Surfing the Second Waves: Amitav Ghosh's Tide Country

By Mukherjee, Pablo | New Formations, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Surfing the Second Waves: Amitav Ghosh's Tide Country


Mukherjee, Pablo, New Formations


   ... to grasp historical being in its external historical
   determination, there where it is most historical, as itself natural
   being, or to grasp nature, there where it apparently resides most
   profoundly within itself, as historical being.

                                            Theodor W. Adorno

The 'new world order' proclaimed by George Bush 1 more than a decade and a half ago presents us with the deadly spectacle of current and future wars --Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq yesterday and today; Iran, Latin America and perhaps China tomorrow. It is also a spectacle where the 'environmental' is increasingly embedded into the social, political and military dimensions of conflict. That 'Palestine' names a series of historic struggles for specific rights over land, water and housing is taken to be common knowledge. (1) That 'Iraq' is a short-hand for pre-emptive US attempts to secure energy resources and therefore a position of strength in future bargains for power against rival bidders like China is the stuff of broad-sheet editorials. That the march to the Gulf wars was accompanied by rhetorical drumbeats about Iraq's alleged capacities of degrading the environment of the Gulf area with its chemical/ biological weapons merely confirms this entwining. (2) There is nothing startling anymore about Andrew Ross's suggestion that Gulf War 1 was the first explicitly ecological war of our times. (3) The various current and predicted water/minerals/narcotics 'wars' in Africa, Asia, and Latin America seem to be gloomy confirmations of his jeremiad. These analyses and debates about the 'new world order' are further quickened by routine pronouncements about 'global warming' and its possible impact on access to resources, human migration and habitats.

The only surprising thing about this conceptual importance accorded to 'environment' seems to be its relative novelty. Surely, any field purporting to theorise the global conditions of colonialism/imperialism, decolonisation and neo-colonialism (let us agree to call it 'postcolonial studies') cannot but consider the complex interplay of 'environmental' categories such as water, land, energy, habitat, migration, with political or cultural categories such as state, society, conflict, literature, theatre, visual arts. Equally, any field purporting to attach interpretative importance to 'environment' (let us call it eco/environmental studies) must be able to trace the social, historical and material co-ordinates of categories such as forests, rivers, bio-regions and species. The fact that the traffic between postcolonial and eco studies can be chronologically framed within the 'new world order' calls for some periodisation of the two fields.

If we take the number of impressively thick readers or anthologies as an indicator, both 'eco/green' and post-colonial studies are in ruddy institutional health. If these collections can also be seen as chronological markers of a field's maturing, postcolonial and eco studies seem to have developed and entrenched themselves in northern academes around roughly the same historical moment. Four leading eco/green readers appeared between the mid-nineties and 2003--Glotfelty and Fromm's in 1996, Laurence Coupe's in 2000, Adamson, Evans and Stein's in 2002, and Branch and Slovic's in 2003. (4) Among the truly dizzying numbers of introductions, readers and anthologies of postcolonial criticism and theory are those edited by Mongia (1996), Gandhi (1998), Brydon (2000), Chrisman and Parry (2000), Schwarz and Roy (2000), Young (2001 and 2003), Goldberg and Quayson (2002), Lazarus (2004) and Desai (2005). (5) The contents of these volumes seem to suggest that while institutionally, these fields were formed in the mid-to-late 1980, their constitutive theories and reflective practices were fleshed out largely from the early 1970s onwards. (6) To be more specific, although both postcolonial and eco studies claim an intellectual inheritance of at least two centuries and counting (to Romanticism and various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century anti-colonial struggles), their contemporary lives may be dated roughly from Earth Day in 1970 to the second invasion and occupation of Iraq 2004-05. …

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