Mary Louise Pratt
Durham: Duke University Press, 2022.
Reviewed by Alex Voisine
As the title denotes, the scope of Planetary Longings is planetary. Planetarity, the popular emergence of which is attributed to the 1999 comic series Planetary, entered academic discourse with Gayatri Spivak’s 2003 book Death of a Discipline. Charting the conceptual history of “planetarity” throughout the 2000s and up to the present, Pratt argues that it is an epistemologically more fructiferous concept than others such as global, cosmopolitan, transnational, or international. This is because of how it “shifted the focus toward ecological standpoints that conjugated the human with the nonhuman, the living with the nonliving.” Similar to environmental humanities texts like Timescales: Thinking Across Ecological Temporalities (2021), Pratt is creative in her locational and citational politics, mapping out a post-global methodology untethered to place, but that also recognizes that we remain situated within empire(s). In this sense, she clarifies that Planetary Longings “is not a book about the Americas…it is about a range of planetarized processes, forces, and aspirations, observed and thought about mainly from the Americas.”
Many other common but richly articulated concepts orient Planetary Longings: coloniality, indigeneity, decolonization, contact zones, and others. A most compelling intervention in an era swirling with neologisms is Pratt’s conceptualization of concepts themselves, which she sees as not “solutions to problems,” but heuristics that “enable the search for solutions by opening up alternatives to the present.” Engaging with Elizabeth Grosz’s Becoming Undone, Pratt argues that concepts are deeply embedded in the “ethical dimension,” meaning they “must be judged both for the futures they enable or disable and for their successes at doing so.” Though useful for scholars interested in conceptual history, absent from her analysis is how concepts are distributed, or better put, ‘sold’ by publishers/academic presses that privilege English-speaking and global-north-based scholars, a point well-argued in Ignacio Sánchez Prado’s Strategic Occidentalism: On Mexican Fiction, the Neoliberal Book Market, and the Question of World Literature (2018). By not taking concepts for granted, Pratt, known for her own concept of ‘contact zones’ from her 1992 book Imperial Eyes, is refreshingly cautious and self-aware.
Departing from this rich theoretical landscape, Planetary Longings proceeds into sixteen chapters divided into two parts. Part I begins with two chapters that deconstruct the imperial significations behind modernism and globalization, demonstrating how unlike in Europe where the city and the flaneur were signposts of modernity, the city and the country inaugurated modernist literature in Latin America. Interestingly, Pratt studies popular myths like the chupacabras, the sacaojos, killer bees, and other media phenomena as literary texts, showing how globalization and its metaphors of flow, celebrated in imperial centers, often manifest as myths of invasion in de-centered spaces. In Chapter 3, Pratt returns to the subject of Imperial Eyes, travel writing, updating it to the contemporary politics of mobility. Echoing Sandy Grande’s cutting-edge work, Pratt calls for a “decolonizing of mobility” that uncovers how mobility has historically been a colonial way of knowing but also how it’s been used for decolonizing projects by collectives like the Zapatistas. The following three chapters further expound the meaning of the planetary through close readings of 1990s Latin American novels, a theoretical discussion of indigeneity and its recent ‘extroverted’ boon in the academy, and a discussion of the meaning of the Anthropocene. In these three chapters Pratt concludes, amongst other things, that fracture and unpredictability underwrite the aesthetics and ‘futurology’ of the Anthropocene.For those familiar with Pratt’s scholarship, Chapter Seven is a highlight. While contact zone, as proposed in Imperial Eyes, sought to de-center empire, Pratt’s planetary contact zone de-centers both empire and the human, and considers how non-human ‘existents,’ as well as non-animate factors like rising temperatures and sea levels contribute to the contact zone’s inherent heterogeneity, inequality, and conflict. Importantly, Pratt
proposes new interspecies forms of communication, making the contact zone a site of performativity, improvisation, imperfection, and intimacy: “in the interspecies contact zone, language moves to the margins. Yet intimacies thrive.” This is Pratt’s most forceful and generative contribution and will define cultural theory in contact zones for generations to come. In these chapters, Pratt develops a useful keyword/concept that she calls ‘forces.’ Instead of seeing them as categories or systems, Pratt views many of the concepts she uses—indigeneity, modernity, coloniality—as forces that “can operate at any range and scale…in the way we know warming temperatures will make things happen but no longer expect to fully know what things.” As Empire becomes more diffuse, multitudinous, and “placeless”—which Hardt and Negri argue in their 2019 New Left Review article “Empire, Twenty Years On”—thinking of structures of domination/resistance as ‘forces’ decouples them from the ‘metropoles’ and ‘peripheries’ that they now (arguably) transcend. For example, seeing indigeneity as a force allows us to see how it “makes things happen, but what it will make happen is not systemic or predictable” (19); it may be insurgency, land occupation, cosmovisions, or beauty contests, occupying spaces as disparate as Madrid and Oaxaca, New York, and Yanomami.
Part II focuses on the (geo)politics of knowledge and truth. Pratt reanimates the controversy around Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonio, deconstructs the imperial roots of modern ethnographic writing, and returns to the archives of colonial South America to explore how translation, historiography, and ethnography reinforce the ‘colonial divide.’ Pratt’s main contribution is the transhistorical decolonizing frame she uses to analyze the materials of knowledge production in these chapters, from Iciar Bollaín’s film También la lluvia to the historical archives of Clorinda Matto de Turner and Micaela Bastides. The planetary in this second part of the book can be seen in Pratt’s citational practices and textual examples: she braids together ethnographies written in Africa by white anthropologists, Latin American cultural and historiographical archives, and anticolonial texts from writers like Amílcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, and Chinweizu. For Latin American studies scholars, Pratt’s inclusion of the Philippines and Haiti in Chapter Fifteen’s discussion of independence and decolonization is a much-needed response to the widespread excision of these countries from the archive.
Despite its dizzy scope, Planetary Longings proposes a coherent research agenda made for the 21st century and beyond. Situated, and reticent to celebrate the metropolitan projects of hybridity, nomadism, and cosmopolitanism, Planetary Longings is an instructive guide for any reader critical of the disciplinary nationalisms, Cold War-era “area studies” boundaries, and anthropocentrisms that riddle the academy. In this sense, Pratt ultimately urges multilingualism, of language, history, and struggle: “the multilingual person is not someone who translates constantly from one language or cultural system to another…to be multilingual is above all to live in more than one language, to be one for whom translation is unnecessary.” This multilingualism, though, must extend beyond the human, towards a more creative and expansive multilingual/multispecies world-making project. Nevertheless, the reader is also left wondering what the planetary (or the contact zone) might mean in an era increasingly defined by transplanetary endeavors pioneered by corporations of the global north, who simultaneously govern vast empires of data and surveillance. Whatever the future may be, Pratt asks readers to tap into a sense of longing for what Grosz calls “the possibilities of being otherwise that lie beyond the horizon of the given real.” After all, as Pratt writes, “even if you accept that it’s too late for carbon-based life to survive on earth, there is still a rich creative challenge in thinking about how to live this ending…how to engage the other life-forms that will share the experience…the pessimist standpoint has a futurity too, the possibility of a buen vivir unfolding toward extinction.”