Friday, November 19, 2010

Green and brown landscapes in conversation

Apart from citing a few writers like Jonathan Bate, I haven't written much here about ecocriticism.  However, much interesting writing on landscape is now done within this academic discipline, so I thought I'd do a post here that provides a bit of background.  In The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005) Laurence Buell traces the history of ecocriticism in overlapping phases:
  • Precursors  - It is possible to look back to early books on literature and the environment, e.g. in the US Norman Foerster's Nature in American Literature (1923) or even Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature (1836).  But two influential texts that stand out as having influenced later writing in Britain and American respectively were Raymond Williams' the Country and the City (1973) and Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in American Culture (1964).
    • Influences - Of the many intellectual influences on ecocriticism, Buell cites three in particular.  The first is Darwin, whose work displaced the privileged position for homo sapiens.  The second is Aldo Leopold, whose 'land ethic' gives rights to non-human life and asked the reader to 'think like a mountain.'  And the third is 'modern continental thought' - specifically Arne Naess, inventor of deep ecology, Heidegger, and phenomenologists Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard.
      •  First Wave Ecocriticism - Ecocriticism proper is seen as originating in work that were influenced directly by the ecology movement, starting in the USA with Joseph Meeker's The Comedy of Survival (1972) which set out the idea that comedy adapts us to the natural world whereas tragedy estranges us from it.  In Britain Jonathan Bate's Romantic Ecology (1991) challenged the view that Wordsworth's nature poetry was simply a refuge from politics and society.  First wave ecocriticism sought an alliance with environmental science, partly as a corrective to cultural relativism, although at the same time other strands (particularly within ecofeminism) were suspicious of scientism.  Early ecocriticism focused mainly on nature writing and was clearly aligned with efforts to conserve the earth and expose pollution. The representative anthology is Glotfelty and Fromm's The Ecocriticism Reader (1996).
      • Second Wave Ecocriticism - There is no clear distinction, but towards the end of the last century ecocriticism broadened its scope, spreading to all forms of text with an environmental interest.  In terms of contemporary writers, interest was extended beyond the likes of Gary Snyder, A.R. Ammons, Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams to writers like Linda Hogan, Chickasaw author of novels dealing in tribal and environmental issues like Mean Spirit (1990), Solar Storms (1995) and Power (1998).  The distinction between natural and built environments is now seen as less clear cut.  Buell writes that between his first book on The Environmental Imagination (1995) and his second Writing for an Endangered World (2001) he moved to the view that 'a mature environmental aesthetics - or ethics, or politics - must take into account the interpenetration of metropolis and outback, of anthropocentric as well as biocentric concerns.'  An anthology that mixes this newer approach with direct political analysis is The Environental Justice Reader (2002).  However, Buell is careful to stress that all strands of ecocriticism are still active and environmental justice concerns have not, for example, replaced criticism inspired by deep ecology.
      Buell's book is by no means the only recent discussion of ecocriticism and you need go no further than the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) website for a whole stack of PDFs examining the field and discussing its evolution - the most recent, at time of writing, is Loretta Johnson's 'Greening the Library: The Fundamentals and Future of Ecocriticism'.  The one book on the subject I would most recommend is Greg Gerrard's excellent Ecocriticism (2004).  In the concluding chapter he cites Laurence Buell's Writing for an Endangered World among examples of contemporary 'hybridized reading practices' and welcomes its inclusion of urban writers like Dickens and Dreiser alongside the likes of Robinson Jeffers and Wendell Berry.  As Buell himself writes, the aim of this was to 'reckon more fully with the interdependence between urban and outback landscapes' and put “‘green’ and ‘brown’ landscapes, the landscapes of exurbia and industrialization, in conversation with one another.”

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