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Humanities on the Edge Article Review: Ursula Heise

Potatoes.jpg
The plants at the center of Ruth Ozeki’s 2003 novel All Over Creation are agricultural crops, in particular, the Russet Burbank potato. Ursula Heise notices how Ozeki repeatedly uses the potato as a metaphor for humans, and suggests this narrative equation demonstrates the dangers of conflating social and biological diversity. Heise’s larger point is that environmental literature and ecocriticism need a more nuanced engagement with theories of transnationalism and globalization.

In what follows, I’d like to revisit and extend Heise’s 2008 argument about this novel in her article “Ecocriticism and the Transnational Turn in American Studies.” An ecocritical reading of All Over Creation that accounts for transnationalism and globalization, I think, might also necessarily engage with theories of settler colonialism and biopolitics. So in addition to the Burbank potato, I’m interested in how indigenous potato varieties and weeds are marginally represented in the text, and how these representations of plants are also narratively connected to humans.

First, a quick plot set-up: the novel’s main character, Yumi Fuller, returns with her children to her multicultural family’s home in monocultural Idaho potato country. Yumi has been estranged from her childhood best friend, Cass, and her parents since she ran away from home during high school after having an abortion. She continued her education and moved around the American West before ending up in Hawaii, where she sells real estate and teaches English. Cass calls Yumi back to Idaho to take care of her parents, whose health is fading. Though they no longer farm potatoes, Yumi’s Japanese-American mother’s heirloom garden seed business is still operating. Yumi’s father has adopted new views on preserving seed diversity, too, and unbeknownst to him, a group of young environmental activists is making their way to Idaho to meet him.

Heise catalogs how some of these characters literally dress up as potatoes (an anti-GMO activist puts on a Mr. Potato Head costume during a grocery store teach-in), and how other narrative details in the novel compare potato plants with humans (the activists call themselves “Seed of Resistance” and the potato farmers self-identify as “spudmen”) (397). For Heise, these potato-people equations don’t support a consistent environmental message.

Instead, “they function as a narrative device that lines up the novel’s multicultural concerns—most clearly instantiated in the Fullers’ multigenerationally hybrid family—with its environmentalist dimensions so as to suggest a ‘natural’ affinity between the two types of politics” (399). Heise notices how social diversity (a multicultural family) is equated with biological diversity (multiple plant genotypes, an heirloom seed bank, etc.). But such an equation elides differences between ecological and cultural definitions of diversity, and masks an implicit political contradiction when it comes to globalization and transnationalism: social diversity seems to value what is globally hybridized while biological diversity seems to value what is purely local. Ozeki’s novel and other texts “ignore or reject conceptualizations of transnational subjects and forms of agency in favor of more local ones, but nevertheless wish to retain a sense that cultural hybridity can itself become the foundation for resistance to an international order many environmentalists oppose” (400).

In this conflicted relationship to globalization, All Over Creation is emblematic of the much larger body of modern U.S. literature of “food power” that Allison Carruth examines in Global Appetites (2013). Carruth argues that globalization “provides the imaginative frameworks and material structures for the contemporary movement to re-localize food and reconnect producers and consumers” (7). For instance, in All Over Creation, the environmental activists resist economic globalization and corporate biotechnology—and create a program to save seeds and biodiversity—by using and co-opting networks that allow them to connect with other activists across time and space (Carruth 121-124). Carruth suggests that Ozeki’s novel’s formal diversity (mixing genres, narrative perspectives, and discourses) leads away from a critical focus on its “singular moral purpose” and toward an interest in how “these fictions distribute competing moral and political concerns across characters”—in other words, the “politics of form” (122).

I would add that the politics of formally (through metaphor) equating peoples and plants in U.S. environmental literature is enmeshed in settler colonialism, which in turn supports and pervades neoliberal global capitalism. Rather than generally equating humans and plants, I understand settler colonial logic to create equations between particular groups of humans and particular plants. Broad categories of “native” and “indigenous”—categories which cross ecological and cultural definitions—emerge. For instance, in All Over Creation, non-native people are the ones equated with the introduced potato, and the potato’s history as a plant indigenous to the Americas (especially South America) and domesticated by Native Americans is only briefly mentioned; the narrative focuses instead on Luther Burbank’s breeding of a potato perfect for mass cultivation and consumption.

Yumi’s friend Cass “playing the potato” in the school Thanksgiving program is notable, but so is the Japanese-American Yumi “playing Indian,” as is the sympathy with Native Americans professed by Yumi’s male high school teacher—who sexually exploits her, and then later reappears in her adulthood as the employee of a PR firm hired by the agricultural corporation selling GMO potatoes. The actual nearby Native Americans in the novel do have complaints of environmental racism as well as land claims; these are mentioned in the text, but they are placed in the background, while the traveling environmental activists and settler farm families are in the foreground. All Over Creation considers issues that transcend the U.S. and Japan as nation-states but does so on land (in both Hawaii and Idaho) that belongs to sovereign indigenous nations. The local, then, might not necessarily have to be read as pure; the purely local in this novel is a fiction of settlement.

I also want to build on Heise’s analysis of All Over Creation by considering the novel’s discourse of “life” in the context of biopolitics. In the text, corporate biotechnology and agricultural chemicals threaten human, animal, and vegetal life, maybe even—in a view surprisingly shared by the youth environmental activists and Yumi’s patriarchal father Lloyd—the future of all of creation or “life itself.”

The suggestion that “life itself” is now at stake is made in many environmental narratives, and Jennifer Ladino points out that it is often presented as an opportunity to counter economic globalization and neoliberalism. In Ladino’s reading, “life” in All Over Creation stands for a “common nostalgic ideal of nature” that is opposed to “neoliberalism’s reduction of human subjectivity to ‘homo oeconomicus’” (219-220). Ozeki’s progressive and conservative characters—deep ecologists and pro-life Christians—find common ground in valuing “the promotion and sustaining of ‘life,’ rather than the accumulation of wealth” (219) and share a longing for a community that values life, “yet recognizes the contingency of such life as lived within a global political economy” (223). Ladino understands this as “counter-nostalgia,” a more critical pastoral that longs for a community of diversity, maybe even hybridity, rather than purity. Heise’s earlier points about the complexity of diversity and hybridity—in terms of culture, economics, politics, and science and technology—confirms the need to unpack the different affective and ethical dimensions of this counter-nostalgia, along with its social and environmental implications.

Theories of biopolitics also highlight how the management—rather than the erasure—of “life” has become the aim of contemporary neoliberal power. (The reproduction of certain plants and peoples over others is fostered, too, by settler colonialism.) A biopolitical reading of the novel might examine the centrality of Yumi’s reproductive choices to the novel’s plot and to her complicated relationship to other characters and places. Yumi begins the novel’s first chapter, a creation story called “in the beginning,” with the lines, “It starts with the earth. How can it not?” (3). In what follows, her fertility is linked to the subterranean fecundity of the soil (which along with the sun, enables plant growth), fed by old volcanic ash in Idaho and ongoing magma flows in Hawaii.

In comparison, the infertility of Cass and Will Quinn seems linked in the text to their work as corporate farmers who control the reproduction of potatoes. The body of Cass, a white woman who is a survivor of breast cancer, is materially connected to the weeds in their potato fields, since she suspects that she is impacted by the herbicides applied to the crop. Perhaps chemicals are also related to the miscarriages that she and her husband suffer. By the end of the story, Will decides to try organic farming and the couple is given the gift of an adoptive daughter. Reproductive life is restored on the farmland and in their personal relationship. Meanwhile, Yumi, her mother, and her children all return to Hawaii. The narrative’s relatively neat conclusions, however, belie the larger ecocritical questions it opens for analysis.

-Aubrey Streit Krug

Works Cited

Carruth, Allison. Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Heise, Ursula. “Ecocriticism and the Transnational Turn in American Studies.” American Literary History 20.1-2 (2008): 381-404. doi: 10.1093/alh/ajm055

Ladino, Jennifer K. Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2012.

Ozeki, Ruth. All Over Creation. New York: Viking, 2003.

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