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

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


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.

Author Biography

Tom Zachary Bradstreet, Stockholm University

Tom Z. Bradstreet received his M.A. in English Literature from Stockholm University in July 2016. He is an independent researcher whose interests centre on the intersections of ecocritical and postcolonial studies. He is currently exploring parallels between object-oriented theory and the ethics of Otherness in the context of developing and popularising environmental reading practices for the Anthropocene.