Posts in category "Ecocriticism"

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The ecological thought, part first

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Hi again—back from my Q&A at the ASLE conference in Edinburgh. That was quick wasn't it?! Thanks to videoconferencing I didn't have to move an inch. I made a dvd of my keynote (in front of a “live audience” as they say in sitcoms), then did the Q&A via the cheap new Polycom software on the PC. Less carbon, less bankruptcy, more bang for my buck—effectively I gave the talk twice and received two lots of feedback.

Thanks so much to Greg Garrard, Tom Bristow, Margaret Ferguson, Terry Gifford, and the tech teams (Alastair Taylor, Mike Luthi and Bill Sykes) for making this work.

Okay—ready for some close reading? Here we go:

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke bright,
Glimmered the white moon-shine.

“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?”—With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.59–82)

“Like noises in a swound”! When I was at high school I wasn't sure what this meant, so my friend James (who ended up teaching at McGill) and I decided arbitrarily that for “swound” we would read “underground parking lot.” Another case of urbanature?! In any case, the atmosphere is wonderfully evoked by the “here...there...all around” trope. This is a place of sheer existence, of what Emmanuel Lévinas would have called the “rustling of the there is.” What a world. It reminds me of this one. Today in Davis, CA, we are wearing surgical masks to screen ourselves from the smoke from the pervasive fires (“the smoke is here, the smoke is there...”). Global warming is like this, isn't it? You can't have that neutral, easy conversation about the weather any more—it either trails off into silence, or becomes threateningly poised over the word “global warming,” and as soon as someone mentions that, the conversation is pretty much over. There is no weather any more. There is climate—as Ashton Nichols pointed out, we now have the computing power to map this global phenomenon (you need terabytes of RAM to do it, I gather). But no weather. Coleridge seems to anticipate this by putting his Mariner in the extreme ambience of ice. See Eric Wilson's very interesting book about ice called The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination.

Okay, I'm out. More soon!

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The ecological thought—introductory

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Hi everyone—Tim Morton here. I was asked to start blogging here on ecological issues, and I'm delighted to accept the invitation. I'm actually working on a book right now called The Ecological Thought. It's kind of the prequel to Ecology without Nature. I mean this in a rigorous way—not just the fact that the first book implies a view that I outline more deeply in the second one. I mean that in a rigorous sense, this “ecological thought” weirdly creeps up on you from the future. The best I can compare it to is Shelley's idea of poetry, that it's like a shadow from the future that somehow looms into the world of the present (A Defence of Poetry). Anyway, stay tuned.

Here's a good question for starters: am I an ecocritic? I fancy that what I'm doing is ecological literary criticism, but I'm not sure it's ecocriticism. Already I don't belong on this blog! Ecology without Nature argues that in order to have ecology, you have to give up Nature.

Lots of people don't like this idea. It's like I'm stealing their toy. I recently had an interesting conversation with Donna Haraway about it—of all people she was the very last I would have suspected of worrying about me stealing the Nature toy. But she was.

Her argument was basically about "worlding"—ideas and practices constitute "worlds" not just ideas; people do things in these worlds and create values in them, etc. (You will see if you've read my book that the "worlding" idea itself recursively falls prey to my "hand Nature over" gambit!) I thought of a good answer, but I was too scared to say: "The Nazis had lots of ideas, and those ideas constituted a world. If your argument is valid, we should have allowed the Nazis to have their world and should not have intervened in the Holocaust, etc." Preserving an idea because it makes a world for you isn't that great, I think. (Not even because it's good or even useful, mind you.) I'm sure there was a whole wild world of witch ducking stools too.

Anyway...

I thought this blog would be a good place to do mini close readings that point the way towards the ecological thought—so expect some riffs in search of an album, some organs without bodies. First up: to whom are we speaking when we say "Hello"? (With a little help from Coleridge.)

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Urbanature

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We need a new concept, and we need a new word to describe that concept. The new word we need is “urbanature.” The concept this word describes is the idea that nature and urban life are not as distinct as we have long supposed. Here is why.

Hawks are roosting on skyscrapers near Central Park East and Central Park West. Peregrine falcons are feeding on the Flatiron Building, and owls are nesting throughout Manhattan. Meanwhile, thousands of environmentalists board carbon-gulping airplanes and fly thousands of miles (carrying tons of Gore-Tex) to get “back to nature” in Montana. At the same time, the World Wide Web tells us that Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Over 600 websites say so. But Thoreau did not say, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” He said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” This difference--"wildness," not "wilderness"--makes all the difference.

Urbanature (rhymes with “furniture”) is the idea that all human and nonhuman lives, all animate and inanimate objects on our planet (and no doubt beyond) are linked in a complex web of interconnectedness. We are not out of nature when we stand in the streets of Manhattan any more than we are in nature when we stand above tree-line in the Montana Rockies. When nature-lovers say they long to return to nature, they are making what the philosophers call a category mistake. As Tyler Stalling has recently noted, “There is no ‘real nature’ to which to return. Rather, in the face of burgeoning technologies such as nanotechnology and genetic manipulation, the once defined border between nature and culture is obsolete.”

So far, it is only a handful of artists and designers who have invoked the term “urbanature” to describe this link between city-style and wild-style. Of course, my coinage of "urbanature" has close connections to the lines of Tim Morton's recent argument about the need to get away from the idea of "nature" altogether (*Ecology Without Nature*). Tim is right not just for the subtle and nuanced theoretical reasons he invokes, but also because post-enlightenment "nature" is like a number of eighteenth-century ideas that have been around so long they are in desperate need of cultural critique. Such ideas--imagination, identity, self, consciousness, among many others--are concepts that often seem tired, worn down, enervated, misunderstood and misapplied. That is why a rigorous critique of "nature" is of such significance to Romanticists. We have the texts and the tools needed to undertake just such a project.

The time has clearly come to apply urbanature--or some concept like it--all around us, from the semi-wild edges of the Sahara and the Himalayas to the ecologically-contiguous villages of the European Alps and the Indian subcontinent. Urbanature, as I envision it, also describes the wide suburban sprawls filled with billions upon billions of flowers, trees, squirrels, and raptors, reaching all the way from the Pacific edge of the Americas to the Ural edges of Europe. Our new linking of urban spaces with natural places will likewise need to include captive and semi-captive creatures, from wild animals in zoo cages and pets in high-rise condominiums to plants and animals on sidewalks, roofs, and skyscraper ledges from Bombay to Caracas, from Beijing to Brooklyn.

We are never fully cut off from wild nature by human culture. This is the central aspect of all true ecology. Nothing we can do can ever take us out of nature. There is nowhere for us to go. We are natural beings from the moment we are biologically born until the moment we organically die. Instead of describing the nonhuman world anthropocentrically—in human terms—we now have many good reasons to describe the whole world ecocentrically [eco-: oikos, house]. Our nonhuman, natural house is the same place as our fully human, cultural home.

The globe is now completely mapped and filmed and photographed, down to the last W.M.D. (we hope), down to the smallest street and streambed. With my own computer mouse—and MapQuest or Google Earth on my computer—I can move from Mauritius to Manhattan in a minute, I can spin from the Seychelles to Seattle in a second. I can zoom onto every housetop. I can see almost every car in every parking lot. But this is not a problem. This is not a loss. In fact, my ability to scan the surface of the globe in seconds reminds me that I am linked to every natural object and every quantum of energy that surrounds me.

Urbanature includes the biggest of big pictures: birds on buildings, fish in fishponds, chemists making medicines, mountaineers climbing mountains, every dolphin and domestic dog, every gust of solar wind and every galaxy. To be “natural” originally meant, “to have been born”: natura—“birth” and also “essence,” as in “the nature of the problem.” The human-made is no less natural because it has been shaped, no less born or essential because it has been fashioned by human hands. The bird makes a nest, and her nest is no less natural than the bird herself. Human hands make a house, and the house--or even the skyscraper--is no less natural than the human hands that shaped it.

We now know that we share genetic material with chimpanzees and crustaceans. We can transplant animal organs into humans. We can insert our human genes into other species. We are genetically related to, and dependent upon, countless species in countless ways: gorillas, whales, dogs, fishes, foxgloves, fungi. Where would we be without penicillium, that invisible fungus spore that flew through Alexander Fleming’s window in his London laboratory in 1928 and led to penicillin, a drug that has saved tens of millions of lives? Was Fleming operating in wild nature or in urban culture when he came upon that fungus? He was functioning in both. A "purely" natural object (the airborne penicillium) landed on a "purely" cultural production (a Petri dish smeared with agar) and the result was penicillin, a natural product of human culture that has changed life on our planet forever.

Urban culture and wild nature come to much the same thing. Urbanature.

--Ashton Nichols

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Physical proximity to nature

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“What are men to rocks and mountains!” Elizabeth Bennet’s exclamation belies an important romantic-era question about the relationship between human beings and the natural world. It is a question Onno Oerlemans explores in Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature, which finds the romantic “impulse to ‘know’” the natural world of rocks and mountains to result in a key dilemma, in so much as that world proves incapable of being resolved into distinct, categorizeable objects (195). Physical proximity to nature often reveals the observer’s epistemological distance from nature. Unlike the work of various other “green” critics (one thinks especially of Bate and McKusick), Oerlemans’s book indeed unearths an antipathetic nature--akin to Hartman’s and Weiskel’s negative sublime. For Oerlemans, romantic writings evince “a nostalgia for the material world we know we are somehow a part of but yet [find ourselves] estranged from” (22). Hence, Wordsworth’s poems repeatedly reveal the inherent “indifference, hostility, and inimicalness of material reality” (35), while his and Dorothy Wordsworth’s travel writings foreground the “inability of language to penetrate or reproduce the materiality of the physical world” (185). Similarly, Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and his dietary essays demonstrate how “doubt about our human mastery of nature reveals to us our dependence upon it [nature] and the need for a new temperance” (119). Indeed, for Oerlemans these intimations of nature’s otherness, of its resistance to conceptual containment, “ought to inspire”—to result in—“awe and respect” (29).

But can moments of awe, produced by intuiting nature’s indeterminate otherness, provide or at least promise to provide the ground for a more respectful human relationship to nature? Can sublime awe trump (or stand apart from) entrenched ideologies of capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism--ideologies arguably rooted in notions and depictions of landscape? Oerlemans would appear to think so, finding in Wordsworth “a complex sympathy that at once recognizes a deep-rooted commonality between humans and animals, and a respect for the individuality and even incomprehensibility of non-human consciousness” (95). But one wonders, especially given the historian Lynn Hunt’s arguments about the development of universal human rights: as initiated by eighteenth-century and later readers’ imaginative sympathy for literary depictions of Others (e.g., Richardson’s Pamela). Might similar sorts of connections have been, and still be, necessary for humans to extend respect and rights to the realm of nature? Or can awe, inspired by sublime conceptual disjunctions and semiotic limits, also inspire respect and even (ecological) concern? Extending the old question about whether poems really make anything “happen,” can (and did) the “material sublime” play a part in guiding and improving our relationship to nature? What are poems to rocks, trees, and mountains?

-- Kurt Fosso

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