by J J Cohen
Anyone interested in premodern ecocritical approaches to literature and culture will want to read this thoughtful and varied book.
Ecocritical Shakespeare, ed. Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton (Ashgate 2011) suggests that early modern scholars are far ahead of medievalists when it comes to serious engagement with ecocriticism. The Middle Ages possesses one avowedly green book, Gillian Rudd's under-appreciated Greenery; the occasional green essay (e.g., Sarah Stanbury's "EcoChaucer"); a great deal of work in animal studies that sometimes reveals an ecological bent; and one major eco-theoretical intervention, Alf Siewers' much lauded Strange Beauty. (Much more is on the horizon, but what am I missing? Please comment on this post with bibliography: surely there is more).
Greg Garrard's "Foreword" makes that divide amply visible, with cavalier dismissals of postmodernism that set nature up as the the grounded, the commonsensical, the simple, and the necessary. What of an ecotheory, though, that examines the ethereal, the counter-intuitive, the difficult, and the exorbitant? This divide is evident in many of the essays, and yet often quietly breached in surprising places. The essay that gave me most pause as I began to read it -- Gabriel Egan's, linking Gaia and Tillyard -- is also full of great asides on spontaneous generation, unanticipated emergence, the inhuman, and the small pieces that may or may not be portions of a larger system. These asides potentially work against the closing movement describing the Earth as a system/organism with emergent self-regulation (69), rather like the Great Chain of Being as envisioned by the Elizabethans. How different that ending would be had Egan thought a little about the flat ontology described by speculative realism, or the autocatalytic chains described by Manuel De Landa.
Karen Raber gets closer to such inhuman possibility when she invokes Michel Serres on the parasite and white noise to understand the mixed and verminous ecologies of Denmark and Verona. Robert N. Watson offers an "orgy of life" ecology of Midsummer Night's Dream that follows interpenetrations and the release of the self from the prison of its own autonomy. Edward J. Geisweidt provides an excellent analysis of the life of excrement ("a natural, material conglomeration of life, death, and loss") without anchoring it back into a green reading (waste is read as its own ecosystem rather than a fertilizer for a bucolic one). J. A. Shea and Paul Yachin find the shrew (the literal animal) in Petruchio, making him an animal-human hybrid of sorts; Vin Nardizzi, in a more-than-green vegetal reading, finds the wood inside Falstaff. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche likewise excavate the life and potential agency of plants, but not in ways that seem quite so posthuman.
Sharon O'Dair combines a meditation on activism with an exposé of historicism's fear of "powerful" and "dazzling" writing as it embraces the New Boredom, retreating to the safety of the archive. Her essay at once condemns scholarly bustle, and provides a closing anecdote about how academic travel (which causes her some guilt: here as elsewhere O'Dair argues that we need to slow down in our writing and in our world wandering) actually brings her to a moment of unexpected activism and a realization that we cannot remain field-bound. This activist bent is also found in two practical essays about teaching, "An Ecocritic's Macbeth" (Richard Kerridge), about inculcating a green sensibility in the classroom; and "Teaching Shakespeare in the Ecotone" (Lynn Bruckner), which charts the development of an ecoconscious and incredibly creative Shakespeare course that doesn't necessarily teach living in harmony with nature, but does stress how culture mediates the nature we can know.
Beginning with the obvious yet profound observation that "Ecocritical scholarship to date has been almost entirely terrestrial in outlook" (174) -- a landlocked, green bias -- Dan Brayton in "Shakespeare and the Global Ocean" vividly imagines what Steve Mentz calls a blue cultural studies. Like Mentz, Brayton focuses on what is potentially uncomfortable about such a color shift: the ocean as a realm of death and the supernatural, not a place at which to be at home. Speaking of Mentz, my favorite essay in the volume is his "Tongues in the Storm: Shakespeare, Ecological Crisis, and The Resources of Genre." With its emphasis upon catastrophe and imbalance over homeostasis and harmony, the piece looks to Shakespeare's Lear and As You Like It not for early modern confirmations of values we'd like to hold about nature, not to perform a green reading, but to discover tools (in this case, generic tools) adequate to the articulation of the crisis ecology in which we have always perhaps dwelled. In Shakespeare's "polygeneric drama" Mentz finds an early modern version of a story that now can be told between the work of Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton ("options, not solutions").
An Afterword by Simon C. Estok worries about ecocriticism becoming a "thriving business of diminutive proportions" and "a new niche for professionalism," with the example of someone entering the field for no other reason than to increase his chances of getting a job some day. I personally dislike these kinds of stories and could offer many told way back when about queer theory or disability studies; they have always seemed to me like the urban legend of the rich attorney who dresses as a homeless man at night and makes a fortune by begging for money (though Estok does name the person). Can we not for once doubt the passion of those who undertake the work? How about trust over suspicion? How about an end to "applying ecocriticism to Shakespeare" (246) and the offering of an open and nonexclusive invitation to all scholars and anyone else who is interested to engage in a collaborative project of rethinking what nature, ecology, environment, identity and place mean, in ways that challenge us to see present and past differently? Let's not apply anything to anything else, but instead as vulnerable humans as well as intellectuals form queer, experimental and ethical alliances with whatever materials, early or modern, invite us to bring about better worlds. That's the best kind of ecocriticism that emerges from this book, and one I can get behind.