Academic journal article New Formations

Ecocriticism, Ecopoetics, and a Creed Outworn

Academic journal article New Formations

Ecocriticism, Ecopoetics, and a Creed Outworn

Article excerpt

   Myth is speech stolen and restored. Only, speech which is restored
   is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back,
   it was not put exactly in its place.

       Roland Barthes, 'Myth Today'

Since the early 1990s, ecocritics have been offering environmentalist interpretations of fiction, poetry, and so-called nature writing. Occasionally, they have interpreted, in much the same green light, some other, non-literary products of cultural expression as well, including music, paintings, parklands, and zoos. While embarked on this project of re-evaluating key texts, important art works, and ecologically significant places in environmentalist terms, ecocritics also have been trying to revive forms of common sense that they suppose to have been vital to the earth-centred traditions of the past. The first of these ecocritical projects--that is, the merely interpretive one--is largely curatorial and pedagogical, and can be brought to fruition in the lecture hall and the seminar room. The second, however, is much more philosophical and psychological in character, therefore much more ambitious. It represents an attempt to improve behaviours and change minds well beyond the walls of the academy. Unfortunately, it has met with and is likely to continue to meet with limited success, in part because it is at odds with the facts of contemporary intellectual life.

As trained specialists in the interpretation of literature and culture, ecocritics should realise--as numbers of them do, to their chagrin--that their brief on behalf of those forms of common sense that they suppose to have been vital to the earth-centred traditions of the past is pitched in the teeth of an ongoing critique of both objectivity and subjectivity: a critique, in short, of common sense itself. For reasons not really in need of detailing here (as they should be more or less familiar to most readers), this critique has proceeded on several fronts, which have been variously identified as poststructuralist, postmodernist, or what have you. Scepticism about objectivity as well as subjectivity--or what often amounts to the same thing, a confident assumption that both are socially constructed--is now vital to the relativist thinking that has become one of the distinguishing features of the humanities and social sciences. Admittedly, how both objectivity and subjectivity could have been undermined, much less swept away, by nothing more than a wave of thought that first arose in the 1960s and then broke only two decades later is a mysterious matter still in need of fully satisfactory explanation. But such an explanation is unlikely to be forthcoming anytime soon, because those who first postulated the simultaneous disappearance or mutual occlusion of objectivity and subjectivity are either no longer with us (Foucault, for example), or seem to have long since grown weary of discussing it. This weariness is reflected in, among other things, the frequency of arguments 'against theory' since the mid-1980s: arguments most persuasively formulated, it should be noted, not by reactionaries who never liked theory very much in the first place, but by those with no small reputation as literary and cultural theorists in their own right (such as, for instance, Stanley Fish in the US and, more recently, Bruno Latour in France).

It is therefore easy to understand why many ecocritics are reluctant to confirm that somewhere, somehow, the waters have all rushed together, muddying the ground beneath our feet, clouding the air over our heads, and causing us to founder in radical indeterminacy. Yet their reluctance, however understandable, nevertheless puts ecocritics in the philosophical and theoretical minority among their academic peers, and can make their arguments seem less than persuasive if not altogether passe. When offering green interpretations of culture and literature, too many ecocritics continue to employ shop-worn oppositions such as country versus city, natural versus artificial, and the like. …

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