Introduction: Special Issue Ecocriticism Part 2

By Lemmer, Erika | Journal of Literary Studies, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Special Issue Ecocriticism Part 2

Lemmer, Erika, Journal of Literary Studies

The introduction to Part 1 of this double volume traced the institutional history of ecocriticism by referring predominantly to the initiatives of Anglo-American ecocritics as frontrunners in the field. A common denominator shared by the collection of essays in the first volume was the focus on human behaviour and attitudes towards the environment with specific reference to the human/animal relationship in a South African context. In the second volume the focus shifts slightly to consider the nature of ecocritical writing/reading, the representation of landscape(s) and the potential of literary texts to promote an ecological culture.

Marshall (1994) states that, despite the relative novelty of ecocriticism as a critical approach, there has always been a strong ecocritical heritage in most national literatures. Texts such as Walden (Henry David Thoreau), A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold), Silent Spring (Rachel Carson), Desert Solitaire (Edward Abbey) and works by the Romantic poets have all acquired classic status as part of a green canon. In his taxonomy of green literature, Murphy (2000: 11) maintains the distinction between writing (non-fiction) and literature (fiction) when he identifies four modes and genres, each with its own idiosyncratic structural characteristics: nature writing, nature literature, environmental writing and environmental literature.

Buell (1995: 6-8) suggests the following criteria for determining the ecocritical status of a text:

* The non-human environment is present not merely as a framing device, but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.

* The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.

* Human accountability towards the environment is part of the text's ethical orientation.

* Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

Glotfelty (1996: xix) proposes a set of helpful questions to be asked when attempting an ecocritical reading of a text: How can green literature be typified as a genre? How is the environment/environmental crisis portrayed in the text? Are the values portrayed in the text consistent with basic ecological principles? How do our metaphors of the land influence the way we treat it? Should place be regarded as a separate critical category? How has the concept of nature and literature changed over time and within different cultures? What role does the physical setting play in the plot of a novel? How is landscape represented in the text? What cross-fertilisation is possible between literary studies and environmental discourse in related disciplines such as art, etc.?

A critical engagement with the above-mentioned theoretical parameters set by Murphy, Buell and Glotfelty underpins, to some extent or another, each of the essays by Larsen, Sewlall, Yhurman, Keuris, Labuschagne and Swanepoel in this issue.

In his essay "To See Things for the First Time: Before and After Ecocriticism" Larsen devises and introduces the imaginative concept of the boundary marker to illuminate his progressive definition of ecocriticism as essentially a critique of the basic boundary, namely that between culture and nature; human and non-human. For Larsen, the "fostering and growing awareness of our collective denial of a shared responsibility for the relocation of the boundary between culture and nature" constitutes the ultimate goal of ecocriticism. Subsections 2.1 and 2.2 of his essay specifically deal with the core concepts of place, space and (-)scapes. He finally presents the boundary marker as methodological support for the analysis of travel narratives by Chatwin and White set in the Australian outback.

Like Larsen, Sewlall explores the culture/nature dialectic in Mda's Heart of Redness, a bioregionalist novel dealing primarily with society and its relationship with the land--a particularly forceful symbol in the South African literary imagination. …

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