Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism

Greg Garrard's volume in the Routledge New Critical Idiom series, Ecocriticism, is a fascinating read for someone knowledgeable about the field, and -- if introduced carefully -- a useful introduction for someone new to the field. While I've read this book before, I'd never read it start to finish, instead dipping into it and reading isolated chapters as the mood and need struck. I've got some different ideas about it now, which I suppose is a lesson I've learned more than once already, as well as an injunction I've given an awful lot of students over the years: read the damn book.

In sum, Ecocriticism is a politically engaged response to the assorted published and in-the-air manifestations of ecocriticism, not a summary of the field. While I agree that it's an "invaluable introduction to one of the most exciting recent developments in literary and cultural studies," as the back cover would have it, the book doesn't represent an introduction that should be handed over to students without context.

This context is necessary because Garrard's keen on what he calls a "poetics of responsibility," which is a term he doesn't unpack in much detail (appropriately, given the nominally introductory nature of the book). As well, he's more prepared to defer to scientific perception and discourse than many ecocritics are comfortable with:
Ecocritics must assess the scale and import of scientific consensus, and in the final analysis defer to it, even as they analyse the ways such results are shaped by ideology and rhetoric. (p.107)
I'm a little uncomfortable with that verb "defer," although I think I'm on board with the sentiment being expressed. As long as we ecocritics are parsing the signs and symptoms of science's ideological and rhetorical assumptions, then we should be fine accepting the results of science's experimentation. The problem is, of course, that science tends to hear our questioning their ideology and rhetoric as doubt about science altogether -- and we humanities folk tend to think of science as unwilling to take the time necessary to understand the nuance of what we mean.

(Both of which generalized assumptions are largely true: humanities folk do distrust science, and scientists don't really want to spend much time on the humanities. Perhaps a knot best left for another time.)

Anyway, these two assertions on Garrard's part mean that it's not purely an introductory volume to the field and discourse of ecocriticism. Instead, it's an introductory volume with a significant agenda. Once you're clear about that, then Garrard gives you plenty of terrific stuff to engage with; I especially enjoyed the ways he forced me to uncover my own assumptions about how I read texts and respond to the world (if I can naively make such distinctions for the moment). His final chapter, "Futures: The Earth," has all on its own given me valuable material out of which to build my understanding of where I want my own scholarship to go, and I encourage you to read that one chapter with great care: and the rest of the book with it, in order to make sense of his political and critical program.

As part of his work as spokesman and proselytizer for the mode of ecocriticism, too, Greg's written a summative piece for The Year's Work in Critical Theory 2010 (vol. 17), which actually addresses publications from the years 2007-08. The always insightful Adrian Ivakhiv has reviewed this article at length in his blog, so I won't attempt here a reading as careful as his.

(Incidentally, Adrian has also blogged in some detail about Greg's joint plenary session at ASLE '09 with Cate Mortimer-Sandilands, a session that can be watched online here. Happy watching!)

And finally, if you want to see why many ecocritics dislike approaches like Garrard's, it's not a bad idea to start with Sean Robisch's negative review on Amazon. Robisch seems to be aiming for a role as the troll 'neath ecocriticism's bridge, with his ... absurd take in ISLE recently on Simon Estok's suggestion that ecocritics should develop theoretical sophistication, rather than declining to investigate their own assumptions. Here, Robisch is in full rhetorical flight (though briefly), attacking not just ecocriticism as it is spoke, but also English professors, urbanites, and the academy itself: "Sadly, English professors have lost their way, collectively speaking. And ecocriticism is hard to really describe if you're using only an urban campus map." Robisch doesn't speak for me, and honestly, I don't know who would want his rhetoric to represent them, but he offers an extreme version of how one might read Garrard negatively.

Not that you should read him negatively. Ecocriticism is a fascinating book -- individual and accessible and engaging, with flaws that prompt a closer reading and a rethinking of one's own positions.


Anonymous said…
I think Garrard really misreads/misrepresents Bill McKibben's work. What do you think?
richard said…
You know, I thought about that, but I disagree that he misreads McKibben (or anyone else, for that matter), even though I don't always like the outcomes of his readings. It's simply that he doesn't accept the terms of the debate as McKibben frames them, and there are two effects of his refusing those terms.

First, he exposes the relatively limited consequences of McKibben's "end of nature" argument, in that McKibben has unintentionally understood the idea "nature" in a specific way; what's coming to an end is this understanding, not nature itself, so the elegy discourse applies only to the idea and not to nature.

Second, it means that McKibben can be defended or explained most easily within his own rhetorical practice. If you accept Garrard's rhetorical practice, your defense of McKibben is approximately "I admit that McKibben is interested primarily here in his culturally bound understanding of nature, and not in 'nature' as such, BUT...." And for a defender of McKibben, that's not a comfortable position to be in.

If I can use very broad strokes, Garrard's a follower of Cronon rather than Slovic, though I suspect he doubts some of Cronon's ideas as well.

Cronon, of course, argued in "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature" that many of our anxieties about ecological crisis were really anxieties about having to change our ways of thinking about nature. Not that nature isn't real, just that too many of us were ignoring the fact that we were all talking about a particular understanding of nature, or "construction" if that's not too inflammatory a term for you: wilderness, as a sublime and unpeopled region.

Slovic, in his new book Going Away to Think, goes so far as to blame Cronon for giving oil companies justification for their work in wild areas, a claim I find hard even to hear with a straight face. I'm still trying to figure out Slovic's thoughts on this, though, so I don't want to say more than that, and this is already a painfully long comment!
Kip Robisch said…
I think it's a little funny that so much of the ecocritical environment has lost such sight of what activism looks like--in word and/or deed.

My article in ISLE was designed to wake up an increasingly Byzantine and narcissistic environment to its environment--the make up of its park-like sequestery and self indulgences that threaten ecosystemic stability as much as any industrialist culture. My "violence" was always metaphoric, if pointed, and my arguments have not been addressed by a single respondent beyond Greg Garrard.

The further irony is that I've been called all kinds of names -- now including "troll" -- by people incensed by what they claim are my ad hominem attacks (they aren't, and I wasn't stupid enough not to pay careful attention to the precise cases I make against specific critics while critiquing--just as Simon Estok valorizes--the culture of "theory").

When someone goes on a five-page riff about Twin Peaks, or makes the outrageous claim that "a national park is as reified as an SUV commercial," that person is lauded as one of the voices of the community reaching into the theoretical discourse of abstracting and exaggerating in the name of joissance.

When I use a metaphor, I'm burned as a witch.

Thank you for the corroborations I've gotten that a little Malcolm X was in order for ecocriticism. No thank you for the hacking into my character that has ironically come from those so obsessed with being offended, harassed, attacked, and upbraided that they don't even know what those things look like to people living in a real world.

Yes: a REAL. WORLD. The raw material you eat, breathe, drink, and require for life. The material you exploit for your quasi-philosophical career advancement. The raw material that we may be squandering with our theories.

Please at some point ask yourself who or what your writing was ever designed to help, save, preserve, sustain, or defend beyond yourselves. The nature writers ecocritics used to read with something less than sarcastic dismissal asked that question, and answered better than almost any ecocritic I've ever read.

Good luck with your works. They may as well be SUVs, since national parks are anachronistic wastes of our time now. It wouldn't surprise me at all if an ecocritical theorist built the first condominium complex in the Grand Canyon.
richard said…
With rhetoric like this, Kip, it doesn't matter how correct your argumentation might be. As long as you persist in hyperbole like "It wouldn't surprise me at all if an ecocritical theorist built the first condominium complex in the Grand Canyon," it's almost impossible for me to see any value in engaging carefully with you in reply.

I mean, come on. Are you kidding with this late-80s insistence that theory folk fail to recognize that a Real World exists?

Because the way i read it, ecotheory tends to start from the assumption that there's a Real World that exists in a complex relationship with culture and language and literature. It goes on to insist (perhaps too often only in its assumptions, rather than explicitly) that we need to pay attention to culture and language and literature in order to understand or connect or relate to or exist in said Real World.

And are you serious in saying that the majority of self-described ecocritics read nature writers with "sarcastic dismissal"?

Because every single ecocritic I know enjoys and appreciates nature writing. Every single one. Just this month, for example, I've read with great pleasure books by John McPhee, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Joseph Wood Krutch. Pretty much everybody's fond (though to varying degrees, not unexpectedly) of Rick Bass, Janisse Ray, John Hay, and Rachel Carson.

Give me some examples of ecocritics writing with "sarcastic dismissal" about nature writers, and I promise to write a detailed post about the specific cases; I'll cheerfully and wholeheartedly side with you where I think you're right, and I'll explain carefully and thoroughly about any disagreements. Give me blanket generalities, and I'll assume you don't have any examples.

I'd like to engage, Kip, because prickly argumentation usually contains something interesting among the barbs. But your phrasing is all barbs: you've got to give me something particular to hang onto, and you've got to pretend there's a conversation to be had rather than a lecture to be delivered.

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