Tag Archive: ecocriticism


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.

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free access to ISLE until May 15

ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, which has been the leading forum for what’s come to be known as “ecocriticism” over the past 15 years or so, has finally caught up with the times and gone digital, thanks to the deal it arranged with its new publisher, Oxford. To celebrate the transition, all issues dating back to volume 1 (1993) have been made available for free online until 15th May 2009. You can browse and download articles here. More information about the journal can be found at the journal’s homepage .

Incidentally, my article on “Green Film Criticism and Its Futures” appeared in volume 15 no. 2 last year.

One of the impressive recent efforts to bring the physical sciences and the social sciences and humanities back onto “consilient” speaking terms (to use E. O. Wilson’s terminology, though his own efforts at this have been unimpressive) is Wendy Wheeler’s The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture. Wheeler is a humanist, an English lit specialist whose work emerges out of the Raymond Williams tradition of British cultural studies, and her foray into biosemiotics and complexity science is highly original and ambitious. She’s an editor at British Left-political cultural studies journal New Formations , having produced special issues on complexity and ecocriticism in recent years. Complexity research has been making some waves in sociological and cultural theory circles for a while now (e.g., in Theory Culture & Society), but biosemiotics is more of a newcomer on these intellectual (humanistic/culturological) shores. The book is blurbed by leading biosemiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer, author of, among other things, Signs of Meaning in the Universe (Indiana U. Press, 1996).

While I’ve only read parts of the book (and a few outtakes in other venues) and am not qualified to comment on its use of complexity theory or biosemiotics, it’s heartening to see Donald Favareau’s very favorable extended review, “Understanding Natural Constructivism” in Semiotica, which has been a leading venue for biosemiotic research and theory for several years. I strongly recommend it both as a summary of Wheeler’s book and as an introduction to biosemiotics.

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About this blog

An online space for environmental cultural theory, this weblog has two primary objectives:

(1) To communicate about issues at the intersection of ecological, political, and cultural thought and practice, especially at the interdisciplinary junctures forming in and around the fields of ecocriticism , green cultural studies, political ecology, environmental communication, ecophilosophy, and related areas (biosemiotics, geophilosophy, social nature, poststructuralist and liberation ecologies, zoontologies, urbanatures, animist liberation theologies — invent your own neologisms); and

(2) To contribute to the development of a non-dualist understanding of nature/culture, mind/body, spirit/matter, structure/agency, and worldly relations in general. Dualisms aren’t inherently bad, but these ones have become stultifying; they contribute to the log-jam in which environmental thinking has been caught for too long. To this end, the blog is interested in philosophies of process, ontologies of immanence and becoming, and epistemologies of participation, relation, and dialogue – that is, ways of understanding and acting that take ideas and practices, bodies and minds, subjects and objects, perceptions and representations, agency and structure, to be fundamentally inseparable, creative, and always in motion. The blog will be a place where non-dual mind (/body, subject/object) meets non-dual world (nature/culture), or where rigpa meets anima.

(For more on these topics, see the posts on immanence, immanent naturalism, rigpa and anima, geophilosophy, green cultural studies, between Continental and environmental philosophy, and the “P-R Theory 101″ links in the right-hand column.)

The blog aims to be a useful resource for scholars, graduate students, and the interested public. As the boundary between scholarship and the wider world of public thinking gets ever more more blurred thanks to digital technology, the distinction between lay and scholarly loses its cogency. The original idea was for the blog to serve as a forum for thinking in and around the Environmental Thought and Culture Graduate Concentration at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont. The broadening described here is an outgrowth of that.

A blog, like an idea, is only successful to the extent that it germinates, grows, connects, and takes on a life of its own. This one began as one person’s (self-) prod to think out loud and to forge connections in thought, word, and image. To what extent it grows beyond that will become evident over time.

For a summary of the blog’s first year, see here; and of the second year, here.

This version updated (slightly) on December 9, 2010 (after the migration of the blog to WordPress).

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Or, Toward an eco-Buddhist-processualist cultural criticism

Note: This is work in progress and probably won’t be published for a while, and not in this form in any case. It comes from an attempt to theorize an ‘ecocritical’ understanding of culture that is in dialogue with the Marxist tradition of social and political analysis, Derridean poststructural philosophy, Buddhist psychology, and the psychoanalysis of Freud, Lacan, and Zizek, among others. I welcome comments.

For Fredric Jameson, it is history, understood in Marxian terms as a series of changing relationships among and between social groups and their systems of material production, that serves as a relatively stable ground or horizon against which the vicissitudes of human culture play their figure. For Derridean deconstruction (and other brands of poststructuralism), there is no ultimate ground, and textuality in its groundless infinite play is what shows us this most clearly. For the approach I’m working on, rooted in a more naturalistic understanding of the world than Derrida’s and a more ecological one than Jameson’s, there is similarly no ultimate ground, but there are relative grounds that can be found in the unfoldment of social and ecological relations. The hermeneutic I’m proposing doesn’t leave us errantly wandering among texts and discourses (as does deconstruction), but leaves us ethically responding to others (as many deconstructionists themselves do) among relations that are simultaneously material and biological (a la Marx and Darwin), discursive (a la culturalism), and imaginal-phantasmic (a la psychoanalysis).

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