Greg Garrard, who’s become something of a point-man for synoptic treatments of ecocriticism (like this one, and see my previous post on him), has come out with a lucid and judicious review of recent publications in The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory. It covers the years 2007-8, which Garrard, in an email to the ASLE listserv, calls “an exceptionally good couple of years for ecocriticism.” An uncorrected draft version of the review can be read on Greg’s page.

It’s a commendable effort to make some sense out of the various approaches one finds in the field. Parsing things into categories is always tricky, and Garrard’s first paradigm, “Normal Science,” is probably the cleanest cut: referring to the “backpacker school of criticism,” this section highlights work by Scott Slovic (Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility) and David Whitley (The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation). This is “established practice,” the dominant paradigm as it were, and the fact that so few pages are expended on it while so many describe four “rivals” tells us exactly how paradigmatically unsettled the field is.

The second classification, “Re-Enchantment,” highlighted here through work by the late Val Plumwood, Patrick Curry, and Anthony Lioi, among others, covers a good swath of fairly traditional (by now) ecocritical writing as well, arguably taking us back to the proto-ecocriticisms of Theodore Roszak, Neil Evernden, and their Romantic forebears. Only with the third section does a sharply announced new paradigm threaten to appear on the horizon. “Against Nature” covers Tim Morton, Dana Phillips, queer ecology, animal studies, posthumanism, and more. That may be too much for a single term to carry, however, especially if the signifier “nature” is seen to be more or less interchangeable with a series of others (ecology, environment, land, etc.), as it tends to be in common usage. In amidst some praise, Garrard reserves some of his strongest barbs for Morton’s Ecology Without Nature, of which he writes,

“The barrage of ecocritical neologisms (‘the timbral’, ‘medial’, ‘ambient poetics’, ‘sinthome’, ‘ecomimesis’, ‘dark ecology’) comes to seem akin to the way biotech companies mass-produce speculative Intellectual Property claims, hoping that one will provide a return. (For the record, my money is on ‘dark ecology.’)” [Mine too. -ai]

The fourth section, “Ecological Materialism,” includes reference to the British ‘red-green’ tradition of William Morris, Raymond Williams, John Berger, and Kate Soper, among others, as well as a lengthy discussion of the Alaimo-Hekman anthology Material Feminisms, some perceptive (if too negative) comments on Wendy Wheeler’s biosemiotics-inspired The Whole Creature, and a commentary on my own ISLE piece on film (nicely reviewed, thanks! — aside from a slightly out-of-place barb against psychoanalysis). The final section, “Globalities/Postcolonialisms,” covers the work of Ursula Heise, Richard Kerridge, Anthony Carrigan, and others.

Garrard’s nominations for the best contenders for “paradigm-shifting” books in the review period are Morton’s Ecology Without Nature, Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, and the Material Feminisms anthology. I doubt (and I suspect he probably does as well) that any of these could singlehandedly shift the ecocritical paradigm. What they will do, and are doing, is broadening it toward deeper engagement with what’s traditionally been outside the field. Morton’s book, for instance, is creating inroads into philosophy, such as with the speculative realists and the psychoanalytical-Marxist-deconstructionist milieu. (Garrard writes of Morton’s “soundbites” that “for generations of graduate students to come they will provide the lever with which to tilt a thesis into a movement.”) And the materialist (-semiotic) feminists have had their own thing going for quite a while, so theirs is not a new project. The same could be said of animal studies scholarship, queer ecology, posthumanism, and red-green materialism (or “green cultural studies”), to mention just a few.

In the end, ecocriticism may be the kind of object that Chris Vitale describes in his piece on relational and object-oriented philosophies. What one sees depends on what one is looking for, and the looking is facilitated by the thing’s naming. “Ecocriticism” is now a certain recognizable object, but the evolution of that object (or organism, if you prefer) is inseparably connected to related objects — ecophilosophy, ecofeminism, animal studies, phenomenology, environmental communication, science studies, etc. If we were surveying green cultural studies, for instance, many of the same readings would crop up, but they would be organized differently.

Greg has elsewhere made clear his desire to shift the ecocritical field toward a more “empirical” basis — which, I think, is where his low tolerance for psychoanalysis and deconstruction comes from. I’m not sure we need to be lured by the sirens of empiricism. Ecocriticism began a little like the cognitivist movement in film and media studies, as a turn away from “theory” toward more empirically grounded work. But I don’t think that’s very sustainable in either case. To study anything, one brings in — smuggles in, if it’s not acknowledged — a whole bag of assumptions about what that thing is and isn’t, what your study of it is capable of doing with it, and so on.

Ecocriticism is ultimately edifying (in Richard Rorty’s terms) when it’s done well, which is exactly what psychoanalysis and deconstruction have been, when done well. They help us think. Empirical, social-scientific work should certainly have a place in environmental literary and cultural studies. There’s a lot of that already in the field of environmental communication (which gets curiously ignored as long as ecocriticism hews closely to its literary origins, so Garrard’s inclusion of ecocinecriticism, or green film criticism, since he doesn’t like the former term, is welcome). But whether it qualifies as “criticism,” and therefore ecocriticism, depends on its being underpinned by clear theoretical premises.

In the humanities and social sciences, paradigms tend not to be replaced, but rather, to fade away. (Some burn out, which Neil Young would approve of, but most just disappear into obscurity, after lingering on for a long time.) Garrard’s five paradigms are a great stab at a moving target. The good news is that the current moment of ecocritical work, active as it is, is probably rendering them outdated as we speak.

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