All entries for Friday 10 November 2006

November 10, 2006

Jhan Hochman: Green cultural studies

Green cultural studies: An introductory critique of an emerging discipline
Jhan Hochman. Mosaic : a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. Winnipeg: Mar 1997.Vol. 30, Iss. 1; pg. 81, 16 pgs

‘A satellite topography of the English literary tradition since the Industrial Revolution might show nature as a spiritual-imaginative object in the Romantic climes, as a religious or scientific object in the Victorian domain, and as a symbolic/formal object in the Modern realm’, begins Jhan Hochman’s essay. But what of the current movement, postmodernism? Hochman believes that for postmodernity, nature becomes ‘a politico-cultural object, one which is no longer restricted to literature, “fine” art, and formalist cinema and video, but also has starring roles in commercials, photos, and movies, and is at the centre of heated public debates about “ecocide,” “ecoterrorism,” “ecopornography,” “greenwashing” and “animal rights” ’. Hochman notes that as a result new academic disciplines have developed: ecopsychology, ecological economics ecofeminism, ecosophy, environmetal law, environmental science, environmental history and environmental law. Above all there is ecocriticism, which Hochman describes as ‘a literature-based approach within a still loosely federated but emerging field generally designated as “green cultural studies” ’.

Hochman believes that ecocriticism has ‘affinities’ with cultural studies, because the latter discipline’s ‘prevalent concern has been the impact that texts and social practices have upon ethnicity/color, gender, sexuality, economic class, and age (particularly youth subcultures)’. Ecocriticism, for Hochman, is similar except that it studies ‘worldnature’ or the ‘fifth world’. Hochman notes that this was first recognized by Donna Haraway in her essay, ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’. He also admits a debt to Andrew Ross and his idea of green cultural criticism or studies, which ‘ties green concerns to the politico-ethical core of cultural studies’.

Within this context, therefore, the project of green cultural studies is the examination of nature through words, image, and model for the purpose of foregrounding potential effects representation might have on cultural attitudes and social practices which, in turn, affect nature itself. What this also means, however, is that green cultural studies must be equally cautious of the impact that it -like other forms of representation-can have on nature.

Hochman suggests that there is a need for ‘a much more precise mapping of the emergence of this new discipline’ and he intends to trace the inheritance of green cultural studies through Marxism and the Naturalist traditions of Zola, Norris, and Steinbeck. He also wants to criticise ideas of nature presented by Haraway and Ross and make suggestions for the future.

Hochman begins by turning to Marxism, noting Stuart Hall’s suggestion that the Frankfurt School offered impetus for cultural studies. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno recognized man’s alienation from nature due to ‘Baconian “blind domination” ’. Hochman writes: ‘They thought that if the Enlightenment could be turned against itself, or if culture’s grounding in nature could be recalled, the “truth” of culture might emerge’. For Hochman their assertions are crucial to cultural studies because:
• in their view, ‘culture can be inferred to grow out of, without being determined by, nature’ so it is ‘neither self-generating nor wholly self-perpetuating but is embedded in and dependent upon nature’;
• ‘ “remembrance” of nature propels one toward grounding and critiquing culture and-especially pertinent for cultural studies-toward theorizing ways out of avoidable dominations’;
• and in their argument, ‘the seeds of a poststructuralist blurring of nature and culture are sown’.
Above all there is the recognition that ‘culture has replaced Nature as the realm of the Given and Determining’ and that ‘culture gets confused with nature and make this problem central to their cultural critique’.

Hochman now turns to Jennifer Daryl Slack and Laurie Anne who argue that cultural studies has a dual aspiration, to critique capitalism but also to unknit oppressive cultural formations in a more general manner. Hochman notes that capitalism has a huge and detrimental effect on nature and that ‘the capitalist/communist flattening of worldnature informs and has been informed by artifactual depictions of nature, which flatten it into a two-dimensional backdrop for the human drama’.
In thinking about some of the first cultural studies theorists, Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and E. P. Thompson, Hocman notes that ‘they conceive of workers as the locus of instrumentalism and deculturation, not only by Althusserian Repressive (e.g., police) and Ideological (e.g., schools) State Apparatuses, but additionally by the spread of popular or mass culture’. Hochman traces the study of workers back to Marx and he notices that ‘nature was for him the foundation of culture, of labor-a necessary factor for cultural theorization’. For Marx, natureis dead but it is the foundation for work and study.

Oppressed subjects in the working class were the first objects of study, before race, gender and age were used as categories of a multiplicity of oppressions. The pattern was that of a small group commodifying and exploiting a larger one, who according to Hochman were associated ‘with adjectives of “brute-ishness,” “brute-ality,” “coarseness,” “wildness,” “innocence,” “ignorance,” or verbs of “massing,” “spreading,” and “swarming,” words indicating a need for surveillance, control, and checking’. Yet Hochman suggests that cultural studies misses the fact that the characterization of the ‘subaltern’ is similar to the way in which nature is represented. In fact, Hochman suggests that oppressed groups are associated with nature: ‘living “close to nature” as abject poverty; nature as punishing mother goddess or innocent child; youth as wild or nature as the past or immaturity of culture’.

Hochman quotes Hannah Arendt who writes on the ‘negative uses of nature’ and ‘white racist psychology’. Arendt suggests that whites were so disquieted by Africans because they lived as a part of nature and nature was a kind of master. Hochman goies further and suggests that ‘any entity associated with nature stands to lose rights to ethical culture’. Oppressed groups are only allowed into culture because they are a resource. Hochman is adamant that nature should be included in cultural studies as it and pother oppressed groups are forced into abjection in a similar manner. Hochman writes that ‘green cultural studies has the potential to rediscover a nature that is still essentialized as mere matter-a continuum from dead to not fully “present”-and reconfigure it as essential, a fifth world that matters’.

There are obstacles however: the Left’s suspicion of environmentalism’s whiteness and the disappearance in some postmodernisms (i.e., cultural studies) of nature as conceptual and linguistic referent. Just as identity is eliminated for repressed groups like African-Americans, postmodernism shows ‘the tendency suddenly to conjure up a utopian oneness or singular nature and culture’. We cannot reconcile ourselves with nature’s otherness so easily.
Leftist critics dislike the green movement ‘on the basis of its whiteness and its “privileging” of nonhuman victims’. Yet Hochman sees worse dangers in the use of ‘nature in cultural studies because:
• ‘the terms “natural,” “naturalness,” and “naturalized” tend to be synonyms for “reified” and “essentialized,” ’ ;
• and ‘worldnature […] becomes the kind of nature opposed to a culture over-optimistically referred to as “nurture” ’.
Hochman thinks that this emerges from Zola’s Naturalism and that of Steinbeck and Norris. For Hochman, the protagonist of such novels ‘is reduced to both laboratory animal and abject beast’ while ‘only culture is posited as the cure’.

Andrew Ross apparently feels that ‘environmentalism, like Nature, is a politics of restriction’ and he criticizes the green movement for its negativity. Hochman rebuts this point by suggesting that a similar statement could be made about identity politics, but that this would seem ridiculous. Ross suggests ‘a democratization of cultural affluence’ that does not reconcile human beings ‘with an ever-exterminated worldnature’.

The blurring of culture/nature in postmodernism is detrimental to ideas of nature: ‘a worldnature conceived as culturally constructed is a lookingglass nature, a nature that is sensorially abstract, but cognitively or significantly concrete’. Hochman wants to promote ‘an ontological world nature’, not as a ‘knowable referent’. A cultural construction of nature must be a fashioning not a bringing into existence. ‘Environment’ should not only refer to ‘human health or livelihood’.

Hochman dislikes the blurring of nature and technology by writers like Haraway who he sees as a ‘problematic advocate of nature’. Hochman criticises her argument that everything is part of nature, including technology. For Hochman such a statement is ripe for exploitation by ‘developers, scientists, and technophiles who argue that they and their products are part of nature’

Alexander Wilson, however, is a critic admired by Hochman, because while Wilson breaks down borders, he does not find nature and culture to be one and the same thing. However, he dislikes Wilson’s ‘notion that humans can “restore” nature to “health” ’comparing it to ‘ideologies of ethnic “purity,” “health,” and “cleanliness” applied to the “improvement” of human populations’. Hochman believes that nature restoration is ‘highly problematic’ and that we would be better served by retreating so that ‘plants, animals and land can restore themselves and benefit from more observation and protection than manipulation’.

Hochman now begins to consider the debate surrounding the silenced voice of nature. He notes Haraway’s annoyance at such debates which remind her of pro-life demands for the silent voice of the foetus to be heard. Hochman states: ‘Environmentalists and animal-rights advocates might be better characterized as representing jaguars or speaking, as Ross says, in the name of jaguars; for this, as I see it, means speaking for the survival and the continued well-being of the jaguar, which, with or without a jaguar’s sanction, is less problematic than not representing them at all’. But what about the people who live along side the jaguar in the same environment? Yet the argument that ‘preservation of nature usually involves callousness toward people’ is not so dissimilar to conservative arguments ‘that attention to the rights of women, people of color, gays and lesbians will turn white heterosexual men into the Other’.

The problem, then, is this: how can plants, animals, and elements, even disparaged people, gain decent, equal treatment, within and outside cultural studies? The recourse to the argument that “we’re all connected, people to people and people to nature,” is of too limited appeal for the following reason: mother and fetus [sic] can be disconnected; people’s bodies are increasingly disconnected from each other; animals (even those with emotions and intelligence) are routinely sacrificed; plants (even those with value when alive) are cut down without a second thought.

Hochman turns to Deleuze and Guattari and their notion of “becoming-in-the-world”.

Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of movement is their strength: first, their advocacy of “becoming-other” along a “plane of consistency” (an improvement over “imitation” or “identification”); and second, their move from the plane of consistency-where no impervious boundaries exist between nature and culture, animal and human, that plane of temporary and strategic becomings-to a “plane of organization,” that realm of subjects and individuals, of temporary and strategic fixities.

If green cultural studies is to be an effective politico-cultural tool in the service of nature and culture, it will need to study not only how to “become” nature, how to attempt a merging with the real or imagined subjectivity of a plant, animal, or mineral, of air, water, earth and fire; it will also need to pull back and grant these beings and entities unromanticized difference, an autonomy apart from humans, a kind of privacy and regard heretofore granted almost exclusively only to those considered human. Nature and culture cannot be willed together by glibly naturalizing culture, by culture simplistically proclaiming itself part of nature, or by stupidly making worldnature into an appendage of culture, worldnature into a culturally constructed product. Any substantial (reciprocal) merging of nature and culture will take generations of internal cultural struggle. Green cultural studies and human culture would do well to ensure that plants and animals are granted separateness, independence, and liberation (an apartness distinct from excusing and advocating separation because of superiority) before mucking about too much with forced fusions and coalescences. Otherwise it is nature who/that will suffer most by this shotgun marriage with culture(s) made monstrous by thousands of years of naturalized atrocities against plants, animals, and elements.

Jonathan Bate on ‘Poetry and Biodiversity’

Writing about web page

Jonathan Bate

At the beginning of the essay, Bate quotes Edward O. Wilson, who describes an ‘ultimate irony of organic evolution’ being the fact that ‘in the instant of achieving self-understanding through the mind of man, life has doomed its most beautiful creations’. In the late twentieth century, Bate notes that man is unique in being aware of evolution and having the ability to alter its course. Human beings have moved from understanding nature to setting themselves apart from nature to actively reshaping nature. Because human beings understand the idea of ecosystems, they also have the ability to destroy them.

Biologists have moved from studying species to environments in order to understand biodiversity and the opportunistic species that maintain systems, the so-called keystone species. Returning to Wilson and his study, The Diversity of Life , Bate outlines Wilson’s argument as focussing on the beauty and necessity of biodiversity. From studies like these, there emerges the idea of the bioregion in which common ecosystems are bound together, and Bate wonders whether we could think bioregionally?

One way forward might be simply to try to understand a place: ‘Wilson yokes the scientific to the aesthetic and recognizes that poets are also there to help us understand the place, to come to know the earth’ (55). Bate turns now to Heidegger’s essay, ‘What are Poets For?’, noting his attack on technology and his demand for dwelling in the land. Bate notes that the term ‘dwelling’, is used in later Heidegger works to describe an authentic form of being ‘set against […] the false ontologies of Cartesian dualism and subjective idealism’ (55). Heidegger demands being ‘open to being’ including ‘a presencing not a representation, a from of being not a mapping’ (55).

In thinking about dwelling, Bate turns to notions of home and eh writes: ‘A home is a house in which one does not live but dwells’ (56). Bate now analyses Edward Thomas’ poem ‘Home’: In the poem, Bate sees that ‘humans who dwell take only from their own bioregion; they know that if they uproot, they must also plant’ (58).

So the poetic is divided in two ecological senses according to Bate, ‘as it is either (both?) a language ( logos ) that restores us to our home ( oikos ) or (and?) a melancholy recognizing that our only home ( oikos ) is a language ( logos )’ (59).

Yet there are problems with ‘deep’ Green thinking and Heidegger’s ‘dwelling’ , such as its alliance with fascism via Social Darwinism and other darker facets of ecological thought. In response to such doubts, Bate wonders if there could be other systems for dwelling?

One path could be Burkean conservatism and its focus on the inheritance of the past. Btae links the birdsong and returning labourers in ‘Home’ to this way of thinking. In both cases, true wisdom is a wise passiveness and openness to being. However, unlike Heidegger, Burke moves from the order of nature to the ideal order of the state. Bate believes that Burke is right to take his cues from the pattern of nature, but that he comes to the wrong conclusions. Communities survive and organisms survive, but ownership does not come into dwelling. For the poet, home should have an imaginative not a legal interest. It was Burke’s opposite number, Rousseau, who noted that modern civilisation occurred when human beings ceased to live in the economy of nature.

How would nature dictate a constitutional system? Are nature and the nation state compatible? Bate notes that literary study often works within national boundaries, yet modernism was a movement in poetry that revolved around notions of the cosmopolitan. Capitalism may have had more of an influence on the ‘free floating modernist’ than we realise according to Bate (63). Bate wonders whether Bunting is excluded from the modernist canon precisely because he is a bioregional poet and he refers to Bunting’s poem, ‘Briggflats’. (You can access the poem at Literature Online if you sign in with your Athens password here: ). Bate compares the imagery of Anglo-Celtic metalwork to poetic art and to the ‘weaving of the material universe’ (64). Like Wilson, Bunting celebrates diversity, but he is not so interested in ‘scientific description’ (64). Rather, he is dwelling and listening ‘to hear the music of the shuttle’ (64).

Locked in the prison house of language, dwelling in the logos not the oikos , we know only the text not the land. Unless, that is, we could come to understand that every piece of land is itself a text with its own syntax and signifying potential. Or one should say: come to understand once again, as our ancestors did . For the idea that the earth itself is a text is a very old one.

Finally, Bate turns to the great ecological poet, Les Murray, whose antipodean voice making incursions into the English canon imposes the notion of biodiversity. Bate refers to ‘Holiday Song Cycle’ which expresses amazement and wonder at the mosquito. For Bate, Murray combines ‘biological accuracy with a joyfulness that glories in all creation’ (67). Murray is a creator and a re-creator who, like the aborigines, prefers to keep the land the way it was and is.

In ‘Thinking About Aboriginal Land Rights, I Visit the Farm I Will Not Inherit’, Murray makes notions of property unravel by the native grass and pollination on the wind. The poet is disinherited by nature but this leads to a deeper understanding of and kinship with nature, a relation that belonged to his ancestors. Bate writes: ‘He becomes the farm’s dreaming’ (68).

The poem sings it back to life until at dusk he returns it to the earth. Whether the dreaming will emerge again thousands of years in the future will depend on whether the bush is humming with undersound or silent with extinction. The task of the poet, I suggest is to show the next few generations that they have the power to determine which it will be. (69)

Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism, and Literature. Ed. by Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammell. London and New York: Zed Books, 1998. 53-70.

Deborah Slicer on ‘The Body as Bioregion’

Writing about web page

Deborah Slicer

In this essay Slicer wonders which representation was first used to represent the other: the violation of women’s bodies or the rape of the land? According to Slicer, both are sometimes viewed as a resource, as property, as a guarded secret. Barrenness in women and in nature is often thought of in terms of wasted production.

Slicer refers to Patricia Williams whose research into commerce law showed ‘multiple categories of oppression’ (110) Williams found a contract of sale for her great great grandmother who was a slave. On investigating the story further, Williams discovered that her ancestor had been forced to bear her white master’s children, who were later encouraged to believe that they owed their lives and livelihood to their father. Williams recognises the institutional coercion that views women, especially those of non-European origin, as passive matter.

Slicer quotes Emily Martin who has studied the language of western reproduction. According to Martin, in some cases, the uterus is equal to a machine, while the body is simply a product. It is economically, socially disadvantaged women who are coerced into work as reproductive labourers.

Susan Bordo also notes that women of non-European origin who are pregnant and poor are legally mere bodies. Similarly, the land ‘does not, cannot , own itself’ (111). People continue to think of minor subjects as chattel and deny eco-systems subjecthood. In both cases, there is a desire to extract resources.

Slicer sees the body as a bioregion. Slicer does not mean that the body is identical with a geographical place, because to do so ‘denies others their subjectivity, the coyote her otherness’ and ‘risks mistaking his or her own desires for the desires of others’ (112).

However, the body is significant:

To be “home” is first to inhabit one’s own body. We are each as body, a biological ecosystem as complex, efficient and as fragile as the Brooks Range, the Everglades, a native prairie. (113)

Slicer refers to Wendall Berry who notices similar characteristics in the treatment of bodies and the treatment of the earth, especially when it involves contempt for bodies. For Slicer, this kind of contempt is bad, because she sees bodies as holy. This does not mean ‘reducing women to essential bodies, to nature, as distinct from culture, or as distinct from any other of the binary categories – reason or the transcendental’ (113).

Reading the Earth: New Directions in the Study of Literature and the Environment. Ed. Michael P. Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Daniel Patterson and Scott Slovic. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1998. 107-116.


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