REVIEW by Pippa Marland

NWR Issue 101

Literature, Ecology, Ethics: Recent Trends in Ecocriticism

by Timo Müller and Michael Sauter (Eds)


This new collection of ecocritical essays exemplifies the vitality of an area of literary criticism which, over the last twenty years, has developed from its beginnings as a relatively untheorised celebration of nature writing to its current sophisticated and pluriform state. Ecocriticism, broadly speaking, is the study of the representation in literature of the non-human world, largely from the perspective of anxieties around humanity’s destructive impact on the planet. Spearheaded by the work of Cheryll Glotfelty in the USA and Jonathan Bate in the UK during the 1990s, the movement was motivated by a desire to speak a word for the natural world in the face of the linguistic turn in literary theory which suggested that there was ‘nothing outside the text’. While early ecocritics did not necessarily dismiss the notion that ‘nature’ was a construct, they saw a vital need to reinstate the referent: to engage with the physical world around them which the activities of the human race were increasingly putting at risk. As the British philosopher Kate Soper memorably commented in her book What is Nature?, ‘[…] it is not language that has a hole in its ozone layer.’ (Kate Soper, What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the non-Human, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.)

From the outset, ecocritics held a firm belief that the environmental crisis was to a large degree culturally determined. Lawrence Buell’s early formulation, that the environmental crisis is a ‘crisis of the imagination the amelioration of which depends on finding better ways of imaging nature and humanity’s relation to it’, (Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Harvard University Press, 1995) remains a focus for the new wave of ecocritics. Timo Müller and Michael Sauter’s collection, Literature, Ecology, Ethics: Recent Trends in Ecocriticism, engages with current developments in the field in order to explore the ongoing theoretical and ethical implications of that investigation of ‘nature and humanity’s relation to it’. In this it maintains a careful balance between the active search for new forms of the environmental imagination and a self-reflexive scrutiny of the assumptions and discourses of ecocriticism itself.

There are three elements of this collection which stand out. First is the strength of ecocriticism it evidences in countries across Europe, with essays contributed by academics working in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Turkey, Spain and the UK. Second is the impressive range of disciplines from which the contributing academics draw their inspiration, including anthropology, geography, linguistics, history, pedagogy, and philosophy. Third is the richness and variety of objects of study: while early ecocritics may have focused their explorations on works which self-evidently concerned themselves with the natural world such as American Transcendentalist writings and British Romantic poetry, here we find discussion of a range of literary forms including an international selection of contemporary novels, and earlier works which do not at first glance seem to be directly connected with environmental matters.

This diversity of theoretical approaches and primary material might present difficulties for those coming to ecocriticism for the first time or those not working within this area of study. However, the essays, while offering interconnections and cross-references, are all able to stand alone and can be read singly. Highlights of the volume include Axel Goodbody’s analysis of the frames we use to present and evaluate information about environmental issues such as climate change. He addresses provocative and difficult questions (directed predominantly at a first world audience) such as:
Why does the public know ever more about the necessity to change patterns of consumption, yet remain stubbornly resistant to such change? Why do we have societal inaction and political gridlock on problems related to global climate change, environmental degradation and food and water shortage in the developing countries?

Serenella Iovino contributes a strong essay on Material Ecocriticism, which traces the development of an important contemporary strand of ecological thought centred around our material embodiment. She explores the implications of our shared materiality with the non-human world and the growing apprehension that that world is replete with forms of vibrant agency and biosemiotic signification which at every turn challenge human presumptions of superiority and uniqueness. Carmen Flys Junquera’s chapter uses the frameworks of ecofeminism and postcolonial ecocriticism – with their understanding of the correlation between forms of political, cultural and sexual domination and destructive and exploitative environmental practices – to carry out a sensitive and moving reading of Juan Cobos Wilkins’ 2001 novel, [bookdep:9788401329036 El Corazón de la Tierra]. Roman Bartosch raises timely questions about notions of literary quality and the ethics of reading, critiquing the tendency of some ecocritics to instrumentalise literature in the cause of environmentalism and to judge it on its usefulness in that context rather than engaging with the texts’ ‘specific literary – aesthetic, narrative, and fictional – modes’.

While ecocriticism is an area of literary theory which is still working its way into the mainstream, I would suggest that its wealth of frameworks for study and critique, as evidenced by this collection, offers a valuable range of tools for broadening consideration of literature (and other cultural forms) to those not yet familiar with its ideas. In summary then, this is an impressive and far-reaching collection which demonstrates an admirable breadth of thought when it comes to the vital matter of addressing our relationship with the world in which we live.

Pippa Marland is an online contributor to NWR


previous review: Muscovy
next review: Mother Departs


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