Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature. (Book Reviews).
Patrick D. Murphy, author of an influential book in the field of ecocriticism, Literature, Nature, and Other (1995), has made another major contribution to this ever-being-redefined field of literary study. His newest book, Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature, challenges the limited vision proposed by traditional methodologies in studying nature-oriented literature, introduces numerous multi-cultural and international primary works that are generally neglected by ecocritics but which will prompt the critics to redefine the field, and, most importantly, proposes a variety of theoretical approaches to make ecocriticism more inclusive and comprehensive. It is a book that offers not only theory, but also its practical application and pedagogy for both students and teachers of the field.
The book consists of twelve chapters, with the first five devoted to theoretical discussions in the development of a more inclusive ecocriticism, and the later chapters focusing more on specific literary works, especially those works by Native American and Chicano/a, as well as literature from such regions as the Caribbean, Central America, and Asia. I will review the first five chapters in more detail than the rest since they provide an important background for the later ones.
With ecocriticism generally biased towards prose, which he calls a "non-fiction prejudice," Murphy begins by arguing for the need to have a more discriminating taxonomy that is inclusive and can distinguish the differences between nature writing and nature/environmental literature, which includes poetry, fiction, and drama. The author provides a very clear definition of nature-oriented literature that is inclusive and directive. He argues that, regardless of genre, which is what has been limiting the study and criticism in this field, nature literature is an orientation that "[exhibits] an attention to the details of the natural world and a concern for human-nonhuman relationships, and a representation through imagery and narration of a philosophy toward the place of humanity within the whole of nature," Nature orientated literature, Murphy states, has either nonhuman nature as "a subject, character, or major component of the setting," or is a text that "says something about human-nonhuman interaction, human philosophies about nature, or the possibility of engaging nature by means of or in spite of human culture."
Nature-oriented literature, therefore, should not be limited to the works belonging only in the genre of prose or those works that descend from natural history as it has been done traditionally and canonically. Since genre is confined to a style or structure, Murphy suggests that it would be more appropriate for the critics to view nature-oriented literature in the presentation of its mode -- "a philosophical or conceptual orientation" -- that will naturally include poems, plays, novels, and essays. With the emphasis on mode, Murphy offers a useful taxonomy table that helps the reader distinguish between nature writing/literature and environmental writing/literature, using the word writing to substitute for the category of nonfiction.
Following his argument in the previous chapter about "the nonfiction prejudice" in the field of nature orientated literature, the author in Chapter Two further defines the distinction between nature and environmental writing/literature. He investigates the "fiction of nonfictionality" as well as the necessity to move beyond that, and discusses the implication and impact of defining the subject of ecological literary criticism as environmental literature instead of nature writing. After briefly reviewing the political and academic climates that contributed to the development of nature-oriented literature in twentieth century American literature, Murphy points out that, although both nature writing and environmental literature shared a common appreciation of nature, the latter is more concerned with the timeliness of environmental crises than the timelessness and universality of epiphanic experience emphasized by the former. With the increasing awareness of environmental crisis, however, it will be difficult fo r contemporary writers to produce a nature-oriented literature without also including some environmental statements in their writing. The Appalachian nature writer Marcia Bonta is a case in point. While claiming herself to be a nature writer who intends to record the special beauties of Pennsylvania's seasons, Bonta in the latter part of Appalachian Autumn defines herself as an environmentalist after observing the destruction of the natural beauty around her.
With this example, Murphy again stresses that nature-oriented literature is a mode of writing with several genres and categories such as nature writing/literature and environmental writing/literature. A mode that deals with human and nonhuman relationships, especially pertaining to nature, can be practiced in any genre, and, therefore, can remove the "non-fiction prejudice" from the limited definition in the current field of Nature Literature criticism, as he strongly believes that "it is a mistake to use nature writing as the paradigm for critical analysis of all forms of nature-oriented literature." This change in emphasis in mode of presentation, rather than genre, will demand of mainstream literary studies to consider the fact that "literature has already brought nature onto the stage of culture as a speaking subject [and] as a participant in history.' It also shifts this field of critical study from nature writing, which traditionally privileges white male authors, to environmental writing, which can inc lude minority, women, and international writers who share a similar concern of human and non-human relationships. It also opens up to include works presented in hybrid forms, such as mixed-genre books as well as video and film.
Chapter Three is characterized by Murphy's witty argument, supported by an ample amount of literary examples that show the profound depth of the author's knowledge in multi-cultural, international literature. Continuing to refine his previous argument in the necessity of redefining the field of ecocriticism by challenging the traditional definitions of such key terms as sensitivities, nature, and culture, Murphy calls readers' and critics' attention to the importance of three locations of a work: geographical, historical, and personal. Geographical location, Murphy states, includes cultural and the economic developments of the place contoured by its geological formations, while historical location requires some understanding of the traditions and sociopolitical factors from which the work is generated. The reader's personal sensitivities are also geographically, historically, and culturally situated and will also determine his/her reading and understanding of the works read.
Many literary examples are drawn from different cultures and continents which demonstrate the differentiated attention to nature and the environment. A writer from India or Africa, for instance, cannot treat the environment without attention to its colonial influence, violence, warfare, its postcoloniality and its byproducts of government corruption and multi-national corporate greed, and a reader who grows up in American northwest, accustomed to hayfields and clear creeks and without much awareness of the international community, will most likely devalue or dismiss the importance of such a nature-oriented work by an African writer for its lack of description of the "sublimity" of natural beauty. Murphy, therefore, in conclusion of this chapter, calls for a refined sensitivity in the field of ecocriticism to develop paradigms and critical orientations that will enable the readers to encompass a wider range of material.
Next is a particularly useful chapter for teachers and students of literary theory in the field of ecocriticism, "Ecofeminism and Postmodemism: Agency, Transformation, and Future Possibilities," because it critiques many recent, important leading works in the field, such as those by Jane L. Parpart and Marianne H. Marchand, Linda Hutcheon, Irene Diamond, Charlene Spretnak, and Donna Haraway. Well versed in both postmodernism and ecofeminism, Murphy first expounds upon the distinctions between these two isms. Both isms are anti-universality and examine what already exists and generate a comprehensive analysis for critique and explanations of how "we have arrived at this present state of indeterminacy, relativity, interpellation, and economic constriction." Ecofeminism, however, further welcomes theoretical framework that "elucidates the contradictory conditions of being that generate tremendous short-term wealth for the few and intensifying oppression and misery for the many worldwide ... [and] threaten the lo ng term viability of ecosystems for continuation of many species, including the human." Postmodernism, according to Murphy, seems to emphasize the "negative critique of the present" and "privilege the discursive over the daily, physical engaged biospheric terrain"; ecofeminism, on the other hand, focuses more on the future and the transformative power of agency. As postmodernism is more obsessed with the idea of the individual and the construction of the fragmented singular identity, Murphy suggests that the oppressed of the world are much more concerned with maintaining cultural integrity, communities, and "environmentally relational identity," a position emphasized by ecofeminists.
Chapter Five serves as a good transition from theoretical discussions to the analysis of particular works. It first argues that ecology and ecocriticism has necessitated the critics to move beyond the illusion of absolute "other" and toward a relational mode of anotherness. It then briefly re-introduces the concept of "I and another," "one and another," and "I-as-another" -- a theoretical approach derived from Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin's writings that Murphy has extensively discussed in his previous book. The purpose of employing the notion of anotherness and relational difference is to call for a cross-cultural comparative analysis, rather than a comparative cultural analysis privileging the center and canon as the standard to measure against. It urges the readers to recognize their own anotherness in reading a text and reinforces the importance of challenging the existing paradigm and worldview that shapes the canon of environmental/nature writing. It can also serve as a position that recognizes the diversity of environmental/nature writing. Six texts are used to demonstrate three genres of environmental writing -- essay, poetry, and novel -- that explore the diversity of human-nonhuman relationships due to cultural specificities, "ecosystemic situatedness" and inhabitation.
Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan, for example, has reflected in her work the indigenous elements of teachings and practices that shape her life and a history that is ecocentric, rather than anthropocentric. Terry Tempest William and Gary Snyder encourage readers and writers to "construct new stories and myths that contribute to new forms of inhabitation, ones that will nurture the continuance of indigenous inhabitation" -- the continuance also advocated by a major Native American poet, Simon J. Ortiz. Hogan's novels and the idea of inhabitation and its relation to one's identity are again discussed in Chapter Ten, where Edna Escamill and Karen Tei Yamashita's works are also brought into analysis to broaden the discussion in the field of ecocriticism. Murphy's attempt in this and later chapters is to argue for the use of inhabitation as a criterion to critique the inadequate canonic nature writing that features mainly a white man's mediation on the sublimity and assumes its universality.
Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight offer in depth analysis of specific works from Mexico, Trinidad, Southern Africa, Spain, U.S. and Japan. Chapter Six aims at providing the reader a taste of what is available in twentieth-century literature, works usually ignored in nature-orientated literature due to their genre. It, therefore, urges the reader to question genre conventions in order to understand cross-culturally a subject that is culturally specific: nature in literature. Using the German born Mexican national, B. Traven, as one of many examples offered here, Murphy discusses how Traven, in his novels filled with vivid descriptions of the southern jungles of Mexico, explores the vicious exploitation of the forest and oppression of its indigenous peoples during and after the regime of Porfirio Diaz. In Traven's work, nature and the land becomes a contested site for people to work out their human-nonhuman relationships and their political relationship to each other. Chapter Eight features a Japanese Rachel Carso n, Ishmure Michiko, whose works have in part made Minamata disease well known. Murphy has discussed many of her writings in depth by placing her works in their cultural, economic, and political contexts.
Chicana author Pat Mora, discussed eloquently in Chapter Seven, focuses on the interrelations of race, gender, and class in her poetry and prose. Advocating "cultural conservation," Mora urges her people to recover her heritage by "reaffirming the situatedness of culture, the relationship of values, beliefs, and practices, and character to place," by retelling the old tales as well as untelling the misinterpretations by people outside of her culture, and by critiquing the oppressive side of her own heritage in order to build a future. With a strong belief that place is not determined by geo-political national boundaries, Mora tells the stories that reveal the culture and history of her people on both sides of the Rio Grande. Those stories also reinforce the fact that environment is "a component of cultural heritage and continuity" and human's relation to it is culturally and geographically specific. Similar themes, such as ecological multi-culturalism and the link between nature and culture, can be also seen in works by Salli Tisdale, Lori Anderson, and other women writers discussed in Chapter Nine, who further explore the interdependence of women's oppression and environmental degradation.
The last part of the book addresses a need for a new language and new terms that will enhance our multi-cultural sensitivity in ecocriticism. Referring to Caroline Merchant's call for new symbols and a new language and science fiction novelist Suzette Haden Elgin's effort in inventing an entirely new language that can accurately express women's experiences and perceptions, Murphy questions the American patriarchal metaphors and symbols of the domination of nature and women as embodied in many canonical nature literature. This need corresponds to the author's early argument for new terminology regarding geure and definitional analysis of nature writing. While a whole new language might invoke an excessive effort in all fields for the moment, retooling some existing words and antonyms is what Murphy deems as necessary. As much as we hear, read, or write about such words as subordinate and influence that indicate a privileged position of some, Murphy spins out their antonyms such as coordinate, superordinate, an d confluence, which recognize a mutually constitutive relationship for the subjects discussed, words that help dismantle binary oppositions and words that can re-shape and reflect our perceptions of the world and all kinds of relationships in it.
This book belongs on the shelf of every scholar and student of ecocriticism. It covers a massive amount of analyses of literary works by authors of various cultures and orientations. At least eighty primary works and fifteen anthologies of nature writing are discussed in this book. What it provides is more than theory; it grounds its argument in solid textual analysis that sets an example of what criticism should be about. Much of Murphy's argument for nature-orientated literature that is multiculturally inclusive and cross-culturally sensitive is derived from years of teaching a variety of both undergraduate and graduate courses in the field; it also comes from his own sense of ethical obligation as an educator who wants to transmit the kind of knowledge that responds to the multi-cultural reality of the world, rather than further confirming a monolithic cultural tradition that erases cultural and ecological diversities. This is a book that is not only important in the field of ecocriticism, but in literary studies in general as well.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2000|
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