Ecocriticism is the study of literature and environment from an interdisciplinary point of view where all sciences come together to analyze the environment and brainstorm possible solutions for the correction of the contemporary environmental situation. Ecocriticism was officially heralded by the publication of two seminal works, both published in the mid-1990s: The Ecocriticism Reader, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, and The Environmental Imagination, by Lawrence Buell.
In the United States, ecocriticism is often associated with the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), which hosts biennial meetings for scholars who deal with environmental matters in literature. ASLE publishes a journal—Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (ISLE)—in which current American scholarship can be found.
Ecocriticism is an intentionally broad approach that is known by a number of other designations, including "green (cultural) studies", "ecopoetics", and "environmental literary criticism".
Evolution of ecocriticism in literary studies
Ecocritics investigate such things as the underlying ecological values, what, precisely, is meant by the word nature, and whether the examination of "place" should be a distinctive category, much like class, gender or race. Ecocritics examine human perception of wilderness, and how it has changed throughout history and whether or not current environmental issues are accurately represented or even mentioned in popular culture and modern literature. Other disciplines, such as history, philosophy, ethics, and psychology, are also considered by ecocritics to be possible contributors to ecocriticism.
William Rueckert may have been the first person to use the term ecocriticism (Barry 240). In 1978, Rueckert published an essay titled Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism. His intent was to focus on “the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature.” (Reprinted in The Ecocritism Reader on p. 107)
Ecologically minded individuals and scholars have been publishing progressive works of ecotheory and criticism since the explosion of environmentalism in the late 1960s and 1970s. However, because there was no organized movement to study the ecological/environmental side of literature, these important works were scattered and categorized under a litany of different subject headings: pastoralism, human ecology, regionalism, American Studies etc. British Marxist critic Raymond Williams, for example, wrote a seminal critique of pastoral literature in 1973, The Country and the City, which spawned two decades of leftist suspicion of the ideological evasions of the genre and its habit of making the work of rural labour disappear even though Williams himself observed that the losses lamented in pastoral might be genuine ones, and went on to profess a decidedly green socialism.
Another early ecocritical text, Joseph Meeker's The Comedy of Survival (1974), proposed a version of an argument that was later to dominate ecocriticism and environmental philosophy; that environmental crisis is caused primarily by a cultural tradition in the West of separation of culture from nature, and elevation of the former to moral predominance. Such anthropocentrism is identified in the tragic conception of a hero whose moral struggles are more important than mere biological survival, whereas the science of animal ethology, Meeker asserts, shows that a "comic mode" of muddling through and "making love not war" has superior ecological value. In the later, "second wave" ecocriticism, Meeker's adoption of an ecophilosophical position with apparent scientific sanction as a measure of literary value tended to prevail over Williams's ideological and historical critique of the shifts in a literary genre's representation of nature.
As Glotfelty noted in The Ecocriticism Reader,[page needed] “One indication of the disunity of the early efforts is that these critics rarely cited one another’s work; they didn’t know that it existed…Each was a single voice howling in the wilderness.” Nevertheless, ecocriticism—unlike feminist and Marxist criticisms—failed to crystallize into a coherent movement in the late 1970s, and indeed only did so in the USA in the 1990s.
In the mid-1980s, scholars began to work collectively to establish ecocritism as a genre, primarily through the work of the Western Literature Association in which the revaluation of nature writing as a non-fictional literary genre could function. In 1990, at the University of Nevada, Reno, Glotfelty became the first person to hold an academic position as a professor of Literature and the Environment, and UNR has retained the position it established at that time as the intellectual home of ecocriticism even as ASLE has burgeoned into an organization with thousands of members in the US alone. From the late 1990s, new branches of ASLE and affiliated organizations were started in the UK, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ), India (OSLE-India), Taiwan, Canada and Europe.
In comparison with other 'political' forms of criticism, there has been relatively little dispute about the moral and philosophical aims of ecocriticism, although its scope has broadened rapidly from nature writing, Romantic poetry, and canonical literature to take in film, television, theatre, animal stories, architectures, scientific narratives and an extraordinary range of literary texts. At the same time, ecocriticism has borrowed methodologies and theoretically informed approaches liberally from other fields of literary, social and scientific study.
Glotfelty's working definition in The Ecocriticism Reader is that "ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment" (xviii), and one of the implicit goals of the approach is to recoup professional dignity for what Glotfelty calls the "undervalued genre of nature writing" (xxxi). Lawrence Buell defines “‘ecocriticism’ ... as [a] study of the relationship between literature and the environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmentalist praxis” (430, n.20).
Simon Estok noted in 2001 that “ecocriticism has distinguished itself, debates notwithstanding, firstly by the ethical stand it takes, its commitment to the natural world as an important thing rather than simply as an object of thematic study, and, secondly, by its commitment to making connections” (“A Report Card on Ecocriticism” 220).
More recently, in an article that extends ecocriticism to Shakespearean studies, Estok argues that ecocriticism is more than “simply the study of Nature or natural things in literature; rather, it is any theory that is committed to effecting change by analyzing the function–thematic, artistic, social, historical, ideological, theoretical, or otherwise–of the natural environment, or aspects of it, represented in documents (literary or other) that contribute to material practices in material worlds” (“Shakespeare and Ecocriticism” 16-17). This echoes the functional approach of the cultural ecology branch of ecocriticism, which analyzes the analogies between ecosystems and imaginative texts and posits that such texts potentially have an ecological (regenerative, revitalizing) function in the cultural system (Zapf, "Literary Ecology").
As Michael P. Cohen has observed, “if you want to be an ecocritic, be prepared to explain what you do and be criticized, if not satirized.” Certainly, Cohen adds his voice to such critique, noting that one of the problems of ecocriticism has been what he calls its “praise-song school” of criticism. All ecocritics share an environmentalist motivation of some sort, but whereas the majority are 'nature endorsing' (as Kate Soper puts it in "What is Nature?" (1998)), some are 'nature sceptical'. In part this entails a shared sense of the ways in which 'nature' has been used to legitimise gender, sexual and racial norms (so homosexuality has been seen as 'unnatural', for example), but it also involves scepticism about the uses to which 'ecological' language is put in ecocriticism; it can also involve a critique of the ways cultural norms of nature and the environment contribute to environmental degradation. Greg Garrard has dubbed 'pastoral ecology' the notion that nature undisturbed is balanced and harmonious ("Ecocriticism" 56-58), while Dana Phillips has criticised the literary quality and scientific accuracy of nature writing in "The Truth of Ecology". Similarly, there has been a call to recognize the place of the Environmental Justice movement in redefining ecocritical discourse (see Buell, "Toxic Discourse").
In response to the question of what ecocriticism is or should be, Camilo Gomides has offered an operational definition that is both broad and discriminating: "The field of enquiry that analyzes and promotes works of art which raise moral questions about human interactions with nature, while also motivating audiences to live within a limit that will be binding over generations" (16). He tests it for a film (mal)adaptation about Amazonian deforestation. Implementing the Gomides definition, Joseph Henry Vogel makes the case that ecocriticism constitutes an "economic school of thought" as it engages audiences to debate issues of resource allocation that have no technical solution.
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- Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1995.
- Buell, Lawrence. "Toxic Discourse." Critical Inquiry 24.3 (1998): 639-665 .
- Buell, Lawrence. Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond. Cambridge, MA and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
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- Vogel, Joseph Henry. "Ecocriticism as an Economic School of Thought: Woody Allen's Match Point as Exemplary." OMETECA: Science and Humanities 12 (2008): 105-119.
- Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London: Chatto and Windus, 1973.
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- Isle: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment
- Journal of Ecocriticism
- Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment
- Indian Journal of Ecocriticism
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- "Dinnseanchas", Eamonn Wall, Berfrois, 17 March 2011
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- Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (NIES)