European Journal of English Studies, 3, 1 (1999), pp 112-16
The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology
Edited by Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm
(Athens & London: University of Georgia Press, 1996)
Ecopolitics: The Environment in Poststructuralist Thought
By Verena Andermatt Conley
(London & New York: Routledge, 1997)
If the ‘neo-futurist’ thinker Paul Virilio is right, the ecological struggle is ‘the only battle worth fighting’. Yet on the evidence of most departments of literary and cultural studies, one might be forgiven for thinking that the state of the planet is something to pass over in silence and with embarrassment. One simply does not mention such things. We are all too busy producing more and more subtly Lacanian readings of Hamlet or Blue Velvet to notice that the life of most species, including the human, might soon be unsustainable. As Glen A. Love pertinently asks in Glotfelty & Fromm’s volume: ‘Why are the activities aboard the Titanic so fascinating to us that we give no heed to the waters through which we pass, or to that iceberg on the horizon?’ The very publication of The Ecocriticism Reader is immensely important, then. Though Glotfelty’s introduction modestly defines ecocriticism as ‘the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment’, it leaves us in no doubt of the stakes involved. ‘If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession,’ she declares, ‘you would quickly discern that race, class and gender were the hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth’s life-support systems were under stress.’
Having made her intervention, she manages to make the discipline of ecocriticism sound as though it were just as ‘natural’ — just as culturally necessary — as post-colonial theory, Marxism and feminism. Assuming a literary tradition of ecological concern — which in the United States goes back to Thoreau and beyond — Glotfelty indicates three ‘phases’ or aspects of ecocritical activity. First, there is the consideration of the way nature is represented, whether as paradise or as wilderness. Second, there is the legacy of ‘nature writing’: a genre which derives from Walden, but which has been remarkably varied, ranging from poetic to scientific discourse and back. Third, there is the more abstract thinking known as ‘ecotheory’, which worries away at the dualism of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. The third informs the other two, and all three ‘phases’ suggest that ecocritics are willing to learn from any theories which are current on the Titanic, provided that we do not lose sight of either the surrounding waters or the iceberg ahead.
Thus Sue Ellen Campbell takes the notion of ‘desire’ as a meeting point for poststructuralism and ‘deep ecology’. Frederick Turner, in a vein more structuralist than poststructuralist, reflects that if we oppose the ‘natural’ to the ‘human’, then humanity becomes totally artificial; if, on the other hand, we oppose the ‘natural’ to the ‘cultural’, then ‘human nature’ becomes asocial. The point is to think of humans as always implicated in the highly responsible process of ‘mediating’, as best exemplifed by the arts. Ursula Le Guin becomes more specific by comparing the male ‘weapon’ approach to nature (aggressive, negative, linear) with the female ‘carrier bag’ approach (receptive, affirmative, cyclical), and finding that each of them produces a different conception of narrative. Again, Scott Slovic reflects on nature as both ‘correspondence’ and ‘otherness’, both ‘intimacy’ and ‘distance’, with ‘nature writing’ offering the model of mediation. Along with such new material (new to me, at any rate) it is good to find pioneering work that may by now be deemed ‘classic’ ecocriticism. There is, for instance, a chapter from Joseph Meeker’s The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (1972), in which the comic mode is defended against the tragic as more alert to the ‘mature complexity’ of the ecosystem. We find also William Rueckert’s polemical article ‘Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism’ (1978), which attempts to formulate a ‘generative poetics’ by which we might see ‘poems as green plants’ within a literary environment. (This is a notion which is not as whimsical as it sounds.) Rueckert being the leading advocate of the ideas of Kenneth Burke — whose own pioneering work was done between the thirties and the seventies — it becomes clear that this volume is by no means the reflection of a passing fashion. Indeed, one passing cause of regret is that more might have been made of Burke, whose own exposure of the logic of ‘hyper-technologism’ complements the most substantial body of literary theory produced in the States this century.
My only other qualm (again, a minor one) is that, though contributors to The Ecocriticism Reader continually alert us to the complexity of the word ‘nature’, the volume might have benefited from a working definition against which to test the various usages. For this we have to turn to Conley’s Ecopolitics, though there it is curiously confined to an unadventurous footnote: ‘I shall use the term “nature” in its common meaning of flaura and fauna.’ But this semantic timidity is not, I am glad to say, representative of Conley’s argument as a whole, which manages to be radically innovative and reliably introductory at the same time. Her not-so-modest proposal is that too many of those theorists who regard themselves as poststructuralists have forgotten, or rather repressed, the moment of 1968, when a new politics began to emerge, subversive of old ideas of progress and human conquest. The intellectual complement of the ‘events’ of that year is the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss, with its decentering of ‘man’, not the existentialist Marxism of Sartre, with its privileging of the alienated Cartesian ego. Conley convincingly links Levi-Strauss’s ecology (a position he explicitly espouses in The View from Afar), with the ‘pre-Socratic’ science of flux advocated by Michel Serres, and with Paul Virilio’s exposition — or rather, exposure — of a ‘culture of speed’. She also relates all three to Heidegger’s defence of ‘poetry’ (mystery of nature) against ‘technology’ (mastery of nature).
One strength of this book lies in having such ideas articulated so cogently, even if the cogency borders on clumsiness at times. Conley would seem to think stylistic elegance is in poor taste at a time of ecological crisis. But then, she really does have important work to do here, not least the exposure of the vacuity and banality of the ideas of Jean Baudrillard. His position, she explains with laudable lack of tact, is one of ecological ‘disparagement’: in particular, his ‘simulation model’ of culture relies on ‘unbridled capital development’, the disastrous consequences of which he treats as mere ‘simulacra’. From his cynical scenario Conley might well turn with relief to the passionately ‘feminine writing’ of Cixous and Irigaray, who resume the legacy of 1968 and the link with Heidegger. However, though it would have no doubt suited her purposes to conclude with an unreserved advocacy of Cixous and Irigaray, particularly their rethinking of ‘nature and woman’, she feels compelled to recognise and regret a dangerous tendency to essentialism in their very resistance to the logic of patriarchy and pollution.
Thus Conley’s argument is clinched not by approving a theoretical position but by reminding us of an historical catastrophe. This is the Vietnam war, which not only was the most powerful referent for the sixties’ counterculture but also set the tone for our increasingly destructive age. Indeed, it was the war which, constituting ‘an attempt to impose the simulation model all over the globe’, made us realise that today ‘all wars are waged against nature’. The image that resonates most strongly in Conley’s powerful book is that used by General Westmoreland, who declared that he was going to turn Vietnam into one vast ‘parking lot’. Put this alongside the arresting trope from Glotflety & Fromm’s reader — that of the academy as Titanic, its passengers oblivious to both environment and imminent disaster — and the two images might serve as timely reminders why ecology should be acknowledged as crucial to literary and cultural studies.