Opinion

What Is This Thing Called Ecocriticism?

“When I’m out hiking, thigh deep in mud, in the rain, amongst the tree roots, I am so happily in it, just one little bit of biota surrounded by and connected to many others, both living and non-living… But simultaneously, ecocriticism is there in my mind telling me I am being a hypocrite, romanticising wilderness, happily ‘exiting’ it after a couple of weeks and reinforcing its ‘over there-ness.’”

Image by Kevin Laminto, via Unsplash

I’m sitting in front of my computer, making another research trawl for my Honours thesis. A few clicks opens Stacey Alaimo’s Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self.1 The introduction is headed by two epigraphs, the second of which makes me throw my hands in the air in despair. It goes like this:

“And the word environment. Such a bloodless word. A flat-footed word with a shrunken heart. A word increasingly disengaged from its association with the natural world. Urban planners, industrialists, economists, developers use it. It’s a lost word, really. A cold word, mechanistic, suited strangely to the coldness felt toward nature.”

– Joy Williams, Ill Nature.2

You may be wondering what bothers me about this piece of word hatred, which presumably stems from a rigorous (hopefully even justified) concept hatred. Alaimo employs the epigraph to suggest that the materiality of nature has been overlooked – that it ought not to be a blank slate for human appropriation. But is a concept of ‘environment’ really tainted? Or is something missing from this approach? Timothy Morton, widely regarded as a most influential contemporary ecocritic, writes in reference to his earlier book Ecology Without Nature, “‘Nature’ fails to serve ecology well. […] Ecology can do without a concept of a something, a thing of some kind, ‘over yonder’, called Nature”.Without nature? These ecocritics frame ‘nature’ as the devil, a rhetorical crutch for the desire of purity and wholeness, or something to be employed in shallow ‘greenwashing’ manoeuvres.

The pithy phrasing of both Morton and Williams strikes me with an early observation about ecocriticism – it seems very antagonistic. Ecocritics really put the critique (or the boot) into literary and cultural representations of the nonhuman world. I begin to feel that ecocriticism is something of a dirty word game, calling out all those words stuck to various concepts relating to the non-human world, smashing them up, and, if you’re lucky, installing an alternative. Is all this just semantics?

Ecocriticism, to paraphrase Greg Garrard, is the study of literary and cultural representations of the human relationship to the non-human world, what would widely be called ‘nature.’ In its early stages, literary tropes such as wilderness, apocalypse, dwelling and the earth were early targets of ecocritical analysis.In his fascinating and approachable introduction to ecocriticism, Garrard quotes Cheryll Glotfelty’s definition: “ecocriticism takes an earth-centred approach to literary studies.”This suggests that ecocriticism takes a distinctly ethical, moral and political approach in its analysis, clearly evident in Richard Kerridge’s claim that “most of all, ecocriticism seeks to evaluate texts and ideas in terms of their coherence and usefulness as responses to environmental crisis.”Further, ecocriticism as a Western school of thought, is thoroughly imbricated with the Western science of ecology. How can literature save the environment, or make us care about ecology? Can it? These seem to be the questions Kerridge, and many other ecocritics, raise.

The idea that literature can or should be ‘useful’, or instrumental, strikes me as a bit of a dead-end. Empirically speaking, Morton at least would seem to aver that it clearly hasn’t been that useful, given the current state of the environment. It also seems to run contrary to the (admittedly modernist and maybe a bit old-hat) idea that art is completely useless, in Oscar Wilde’s endearing phrasing. Then again, barely any introduction to ecocriticism fails to begin with reference to Rachel Carson’s seminal volume Silent Spring, which uses scientific evidence and literary rhetoric to expose and condemn the (frighteningly) liberal use of toxic pesticides and herbicides in mid-century America.And it did lead to changes in the way such chemicals were used. Thus usefulness is contentious. Of course, if it wasn’t, Kerridge wouldn’t need to argue for it.

To return to Joy Williams’ quote that began this piece, and her last line: “suited strangely to the coldness felt toward nature.” Who is she referring to? Which loaded concept of ‘nature’ does she mean? Because it seems an awful generalisation to suggest a widespread coldness to ‘nature’, though this may be elaborated in her book (which I have not read). I, for one, do not feel a coldness toward ‘nature.’ When I’m out hiking, thigh deep in mud, in the rain, amongst the tree roots, I am so happily in it, just one little bit of biota surrounded by and connected to many others, both living and non-living. And from my research into Indigenous Australian ecopoetics, a coldness to ‘nature’ is an utterly alien concept to an Indigenous worldview, informed by an ongoing relationship between all aspects of place, captured in the holistic term ‘country’. Deborah Rose Bird describes Indigenous Australian interconnectedness to country as being multi-dimensional, consisting of “people, animals, plants, Dreamings; underground, earth, soils, minerals and waters, surface water, and air”.Why is this so often dismissed as a legitimate understanding of the world? But simultaneous to my own feeling of connection to the world and its mud, ecocriticism is there in my mind telling me I am being a hypocrite, romanticising wilderness (happily ‘exiting’ it after a couple of weeks), reinforcing its ‘over there-ness.’ Indeed, according to Jonathan Skinner, this hypocrisy is a deep part of ecopoetics, the creative cousin of ecocriticism, which he describes as enmeshed with a “relentless sense of the tension and contradiction in our relationship to landscape and environment.”9

I have suggested that ecocriticism is antagonistic, and I am antagonistic in return, not just for how ecocritical analysis positions me as hypocritical — my love of the ‘natural’ world clashing with my implication in the (capitalist) human world. It is the frequent failure of ecocritical analysis to engage with Indigenous worldviews that I find so lacking, along with its critical gaze that often problematises an affective connection to the nonhuman world. A particular critique in early ecocriticism has been aimed at the trope of the ‘ecological Indian’, referring to the problematic portrayal of Indigenous peoples by non-Indigenous writers as living in harmony with the environment, embodying an Ur-environmentalist ethic of land care. Yet this critique serves to dismiss Indigenous self-representation along with the problematic Western appropriation of Indigenous worldviews as curatives to the perceived ills of Western civilisation, to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. I argue that a deep engagement with Indigenous literature, philosophies and ecopoetics may begin to show us Westerners that nature and culture are not radically separate and, importantly, have never been for some peoples. This can surely be done without becoming ‘appropriative’, as the growing body of scholarship on reading Indigenous texts from a perspective informed by Indigenous aesthetics and philosophies across diverse Indigenous cultures shows.

Even beyond this ‘usefulness’ of engaging with Indigenous self-representations of a relationship to country as collapsing the Western notion of a human-nonhuman divide, awareness of this point of view stands witness to the truth that we do not all feel a coldness towards this complex, interconnected world, of which we are but a little part.

 

References
1. Stacey Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
2. Ibid, p 2.
3. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010, p 3.
4. Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism,. London: Routledge, 2004, p 7.
4. Ibid, p 7.
5. Ibid, p 4.
6. Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.
7. Rose, Deborah Bird. Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness. Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 1996, p 8.
8. Johnathan Skinner, quoted in Maria Hetman, Poetry Foundation interview, accessed 11/07/19


Claire Moser is currently completing Honours in English and Australian literature at the University of Sydney. She is interested in how environmental issues and marginalised perspectives can be understood through the lens of literature, especially in the dominant global context of capitalism and instrumental valuing of science over the arts. In 2017, Claire was awarded the Maxwell E Arthur prize for excellence in Australian Literature, and her Honours research explores contemporary literature’s representation of Indigenous relationship to and perspectives on environment through an eco critical and decolonial lens, centring on Ali Cobby Eckermann’s recent poetry collection Inside My Mother.


This blog is a part of SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking environment related research. If you are a current postgraduate student who would like to participate in the series, find out more here.