Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Loving Ourselves Best of All": Ecocriticism and the Adapted Mind

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Loving Ourselves Best of All": Ecocriticism and the Adapted Mind

Article excerpt

This essay argues that ecocriticism requires a theoretical foundation to establish its coherence as a literary subdiscipline, a foundation that should be sought not only in a general understanding of evolutionary theory but especially in a knowledge of evolutionary and related areas of psychology.


Literary ecocriticism is motivated by environmental activism and focusses principally on representations of the physical environment, especially of non-human nature. Ecocriticism began developing about thirty years ago, but in the past ten years has gained momentum and become a recognized specialization within literary studies; the 1996 publication of Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm's The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology is generally regarded as the defining moment for the field. At that time, the editors of and several contributors to the anthology expressed dismay at the desultory acceptance of ecocriticism within English departments. Although contemporary humans are threatened with total environmental degradation, literary scholars, in the view of prominent ecocritics, remain apathetic about teaching and research in literature and ecology. As Glen Love puts it, "in the face of profound threats to our biological survival, we continue, in the proud tradition of humanism, to, as [David] Ehrenfeld says, 'love ourselves best of all,' to celebrate the self-aggrandizing ego and to place self-interest above public interest, even, irrationally enough, in matters of common survival" ("Revaluing" 226). The domain of ecocriticism has expanded considerably since 1996 (and especially since 1999), yet ecocritics continue to remark that the field's acceptance has not been particularly rapid (Bennett and Teague 3; Love, Practical).

If the palpable moral outrage at the entrenched anthropocentrism of several years ago has perhaps been somewhat assuaged by the growth of the field, there is, to date, remarkably little evidence of attempts to analyze the perceived slow development of ecocriticism and to remediate accordingly. Yet the rationale for conjoining environmental initiatives with the study of literature is less than self-evident, concern over environmental degradation notwithstanding. Literary works are artifacts of human mind, language, and behaviour that are directed toward the minds (and sometimes the behaviours) of other humans, but never toward the non-human environment; such dynamics suggest that the sets of relationships between literary works and the physical environment should be theorized and articulated with special care.

In the past four years, acknowledging theoretical and definitional problems with their area, ecocritics and other scholars have been differentially successful in addressing the area's weaknesses. Some scholars frankly take ecocriticism to task for its lack of focus and coherence as a literary field, noting that ecocritics avoid formulating a theoretical foundation to the detriment of their sub-discipline (Phillips; Carroll); that the area is more issue-driven than methodology-driven (Keir and Lewis; Buell, "Ecocritical" 700); and that the content of the literature it explores has been too narrowly circumscribed (Buell, "Ecocritical" 703; Carroll 305).

In this essay, my aim is to reassert ecocriticism's need for a theoretical base to give the area coherence and identity and to suggest especially that evolutionary, developmental, and cognitive psychology are indispensable to understanding human attitudes to physical environments. Whereas Joseph Carroll and Glen Love stress the importance of general evolutionary theory for ecocriticism, then, my emphasis is on the implications of the psychology of an adapted organism for the area's theory and practice (Love, "Ecocriticism"; Practical). Quite simply, since the adapted human mind produces literature, that mind's modes of perceiving its surround are, in all likelihood, central to the literary representations of persons, places, and their interactions. …

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