William Slaymaker  Wayne State College


As Greg Garrard points out in his book length definition of ecocriticism (titled simply Ecocriticism, 2004), what drives the ecocritical enterprise is a dedication not only to literary analyses of environmental problems described in narratives and poems, but also  the reader is motivated by the ecocritic to work for the mitigation of  the destruction of the natural world. Ecocritics possess both a passionate as well as pragmatic commitment to environmentalism.  Ecocritics rarely adopt highly abstract intellectualist and elitist or ironical approaches to literary language and texts. As Garrard concludes, ecocriticsm is a “great-souled vision with its feet planted solidly on the ground” (182). His final words are worthy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the father figure of American transcendental naturalism and pragmatic fundamentalism. Typically, ecocritics have attacked the realities of pollution, environmental degradation, global warming, species extinction, and ecoethnic injustices with the zeal and emotion that reflect Henry David Thoreau’s critique of a ruthless modernity, bent on and by efficiency and profit.

     The affective methodology of ecocriticism is felt especially in Cheryll Glotfelty’s “Introduction” to The Ecocriticism Reader (1996). Here she argues not only for an increase in environmental awareness, but also she pleads for consciousness raising and conscientious attention to environmental problems in relation to literary texts. The consequences of heightened environmental attitudes and awareness would be a transformation of how literary theory has been taught and practiced in the academy (see xxiv-xxv). In addition, she argues, environmental and ecocritical courses at universities and colleges would result in basic behavioral changes:  recycling, interdisciplinary study, and confronting our ecological crisis. Green criticism would contribute to green campuses across the nation.  The ecocritical commitment to environmental awareness as a prelude to ecological solutions in the real world is obvious in the first two ecocritical works written by Lawrence Buell:  The Environmetal Imagination:  Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995), and Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond (2001). In his “Introduction” to the first work, Buell reaffirms Albert Gore’s call to global citizens to rescue the environment (2). A few pages later Buell blames traditional and contemporary literary theoretical scholarship that weaves tangled and ideologically involuted views of nature (5). Buell argues that literary critics and academic scholars are too far removed from the nature and environment that surround them in their cloistered urban studies and cubicles (5). In the second work, Buell is writing “for an endangered World” which suggests he is a literary theoretical plaintiff who has assembled a host of literary witnesses called to take the stand, all of whom prosecute in prose and poetry those people and institutions who have caused the endangerment of our common environment. As an ecocritic, Buell is a judicial and judicious scholar, writing and citing evidence, and thereby inciting an affective environmentalist and ecocritical turn in his readers through calm, reserved analysis of the “dangers” imposed by humans on nature. Buell is emotive—at least to the degree that is allowed within the pages of academic scholarly criticism--and ecocritically engaged in environmentalism. His call for a review and revisioning of nature writing and criticism in the American literary tradition is motivational and affective. Like his ecocritical colleagues, he is passionately committed to an environmentalistic agenda without stepping out of the bounds of critical decorum. Professional ecocritics rarely write exuberant protest pieces worthy of Greenpeace or PETA. Academic ecocritics expect creative environmental writers such as Wallace Stegner, Rick Bass, even Alice Walker to ratchet up the rhetoric and amplify the emotional appeals to resistance against the profiteers and nature destroyers.          

      Because ecocriticism is emotionally connected to environmentalistic ideologies such as sustainability, stewardship, and Deep Ecology,  it has not invested heavily in the strategies and vocabulary of “high theory” such as postmodernism or poststructuralism. Ecocritical practitioners wish to be actually and rhetorically involved and engaged in environmentalistic activism. The language of high theory filters out effective and affective identification of the ecocritic with his/her subject and object. Ecocritics engage in a rhetorical practice that parallels the preservationist sentiments of John Muir who defended California’s Yosemite Valley in the late 19th century or Rick Bass who pleads for the preservation of Montana’s Yaak Valley in the 21st century. Ecocritics have borrowed from postcolonialism the basic concepts of domination of landscapes and life forms by an aggressively invasive species—Euroamerican modern man, or from the viewpoint of postcolonial ecofeminists, men. But reading a postcolonial ecocritical essay by Christine Gerhardt, “The Greening of African-American Landscapes:  Where Ecocriticism Meets Post-Colonial Theory” (Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 2002) is nothing like plunging into philosophical postcolonial abstractions of the Bengali American literary and cultural critic, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whom Gerhardt quotes on the controversy surrounding “subaltern consciousness.” In contrast to the elusive and allusive high postcolonial theorizing for which Spivak is notorious, Gerhardt’s critical language is relatively uncomplicated and her thesis argument straightforward. Similar to Gerhardt’s essayistic style, is that of Susie O’Brien in her contribution titled “’Back to the World’”:  Reading Ecocriticism in a Postcolonial Context” (in the creatively titled collection Five Emus to the King of SiamEnvironment and Empire, 2007). O’Brien uses careful and cautious language to support her key contention (without being, unlike Spivak, contentious) that the ecocritic must not try to escape, by retreating into the woods, from the nasty politics inherent in the desire of governments and corporations to use and abuse nature in order to gain power and profits. In O’Brien’s view, “Back to the World” means a commitment to slowing the advance of globalizing economic forces that are aligned against those who would defend the world’s remaining scarce natural resources, especially “wild” ones such as forests and rivers. Ecocritics are affectively and effectively engaged in the promotion of the “wild,” but they do not go wild nor native in their pursuit of “greenness”. Ecocritics expect environmental writers such as Barry Lopez  or Leslie Marmon Silko or Annie Dillard to pursue those life altering extremes and write about them. Then ecocritics take up their texts and laud and magnify their works and days. Not infrequently ecocriticsm takes on just this sort of spiritualized tone in reference to creative writers’ natural consciousness raising.

     There are a few ecocritics who borrow as heavily as Spivak from the prolix terminological lexicons of Marx, Freud, Heidegger, and Derrida. Leonard Scigaj’s Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets (1999) is one of them. While Scigaj develops a phenomenological approach to the understanding of twentieth century American nature poetry, he distances himself from the aestheticized shifting agent and subject—the nature poet—that emerges from the poststructuralist French literary and philosophical critics. Rather, Scigaj uses the high theoretical rhetoric of Merleau-Ponty to examine the ways that nature poets relate to their subject—nature—and to their own subjectivity as conscious consumers and constructors of nature. The ecocritic, Scigaj in this instance, intends to uncover in the poetic text the socially and politically aware poet who writes poetry as a linguistic actualization of the poet’s engaged environmental activism. Scigaj’s high theoretical ecocriticism is not often encountered. His message, however, is similar to the bulk of ecocriticism:  nature writing and criticism about it need to focus readers and critics on environmental problems and motivate the consumers of nature writing to act. Most often, the motivation to environmental action is an emotive appeal.  Unlike Scigaj, the majority of ecocritics engage in a formalistic reading of the target narrative or poem, adumbrating the environmental problems, disasters, and anti-natural attitudes of literary characters. In their critical conclusions, ecocritics engage in “e(co)motions”:  they emote; they promote emotional commotions; they empathize with the environmental victims (people, animals, rivers); they incite revolutionary political action against the reactionaries and abusers of the earth. Most ecocritics ally themselves with ecojustice movements and ideologies which could potentially be caught up in the theoretical jargons of sociology and political science, but the majority of ecojustice ecocritics choose to make straightforward indictments of the perpetrators of environmental crimes.

     It is interesting that some ecocritics perceive the absence of high theory as a gap, as an aporetic absence in ecocriticism. For example in ASLE sponsored session at this 2008 MLA  (#410 in your Program), the Chair, Sarah McFarland, has asked her panelists to answer the question, “[w]hat framework might help counter accusations that ecocriticism lacks theoretical sophistication?” (see her “Call for Papers” in the Spring 2008 MLA Newsletter). But postmodern and poststructuralist conceptualizations of absence and presence, of non-being and being, of difference, of logocentrism that call meaning and subjective intentionality into question, and de-center, even marginalize, the authorial actantial voice, do not integrate well with  persuasive environmental and ecocritical rhetorics of  personal and social engagement and direct political action. Ecocritics, as Buell points out (Environmental Imagination, 370-395), think of environmental writing as textual “testaments”, as authorial acts of environmentalism that seek to protect the wilderness or nature from the axe of  modern capitalist destruction in the name of production. The authors of such testaments are not absent and their language is foundationally affective. Environmental writers and their ecocritical admirers see nature writing as “works” of literature in the sense that practical, environmentally inspired work through words has been accomplished. The New Testament Greek term kerygma could be used here in the sense of “proclamation” of the inspirational Word, which, in this case, is the imminent death of nature and the belief in its resurrection through human affirmation of environmental action. Ecocriticism is ecoevangelism of a secular sort. Bill McKibben is its prophet. High theory and its vocabulary cannot support the affect or the pragmatic effect that ecocritics seek. Ecocritics are in hot pursuit of the human bonfire of the vanities that is the cause of global warming, devastated landscapes, and the extinction of species. Cold theory, like cold fusion, proves to be theoretically and actually ineffective. It does not produce enough energy to spark the moral imagination to active indignation at the destruction of nature.