restricted access Speaking Before the Environment: Modern Fiction and the Ecological
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Speaking Before the Environment:
Modern Fiction and the Ecological

Artaud said: to write for the illiterate. . . . But what does 'for' mean? It is not 'for their benefit,' or yet 'in their place.' It is 'before.' It is a question of becoming. We think and write for animals themselves. We become animal so that the animal also becomes something else. The agony of a rat or the slaughter of a calf remains present in thought not through pity but as a zone of exchange between man and animal in which something of one passes into the other. This is the constitutive relationship of philosophy with nonphilosophy. . . . The artist or philosopher is quite incapable of creating a people, each can only summon it with all his strength. A people can only be created in abominable sufferings, and it cannot be concerned any more with art or philosophy. But books of philosophy and works of art also contain their sum of unimaginable sufferings that forewarn of the advent of a people. They have resistance in common—their resistance to death, to servitude, to the intolerable, to shame, and to the present.

—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri, "Geophilosophy"

By way of introduction to this special issue of Modern Fiction Studies I want to take the opportunity to foreground some problems [End Page 419] now facing ecocriticism in the fields of literary, cultural, and geographical studies as they are presently structured, and by extension the environmental movement as manifested in its current conditions of possibility.1 Though ecocriticism as a discipline within the humanities has yet to take on the significance of gender studies, race relations, or postcolonialism, it nevertheless has mushroomed in the last ten years or so and continues to grow in popularity, no doubt in part as a response to the growing public awareness of the planet's increasingly threatened environments. The potential of this flourishing critical activity signals a promising turn in ecological attitudes and importance. However, one must also consider the academic period in which this expansion now takes place—namely the waning of postcolonial studies in favor of a more generalized global studies,2 and the widespread erosion of philosophical inquiry (namely poststructuralist theory) alongside the subsequent ascension of various criticisms that could be loosely placed under the umbrella of cultural studies. These attritions will have an effect on the future of ecocriticism, and potentially foreclose the resources offered by contemporary critical inquiry from environmental studies and the environmental movement. Two resources that I want to consider here are structural-ontological analysis and the problem of representation.

Representation has never been taken for granted by poststructuralist inquiry. This critical awareness becomes especially important when one considers that the worst form of aggressive politics functions by conveniently overlooking the important fact that language is not transparent. Even environmental representation cannot claim a privileged lucidity, otherwise its struggle for politicization may end up supporting the unchecked movement of capital as we saw with the turning of underrepresented struggles into marketable identity politics with the institutionalization of multiculturalism. The question of representation is also one of the central concerns of modern fictions. Joseph Conrad, for instance, foregrounds the limitations of representation—especially in relation to colonial spaces and environments—in each of his narratives. The inability of Marlowe to find an adequate means of representation lies at the center of the narrative of Heart of Darkness and other Conrad novels such as Lord Jim, Nostromo, and Victory. Interestingly enough the environment itself serves as the key vehicle for foregrounding this impossibility of representation in each of these works. In Heart of Darkness Marlowe describes the land as "featureless," "empty," and a "wilderness" that contributes to Kurtz's madness (29, 34, 83). Victory's Axel Heyst's failure to establish an adequate system of representation has such an effect on his being that he cannot step beyond the cultivated enclosure of his isolated outpost of empire into the indigenous environment of the [End Page 420] island forest in the Malay Archipelago: "In front of Heyst the forest, already full of the deepest shades, stood like a wall" (341). Conrad's novels are particularly interesting in terms of an ecological...