Tag Archives: Ecocriticism

“Uncommon Ground” Reconsidered

It has been almost two decades since the publication of the volume Uncommon Ground. While some of the essays now appear somewhat dated (the Nature Company, for instance, has long since vanished from America’s malls, although that by no means diminishes the essay’s relevance), the book articulates a line of thinking that has had an enduring presence in environmental history and philosophy, and the arguments it puts forward continue to raise hackles amongst the environmentally committed both inside and outside the academy. J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson have done all of us a tremendous favor by collecting a large sample of essays on the concept of wilderness by academic as well as activist supporters and detractors in The Great New Wilderness Debate (1998) and The Wilderness Debate Rages On (2008), and I can only recommend those two books to anyone who wishes to orient themselves in the wilderness discussion. If nothing else, they are a testament to how polarizing the arguments in Uncommon Ground continue to be.
I recently got myself a copy of Uncommon Ground, and felt moved to share a few reflections. First a bit of background: the book evolved out of a colloquium that took place at UC Irvine in 1994. Being a UCI alumnus, that alone makes me a rather sympathetic reader. William Cronon edited the book, and his seminal essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” is the leading text in the volume. The basic thesis of the essay:

Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation – indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.  It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization.  Instead, it is a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.  Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural.  As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.  For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem. (69-70).

As Cronon himself acknowledges, these claims will seem heretical to many of different ecological stripes. I don’t think anyone will say that he wasn’t at least right on that count. Particularly from an activist point of view, this claim would at best be a weak basis on which to build an environmental politics, at worst a philosophy that justifies the activities of Monsanto (although it’s also worth saying that Monsanto never needed permission from humanities scholars to do what it does). The paperback edition responds to the furor that the book’s initial appearance provoked. The subtitle was changed from Toward Reinventing Nature to Rethinking the Human Place in Nature,and included a preface that emphasizes the reality of what we commonly think of nature. Nevertheless, the paragraph above is an easy go-to text for anyone who wishes to take umbrage with the so-called constructionist camp. And that is unfortunate, because in the texts that I have read that cite Uncommon Ground, Cronon’s essay seems to eclipse the many other thought provoking essays.

An often cited passage from the book that Cronon is not responsible for comes towards the end, when the colloquium participants shared a few concluding thoughts on their time together in Irvine and the arguments they presented. In her remarks Anne Spirn appears to have second thoughts about the kinds of positions that emerged at the colloquium and in the book itself:

But I also remember our discussions as so abstracted from the “nature” in which we were living, which I was feeling so intensely but perhaps not expressing verbally.  Sometimes the talk seemed so disembodied.  I regret that we didn’t fully engage the tangibility, the “reality,” of nonhuman nature.  I wonder how different our conversations might have been if they had not taken place under fluorescent lights, in a windowless room, against the whistling whoosh of the building’s ventilation system. (448)

The comments have the appearance of tacitly acknowledging that because of the conditions in which academic discourse all too often happens, the authors lack the authority to make the claims that they do. It would seem that Spirn is taking the side of those in the environmental humanities in particular who seea sustained unmediated encounter with nature as the prerequisite for ecocriticism, ecophilosophy, environmental history, and unfortunately I have seen some of the book’s critics use this particular quote to bolster their own criticisms. But I wonder if Spirn’s words haven’t been unfairly turned against the project. The quote above follows a reminiscence about the collegiality at the colloquium, and the quote itself reads like more of an afterthought than a weighty counterargument. In any case, Spirn’s point is not that “had we gone outside we would have discovered that nature is real after all.” She goes on to say:

Our discussions deepened my awareness of how nature is and has been culturally constructed, but now more than ever I feel it crucial to reassert the reality of nonhuman features and phenomena.  I hope our book doesn’t overemphasize the cultural construction of nature to the extent that readers come away with the impression that nature is only a construct. (448)

In other words, it’s less of a negation of the project itself and more of a qualification against possible abuse by an overly sympathetic readership. This is not the first time this point is made in the book, nor is the affirmation of the reality of the world just a flimsy rearguard defense against ostensibly common-sense objections. What the essays in the book really get at is the strange dialectic of first and second nature that Neil Smith talks about in Uneven Development. There is a world out there, but it’s a world that is constantly being cycled through the labor process, for one thing, but also perceived through its cultural mediation. Getting away from the crowds in Yosemite Valley and exploring the far reaches of the park may be an encounter with reality, but the the windowless room with the noisy ventilation system that Spirn mentions also has a real existence in that sense.

Cronon has a beautiful moment in the introduction to Uneven Development where he encounters this dual character of the planned space. He describes the non-native snails that would come out to enjoy the water from the automatic sprinklers that kept alive his garden of non-native plants. He writes:

The snails were the one element of this garden that had somehow escaped automation and control, the one example of nature doing its own thing instead of what the planners had prescribed.  Never mind that the snails could hardly have been native to the place and depended just as much as our succulent plants on the artificial rain that our computer delivered each night.  Because they didn’t fit the plan, they somehow seemed more natural.  (43).

What Uncommon Ground arrives at is not a naïve Weisheit letzter Schluß that “it was all a construct.” Instead the book offers a nuanced way of accounting for environments that we would (and should) otherwise shudder at simply because they represent our society’s worst excesses in the consumption of the planet.

It seems to me, then, that the salient point in Cronon’s essay is not merely that nature is not what we commonly take it to be. The passage that sticks with me is instead the conclusion, where Cronon writes:

But if we acknowledge the autonomy and otherness of the thing and creatures around us – an autonomy our culture has taught us to label with the word “wild” – then we will at least think carefully about the uses to which we put them, and even ask if we should use them at all.  Just so can we still join Thoreau in declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” for wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies.”  (89)

And this is what the so-called constructonists have over the camp that seems to think that you can only talk about nature after you’ve logged enough hours in “wilderness.” There is no easy ground here on which to base a political program, but at least we have a framework for thinking about more than what commonly gets offered to us as “nature” and “wilderness.”

Towards a Critique of C.P. Snow

The way in which somTower Bridge nearing completion.  Public Domain image from UK National Archives.e literary critics cite C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” speech of 1959 is always rather interesting to me.  It’s not uncommon to see humanists interested in developing points of contact between the sciences and the humanities cite Snow’s model as a useful heuristic. It’s remarkable that this particular text gets cited so frequently, because I’m not so certain that we can really get all that much mileage out of it.  The point that I am going to try to make here is that we need to be a bit more critical when we cite this text, lest we end up investing it with an authority that ends up actually obscuring the implications of Snow’s argument.  It’s time to subject this text to a fresh critique that we may be able to move beyond it.

The basic thesis, for those unfamiliar with the speech, is that academia has become polarized between “literary intellectuals” on the one side and scientists on the other, and each side perceives only a distorted image of the other, which fuels a certain mistrust (4)1.  For Snow, it’s a mutual suspicion borne out of mutual ignorance, but the blame does not fall equally on both sides.  Instead the attack is mostly directed against so-called literary intellectuals.  Snow recounts asking a crowd of this persuasion if they knew the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he claims to be the scientific equivalent of having read Shakespare, only to be greeted with a deafening silence (14-15).  “If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of western intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it.  Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites” (22).  Part of Snow’s ethos, then and now, comes from having had a career as a scientist and a novelist.  This street cred as a novelist is probably undeserved, after all, who in 2013 has actually read one of Snow’s novels?

These are all rather provocative claims, and stirred up no small amount of controversy in their day.  Critic F.R. Leavis polemicized against Snow, and he has had other critics, including Stephen Jay Gould and Thomas Pynchon.  Criticisms notwithstanding, it’s not particularly surprising that the two cultures metaphor still gets batted around.  Snow offers a dichotomy that appeals to common sense, but it’s printed and you can cite it, and so if you are looking for ways to raise the stakes of your argument, it’s a handy go-to text.

Of all of the critiques I have encountered of Snow, Thomas Pynchon’s 1984 essay “Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?” is my personal favorite for its perceptiveness and its humor.  Pynchon points out the reductiveness of Snow’s dichotomy given the accessibility of information, and that was in 1984, before any trivial question that popped into ones head on any subject could be answered in the time it takes to type it out.  Although less a critique of Snow and more a defense of Luddism, Snow’s speech is the point of departure for Pynchon.  Still, his characterization of the Snow text seems to me to capture the character of the speech in a way that gets lost whenever the two cultures metaphor turns up in scholarly as well as popular discourse:

Fragmentary echoes of old disputes, of unforgotten offense taken in the course of long-ago high- table chitchat, may have helped form the subtext for Snow’s immoderate, and thus celebrated, assertion, ”If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the Industrial Revolution.” Such ”intellectuals,” for the most part ”literary,” were supposed, by Lord Snow, to be ”natural Luddites.”

Except maybe for Brainy Smurf, it’s hard to imagine anybody these days wanting to be called a literary intellectual, though it doesn’t sound so bad if you broaden the labeling to, say, ”people who read and think.” Being called a Luddite is another matter. It brings up questions such as, Is there something about reading and thinking that would cause or predispose a person to turn Luddite? Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? And come to think of it, what is a Luddite, anyway?

Needless to say, the answer is that it’s more than okay.  But what Pynchon is getting at in a humorously roundabout way is that Snow’s text – beyond the human element of hurt feelings which is very present – in tossing around the label “Luddite” as a pejorative, casts its imagined opponents as irrational reactionaries unable to appreciate the wonders of the industrial revolution.

This is the real problem that I see obscured when Snow is cited by people who think that we in the humanities should be more receptive to the sciences.  While the argument that we should learn more about science and math when and where we can is a good one and an important one, Snow’s vision is the kind that is grist for the mill of leftist critiques of science.  Because the talk is not really about how unfortunate it is that these two cultures won’t come together in some kumbaya moment, but that the preference for the humanities and particularly the classics in British education has diminished the nation’s status on an international stage.  This at a historical moment when Britain is confronting its perceived diminished status as a global player with the loss of its colonies and the emergence of the United States (which is handling STEM instruction better than Britain, according to Snow) and the Soviet Union.

My basic problems with Snow’s text, then, are these: 1.) His vision is a technocratic one.  He argues for a restrictive kind of positivism that has its place as one way of arriving at knowledge, but by no means has a monopoly on possibilities for knowing the world. That’s why the humanities are important and necessary – we explore all of the questions that you can’t answer with the help of fancy instruments.  2.) It accepts the scientific and industrial revolutions as intrinsically good when that is obviously not the case.  People concerned with the plight of the environment ought to know that all too well.  3.) The speech is a politically compromised document, invested as it is with particularist concerns over the material well being of the British nation.  4.) It proceeds from a false dichotomy, and offers nothing substantial to ground its positions.

In short, before we cite this text we need to think about what it means, both for politics in general and for the survival of our own disciplines.  Speaking of disciplines, it may be my own disciplinary bias, but it always seemed to me that the person whom we ought to be citing if we want to think about the humanities versus science isn’t C.P. Snow, but Robert Musil.  As an engineer who studied with Ernst Mach, he knew what he’s talking about when it comes to empiricism versus more speculative modes of thinking.  One of my favorite sections in The Man Without Qualities reads:

If someone were to discover, for instance, that under hitherto unobserved circumstances stones were able to speak, it would take only a few pages to describe and explain so earth-shattering a phenomenon. On the other hand, one can always write yet another book about positive thinking, and this is far from being of only academic interest, since it involves a method that makes it impossible ever to arrive at a clear resolution of life’s most important questions. Human activities might be graded by the quantity of words required: the more words, the worse their character. All the knowledge that has led our species from wearing animal skins to people flying, complete with proofs, would fill a handful of reference books, but a bookcase the size of the earth would not suffice to hold all the rest, quite apart from the vast discussions that are conducted not with the pen but with the sword and chains. The thought suggests itself that we carry on our human business in a most irrational manner when we do not use those methods by which the exact sciences have forged ahead in such exemplary fashion.(I, 264)3

Everyone here has their shortcomings.  The utopia of essayism is what Musil’s narrator offers where Snow talks about a “third culture,” but the fact that that whole project falls apart by the end of the first book makes me think that it gives us far more opportunities to think about these disciplinary questions in far more interesting ways.

1.  Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

2.  Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Sophie Wilkins, trans. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1995

Literature and the Environment: A Few (Eco)Critical Positions

As I began trying to articulate my dissertation project, I knew what phenomena were present in the texts that I wanted to talk about: urban and industrial sprawl, pollution of the air and water, the cultivation of nature, etc.  The challenge for this, as for any project, was to find both the right language and the right framework for bringing these phenomena together into a cohesive critical project.  They are, broadly speaking, environmental issues, or at least we would categorize them as such today.  But how could I talk about them in a way that was coherent and true to the texts, while achieving what all of us at a research university are supposed to be doing, that is, generating “new knowledge?”  Exploring possible answers to this question, of course, is more or less what ecocritics have been up to for the last couple of decades.  The questions here become, how does one read a text in an ecologically mindful fashion?  How does one sustain a critical project based on such a mode of reading?  Ultimately what these questions boil down to, though, is one that drives literary studies: how does one read?

It turns out that a discussion unfolded in Raabe scholarship in the 1980s and early 1990s over just these issues, with Wilhelm Raabe’s novel Pfisters Mühle as the object of contention.  This was ecocriticism’s most protean stage, when texts on the environment and literature were appearing, but before we began to get volumes, journals, and associations.  A quick gloss of the debate:  In 1980 Horst Denkler published an essay entitled “Wilhelm Raabe: Pfisters Mühle (1884).  Zur Aktualität eines alten Themas und vom Nutzen offener Strukturen” in the volume Romane und Erzählungen des bürgerlichen Realismus: Neue Interpretation.  The essay appeared again under the title “Die Antwort literarischer Phantasie auf eine der »größeren Fragen der Zeit«: Zu Wilhelm Raabes »Sommerferienheft« Pfisters Mühle” in Wilhelm Raabe: Studien zu seinem Leben und Werk, which appeared at the time of the author’s 150th birthday in 1981.  The essay is published elsewhere, including as the afterword to the Reclam edition of Pfisters Mühle.1  The goal in the essay is to bring together the subjects of industrialization, environmental depredation, historical change, etc. together in a way that would more properly account for the polyperspective nature of the novel (Denkler 86-87).  But Denkler also argued that the subject of pollution in the novel makes it particularly relevant today (87).  Jeffrey Sammons critiqued this relevance argument in a piece that eventually became a chapter in his seminal book on Raabe Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community.2  In a nutshell, Sammons felt that asking about contemporary relevance might be interesting, but as a critical practice runs the danger of bringing the text to us in our time, rather than encountering the text on its own terms (269, 282).  The discussion continued in 1992 with Heinrich Detering’s article on Raabe’s texts Pfisters Mühle and Meister Autor3.  Detering points to the concreteness of the environmental thematic, and very helpfully situates it within the larger poetic context.  Denkler is continuing a line of argumentation that Hermann Helmers developed in his 1987 article “Raabe als Kritiker von Umweltzerstörung,”4 and together these two essays are useful models for how one can read the real-existing environmental thematic within the text’s overall poetological framework.

This discussion is tremendously important for my dissertation, both because I write about Pfisters Mühle, but more importantly because it gets at the most basic issues of critical stance and disciplinary convention that anyone interested in literature and the environment inevitably bumps into.  None of what I am about to say is new or revolutionary, but it is worth saying out loud as a means of achieving some sort of critical orientation.  All of these points are ultimately related, and I’ll have more to say about them later, but for now, here we go.

1.  Respect the historicity of the texts.

Discourses, concepts, and political positions all change with time.  “Environment” and “ecology” do not mean today what they did in the nineteenth or even the early twentieth centuries.  “Environmentalism” already in 2013 designates a broad spectrum of sometimes antagonistic camps.  In the American popular imagination it is often (and often unfairly) affiliated with the left, but historically has cut across political camps.  For that matter, some ways of thinking that seem to be the province of some leftism and left liberalism were out-and-out conservative in the 19th century.  At the same time, authors will be products of their respective ages, whose thinking is either within or in some way related to the particular paradigms of their own historical moments.  In this context, too, no matter how scientifically well-informed an author is, his or her knowledge will not go beyond that of his or her own time.

2.  Politicized readings are important, but that doesn’t cancel out the first point.

This has to do with my first thesis, and has to do, too, with the question of relevance.  In the case of mid- to late 19th century German realism, there are lots of continuities between what the authors are depicting and what we are dealing with now in 2013.  In that sense, I contend that the literature can help us think about contemporary environmental questions.  BUT that alone doesn’t make them authors that we should all read and encourage others to read as a way of promoting good ecological consciousness, whatever that would be.  It is also worth saying again that environmental thinking cuts both ways politically.  In the case of Raabe, his critique of “progress,” which comes at the expense of the natural environment, in his novels, was a point that his National Socialist readers latched on to in order to integrate the author into the regime’s cultural politics.

Instead I see my task as being one of understanding the contours of the environmental thematic and working out the formal and aesthetic stakes thereof.  This might be an abandonment of the activist stance that many ecocritics assert.  That’s a theory versus practice problem, about which I’ll have more to say later.  For the moment I tend to feel that whether a text has a given contemporary use-value is a question best left up to the reader.

3.  The stakes of the argument must come from the text itself.

Supposedly Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It prompted a rejection note from a publisher who quipped “these stories have trees in them.”  When this story pops up in ecocritical scholarship, it is usually presented as evidence of the disconnect between the literary establishment and the material world.5  But we can also invert the moral that this anecdote supposedly has.  “These stories have trees in them.”  So what?  We might expand that and say that “these stories have oak, birch, and linden trees in them.”  So what?  One of the basic assumptions in writing about literature and the environment is that “environment” is more than “setting,” a term that Lawrence Buell (whom I recently had the distinct pleasure of meeting) has pointed out “deprecates what it denotes” (84-85).6  Enough intent goes into the construction of a text that there isn’t much that is harmless or incidental.  But if these details can’t be integrated into the larger poetological framework, then all you have is something that is interesting, but not particularly compelling.  “Oak, birch, and linden” really are just trees, and all we have are notes on settings, and maybe motifs.  But we don’t have a work of criticism.

4.  Like the production of energy, the critical project also needs to be sustainable.

“Sustainable” means here that your approach should be able to have enough purchase on enough texts that we are not simply building a critical movement around one genre, one national literature, one analytic, or one conclusion.  In ecocriticism one need not look far to find “place” held up as a favored category, “realism” as a mode of writing that best promotes some sort of ecological consciousness, or “nature writing” as a genre that is intrinsically environmentally “good.”  So-called second wave ecocriticism, of course, has taken this point to heart, and produced some very exciting work on urbanism, science fiction, electronic music, etc.  I don’t necessarily think that every work of art needs to be able to be subject to ecocritical inquiry in order to justify journals and professional associations, but we also should be thinking about ways that we can have a large enough gene pool that we don’t limit our critical scope.

1. My citations from Denkler are from the 1988 volume Denkler, Horst.  Neues über Wilhelm Raabe: Zehn Annährungsversuche an einen verkannten Schriftsteller.

2. Sammons, Jeffrey. Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

3. Detering, Heinrich. “Ökologische Krise und ästhetische Innovation im Werk Wilhelm Raabes.” Jahrbuch der Raabe-Gesellschaft (1992): 1-27.

4. Helmers, Hermann. “Raabe als Kritiker von Umweltzerstörung. Das Gedicht »Einst Kommt die Stunde« in der Novelle »Pfisters Mühle«.” Literatur für Leser (1987): 199-211.

5.  See the section “Representing Nature” in Michael Cohen’s essay “Blues in the Green: Ecocriticism under Critique,” available here: http://www.asle.org/site/resources/ecocritical-library/intro/blues/

6. Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.