GREEN STUDIES READER Introduction extracts

THE GREEN STUDIES READER: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (London & New York: Routledge, 2000)

‘General Introduction’

Please note that the references have been removed from the two extracts provided here.


#Extract 1 (pp 1-2)

An early follower of the Zen school of Buddhism reflected on his understanding of nature as follows:

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters.  When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters.  But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest.  For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

At first Ching-yuan had naively taken nature for granted. Later it occurred to him that in effect nature existed inside his mind, in that it only found its shape and significance as he made sense of it.  But now he understands that it is equally mistaken to take nature for granted and to try and subsume it within his own mental operations.  The point is to learn from nature, to enter into its spirit, and to stop trying to impose upon it the arbitrary constraints which result from our belief in our own importance.  This wisdom may remind us of  William Wordsworth’s invitation to ‘Come forth into the light of things’, made in his poem ‘The Tables Turned’.  Far from assuming that whatever lies outside human consciousness is chaos, to which that consciousness gives order, he implies that human beings discover meaning – are illuminated – when they suspend the ‘meddling intellect’ which ‘misshapes the beauteous forms of things’ and attune themselves with a larger enlightenment, which includes mountains and waters as well as minds. As John G. Rudy explains:

To encounter ‘the light of things’ themselves, one must shed the notion of light as emerging from a separate source.  Indeed, one must relinquish the idea of separateness itself.  To come into the light of things, one must become the things themselves, must see through things as things.

Beyond duality, beyond the opposition of mind and matter, subject and object, thinker and thing, there is the possibility to ‘realise’ nature.  Rudy suggests that the word ‘realise’ may be read simultaneously as ‘actualise’ and ‘understand’: our ability to perceive things means that they  ‘realise’ (actualise) themselves in us, and this in turn is the only way we can ‘realise’ (understand) the fact that those things are realising themselves in us.  But of course, though reality needs human minds to achieve ‘self-realisation’, and though at that moment all notions of separation appear redundant, the process implies that something is already there, asking to be actualised or understood.

Over the past quarter of a century, much critical theory seems to have been dedicated to repudiating any such ‘realisation’.  In various schools –  formalist, psychoanalytic, new historicist, deconstructionist, even Marxist – the common assumption has been that what we call ‘nature’ exists primarily as a term within a cultural discourse, apart from which it has no being or meaning.  That is to say, it is a sign within a signifying system, and the question of reference must always be placed in emphatic parentheses.  To declare that  there is ‘no such thing as nature’ has become almost obligatory within literary and cultural studies.  The great fear has been to be discovered committing what might be called ‘the referential fallacy’.  On the one hand, the scepticism of theory has proved salutary: too often previous critics assumed that their preferred works of literature told the ‘truth’ about the world.  On the other hand, it has encouraged a heavy-handed culturalism, whereby suspicion of ‘truth’ has entailed the denial of non-textual existence. It is a mistake easily made, perhaps, once one has recognised the crucial role language plays in human sense-making.  But it should still be pointed out that, in failing to move beyond the linguistic turn, theory has been stuck at Ching-yuan’s second stage of enlightenment. In seeking to avoid naivete, it has committed what might be called ‘the semiotic fallacy’.  In other words, it has assumed that because mountains and waters are human at the point of delivery, they exist only as signified within human culture. Thus they have no intrinsic merit, no value and no rights.  One function of green studies must be to resist this disastrous error: it belongs, whatever the claims of the theorist to reject the legacy of western ‘Man’, to ‘the arrogance of humanism’.    As Bill McKibben puts it in his lament over the subordination of the non-human world by the human: ‘Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.’


#Extract 2 (pp 3-4)

So green studies does not challenge the notion that human beings make sense of the world through language, but rather the self-serving inference that nature is nothing more than a linguistic construct. Kate Soper, who is well-represented in this reader, makes the point dramatically: ‘In short, it is not language which has a hole in its ozone layer; and the real thing continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our deconstructive insights at the level of the signifier.’   More modestly, we may say that green studies negotiates what ‘the real thing’ might involve. It is no easy task.  For, as Raymond Williams has famously observed: ‘Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.’  It might be no exaggeration to say that green studies as a discipline hinges on the recognition of the complexity of that word and of our relation to whatever it denotes.

Here it is worth bearing in mind Jhan Hochman’s differentiation between ‘Nature’ and ‘nature’.  While the former is a rhetorically useful principle, it has often been associated with ‘the highly suspect realms of the otherworldly or transcendental’.  The latter is to be preferred in that it is more ‘worldly’: it denotes no more – but certainly no less – than the collective name for ‘individual plants, nonhuman animals, and elements’.  However, such careful differentiation should not become a rigid distinction: ‘For example, how classify apparently sensible, universal, N/natural patterns?  Is number nature or Nature?  Are life and death nature or Nature?’  Moreover, the main aim should be kept in mind: to differentiate between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, so that ‘culture does not easily confuse itself with nature or Nature, or claim to know nature as a rationale for replacing [it] with itself and its constructions.’  Let me illustrate Hochman’s twofold differentiation by pointing out that, while it is necessary to see the medieval ‘chain of being’ as an idealist construction of Nature which served the interests of feudalism, it does not follow that nature has no existence apart from culture. Indeed, such a conclusion has been used to sanction, for example, largescale deforestation in the short-term interests of the ‘fast food’ culture of  corporate capitalism.

It should be clear from this last observation that, if we may be said to entering ‘the ecocritical age’, we must understood that epithet in its fullest sense.  While I prefer the more inclusive term, ‘green studies’, the more specific term, ‘ecocriticism’, has the advantage of reminding us to register the ‘critical’ quality of these times.  For we are not only concerned with the status of the referent and the need to do it justice, in the sense of taking it seriously as something more than linguistic; we are also concerned with the larger question of justice, of the rights of our fellow-creatures, of forests and rivers,  and ultimately of the biosphere itself.  That is to say, green studies is much more than a revival of mimesis: it is a new kind of pragmatics. While carefully addressing the ‘nature’ of criticism, in the sense of  examining how ‘nature’ is referred to by critics, it seeks to go further: to use nature as a ‘critical’ concept.

It does this in two related senses.  Firstly, in invoking nature, it challenges the logic of industrialism, which assumes that nothing matters beyond technological progress. Thus, it offers a radical alternative to both ‘right’ and ‘left’ political positions, both of which assume that the means of production must always be developed, no matter what the cost.  Secondly, in insisting that the non-human world matters, it challenges the complacent culturalism which renders other species, as well as flora and fauna, subordinate to the human capacity for signification.  Thus, it queries the validity of  treating nature as something which is ‘produced’ by language.  Denying both assumptions, industrialism and culturalism, it sees planetary life as being in a ‘critical’ condition; and it is to this sense of ‘crisis’ that it offers a response.  If green studies does not have an effect on this way of thinking, does not change behaviour, does not encourage resistance to planetary pollution and degradation, it cannot be called fully ‘ecocritical’.