Ecocritical Approaches to Literary Form and Genre: Urgency, Depth, Provisionality, Temporality
Abstract and Keywords
This article examines the relationship among the issues of urgency, depth, provisionality, and temporality in ecocritical approaches to evaluating literary form and genre. It analyzes the criteria by which ecocritical judgments about texts are reached and suggests that ecocritics should evaluate texts from the viewpoint of environmental concern and be able to introduce environmental criteria into general cultural debate. It highlights the fact the many ecocritics feel that their work has an activist mission and cites the global warming issue as an example.
This essay is about ecocriticism as a critical practice: a way of reading and evaluating texts. I will look mainly at literary ecocriticism, but many of the questions raised here apply across the range of artistic forms. My aim is to explore the criteria by which ecocritical judgements about texts are reached—the criteria involved in ecocritical close reading and attention to literary form and genre. Necessarily, the essay is also about the hopes ecocritics have for what literature can achieve, since ecocritical reading must take its criteria from those hopes.
The fundamental task for ecocritics is to evaluate texts from the viewpoint of environmental concern, and by doing so introduce environmental criteria into general cultural debate. How good is this novel, poem, play or work of non-fiction from the viewpoint of environmental priorities? What makes a work good or bad in ecocritical terms? The basic hope is that environmental criteria will become an expected part of debate about all kinds of new artistic work, and that this will be a sign of a general shift in cultural values and—most importantly—in everyday behavior. Ecocritics hope to influence readers and writers, so that works concerned with environmental values will become more popular, and new works will emerge to inspire change. But ecocritical criteria pull in different directions, reflecting the contradictory demands made by the environmental crisis itself. Part of the ecocritic’s task is to assess these conflicting pressures as they come to bear in each context.
An important example is the relationship between urgency and depth. Many environmental dangers call for very rapid action. Global warming is an obvious example. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of 2007 predicted a probable rise in average global temperatures in the next century of between 2 and 4.5 degrees centigrade. In September 2009, the Hadley Centre at the United Kingdom’s Met Office reported that a global increase of 4 degrees by the end of the century was likely, (p. 362) with some areas experiencing rises as high as 10 degrees. At the UN Climate Change Conference at Cancun in 2010, 194 nations agreed to the target of limiting global average warming to an increase from pre-industrial levels of less than 2°C. Some countries argued that even warming limited to 2° would be catastrophic in many places, and that 1.5° was the highest acceptable target, a view supported in 2011 by Christiana Figueres, executive secretary to the UN framework convention on climate change: “Two degrees is not enough—we should be thinking of 1.5C. If we are not headed to 1.5C we are in big, big trouble.”1
The message from these agencies and nearly all climate scientists is that if there is to be any chance of limiting the increase to 2°, let alone 1.5, there must be substantial global cuts in carbon emissions, achieved quickly. Severe climate change will probably occur unless we mobilize every kind of effort to stabilize global CO2 emissions and then, in the developed world, bring them into steep decline, and do all this in a very short period. In 2008, the former chief science adviser to the British government, Sir David King, said fifteen years, and Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation said one hundred months2—nearly half gone as I write. The environmental writer Bill McKibben cites scientific opinion that to have a chance of achieving the 2° limit, we must release no more than 565 gigatons of CO2 between now and 2050. At the present rate, we will exceed that amount by 2028. Fossil-fuel corporations already count 5,795 gigatons at present unused as existing assets whose value they will lose unless the fuel is extracted and sold. McKibben writes of our “our precarious—our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless—position” (McKibben 2012: 1).
Progress is terribly elusive, whether in reaching international agreements or changing the everyday priorities of individuals. Many other environmental problems, such as the threat to biodiversity, present us similarly with time rapidly running out. Mark Lynas, in The God Species (2011), analyses nine “planetary boundaries” identified by a team of 29 scientists in 2009—threshold figures that we cannot exceed for long without globally catastrophic consequences. Three of these boundaries have already been crossed (number of species per million becoming extinct each year, atmospheric CO2 parts per million, and quantities of reactive nitrogen introduced annually to the biosphere). Three others are approaching quickly, and for two the measurements are not yet available (see Lynas 2011: 235–36).
In the face of warnings like these, many ecocritics feel that their work has an activist mission. They are searching for ways of getting people to care. That is the fundamental aim of their criticism of culture. They hope their arguments will directly persuade people to care, and will influence new creative works that will move people to care. In any academic school of political criticism, this activist sense of urgent purpose co-exists with a more detached analytical approach that seeks to understand the cultural and material interactions at work. There need not be a wide gulf between these versions of ecocriticism: often the more detached analysis is implicitly concerned to provide a stronger basis for activism, and the two approaches can lead into each other. For ecocriticism, however, there is an exceptional sense of urgency, produced by those “ticking clock” warnings. Definitions of ecocriticism usually start by linking the literary (p. 363) movement to the global crisis. The link implies that the fundamental purpose of the work is to be part of an attempt to change culture, and through culture change policy and behaviour. Taking the crisis seriously entails this commitment (though it does not necessarily entail an apocalyptic tone).
Ecocritical literature is full of statements to this effect. Glen A. Love, one of the first US ecocritics, said in 1990 that “The most important function of literature today is to redirect human consciousness to a full consideration of its place in a threatened natural world […] Because of a widely shared sense—outside the literary establishment—that the current ideology which separates human beings from their environment is demonstrably and dangerously reductionist” (Glotfelty and Fromm 1996: 237). Lawrence Buell, one of the most influential ecocritics, wrote in 2005 that “many nonhumanists would agree—often more readily than doubt-prone humanists [that is, scholars in the academic ‘humanities’] do—that issues of vision, value, culture and imagination are keys to today’s environmental crises at least as fundamental as scientific research, technological know-how, and legislative regulation” (Buell 2005: 5). Buell rejects the notion that the humanities are impractical, and sees ecocriticism as having been conceived from the beginning as “an alliance of academic critics, artists, environmental educators, and green activists” (6). Scott Slovic, who has assisted the emergence of ecocriticism in many parts of the world, wants ecocritics to “help those toiling in the realms of politics, economics, law, and public policy to move beyond the constraining discourse of those fields and appreciate the values-rich language of story and image” (Slovic 2008: 134–35). Stacy Alaimo, one of the leading ecofeminist and “New Materialist” voices in ecocriticism, hopes that by emphasizing and exploring “the material interconnections of human corporeality with the more-than-human world,” ecocritics will be able “to forge ethical and political positions that can contend with numerous late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century realities in which ‘human’ and ‘environment’ can by no means be considered as separate” (Alaimo 2010: 2).
Each of these writers speaks from a different ecocritical position, but their common hope is to reach beyond their specialist academic audiences and contribute to a transformation of culture and behavior in response to the urgent environmental crisis. They want to do whatever can be done in the literary sphere to assist the emergence of a sustainable culture, and like all kinds of environmentalists they wait anxiously for signs of that emergence; signs in literary culture and elsewhere. The word I use for the change they are seeking is “care,” because the word must encompass feeling and action as well as awareness. Many commentators have identified our social predicament about climate change not as a lack of knowledge but as a disconnection between what we know and how we act. We do not behave as if we knew what we know; our behavior implies a different state of knowledge.
Nicole Seymour, for example, in an interesting and troubling essay, has recently suggested that “the political-intellectual Holy Grail of ‘awareness’ might not actually be the measure of success” (Seymour 2012: 60). Awareness is not producing change. Instead, we face a “deeply weird current moment—in which reports of immanent collapse inspire not robust environmentalist action but doomsday fatigue” (57). Seymour’s (p. 364) recommendations are that ecocritics should “more deeply consider questions of disposition, feeling, and affect,” and that they should experiment in their work with a greater range of moods. Specifically, “instead of remaining serious in the face of self- doubt, ridicule, and broader ecological crisis,” we should “embrace our sense of our own absurdity, our uncertainty, our humor, even our perversity” (57):
A turn to affect in ecocriticism, then, would have us ask how we really feel about what we know, and what we really know about how we feel. Such explorations matter because, as I have suggested, the ecocritic at this particular point in time faces unique emotional and conceptual pressures: to be teacherly, to be somber, to be ecologically correct, to be useful; all at a time at which we particularly fear being useless. […] If we can laugh at ourselves, be less sure of ourselves, we might be able to approach our object differently, and invite others to approach our object differently. We might be able to understand why we can’t make others understand. (61–62)
Seymour’s starting point for these suggestions is her perception that the environmental crisis has opened an unusual gap between what we know and what we feel and do, giving us a sense of absurdity: our knowledge and our behaviour cannot both be authentic, can they?
Others see this gap too. The novelist John Lanchester has said memorably that “I suspect we’re reluctant to think about it [climate change] because we’re worried that if we start we will have no choice but to think about nothing else” (Lanchester 2007: 3). That is, he can just about begin to imagine what really thinking about it would be like, but cannot do that thinking yet. He has to shy away, because to think about climate change, really, would be transformative, and the conditions of palpable emergency that would force the transformation have not yet arrived.
In psychoanalytical terms (though one need not be committed to the full psychoanalytical explanation to accept the point), this “gap” is the manifestation of a defensive response called “splitting,” which enables one to know the traumatic truth, yet simultaneously not know it. Part of us knows and part does not. Joseph Dodds explains that one form of splitting is the sort of “intellectualization” that separates “abstract awareness of the crisis from real emotional engagement” (Dodds 2011: 52). Individuals use splitting as a coping-response, while the public culture of industrial society uses it to suppress our awareness of material connections: “We get our food pre-wrapped in the supermarket, and though we may occasionally intellectually grasp the complex networks behind it, phenomenologically food is just there, appearing on the shelves and waiting for us to consume it” (50).
Dodds’ analysis suggests that the aim of ecocriticism and the literature it seeks to encourage should be to overcome splitting and reveal these hidden connections. The idea of the single moment that is revelatory, unifying and saving, the Pauline conversion, will undoubtedly be attractive here. It is an idea that goes with the notion of the great transformative artistic work, and with our most familiar literary forms: the novel whose plot builds towards a climactic confrontation, and the poetry of concentrated revelatory lyric intensity. Yet ecocritics must be concerned with whether a concentrated (p. 365) revelatory moment is also an isolated moment, itself split off from practical daily life. How will the moment continue to reverberate? Should ecocritics think rather in terms of slow incremental process, integrated with other areas of life, and of less climactic literary forms? Ecological crisis may expose the divisions between art and life, or work and leisure, as another form of evasive “splitting.”
Slavoj Žižek, too, finds a disastrous gap between knowledge and belief: “we know the (ecological) catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen” (Žižek 2011: 328). At the moment that gap seems impassable for most of us in rich societies, which is why the conspiracy theories put about by deniers—the claim that the whole thing is a “scam” perpetrated by the entire international community of climate scientists—gain some public traction, absurd though they are. The gap identified by Seymour, Lanchester and Žižek makes environmentalists themselves behave as if they do not really believe their own message.
“We do not believe it will really happen.” Žižek means belief of an existential kind, consisting in actions, emotions and intellectual convictions. “Belief” in this sense might be an alternative word to the “care” I use above, except that perhaps “belief” is too all-or-nothing, too suggestive of instantaneous and complete conversion. Žižek seems to mean it that way: “The turn to an emancipatory enthusiasm takes place when the traumatic truth is not only accepted in a disengaged way but is fully lived” (xii). I use “care” in preference to Žižek’s “believe” in order to have alternative models to the idea of abrupt and absolute conversion. Again, the idea of some sort of cultural and emotional tipping-point, bringing about a sudden and dramatic general conversion to the cause, is a beguiling idea for environmentalists, because of the urgency, but a dangerous idea if it leads to despair at anything less. Searching for works that can convert us in a single transformation, a fantasy that mimics the climactic plot-points of thrillers, we may miss the possibility of the more complex, unresolved, exploratory and human tones desired by Seymour.
“Care” preserves the range of possibilities, from incremental and gradually spreading change to abrupt social revolution. The word encompasses feeling (“care about”) and action (“take care of”). It can be interpreted in a way that gives us both active, vigilant policy and the range of phenomena indicated by the word “affect,” including personal emotion, bodily reaction and collective, communicated mood. That is the combination I want to indicate with the word, rather than the “caring” nature traditionally and normatively attributed to women, and sometimes made the basis of ecofeminist accounts of ethics. Seymour observes that “affect is located variously—in the subject, outside the subject, between the subject and an object” (Seymour 2012: 61). For ecocritics, the hope is that people will begin to care in a way that is not sealed off in certain cultural spaces, types of activity and psychological spaces, but spreads throughout our working lives, home lives, recreational lives and political lives, making a difference.
Confronting this care, all the time, are questions that require technical expertise and will only be answered gradually, with frequent readjustment. We know that we are beginning to care, because the care is making a difference to our behaviour. But how far must that difference consist of restraining accustomed desires and finding (p. 366) non-consumerist pleasures? How far can it consist of searching for technological solutions that will allow “green” growth and consumerism? Literary ecocritics can have little input into the technical debates that set and shift the parameters of what seems practical. The most an ecocritic can hope to do with these debates is watch them and hold literary discussion accountable to questions of scientific accuracy, recognizing the shifts in the arguments and exploring the human implications of each turn. Observing this fine line between what must responsibly be accepted as the domain of technical experts and what should be a matter for open debate is one of the most difficult disciplines of ecocriticism. But getting people to care and make the environment a real, practical priority—that is a cultural matter, and a desperately urgent one if we take these warnings seriously.
That is the urgency. What about the depth, and why might it conflict with the urgency? We are talking about huge changes to our priorities, changes that go against established habit and much traditional culture—perhaps even against our evolved dispositions, since we are called upon to be willing to transform our lives in order to avert a threat that in most places is not yet tangible. McKibben says that “Given a hundred years, you could conceivably change lifestyles enough to matter—but time is precisely what we lack” (McKibben 2012: 3). Much ecocritical theory has been preoccupied with the idea that fundamental philosophical change is needed for practical change to occur.
From the beginning, a strong theme in ecocriticism has been the need to depart from the Cartesian tradition of dualism that separated mind from body and humanity from nonhuman nature. It was necessary to reject these dualisms in order to discover an ecocentric and “embodied” perspective, which would build up our perception of the human self as constituted and maintained by the ecosystem. For the ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood, for example, the break with this dualistic tradition and the form of reasoning it produced was the most important intellectual step that environmentalists needed to take. Plumwood argued that “developing environmental culture involves a systematic resolution of the nature/culture and reason/nature dualisms that split mind from body, reason from emotion, across their many domains of cultural influence” (Plumwood 2002: 4). In The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), David Abram drew on the phenomenological ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty to advocate a re-immersion in nature by means of a reawakening of the bodily perceptions of the natural world that modernity had suppressed. More recently, ecocritical theorists have developed the anti-dualist theme in a variety of ways, drawing on different schools of philosophical and scientific thought.
Some, such as Stacy Alaimo, Susan Hekman, Catriona Sandilands, Serenella Iovino, and Serpil Opperman, are New Materialists, seeking to shift emphasis from the idea of the unitary self, and of agency as exclusively a human attribute, to perceptions of human individuals and societies as embedded parts of larger material processes of exchange and flow. The physicist and cultural theorist Karen Barad has provided some influential terms, proposing, for example, that we should turn from the familiar term “inter-actions,” implying the relatively separate engagement with each other of separate entities, to “intra-actions,” a term that situates the action as always already inside a larger flow. This shift constitutes a recognition that “relata do not pre-exist relations” (Alaimo (p. 367) and Hekman 2008: 133). Wendy Wheeler arrives at a similar account of selfhood-in-system by concentrating on biosemiotics—the continuing transmission of material signs, from the genetic level upwards, that constitutes natural life. Timothy Morton asks us to think in terms of the “mesh” of exchange and interdependency. The idea that there are clear boundaries between self and external world, humanity and nature, or conscious and unconscious beings, is challenged by an array of alternatives: co-evolution, shared ancestry, hybridity, system, process, energy flow, symbiosis, biosemiotics, the mesh. What these thinkers have in common is the perception that the environmental crisis necessitates a transformation of many of the bedrock assumptions on which our daily lives are led—assumptions about action, responsibility and the limits of selfhood. The implication is that only these deep conceptual changes can provide a way out of the impasse identified by Seymour, Lanchester, Dodds, and Žižek.
Such changes face a lot of obstacles to their spread throughout consumerist culture, to put it mildly—especially when their practical implication is unclear. The proposal is that we should move from traditional ideas of agency as an exclusively or predominantly human attribute to a concept of “agentic assemblage,” in which human agency is bound up with that of “microbes, animals, plants, metals, chemicals, word-sounds, and the like,” as Jane Bennett, one of the leading New Materialists, puts it (Bennett 2010: 120–21). This proposal does not necessarily weaken the demands that can be made of that human agency, since, arguably, the recognition that agency is distributed in these assemblages and across whole ecosystems points not to determinist fatalism but to a subtler and more realistic sense of responsibility: one that does not rebound between extremes of hubris and resignation. “Sometimes,” Bennett says, “ecohealth will require individuals and collectives to back off or ramp down their activeness, and sometimes it will call for grander, more dramatic and violent expenditures of human energy” (122). She suggests that the outcome of her New Materialism can be a flexible approach capable of turning either to anti-consumerist values or to technological solutions.
Still, there does seem to be something paradoxical about dispersing and qualifying our notion of human agency at the very moment we need to make an unprecedented demand upon that agency. For this risky approach to be justified, we must be very convinced that less, in this case, really can be more, and that we have not too much to lose, as traditional ideas of responsibility cannot save us from ecological disaster. Bennett deplores the “hubristic demand that only humans and God can bear any traces of creative agency,” and our habit of grasping “for that special something that makes human participation in assemblages radically different” (121). “Why,” she asks, “are we so keen to distinguish the human self from the field?” To which the environmentalist answer might be: because, as far as we can see, human beings are the only creatures able to perceive the global relationships that constitute the crisis, and the likely future consequences; probably the only creatures, too, who might on the basis of that information act to restrain evolved and habitual desires. Other species do not, on the evidence, make self-denying interventions to save each other from extinction. Perceptions of human exceptionality may emerge from cultural traditions heavily responsible for the crisis, but it is hard to think of the rapid transformations we need as anything other than increases in human responsibility.
(p. 368) Bennett acknowledges that the conceptual change she is advocating requires people to “rewrite the default grammar of agency, a grammar that assigns activity to people and passivity to things” (119). The task “seems necessary and impossible.” Such an approach will have to proceed by deconstructing the language of ordinary assumptions. It cannot work with the forms of narrative with which we generally try to make sense of our lives. Ecocritics who advocate this deconstructive approach are placing themselves in the traditional position of an avant-garde, preparing ideas for a later time. The term “avant-garde” recovers its original aspiration here: its vision of a future in which what is now startlingly experimental has become normal. But how long have we got? The ecocritical avant-garde cannot be content with marginal bohemian space, but must aim for rapid normalization: hence the conflict between the depth of this strategy and the urgency of a crisis that asks deep cultural questions but requires rapid answers.
The New Materialist ecocritics are aligning ecocriticism with post-structuralism’s general critique of the concept of the unified self. They seek to banish early ecocriticism’s hostility to “theory,” and to apply post-structuralist insights to material ecological relationships, rescuing post-structuralism from an exclusive concern with cultural constructionism. But in doing this, they risk entrapping ecocriticism in one of post-structuralism’s greatest disadvantages: its need to deconstruct ordinary language, and thus its dependency on forbiddingly dense, technical and alien linguistic formations, far removed from the idiom and conventional narrative structure of personal experience.
For political post-structuralism, conventional narrative subjectivity is beyond positive use, so deeply is it implicated in the production of oppressive ideology. But to be confined to the theoretical level (a particularly ironical fate for theories of “embodiment”) is a serious disadvantage when entry into public culture is the priority (and in teaching that values the narrative self-expression of students). Explanations of “theory” frequently lack particular examples drawn from experiential life, and as a result have difficulty in exploring the affective dimension. Some eloquent “narrative scholarship” produced by the New Materialist critics begins to find powerful answers to this problem (see, especially, Catriona Sandilands’s essay on her mother’s Alzheimer’s, in Alaimo and Hekman 2008), but, nevertheless, the question, in the context of the urgent crisis, is how rapidly can New Materialist and Deep Ecological ideas move beyond the academic domain.
A philosophy that dissolves unitary selfhood must expect to have difficulty in finding expression in conventional narrative. Who is the protagonist? What is the narrative point of view? Literary forms in the Modernist tradition—dispersed, ventilated, fragmented, multivocal, dialogical forms without stable narrative viewpoint, or impersonal forms replacing the single narrative or lyric voice with cut-up and collage—would seem more adaptable to ecocentric and New Materialist approaches. Sandilands, writing about Walter Benjamin, identifies literary montage as a critical-artistic practice “that seeks to transform the obsolescent fragments of commodity capitalism into ‘dialectical images,’ groupings of things that reveal elements of the experience of capitalist modernity obscured in everyday existence” (Goodbody and Rigby 2011: 31): a form to counteract “splitting,” in other words. Ursula Heise suggests that the Modernist tradition of (p. 369) narrative collage, with its breaks, interruptions and switches of viewpoint and register, offers possibilities for the representation of ecological relationships that go beyond the range of local place and individual perception—with the advantage that these forms are already quite widely familiar and have passed into popular genres such as Science Fiction; they are no longer purely avant-garde (see Heise 2008: 76–77).
The poet Harriet Tarlo argues that “found poetry”—poems consisting largely or entirely of pieces of quoted text from a variety of sources—is a genre especially suited to environmental concerns. Not only is this kind of poetry not restricted to the locality of the particular dramatized viewpoint and to certain kinds of “poetic” language, but the use—or, as Tarlo not entirely whimsically calls it, the “recycling”—of found text introduces questions about ownership and public space. For Tarlo, the method of “found” poetry foregrounds the question of whether literary culture can be regarded as a public commons, like the atmosphere, or like the biosphere as an interconnected global ecosystem (see Tarlo 2009: 125). Such poetry “confronts us with our complicity as users of the common cultural coinage of our own everyday language” (123). Tarlo cites the work of Jack Collom, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Harryette Mullen, Peter Reading, Dorothy Alexander, and Tony Lopez, all of whom have used cut-up and collage techniques with direct reference to the ecological crisis.
Does ecocriticism have to choose between these still, for the most part, avant-garde literary strategies and those able to reach larger audiences and deploy more familiar narrative and lyrical forms, connecting with the personal stories we tell ourselves? A parallel presents itself. At the end The Revenge of Gaia, his most pessimistic book about global warming, James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, argues that our urgent need is for a combination of two things in deep tension with each other (see Lovelock 2006: 142, 153–54). We need emergency technological measures, including new nuclear power stations, to make sure that civil order survives the first shock of climate change, and we also need a shift of social and personal values in the direction of Deep Ecology, to give us a chance of stabilising the global ecosystem and living peaceful, fulfilled lives as we do so. Lovelock asks us to think in two ways that are normally fiercely opposed to each other. The urgency changes the meaning of these different options.
For literary ecocritics, Lovelock’s proposal suggests that we might allocate different tasks to different literary forms and genres. Prompted by Lovelock, we might say that we need all the different literary forms to do different jobs: realistic novels and lyric poems, action thrillers, realist and Brechtian theater, avant-garde forms in the Modernist tradition. Analogies between ecosystems and the way culture works are a strong tradition in ecocriticism. Felix Guattari delineated what he called the three ecologies: physical, psychological, and cultural. Hubert Zapf has advanced a theory of imaginative literature’s place in a functioning cultural ecosystem. One does not have to take this sort of analogy too far, looking at the present array of literary genres, to recognize that these genres have all “evolved” in relation to various needs, pressures and desires, and continue to evolve. If the fundamental aim of literary ecocriticism is that environmental care should become stronger and more pervasive throughout literary culture, ecocritics will not be looking for a single form of literature that meets all the criteria at once; nor will they (p. 370) search only for a small number of new forms or genres specially adapted to environmental priorities. Rather, they will want to address all these various needs and audiences, and to bring environmentalism into all the influential forms of literature. Nor can they say, “I go to avant-garde poetry and literary fiction for intellectual satisfaction, and to thrillers for leisure entertainment and a certain emotional release”—or they can’t leave it at that, without perpetrating another kind of “splitting.”
If we try to assign literary genres to Lovelock’s two strategies, then, an obvious impulse is to link realist narrative, and lyric poetry with a conventional dramatic speaker, to the pragmatic emergency responses, and avant-garde Modernist forms to the Deep Ecological (and New Materialist) shifts in culture. That would be too neat and simple. Extended literary analysis would find other possibilities in both forms. But as a crude starting-assumption, this initial impulse reveals something important: the emergency does not give us leeway to entrench ourselves in our taste for one literary genre or another. Ecocritics must continually look at the need to reach a variety of audiences, and to address different emotional reactions to the crisis, and to accommodate conflicting tactics. The crisis makes us twist and turn.
Also, it becomes clear that ecocritical literary judgments must have an exceptional degree of temporality and provisionality. Because of the scale, complexity and urgency of this crisis, questions of what makes a particular text good or bad in ecocritical terms have to be answered in terms of the needs of the particular moment. Ecocritical assessments of literary quality are not reducible to questions of what might make people care, but, under such exceptional pressure, they seem inextricable from those questions. The provisionality arises also because literary ecocritics must react, continuously, to scientific and technical debates in which they can play no part. Much uncertainty surrounds the threat, not so much about the basic mechanism as about the precise degree of warming that is likely, and the regional consequences of that warming.
Will feedback effects intensify the change or reduce it? How far will sea levels rise? Has the rate of warming in the last ten years been slower than projected? If so, is this because aerosols—solid particles and droplets in the atmosphere, produced, like the warming, by industrial emissions—are “masking” the warming trend by reflecting some of the sun’s heat and temporarily delaying the really dramatic increase? Do controversies about the methods of collecting some of the data genuinely cast any doubt upon the climate change warnings? If so, how much doubt? Is “peak oil” a reality? Which of the new sustainable energy technologies stands the best chance of success?
Literary ecocritics cannot answer such questions for themselves. Yet if literary culture has any broad social influence—and ecocriticism, like all political criticism, is founded on the hope that it does—then any literary critic writing about these things must feel a disconcerting sense of responsibility. So much may be at stake. In writing the paragraph above, I was troubled by numerous questions. Was I summarizing the position fairly, or overstating the uncertainty and thus conceding too much to those who would dismiss the warnings? I can’t be sure. I must respect the consensus of the experts, but continue to watch new developments. A special discipline is required of ecocritics here, a peculiar form of intellectual and moral precision, and scruple.
(p. 371) Responding to the expert opinion, we must try to take into account a variety of factors: the high stakes, the urgency, the difficulty and depth of the transformation required, and the risks involved in delaying action. The threat itself, and all these factors, must be considered in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. I don’t mean by this that literary ecocritics can professionally assess the scientific probabilities, but that, from the layman’s standpoint, the existence of a scientific consensus for a view must itself constitute a probability that the view is more accurate than opinions for which there is no consensus. There is a necessary modesty in this approach, to which literary theorists may be unaccustomed. They are called upon to commit everything to a probability that will be determined elsewhere. If the probability changes, they must change accordingly, and not feel they were wrong, since the only right thing they can do is take account of present probability. Hugely transformative action is required because of a probability that may change. No part of this statement can be avoided.
In the 1960s and 1970s, several explicitly political schools of literary criticism emerged to challenge the Arnoldian and Leavisite liberal humanist tradition. Ecocriticism came later, and doesn’t neatly fit the pattern of these other schools, but ecocritics have followed their example in many ways. A feature they all had in common was a rejection of liberal humanism’s idealist search for classics whose literary quality was separable from their historical moment or particular political cause. Matthew Arnold had argued that the critic’s task was to identify “on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold 1994: 5). F. R. Leavis and his followers saw critical debate as the continuing process of revaluation that assessed a work’s fitness to be included in the “great tradition.” The new political critics—New Left Marxist, Feminist, Postcolonial and Queer—rejected this idealist tendency. They saw, in this degree of generalization of human experience, a device for masking differences of wealth and power that would be revealed by the study of particular historical moments. The radical literary criticisms therefore placed more emphasis on literary value conceived as relative—as defined in relation to the needs and priorities of particular groups and struggles at particular moments. This is a matter of emphasis, since a superb response to a particular set of circumstances becomes inspiring and admirable beyond those circumstances. Ecocriticism, though, is under special pressure not to distance the specific political challenge.
To a substantial extent, for these radical criticisms, what was needed, and therefore “good,” at one moment was different from what was needed at another. Different readerships had different needs, even when the desired result was collective cultural change. However, these new criticisms did not entirely relinquish the idea of more generalised standards of literary quality, and in all the critical schools a tension remained between the two kinds of quality: relative and general, or political and artistic. Crudely, there is the question of what a text is doing—is it doing what is needed now?—and the question of how well the text is doing it. Neither question can be relinquished, yet neither is sufficient to determine literary quality. The second question may be answered in aesthetic terms, by a criticism that looks for inspired artistic control of literary form, while the first must be answered in ethical and political terms, but attempts to keep these sets of (p. 372) terms separate are notoriously problematical, like attempts to separate form and content, or the ethical and the practical. Judgments about how “good” a work is must be a compound of both questions; for ecocriticism especially so.
Here are some things literature can do now, tentatively matched with the genres that seem best suited:
1. Literature can provide an all-out apocalyptic vision of catastrophe, to shock and scare us deeply. Three overlapping genres already attempting to do this in novel and film are Science Fiction, Horror and The Road Novel/Movie. A crucial factor for ecocritics is the extent to which the apocalyptic plot is combined with elements of literary realism, giving us characters and events that seem consistent with real possibility (“yes, this is how that person would react”). Another is the degree of compatibility with what is scientifically understood to be possible. One can imagine a revived Epic Poetry presenting the apocalyptic scenario too.
2. An important role for culture could be the advocacy of a pragmatic willingness to accept interim measures that are undesirable in the long term, such as the ones Lovelock sees as likely to be necessary. Science Fiction (or what Margaret Atwood calls “speculative fiction,” depicting future scenarios in which nothing happens that is not already possible) and Literary Realism are the relevant genres.
3. The environmental problems already developing fast call for stark realist representation, in works exploring particular instances of damage and the ecological and human consequences. These topics need writing that combines ecological, social, and individual perspectives, showing us the costs and consequences of different choices. This is clearly a task for realistic fiction and poetry, and perhaps for forms of epic realism that combine long perspectives with zooms into intensely realized local settings.
4. Literature can also provide poetic engagement with the natural environments we are losing or at risk of losing. The love of wild nature takes many cultural forms in different parts of the world, and for many environmentalists is a powerful motivating force, led by passionate pleasure as well as fear. Nature writing and television nature documentaries are enduringly popular genres, often associated with practical conservation campaigns and with ecotourism that, at its best, gives communities an economic motive to protect their wild nature. In the non-fiction genre, and also in poetry and novels, nature writing is able to integrate personal stories into the wider picture provided by science and cultural history. If a new commitment to environmental care does spread through modern culture, it seems likely that an essential part will be a renewed willingness in industrialized societies to find social and personal meaning in seasons, landscapes, and the drama of life and death in nature.
5. Ursula Heise has called for forms of literature capable of representing the global and futuristic perspectives that enable us to “see” climate change—spatial and temporal perspectives reaching beyond the narratives of individual lives. Rather (p. 373) than the cohesive narratives of episodes in the lives of small numbers of characters that are the main territory of Literary Realism, Heise suggests that Modernist traditions of cut-up and collage may have more potential, as may digital texts using “Google Earth”–style zooming and incorporating graphs and databases. Timothy Morton argues similarly. Climate change, he says, is a “hyperobject,” so extensive in time and space as to be practically unlimited. We are always already inside it and cannot exit. Forms of art and literature should therefore be found that suggest this unboundedness: forms that remain ostentatiously incomplete, not permitting a sense of closure. These ideas point to poetry and cut-up narrative in the Modernist “open field” traditions recommended by Harriet Tarlo. As we have seen, cut-up and collage offer possibilities also to ecocritics seeking literary forms for ecocentric and New Materialist ideas: forms that depart from familiar subjectivity in order to represent the decentred, continuous and unbounded flow in which creatures and things continually produce each other.
6. Utopian eco-fiction—again, needing a strong element of literary realism within its utopian setting—can attempt to demonstrate the possibility of a society founded upon environmental care.
7. Realistic novels and confessional lyric poetry seem to be the genres best equipped to explore people’s current reactions and evasions (such as “splitting”) and the emotional and behavioral shifts that would occur if we began to change.
The purpose of this list is to identify the main demands that ecocritics can most pertinently make of different genres of writing (rather than performance, though there is much overlap), and therefore the criteria that will be involved in ecocritical judgments of particular works—the provisional and temporal judgments I have been discussing.
Sadly, it is hard to find any examples of number seven. Where are the rigorously realist novels, with present-day settings, dealing with people’s emotional responses to the threat of climate change? Solar (2010), the much-heralded climate-change novel by Ian McEwan, turned out to be a bleakly comic allegory rather than a work of literary realism, and some of McEwan’s comments seemed to suggest that he’d considered a realist approach but found it untenable. Confessional lyric poetry dealing directly with the subject is also scarce, but there are some notable examples (Ruth Padel’s “Slices of Toast,” for one). Perhaps the difficulty realism encounters in dealing with this subject is symptomatic of the broader cultural impasse discussed above. Until there is movement, novels on the subject can find no plot development. Lyric poetry does not have quite this problem because, tellingly, plot development is not what it requires; it can inhabit the impasse.
For the novel, deprived thus of plot, one response is ultimatum. I will not co-operate with your splitting. Until you begin to move, I will not give you the satisfactions you expect from me, the stories that imply a continuing normality. This seems to me to be the single terrible gesture made by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), the most uncompromising of the apocalyptic Road Novels, described by the environmental writer George Monbiot as “the most important environmental book ever written.” For (p. 374) Monbiot, The Road shows “what would happen if the world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans, hunting for food among the dead wood and soot” (Monbiot 2007).
In many respects, Monbiot’s view seems highly questionable. The novel’s dreadful scenario, in which an unspecified catastrophe has abruptly destroyed the earth’s ecosystem, killing plant-life and animal-life but not human life, does not conform to any scientifically conceivable possibility. Society has collapsed. Survivors either scavenge tinned food or form cannibal gangs, some farming children for eating. Like all of McCarthy’s work, the novel seems fascinated by ruthless violence, as if that were the only deep truth, and the main purpose of the implausible ecological scenario seems to have been the contrivance of a “survivalist” setting in which the traditional masculine frontier values of taciturn toughness are the only effective form of virtue. A father travels with his son through the ruined landscape, using his resourcefulness and resilience to evade the cannibals, while having to hold at bay his emotional reaction to what has happened to their lives, a reaction that has great implied depth but finds little direct expression. The mother committed suicide soon after the catastrophe, unable to face this new life. In one place—when father and son stumble upon a cellar of captives waiting to be butchered—the novel flashes a voyeuristic glimpse reminiscent of sadistic slasher movies.
So there is much to object to, on ecocritical grounds and others. But this novel does one big thing that is highly instructive. The scenario it depicts is so cruelly hopeless, so terminal in its account of both the global ecosystem and human civilization (it gives us several familiar genres, such as the road novel and the Proustian reminiscence of childhood, in a kind of defeated and terminal form), and so sickening to anyone who feels responsibility for handing on the world to children, as to amount to the ultimatum I mention above. All consolation is withheld. When the man dimly and with bafflement recalls his childhood before the catastrophe, he seems for a moment to confront the reader, making us feel our own pre-catastrophic position. This strategy of insufferability, if strategy it is, says to the reader: here is something that gives you no option of reacting just a little. You must either face the scenario, or turn away from it unable to pretend you are doing anything else.
I will conclude with one more example, better yet worse than The Road, to illustrate how ecocriticism must always ask what a work is doing to move us out of this impasse. In 2012, the poet Jean Sprackland published Strands, a work of prose non-fiction about the objects she had found while regularly walking on a beach near Liverpool. The book is in the nature writing tradition of the almanac—the yearbook of meditations upon local sights. But this is an example of “the new nature writing,” concerned with the disorderly and dirty “edgelands” between human society and the natural wild, rather than with wilderness as separate space. A beach near a big city is a good example. The characteristic feature of this genre is that a single familiar object, near at hand, prompts questions about its origin that take us right across the world and into philosophy, history, politics, and science: the genre is an apt one for ecocriticism. One chapter in Strands concerns plastic, starting with commonplace litter on the beach, taking us back to the startlingly recent invention of the material (such global transformation in so short a time), and (p. 375) carrying us out to the famous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, “said by some observers to cover an area twice the size of Texas” (Sprackland 2012: 106).
Some of the items Sprackland finds are endearingly outmoded things she remembers from childhood, which gives us a jarring sense of both the recentness and the irrevocability of the changes brought by plastic. On the beach, the natural sublime can be encountered in a form that is contained by the allotted hours of leisure and the ease of moving in and out of this world—its proximity to social space, work space and home space. But the sense of security here is menaced by statements that place us in the mesh of global relations, much larger than our familiar territory, yet frighteningly finite: “there are, on average, forty-six thousand pieces of plastic floating on or near the surface of every square mile of ocean in the world” (104). Vertigo is produced by this sudden opening-out—this loss of proportionality, this leap from the small to the vast, with no gradation. What have we done, with our little Lego bricks and toothbrushes?
But ecocritics must ask what the text then does with this vertigo. Do we merely glimpse the impasse and turn away, back to normal affairs? The reviewer of Strands in The Guardian, Laurence Scott, complained about the occasional solemnity of tone:
This is fatuous. We are menaced by impending ecological disaster, but God forbid we should be solemn about it. Nothing, not even impending catastrophe, must be allowed to disturb our cool lightness of tone. This attitude is a familiar manifestation of “splitting.” Yet, unfortunately, there is a real, unresolved incommensurability between the different tones and scales in Sprackland’s book, which gives Scott’s trivialising objection an opening. Strands is otherwise admirable in ecocritical terms, but the episodic structure—the way each chapter frames a particular walk without narrative continuities, consequences—enables us to turn away too easily, and return to normality after the space for reflection afforded by an afternoon walk or an hour of reading. For literature to be more profoundly disruptive than this is a lot to ask. Perhaps it is an unrealistic demand, but it is one ecocritics must make, if they are to begin to leave the condition of not really believing what they know.
Her diligent research finds new ways to trigger that increasingly familiar sense of dismay over our toxic planet: shrimp have grown drunk on the residue of anti-depressants from our urine; to eat fish is to eat plastic; there seems to be either too many or too few of every creature under the sun. But here we arrive at Sprackland’s eco-solemnity, a problem of tone, and a tendency to employ truisms, that interferes with her otherwise absorbing narrative.
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(1) . See Fiona Harvey, ‘UN chief challenges world to agree tougher target for climate change.’ The Guardian, June 1, 2011. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/01/climate-change-target-christiana-figueres
(2) . Andrew Simms, “The Final Countdown.” The Guardian, August 1, 2008. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/aug/01/climatechange.carbonemissions