Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century

Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Stephen LeMenager, Teresa Shewry, and Ken Hiltner (New York & London: Routledge, 2011)

Green Letters November 2013

One can’t get a much more confident, future-oriented title than Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, particularly when one bears in mind that this volume is announced as the first of a whole series. It is structured according to three broad areas of interest that the editors believe to be central to the kind of green theory which we need now and hereafter. First comes ‘Science’, which means in particular evolutionary biology, biotechnology, cybernetics, medicine – not forgetting ecology itself, of course. Second comes ‘History’, which now should be seeking to ‘uncover the complex relationships between nonhuman systems, foundational ideas such as nature, and historical literary practice’. Third comes ‘Scale’: this concerns ‘the complex geographical imaginaries of some of the best new ecocritical writing, which recognises that ecological systems offer rich ground for transnational and translocal analysis’.

This is an ambitious programme, and one is led to expect a wholly new way of relating nature to culture. However, the first essay, by Timothy Morton, is a reiteration of his by-now familiar case for life on earth as a ‘mesh’ which is so complicated that nobody knows what ‘on earth’ is going on. This is followed by Paul Outka’s essay on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – itself an overrated and overinterpreted text, to my mind – in which he repeats the received wisdom that we are in a ‘posthuman’ and ‘postnatural’ era. Again, while there are, indeed, some useful contributions to this volume, they would probably work better in isolation, or in another context: Allison Carruth on the contemporary city, Jennifer C. James on the legacy of slavery and the relationship of contemporary African-American writing to the natural world, Michael G. Ziser on literary imaginings of community based on a more sustainable use of resources.

One worrying sign is that editors and various contributors alike are enamoured of the idea that the task of environmental critics from now on must be a remorseless ‘deconstruction’ of nature. Nor am I inspired by the recurrent invocation of Bruno Latour, whose modest coinage of ‘culturenature’ is made to bear too much theoretical weight. Thus it is that in these pages borders and boundaries are only there to be transgressed, there are chimeras and cyborgs at every turn, and the only constant is hybridity and plasticity. I’m all for contrary thinking, but it loses its force when it becomes the default mode.

To return to those three main categories of concern which dictate the structure of the volume: yes, ‘Science’, ‘History’ and ‘Scale’ are legitimate enough; but what about ‘Spirit’? Putting this another way: Outka is not the only one in this volume to take it for granted that we are in the ‘posthuman’ and ‘postnatural’ era; but what about the ‘post-secular’?

The largely-missing dimension is implicitly addressed in two of the most interesting essays in the volume. In ‘Ecopoetics and the Origins of English Literature’, Alfred K. Siewers explores the concept and symbolism of the ‘green world’ in some key medieval texts. In ‘Amerindian Eden’, Edward M. Test makes the case for a revival of interest in the 16th-century writer  Guillaume de Saluste Sieur du Bartas, in relation to the tension between the Judeao-Christian mythology of the European settlers of North America and the existing, earth-based mythology of the Native Americans.  It is perhaps no coincidence that these contributions are less riddled with jargon than most, and they are less curtailed by the obligation to make all things new. However, even their interest in the spiritual dimension of ecology is limited.

Siewers, for example, credits the mid-twentieth century critic Northrop Frye with coining the term ‘green world’, not seeming to realise that it actually comes from the Romantic poet John Keats. In other words, he thinks it is merely a critical category rather than a visionary possibility. In this respect, Siewers shares a failing with the editors: a forgetting of the spiritual force of Romantic ecology. The representative statement comes in the introduction: summarising Outka’s essay on Frankenstein, the editors blithely refer to the typical Romantic epiphany as being all about human transcendence of nature.  This is simply not so, as the work of Kevin Hutchings, Mark Lussier, Kate Rigby and others have shown. Had the editors spent more time absorbing the still-potent legacy of Romanticism, they would see that for much of the time, when they think they are saying something new in their stress on indeterminacy, they are unwittingly echoing Keats’s notion of ‘negative capability’.

If only the title Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century had been foresworn, and something more modest had been chosen: eg, Soundings in Contemporary Green Theory. However, there is one essay that I would like to end by commending unreservedly: Cheryl Glotfelty’s ‘Reclaiming Nimby’. In twenty absorbing pages she addresses head-on the charge that those who seek to protect the natural environment of their locality are being selfish, bourgeois, sentimental, or deluded. If people won’t fight to defend the place where they live, she demands to know, what chances are there of feeling any concern for more distant habitats? Glotfelty explores the rhetoric of NIMBY by way of the sentence ‘You do not put that in my backyard’. In doing so, she shows that, far from being a statement of self-interest, it is a powerful expression of global responsibility, forcing us to ask about agency and power (‘you’), about the desirability of a given project (‘that’), about the person or group affected (‘my’), and about the definition and dimensions of place (‘backyard’).

None of the essays gathered here is negligible, and I’d be quite interested if I came across any of them in a journal. But for me the one that really matters is that of Glotfelty. It is a genuine source of illumination as we make our tentative way through these darkest of times.

Laurence Coupe