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'The Coming of the Storm': Imperial Empiricism and Ecological Indifference in Waiting for the Barbarians

Tom Zachary Bradstreet


This article re-reads J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians through an ecocritical lens, eschewing a postmodernist interest in a ‘metaphysics of absence’ in favour of a materialist engagement with ecological presence. Readings of the novel which cite the absence of the eponymous ‘barbarians’—and Empire’s refusal to acknowledge this absence—as a central feature of the text routinely fail to acknowledge the presence of ecological forces that ultimately undermine Empire’s colonialist project. By rectifying this critical oversight, the present re-reading avoids endowing Empire with a problematic surfeit of narrative agency; moreover, it illuminates a relation between Empire and ecology irreducible to the simplistic terms of binary difference, and better conceptualised in terms of a dynamic of ‘ecological indifference’. Finally, parallels are highlighted between the myopia of Coetzee’s Empire and a brand of critical imperialism that persists in ‘seeing through’ literary ecologies, thereby rendering Barbarians a cautionary tale for the Anthropocene.


J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, postcolonial ecocriticism, ecological indifference, materialism

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The Johns Hopkins University Press

ISSN: 1920-1222

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