Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Kirsten Silva Gruesz reviews Planetary Longings

Mary Louise Pratt. Planetary Longings. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2022. 352 pp.

Review by Kirsten Silva Gruesz

A price sticker on my copy of Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992) attests that I staked 3 percent of my grad student wages in 1992 on the hunch that this book would become a vital reference point in my intended field, transnational cultural studies. Over twenty thousand Google Scholar citations have since validated that hunch. Synthesizing the decolonial energies pulsing through the global South in that year of the Columbus Quincentenary (a second edition appeared in 2008), Imperial Eyes offered a stringent critique of Western epistemologies across various disciplines and cultural objects through the central lens of travel writing. Along with her 1991 essay “Arts of the Contact Zone,” the book introduced the durable notion of the “contact zone” as a habitat in which the dispossessed could exert agency in colonial encounters where their disadvantage might seem impossible.[1]

Pratt was an early adopter of “planetarity” as an alternative to the compromised neoliberal discourse of globalization. Planetary Longings offers, among other things, a firsthand intellectual history of the past three decades, examining the consequences for thinkers and activists of a newly totalizing capitalism bent on despoiling the earth. In a propulsive introduction that serves as manifesto, she proposes to “treat planetarity as a concept linked to the crisis of futurity and agency posed in particular by climate change and impending ecological catastrophe” (p. 13). Borrowing from Elizabeth Grosz, she deploys “concept” to mean not a fixed idea or solution but an evanescent tool for imagining the world otherwise. The utility of her own famous concept comes in for scrutiny in chapter 7. Now that the destructive extractivism associated with colonization has seeped everywhere, she muses, should we speak of a multispecies contact zone, given that “the imperial contact zone and the environmental contact zone are linked by more than analogy. They are reflexes of each other, ruled by many of the same myths” (pp. 131–132). Ultimately she finds the concept an unsatisfactory way to register the agency and actions of the nonhuman, concluding with humility that “we might do better talking about force fields instead of contact zones” (p. 135). Because “concepts appear, give what they have to give, subside, and are replaced by others” (p. 13), Pratt appears ready to lead us onward.

How, then, do we describe the arts of the possible and convey their urgency? Pratt is skeptical of systemic analysis, proposing to examine “forces” instead: “Things that used to look like categories, structures, or systems start appearing as forces that can operate at any range and scale and have the ability to make things happen in any context in which they come into play” (p. 7). Resistance—the imagining and enacting of alternative futures—happens improvisationally, unpredictably. Of particular interest to her is indigeneity, understood here not as an identity or a condition but as such a force. Pratt argues that postcolonial theory “rarely addresses Indigenous agency and has not found Indigenous thought a source of insight into the colonial or ex-colonial condition nor into the work of decolonization” (p. 17). This is due to a lopsided attention to the planet’s Eastern Hemisphere, and thus most of the book builds instead on Latin American examples: “This is not a book ‘about’ the Americas. . . . I think from the Americas about the planet” (p. 6).

Coloniality, indigeneity, decolonization, planetarity, futurity: these are a lot of conceptual plates to keep spinning all at once, and the book’s sixteen chapters (plus Coda) do not attempt to address them evenly. They explore indigenous Mexican and Andean world-making, but also touch on topics from Guantánamo tourism, street protests in Chile, and some fairly canonical Latin American novels to nineteenth-century independence movements. Most of these chapters were lightly revised from essays previously published in English and Spanish, arranged not chronologically but through an unstable division into two parts. While this format allows Pratt to include musings on translation studies and even posthumanism (in a brief new chapter), it does not build a steady momentum toward addressing the present crisis of futurity signaled in the introduction.

A critique of ethnographic writing originally published in 1986, for example, ends with a tacked-on update suggesting (surely uncontroversially) that the “wave of experimentation in ethnographic writing that . . . became unstoppable in the 1990s” has “continued to open the discipline” today (p. 187). Likewise, a revisiting of Pratt’s 2001 analysis of the David Stoll/Rigoberta Menchú controversy concludes only that “Stoll’s sensational exposé, in the end, probably did less damage than expected” (p. 206). If the target audience for Planetary Longings includes scholars who are new to the field, these readers would have benefited from a more vigorous revision making the case for why this debate is worth remembering in the first place. Does I, Rigoberta Menchú (1984) still feature prominently on college reading lists, and what cultural work does that inclusion do now, as opposed to the nineties? Ironically, by declining to revisit this chapter from a twenty-first century perspective, Pratt freezes Menchú herself in time as the traumatized youth who narrated her story in 1982 rather than the commandingly mature woman who has twice campaigned for the presidency of Guatemala while leveraging her considerable influence for indigenous and feminist causes across the globe.

“What concepts can take us to possible futures?” Pratt asks, at the end of her amiable acknowledgment of the limits of the contact zone (p. 253). Planetary Longings foregrounds but does not fully explicate how indigeneity and planetarity might do this work of imaginative world-making. It is Pratt’s keen intelligence, rather than a genre like travel writing or a sustained theorization of these concepts, that holds this book together as an anthology of her abiding concerns.


[1] Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33–40.