The majority of the posts in the section of this blog entitled ‘Literary Geographies of Political Economy’ draw theoretical insights from the field of critical political economy to shed interpretive light on literary texts, and/or draw out the insights that fictional worlds can provide into the real operations and transformations of global capitalism. In this post, I take a different approach, by drawing methodological lessons from fiction and literary theory, and applying them to the task of researching and writing about actually existing worlds of uneven geographical development.
In my recently published book, Reality of Dreams: Post-Neoliberal Utopias in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I develop what I call a fantastical materialist approach to the entanglement of space, power, and ideology in the transformation of social reality under conditions of global capitalism. In stylistic terms, fantastical materialism takes inspiration from The Arcades Project, in which Walter Benjamin sought “to cojoin a heightened graphicness to the realization of Marxist method”, based on the premise that it is through intricate descriptive detail, rather than dense theoretical argumentation, that we can best capture the quotidian complexities of the dialectic process. It also seeks to express what the Marxian literary critic Frederic Jameson has called “the content of the form”. According to Jameson: “A work has content. It has raw material… And the content already has a form inside it… The writer does not impose a form on it. The writer draws the form out of the very content itself”.
Reality of Dreams deconstructs a series of spectacularly ambitious infrastructural megaprojects launched by the Citizens’ Revolution – the seemingly radical post-neoliberal project implemented by the administration of Rafael Correa in Ecuador between 2007 and 2017, which sought to overcome the nation’s ecologically catastrophic dependence on Amazonian oil reserves. But rather than immediately dismantling this elaborate retinue of “spatial phantasmagorias”, citing Benjamin again, I attempt to capture the enchantment of their immediate appearances, to convey my bewilderment when confronted with their farcical dimensions, and to unfold the contorted process of their failure in ways that trace the path of my own perplexed investigations. In doing so, I aim to bring “heightened graphicness to Marxist method,” and to remain consistent with “the form of the content itself.”
This approach inverts the standard structure of academic argumentation, in which conclusions are set out in advance, illusions are immediately debunked, incongruencies are swept under the carpet, and the confusions of the research process are replaced by a rational sequence of events reported by an objective observer in neutral scientific prose. As such, it has less in common with conventional academic writing than with the literary tradition of fantastic realism, which is defined by the conviction that “real life is more singular and more fantastic than anything else, and all a writer can do is present it as ‘in a glass, darkly’” (citing E. T. A. Hoffman in Rosemary Jackson). Fantastic realism is exemplified by Joseph Conrad’s account of colonial brutality and illusion in Heart of Darkness, in which “the insistence on the details” serves not to faithfully reproduce a familiar reality but, rather, to disrupt the apparent self-evidence of socially constructed reality itself, quoting Jacques Rancière. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing has powerfully transposed this technique into the realm of political documentary, deploying intense empirical detail to bring a hidden entanglement of fantasy and violence to the surface of everyday reality, in the creation of:
a kind of nonfiction fever dream. It’s nonfiction in the sense that everything in it is real. But much of what is real are the fantasies through which the characters, and the whole political regime understands itself… And these real fantasies have terribly real consequences.
Reality of Dreams seeks to create a nonfiction fever dream of this kind. Drawing on extensive field research conducted between 2014 and 2017, it documents the dramatic failure of the Amazonian megaprojects of the Citizens’ Revolution, and the convoluted process through which these projects ended up contributing to an intensification of the extractivist economic model that they were designed to overcome. The remainder of this post takes the form of an edited extract from the book, as an illustration of how the literary techniques sketched above can be mobilised for the critique of political economy. The extract is from the penultimate chapter, by which point the post-neoliberal fantasy staged by the Citizens’ Revolution is rapidly falling apart. The oil boom that financed the megaprojects that gave concrete expression to this fantasy has come to an end, and a deepening fiscal crisis has forced the state to abandon many of these projects, while accelerating the expansion of the primary commodity frontier. The extract depicts a journey through the Amazon in search of a campus that was supposed to be part of a world-leading university called Ikiam – one of the megaprojects explored in the book. (In the extract, “colono” means “settler,” “paro” means “blockade,” and “comuna” means “indigenous community.” “Petroamazonas” is the state oil company).
“…We began by heading north, into the region of oil production, toward the campus that was focused on the oil industry. The road followed the contours of the Andean foothills for several hours before cutting out across the lowlands through what had once been jungle, past overgrown cattle pastures and orderly African palm plantations, through improvised towns of putrefying gray-green concrete and blue-mirrored windows, beneath decrepit drilling towers and grimy vultures spiraling through the black smoke flares of low-grade crude.
In the nondescript town of El Eno, an immense billboard welcomed us to the campus with an image of a luxuriant pink flower blooming in the depths of the jungle, beside the Ikiam slogan: “Biodiversity Is Our Future.” The image was streaked with long lines of thick brown mold. Behind the billboard, a rusted oil pipeline snaked across a grubby river. We inquired about the campus in a restaurant on the roadside and were put in touch with a man known as Don Pazmiño, who had sold the government the land for its construction. We drove through a grid of fields chopped out of the jungle, to the end of a rough track, where we were met by Don Pazmiño himself, dressed in the rubber boots, ragged trousers, and string vest of the colono. From there, he led us into the forest, cutting a path with his machete. We stopped in a small clearing. “Well,” he said after a pause, “Here we are!” We were standing in the middle of the campus. But the campus was not there…
The gravel road left the highway a few miles beyond the site of the nonexistent campus. We passed a military base that had been installed at the time of the paros to protect the oil infrastructures and break up the blockades. Soon we came to a checkpoint operated by Petroamazonas. The security guards saw our government plates, checked our passports, and waved us through. A tangled mass of dilapidated pipelines stretched along the roadside, through which ten thousand barrels of oil were extracted every day. Each turn in the road revealed another platform—a fenced-off slab of concrete with a line of oil pumps at one end and a blackened gas flare at the other. Most platforms were under armed guard, and private security patrolled the road. There were fields between the platforms, and the pipelines stretched across the front yards of wooden shacks. The oil flowing through them still contained the heat of the Earth, and families had spread their laundry out on them to dry. There was no sign of the Citizens’ Revolution here. The houses had no running water and no sewage system. The clinic lacked basic medicines, and the school lacked drinking water.
The president of the local comuna lived behind one of the platforms, beneath the constant glow of the gas flare. She showed us where a cracked pipeline had drained into the land behind her house. “The whole stream was completely black,” she said, “Two cows were covered in it. They drank the water and died.” Farther down the road the wind picked up and the air was suddenly filled with floating seeds. A rainstorm followed and washed them out of the sky, while the flames of the gas flares sputtered in the downpour. In the stillness after the rain, I became aware of an almost imperceptible seething: the rush of warm crude sliding through corroded pipelines”.