Different shades of green.
Gilcrest, David. W. 2002. Greening the Lyre: Environmental Poetics and Ethics. Reno: University of Nevada Press. $34.95 hc. xii + 169 pp.
Rosendale, Steven, ed. 2002. The Greening of Literary Scholarship: Literature, Theory, and the Environment. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. $39.95 hc. $19.95 sc. xxix + 275 pp.
The first wave of ecological cultural criticism crashed onto these shores in the 1970s and 1980s. The genesis of this wave and its subsequent diffusion into the mainstream during the 1990s is charted in Cheryl Glotfelty's introduction to the highly influential Ecocriticism Reader. As Glotfelty notes, the presiding spirit of this first wave of ecocriticism was the theory known as deep ecology, with its "radical critique of anthropocentrism" (1996, xxiv). Two books named "deep ecology," one edited by Michael Tobias (1985) and the other written by Bill Devall and George Sessions (1985), outline the basic principles of this theory. Each collection traces the beginnings of deep ecology to the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. Devall and Sessions point to Naess's "ultimate norms"-self-realization and biocentric equality--as the sine qua non of deep ecology. Naess himself contributes an essay to Tobias's collection that makes a series of contrasts between "Shallow Ecology" and "Deep Ecology," which essentially come down to androcentrism (nature has value for humans) versus biocentrism (nature has intrinsic value). Based on this model, the first wave of ecocriticism valorized those critics, texts, and traditions that are thought to be more earth-centered than human-centered--the highest approbation is saved for the deepest shade of green.
Thus, the first wave of ecocriticism embraced those environments at furthest remove from human habitation--the pastoral and the wild--as represented by a narrowly defined genre of nature writing. In contrast, the new wave of ecocriticism is interested in the interconnections between urban and non-urban space, humans and nonhumans, traditional and experimental genres, as well as the impact of race, class, gender, and sexuality on how we use and abuse nature. In other words, this wave of ecocriticism is concerned less with proving itself to be a deep shade of green than with trying to reflect the different shades of green that make up the contemporary environmental movement. Rather than taking deep ecology as their main theoretical investment, these works are more influenced by social ecology, urban environmentalism, and the environmental justice movement. To a greater or lesser extent, each of the three works under review is part of this new wave of ecocriticism.
The focus of David Gilcrest's Greening the Lyre on contemporary nature poetry and the presiding sprit of Robert Frost connects it to the first wave of ecocriticism. However, drawing on the pragmatist hermeneutics of Kenneth Burke's rhetorical theory, Gilcrest's analysis, in each of his book's five chapters, of the epistemology, poetics, and ethics of environmental poetry also challenges many of the central tenets of green criticism. In the first half of Greening the Lyre, Gilcrest carefully questions the undue self-confidence of those ecopoets and ecocritics who seem to believe that they can speak for nature. Though he welcomes normative ecology's "productive critique of homocentric values" (2002, 5), Gilcrest suggests that it is an epistemological impossibility and an aesthetic error to claim certainty about what a biocentric perspective exactly entails. How, for instance, would one judge between two competing biocentric claims? Ask the earth? Hardly. As Gilcrest explains in the second chapter, the very "trope of speaking nature" (38) is suspect. In fact, Gilcrest refers to the notion that a poet or critic can speak for nature as a "colonizing move that remains susceptible to serious epistemological and ethical critique" (6). Despite ecocriticism's laudable motivation for extending language and agency to nonhuman subjects, Gilcrest suggests, instead, that it should focus on the radical democratic possibility of recognizing "alinguistic agents" (58) without trying to make them just like us.
In the third chapter, Gilcrest further erodes ecocritical faith in an environmental ethic that necessitates the "identification of the human and the nonhuman," arguing, rather, for the "conservation of difference" (2002, 6). After making a few dents in deep ecology's faith in biocentrism in the first three chapters, Gilcrest offers in the final two chapters an alternative perspective for ecocritics based on a more skeptical environmental poetics. Though these jargon-filled chapters are rather rough going, they make an important argument, which Gilcrest summarizes in the introduction as the claim that "the more skeptical aspect of hermeneutical poetics, represented here by Kenneth Burke's rhetorical and linguistic theories and reflected in Wallace Stevens's own strategies of metaphor, represents the most successful approach to environmental poetry" (7). In short, Gilcrest rejects an ecocriticism based on the naive notion that an anthropomorphized nature can tell us of its own needs, proposing instead a more nuanced perspective that calls for a self-conscious and ironic approach to our own human desires in relation to what we call nature. He hopes that this skeptical environmental poetics will contribute to humanity's reevaluation of its relationship to the nonhuman world by "offering both novel and time-honored metaphors as alternatives to the concepts and attitudes that accompany environmental destruction" (147).
Despite his qualms with some of the uses to which deep ecology has been put in ecocriticism, Gilcrest still sees his contribution as coming from within its framework rather than as an external challenge. In this sense, his work is more reminiscent of the first wave of ecocriticism than it is representative of the second. Certainly, his focus is largely on the traditional places, creatures, and poets associated with the first wave. You will find little or no discussion of urban places and their inhabitants, domesticated creatures, or environmental racism in Greening the Lyre. From the rivers and peaks mentioned in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book to the Cascade Mountains referenced in the afterword, the genus loci of this book are places at a remove from human habitation. Gilcrest makes it clear on several occasions that his focus is on non-human nature. The poems he analyzes are about rivers and trees, birds and snakes, rain and bogs. And though the book claims contemporary nature poetry as its terrain, that landscape is admittedly limited to "the Western canon" (2002, 94) and almost entirely to U.S. white males, particularly Frost, Wallace Stevens and their poetic progeny. Gilcrest's Lyre might, after all, be a deep and undifferentiated shade of green, much like the hard cover with which it is bound.
In his introduction to The Greening of Literary Scholarship, Steven Rosendale explicitly identifies his volume with the current wave because it is "extending the horizons of ecocriticism" beyond "our received naturewriting canon and the relatively small arsenal of critical approaches that have been applied to it" (2002, xxvii). Resisting the deep green gospel of biocentrism, Rosendale dares to emphasize instead the "mutually enriching dialogue between environmental criticism and the anthropocentric concerns of established literatures and critical perspectives" (xvii). Based on this emphasis, the volume is divided into three sections that: 1) reconfigure the literary history of nature writing by drawing on critical practices, such as textual editing and translation, underutilized by ecocritics and by considering how ecocritical scholarship might be applied to English literary traditions other than nature writing, including the romantic apostrophe, naturalism, and travel writing; 2) engage with the insights of established literary theories (e.g., race theory, feminism, and postmodernism) in "scrutinizing the relationship between identity and place in literary texts" (xxii); and 3) address the "implications of the concept of the sublime for an understanding of literary representations of the environment" (xxiv), rethinking the meaning of the sublime in an array of literary cartographers, Shelley's "Mount Blanc," and Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. This final section's ecologized rewriting of the sublime is particularly insightful, as are Rosendale's own efforts to keep urban nature and issues of class and social justice in view while analyzing how representations of nature function in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Alison Byerly's new historical analysis of the convention of the literary panorama in Victorian culture.
Though Rosendale's edited volume rides the current wave of ecocriticism by including the rubrics of class and gender in its analysis, and otherwise making room for a wider spectrum of green in its vision of literary scholarship, its understanding of how race affects human interactions with the environment is limited. The only essay that explicitly addresses the topic of race is James Tarter's examination of "radioactive colonization" as represented in Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony. Tarter explains that "Ceremony shows how stories function to interrelate people and place, how places function as forms for multiethnic relationships, and how commitment to place becomes an exigency that demands environmental justice" (2002, 99). Oddly, this is one of the only places where environmental justice is mentioned in either of the books reviewed thus far. Such an oversight is hard to understand, and it will become even more difficult to justify given the wealth of information provided in The Environmental Justice Reader.
The third book under review has a different feel than the others from the very beginning. It commences by thanking "all those in the field who are working for environmental justice" and acknowledging that the book has been a collaborative effort between those activists, the contributors to the volume, and its "sister-editors" (2002, ix). This dedication to community activism is continued in the introduction and in the very structure of the volume. The introduction begins by referring to the Seattle protests that were a distillation of the new wave of the environmental movement: a broad international coalition devoted to combating neocolonialism and free market globalization on behalf of environmental justice. The first paragraph refers to such struggles across the globe, from rubber tappers in the Amazon, villagers of the Chipko movement in Northern India, and Ogoni dissidents in Nigeria to Navajo sheepherders, residents protesting hazardous sites in South Central Los Angeles and Memphis, and several American Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest (3). This commitment to representing the global environmental justice movement as a vibrant community of activists, artists, and educators is maintained by the organization of the volume into three sections--politics, poetics, and pedagogy--each of which contains not just literary criticism but roundtable discussions and interviews with those working in the trenches. The section on "Politics" begins with a series of testimonies by people working in grassroots movements that formed to address the environmental toxicity endangering their communities and proceeds with interviews and essays discussing the various locations of such movements, from maquiladoras on the U.S.-Mexico Border to biohazards in far-flung regions of the United States to nuclear colonialism in the Pacific Islands. T.V. Reed's "Toward an Environmental Justice Ecocriticism" sets the tone for the next section on "Poetics." Reed argues that, unless ecocritics learn the lessons of the current wave of the environmental movement, they are "in danger of recapitulating the sad history of environmentalism generally, wherein unwillingness to grapple with questions of racial, class, and national privilege has severely undermined the powerful critique of ecological devastation" (145). This lesson has clearly been learned by the critics whose essays in this section discuss a range of non-white authors not usually considered as nature writers, including Karen Yamashita, Barbara Neely, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Jimmy Santiago Baca. The shortest section of the book, "Pedagogy," makes an important though underdeveloped attempt to incorporate the lessons of the first two sections into classroom practices.
The Environmental Justice Reader, the most fully developed work under review here, reveals the same vibrant and diverse shades of green as the movement it represents. The environmental justice movement has altered the nature of green politics by bringing together the civil rights movement and mainstream environmentalism, helping the former to recognize that people of color bear an unequal burden when it comes to environmental degradation and toxicity while forcing the latter to realize that such human ecological concerns are at least as relevant as preserving wilderness and endangered species. The movement combats environmental racism and the wide range of ecological issues that impact poor communities, offering a vision of spatial equity and sustainable communities that integrate various races, ethnicities, species, and biota. This vision makes it untenable for scholars to act as though environmental literature is only a matter of white authors in North America engaged in nature writing, arguing over which author's work is the deepest shade of green. Instead, we should celebrate the different shades of green that mirror the various ecological theories, environmental texts, flora and fauna, and peoples of all colors that inhabit our shared planet.
Devall, Bill, and George Sessions. 1985. Deep Ecology: Living as if Earth Really Mattered. Layton: UT: Gibbs M. Smith.
Glotfelty, Cheryl. 1996. "Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis." In The Ecocriticism Reader, ed. Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Naess, Arne. 1985. "Identification as a Source of Deep Ecological Attitudes. In Deep Ecology, ed. Michael Tobias. San Diego: Avant Books.
Michael Bennett, associate professor of English at Long Island University (Brooklyn), is the coeditor of The Nature of Cities: Ecocriticism and Urban Environments (1999) and of Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African American Women (2001).
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|Title Annotation:||Review Essays; The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, and Pedagogy; Greening the Lyre: Environmental Poetics and Ethics; The Greening of Literary Scholarship: Literature, Theory, and the Environment|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2004|
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