Located at the center of Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990) is the Matacão, a vast expanse of thick, mysterious black plastic that has emerged in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon. When scientists uncover a means to extract it, the Brazilian government’s chief concern is to maximize domestic profit. “Brazil [has] once before emptied its wealthy gold mines into the coffers of the Portuguese Crown and consequently financed the Industrial Revolution in England,” argue government officials, insisting that “[t]his time, if there [is] any wealth to be had, it had better remain in Brazil” (96). Fueling this concern is Brazil’s continued indebtedness to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which Matacão-derived wealth promises to partially alleviate. Such concerns reveal a historical subtext of Yamashita’s novel, one that is invested in excavating a long history of resource exploitation in Brazil beginning with Portuguese colonization in the sixteenth century. Following the Portuguese preoccupation with sugar and gold and a post-independence fixation on rubber and coffee, Brazil’s state-sponsored development of the Amazon region in the 1950s and 60s gave way to a neoliberal turn in economic policy in the mid-1990s that effectively ushered in the age of extractive capitalism. Driven by slave labor (during and after colonization) and enabled by the genocide, displacement, and internal colonization of millions of indigenous peoples, resource extraction in Brazil has also resulted, over the last five hundred years, in ecological destruction on a scale so stunning—1.2 million km2 of forest lost—that it has been characterized as “one of the most tragic effects in the making of the modern world system” (Pádua 131).1 Yamashita’s representation of this complex history has proven remarkably prescient, foreshadowing two major developments around the turn of the millennium. First, her speculative approach anticipates the intensification of extractive capitalism beginning in Brazil in the mid-to-late 1990s, which entailed the privatization of and foreign investment in major extractive industries (particularly the agro-mineral sector) and which has been likened to a continuation of colonial-style resource development.2 In the novel, the Matacão is coveted by foreign capitalists, its eventual extraction leading to deforestation and the widespread displacement of indigenous peoples. Second, Arc anticipates the arrival of the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch in which humans have become a distinct geophysical force, fundamentally altering the planet’s biodiversity, climate, and other elements of the Earth system.3 In particular, Yamashita’s fictionally rendered Matacão resembles “plastiglomerate,” a rock-plastic hybrid composed of molten plastic refuse and various ocean debris that was discovered on Hawaii’s Kamilo Beach in 2006. According to scientists Patricia Corcoran and Charles Moore, and visual artist Kelly Jazvac, anthropogenically produced deposits of plastiglomerate, formed in areas where human pollution comes into contact with natural processes such as lava flows and wildfires, is likely ubiquitous and represents a “distinct marker horizon” (6) of the Anthropocene. As eventually becomes evident in Arc, Matacão plastic is the grotesque end result of the compression, deep within the Earth’s core, of “[e]normous landfills of nonbiodegradable plastic material buried under virtually every populated part of the Earth” (202). An unnatural resource molded by natural processes, the fictional Matacão, takes on renewed significance given the potential formalization of the Anthropocene as measure of geological time by Anthropocene Working Group as part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (“Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’”). In spite of the novel’s clairvoyance, however, its tale of human-induced ecological destruction offers a fundamentally different account of the Anthropocene. As Christophe Bonneuil has shown, leading Anthropocene narratives construe a universalized anthropos (human) at the species level as a “causal explanatory category in the understanding of human history” (19). Such an assumption can be dangerous, he reminds us, for it fails to account for issues of uneven access to resources and the disproportionate effects of climate change experienced along lines of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and geopolitics (20). While Arc calls attention to these inequities by excavating what Aimee Bahng identifies as the “disavowed imperial legacies” (123) of resource development in Brazil—indigenous exploitation, displacement, and erasure—even they remain peripheral to the novel’s central concern with the potential for nonhuman agency. Though Arc affirms the advent of the Anthropocene, it takes on the additional task of unseating the human as the epoch’s sole political actor, a fact exemplified by the novel’s omniscient, nonhuman narrator, a whirring sphere of Matacão plastic that remains in a fixed position six inches from the head of Kazumasa Ishimaru, a Japanese immigrant living in São Paulo. “By a strange quirk of fate,” the narrator explains, “I was brought back by a memory … I have become a memory, and as such, am commissioned to be come before you as a memory” (3). That “memory,” of course, is the narrative itself, though it is difficult to ascertain to whom that memory belongs, if anyone. Because the nonhuman remains central to Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, the novel emerges as an example of what Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann call “material narratives.” In their introduction to Material Ecocriticism, Iovino and Oppermann characterize material ecocriticism as an analysis of “the interlacements of matter and discourses” (6) and a “study of the way material forms … intra-act with each other and with the human dimension, producing meanings and discourses we can interpret as stories” (7). Presupposing the entangled, rhizomatic nature of human and nonhuman agency, material narratives offer alternatives to traditionally anthropocentric interpretations of literature by approaching the “world and text as an agentic entanglement” (10). Such an approach grows in part out of earlier efforts to overcome what Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman view as a general “retreat from materiality” (3) in a field of critical theory that often privileges linguistic and discursive modes of analysis and emphasizes the human (subject) as ontologically separate from the material (object). This dichotomy has been particularly entrenched in fields such as postcolonial studies, leading scholars working in postcolonial ecocriticism to emphasize the importance of moving beyond the simple inclusion of environmental degradation on a long ledger of grievances against colonial/imperial powers. As Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley explain, a consideration of both human and nonhuman agency “recuperates the alterity of both history and nature without reducing either to the other” (4).4 In this vein, material narrativity as an interpretive framework accounts for a nonhierarchical entanglement of human and nonhuman agency.5 In Arc, Yamashita’s sentient ball of narrating plastic, and the vast plastic sheet from which it has been “cut,” draw on a long history of colonial era and contemporary resource rushes in Brazil that culminate in the capitalist fetishization of Matacão plastic as a versatile global commodity. In its dual rule as narrator and raw commodity, the Matacão might be read as an example of what political ecologist Jane Bennett has called the “vital materiality” (vii) of things, by which she means the inherent capacity of the nonhuman “to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (viii). Just as Bennett ardently rejects the anthropocentricity of historical materialism, which seeks to derive human meaning from the nonhuman material world, Yamashita’s novel assembles a material history of resource development in Brazil in an effort to account for the role of nonhuman agency in contributing to and rectifying resultant ecological consequences. In addition, the Matacão determines the outcome of most of the events in the novel. For instance, it is powerful and inexplicably magnetic in its profit potential and literally in its physical properties. These qualities render it inscrutable for the novel’s human characters, throw foundational scientific doctrines into question, and fuel an existential crisis for the human race. As bewildered onlookers ask, “What did such an enormous magnet near the equator mean to the Earth? to the Earth’s gravitational pull in the solar system? to sunspots? to ecological systems in the forest? to human civilization? to extraterrestrial life in the universe? to the apocalypse?” (Arc 98). The crucial retort to this desperate set of questions, however, remains just out reach for the inhabitants of Yamashita’s fictional world, while the narrator, as a physical embodiment of extractive capitalism’s discursive and material past, bears witness as an uncertain future unfolds. In what amounts to a cautionary tale of speculative fiction, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest deploys the nonhuman to critique a colonial past and an imperial present driven by resource extraction. What are the political implications of such a powerfully fictionalized vital materiality that reacts against a history of cultural and ecological violence? How might the kind of fictionalized nonhuman agency presented in Arc enable us to decenter anthropos from the Anthropocene, fostering a more responsible and equitable engagement with the nonhuman world as we confront current ecological crises? Arc simultaneously critiques Brazil’s long history of resource development as the cause of ongoing environmental catastrophe and envisions a future scenario in which nonhuman agency functions as a transformative force. Like Bennett’s theory of vital materiality, Arc offers an invigorating code of ethics that displaces the anthropocentric objectification of nonhuman nature driving resource extraction and commodification. But the novel also anticipates and affirms the political potential of what Joni Adamson has called “multinatural worlds” (261), a paradigm underlying recent, indigenous-led cosmopolitical movements in South America that view various elements of nonhuman nature as rights-bearing subjects. Ultimately, Arc envisions a world in which nonhuman nature can be politically assertive through language (narration), adaptation, and action. The Matacão, Extractivism, and Brazil’s Resource Curse For all of its emphasis on the nonhuman casualties of resource development in Brazil, Arc contains a broad, diverse cast of characters such as Batista Djapan, the Brazilian homing-pigeon trainer and “the sort of man every Brazilian knew and sensed in their hearts” (12); three-armed American CEO Jonathan B. Tweep; Chico Paco, a poor Brazilian fisherman turned religious icon; Lourdes, a favela-dwelling widower who works as Kazumasa’s maid; and Mané de Costa Pena, the indigenous peasant. From the beginning of the novel, however, their respective fates are closely tied to the Matacão’s profit potential. After a prayer to the Matacão results in the miraculous healing of his crippled friend Gilberto, Chico Paco walks barefoot to the fields of plastic to erect an altar in thanks and quickly becomes a nationally known saint-like figure, founding Radio Chico and the Foundation for Votive Pilgrimages. Business rapidly expands as a result of “generous donations” (162) of supporters and sponsors and the continuing spiritual significance of the Matacão. Mané Pena’s discovery of the healing properties of the feather, leading to its mass marketing as a New Age wellness product, has both spiritual and material ties to the “strange magic” (24) of the Matacão, which is used to forge impossibly accurate feather replicas that expand the feather market exponentially. And the excavation of raw Matacão plastic holds enormous financial significance for Tweep the capitalist, who aims to usher in the “Plastics Age” (133) with the backing of his vast, US-based multinational corporation, GGG. As Matacão plastic begins to “infiltrate every crevice of modern life” (143), a destructive human presence converges on the Amazon, resulting in enormous ecological destruction and cultural upheaval until the closing pages of the novel, in which we witness the ferocious “revenge” of a multitude of nonhuman actants. Adaptive flora and fauna thrive in a backcountry junkyard filled with the rusting detritus of US imperialism; rickettsia bacteria spread a super-resistant strain of typhus, decimating the human population residing on the Matacão; and a rapidly spreading, Matacão-hungry bacteria devours the polymer, reducing the plastic empire to rubble. By the end, we are granted one final glimpse at the “old forest … secreting its digestive juices, slowly breaking everything down into edible absorbent components” (212). The narrator itself dissolves along with the rest of the Matacão, but not before it has borne witness to the profound reclamation of a world built in the image of extractive capitalism. As mentioned above, the narrator’s “memory” draws on the long, violent history of resource development in Brazil. In the opening pages of the novel, for example, the peasant Mané Pena is wandering his native forest in an unidentified portion of the southern Amazon basin when he stumbles upon a newly cleared plot of forest. He is immediately handed the deed to his new farm by an unassuming government official. “Couple weeks, we’ll send an agronomist ‘round,” Pena is told. “Get you started on how to plant” (16). This brief episode recalls government attempts to implement the Plano de Desenvolvimiento para a Nação Xavante (Development Plan for the Xavante Nation) in the Mato Grosso region south of the Amazon basin. Drafted in 1978 and lasting nearly a decade, the Xavante Plan was meant to foster indigenous self-sufficiency, in part through the establishment of modernized agricultural practices, and was firmly located within state development agendas that continued to focus westward. Besides a fundamental incompatibility with traditional Xavante subsistence practices, the agricultural portion of the project faced numerous environmental challenges, including acidic soil and periodic flooding, and ultimately led to the Xavante’s uneasy dependency on the state.6 In Arc, Mané Pena’s farm shares a similar fate: heavy rains erode the already diminished topsoil of his recently acquired farm, resulting in the initial emergence of the Matacão (16). As commercial interest in the plastic grows, he is displaced by the coercive government’s “offer” of new housing in brand new condominiums on the edges of the Matacão, which are eventually condemned, bulldozed, and replaced by foreign real estate investments and “American franchises, wedged between and under exclusive penthouses with heliports and hotels” (17). Mané Pena, living with his wife and children in a makeshift shack, is reduced to poverty until he discovers the lucrative healing powers of the feather. The case of Mané Pena’s displacement, and the fate of his native forest, is nothing particularly new. Beginning with Portuguese colonization, Brazil’s economic development has long been dependent on the commodification, cultivation, and extraction of natural resources, activities that have resulted in increasingly devastating cultural and ecological fallout. Brazil’s early economic history has been organized cyclically according to primary resource-export of focus, beginning with sugar before centering around gold (1600s–1700s), coffee (1800s–1900s), and rubber (1900s) (Baer).7 Given Brazil’s size and seemingly inexhaustible natural bounties, these efforts were carried out with little regard for ecological consequences or the displacement of indigenous peoples.8 For example, sugar cultivation, centralized in the zona da mata in northeastern Brazil, depended on the proliferation of plantations and engenhos (sugar cane mills), the creation of which entailed reckless slash-and-burn tactics. By 1912, the original ecosystem of the Zona da Mata had become unrecognizable, with only 34 percent of original forest remaining (Rogers 44). Deforestation was accompanied by the decimation of indigenous populations as colonial cities materialized around productive tracts of former forest, prompting violent resistance to Jesuit proselytizing and the introduction of European pathogens to which indigenous populations had no natural resistance.9 Because modern Brazil inherited the careless prioritization of economic development over ecological integrity that has been paradigmatic of European colonialism expansionist ideologies, the ongoing destruction of the rainforest has been viewed as a “direct consequence” of colonialism in South America (Padua 131). The legacies of colonial development ideologies surfaced in Brazil’s postwar developmentalist economic policies, which were characterized by state-managed industrial and agricultural development and raw material processing.10 As political ecologist Arturo Escobar has shown, the ideology of developmentalism functioned as a discursive extension of Euro-Western imperialist efforts, led by the IMF and World Bank, to “improve” economically disadvantaged regions through urbanization, industrial agriculture, resource processing, modernized social services, and Western cultural values (4).11 A neoliberal turn in economic policy in the early 1990s transformed the Brazilian economy into a one centered around extractive capitalism, a model predicated on foreign investment and privatization of extractive industries.12 Not only has this current model managed to accelerate colonial and early-postcolonial era deforestation and indigenous displacement rates, it has also been subject to volatile market conditions, leading to a significant decline in the quality of social services. As such, Brazil has been subject to a so-called “resource curse,” the phenomenon by which resource-rich regions of the world fail to “climb the ladder to development” (Petras and Veltmeyer 11, n5) and are instead plagued by corruption, conflict, social instability, poverty, and environmental crises. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, forty years of development had led to 15 percent accumulated deforestation at a rate of 25,540 km2 annually, between two and three times any other nation in the world (Anderson et al. 5).13 In 2014, jarring visual confirmation of the Anthropocene in Amazonia emerged in a series of photos captured from the International Space Station which show smoke rising from dozens of fires being burned to clear plots of forest for agriculture (“Amazon Forest Fires”). In Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, the Matacão functions as a plasticized fusion of this history beginning with coveted natural exports dating to Portuguese colonization. A substance of diverse utility, its promise captures capitalist imaginations much the way timber enraptured Portuguese explorers. “[H]arder than stainless steel—or, diamonds, for that matter” (97), Matacão plastic’s versatile applications to modern technology inaugurates the “Age of Plastic” (143), recalling Portuguese timber ambitions in the “Age of Wood,” during which ready access to wood—as a critical material in shipbuilding—was key to maintaining a competitive edge in European imperialist ventures.14 In addition, Yamashita models the development of the Matacão after the complicated history of rubber cultivation in Brazil. For example, in the latter half of the novel Chico Paco commissions the construction of Chicolándia, a theme park comprised entirely of Matacão plastic, for his friend Gilberto. Chicolándia functions as a literary re-rendering of Fordlândia, Henry Ford’s rubber plantation that amounted to a “civilizing mission borrowed from pre-existing discourses on tropical nature, race, and sexuality promulgated by nineteenth-century French and British scientific expeditions into the Amazon” (Bhang 131). Established in 1928, Fordlândia was, quite literally, a colonial enterprise. While Fordlandia was initially intended to dethrone the East Asia-based British rubber monopoly and bolster the self-sufficiency of Ford’s automobile production, it ultimately became a staging ground for the importation of Midwestern US cultural values into the “savage” Brazilian Amazon, replete with concrete sidewalks, picket fences, golf courses, movie theaters, and churches (Grandin 12). Chicolándia emerges as a veritable monument to this type of cultural imperialism, an impossibly accurate simulacrum of reality in a “bizarre ecology” (168) of life-like plastic animals and replicated Hollywood scenes. The resurfacing of this largely forgotten history of Western imperialist presence in the Amazon, Aimee Bahng argues, suggests “a future world in which … denied imperial history ultimately undermines the continued US extraction of Brazilian natural resources, culture, and labor” (131). In fact, the American J.B. Tweep and his US-based multinational corporation GGG, rather than the Brazilian government and its people, reap most of the financial gains from the development of the Matacão, poignantly grounding the novel in one of the most egregious instances of imperial exploitation in post-independence Brazilian history. In 1876, the perfidious English explorer Henry Wickham smuggled the seeds of Hevea guianensis, the highest yielding rubber tree in the world, from the Amazon to Kew Gardens in Britain. Soon after, the British Empire began to cultivate rubber in its South Asian colonies, eventually taking from Brazil a hold on the global rubber trade it would never regain.15 Like Wickham, Tweep effectively absconds with the rights to the Matacão’s extraction. In the name of scientific inquiry, clandestine research initiatives provide information needed to extract Matacão plastic. With GGG capital, Tweep creates a “side foundation devoted to the study of the Matacão, which claimed to be studying the origins of the Matacão and for which GGG got a substantial tax break” while granting him exclusive access to “important, secret breakthroughs about the nature of [the Matacão]” (110). In other words, Tweep deceives the Brazilian government into believing his supposedly altruistic motives for studying the Matacão while, in a grand act of corporate deception, he “colonizes” the Matacão by “import[ing] an entire building, all twenty-three floors, to the luxurious Matacão Row, overlooking the Matacão itself.” Tweep appears to be aware of his place in history: After all, he reflected, there were historic precedents for such a grandiose move: the grand opera house imported in every detail from the iron fixtures to the parquet floors from England to Manaus on the Amazon River; or Ludwig’s ship, which sailed from Japan down the Amazon River to dock as a great factory in the dense tropical forest for the purpose of churning everything into tons of useful paper. (76) Tweep thus represents the continuation of a long tradition of US and European cultural and economic imperialism, this time at the hands of private multinational firms. The Amazonas Theater (the “grand opera house”), for instance, was a two-million-dollar monument to European culture, an opera house built of Italian marble and surrounded by rubber roads erected 900 miles up the Amazon River at Manaus (Grandin 26). To fund Matacão research and development, GGG infuses its Brazilian offices with enormous sums of capital, making the project comparable to IMF-funded development projects such as Itaipu Dam or Angra dos Reis nuclear reactor (Arc 76). The influx of capital allows GGG to effectively begin developing the Matacão region without regard to popular anxieties about development in the region. Emphasis on GGG’s supposed commitment to conservation amounts to little more than deceptive public relations, for Tweep later simultaneously admits his anticipation and discounts the significance of outcry around his decision to mine the Matacão, saying sarcastically that “we’ll have an uproar similar to the one Exxon had back in ’89 with the Alaskan spill or even this old hubbub over the destruction of the rain forest or what’s left of it” (113). Focus on fallout from the Exxon spill was a particularly intense leading up to the publication of Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, and Yamashita positions Tweep as a figure more sinister than the oil giant itself. If the Exxon Valdez was run aground due to the negligence of a drunken ship captain, then the demise of large swaths of rain forest arise from ruthless corporate imperialism. Tweep is “oblivious to any obstacles in [his] path: acres of flooded forest … hundreds of species of plant and animal life bulldozed under, rotting and stinking for miles in every direction; Indian homelands, their populations decimated by influenza” (144–45). For Tweep, the commercial possibilities outweigh the environmental costs. Eventually, though, Tweep’s extractivist narrative begins to erode as various nonhuman actants begin to resist continued capitalist encroachment. First, scientists discover, deep in the Amazon, a sprawling junkyard of the mechanical detritus of US imperialistic ventures in Latin America, including corporate and combat jets, bush planes, helicopters, cars, military vehicles, and Red Cross ambulances. The junkyard has all but receded into the encroaching jungle. A “rare butterfly” nests in the “vinyl seats of Fords and Chevrolets,” deriving their “exquisite reddish coloring” from a diet of rusty water; an emergent species of mouse, replete with a prehensile tail and suction-cupped feet, resides in the exhaust pipes of the automobiles and survives on paint chips, leading to an immunity from lead and arsenic; and a new species of epiphyte takes root on rusted vehicles, attracting prey with rust-colored sacs like some form of mechanized Venus fly trap (100–1). In an act of recovery, resistant flora and fauna thrive on the carcasses of modernity in an “ecological experiment unparalleled in the world of nature” (101) that erodes the material legacies of extractive imperialism. The Matacão experiences a similar fate, as both raw plastic and the global empire it composes are overtaken by a subversive microbial force. “A cloud of doom settle[s] over the Matacão” as typhus-carrying rickettsia bacteria ravages communities surrounding the Matacão, leaving it “strewn with votive candles,” a newfound “center of doom and pain” (183). Resistant to government-issued “poison bombs” (201) of DDT frenetically dropped to stem the spread of typhus, bacteria eventually begins to gnaw away at the Matacão itself, “leaving everything with a grotesquely denuded, decapitated, even leprous appearance” (207). As the Matacão disintegrates, Kazumasa moves Lourdes, his poor Brazilian maid, and her children “onto a farm filled with acres and acres of tropical fruit trees and vines and a plantation of pineapple and sugarcane, sweet corn and coffee” where he “[runs] around with Lourdes like another child, filling her baskets with miniature bananas, giant avocados and mangos” (211) in gleeful pre-capitalist reunion with nonhuman nature. For all its subversive spirit, however, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest is not so naïve as to imagine such a sanguine post-extractivist future. The Matacão’s demise is accompanied by a glimpse into a desolate future in which Brazil’s resource curse continues indefinitely. After Chico Paco, on a pilgrimage to inaugurate Chicolándia, is killed by armed men in a botched attempt to kidnap Kazumasa (196), our narrator describes actual, ongoing cultural and ecological atrocities in the Amazon: Retracing Chico Paco’s steps, the mourners passed hydroelectric plants, where large dams had flooded and displaced entire towns. They passed mining projects tirelessly exhausting the treasures of iron, manganese and bauxite. They passed a gold rush, losing a third of the procession to the greedy furor. They crossed rivers and encountered fishing fleets, nets heavy with their exotic river catch …. They crowded to the sides of the road to allow passage for trucks and semis bearing timber, Brazil nuts and rubber. They passed burning and charred fields recently cleared and parted for frantic zebu cattle … black-pepper-tree plantations farmed by immigrant Japanese … surveyors and engineers accompanied by excavators, tractors and power saws of every description … the government’s five-year plans and ten-year plans, while all the forest’s splendid wealth seemed to be rushing away ahead of them. (210) In this passage, the narrator places the Matacão boom within the wider context of resource exploitation in Brazil. Widening its lens to include floods and displacement, mining and excavation, burning fields and overgrazing livestock, excavation and receding wealth, the narrator describes a scene of anthropogenic environmental destruction visible from afar. Locating Politics: Vital Materiality and Multinatural Worlds Arc has generally been read as an “eco-parable” (Wallace 146) in which humans pay a hefty price, at the hands of vengeful nonhuman nature, for their ecologically negligent capitalist sins. Similar narratives explaining ecological fallout arising from fossil fuel extraction have become commonplace, such as the rise of fracking-related earthquakes in the central United States caused by the disposal of “produced” water.16 However, because Arc emphasizes the political agency of nonhuman nature, rather than simply framing it as an antagonistic externality, it invites us to look beyond the didactic simplicity of the parable. As both subject (narrator) and object (fictional resource), the Matacão possesses what Bennett calls “thing-power,” by which she means “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (6). The Matacão’s thing-power resides both in its role as narrator—its dramatic use of language—and its status as a man-made “natural” resource. That its existence shakes the epistemological foundations of human experience is only a partial function of this thing-power; that our knowledge of its existence, and the events surrounding its commodification, is mediated by a sentient sphere of the stuff confirms its refusal to “completely dissolve into the milieu of human knowledge” (Bennett 3). Lest we overstate the transformative potential of the Matacão, however, Bennett concedes that thing-power entails “distributive agency” rooted in a “confederation of human and nonhuman elements [that] alter established notions of moral responsibility and political accountability” (21).17 As we have seen, however central the Matacão is to the novel’s progressive vision, resistant human and nonhuman actors are present throughout the novel, such as adaptive flora and fauna, bacteria, and Kazumasa’s and Lourdes’ elopement into pre-capitalist co-existence with nonhuman nature. It may be objected, at this point, that the narrator’s peculiar ability to speak, its very affiliation with language, renders it an object on which sentience has been bestowed. But if so, by whom is this sentience provided (besides, of course, the author)? From whom, or what, did this embodied “dream” emerge? The novel never tells us. Instead, we learn, the narrator was “reborn like any other dead spirit in the Afro-Brazilian syncretistic religious rite of Candomblé” (3). But the very nature of Candomblé negates the possibility of a narrator created in the image of its faithful, for the epistemological underpinnings of Candomblé are decidedly non-anthropocentric. A religion of mysticism rather than salvation, concerned with the influence of the spiritual world on everyday events and characterized by a cohesive system of natural medicine, Candomblé developed from a mixture of the Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu, beliefs of African slaves imported during colonization, many of whom supplanted indigenous laborers as the cultivation of sugar picked up momentum in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. First founded in the nineteenth century by freed slaves, Candomblé is a religion of orixás, a spirit family of “nature gods … associated with distinct provinces of the natural world—water, air, forest, and earth—and it is from these primary sources that they gather and import their axé, or vital energy” (Voeks 56). At the risk of reductionism, our narrator appears to have been ushered into existence within a religious context predicated on equitable human–nonhuman relations. The novel’s narrator, in fact, refuses to be defined as a product solely of human history, instead situating itself as merely a glimpse of events arising from the legacies of Western-driven extractive capitalism (industrial waste); a natural world in “external” relation to human culture, as Western imperialists would have it (the compression of industrial waste); and as the product of an Earth-based epistemology arising from, and in resistance to, the slave trade (Candomblé religious ritual). Significantly, the narrator’s dissolution along with the rest of the Matacão signals neither the erasure of this memory nor the failure of nonhuman agency, for the memory itself remains external to the fluidity and contingency of human history. We never learn who or what “commissioned” it or “dreamed” it, implying an absence of human action in the facilitation of its very emergence. The final lines of the novel not only free the memory from cultural or institutional bias, they void it of any association with the human: “Now the memory is complete, and I bid you farewell. Whose memory are you asking? Whose indeed” (212). By bearing both witness to, and the physical marks of, a long history of extractive imperialism and ecological destruction in Brazil, the narrator straddles a fine demarcation between subject and object. In this way, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest begins to emerge as a speculative “material narrative” that, drawing on a long history of resource exploitation in Brazil, envisions the resistant potential of a “coalition” of human–nonhuman actants. Among other critics, Ursula Heise has taken a rather different perspective on the novel, focusing instead on the novel’s human characters. Not only does she interpret the narrator’s relationship with Kazumasa as “the inevitability of anthropocentrism,” arguing that it represents tiny replica of Earth revolving around (and at the disposal of) its human inhabitants (147), she also views the novel’s human resolution—Kazumasa’s pastoral union with Lourdes—as “a socio-cultural solution to a problem that [the novel] had earlier articulated in ecological terms” (138). But this reading overlooks the fact that the narrator does not orbit Kazumasa proper and actually remains fixed in front of him to form one half of a “one man/one ball institution” (Arc 7), at times acting as his sentinel in a largely symbiotic relationship. But Heise’s identification of a human “solution” begs the question: where in Through the Arc of the Rain Forest might we locate a politics of vital materiality? What, if any, practical political solutions does the novel impart? Here’s Bennett’s justification for her own project: Why advocate for the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption …. These materials, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness, or even “respect” … (ix) But Bennett’s push for a heightened awareness of materiality, meant to supplant the image (read: discursive construction) of human dominion over the nonhuman, is primarily an ethical project, and a rather utopian one at that. The political potential of this model is, as Joni Adamson points out, unclear at best. Indigenous groups most affected by extractive capitalism, she reminds us, “do not have as their priority transforming bodies of academic theory” (260), but instead deploy theoretical tools of their own arising from cosmologies predicated on “multinatural worlds” (261) that explain the material world on multiple scales. The concept of “multinatural worlds” arises from anthropologist Eduardo Vivieros de Castro’s delineation of a “multinatural perspectivism” characterizing Amerindian cosmologies in the Amazon that maintain that “the world is inhabited by different sorts of subjects or persons, human or non-human, which apprehend reality from distinct points of view” (469). Adamson points to Ecuador’s 2008 inclusion in its constitution of rights for “Pachamama” (Mother Earth) and Bolivia’s 2010 Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth as evidence of a “cosmopolitical” movement that, arising from multinatural perspectivism, is in many ways compatible with materialist ecology (253–4). Drawing on anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena’s ethnographical work on cosmopolitical movements in South America, Adamson explains how nonhumans come to be enlisted in politics: “These ‘beings’ might be forests, mountains, rivers, or lakes. When their material existence is threatened by the siting of a mine, clear-cutting, pollution, erosion, large-scale monocultural agriculture, overfishing, or overhunting, they are marshaled, along with the humans who may live in or beside them, into the movement.” In an effort to resist Euro-Western classification of these beings as extractable, commodifiable resources, Adamson continues, indigenous activists continue to organize around the Universal Declaration, which states that “‘multiple species and things … should be granted the right to regenerate … biocapacity and regenerate … vital cycles’” (263). Read against Bennett’s theory of vital materiality, predicated on attention and respect, a “multinatural worlds” perspective speaks the language of rights and political action. Whereas Bennett’s aim is to “promote greener forms of human culture” (x), cosmopolitical actors identify the means by which such forms are political attained: coalitional politics in which nonhumans are “marshaled … into the movement” (Adamson 262). A “material narrative,” Through the Arc of the Rain Forest marshals nonhumans into a movement to supplant an ongoing narrative of ecologically destructive extractive capitalism. While it urges an ethics of vital materiality—an attentiveness and respect for the material—it even more powerfully imagines “agentic entanglements” in action, as a network of nonhuman flora, fauna, microbes, and plastic react against the material and discursive legacies of extractive capitalism in Brazil. And in an age of accelerated, human-induced environmental destruction, the profuse visual and scientific evidence of which has necessitated a debate about a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene—Through the Arc of the Rain Forest crucially de-centers the human. Resisting the common tendency to position the human as the central seat of agency in the Anthropocene, Arc prompts us to reflect on coalitional, “multinatural” politics. By envisioning nonhuman agency networked across multiple “worlds,” it provokes important questions about representation and resistance across divides that, maintained for centuries, have enabled enormously destructive activities contributing to our current ecological crisis. Written by Yamashita a decade before Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer ushered in a new grammar of critical inquiry by coining the concept of the Anthropocene, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest reminds us that by removing ourselves as a species from the center of Anthropocene narratives, by recuperating the alterity of both the human and nonhuman casualties of extractive capitalism, and by calling attention to the agency and human-nonhuman coalitions, we may begin to conceive of a more equitable, sustainable encounter with nonhuman nature.18 Footnotes 1. For an exhaustive history of the Brazilian economy, see Baer; for an overview of developmentalist economics in Brazil and Argentina, see Sikkink; for a history of the social and ecological impacts of various resource “booms”, see Rogers for sugar; Dean for rubber; and Anderson et al. For a history of cultural exploitation as a result of development in the Amazon, see Barbosa. 2. For an overview of Brazil’s more recent foray into extractivist economics over the last few decades, see Petras and Veltmeyer (176–93). 3. For an overview of the Anthropocene’s emergence in critical and popular discourse, and the debate surrounding its formalization as a unit on the geological time scale, see Zalasiewicz etal. 4. In the relatively anthropocentric realm of postcolonial studies, this marks an important concession, though as DeLoughrey etal. have noted, because a nature-culture, nonhuman–human discursive construct has historically enabled ecological and cultural exploitation, it should not be entirely dismissed (10). 5. In a similar vein, Molly Wallace has argued that Arc provides a model for understanding “the nature of denatured nature” (147), that is, postmodern conceptions of ecology that posit nature as either socially constructed or wholly external to human culture. Such either–or binaries, she insists, risk upholding potentially dangerous nature–culture binaries. Instead, she positions the Matacão as an example of Bruno Latour’s “quasi-object,” a physical manifestation of the human and nonhuman, the cultural and the natural, “history of colonial exploitation of Brazilian natural resources” (150). 6. For an overview of the Xavante project, see Garfield (187–211). 7. For historical overview of the Brazilian economy beginning with Portuguese colonization, see Baer (13–25). 8. For a broad historical overview of environmental degradation correlated with economic development in Brazil, see Baer (311–50). 9. For and overview of the environmental legacies of colonial development, see Pádua (2010). For a specific overview of deforestation arising from colonial and early postcolonial sugar production, see Rogers (21–34). 10. A history of mid-twentieth century development projects in Amazonia, see Barbosa, pp. 27-44. 11. Escobar locates the genesis of developmentalism in Harry Truman’s January 1949 inaugural address, in which Truman touts development as necessary for a “better life”: “What we envisage is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair dealing… . Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace. And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge” (qtd. in Escobar 3). 12. For an overview of the transformation of Brazil’s economy into one dependent on foreign capital and natural resource exports, see Petras and Veltmeyer. 13. For an overview of human rights violations carried out against indigenous peoples in the name of resource development, see “2008 Human Rights Report: Brazil” and “Brazil 2014 Human Rights Report.” 14. For an overview of timber extraction in colonial Brazil, see Miller. 15. For the story of rubber cultivation in Brazil, and failed attempts to re-establish significant rubber crops in Brazil following the loss of the global rubber monopoly, see Dean. 16. For a study detailing the correlation between earthquakes and hydraulic fracturing processes, see Walsh III and Zoback. 17. In her use of the term “assemblage,” Bennett follows Deleuze and Guattari’s notion that there is no such thing as a fixed, stable ontology in a materially complex world. 18. Though coined earlier, the Anthropocene gained mainstream attention when Crutzen and Stoermer published a brief article, “The Anthropocene,” in the May 2000 issue of Global Change Newsletter. WORKS CITED Adamson Joni. “Source of Life: Avatar, Amazonia, and an Ecology of Selves.” Material Ecocriticism . Ed. Iovino Serenella , Oppermann Serpil . Indiana UP , 2014 . 253 – 68 . Alaimo Stacy , Hekman Susan . “Introduction: Emerging Models of Materiality in Feminist Theory.” Material Feminisms . Ed. Alaimo Stacy , Hekman Susan . Indiana UP , 2008 . 1 – 19 . “Amazon Forest Fires.” Earth Observatory, 22 Sep. 2014 . Accessed 10 Feb. 2016. “2008 Human Rights Report: Brazil.” U.S. Department of State, 25 Feb. 2009 . Accessed 29 Jan. 2016. Anderson Lykke , et al. The Dynamics of Deforestation and Economic Growth in the Brazilian Amazon . Cambridge UP , 2002 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Baer Werner. The Brazilian Economy: Growth and Development . Lynne Reinner , 2013 . Bahng Aimee. “Extrapolating Transnational Arcs, Excavating Imperial Legacies: The Speculative Acts of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest.” MELUS 33 . 4 ( 2008 ): 123 – 44 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Barbosa Luiz C. The Brazilian Amazon Rainforest: Global Ecopolitics, Development, and Democracy . UP of America , 2000 . Bennett Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things . Duke UP , 2010 . Bonneuil Christophe. “The Geological Turn: Narratives of the Anthropocene.” Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis . Ed. Hamilton Clive et al. Routledge , 2015 . 17 – 31 . “Brazil 2014 Human Rights Report.” U.S. Department of State. Web. Accessed 29 Jan. 2016. Corcoran Patricia L. , Moore Charles J. , Jazvac Kelly . “An Anthropogenic Marker Horizon in the Future Rock Record.” GSA Today 24 . 6 ( 2014 ): 4 – 8 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Dean Warren. Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History . Cambridge UP , 2002 . DeLoughrey Elizabeth , Didur Jill , Carrigan Anthony . “Introduction.” Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities: Postcolonial Approaches . Ed. DeLoughrey Elizabeth et al. Routledge , 2015 . 1 – 32 . DeLoughrey Elizabeth , Handley George B. , eds. Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment . Oxford UP , 2011 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Escobar Arturo. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World . Princeton UP , 1995 . Garfield Seth. Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1837-1988 . Duke UP , 2001 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Grandin Greg. Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the New Imperialism. Metropolitan Books , 2006 . Heise Ursula K. “Local Rock and Global Plastic: World Ecology and the Experience of Place.” Comparative Literature Studies 41 . 1 ( 2004 ): 126 – 52 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Iovino Serenella , Oppermann Serpil . “Introduction: Stories Come to Matter.” Material Ecocriticism. Ed. Iovino Serenella , Oppermann Serpil . Indiana UP , 2014 . 1 – 17 . Miller Shawn William. Fruitless Tress: Portuguese Conservation and Brazil’s Colonial Timber . Stanford UP , 2000 . Pádua José Augusto. “European Colonialism and Tropical Forest Destruction in Brazil: Environment beyond Economic History.” Environmental History: As if Nature Existed . Ed. McNeill John R. et al. Oxford UP , 2010 . 130 – 48 . Petras James , Veltmeyer Henry . Extractive Imperialism in the Americas: Capitalism’s New Frontier . Brill , 2014 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Rogers Thomas D. Deepest Wounds: A Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil . U of North Carolina P , 2010 . Sikkink Kathryn. Ideas and Institutions: Developmentalism in Brazil and Argentina. Cornell UP , 1991 . Vivieros de Castro Eduardo Batalha. “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4 . 3 ( 1998 ): 469 – 88 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Voeks Robert A. Sacred Leaves of Candomblé: African Magic, Medicine, and Religion in Brazil. U of Texas P , 1997 . Wallace Molly. “‘ A Bizarre Ecology’: The Nature of Denatured Nature.” ISLE 7 . 2 ( 2000 ): 137 – 53 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Walsh III , Rall F. , Zoback Mark D . “Oklahoma’s Recent Earthquakes and Saltwater Disposal.” Science Advances 1 . 5 ( 2015 ). “Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’”. Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy. Accessed 25 Jan. 2016. Yamashita Karen Tei. Through the Arc of the Rain Forest . Coffee House P , 1990 . Zalasiewicz Jan , Williams Mark , Waters Colin N . “Anthropocene.” Keywords for Environmental Studies . Ed. Adamson Joni et al. New York UP , 2016 . 14 – 16 . © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment – Oxford University Press
Published: Oct 5, 2017
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