On Genre and Politics in the Parable of Self-Devouring Growth

At the start of Season of the Shadow, Léonora Miano’s haunting novel about the Atlantic slave trade, a group of women whose sons have gone missing are separated from the rest of the Mulongo clan. It is Ebeise, midwife to the village, who suggests isolating the women until the elders can understand what has transpired. “In that way…their pain will be contained in a clearly defined place and will not spread throughout the village…their heart’s lament will not poison the lives of other”. But soon the “fuliginous” shadow that first “hovered over the hut of the women whose sons went missing is hovering over the world.” The shadow, members of the village realize, will spare no one. Ultimately, it will devour them all.

Early in Julie Livingston’s stunning new book, we are reminded that the Atlantic slave trade was an early, if not originary, exemplar of the “rapacious obscenity of self-devouring growth” that cast its sludgy, poisonous shadow upon families and communities across space and time (9). Self-devouring growth is, Livingston observes (5), “cancerous”, “emerg[ing] in nodes but eventually spread[ing] into every crevice of the planetary body, harnessing its blood supply, eating through its tissue, producing rot and pain that will eventually kill the larger organism”. Self-devouring growth, she powerfully and persuasively argues, is eviscerating the myriad relationships and obligations that “animate” not only human life but also more-than-human ecologies. Ultimately, it will devour them all.

How should one narrate “destruction at a planetary scale” without losing sight of the brutally disproportionate violence borne by some individuals and societies (9)? What literary form can illustrate the full horror of self-devouring growth without leaving numbness and exhaustion in its wake? Can the stories that anthropologists “tell to tell other stories with” (Haraway 2016: 12) support a politics that “refuses” (Simpson 2007) erasure and invests in “repairing” (Thomas 2019) relationships? Such questions about the relationship between genre and politics are at the heart of Self-Devouring Growth. To address them Livingston turns to parable, a form that is at once deeply familiar and saturated with unexpected potential. 

What possibilities might parable open up for a politics that seeks to create another world? For Livingston, the power of parable lies in its capacity to radically transform the self in relation to others. “In a parable,” Livingston writes, “we travel out, unfolding the metaphor in a parabolic shape. By journey’s end, we will have returned to the same plane on which we started, but somewhat further along, in the hopes of having learned something from our experience along the way,” (2). Livingston’s emphasis on the cathartic potential of parable brings to mind Paul Ricoeur’s (1995: 281) observation that parables “disorient only to reorient us.”

But what precisely, as Ricoeur (ibid) puts it, “is reoriented in us” through parable? “And in what direction?” One might also add: who is the “we” that is reoriented?

The cautionary parable of self-devouring growth that Livingston narrates is a searing indictment of those who insist that the lament of one heart should be borne by that heart alone and not be allowed to poison the lives of others. This impoverished and violent imaginary of the relationship of self to other is an outcome of “racial capitalism” (Robinson 2000 [1983]), which, as Jodi Melamed (2015: 78) notes, produces “social separateness – the disjoining and deactiving of relations between human beings (and humans and nature)”. The parable of self-devouring growth reorients us to the urgent task of repairing “eviscerated” relationships. The project of repair that Livingston envisions does not assume a parity of harm across bodies. Instead, she reminds us that centering questions of ethics, relationality, and accountability in relationships is critical precisely because we are unevenly situated in contexts of deep structural inequality. Livingston’s understanding of repair is, in this sense, akin to that of Deborah Thomas (2020: 6): “an obligation” that “urges us to interrogate the multiple scales of entanglement that have led us to where we are now’ and “demands… an acknowledgment of complicity at all levels”.

How does the genre of parable foster the conditions for such radical repair? It does so, Livingston argues, by allowing both “the teller and the listener” to recognize themselves in the story. The plotlines of parable, she asserts, are “yours” and “mine”. The “we” it gathers together is capacious. To put it differently, parable works to provides fertile ground for mutual recognition and avowal, albeit across lop-sided terrain.

To return to Ricouer’s question, what parable thus “reorients” is our very imagination. It frees the imagination to explore worlds beyond the self, to recognize that there are other ways to be. It reminds us that the lament of one heart might well be the lament of another. In so doing, it activates a “collective imagination” and enables a relational political consciousness. The parable of self-devouring growth insists that we reorient ourselves to “those repositories of the imagination – the before, the against, and the besides – that have been or are now being crushed by” the drive for growth that is “predicated on uninhibited consumption” (7).

What Livingston’s remarkable book teaches us, then, is that parable makes possible a politics of collective refusal. By allowing us to recognize ourselves in the stories of others, by reminding us that the shadow that hovers over us is “hovering over the world”, parable opens up the possibility of creating worlds that are more just than the ravaged ones we currently inhabit. As one of the characters in Season of the Shadow muses, what matters in a time “when madness took hold of the world” is that “some people refused to live in darkness”.

Radhika Govindrajan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington. Her first book, Animal Intimacies (University of Chicago Press, 2018) received the Gregory Bateson Prize from the Society of Cultural Anthropology.

Works cited

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Melamed, Jodi. 2015. “Racial Capitalism”. Critical Ethnic Studies, 1 (1): 76-85.

Miano, Léonora. 2018 [2013]. Season of the Shadow. Translated by Walker, Gila. Kolkata: Seagull Books.

Ricoeur, Paul, 1995.Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination. Translated by Pellauer, David. Minneapolis: Fortress Press: 279–83.

Robinson, Cedric. 2000 [1983]. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2007. On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’, and Colonial Citizenship. Junctures: 67-80.

Thomas, Deborah. 2020. “Rights, Gifts, Repair”. American Anthropologist, 122 (1): 5-8.

_______________. 2019. Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair. Durham: Duke University Press.

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