The Value of Ecocriticism, by Timothy Clark

Book of the week: Leo Mellor assesses a bold attempt to make the case for literature and criticism in the light of environmental disaster

June 20, 2019
Source: Alamy

Last Friday, I walked to work past many banners. There were the direct “We love the earth”; the desolate “There is no planet B”; and one even had a stylised student flinching from books: “What’s the point of page turning if the world is now burning?” Yes, fair enough. The climate strike again gave the world a vision of action rather than fatalistic acceptance. But might some turning and looking at pages actually be part of the answer? Both to understand how we got here and the kinds of writing that might explore the current condition.

The Value of Ecocriticism is a dense, perceptive and provocative book, and it makes a convincing case for its title. But it does have a fight on its hands. There is both cynicism and doubt about ecocriticism: some see it as little more than an intellectual landgrab; others as a way to further reduce literary study to silos of specialism; or even, through the affirming infrastructure of conferences, a spectacular way to perform bad faith and gain air miles, flying to talk about climate change. Such misgivings are prevalent, perhaps most bracingly among self-identifying ecocritics.

Yet such misgivings miss the point – any kind of cultural criticism is surely now performed in the light of the fact that, as Clark’s introduction makes clear, the entire planet has been altered irrecoverably and fundamentally by human activities. His call to arms is somewhat forlorn: “the new artistic and critical task is to make ‘real’ or make felt on the human scale all these alarming but also boring statistics on the planet’s condition that everyone reads but does not register”. Against a project of purely witnessing, he does outline some hope: “ecocriticism’s goal can be described as that of some state of human freedom in which non-human life is fully recognised, no longer violently exploited nor its resources abused or exhausted”. Clark’s book is brief and brisk as it moves through six chapters and a plethora of examples, mostly drawn from literature and literary critics. Each chapter deals with an aspect of the broad range of practices that make up ecocriticism, and implicitly gives a history of how concepts such as “scale” have mattered as the discipline has developed. This is not an activist text, a how-to guide for making culture work in a struggle; nor is it an original reading of the various poems and novels cited, as Clark rather shows how other ecocritics – from the dourly abstract to the shamanistic – have used them. Thus, the overall argument he articulates comes slightly at one remove.

The first two chapters unpick the Anthropocene as a concept in both planetary history and cultural critique. As a way of designating the current time in which we live, “the human-influenced age”, the term was first formally adopted by a working group of the International Union of Geological Sciences in 2016. Clark’s work here is in dialogue with his much longer analysis in Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (2015). He is also a scholar of Derrida, Heidegger and Blanchot, so it is unsurprising that his theoretical coordinates lead him to be suspicious of critical works that do not reflect on how they are themselves shaped by what is thinkable within language. Sometimes his disdain can be glimpsed, as in his assessment of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), as “a provocative if at times simplistic polemic”. Well, yes. But there might well be a place for such polemics. Perhaps Robert Macfarlane’s recent Underland: A Deep Time Journey (2019) could be useful here, partly as a literary work which, by being so hard to categorise, asks questions about cultural forms that do not just leave us helpless when considering timespans beyond the individual human life.

Questions of scale and time matter intensely, for environmental destruction happens in ways that are not easily assimilated into the individualism of the anglophone novel or lyric poem. This is not an entirely new problem: as the Welsh poet David Jones once wrote about fighting in the First World War, “it is not easy in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals – full though it may be of beauty”. Such difficulties are now extrapolated to dizzying degrees, from the persistence of antibiotics within ecosystems through to solastalgia (existential distress caused by environmental change). Clark writes well on the problems of what he terms “scalar translation” within culture; the ways in which interconnectedness makes a mockery of “the local” as a fetishised concept in both environmentalism and ecocriticism.

Yet beyond interconnectedness there is another moral problem, as “the artistic challenge is also an ethical one, especially when it comes to representing non-human animals”. This is typified by a reading of Emily Dickinson’s A Bird Came Down the Walk Clark cites, a reading that lauds elisions and transformations – rather than the apparent representation. Thus, “it is the space between the human and the non-human where poetry occurs”. Indeed, poetry plays a significant part in Clark’s history of ecocriticism, both as a form that has been subjected to different kinds of ecocritical readings, and also because poetry becomes “eco-poetry” – a form that expressly encounters the difficulties of writing now, and using human language, about the non-human world. John Clare appears as a talismanic precursor, and there is an analysis of Juliana Spahr’s Unnamed Dragonfly Species (2002). Attention is also paid to Evelyn Reilly’s extraordinary modernist epic, Styrofoam (2009), a poem that tracks one of the most common kinds of thermoplastic.

Clark’s fourth chapter still sees hope of a kind in the novel, but develops – at great length – the problems with the form’s inheritances, especially from realism. Then there are also points where he finds a shocking single image. Jonathan Safran Foer tries to get the slippery concepts of both interconnectedness and responsibility on to a single – albeit hard to digest – platter: “Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across.”

The penultimate chapter is on “material ecocriticism”, one of the most austere subdisciplines, where Clark notes that “the determining context…remains that of a primarily academic politics. By using terms such as ‘conversations’, etc. in relation to fields, rivers, etc. material critics are covertly staking a claim of a humanities discipline and its terms to the study of the environment”. But it gets worse: “academic politics is also apparent…in the exaggerated manifesto-like essays, texts whose shrill tone exemplifies the competitive institutional culture of the modern Western university”.

But traces of hope shape the final chapter, a place where theory does more – and more useful – work in thinking globally, and exploring the implications of this in an age of rapacious and totalising capitalism. And the activity of criticism might thus be rather more sympathetic to the art it encounters, such as when Clark quotes approvingly from a dictum: “criticism should not seek to reduce literature, like a dam in a river, to an ideologically fixed point”. For a book that is thoroughly suspicious of transcendent concepts this is perhaps a telling point. Indeed the implicit rationale of this series is that literary criticism has an identifiable “value” as a fluid activity, rather than structure, worth defending. This will require different kinds of reading, and of action, some of which will involve turning pages.

Leo Mellor is Roma Gill fellow in English at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge.

The Value of Ecocriticism
By Timothy Clark
Cambridge University Press
200pp, £41.99 and £13.99
ISBN 9781107095298 and 9781107479241
Published 7 February 2019


The author

Timothy Clark, a professor in the department of English studies at Durham University, was born on the outskirts of London but grew up near Reading because his “parents belonged to that generation of young Londoners who left the bombed-out city for new towns established in the outlying counties”. He studied English at Exeter College, Oxford and went on to do a doctorate on Shelley in the early 1980s. What made the most impact on him, he recalls, was “an extramural and anti-establishment ‘reading group’, meeting weekly and working through work by Jacques Derrida (mostly) at an extraordinarily painstaking pace…Members of the group were involved in founding the Oxford Literary Review, now the UK’s oldest journal of literary theory. Ecocriticism has always seemed to me most powerfully conceived as a form of deconstruction.”

Today, in Clark’s view, environmental issues should be central to the study of literature because a growing sense of global crisis has made “conceptions of and assumptions about the material environment…a renewed source of debate, and often of moral revisionism. To a large degree, we understand ourselves and our present time through reinterpreting what is inherited, even if this also means a chastening realisation of the ‘Anthropocene’ as unprecedented.”

But why should activists focused on issues such as climate change bother with literature? “Contemporary literature in particular is rich in variously conceived, posited and explored scenarios”, responds Clark, “in which environmental issues can be examined imaginatively and without restraint, and from the perspectives of many different cultures.” This can take the form of “a realist novel about the corruptions of international capitalism or on the local impacts of climate change”, but also “forms of speculative fiction about overpopulation, or on the dangers of eco-fascism, as well as the questioning metamorphoses of what can no longer be called ‘nature poetry’”.

Matthew Reisz

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Print headline: Turning pages in a world on fire

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