Aimee Bahng traces the cultural production of futurity by juxtaposing the practices of speculative finance against those of speculative fiction, showing how speculative novels, films, and narratives create alternative futures that envision the potential for new political economies, social structures, and subjectivities that exceed the framework of capitalism.
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About the Author
Aimee Bahng is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Pomona College.
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The Speculative Arcs of KarenTei Yamashita's Rainforest Futures
I will outnumber you.
In Werner Herzog's 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo, the eponymous protagonist dreams of building an opera house in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. His impossible dream is realized by staging an opera aboard the steamship he originally commissioned for the purpose of securing a fortune in rubber. Fitzcarraldo, using the suspiciously volunteered labor of hundreds of Indians, succeeds in dragging his ship over a mountain to gain access to untapped rubber trees, only to have his boat cut loose and set adrift into perilous rapids by the same indigenous workers on the other side.
The "discovery" of rubber proclaimed by French geographer Charles-Marie de La Condamine in the mid-eighteenth century occasions one early manifestation of what could be called science fiction, in the sense that his expedition journal — later published as a scientific treatise — reads as a rather fantastical travel narrative. As elucidated in Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes, La Condamine's report on his expedition to the Amazon is strikingly speculative in nature, "written mainly not as a scientific report, but in the popular genre of survival literature." Rubber is just one spectacular character among many in La Condamine's narrative, which describes the strangeness of a tropical "new world" and even attempts to verify the existence of the mythic Amazon women warriors. As it narrates an encounter with an otherworldly landscape, populated with alien (to the French scientist) flora, fauna, and other entities, La Condamine's account of his scientific expedition reads like speculative fiction, particularly because it is produced in the service of empire both to sensationalize and rationalize — or to rationalize through sensational fantasy — the possible wealth to be controlled and wildness to be domesticated in the Brazilian jungle.
The history of the rubber industry necessarily stretches across multiple geographies and temporalities. It links the tropical forests of the Amazon and Southeast Asia, highlighting the competing imperial holdings of England, the Netherlands, and the United States. This history also connects La Condamine's 1744 expedition with that of Carl LaRue, a Ford Motor Company geographer, in 1927 — the year Henry Ford bought approximately 2.5 million acres of Amazon rainforest in the northern state of Pará, Brazil, and established a sizable rubber plantation. "Fordlándia" was designed to be an all-inclusive neocolonial system, extending the plantation infrastructure beyond sawmills and processing plants to include U.S.-style hospitals, schools, white clapboard houses, and even recreational facilities such as a motion-picture theater and an eighteen-hole golf course. As documented in the company's archives, the Ford rubber plantations in Brazil worked to fulfill a Fordist fantasy of bringing "modernity" and "progress" to the "almost impenetrable tropical jungle." Ford's ventures in Brazil attempted to impose a vision of the future, as conjured up by commerce, profit making, and Western modernity, upon a geography he imagined to be stuck in prehistoric time. In this way, this U.S. captain of industry extends the imperialist logics of Victorian England, for example, by figuring "geographical difference across space [ ...] as a historical difference across time." Furthermore, these land speculations — brokered through a collusion between scientific and economic interests — relied on the production of several fictions about the working habits of indigenous peoples, the rainforest's resilience, and capitalism's deliverables to succeed.
Roughly twenty years before Greg Grandin's 2009 history of Fordlándia brought renewed attention to Ford's Amazonian exploits, the Japanese American writer Karen Tei Yamashita excavated this largely forgotten scene of U.S. imperialism in Brazil when she set her 1990 speculative fiction, Through the Arcof the Rain Forest, largely at the scene of rubber extraction in the Brazilian rainforest. Through the Arc extrapolates from Ford's imperialist legacies to project into the near future what might happen to the Amazon when a valuable, rubber-like resource is unearthed during an age of global capitalist restructuring.
By calling attention to the buried histories to which Yamashita playfully alludes, I place Through the Arc's historical speculations in critical dialogue with other kinds of scientific fictions that have worked on behalf of European and U.S. empire building to render the resource-rich jungle available for imperial conquest and expansion. To do this work, Yamashita's speculative fiction itself suggests a methodology of excavation, both archaeological and genealogical in the Foucauldian sense. Because Through the Arc presents itself as a form of speculation in conversation with other forms, including land and financial speculation, this methodological experiment — of extrapolation via excavation — highlights how modernity and indeed futurity traffic in racisms that emerge from a discursive relation to older discourses of race that are, in Ann Laura Stoler's words, "'recovered,' modified, 'encased,' and 'encrusted' in new forms." Excavation, as Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd formulate it in their introduction to The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, enacts a practice of "looking to the shadows" for "alternative histories and their different temporalities that cannot be contained by the progressive narrative of Western developmentalism." Along these lines, Yamashita's Through the Arc looks to the shadows of capital in the Amazon rainforest to offer an alternative to developmental historiography, to teleological narration, to a profit-driven futurity.
This chapter considers a history of imperial and neocolonial structures in Brazil, the overlapping nature of various empires in South America, and the technoracialization of the global Asian subject. In Through the Arc, Yamashita focuses on the presence of U.S. multinational corporations in Latin America as a manifestation of a longer history of empire in Brazil. The narrative suggests that earlier empire-builders shrewdly cultivated a racialized understanding of the tropics and established the beginnings of a history of imperial efforts in the guise of benevolent enterprises, including tropical medicine, technological development, and philanthropic foundations that supported scientific and medical research.
Despite bearing many of the characteristics of science fiction and fantasy, Yamashita's oeuvre rarely gets categorized as speculative fiction. Various literary critics and book reviewers call Through the Arc a "fine, satirical piece of writing," a "freewheeling black comedy," "a burlesque of comic strip adventures and apocalyptic portents," and "an exuberant melodrama."
What I am calling the speculative arcs of Yamashita's works refers to arcs across both space and time. Yamashita's speculative fictions operate as technologies of memory that revisit historical narratives even as they are drawn into the transtemporal fabric of futuristic and alternative worlds. If, as Marita Sturken has argued, a "culture of amnesia" in the United States not only does not remember war and trauma but also generates "memory in new forms," the process constitutes a form of temporal colonization, violent in its displacement of subjects and events that expose contradictions between capitalist expansionism and the neoliberal rhetoric of "free" trade. The Eurocentric narration of the discovery of rubber by La Condamine, for example, displaces indigenous memories of foreign incursion. It is at that scene of temporal colonization that Yamashita revisits to recalibrate a skewed extrapolation point. In the context of speculative fiction, which posits space-time as a four-dimensional continuum of time and space, speculation serves as a useful tactic for those who would travel through time to revisit obfuscated historical moments that nevertheless continue to inform narratives of the present and extrapolations of the future.
In the speculative landscape of Through the Arc, it is not only a legacy of globalization but also a history of science that Yamashita excavates in the Amazon rainforest. Through subtle yet striking allusions to Fordlándia and to nearly obsessive European ethnographic forays to Brazil during the same time period, Yamashita's Through the Arc implicates Western science's collusion with European and U.S. imperialist enterprises. In my analysis of Fordlándia, I examine the larger project of Fordist social reform, which extended its reach beyond the United States under the banners of benevolent science and technological progress. Because the plantation met with consistent financial difficulties, Fordlándia's justification for renewed funding and support relied heavily on its self-promotion as a civilizing mission. The rubber plantation unrelentingly disciplined its primarily indige nous laboring subjects through the imposition of U.S. social institutions (schools, churches, and hospitals), cultural practices (the prohibition of drinking and smoking and viewings of Hollywood films), and labor administration (the insistence that workers punch in and out at a central mechanical timeclock, abide a nine-to-five workday despite prohibitive midday heat, and wear identification badges). By foregrounding this Fordist experiment in her decolonial speculative fiction, Yamashita provides the occasion for readers to understand the continuity across La Condamine's expedition and Ford's enterprises in the Amazon rainforest. If Charles de La Condamine saw a profit to be made from sensationalizing his account of the tropical jungle, Henry Ford recognized an opportunity to string investors along by promising to bring assembly-line, plantation-style order to it. EuroAmerican notions of technoscientific modernity prepare the ideological groundwork for neocolonial capitalist enterprises that exploit already racialized and gendered ideas of the tropics to subject workers at the equator to labor practices imported from Michigan. The unexpected and thrilling maneuver that Yamashita plots is for Through the Arc to meet Fordist ideologies of development at the level of representation, critiquing imperialist fantasies of the tropics by staging an oversaturated, fantastical spectacularization of the rainforest itself, allowing those deeply embedded, earlier colonial fantasies to surface and be examined.
Spectacular undertakings in the Amazon rainforest hardly begin or end with Fordlándia, and Yamashita references several more notable examples in Through the Arc. When the CEO of a multinational corporation decides to transport its twenty-three-story headquarters in its entirety from Manhattan to the dense tropical rainforest, Yamashita cites two "historic precedents for such a grandiose move" (76). The first is the Teatro Amazonas opera house in Manaus, Brazil, built in 1896 with the desire to bring the material signifiers of European civilization to the heart of the jungle, achieved by incorporating imported French tiles, Italian marble, and Murano glass chandeliers. Similarly, the opera house in the novel has "imported ... every detail from the iron fixtures to the parquet floors from England" (76). The novel also references U.S. billionaire Daniel Ludwig's farfetched plan to float a fully constructed pulp mill and factory on two giant pontoons from Japan to the Brazilian city of Munguba in 1978 "for the purpose of churning everything into tons of useful paper" (76). Ludwig's almost science-fictional proposal perhaps also inspires Fitzcarraldo's hoisting of a steamship across a mountain in Herzog's film.
I pull these spectacular shenanigans from the Brazilian Amazon to demonstrate how empire in its various permutations — from Ford to Herzog, and from opera houses to floating factories — has historically rendered the Amazon a speculative space in at least two ways. First, these commercial and cultural incursions point to European and U.S. capitalist speculations, which have attempted to lay claim to tropical resources in the rainforest since the early colonial period. Second, these enterprises work in conjunction with a system of fantastical speculations that constructs a tropicalist imaginary sustained through colonialist visual and literary representations of the jungle. The cultural production of the jungle as feral and overgrown sets up the narrative occasion for staging a neocolonial intervention. Yamashita's alternative fabulation shifts the site of agency to an always already willful rainforest, where the seemingly indefatigable capitalist appetite for more consumption of human and natural resources must be kept in check.
Extrapolation through Excavation: Through the Arc of the (Haunted) Rainforest
Narrated by a sentient alien sphere orbiting around the head of a Japanese Brazilian migrant, Through the Arc revisits the speculative space of the Amazon and summons several extraordinary, if not extraterrestrial, subjects to the site, including Kazumasa Ishimaru, the former Japanese railroad inspector from whose cranial orbit the gyrating, rubberized sphere narrates the novel; Batista and Tania Aparecida Djapan, who manage a worldwide, fortune-telling, courier pigeon service; Mané Pena, a healer indigenous to the Amazon Valley who cures people of their afflictions using a magical feather; Chico Paco, a religious pilgrim turned radio evangelist whose love for his disabled neighbor, Gilberto, motivates his faith; and J. B. Tweep, a three-armed entrepreneur from the United States who becomes enamored not only with corporate expansion in Brazil but also with a triple-breasted French ornithologist named Michelle Mabelle. Through these characterizations, Yamashita presents an Amazon populated not only by indigenous inhabitants but also by local and global travelers who arrive at the rainforest via circuits of migration, capital expansion, and religious journeys.
Manifestations of the alien in this Asian American speculative fiction take the shape not of racially marked invader-others but of Northern and Western mutant agents of empire (such as the aforementioned triple-breasted European scientist and three-armed U.S. businessman). Mabelle and Tweep embody the overindulgent desires of colonial and neocolonial enterprises in the Amazon. Their marriage — a union between science and capitalism — unlocks a "capacity for insatiable lust" and "the possibilities of unmitigated pleasure" (123). Mabelle, who "came from a long line of bird lovers," including a great-grandfather who "met Paul Gauguin in Tahiti" (122), studies exotic birds of the Amazon through the cultivated, colonial gaze of the tropics, exemplified in Gauguin's fetishization of Tahitian women in his paintings and writings. Mabelle pursues her research in the vein of the scientific expeditions that occasioned many of the first European ventures to South America. For example, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss conducted some of his earliest ethnographic fieldwork in Brazil between 1935 and 1939. The resulting TristesTropiques — a combination of memoir, field journal, and social science manifesto — begins with the paradoxical declaration: "Je hais les voyages et les explorateurs" (I hate traveling and explorers). The volume, which Yamashita references in her "Author's Note" to Through the Arc and which reveals Lévi-Strauss's constant wrestling with the ethics of ethnographic fieldwork and professed disgust with scientific adventure writing, has become a staple in anthropological debate. While describing the "basic elements" of the Brazilian soap opera, or novela, form that inspired Through the Arc, Yamashita writes: "Claude Levi-Strauss described it all so well so many years ago: TristesTropiques — an idyll of striking innocence, boundless nostalgia and terrible ruthlessness" (Author's Note). By juxtaposing a foundational text of Western social science with Brazilian popular culture, Yamashita asserts that TristesTropiques and the Brazilian novela share a penchant for melodrama and sensation that render them both speculative texts, participating in the perpetual reconstitution of a national and international understanding of Brazilian culture.
Excerpted from "Migrant Futures"
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Table of Contents
Preface ix Acknowledgments xiii Introduction. On Speculation: Fiction, Finance, and Futurity 1 1. Imperial Rubber: The Speculative Arcs of Karen Tei Yamashita's Rainforest Futures 25 2. Homeland Futurity: Speculations at the Border 51 3. Speculation and the Speculum: Surrogations of Futurity 79 4. The Cruel Optimism of the Asian Century 119 5. Salt Fish Futures: The Irradiated Transpacific and the Financialization of the Human Genome Project 146 Epilogue. Speculation as Discourse, Speculation as Exuberance 168 Notes 171 Bibliography 201 Index 217
What People are Saying About This
"Elegantly written and meticulously researched, Migrant Futures breaks new ground in taking a comparative ethnic approach to Asian American literature and culture through the genre of speculative fiction. Scholars interested in critical ethnic studies, Marxist approaches to literary studies and gender and queer theory will be educated and persuaded by Aimee Bahng's compelling theorization of how speculation and economic extraction have traditionally gone hand in hand."
"Presenting readers with alternative visions of the future, Aimee Bahng's ambitious book turns attention to the dominant way in which we think of futurity: financial speculation. Against the ways the functioning of derivative markets depend upon a particular kind of storytelling about the future, which is often bet against, Bahng amasses an archive of fictional works that seeks to counter such storytelling by imagining and sharing a different version of the future. A stellar and important work."