Academic journal article New Formations

The Poverty of Ecocritical Theory: E. P. Thompson and the British Perspective

Academic journal article New Formations

The Poverty of Ecocritical Theory: E. P. Thompson and the British Perspective

Article excerpt

From its inception ecocriticism adopted a belligerent attitude towards critical theory. The American critic Cheryll Glotfelty, for instance, in her polemical introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader, suggested that 'if your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were the hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth's life support systems were under stress'. (1) In Britain Jonathan Bate, in his 1991 book Romantic Ecology, attacked the 'new historicism' of a 1980s literary criticism that declared, in Alan Liu's words, that 'there is no nature except as ... constituted by acts of political definition' and which assumed, Bate wrote, that 'the economy of human society is more important than ... "the economy of nature"'. (2) In consequence ecocriticism throughout the 1990s was often, as Michael Cohen has suggested, an exercise in anthologising and offering 'praise' (3) to those writers--the British romantic poets (notably Wordsworth) or the American transcendentalist writers (Thoreau, John Muir)--who were seen to embody 'better ways of imagining nature and humanity's relation to it'. (4) In developing thematic interests derived from this writing--in agricultural landscapes, wilderness, mountains etc ecocriticism's confrontation with critical theory often took the generic form of a reassertion of 'place' against the postmodernist construction of 'space'. (5)

More recent ecocritics, however, have attacked, scathingly in some cases, this stance towards theory and have pinpointed three specific areas: the equation of scientific ecology to outdated notions of 'balance' or 'harmony' (now discredited by a 'postmodern ecology' that emphasises flux and contingency); a simplistic division between nature and culture or--with regard to strategies of representation--mimesis and construction; and a failure to develop the social and political dimensions of ecocriticism. (6) The last of these has largely been addressed by American 'environmental justice' ecocritics who have traced the commonality of class, gender or race with environmental disadvantage and who have documented literary representations of living in polluted ('toxic') as opposed to pristine environments. (7)

To invoke E.P. Thompson in this context might at first sight seem a little disingenuous for his essay, 'The Poverty of Theory', is of course centrally concerned with the deficiencies of theory itself, not with failings attributable to a lack of theory. Nevertheless, in this essay I will argue that Thompson's work could offer, in two particular respects, a valuable contribution to this attempt to re-shape ecocriticism: first, as a precedent for ecocriticism's own attempts to wrestle with theory; secondly, in the potential of Thompson's engagement with romanticism, primarily in writing about William Morris, to shape a more politically engaged, specifically British ecocriticism broadly equivalent to the 'environmental justice' work. (8)

A central rationale of ecocriticism is its insistence upon the material reality that underlies human society. It has, nevertheless, gradually moved towards a rapprochement with critical theory as an attempt to understand the ways in which language shapes our experience of and, in consequence, practices towards the non-human environment. We learn from Plato, W.J.T. Mitchell has argued, that knowledge of 'nature' is not to be found in 'a renunciation of the world of ... convention, nor by a trust in a special class of "natural" signs that eludes convention, but by a dialogue within the world of convention that leads us to its limits'. (9) This, essentially, has been the position taken by a more theoretically sophisticated ecocriticism that, as Laurence Coupe writes, 'does not challenge the notion that human beings make sense of the world through language, but rather the self-serving inference that nature is nothing more than a linguistic construct'. …

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