There are rabbits all over the lawns of the University of Victoria campus. Like little furry grass-eating balls, they scurry forward a little from time to time but otherwise placidly chomp away at the lawns, oblivious to humans or anything else. Sometimes they just sit there, or lay themselves out and stare forward, cutely extending their forepaws. (And yes, they leave behind a carpet of little brown pellets as evidence of their grazing.) While I’m not sure what kind of rabbits they are, Vancouver Island does have European rabbits as well as Eastern cottontails, which are native to the eastern side of the continent but established themselves here after a 1964 release near Sooke.

Someone said yesterday, “there’s only so many rabbits a cougar can eat.” Vancouver Island is apparently a hotspot for cougar attacks. According to one study, of 53 documented North American mountain lion (cougar) attacks on people between 1890 and 1990, twenty, or about 38%, occurred here on this island off the coast of British Columbia. One explanation that’s been forwarded for this high concentration of attacks is that their common prey species – porcupine, opossum, coyote, bobcat, badger, and spotted and striped skunks – are absent or nearly absent here (or at least they were up to the 1980s). I guess they don’t hang around the campus much, but they do appear in the city from time to time: one found its way into the parking garage beneath the Empress Hotel, and there are occasional school closings after a cougar has been sighted in the neighborhood.

Which brings me to the ASLE conference, which, like all of these biennial gatherings, defines and redefines the field of literary and, to some (growing) extent, cultural ecocriticism. Each field has its rabbits, quietly plugging away at the grasses of its institutionalized lawns – analyzing poems and novels by this writer or that school of drama, a quiet luxury allowed us by our (in this case, mostly English lit) departments. And each field has its cougars, who appear from the surrounding hills, cast long sidewards glances over the territory, then send broad salvos to shake things up a bit now and again.

Okay, the metaphor has its limits. But some of the names that cropped up repeatedly at today’s plenary are a bit like those cougars, except that their presence is a bit more in evidence than the ones of Vancouver Island. I’m thinking of Dana Phillips, Tim Morton, Stacy Alaimo, Cate Sandilands (one of the plenary speakers) — the ones who bring in uninvited names like Judith Butler, Lacan and Zizek, Haraway and Latour, among others, to “queer” a field that began, in many respects, as an outright repudiation of culturalist “high theory.” Doing that alone is not difficult, and the field by now has plenty of Foucauldian, Harawayan, and Derridean readings of nature, but doing it well, in ways that helps redefine the field, requires a cougar-like crafty brilliance.

Today’s plenary on “Our Critical Challenges: What’s Next for Ecocriticism?” featured two speakers who define the field’s recent growth (if not its origins) rather well: Bath Spa University literary critic Greg Garrard and York University “recovering sociologist” and ecopolitical theorist Cate Sandilands. Both were asked to comment on each other’s work and to provide pointers for the future of the field, and here is where some profound and interesting theoretical differences emerged.

Garrard has shifted over the years from studying Romantic literature from a Heideggerian ‘dwelling’ perspective to a broad-based engagement with ecocritical theory, and most recently to an interest in a scientifically definable ‘human nature,’ while remaining critical of the limitations of traditional sociobiology and its ‘evolutionary psychology’ offspring (and Darwinian literary studies, a kind of bastard literary offspring). Sandilands, on the other hand, roots her eco-theory in a deep engagement with the materialism-friendly (and queer-friendly) feminism of Judith Butler and Donna Haraway, among others, as well as a grounding in Lacanian psychoanalysis and Hannah Arendt’s political writings.

Where they agree, and where Garrard sees a consensus among ecocritics today, is that nature-culture dualism is part of the problem, not its solution. (I’m not sure that the scientific ‘realist’ camp would all agree with that characterization, but it’s a fair assessment of where the field has moved in recent years.) In his discourse on where ecocriticism should move, Garrard advocated for ecocritics to become “more materialist about culture, and more philosophical about nature.” On the first point, he suggested reaching beyond eco-platitudes (he called for a “moratorium” on the word “symbiosis”) toward a deepened engagement with fields, such as biosemiotics, science studies, and others, in which nature is being rethought in more complex ways. On the second, he argued for a shift from the history-of-ideas approach that characterizes too much of the field to a rigorous environmental-historical approach (as suggested, for instance, by the Marxist cultural studies ecocriticism-avant-la-lettre of Raymond Williams, and the work of Richard Grove and other more recent eco-historians). Garrard also advocated a strengthened relationship with Darwinian and biological psychology (more on this in a moment) and the development of an “alternative hedonism” — which sounded to me like the sort of thing Andrew Ross had argued for years ago in his forays into green cultural studies (as in his 1991 book Strange Weather), though Garrard’s main example here was the phenomenological turn to the body by ecophilosophers like David Abram.

Sandilands, for her part, argued against positivism and in defense of deconstruction (which is “a friend, not an enemy,” a point I think much of the ecocritical community has come to agree with, after all those anguished debates in the mid-1990s about the “social siege of nature” by French postmodernists, as their eco-realist opponents depicted it). She argued, against Garrard, that eco-mimesis and sociobiology are far from the only options for a deepened eco-materialism. And she argued most persuasively (for this audience) on behalf of literature, reading, and the public discussion of ideas. Literature, in her view, is not just a “stand-in” for the biophysical or political world. It does not simply “mirror” and represent that world. Rather, it is a refraction, a “transformation” and “storying” of that world, with reading being “an imaginative act” that should be taken up into the public culture – the “environmental public sphere” – within which we teachers, writers, readers, and opinionated citizens articulate our thoughts and join with others in the conversation space of the (Arendtian) polis. (The point about literature as a refraction and transformation of the world is exactly the point made so wonderfully about cinema by John Mullarkey in his Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image, which I’ve mentioned here before. More to come on cinema when I discuss the film sessions at this conference.)

It is in this discussion of politics — a topic that some have argued has been missing from much ‘traditional’ ecocriticism — that the two plenarists’ differences became rather stark. Garrard seems to favor a kind of instrumental ‘nudging’ of people towards more sustainable behavior through policy (of the sort that the Obama administration seems to be making use of in its economic and, possibly, its environmental programs; I’ve blogged about this a couple of times already). Sandilands favors an enactive and enabling, more street-level brand of politics, one of coalition building (rooted in the post-marxism of Laclau and Mouffe), performativity and, sometimes, transgression (of a Butlerian variety), and (Arendtian and Habermasian) public culture and communication. Garrard quoted Sandilands’ phrase “political animal,” where “political” and “animal” “exist through their juxtaposition” in an ambiguous “double movement”:

Political describes the moment where our animal desires are produced discursively, and animal describes the equally productive moment that politics cannot apprehend.”

(The latter point finds support in Sandilands’ Lacanian interpretation of nature as an unrepresentable “glorious strangeness.”)

About the New Left-style participatory/radical democracy that Sandilands argues for, Garrard rather glibly responded that “If we had more participatory democracy in Britain, we’d still be hanging people.” This comment wouldn’t bear repeating, perhaps, if it weren’t so much in evidence within the practice of much of today’s environmentalism, where politics is about lobbying politicians and convincing people to act differently according to the truths that we (environmental scientists and scholars) already know. Opening up the terrain of the political to the wild discussion of opinion and transgressive performativity that Sandilands advocates seems a bit risky, so that even the groups, like, that mobilized the electoral grassroots in the last US presidential campaign provide little space now for the discussion of differences of opinion. But the discussion space is there — or here rather, in online fora, in opinion magazines and on their web sites, on television and radio, in reading groups, university lecture halls, church basements, and streets and public spaces — and it is, arguably, in that broad understanding of public culture that literature, film, visual media, and other forms of cultural production have their potential impact.

There is, I think, a potential convergence between the two approaches, a point that Sandilands herself suggested in her reply to my question about this. This is that public space, and with it the very possibility of an environmental public culture, has been eroded but that its revival requires both action on the part of the public (the multitude, to use Hardt and Negri’s term) AND action by policy makers. There is no inherent and necessary contradiction between policy-oriented action and citizen action; the latter can and should inform the former, as the former can shape and enable the latter. For both of them, alliance building and the various kinds of conversation that entails are required. Scholars and educators are in a capacity to shape public conversation and to render possible action at both levels.

The field of ecocriticism finds itself in a not too dissimilar position to that of environmental communication (and they are, after all, close cousins). While the latter tends, naturally I think, towards a more prescriptive policy-based sense of its political utility, ecocriticism is never quite sure of its political utility beyond a sense that, well, literature is important because it gives us meaning and expresses our humanity. But between the two fields there is a need to focus on those broad avenues of public cultural expression — from audiences’ uses of popular film and television (as the cultural studies crowd has argued for decades) to YouTube and online discussions and expressions of various kinds — within which ideas and expressions take their public shape.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

This year’s conference is more international than it’s ever been, with numerous participants from Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere — evidence of the rapid growth of ecocriticism around the world. From what I’ve seen, the field is still somewhat torn between its nature-oriented, pro-science and anti-theory wing and the more culturally critical/political/theoretical wing. But this divergence is dissipating, especially as the field becomes international and takes on the contours of polities that are very different from the American one.

For more on the conference, see Simmons Buntin’s Simmons has been blogging about it in much more detail than I can hope to.

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