Writing Precarity: Neoliberalism and the Globalized Atlantic

Najnin Islam
Alexandra Perisic, Precarious Crossings: Immigration, Neoliberalism, and the Atlantic The Ohio State University Press, 2019. xi + 221 pp. $29.95

Alexandra Perisic, Precarious Crossings: Immigration, Neoliberalism, and the Atlantic. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2019. ix + 221 pp. $29.95.

In a 2019 issue of South Atlantic Quarterly titled Neoliberalism’s Authoritarian (Re)turns, editors Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore question the usefulness of the term neoliberalism to describe our contemporary moment marked by “the tawdry array of authoritarian (re)turns that have been witnessed in various parts of the world in the decade since the global financial crisis of 2008—from Trump to Turkey, from the Brexit debacle to the Brazilian coup, and much else besides.”1 This is but one example of contemporary skepticism toward the idea of neoliberalism, especially what it means, how it is used as an idea and a practice in different ways across global contexts, and what processes it cannot adequately account for. However, even as scholars acknowledge that the meaning of neoliberalism is not always readily apparent, they remain invested in understanding its influence on the cultural sphere. Literary scholarship in this area has sought to demonstrate how neoliberalism influences not only literary form and representation, but also shifts in method and genre such as the resurgence of realism and the memoir’s rise to prominence.2 Recent work has also examined world literature in relation to neoliberalism, arguing, first, that it is inextricable from globalized capitalism and its effects must thus be studied beyond Europe and America, and second, that cultural studies has the ability to illuminate features of neoliberalism that other disciplines cannot.3 Alexandra Perisic’s Precarious Crossings: Immigration, Neoliberalism, and the Atlantic builds on this rich body of scholarship: by offering “a literary account of a multilingual Atlantic under neoliberalism,” Perisic foregrounds the entanglement of globalization and neoliberalism that produces varying experiences of precarity across the Atlantic (2). Her project is less invested in the debates over the meaning of neoliberalism and more interested in training a critical eye on the effects of processes such as debt, privatization, and structural adjustment programs on vulnerable populations. Mobilizing a multilingual literary archive, Perisic demonstrates how contemporary fiction represents the experience of precarity, while also acting as sites of resistance to neoliberal forms of dispossession and marginalization. In doing so, the book reveals how “neoliberalization, precarity, immigration, and the Atlantic conceptually intersect” (16).

The Atlantic as a geopolitical space, a field of inquiry, and a mode of organizing knowledge has a long and fraught history. Bernard Baylin’s Eurocentric vision of the Atlantic is countered in the works of Paul Gilroy, Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, and Joseph Roach, among others, who brought the critical insights of Marxist, race, and postcolonial studies to bear on its study. This body of scholarship, which William Boelhower describes as part of the “new Atlantic studies matrix,” illuminated the transnational and deeply racialized character of the Atlantic world.4 Precarious Crossings is energized by these conversations, especially their attention to the Atlantic world’s deep entanglement with global racial capitalism and those disproportionately affected by it. It therefore also shares intellectual affinity with more recent scholarship such as Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery, which traces the literary afterlives of the slave narrative within the context of contemporary migration across the Global South and the production of vulnerable populations, including refugees, detainees, child soldiers, and asylum seekers.5 Perisic’s focus is likewise on an expansively conceptualized Atlantic world under the aegis of global neoliberalism, and the narratives she examines are those about contemporary immigrants, refugees, and laborers.

The Atlantic in Precarious Crossings is multilingual and multipolar. Perisic argues that despite its scope and its invitation to think about history, culture, and socialites beyond the framework of the nation-state, scholarship foundational to Atlantic studies ultimately remains tethered to the Anglophone world. In response, contemporary scholars have turned to the Francophone, Hispanophone, and Lusophone worlds to push back against the boundaries of the field, but a substantial body of this work, as Thea Pitman and Andy Stafford note, remains limited by its “monolingual/monocultural and, at times, monoracial interest in the field” (qtd. in Perisic 17).6 Precarious Crossings takes up the task of illuminating the non-Anglophone Atlantic through close examination of trans-Atlantic literatures in French, Spanish, and English. These include works by Maryse Condé, Caryl Phillips, Sylvie Kandé, Fatou Diome, Bessora, Giannina Braschi, and Roberto Bolaño. Furthermore, apprehending the Atlantic as a multipolar space, as these contemporary writers do, opens up new vantage points from which to think about the movement of people and capital. The texts that Perisic engages across the five chapters of this book recast the boundaries of the Atlantic, conceptually extending its sites not only to countries in the Caribbean and Africa, but also to areas in the Global South and the Middle East.

Perisic demonstrates how texts like Maryse Condé’s Histoire de la femme cannibale (2003) [The Story of the Cannibal Woman, 2007], Caryl Phillips’s The Atlantic Sound (2000), and Sylvie Kandé’s La quête infinie de l’autre rive: épopée en trois chants (2011) [The Never-Ending Quest for the Other Shore: Epic Poem in Three Cantos] forge new South-South connections by pushing against the more well-recognized triangular Atlantic formation. These texts circumvent the overdetermined nature of the Middle Passage as the only optic through which to understand African migrations. Precarious Crossings advocates for the need to pursue “lateral interests and lateral connections” between Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean (4). These areas, as the history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries demonstrate, have been devastated by the tools of neoliberalization. Perisic’s elaboration of a multipolar Atlantic is thus attentive to the ways in which neoliberalization produces precarity. She takes her cue from Judith Butler’s discussion of precarity as a “politically induced condition” under which some people are “differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.”7 Perisic’s analysis shows how contemporary multilingual literature, especially immigrant narratives, addresses the lived experience of precarity. More importantly, she foregrounds how the protagonists of her literary archive “conceive of social relations outside of the logic of precarity” (13).

In contrast to well-entrenched practices of reading immigrant literature as sociological documents, Perisic asserts its ability not just to illustrate global neoliberalization, but also to function as the site of a “poetics of contestation” (15). Echoing an argument that scholars such as Pheng Cheah and Sanjay Krishnan make with respect to the body of literature they engage in their own scholarship, Perisic asserts that literature does not merely represent people’s lived realities or the world they inhabit.8 Its task is neither to offer evidence nor just bear witness to what is theorized from other disciplinary standpoints. Instead, literature actively theorizes the world from perspectives that may be unavailable to these disciplines and, in doing so, it challenges “discourses from other disciplines [and builds] interdisciplinary conversations” (15). This is evident in Perisic’s discussion of Franco-Senegalese author Fatou Diome’s novels that “establish connections between neocolonialism, immigration, and debt that are not addressed in current theoretical discourses on debt” (15). She juxtaposes Diome’s novels against a historical account of the inequities precipitated by structural adjustment programs, which are in many ways an extension of colonial modes of domination. Novels such as The Belly of the Atlantic (2003) illustrate this by making visible the continuities between France’s past involvement with Senegal around the slave trade and its contemporary commodification of Senegalese soccer players. “Debt imperialism,” Perisic explains, “requires no justification because it consists of a set of economic reforms, ‘recommended’ by an international group of supposedly neutral and scientifically oriented experts and presented as the only solution to an ongoing crisis” (65). In Diome’s novels, debt takes on multiple valences—personal, national, financial, and symbolic–– that operate simultaneously and influence one another. If these are salient to Perisic’s discussion of The Belly of the Atlantic, her reading of Celles qui attendent shifts the focus to the consequences of local debt that is often acquired to mitigate the effects of emigration. She explains, “[w]hen the remittances do not arrive, women seek means of supporting their families” (79). The ease with which the machinery of debt, even micro lending schemes that have been lauded consistently, replaces social relationships and local support networks with the abstraction of anonymous financial relations assumes center stage in this analysis.

Multinational corporations also come under Perisic’s scrutiny. Her discussion of Swiss-Gabonese writer Bessora’s Petroleum (2004) and Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004) focuses on how these texts “link the contemporary environmental crisis to the international division of labor, as the exploitation of precarious workers parallels the commodification and destruction of natural resources” (89). As “formative sites for global precarious subjects,” corporations contribute significantly to the violence that undergirds global neoliberalization (93). Whereas Bessora’s novel highlights the extractive practices of oil companies both in terms of natural resources and human labor, Bolaño turns attention to the development of maquiladoras along the Mexican border in the wake of the decimation of traditional agricultural practices.

Reflecting on the diversity of literary genres that Precarious Crossing engages, Perisic explains that contemporary trans-Atlantic immigrant fictions “no longer revert to the bildungsroman. . . . Instead, they redefine traditional literary genre, including the novel, the travelogue, and detective fiction, as they provide a global outlook” (14). In her examination of Bessora and Bolaño’s texts, Perisic articulates the ways in which they play with the conventions of crime fiction to give shape to the neoliberal anti-detective novel that Stefano Tani argues “frustrates the expectations of the reader, transforms a mass-media genre into a sophisticated expression of avant-garde sensibility, and substitutes for the detective as central and ordering character the decentering and chaotic admission of mystery, of non-solution” (qtd. in Perisic 115).9 Closely intertwined with this attention to contemporary authors’ rearticulation of well-established genres is the question of what forms and genres are adequate for the representation of the transatlantic precariat. In this, Perisic’s work expands on scholarship on the relationship between literary genre and neoliberalism. For instance, a 2013 special issue of Social Text titled “Genres of Neoliberalism” examined how “various literary and cultural genres participate in struggles over the meaning of neoliberalism and the aesthetic terms that should be used to define the political present.”10 Perisic’s project resonates with the conversations in this special issue insofar as it demonstrates the function of different, albeit reinvented, literary genres in expressing the effects and lived experience of neoliberalism from the perspective of the vulnerable and the marginalized.

In the chapter titled “Trans-Atlantic Opacity,” Perisic shifts from the question of genre to focus on literary texts that deploy “an aesthetics and ethics of opacity as a means of representing precarious subjects” (25). For Martinican writer and philosopher Édouard Glissant, opacity is a powerful mode of relation between different peoples or groups, since it rejects the need to translate the other into commensurable and familiar categories as the precondition for what he describes as Relation. In her reading of works by Puerto Rican author Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, Franco-Senegalese author Marie Ndiaye, and Mexican author Yuri Herrera, Perisic demonstrates how these texts place the reader “in front of opaque, immigrant subjects” as a way to “propose new ways of conceptualizing immigration” (122). The characters in these texts do not long for transparency, but rather, appropriate precarity and turn it into “a poetics of opacity” (123). Additionally, the refusal to be rendered legible extends to the formal features of the literary texts in question. At stake here are not the limits of representation, but the need to innovate new methods of reading. Perisic asks, “[h]ow can we discuss these works and these characters without returning them to transparency? How to, rather, accompany them in their fugitivity?” (126). Her own analysis thus adopts a descriptive method, drawing attention to Pizzaro’s depiction of the corporeal experience of immigration, Herrera’s “stylistic aridity” (137), and NDiaye’s deliberate refusal to answer the questions her novel poses. The estrangement that these works produce in readers, Perisic contends, may not lead to an alternative future, but can be a stepping-stone toward “recognizing our interconnectedness and encountering each other in a common process of flight, refusal, and disidentification” (151).

The emancipatory potential of imagining non-precarious forms of life is the focus of Perisic’s inquiry in the book’s fifth and final chapter, “Atlantic Undercommons,” where she mobilizes Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s theorization of the undercommons to think about the question of resistance to neoliberal and imperialist orders.11 In her reading of Giannina Braschi’s United States of Banana (2011), Perisic foregrounds the development of unlikely friendships grounded in the common experience of precarity—foundational to the formation of the undercommons—as the genesis of resistance. This resistance does not seek repair, but rather, aspires to the creation of a different system of values. The undercommons, much like Moten and Harney suggest, encounter one another and transcend their isolation to collectively forge new modes of being. As Perisic explains, Braschi’s novel places the multitude—she invokes Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s theorization of the term12—or precarious, migrant subjects “at the center of the resistance to global neoliberalization (promoted by the United States of Banana) and at the center of a new language” (159).

Precarious Crossings makes a case for comparison “as an imperative political project in the age of neoliberalism” (20). The literary-historical archive that the book explores necessitates thinking with multiple languages and geographies. At the same time, it requires close attention to questions of historical and cultural difference in the interest of thinking across them. These methodological questions have been part of scholarship in world literature, comparative literary studies, and studies of globalization for some time now, and Perisic pushes these conversations further. Her emphasis on the articulation of globalization, neoliberalism, and precarity is particularly productive. Against continuing questions about the meaning and efficacy of neoliberalism, Perisic charts a specific way of looking at the phenomenon, one that foregrounds its effects on the most vulnerable. As a conceptual framework for reading the global capitalist order, precarity can facilitate a close examination of human mobilities and the circulation of capital and power beyond the Atlantic formation. I am thinking here of the Indian Ocean world and, specifically, the experiences of Indian migrant workers in the Gulf countries as “guest” workers and under the “kafala” system, so movingly captured by writers like Benyamin and Deepak Unnikrishnan. In Precarious Crossings Perisic offers a productive conceptual framework that can account for multiple historical contexts while also making room for their specificities and differences.

Colorado College

Footnotes

  • 1 Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore, “Still Neoliberalism?,” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 118, no. 2, Apr. 2019, p. 245.

  • 2 See Mitchum Huehls and Rachel Greenwald Smith, editors, Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture, Johns Hopkins UP, 2017.

  • 3 See Sharae Deckard and Stephen Shapiro, editors, World Literature, Neoliberalism, and the Culture of Discontent, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

  • 4 See Bernard Baylin, Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours, Harvard UP, 2005; Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness, Harvard UP, 1993; Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Beacon Press, 2000; and William Boelhower, “The Rise of the New Atlantic Studies Matrix,” American Literary History, vol. 20, no. 1–2, Spring-Summer 2008, pp. 83–101.

  • 5 See Yogita Goyal, Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery, New York UP, 2019.

  • 6 See Thea Pitman and Andy Stafford, “Introduction: Transnationalism and Tricontinentalism,” Journal of Transatlantic Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, 2009, pp. 197–207.

  • 7 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Verso, 2004, p. 25.

  • 8 See Pheng Cheah’s “World Against Globe: Toward a Normative Conception of World Literature,” New Literary History, vol. 45, no. 3, 2014, pp. 303–29, and What Is a World?: On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature, Duke UP, 2016; and Sanjay Krishnan, Reading the Global: Troubling Perspectives on Britain’s Empire in Asia, Columbia UP, 2007.

  • 9 See Stefano Tani, The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction, Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

  • 10 Jane Elliot and Gillian Harkins, “Introduction: Genres of Neoliberalism,” Social Text, vol. 115, no. 2, Summer 2013, p. 1.

  • 11 Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Minor Compositions, 2013.

  • 12 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Penguin, 2004.