Swampy's smart set

July 4, 1997

The battles being waged by the new wave of green warriors, such as Swampy, are reflected in the rise on campus of environmental literary criticism, or ecocriticism. But as Jennifer Wallace discovers, not all academics are converts to the creed

Swampy has been dug out of his hole. The final protester has been evicted from the camp at Manchester Airport. Bulldozers are crushing trees near Newbury to make way for the bypass, after the defeat of a lengthy tunnelling protest earlier in the year, and soon the season will begin when weeping crowds of animal rights campaigners will again watch helpless as lorry-loads of crated calves and lambs set off for the continent.

But while these popular campaigns to save trees and animals may have ended in failure, it should comfort Swampy and his pals to know that they are not alone in the struggle against urban developers and profiteers. Environmental literary criticism, or ecocriticism as it is commonly called, is becoming the buzzword in the academy. Frequently compared to the fashionable gender studies and post-colonial criticism, which emerged from the liberation movements of the 1960s and now dominate university courses, ecocriticism is trumpeted by its followers as the new radical criticism.

"Just as there is a suspicion about male feminism and who can speak for women, so there is bound to be suspicion of ecocriticism's proponents, who take it upon themselves to speak for the rights of trees," one ecocritic suggested. "But I think now people are seeing that it is absolutely unavoidable that we start thinking about the place of humankind, the material world, the rest of nature''.

Chief among the British ecocritics is Jonathan Bate, the crop-haired professor of English at the University of Liverpool. Well known for his work on Shakespeare and the romantics, Bate rather surprised his readers when his book Romantic Ecology, in which the term ecocriticism was coined, had little immediate impact when it first appeared in 1991. "It was by far his worst book," Marilyn Butler, a fellow romanticist, remembers bluntly, and even Bate himself acknowledges that: "I did at the time think of it as a little bit of a sideline from my main work''. But now, remarks about green criticism and politics in a post-cold war world no longer seem so out of place. The rest of the academy has, to some extent, caught up and Bate, invited to speak at conferences around the world, finds himself leading a growing group of disciples here and in America. In Britain, they tend to be dotted around the country and mainly based in the new universities and higher education colleges rather than in traditional institutions, but a large environmental conference earlier this year, the first to be held in Britain, points to a rising tide of enthusiasm.

Romantic Ecology, which concentrates on the work of William Wordsworth, was written as a passionately argued alternative to new historic criticism. Where new historicist critics claimed that writing about nature was an escapist activity that evaded the real issue of social politics, Bate retaliated by arguing that writing about nature was important in its own right and that nature could be considered political in a broader sense. Critics were wrong in suggesting that the human mind and human society were superior to nature. Given the worldwide demise of Marxism, it was time for the political "move from red to green'' and for what Greg Garrard, organiser of the British environmental conference, describes as "an assault on the canon'' to allow in environmental texts such as Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne.

Since 1991, Bate has refined his thesis, stressing now not so much the red-green conflict as the need for texts to refer to something "out there'', to the otherness of the natural world which fills us with humanity. "I've been thinking quite a lot about small things like nests and shells and the kind of wonder in the face of them, which inspires a lot of very important writing,'' he says.

This argument about "referentiality'', or the way writing refers to a world beyond the text, leads inevitably to the question as to whether a nature which is unaffected by human control can be found any longer. Is there any humbling wilderness left? Bate admits that ecocritics are now forced to resort to the Arctic and Antarctic for inspiration, and even there the hole in the ozone layer affects the intact state of these places. "When that happens'', he says, "you have to start imagining the idea of the state of nature. Literary texts can themselves be imaginary states of nature, imaginary ideal ecosystems, and by reading them, by inhabiting them, we can start to imagine what it might be like to live differently''.

Ecocriticism has become particularly big business in America. Dubbed the "backpacking school of criticism'', it appeals to the instinctive American love of the frontier and the wild west. Native American writers are invested with special authority, because they are thought to be in touch with their surroundings and serve as touchstones for library-bound academics, while other critics have returned to the wilderness writing of poets Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the naturalist and explorer John Muir. Courses on literature and the environment now form part of the curriculum in most universities and a professional society, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), has been formed. Indeed, ASLE has arranged a conference in Montana next month. It is a measure of ecocriticism's popularity, suggests Professor James McKusick, the organiser of one of the conference sessions, that the conference attracted 400 papers and has accepted 200.

But precisely because the profile of environmental criticism is high in America, it has provoked the inevitable academic squabbles. Alan Liu, whose book, Wordsworth: The Sense of History, was one of the main targets of Bate's attack, has fiercely disputed the ecocritics' notion of pure nature untouched by mankind. "There is no nature; there is only history" is his notorious remark. Ecocritics have fought back. Karl Kroeber, professor of English at Columbia University, ridiculed Alan Liu and other new historicists like Marjorie Levinson at a Modern Languages Association session in 1993, calling them "suburban critics''. "The new historicists didn't get out and get their boots muddy and really experience nature, and so of course they believe there is no nature,'' James McKusick explains.

But the general feeling is that despite the acrimonious disputes in the past, there is not actually a great deal that divides the new historicists and the environmentalists, since both are concerned with a world beyond the text, whether that is described as history or geography. "I think the debate has more to do with academic turf-battles than anything seriously intellectual," McKusick acknowledges.

Certainly in Britain, where ecocriticism is more of an underground, lower-profile affair and where literary criticism tends to be less doctrinal anyway, the battle-lines between new historicists and environmentalists do not seem to be tightly drawn. Marilyn Butler, former Regius professor of English at Cambridge University and regarded as one of our foremost new historicists (although she herself rejects the term) is a little uncertain about the parameters or the point of ecocriticism. "What is it? Who are they?" she wonders. Much of it seems to her to be old-fashioned and nostalgic writing about nature under a new, trendy name. But on the other hand, she is intrigued by the latest interest in science and man's dependence on his environment. She points to the emergence of the natural sciences in the early 19th century, to anthropology and travel writing, to the study of climatic zones. "If ecocriticism is a part of that'', she says, "then it is interesting''.

Similarly, Nicholas Roe of St Andrews University, who edits the premier British journal on Romanticism and who has been content in the past to describe himself as an old historicist, thinks that environmental criticism and new historicism are not poles apart. "The best ecocritical work in the romantic field is a kind of hybrid of Marxism and ecology'', concerned with "the human community in the living world'', he says. While he disagrees with the idea that environmental politics redefines conventional political discourse - or that, after Labour's victory on May 1, anyone can consider that "green'' has replaced "red'' - he has argued for some time that nature writing is political rather than nostalgic. In his latest book, Keats and the Culture of Dissent, he argues that "the intense public interest in environmental protest at Newbury and at Manchester arises from the stirring of deep forces in English cultural memory - politically radical, environmentally sympathetic''.

A case of ecocriticism being all things to all men? James McKusick wrily notes the hypocrisy of consumer or designer ecocriticism. His employer, the University of Maryland, welcomed his course on literature and the environment "with open arms''. But it had no compunction in deciding to develop its land, the "last one hundred wild acres in the whole region'', when it gave the go-ahead for a big industrial park. Despite protests from various professors, the university has prevailed and bulldozers are moving in this summer. Courses and ecotheory are one thing but, as McKusick says sadly, "when you try to change facts on the ground, then the situation is different''.

Jonathan Bate, however, is more optimistic. Formerly a member of the Green Party and now working on a book ranging from Shakespeare to contemporary poetry provisionally entitled Dwelling with the Earth: An Experiment in Ecopoetics, he believes that the link between academic and practical environmentalism is vital. "If the discipline is to lead to a serious rethinking of relations between humankind and the environment, it has got to operate within the language of intellectual enquiry as well as the practical getting your green welly boots on,'' he urges. Swampy ("The name is wonderful - a Darwinian figure emerging from the primeval slime!") has become of particular interest because he "is an image of Rousseau's Natural Man'', and because he has replaced conventional politics with direct action. "We are at a moment'', Bate says enthusiastically, "when the whole Enlightenment project - democratic politics and rational discourse, the political and scientific strands which have gone together - is now falling apart and alternative ways are being invoked''.

So is he nailing his ear to trees? "No, I'm proceeding a bit more carefully than that. All revolutions need an intellectual arm as well as the people out there on the ground, taking the risks.'' But he would not mind being described as the intellectual arm of Swampy? He laughs: "I wouldn't mind that, no.'' Jennifer Wallace is director of English, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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