Ecocriticism: Thinking Critically about Nature – Junior G-man – Aug 10

What the fuck are you on about?
Ecocriticism is one of the latest on the scene of literary analysis; think of it as a compliment to feminist, Marxist, and post-colonialist analyses that have flourished since the 1970’s. Where they sought to foreground, respectively, women, labour and the economy, and the effects of colonialism, ecocriticism seeks to foreground a sense of place, and the interaction between humanity and nature.

Where did this come from?

quote:

If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were thte hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth’s life support systems were under stress
~ Cheryll Glotfelty

It might seem obvious, but the idea of placing nature first within a literary discourse comes out of the emergence of the modern environmental movements such as Greenpeace, the WWF, and other local and national organisations that are dedicated to the protection of what wilderness and untouched nature we still have left. As the (predominantly western) notion of environmental protection grew, so did it infiltrate university campuses and departments, mostly in North America. It can be no real wonder that among the professors and teachers at these universities, there were a number who became environmental activists themselves, and then began to look at their fields of study and sought to apply their environmental concerns and thinking to it.

Another factor that has had a major influence on the emergence of ecocriticism is the field of environmental studies, which began in the sciences – geology, biology, meteorology – but it has widened to include humanities and social sciences. As geologists and biologists sounded the alarm bell over diminishing species, erosion, desertification, global warming and the destruction of habitat, the study of the environment grew as a place where these varied sources could pool together and correlate their efforts, rather than remain within their own private and guarded little academic kingdoms: desertification usually involves the ecosphere as well as the earth itself for example.

Why did it come about so late? We’ve been concerned about the environment since a long time ago, John Muir established national parks, the RSPCA is a Victorian holdout, etc. Well, the interesting thing about that is that it has only recently emerged as a fully-fledged and recognised field of literary analysis, getting its first real start in the eighties and nineties, as scholars began to properly collaborate. Sure, there were papers that were published before, but they were lone wolves in a landscape that did not recognise it as an organised discipline. These studies were usually filed under categories such as regionalism, pastoralism, science and literature, the frontier, etc.

You must look to the dominance of (post-)structuralism of the late 20th century, where importance was placed on questions of representation, textuality, narrative, identity, subjectivity, and historical discourse from a sceptical standpoint that emphasised the disjunctures between representations and the ‘reality’ that they purported to refer to.

quote:

In this intellectual context, the notion of nature tended to be approached as a sociocultural construct that had historically often served to legitimize the ideological claims of specific social groups
~Ursula K. Heise

Thus, when discussing literature, the field of literary studies was more interested in nature as a concept than as a genuine presence that was under threat. This obviously does not encourage connections between literary studies and social movements that sought to protect nature.

Fortunately, the arrival of New Historicism in the early 1990’s which re-allowed the emergence of specific fields of inquiry, rather than searching for a ‘grand unified theory’ that could be applied to all literary analysis.

Ok, so it came out of the environmental movement but was suppressed by the dominance of (post-)structuralism), but what is it good for?

quote:

All ecological criticism shares the fundamental premise that human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it
~ Cheryll Glotfelty

First off, it seeks to redefine human not against itself, but rather seeks to interpret and foreground the relationship between the human and the physical world. It shares the environmentalism’s charge that modernity presumes to know the natural world, exploit it economically, manipulate it technologically, and ultimately create a sphere of human progress apart from it. Such notions strip nature of any value other than that of a commodity to be used up, and leads to the destruction that you can see on the news everywhere. This idea, I believe, lies at the basis of the current ecologically destructive capitalist process; that nature, and its resources, are not seen as a living, breathing, even necessary part of the globe, but rather as a vast mine from which we can haul resources. This applies to mountain-top removal, large scale dredge-net fishing, or even the destruction of the rainforests for timber and arable land. It is an idea that alienates humanity from nature.

Ecocriticism argues that we are always caught within a place, that as long as we need air to breathe and grass to grow, we cannot unconditionally separate ourselves from the natural world, no matter how close to the city centre you may live. Even if you do not like nature, hate sleeping in tents, and are all FUCK THE OCEAN OMG, you are still inextricably bound up with the environment.

Thus, with these ideas in mind, ecocriticism has been looking for writing that is ecologically aware, or has tried to read into acknowledged parts of the canon (and i mean that in the broadest way possible, it also tries very hard to include non-white/western writers and works) the interaction between nature and humanity.
In its early works, nature tended to be viewed as a wounded little animal that needed shelter, a victim of modernisation, but it has gradually changed into an awareness that nature is inextricably entwined with modernity – both as a concept and in the material shape that experience every day. Notions such as national parks, preserved areas, the concept of ‘wilderness’ all only came about in the nineteenth century, when the industrial revolution meant that, for the first time ever, city-dwellers started to outnumber those who lived on the land. This shift meant a cultural re-evaluation that prized pristine and uninhabited areas (never mind if there were filthy natives already in place)

quote:

the problem of authenticity is itself peculiarly modern. Only as modern industrialisation separates us from the process of production and we encounter the environment as a finished commodity does it emerge [… ]The final victory of modernity [… ] is not the disappearance of the non-modern world, but its artificial preservation and reconstruction […] The search for an authentic relation to nature among many radical and ecological movements is the cutting edge of such sensibility
~ David Harvey

Isn’t this all very classicist/western oriented

quote:

Aesthetic appreciation of nature has not only been a class-coded activity, but the insulation of the middle and upper classes from the most brutal effects of industrialization has played a crucial role in environmental devastation
~ T.V. Reed

Yes, for the most part ecocriticism has been governed by North-American writing, which almost guarantees that the attitudes towards nature are western-oriented, but there has been a growing participation by notably South-American and Asian scholars and authors, and western scholars have increasingly been exploring novels and poetry from those areas as well. The growing sub-field of ‘poco-eco’ (postcolonial ecocriticism) is doing really interesting work.

Furthermore, it also acknowledges, rather than rejects, that any quest for authenticity of the concepts of nature and wilderness relies on the assumption that all modern subjects are alienated from nature. It is difficult to describe the particular forms of alienation suffered by socially disenfranchised groups; thus allowing many interpretations of that is nature to co-exist, as long as they are not transparently harmful to the earth.

Also, because it is a field that is intricately bound up with social and environmental justice, ecocriticism also engages with globalisation, as it questions the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Needless to say, that relationship is entirely fucked within the context of neo-liberalist, capitalist, globalisation.

That sounds pretty cool, got any reading tips?

Theory and Background

Abbey, Edward – Desert Solitaire, a season in the wilderness
Bate, Jonathan – The Song of the Earth
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture
Carson, Rachel – Silent Spring
Cronon, William – Uncommon Ground
Ed. Finch and Elder – The Norton Book of Nature Writing
Ehrlich, Paul – The Population Bomb
Foreman and Haywood – Ecodefense, A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching
Glotfelty and Fromm – The ecocriticism reader
Kroeber, Karl – Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imaginings and the Biology of the Mind.
Ramachandra, Guha – Environmentalism, a global history
Tomashow, Michael – Ecological Identity
Tempest Williams, Terry – Refuge

Novels

(these lend themselves to ecological criticism, but there is much more of course!)

Abbey, Edward – The Monkey Wrench Gang
Atwood, Margaret – Oryx and Crake
Delillo, Don – White Noise
Sepulveda, Luis – The Old Man Who Read Love Stories
Viramontes, Helen Maria – Under the Feet of Jesus
Yamashita, Karen Tei – Through the Arc of the Rainforest

Who are you and why are you telling me this?

I just finished my MA thesis and did an ecological reading of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and I thought it was interesting.

Conclusion

Even if you’re not at all interested in literary theory (I don’t blame you), this is an interesting field of studies that you should be aware of; ask more questions of how nature is represented in the commercials you see (especially with the growing focus on ‘nature’ as a good thing – see all food commercials), how is it represented in the paper you read, the movies you watch etc. Etc.

Sources used:

Glotfelty, Cheryl. “Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis.” Fromm, Ed. Glotfelty and. The Ecocriticism Reader. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. Xv-xxxvi.
Heise, Ursula. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism” .” PMLA 121.2 (2006): 503-516.

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