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Garrard

Garrard

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04/08/2013

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EcocriticismGreg Garrard
1.
 
Three Directions:
The Ecological Thought,
 
Bodily Natures
and
Green Man Hopkins
 1.2.
 
Postcolonial Ecocriticism Galore3.
 
Queer Ecology: Apotheosis and Exhaustion4.
 
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Green: Deconstruction and Ecocriticism1.
 
Three Directions:
The Ecological Thought,
 
Bodily Natures
and
Green Man Hopkins
 Three monographs stood out, in an exceptionally busy year, as potential waymarkers for the
future direction of ecocriticism: Stacy Alaimo’s
Bodily Natures
, John Parham’s
Green ManHopkins
and Timothy Morton’s
The Ecological Thought.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of the last of these, and its astoundingly dynamic and prolific author, on ecocriticism in only afew years. His virtual presence has graced almost every conference and symposium I haveattended in that period, baffling and thrilling grad students with his ideas, and making almost anything else in the field seem parochial and pedestrian by comparison. Some admixture of awe, envy, excitement and annoyed confusion must be in every member of the audience.
The Ecological Thought 
is billed as a ‘prequel’ to Morton’s redoubtable
Ecology without Nature
, making many of the same arguments, but in a quite different idiom: ‘The ecological
thought sneaks up on you from the future, a picture of what will have had to be there, already,
for “ecology without nature” to make sense.’ (p.3) While the intertextual world of the earlier
book halted abruptly at 
la Manche
, the newer one continues to draw heavily upon Levinas but supple
ments him with Darwin and Richard Dawkins, fulfilling Derrida’s claim that deconstruction was really a kind of ‘radical empiricism’ in the most surprising way
imaginable. In place of the dishearteningly involuted prose of 
Ecology without Nature
, we areaddressed with a breezy chumminess that is alternately winning and a bit tiresome. Thus we
are told early on that ‘Once you start to think the ecological thought, you can’t unthink it: it’s a
sphincter
 
once it’s open, there’s no closing.’ (p.4) (I’m not clear on the facts here; isn’t the
point of a sphincter that you
can
close it? Answers on a postcard please.) Later on, Mortonrecalls a concept he introduced in
Ecology without Nature
: ‘Dark ecology makes the world safe
for the ecological thought. The only w
ay out is down. It is the ultimate detox.’ (p.59) Some of 
these
aperçus
make for marvellously memorable soundbites that convey genuine insights, but in other cases they betray the intelligence of their author by seducing him into basic errorsand brutally
reductive accounts of complex matters. So while it sounds cool to say that ‘We
 
Formatted:
Bullets and Numbering
 
drive around using crushed dinosaur parts’ (p.29), the fact is that oil comes mainly from
marine microorganisms. Repeatedly
The Origin of Species
is invoked, quoted or referenced so
as to ratify a decidedly problematic claim, such as that ‘what we call “nature” is a “denatured,”unnatural, uncanny sequence of mutations and catastrophic events: just read Darwin.’ (p.8)That is one way of looking at it, certainly, but the same ‘nature’ can exhibit extraordinary
structural and phylogenetic conservatism. Just ask a horseshoe crab.
One of many fascinating ideas Morton introduces is the ‘ecological thought’ itself,which he describes as ‘a virus that infects all other areas of thinking’ (p.2) –
even thereactionary nature-reveries of the anti-environmentalist right. It is, in many ways, akin to Bill
McKibben’s lament for the ‘end of nature,’ only it proposes that what has occurred, is
occurring and will continue to occur is the demonst 
ration by what he calls ‘ecology’ that ‘nature’ never existed in the first place. Thus McKibben’s elegy is replaced by Morton’s
compassionate irony, and the emotional and political range of overt environmentalism isexceeded by an encompassing ecological t 
hought that is, he concludes, ‘irresistible, like truelove’ (135). Like Donna Haraway’s ‘naturecultures,’ the
ecological thought expresses both thevast scale and worrying intimacy of environmental issues, undermining the conservationist mission of protec
ting a Nature ‘over yonder’ –
in a National Park or wilderness
while at the
same time seeking a more radical political solution in ‘complex kinds of democracy that takenonhuman beings into account.’ (p.126) Given that the ecological thought would entail
 considering the competing needs of tens of millions of species as well as struggling billions of individuals, it is perhaps an example of what Timothy Clark has dubbed, in his
CambridgeIntroduction to Literature and the Environment 
, attempts to ‘think everything at once.’
It is also, as the notion of a democracy of sentient beings suggests, far too utopian toprovide moral or political insights of immediate value.
The Levinasian ‘strange stranger’
(roughly meaning any sentient being: animal, vegetable or digital) proves as pointless a figureas it was in
Ecology without Nature
, especially when it turns out that, as well as havingabsolute moral claims on us, we have claims on it:
If you’re watching a little girl in front of [a] moving truck, you’re oblig
ed to rescue her,
for the simple reason that you can see her. In other words, simply because we’re
sentient 
 
let’s set the bar low to ensure that even snails and the snailiest humans are
also responsible
 
we’re obliged to address global warming. No proof 
is required that we caused it 
looking for absolute proof inhibits our response. (p.99)
I’m honestly unsure how to respond to the assertions that (1) we have a moral duty toprevent climate change even if humans didn’t cause it, and (2) so do snails and
all other
 
sentient creatures. What is more, the moving truck analogy captures the moral character of climate change so poorly it would take some absurd revisions to try and make it work: themoving truck will probably hurt her, but might actually be good for her (depending on her
wealth, job and home address), unless some unknown threshold is crossed where we’re all introuble. Also, she’s not 
actually 
standing there but is a fictional construct who dwells in asophisticated computer simulation of the medium-
term future… It is really not surprising
humans
to say nothing of snails
have a hard time responding to such a scenario. I wouldagree that the IPCC process, which in fact seeks broad and deep consensus rather than the
chimera of ‘absolute proof’, is insufficient on its own, but I don’t understand why it ‘inhibitsour response’ altogether.
Nevertheless, it is important to say that, as
The Ecological Thought 
has begun to bedinto ecocritical practice (including my own), and as I have heard Morton discuss it in (virtual)person, its daring visionary character has emerged more clearly. Far more than a manifestofor environmental criticism, Morton has written an extraordinary work of theoretical andpolitical futurism. The ecological thought admits the notion of urgent environmental crisis
 haunted as it always is by apocalypticism
while looking far beyond it. As Morton points out,
‘What if it’s not a huge catastrophe worthy of a Spielberg movie but a real drag, one that goeson for centuries?’ (p.118)
 
Morton’s text is paradoxically stylistically frenetic and emphaticabout the value of meditation and close reading: ‘There is an ideological injunction to act “Now!” while humanists are tasked with slowing down, using our minds to find out what this
all m
eans.’ (p117) The ecological thought is simultaneously the seismic shift that the ‘end of nature’ has already caused and the
episteme
of a distant epoch when we (humans in general
 
not you or I sadly) will have ‘decided to look after all sentient beings.’
(p.96) No other work of ecocriticism attempts to see so far beyond the immediate ecological emergency.
In the meantime, we have Morton’s concept of ‘the Mesh’ to be getting on with, an
invaluable formulation that avoids the unreflective and unscientific holism into which
ecocriticism falls when it uses such metaphors as the ‘web of life.’ It stresses
interconnectedness but also the uncanny intimacy we might feel when we learn how minimalare the metabolic and genetic differences between humans and other creatures
even plants.
Thus ‘We’re faced with the extraordinary fact of increasing detail and vanishing fullness. Theecological thought makes our world vaster and more insubstantial at the same time.’ (p.37) Aswe will see, Morton’s ‘mesh’ means much the
 
same as Alaimo’s ‘transcorporeality,’ which in
turn is pretty similar to a lot of other formulations that seek to evoke the liveliness,

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