Ecocriticism and Non-Human Languages 

Nanda Jarosz reflects on the pedagogical challenges and rewards of teaching a multidisciplinary unit exploring literary representations of love between humans and non-humans.

Photo by Mehrad Vosoughi on Unsplash.

In her call for the development of a “critical green ecological writing”, Val Plumwood makes the argument that writing has the power to “make visible whole new interspecies dialogues, dramas and projects previously unimaginable, that can reopen the door to the world of wonder”.1 It is in pursuit of this goal that I set out to write and design a module on representations of love between humans and non-humans in literature. This module was one-third of the second-year unit, Love in Different Languages, delivered as part of the Interdisciplinary and Comparative Literary Studies program in the School of Languages and Cultures at The University of Sydney.

For this module, I selected six texts that contained representations of love between humans and their non-human interlocutors. Stories that tell of engagements between humans and non-humans, especially those that value animals and environments for their own sake, provide fruitful ground for the practice of reading and thinking from a more than human perspective.

Early on in my research, I became aware of an ontological challenge implicit within the desire to understand representations of non-human perspectives. I was forced to consider the fundamental question: is it possible to extend oneself beyond a human perspective?2 Despite this problem, there are practical examples of the allocation of legal rights to natural entities or groups that may be lacking the opportunity of being given a voice, so it is possible.3

By engaging with non-human perspectives in a literary and therefore imaginative context, I was able to exercise some new ways of thinking about the human-nature relationship. One example of the opportunities for re-imagining the boundaries between human and animal power dynamics can be seen in the work T.H White’s The Goshawk.4 This novel tells the tale of White’s struggle to train and love a German Goshawk during the pre-War period in Britain. During my reading of this text, I was able to reconsider what some of our existing theoretical and social structures would look like if the world were to recognise the voices of entities that are more than human.

Studying representations of non-human languages in literature requires a significant re-thinking of disciplinary borders. The same analytical frameworks must be re-adjusted or even revolutionised when it comes to interpreting works of ecocriticism.

“Studying representations of non-human languages in literature requires a significant re-thinking of disciplinary borders.”

For example, I found that it was no longer enough for me to engage in a close reading of the texts without first stipulating the perspective that would shape my analysis. One of the key texts that I set for the unit, Val Plumwood’s “Human Vulnerability and the Experience of Being Prey,” offers over five different perspectives that need to be taken into account when dissecting the messages of her ecocritical framework.

The question of perspective as a literary feature is fundamental to Plumwood’s writing. Plumwood demands that her reader remove themselves from their own human-centred, or, even more broadly, animal-centred perspective. This involves changing how we structure the world around us to imagine how the world might look from another standpoint.

The field of comparative literary studies has a complex history of sustaining and perpetuating the types of Euro-centric hegemonies that have often served to silence the voices of marginalised humans and non-humans alike. However, the multidisciplinary legacy of the field of International Comparative and Literary Studies is also flexible enough to make room for the exploration of non-human narratives.5

Studying and doing research within the environmental humanities means that language must be broadened to an understanding of the various types of communication that can transcend the species divide. Fortunately, the field of comparative literary studies already exists within a methodological framework that makes cross-discourse studies possible.

The need to push my understanding of disciplinary boundaries was made evident to me over the course of my experience writing and designing this module. For example, in one week, we discussed non-human love in the context of both a biological scientific framework and a humanistic philosophical view.

The pedagogical exercise of reading about non-human narratives and representations of more than human perspectives has the opportunity to reawaken the feeling of ‘wonder’ for the natural world in a tertiary teaching landscape.7 This approach became increasingly salient in the context of social isolation and lockdown measures introduced earlier this year.

“Given that the whole of my module was conducted through online learning platforms, I found that students were happy to engage imaginatively with landscapes and environments that were no longer available to them physically.”

Given that the whole of my module was conducted through online learning platforms, I found that students were happy to engage imaginatively with landscapes and environments that were no longer available to them physically. For example, by starting our very first class with the question as to where everyone would want to go once lockdown was lifted, we opened up a discussion on our favourite natural landscapes and the need to immerse oneself within the natural world in order to feel better after a prolonged period stuck at home. This exercise demonstrated nature’s innate capacity to permeate into the imagination. By thinking about nature as empty of human beings, we can appreciate the importance of nature’s value for its own sake and not as merely useful for human survival.

There are many reminders that the profundity of life in nature is accessible to human appreciation. However, the human must first undergo a process of transformation to be able to see it. In a time where the humanities are being challenged like never before, environmental thought and the study of ecocriticism are more valuable than ever to awaken readers and students alike to the heretofore undervalued worth of the natural world.

1. Plumwood, Val. “Journey to the Heart of Stone.” Nature, Culture and Literature, no. 5, Brill Academic Publishers, Inc., Jan. 2007, pp. 17–36: 19, http://search.proquest.com/docview/89196575/.
2. For more information on the philosophical dimensions of this question, see Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecology: for a Logic of Future Coexistence. Columbia University Press, 2016.
3. National Geographic – Maori River in New Zealand gains legal personhood status, 2019
4. White, T. H. (Terence Hanbury). The Goshawk. Jonathan Cape, 1951.
5. Plumwood, Val. Human vulnerability and the experience of being prey [online]. Quadrant, Vol. 39, No. 3, Mar 1995: 29-34.
6. Remak, H.H. Origins and Evolution of Comparative Literature and Its Interdisciplinary Studies. Neohelicon 29, 245–250 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1015663900492
7. Kearns, Laura-Lee. “Subjects of Wonder: Toward an Aesthetics, Ethics, and Pedagogy of Wonder.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 49, no. 1, 2015, pp. 98–119. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jaesteduc.49.1.0098. Accessed 1 July 2020.

Nanda Jarosz is a PhD candidate in International Comparative & Literary Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The University of Sydney. Her research examines how the concept of the sublime, from Kant to contemporary aesthetics, can be harnessed in the pursuit of ethical responses to climate change. She teaches a module in the unit Love in Different Languages: ICLS2621 exploring the theme of love within multispecies relations throughout literature.

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