used his work to protect Native American rights (81).

"On Parahumanity: Creole Stories and the Suspension of the Human" constitutes the theoretical core of Ariel's Ecology. In it, Allewaert develops her theory of the "parahuman," whereby humans, parahumans, and animals exist in a "horizontal relation (that is to say para or beside each other) without conflating them" (86). Her definition stems from the condition of African humans whose humanity, during slavery and its aftermath, was put into question legally, economically, and ontologically. Such an argument may seem incompatible with thinkers who have reflected on the dehumanization of the slave and have insisted on the slave's resilient and creative humanity, and the inhumanity of the institution of slavery. Most notably, Toni Morrison famously offered that "bestial treatment of human beings never produces a race of beasts."4 Instead, Allewaert chooses an alternative and unexpected path. Rather than measuring the inhumanity or humanity of one or the other, she argues that the forced juxtaposition and confusion of humans, animals, and plants during slavery put into question the notion of a discrete and sovereign category of the human. This theory stands not in contradiction with Morrison's claim, I would argue, but rather as a helpful continuation of the criticism of the supremacy of Western thought, and of the arbitrary and absurd fixed categories that slavery invented and implemented. Allewaert argues that "Afro-Americans drew on the brutal colonial circumstance of dismemberment and bodily disaggregation to produce models of personhood that developed from the experience of parahumanity and in relation to animal bodies and that registered a deep skepticism about the desirability of the category of the human" (86). Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben's own criticism of the firm and stable category of the human (101) illuminates Allewaert's analysis. Cuban painter Wifredo Lam's organic-inorganic assemblage of La Jungla (1943) acts as a case in point of her theory of the parahuman, a "more than human collectivity . . . not grounded on human exceptionalism" (113). Parahumanity does not diminish but rather surpasses humanity.

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, London, 1773. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-56850.
Portrait of Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, London, 1773. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-56850.

Allewaert then shifts her attention from European travelers' accounts of the American tropics to the technology of African fetishes and the poetry of Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784), who was born in Senegal, kidnapped and enslaved at age seven, and deported to Boston at age eight. The author reads Wheatley's life as a series of "removes" (115) that translate into her poetry as a passage from matter to abstraction. "When her poems acknowledge the colonial natural world—the hurricanes of the tropics . . . New England's cold, or Jamaica's fervid shores," Allewaert claims, "it is as bare locative facts that quickly give way to spiritual or metaphysical abstractions" (115). Nature, for Wheatley, serves as a pretext to the formation of an "ethereal and echoic poetics" (116). Once again, nature is not a mere accessory to human subjectivity, but active in a refined and celestial poetic creation. The celestial and the sacred contradict the colonial belief that African fetishism "was a process of turning 'ridiculous objects into gods'" (121). The technology that Allewaert sees at work in the fetish "mediates the relations between insides and out, (para)humans and nonhumans," (134) and responds to the fragmentation of the diasporic African self. The author returns to the notion of loss, foundational to the book, refining it through the term syncope, which marks both Wheatley's poetry and the human-animal fetishes of vaudou. Syncope functions here in its multivalent medical, musical, poetic definitions as "the loss of consciousness, words, a beat—a lapse and abyss that ghosts and births the new beat, entering into and expanding the arrangement" (140). This complex theoretical passage, with its metaphors and insights, illustrates the deep poetic qualities of Ariel's Ecology.

Leonora Sansay's travelogue, Secret History (1808), and a novel sometimes attributed to her, Zelica (1820) (in which the Haitian revolutionary Henri Christophe sets Saint-Domingue's capital city Cap François on fire) provide a springboard for Allawaert to demonstrate that "Afro-American" cultural forms of production and expression—such as fetishes and vaudou, and "ecologically-inflected modes of personhood"—shaped the construction of white women travelers, created a specific anxiety, and challenged reading identity along racial lines (147). Sansay "married a French Creole from St. Domingue, who had sold in 1796 his coffee plantation to Toussaint Louverture and fled the ongoing revolution" (150). She argues that Sansay's particularly fragmented and discontinuous autobiography, her description of dismembered bodies, her complex transnational travels, and the five different names she used are emblematic of the fragmentation and reorganization of personhood Anglo-American women undergo as they travel through the American tropics. Allewaert convincingly argues that fetish production and vaudou "complicated conceptions of property, object status, and commodification by suggesting that organic and inorganic forms cannot simply be counted as passive units to be meted out by human agents" (157). It is through death and the fetishistic burial of their body or body parts that Sansay's fictional character Clara and historical figures such as the first emperor of Haiti Jean-Jacques Dessalines become one with the land and form new subjectivity through the enmeshment of (para)human and nonhuman (ecological) agencies. While it is undeniable that tropical nature, spiritual beliefs, and historical events inflected all human subjects living or passing through the tropics, more nuance should be made as to the gravity and scope of the alteration of the human subject, whether it is an anxious colonial traveler or a slave reduced to the legal status of "movable property." Indeed, the fragmented self of the anxious Euro-American traveler does not equal the state of "social death" Orlando Patterson qualified as "one of the most extreme forms of the relation of domination, approaching the limits of total power from the viewpoint of the master, and of total powerlessness from the viewpoint of the slave."5 While the novel Zelica does indeed focus on the actual torture and mutilation of white women's bodies—that reach a state of total powerlessness, dismemberment, and physiological death—in revolutionary Saint-Domingue, more attention should be paid to the scope and depth of the generalized state of disempowerment of the enslaved. It may also be a stretch to claim that whiteness, through the example of Clara, becomes one with the Haitian land, to the level at which Dessalines's body, as Allewaert rightly claims, was "apotheosized as the place of Haiti" (169). True, as she demonstrates, the word "black" (nègre), used in the 1805 Constitution of Haiti as a sine qua non condition to Haitian citizenship, comports the significant exception of naturalized Haitian white women, and of Poles who fought in the Revolutionary War against the Napoleonic forces and is not strictly based on race.6 "To stay in postrevolutionary Haiti," Allewaert argues, was "to become black, although here blackness is unhitched from its defiled epidermal signification and given a cultural and national one" (156).

Next, Allewaert turns to Edgar Allan Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). In her lucid reading, she identifies Pym's attention to "planetary creolization." The use of the term creolization is surprising at first since the word appeared in print for the first time in the English language (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) in Lafcadio Hearn's novel Youma (1890). However, Allewaert opens up the notion of creolization (usually based on cultural production) through her notion of the parahuman disintegrated body and by inflecting it with the ecological. Creolization escapes the limits of human production to form an alliance with non-human forms of expression, such as the properties of tropical waters in a diversifying materialism (179). Creolization is as much ecological as it is cultural. Allewaert's thinking of materialism made of the agglutination of human, animal, and parahuman, inorganic and organic elements, resembles Glissant's creolization and cultural reconstruction in the aftermath of Diaspora and slavery. For both Allewaert and Glissant, this relationality based on "fragmentation does not amount to chaos, disorder or loss" but instead denies the fantasy of an "originary American event" (180). It is in the company of another Caribbean poet and theorist, the Guyanese Wilson Harris, that Allewaert concludes Ariel's Ecology. Poe's Narrative exemplifies Harris's notion of "a countermythology of the Americas" manifested through "a hallucinatory dense account of the Americas as cross-cultural poetics" (180). Allewaert enriches both the archive and the thinking of creolization theory, ecological thinking, and the American tropics.

With its inclusion of delightful botanical plates, rare archival documents, maps, engravings, and paintings, Ariel's Ecology will not only attract an interdisciplinary audience of scholars, educators, and students, but will also speak to a broader audience curious about subject formation in the American tropics.

About the Author

Valérie Loichot is a professor of French and English at Emory University. She is the author of Orphan Narratives: The Postplantation Literatures of Faulkner, Glissant, Morrison, and Saint-John Perse (University of Virginia Press, 2007) and The Tropics Bite Back: Culinary Coups in Caribbean Literature (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). Her current project is entitled "Caribbean Creolization in the United States: Translating Race from Lafcadio Hearn to Barack Obama."

  • 1. "Parahuman" indicates the zone of connection between human animal, other animals, and the environment.
  • 2. Monique Allewaert, "Swamp Sublime: Ecologies of Resistance in the American Plantation Zone," PMLA 123, no. 2 (March 2008): 340–357.
  • 3. Suzanne Césaire, The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941–1945), trans. Keith Walker (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2012).
  • 4. In Danille Taylor-Guthrie, ed., Conversations with Toni Morrison (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 48.
  • 5. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 3.
  • 6. "Art. 12. No white man of whatever nation he may be, shall put his foot on this territory with the title of master or proprietor, neither shall he in future acquire any property therein. Art. 13. The preceding article cannot in the smallest degree affect white woman who have been naturalized Haytians by Government, nor does it extend to children already born, or that may be born of the said women. The Germans and Polanders naturalized by government are also comprised in the dispositions of the present article. Art. 14. . . . the Haytians shall hence forward be known only by the generic appellation of Blacks." The full text of the 1805 Constitution can be found at Bob Corbett, ed., "The 1805 Constitution of Haiti," Haiti, accessed February 4, 2014,
Creative Commons Licence

Browse by