Updated: Sep 14
Literary Theory for the Twenty-First Century
Responding to the ecological problems posed by the Anthropocene, ecocriticism, one of the most recent branches of literary criticism, is defined by Cheryll Glotfelty as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment”. Beyond literary criticism, it falls under the umbrella of the burgeoning ‘environmental humanities’; in Oxford, for example, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) has its own interdisciplinary ‘Environmental Humanities’ network. But while the environment has typically been considered a field of purely scientific enquiry, ecocriticism — along with the environmental humanities more generally — offers a much-needed corrective to this way of thinking. Although the natural sciences undoubtedly perform most of the legwork in allowing us to understand environmental processes and the effects of human beings on them, it is surely approaches from within the arts and humanities which best open up these issues to more critical interrogation.
Here, the Oxford Climate Society’s own 2 Degrees is an excellent example of this, though the best-known instance of what happens when the environmental sciences and humanities meet is Rachel Carson’s much celebrated Silent Spring from 1962. The publication of this seminal study into the harmful effects of pesticides in the US led to a national ban on the pesticide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and contributed to the formation of the American Environmental Protection Agency. While Carson’s education in biology informed her scientific understanding of pesticide pollution, it was her ability as a writer that propelled her into the limelight and to the forefront of the emerging environmental movement in the 1960s. Though public-facing, accessible writing on the environment has proliferated over the last couple of decades, Carson’s work retains its prime position in the canon formation of this genre of writing.
The field of ecocriticism has grown from making small ripples to producing tidal waves.
And although it is not the purpose of ecocriticism to produce such works as this, it is very much the concern of this theoretical approach to examine the relationship between the environment and literary representations of it. Coming into its own in the early 1990s, ecocriticism has evolved from engaging with early nineteenth-century Romantic poetry (such as Wordsworth’s The Prelude) to analysing literary traditions as diverse and removed in time as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BC) and Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004). Here I offer an overview of the field’s development, assess the opportunities presented by adopting an ecocritical approach to literary works and argue that it is incumbent on literary studies more broadly to embrace questions concerning the environment, its non-human denizens, ecological degradation and, not least, climate change.
What is ecocriticism?
In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued its first public-addressed pamphlet entitled “World Scientists’Warning to Humanity”, signed by over 1,700 leading experts. It was also, fortuitously, around this time that the fledgling field of ‘ecocriticism’ (first coined by William Rueckert in 1978 and also sometimes termed ‘ecological criticism’) first began to make small ripples in literary studies. Responding to Glen Love’s rebuke that “the English profession has failed to respond in any significant way to the issue of the environment”, a small group of American scholars formed the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), which publishes the now-quarterly Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (ISLE) internationally and Green Letters in the UK.
A quarter of a century on, the UCS recently issued its “Second Notice” in BioScience — this time signed by a staggering 15,364 scientists — noting that, of the countless environmental issues raised twenty-five years before, only the hole in the ozone layer had been resolved (and even that, it now seems, is no longer entirely true) and that most of the rest “are getting far worse”. In marked contrast, the field of ecocriticism has grown from making those small ripples to producing tidal waves: an expansion also seen in the environmental humanities more generally (for an introduction to which one need look no further than last year’s The Environmental Humanities: A Critical Introduction by Robert Emmett and David Nye). There has been an almost ceaseless outpouring of ecocritical readers, handbooks, introductions, special journal issues, essay collections and monographs in literatures and languages across both time and space, such that, according to Hubert Zapf, ecocriticism “has developed from a marginal phenomenon in literature and culture departments into an institutionalized academic field” (a brilliant introduction to the field is Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism from 2012).
Amongst the first pioneers of ecocriticism were British scholar Jonathan Bate, with his Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition in 1991 and American academic Lawrence Buell, author of The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture in 1995. They explored the role of the sublimity of ‘nature’in the British Romanticist and American Transcendentalist traditions respectively and in doing so heralded the arrival of the ‘environmental turn’in literary studies, younger sibling to structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist criticism, post-colonial studies and feminist theory. However, while ecocriticism represents one of the latest shoots of critical theory, Buell regards it, more usefully, “less as a monolith than as a concourse of discrepant practices”, with a greater focus placed on interdisciplinarity and dialogue between subject areas previously held to be worlds apart.
The American structuralist Jonathan Culler defines literary critical theory broadly as those “works that succeed in challenging and reorienting thinking in fields other than those to which they apparently belong”. While ecocriticism may not have quite yet broken through into mainstream critical theory, it certainly seems to live up to Culler’s definition. Where feminist theory has shifted the focus of literary analysis onto the place of women in literature, and where postcolonial studies have done the same for the marginalised, usually ethnically distinct, ‘Other’, ecocriticism strives to bring to bear the full force of ecological thought on literary study. But if feminist and postcolonial theories have, for instance, Simone de Beauvoir and Edward Said respectively, who might ecocritics turn to for an ecological theory?
Just as feminist criticism moved literature (and cultural studies more generally) away from androcentrism (male-centred perspectives), ecocriticism seeks to steer literary analysis away from anthropocentrism (human-centred perspectives), inviting readings of texts which focus not on the human but the non-human, as well as the interactions between the two. The philosophy which lies behind this paradigm shift is known as ‘deep ecology’, a term coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in the 1970s; the ethos behind this philosophy is perhaps best reflected in Naess’s tenet that “all living beings have intrinsic value”. Rather than entrench the so-called ‘nature-culture divide’, deep ecology — and thus also ecocriticism — sets out to transcend this limiting dichotomy. By recognising that humans “are both part of and apart from nature”, as Bate does, ecocritics analyse not only the relationship between the human and the non-human in literature, but also the ways in which the human’s place within the wider ‘non-human’ sphere is realised.
There is one issue conspicuous for its near-absence from ecocritical debates: climate change.
In practice, then, ecocriticism allows the literary scholar to explore seemingly well-trodden paths with fresh readings of texts, both ‘classic’and modern, whilst “open[ing] up the possibility of interrogating modern views on the environment”, as Heide Estes neatly puts it. This is surely a worthwhile undertaking: how we respond to the environment — and, more pressingly, environmental degradation — in our literary productions and analyses reflects our ability (or otherwise) to imagine, to conceive of, the sheer immensity of it. For example, an ecocritic might analyse the pastoral in Virgil’s Georgics or Wordsworth’s ‘The Idle Shepherd-Boys’, or examine the depiction of wilderness in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; she might explore questions of apocalypse as encountered in the Book of Revelation or the prologue to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; or, combining theoretical approaches, she might engage with Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature to produce an ecofeminist reading of a text. There is, however, one issue conspicuous for its near-absence from such literary debates: climate change.
The future of ecocriticism
In his The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh tackles the absence of climate change from literature head on. He traces the origins of the challenges posed to literature by climate change to the birth of the modern novel in the nineteenth century and the context in which it was born, stating that these challenges “derive ultimately from the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth”. Climate change and the modern novel, it would seem, are twins. Moreover, Ghosh notes that this problem is not restricted to literature itself, but to literary criticism, with the eerie silence around climate change pervading major British and American reviews and journals (ISLE and Green Letters, mentioned above, are notable exceptions). In fact, he wryly observes that “the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction”, an oft-scorned genre to which he returns later on in the book. Most poignantly of all though, Ghosh asks, “Are the currents of global warming too wild to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration?” By way of response, he offers his most damning indictment, asserting that “if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these torrents, then they will have failed — and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis”. But what is it about climate change that makes it so resistant to the human imagination?
Whilst scientists may be better suited to wrapping their heads around the behemoth that is climate change, Ghosh is quick to reiterate that it is not merely a scientific crisis, but “also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination”. Citing ecological philosopher Timothy Morton’s notion of the ‘hyperobject’, Ghosh comments, moreover, that the problem faced by the modern novel is ‘a scalar one’. ‘Hyperobjects’, according to Morton, are “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” such that they are effectively beyond the temporal and spatial scales on which humans operate. Scale, and the problem it poses to the imagination, is a theme also taken up repeatedly by medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and earth scientist Linda Elkins-Tanton in their recent interdisciplinary book Earth, part of Bloomsbury’s new ‘Object Lessons’series. “The question of Earth is always a questioning of scale”, they observe, before asking, “can we understand the inhumanly deep, vast, tiny, slow, swift? […] What happens to imagination? What unfolds at the confluence of humanities and planetary science?”