Ecocriticism asks us to pay attention to the non-human in literature and other cultural artefacts. At a deeper level, however, it seeks to undo the binary opposition between human and Other, looking to literary texts in order to point the way to a post-human ‘dwelling in the world’, one which is not based upon Descartes’ anthropocentric separation of mind from body and world. This is something of a paradox because it is very likely impossible for a human being to view the world from anything other than a human perspective. Furthermore, the means by which the post-human, non-anthropocentric dwelling in the world is imagined is inherently cultural; writing, painting, building and, most certainly literary criticism, are all ‘second nature’ or cultural pursuits, and their heritage, at least in the Western world, is that of Descartes’ dualistic vision. To some extent, paradox is the natural home of critical theory, so I do not mean to paint an overly forlorn picture, but ecocriticism must come to terms with the complicity of its tools and methods with that which it seeks to oppose. If language is androcentric and dualistic, and we cannot but approach the world as Other, we must make use of what we have to resist and refashion, building new tools and methods out of those we have inherited. In this hope against hope, we can see the close affinity of ecocriticism to Romanticism, the literature of which has proved particularly fruitful for ecocritical enquiry.
What does an ecocritic do then? One way in which an ecocritic may begin is to read a text, carefully noting the mentions of animals, plants and the natural world. An ecocritical reading will always foreground these elements, even where they are intended merely as backdrop. A first reading might do nothing more than that. One might then reread the text looking for the absence of such phenomena: is the landscape, setting, wildlife and plant life ignored? Thirdly, taking the data recorded thus far, we must begin to ask ourselves how these natural phenomena are portrayed: are they integral to the plot, to the atmosphere, to the effects of the text? What attitudes do characters, narrators and authors display towards them? What power relationships exist between humans and the non-human? Does the text assume this dualism to exist or attempt to undermine or transcend it? Finally, we might ask ourselves why a text has this or that approach to the relationship between humanity and the world in which we live.
As you are probably starting to discover, critical theories are not pure, they grow out of other critical theories, in support and in opposition, and they are polyamorous, seldom confining themselves to one or no partners. Ecocriticism frequently pairs itself with psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, historicism, postmodernism, postcolonialism and avails itself of the tools of formalism. Having adumbrated the ecological content of a text, these theories help to answer the how and why of the steps outlined above.
As is often the case with other critical theories, ecocriticism is used both constructively and destructively. Constructively, ecocritics tend to privilege texts that are profoundly involved with the natural environment, preferring William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy to Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens, for example. Ecocritical readings of texts already invested in the natural world look for evidence of proto-ecological thought in past authors, and are often overtly supportive of the work of contemporary authors which champions similar views, or attempts to find new ways of being in the world. One might say that this becomes less criticism and more a collaborative enterprise and shared ideology, but ecocriticism is not always concerned to espouse objectivity, which it sometimes regards as a potentially harmful myth. Destructively, ecocriticism might read texts which ignore the natural world or relegate it to little more than background, or else demonstrate an instrumental view of nature. Such texts might be ecocritically deconstructed in order to question their canonical status or to reveal their ideological foundations.
This is an oversimplification: a challenge to ecocriticism has come from studies of the built environment which have seen even the concrete and glass of cities as part of the ecosystem and biosphere, just as much as the countryside, forests and wildernesses ecocriticism has traditionally preferred. Some have argued that with the increase in global human population, the least impactful way in which we can now live is in cities, albeit ecologically minded cities.
Space and the relative lack or abundance of it brings us on to two of the original schools of ecocriticsim as they arose in the academy. Those are the North American and British movements. The North American has focused largely on the Transcendental Idealists (such as Thoreau) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but has also looked to native American texts and experiences of a more integrated existence with nature. In the case of the Transcendentalists, Wilderness and vast expanses of open and free spaces characterized the returns to nature of these predominantly male authors. It has been suggested that the availability of such terrain in the U.S. (although vanishing today) was in part responsible for their vision of living in a more ecologically aware fashion. In Britain, ecocriticism has looked to the Romantic era for its beginnings and founding texts, and has been rooted in a rural, farmed nature. Perhaps because of the perceived relative lack of space, British ecocriticism has been less celebratory and ecstatic about the beauty and benefits of a life more in tune with nature, and has instead tended to sound a warning note about the detrimental effects of an instrumental attitude towards nature, and the limited capacity of the biosphere to recover from our overconsumption of its resources. Today the spread of ecocritical theory is worldwide, with journals springing up in Brazil, India, China, Russia and the Middle East. Differing regional approaches to the questions which ecocriticism raises reflect the way in which environment shapes culture and culture in turn has shaped the environment. This reflects, I think, the current climate in ecocriticism, which is inclined to admit culture as a part of nature, but not as an immovable or necessary aspect of our being, indeed one that can and must change if we are to live in harmony with, rather than use up and despoil, our shared environment.
Androcentric: Centred around men or males. Ecofeminist readings might prefer this term to anthropocentric.
Anthropocentric: Seeing humanity as central to the world and / or universe and valuing the non-human only in so far as it is useful to humanity.
Anthropomorphism: The attribution of human characteristics to the non-human.
Deep Ecology: Seeks to identify and undo anthropocentric thinking and ways of being. Proponents have been accused by some of advancing misanthropic views.
Ecology: The science which explores the relationship between plant, animal life and humans and the environment. Also the study of intersecting ecosystems.
Environmentalism: Environmentalists are concerned with the preservation and conservation of the environment for human use. More optimistic and far less radical than deep ecologists.
Misanthropy: Hatred or mistrust of mankind.
Personification: The attribution of human characteristics or form to the non-human.
Zoomorphism: Representation of a god or man in animal form. The attribution of animal form or nature to a god or man.
Image ‘Ecology Park Pond – Community Walk_030710_0050’ by Mile End Residents (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr