Covert Power: A Review of Laura Ogden’s Swamplife
by Shaun Terry
Ogden, Laura. Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
It may seem hard to imagine—or even inappropriate—thinking of whites (particularly white men) as being Orientalized in the United States, to use Edward Said’s term1. Yet, if Orientalization occurs anywhere, then it surely must be possible that white United States men could be Orientalized. And, while the culprits may be familiar—agro-business, real estate development, the scientific and academic community (at-times capital’s techno-scientific arm), legislation, and law enforcement bodies, to name a few—the complicated story of the devastation of the Florida Everglades and the marginalization of those who have lived there draws a clear example of something that we have seen throughout history: power locates a resource that it views as worthy of seizing; power develops a strategy; power meets resistance; power appropriates resistance in order that power further progresses toward its goal; power displaces and disrupts the prevailing local paradigm, intractably arrogating the resource. Still, through Laura Ogden’s telling of the story of the Florida Everglades, she introduces new and unexpected aspects of power, means of power, and products of power. What is at stake in her book, Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, is a Deleuzian framing of a Florida Everglades history of power and the dispossessed, acknowledging the erasure and marginalization of Everglades people2.
Ogden’s book attempts something bold: using the structure of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome as an organizing logic, she argues for a rhizomic conception of the history of the Everglades. Ogden elucidates the erasure, Orientalization, and exploitation of residents of the Everglades in a way that feels organic and compelling, while weaving in the pseudo-fictional story of the John Ashley gang. Ogden craftily balances dense theoretical concepts with the easily accessible narrative of the complicated lived experiences of marginalized people in the Everglades, doing so in a way that avoids the temptation of moralization. On p. 4, Ogden notes: “Without a more humanized and nuanced politics of nature, we cannot hope to create (or imagine) sustainable futures.” That is, there are problems, but without accounting for all of the forces—or “intensities,” to remain true to the Deleuzian parlance that pervades Ogden’s book—it may be unreasonable to assume the effection of a viable, long-term solution.
Part of the problem in the Everglades, as articulated in Ogden’s book, seems to be of oversimplification and shortsightedness. Ogden’s “gladesmen” represent easy targets for the power regime in the jungles of Ogden’s South Florida: “Simply put, glades families had very few economic alternatives to hunting and so went to great lengths to subvert the law’s territorial claims. The hide market’s global networks of production and distribution supported this oppositional politics.” (P. 126) The Everglades of the 20th century provided economic opportunities, but the people already living there complicated those opportunities. When alligator hunters came to represent possible targets to divert negative attention from big business, it also allowed for the deligitimation of economies that fell outside the normal “legitimate” market economy.
Ogden illustrates how power appropriates the means of resistance to its ecologically destructive capitalist project in the Everglades. In this way, power furthers the very project to which conservationists might be natural enemies. It was not until there was something economic to gain (agricultural products and tourism) that alligators became a point of official consideration and protection. Ogden states, “Explicit in this conservationist approach is the construction of rural folk as reckless criminals incapable of managing local environments for the common good.” (P. 126) Interesting here is how power is able to leverage the expertise of seemingly well-intended—and potentially oppositional—scientists and environmentalists to further capitalists’ economic project that intentionally displaces and vilifies the gladesmen.
To consider Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome once again, power, like anything else, might adapt by responding to changing intensities and emerging forces. In Ogden’s book, neoliberal, rhizomic power paints poor whites as criminal instead of reorganizing the role of capital, not unlike Slavoj Žižek’s anecdote about the moralization of consumer recycling (instead of greater pressure on the main culprits: capitalists who produce tons of waste and consume vast amounts of resources) or consumer restrictions on water in California (instead of curtailing the use of water by agro-business, which accounts for several times more water use than that used by consumers)3. Basically, instead of being honest about the problem, it presents a kind of Kleinian opportunity to attack a perceived threat while deceptively placating the populace in regard to the actual problem4.
Ogden’s book adds to the literature on political ecology, doing so from the perspective of the displaced: in this case, poor, rural whites. The book’s narrative helps to ground the (mostly Deleuzian) theoretical ideas that permeate the book, while the concepts help to contextualize the complications that appear in the lived experiences of those who make the story.
That said, it is easy to envision another kind of story, entirely: one from the perspective of those in power. That is to say that something that seems lost in Ogden’s story is how the decisions seem to have been made and what might have motivated those in power. If, as Ogden seems to suggest, all sides should be taken into account, how might we understand the motivations of those in power in order that we come to a more useful assessment of the situation?
In the end, I would recommend this book to anyone looking to understand the complicated processes by which ecologies are devastated and transformed, even by some of the most inconspicuous agents (in this case, even conservationists assist in the devastation). Further, anyone interested in complicating, and adding nuance to, environmental justice in the United States might show interest in Ogden’s book.
Ogden’s writing strikes a pleasant balance between clarity, beauty, and theory; she appeals to those interested in being swept up in the poetry of people’s lived experiences, just as she provides substance to those looking to reconcile facts and theory in concrete terms. Indeed, the question of the relationship of Everglades poor, rural whites to big business and state apparatuses is one that might serve as a microcosm of many of the problems that we face today.
- Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books. 1978.
- Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 1987.
- Žižek, Slavoj. “Lessons From the ‘Airpocalypse’: On China’s smog problem and the ecological crisis.” In These Times. Illinois: In These Times and the Institute for Public Affairs. 2016.
- Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador. 2007.