Monday, July 16, 2012

Ecocriticism and Post-Sustainability

In an Edinburgh park
by J J Cohen

[read Candace Barrington's beautiful post on Lee Patterson first]

It's too late to save the coral reefs. The ocean's future belongs to jellyfish and algae, not fish and multihued polyps. That's a bleak (if not incontestable) fact, but then again, "We need to stop expecting stasis out of natural systems." As Steve Mentz argues on his blog, a marinal world full of jellyfish entails a change in thinking about the sea.

Just as the NYT has us contemplating the vanishing of coral, PMLA has published a cluster on "Sustainability," with excellent pieces by Stacy Alaimo, Dan Brayton, Stephanie LeMenager and Stephanie Foote, Lynn Keller, Steve Mentz, Rob Nixon and Karl S. Zimmerer. The short essays are engaging and well worth your time. They certainly demonstrate the importance of the humanities to any vigorous conversation about the topic. Stacy Alaimo is especially brilliant on this, having served as the academic cochair of her university's Sustainability Committee. She writes of sustainability as a business-driven model, equipped with a "techno-scientific perspective" that dodges self-criticism and avoids the voices of those deemed nonexpert. (LeMenager and Foote, in their piece, point out that sustainability's pragmatism -- its limited emphasis on how to manage current resources -- comes in reaction against the term's potential "squishiness"). Rather than treat the world as a resource for human use, Alaimo urges that sustainability movements take a lesson from posthumanist epistemologies and ethics. She writes:
Rather than approach this world as a warehouse of inert things we wish to pile up for later use, we must hold ourselves accountable to a materiality that is never merely an external, blank, or inert space but the active emergent substance of ourselves and others. (563-64)
One thing we might sustain, for example, is biodiversity -- but in the knowledge that all things change, and that the smallest act can have profound and unseen environmental consequences.

Dan Brayton offers a compelling meditation on Peter Matthiessen's strange novel Far Tortuga, reading its dense prose and inscrutable pictures as a rendition of what it is to pass through catastrophe, barely to survive: "The literature of sustainability is, paradoxically, the literature of catastrophe. Reading Far Tortuga, one cannot help feeling like a witness to an apocalypse that already happened" (570). LeMenager and Foote, on the other hand, argue that the humanity's ability to "bounce back from crisis" offers one of many reasons for them to be included in every discussion of sustainability -- as do, less drastically, their emphasis on collaborative problem solving, teaching, rhetorical analysis, and the activist space of the classroom. Lynn Keller goes further, insisting that the humanities have the power to reclaim sustainability from the "blurry, feel-good realm of corporate advertising" (581). She finds some possibility for change through a focus on environmental apocalyptic writing, in that the genre envisions the various hells we may bring about (581), but she argues that the critical tool box must be large, and include an ethics for our interdependence with the nonhuman and an emphasis on the powers of language and affect.

Steve Mentz, in a foreshadowing of the blog post on coral reefs and jellies I've already linked to, argues that the "happy fictions" of sustainability have already proven untrue. We are already postsustainable. What do we do when we realize that we life in Aftermath? According to Mentz, we acknowledge that truth and attempt to cope with its consequences. Imagining the "earth as ocean rather than garden" assists that project:
For literary humanists, that's good news, because building systems to accomodate and even enjoy radical change is something literature does well ... We must learn to love disruption, including the disruption of human lives by nonhuman forces (Morton, Ecological Thought). After sustainability, we need dynamic narratives about our relation to the biosphere. (587)
Mentz's suggestion for creating such narratives involves immersion in the world that is, and the adoption of a "swimmer poetics" that knows stability is transient, peril limns us, storms are sudden, and all that can be done is to "give oneself over to an alien element" (589). This experiential POV cannot be glimpsed from above; there's no perspective of mastery for the swimmer, only uncertainty and unceasing work. And, of course, aqueous pleasures. As Mentz observes, we cannot stop recycling, cannot stop trying to reduce our emissions and waste, but in the end "we need options, not sustainability" (591). Like all the contributors to this cluster, he agrees that sustainability cannot be allowed to pass as code for doing the same things in marginally different ways.

Rob Nixon mounts a vigorous critique of neoliberalism and its impoverished futurity in his essay. Karl Zimmer looks at kawsay, "a Quechua portmanteau word" that covers meanings from bare existence to thriving. Because it arises out of lived practice in a linguistic borderlands (605), he sees its as full of promise for understanding the nexus of the cultural and the natural at various levels of social scale. Though not connected to the Sustainability cluster, these essays are followed immediately by an interview with Cheryll Glotfelty, the scholar who assembled the first reader of environmental criticism, The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (1996). I have always had a special fondness for that seminal book since it begins with an essay by a medievalist, Lynn White on saint Francis of Assisi (PDF here).

This issue of PMLA also contains a full length article by Eleanor Johnson on "The Poetics of Waste: Medieval English Ecocriticism." I was quite happy to spot the piece because, as I've stated here before, medieval studies is a bit behind other fields (especially early modern and romantic studies) when it comes to ecocriticism. But there is important medieval ecocritical work out there, much of it emerging on the conference circuit, by Randy Schiff and Carolyn Dinshaw and James Smith and many more. I've tried to do my part, organizing two Ecology themed panels for Kalamazoo (audiofiles archived on the web, thanks to Eileen), and threads on Ecologies and Oceans for NCS Portland. Many a blog post has tackled the issue. But there are also some very important books and essays on the subject, by (for example) Alf Siewers and Gillian Rudd and Sarah Stanbury, not to mention all the work in critical animal studies by scholars like Karl Steel. So it was a little disappointing not to see the essay in dialogue with the previous work -- or with Susan Signe Morrison's work on excrement and fecopoetics, since the essay is largely about waste. Johnson's ambitions are a bit different from this other work I'm citing; she conducts her analysis mainly under a historicist paradigm that well excavates the resonance between literary and religious texts and contemporary land use law and practice. This kind of environmental study is important and I am happy to see it in the PMLA.

All in all, PMLA 127.3 is one of my favorite issues of the journal to date.


Steve Mentz said...

You beat me to it, Jeffrey; I've got a still-unwritten post on the different versions of "sustainability" we're all kicking around in these essays. It'll emerge soon.

I agree it's a very lively issue, and I'd add Tobias M's excellent essay on Cowper and catastrophic weather to the list.

captain furious said...

Throwing in for Tobias's essay too. Excellent stuff.

Rob Barrett said...

Coming back to this post as I prep my fall syllabus . . . am I insane to think that one of these essays on post-sustainability could engage in interesting dialogue with the York Doomsday pageant?