Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global

February 26, 2009

Ursula Heise's book leads ecocriticism in a new direction, one that should have been taken long before now. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet is the first work of literary ecocriticism to start out by questioning the primacy that most ecocritics give to localism and the love of home places. Heise is interested, rather, in our sense of belonging to the global ecosystem and in the new artistic forms this sense produces.

"Think globally, act locally" is the green slogan, but the global and the local have not received equal ecocritical attention. When ecocriticism emerged in the early 1990s and began to define what an environmentalist literary and cultural criticism might be, it was localism that took priority. Developing a deep acquaintance with one's local place seemed to be the right response to environmental crisis, while "de-territorialisation" was a large part of the problem. Urban life, increased mobility and the globalised economy had weakened people's attachment to place. Estranged from their local ecosystems, consumers were dependent on long, complex chains of food production and delivery; they were unaware of the ecological consequences of their consumption because damage, whether far away or close at hand, did not readily appear connected to their actions. Work, in a late-capitalist economy, was unlikely to engage workers with local ecological conditions, and culture was subject to the homogenising effect of global capitalism and new technologies.

Some people were, nonetheless, emotionally responsive to the natural world, but it was most likely to be nature as spectacle - as landscape or as a contrived encounter with wildlife - that moved them, rather than nature as an ecological process in which they felt themselves to be embedded. What was needed was a reconnection with local place that would not be confined to the demarcated space of leisure. Such a reconnection would demand that one's actions be accountable to one's deep knowledge of the ecological interactions that constitute place. This was the way to better ecological awareness and responsible behaviour, for only through such feeling for one's surroundings could ecological processes register on the physical senses. That was the theory.

Alienation from nature was the main theme of ecocriticism's historical narrative, and it is a theme in many critiques of modernity, political and psychoanalytical. Deterritorialisation is only the latest stage in a process of alienation that, by some accounts, begins with the earliest stages of civilisation. Alienation is the price paid for the immense benefits of modern life - longer life, secure food supply, modern medicine, liberal democracy and suchlike. Often the deal has been brutally forced on people by colonial or industrial powers and the benefits withheld; but often, too, the price has been paid eagerly: never more so, perhaps, than today. The gains seem so huge.

Our contemporary ecological crisis, however, reveals the deal as more expensive than we thought - ruinously so, unless we manage now to rewrite its terms. This is the hope that motivates ecocriticism - that we will begin to see, and help along, the cultural changes that are signs of this new deal. Reterritorialisation seemed the obvious first step.

To this end, early ecocriticism constructed an alternative literary canon consisting, in large part, of the literature of place, especially nature writing and Romantic poetry. Surviving non-industrialised indigenous cultures were a source of inspiration. What was sought was a kind of neo-indigeneity, combining deep, sustaining engagement with local place with those benefits of modernity that proved compatible with ecological responsibility. Philosophical justification came mainly from Martin Heidegger's idea of "dwelling" (and, indeed, his general account of engaging with the world without an implied metaphysical viewpoint) and from Maurice Merleau-Ponty's concept of embodied perception. Jonathan Bate, the foremost British ecocritic, saw Heideggerean ideas as so central to ecocriticism that, for Bate, in The Song of the Earth, the dark side of Heideggereanism was reason for trepidation about the whole prospect of green politics - though he knew green politics to be essential.

But there was something odd - or at least incomplete - about all this. Environmentalism is a modern movement, a product of cosmopolitan modernity. The crisis that is its raison d'etre is definitively global and is perceptible only by means of long perspectives achieved by scientific measuring, comparing and forecasting. A local field of perception would scarcely make us aware of the crisis at all; certainly we would be unable to understand it. Iconic images from all over the globe have nourished popular environmentalism.

As for the "embodied" and Heideggerean perspectives, if they are indeed to be central to ecocriticism, their proponents need to extend their scope, so that these forms of scientific and technologically mediated data can themselves be explored phenomenologically, rather than merely rejected as inauthentic.

Heise begins to do this, and, more broadly, to explore various ways in which the global scale of the ecological crisis is being imagined and represented. The book is an excellent introduction to this principle of "eco-cosmopolitanism". Succinct and judicious commentaries on a range of theories of globalisation and cosmopolitanism are followed by critical readings of a wide variety of texts, including images of the planet, science fiction, art installations, experimental cinema, new types of toys for children, and magic-realist, paranoid and realist fiction. She looks at systems theory and risk theory as producing new accounts of long-distance ecological and political relationships, and especially at the conception of the globe as a web or network. The popular web facility Google Earth is a suggestive example of a new kind of rapid perceptual switching between the global and the local: zooming in and zooming out.

Looking for literary forms that correspond to these shifts of perspective, Heise alights on the way science fiction writers such as John Brunner and David Brin have adapted the collage and cut-up narrative techniques of canonical modernists such as John Dos Passos and William Burroughs. It is slightly surprising that, having made this connection, she does not extend the discussion to the flourishing landscape of contemporary modernist "eco-poetics", but she has certainly provided a strong basis for such exploration.

As Heise argues, ecocriticism very much needs to embrace, explore and test the representation of the global, and to do so without merely reproducing the green cliche that everything is connected. Specific connections need identifying: the ones that matter. This important book makes a superb beginning.

Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global

By Ursula K. Heise. Oxford University Press, 264pp, £13.99. ISBN 9780195335644. Published 16 October 2008

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments