Postscript on Biosemiotics: Reading beyond Words - and Ecocriticism

By Wheeler, Wendy | New Formations, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Postscript on Biosemiotics: Reading beyond Words - and Ecocriticism


Wheeler, Wendy, New Formations


In this essay, I offer a brief contextualisation of ecocriticism amongst other critical 'isms', followed by an introduction to a theoretical framework that of biosemiotics - which I suggest may prove fruitful to ecocritical and ecophenomenological theorisations. This involves a limited discussion of Peircean semiotics and the semiotic theories (including biosemiotics itself) which both flow from it and also join it to general evolutionary systems theories. I focus, in particular, on Peirce's discussion of inferential logic, and especially on his logic of abductive reasoning, finally I ask what biosemiotic understandings might have to add to earlier critical ways of seeing, and try to begin to offer the beginnings of an answer via a brief consideration of two essays - one on romanticism and one on realism.

I ANOTHER 'ISM'?

At first men will not fully realise what it is that moves them, and will express and explain themselves inadequately. There will be a general agitation of thought, and an action of mind upon mind. There will be a time of confusion, when conceptions and misconceptions are in conflict, and it is uncertain whether anything is to come of the idea at all, or which view of it is to get the start of others ... After a while some definite teaching emerges; and as time proceeds, one view will be modified or expanded by another, and then combined with a third; till the idea in which they centre, will be to each mind what at first it was only to all together.

John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), ch. I, sect. I)1

If the foundation of formal associations is a good guide to the conceptual thickening and realisation of an idea whose quickening was felt considerably earlier, ecocriticism is properly born with the foundation of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), first in the USA and then in the UK (and subsequently worldwide). Both the US and UK ASLEs were born in the same 'moment' of schism, starting in the early 1990s, which produced political and cultural crises of confidence in radical progressive thought and practice generally, and also the gradual strengthening of various anti-Enlightenment fundamentalisms. In this conjuncture, not only was confidence in critiques of global capitalist domination severely dented (was there really 'no alternative'?) but the confidence of twenty odd years of cultural criticism was undermined also. At least part of the reason for this latter is not hard to fathom, since many, if not most, of the critical developments associated with 'theory' had been, themselves, critical of many of the philosophical assumptions (not least about the nature of human reason and language) underpinning Enlightenment thought.

Following a series of theoretical developments starting in the 1960s, all more or less concerned with language, identity and difference, and which drew on a Saussurean or post-Saussurean paradigm, ecocriticism, emerging in the 1990s, at first seemed just another critical 'ism' to add to all those which had preceded it. To those who found themselves attracted to this new way of thinking about culture and cultural artefacts, it seemed obvious that the dangers revealed by ecological science needed to find a new voice in cultural criticism. Thus began the project of rereading the texts of literature, art, philosophy, history and science with an eye to their treatments of what David Abram has called the human and 'more-than-human' world.2 This seemed like a timely project of ecoliteracy, but it has not been welcomed in an unqualified way, not least because it seems, to those critics who have been reared on the idea that human language has no capacity to mediate reality, to represent a dangerously untheoretical realism which takes scientific claims to truth too uncritically. To others (and sometimes to the same critics), ecocriticism's early preoccupations with romanticism, nature and wilderness writing, and poetry, and to some kind of 'reverence' for the human experience of numinosity in nature, seem indicative of another kind of conservatism. …

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