viernes, 26 de junio de 2015

Constructivism vs. Observation in ecocriticism

From Susan Jeffers's Arda Inhabited: Environmental Relationships in 'The Lord of the Rings'  (Kent State UP, 2014):

In spite of the connection between previous postmodern theories and the development of ecocriticism, it is not uncommon for environmental critics to seek to distance the two. One critic claims that "the great blind spot of postmodernism is its dismissal of nature, and especially human nature" (28). [Glen] Love finds postmodern theory inescapably arrogant in its insistence on what he feels is an inappropriate focus. While postmodernism is "blind" to human nature, it still spends too much energy discussing an exclusively human world. He explains that: "This [postmodern theory] is a world of human solipsism, denied by the common sense that we live out in our everyday actions and observations. It is denied as well by a widely accepted scientific understanding of our human evolution and of the history of the cosmos and the earth, the real world, which existed long before the presence of humans, and which goes on and will continue to go on, trees continuing to crash to the forest floor even if no human auditors are left on the scene" (29). Unfortunately, Love ignores the inherently constructed nature of "scientific understanding" and "our everyday observations". He does gesture toward acknowledging that people do shape their environments, but he does not allow this acknowledgement to distract him from his main point: lived experience is enough of a guarantor to support one's conclusions based on observation. (30)

Other critics highlight the tension between construction and observation as well. Garrard considers that while a constructivist approach is "a powerful tool for cultural analysis," this tool suggests that '"nature" is only ever a cover for the interests of some social group" (31). He admits the tension and explains that "the challenge for ecocritics is to keep one eye on the ways in which 'nature' is always in some ways culturally constructed and the other on the fact that nature really exists, both the object and, albeit distantly, the origin of our discourse" (32). As with other critical approaches, the most productive ecocriticism favors a both/and approach to the tension between constructivism and observation.

Even when critics allow themselves to work within the space created by these tensions, some feel that postmodernism and ecocriticism just vary fundamentally in their aims. Sueellen Campbell points to the fact that postmodernism and ecocriticism undermine traditional hierarchies or displace the position of the human being. However, their aims in doing so are quite different. She claims that "While both theory and ecology reject the traditional humanist view of our importance in the scheme of things, though, what they focus on as a replacement is quite different. Theory sees everything as textuality, as network of signifying systems of all kinds. Foucault sees an idea like madness as a text; Lacan sees a human being as a text; Derrida argues that everything is text in the sense that everything signifies something else. But ecology insists that we pay attention not to the way things have meaning for us, but to the way the rest of the world—the nonhuman part—exists apart from us and our languages" (33). That our understanding of the world is tied closely to our ability to express that understanding through language does not preclude our ability to recognize that not everything can be encapsulated in a linguistic sign. There are some things that humans exist apart from. Ecocriticism, then, though implicit in the use of language, and acknowledging that it is being practiced by human beings, attempts to consider something entirely Other. It looks not so much at what something means, but more at how, in what manner, something exists.

Gerard Manley Hopkins's idea of "inscape" nicely expresses the focus of ecocritical study. The "inscape" of something is the "essence or identity embodied in the thing itself and dealt out by it for others to witness and thereby apprehend God in it" (34). A thing's instress is the inscape observed—that is, it is the defining characteristic of that thing which others can see or understand or experience. Ecocriticism considers what these defining characteristics are. It looks at the "treeness" of trees, or how a tree "trees" in a particular text.

Such attempts to distance ecocriticism from other theories run the risk of appearing petulant in their insistence and, more importantly, of denying the real connections between different schools of thought. However, such positioning can be better understood if one considers that one goal of ecocriticism is to move an audience to act on behalf of the natural world. This action ultimately works toward "the remediation of humankind's alienation from the natural world" (35). Such an aim might then encourage critics to "decide on principle to resist the abstractifications of theoretical analysis, indeed to resist standard modes of formal argument, altogether in favor of a discourse where critical reflection is embedded within narratives of encounter with nature" (36). Buell, like other ecocritics, wants to look at an encounter, at a thing that happened, rather than engage in an exercise that might appear to be merely cerebral.

There is a sense of urgency in the criticism, a sense of seizing kairos, indeed, an anxiety that such an opportune moment for essential discussion will be lost and the world with it. Glen Love expresses the need for dialogue that he feels as a scholar: "As the circumstances of the natural world intrude ever more pressingly into our teaching and writing, the need to consider the interconnections, the implicit dialogue between the text and the environmental surroundings, becomes more and more insistent. Ecocriticism is developing as an explicit critical response to this unheard dialogue, an attempt to raise it to a higher level of human consciousness" (37). Ecocriticism has developed in response to a particular need felt by scholars that is not being addressed adequately already.

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