Academic journal article Reader

Ecocriticism as a Practice of Reading

Academic journal article Reader

Ecocriticism as a Practice of Reading

Article excerpt

"Not only is our knowledge thus limited in scope, but it is even more important that we should thoroughly realize that the very best of what we, humanely speaking, know [we know] only in an uncertain and inexact way."

-Charles Sanders Peirce

"Whatever it actually is, it will not fulfil our conceptions or assumptions. It will dodge our expectations and theoretical models. The greatest respect we can pay to nature is not to trap it, but to acknowledge that it eludes us and that our own nature is also fluid, open, conditional."

-Gary Snyder

Amid intensifying environmental degradation and increasing social conflict over the management and distribution of natural resources a growing number of scholars in English studies have been hard at work redefining their work in response to the threat to the living systems on which humans depend. The compositionist Marilyn Cooper, for example, looking back on her groundbreaking 1986 essay "The Ecology of Composition" that characterized the systems that constitute writing and writers as ecological, observes that the ecology of writing is less a trope than an accurate description of the production and consumption of discourse within the other, interlocked, cycling systems of our world" (qtd. in Weisser xiv). At the same time, she acknowledges "the struggle to see relationships as primary, rather than focusing on-especially on-the human actors relating to human and nonhuman others, and even harder to see writing as part of a whole, interrelated, ceaselessly changing environment rather than as a social system through which humans make conscious choices about the nonsocial other systems, the natural environment." This struggle to see relationships as primary, and to broaden the study of writing and reading to include the natural systems of which they are a part, is the organizing impulse of the critical enterprise that has come to be called ecocriticism.

Ecological criticism begins with recognition of the nonhuman-"the study of literature as if the environment mattered," to borrow David Mazel's definition (A Century 1). Ecocriticism asserts the primacy of the natural world by expanding the field of literary study from merely social relations to the discursive constructions of nature in texts. It takes as its object natural, constructed and imagined places; it seeks to broaden the ethical domain of language to the non-human; and it frames questions about how we experience the natural world as well as how our textual representations of nature render meaningful the world around us. Ecocriticism thus proposes a radical mode of intertextuality that encompasses both the human (built) and nonhuman (natural) environment. As distinguished from other critical approaches that focus attention on the social and cultural contexts in which those texts are written and read, the ecocritical perspective is shaped by the idea that the practices of reading and writing take place within and affect cultural systems, and that cultural systems arise out of and are determined by the natural systems of which they are always already a part. Of course, as ecofeminist scholarship has emphasized most explicitly, the domain of nature has been culturally constructed in particular and often destructive ways; it is therefore not surprising that a growing number of ecocritics have turned their attention from the pristine and privileged domain of wild nature to the urban and suburban environments where issues of race and class and social justice become central analytic concerns.

Ecocriticism has developed rapidly from a literary concern with nature writing in the United States to a broader investigation of the ways language and thought mediate human relationships with the physical environment.1 From its initial study of a group of nature writers-including William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Susan Fennimore Cooper, John Muir, John Burroughs, Mary Austin, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, as well as Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and Barry Lopez- the field now encompasses a wider spectrum of environmentally-oriented texts and authors, non-literary environmental discourses, and disciplinary, interdisciplinary and extracurricular contexts. …

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