Sunday, June 05, 2011

Flash review: Ecocritical Shakespeare

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).

In fact, Ecocritical Shakespeare shows that environmentally conscious approaches to literature and culture have been Bard-loving for so long that a major shift is underway in the field (and I say "Bard loving" on purpose: having read this book and Shakesqueer recently, all I can say is that I am happy no similar author looms so large over medieval studies; it can get claustrophobic inside that repertoire of plays!). The collection of essays betrays a recurring tension, perhaps even a fault line. On the one hand are critics who can invoke with zest capacious, harmonized and homeostatic überframes like Gaia and Tillyard's The Elizabethan World View (yes, with that 1946 classic remaining unpluralized). They agonize over the question of activism in its relation to writing and teaching as if feminists and queer theorists hadn't published quite a bit on that subject (and in ways that might assist ecocritics in reframing their own conversation: where are the allies?). They speak of ecocritical readings and applying ecocriticism to texts (where is the mutuality, where are the middle spaces?). Then there are others who argue forcefully for more complicated, even catastrophic versions of environmental systems where imbalance is perennial; the pastoral is a dangerous lure; ecocriticism comes out of the peaceful forests to meet darker ecologies; where early moderns themselves were ecocritics who might add something to contemporary theorization; where ecocriticism loses some of its anxiety about not being down to earth, embraces some invigorating currents in contemporary philosophy, and unabashedly imagines ecotheory.

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.


Will Stockton said...

Sounds like a great book! I will put it on my list. Your review actually touches on a question I’ve been pondering for some time, so I wonder if you or others have any thoughts: why the need to disavow that one is doing an ecocritical (or queer, or postcolonial, or any other “theoretical”) reading? I understand and endorse the continued push for critical practices that allow texts to inform theory: mere readings of a text are dull; reading should ideally affect the way we theorize, and the way we see the past and the present and their relation to one another. That’s another way of saying a “reading of” should also be a “reading with” – a collaborative meeting in the middle. But considering that theory emerges in academic contexts, and works with very distinct lexicons usually quite foreign to the texts under discussion, claims by academics that they are not performing a reading usually strike me as disingenuous. More hyperbolically, they strike me as unethical, especially when they go so far as to collapse entirely the distinction between artist and theoretician. Doesn’t the difference between these ways of relating to the world matter? What’s lost to history when we call Shakespeare an ecocritic? Shouldn’t that loss concern us as much as the prospect of cross-temporal collaboration excites us?

Eileen Joy said...

Will has opened up a fantastic [possible] conversation here; I have a gadjillion things to do, but one thing I wanted to add here is that, of course [as Will, I think, intuits] there is NO such thing, anyway, as "mere reading"--all readings, in one fashion or another, are *personal* and also invested in some type of world-view [which is itself a "theory"]. I finally, long after everyone else probably, read Derek Attridge's "The Singularity of Literature" just the other day. I read it in one sitting with 2 glasses of Sancerre at a rickety table in an alley somewhere, and I really find this apropos to Will's questions/claims here:

"The text that functions powerfully as literature (rather than as exhortation, description, mystification, and so on) uses the materials of the same--the culture which it and the reader inhabit and within which they are constituted--in such a way as to open onto that which cannot be accounted for by those materials (though they have in fact made possible its emergence)" [p. 124].


Responsible and *creative* reading "does not ... aim only to appropriate and interpret the work, to bring it into the familiar circle, but also to register its resistance and irreducibility, and to register it in such a way as to dramatize what it is about familiar modes of understanding that render them unable to accommodate this stranger" [p. 125].

For Attridge, a "vital critical practice" would be one in which the method of reading would do justice to literary works "as events . . . inventively responding to invention" [p. 137].

So to Will's last question I would also ask, can anything really be "foreign" to the "singular" artwork that is open to the future in this way? Yes, the original historical context(s) of the work matter, as does its form(s), all of which constrain what it can "say" as an object, but if it is really "new," it is also a form of alterity waiting to be "read" in the future.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for that question, Will, as well as the chance that it gives me to clarify.

I am certainly in support of "readings with," in the sense of contemporary and historical (human and textual, etc) companionship, an open relationship susceptible to mutual transformations. What I don't see the point of are readings as applications: the critic knows that ecocriticism attends to X, Y &Z, discovers X, Y & Z in the text, and reaffirms the value of ecocritical readings through bringing those points to light. Since you brought up ethics, what is unethical (I think) is to believe that your knowledge is complete before the textual encounter, to disallow that this thing with which you are making your alliance might profoundly alter your reading practices by infecting them with its own interests and agenda.

So, yes: readings with rather than readings of. (Though I am also quite comfortable with collapsing the distinction between artist and theoretician since I think that's a nearly impossible one to maintain.)

The second set of questions deserve meditation. What IS lost to history as Shakespeare becomes an ecocritic? I don't have an answer to that one, but am suspecting you have an inkling, Will. Care to speculate?

Will Stockton said...

Hi Jeffrey and Eileen,

Thanks for the response! I think we’re all on the same page in our opposition to what Jeffery calls “readings as applications” that simply locate evidence of what the critic already knows. I also agree entirely that to refuse to allow a text to alter one’s way of thinking, of theorizing, is also unethical. The more I think about it, the more I think some of my objections are rhetorical: when critics say they aren’t doing “readings,” what they mean is that they aren’t simply doing “readings as application.” In my mind, they’re still reading – they’re just “reading with,” which always entails at least a bit of “reading of,” as this “reading of” is exactly the thing which the most intriguing parts of “reading with” will resist.

Eileen, I really like the quote from Attridge: Responsible and *creative* reading "does not ... aim only to appropriate and interpret the work, to bring it into the familiar circle, but also to register its resistance and irreducibility, and to register it in such a way as to dramatize what it is about familiar modes of understanding that render them unable to accommodate this stranger.” I take a similar lesson from Jean Laplanche, whose insistence on the irreducible alterity of the text, of the Other, of the unconscious I find most salutary for thinking about the ethics of reading.

It’s in fact that same insistence that makes me still resistant to the collapse between artist and theorist. Granted, that distinction is difficult to sustain, but the difficulty is the point, not the thing to be overcome. The collapse of artist into theorist, to be perfectly frank, seems to me to smack of a kind of critical hubris that universalizes our subject position: we want the artist to be us. Tellingly, that particular collapse does not, cannot, cut both ways. For instance, Shakespeare is an ecocritic, and I am an ecocritic. But no, I am not a dramatist.

If Shakespeare or other early moderns are ecocritics, who isn’t? What makes someone not an ecocritic? And what else are they? Psychoanalysts? Marxists? Deconstructionists? Aren’t they anything we see ourselves being? What’s lost to history in the collapse of affinity into identification – or “like” into “is” -- are nothing less that those crucial dimensions of self-identification that sustain the very difference between self and other, text and critic, crucial to ethical reading practices.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Will. Re:

that distinction is difficult to sustain, but the difficulty is the point, not the thing to be overcome. The collapse of artist into theorist, to be perfectly frank, seems to me to smack of a kind of critical hubris that universalizes our subject position: we want the artist to be us. Tellingly, that particular collapse does not, cannot, cut both ways. For instance, Shakespeare is an ecocritic, and I am an ecocritic. But no, I am not a dramatist.

Few of us are dramatists, or poets, or novel writers ... but I'm still not sure that precludes a theoretician from being an artist -- no, not an artist of the same magnitude of the texts we work with, certainly not an artist of the same genre -- but a creative spirit, a maker, an experimentalist, a potential innovator. It's hubris to say that we are equal to or greater than what we read with, but is it to say that our profession is a mixed one, a little bit of the analyst, a little bit of the artist, a little bit of the public servant, not rendering us in any way superior, but reminding us that we are always in process.

So what if we never amount to much more than the Thomas Kincaide who works on Picasso? (Actually, to keep my analogy intact, the Kincaide to Balzac would be a better comparison).

There's an art to theory, to reading and to analysis. It doesn't make us *great* artists to embrace that artistic (creative) portion, but we might as well not limit in advance what we want to attempt. That's not the same as universalizing our subject position, I hope: I was thinking that it was more an admission that we can never be sure where that position is grounded as well as in what home it will long reside.

Julie Orlemanski said...

I’d like to second Jeffry’s linking of the roles of scholar and artist, critic and poet. For me, reading literature is a fundamentally creative act – we actually create something new by bringing our experiences and concerns into contact with a text and the world it conjures. Scholarly writings are so many efforts to give this creative encounter a form, permanence, and a chance to develop and be shared. Different scholarly occasions call for different kinds of fidelity to the structure or language or historical context of a literary work, and likewise particular pragmatic aims might lead us to focus on questions of gender, embodiment, race, ecology…. For me, the point’s not at all to collapse Shakespeare and myself into the same subject-position. Rather, it’s to recognize that Shakespeare’s vocation & practice share certain features with my own: we both generate new “readings” of the past and of literature, readings inevitably informed by personal passions and current concerns, expressed in and for the present (and the future?) in a variety of expressive forms. I guess I see us all as existing in some kind of messy vital tangle of self-propagating “tradition”… :)

Will Stockton said...

Oh dear, I didn’t mean there’s no art to theory. I hope I didn’t imply that, although apparently I did. I agree entirely with Jeffrey’s and Julie’s characterization of what we do, and I can only hope that my own work reflects a certain artistry.

I only meant that there’s a certain kind of hubris in the willful anachronism that makes Shakespeare (or any other artist, though in Renaissance studies these claims are most often made around Shakespeare, who always gets to be our contemporary) into same specific kind of critic we are. As I hope my own work also attests, I like anachronism – risky, temporally strange claims meant to displace otherwise secure points of origins. But I think these claims have to be made quite carefully and consciously in ways that do justice to the fact that past artists and past texts simply are not speaking the same vocabulary, and that they inhabit very different ways of being in the world. They also have to be made in ways that provide criteria for disqualifying someone from the label we're trying to project: if Shakespeare's an ecocritic, then who's not?

When I said that I am not a dramatist, but Shakespeare is, all I meant was that it's important to hold onto the fact that our art is working towards different ends, and I am using a very different lexicon than he is. Simply saying Shakespeare is an ecocritic seems to obliterate that distinction. But I haven’t yet read *Ecocritical Shx,* so I could very well be tilting at windmills!

Anonymous said...

They agonize over the question of activism in its relation to writing and teaching as if feminists and queer theorists hadn't published quite a bit on that subject

Also anthropologists, of course, who like quantum physicists cannot help interfering with the situations they observe by observing them, and have long been aware of this problem; one strand of argument that comes out of this is that if you are intervening anyway, you may as well intervene for good. Obviously a counter-strand argues that importing an ideal of good from outside makes one a missionary not an academic; but some people are OK with this when they believe in the cause (Christianity, socialism, clinical medicine...). And even once out of the field, of course the argument goes on in print. The most recent instalment I can think of is the farrago over Jared Diamond's misuse of informants in Papua New Guinea; there may be some ethics of interest bruited in that article and its references.