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Queer Environmentality by Robert Azzarello (review)

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 3, 2013
pp. 122-124 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0087

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Queer Environmentality. By Robert Azzarello. Burlington: Ashgate. 2012.

Queer Studies and Environmental Studies have not always been ready bedfellows. [End Page 122]

According to Robert Azzarello, author of Queer Environmentality, that is because they have tended to operate under competing assumptions about what is “natural” in the world. On the one hand, Azzarello writes, Environmental Studies has tended, for its part, to depend on a heteronormative discourse of the “natural” (which it inherited from Darwinian evolutionism) that presumes that the primary goal of both human and non-human nature is to “survive and reproduce.” In such a discursive context, he says, everything that impedes or perverts those primary goals—from toxic oil spills to queer men—gets classed casually, and often unwittingly, within the more problematic category of the “unnatural” (4–5). By contrast, Azzarello writes, the field of Queer Studies has consistently voiced a “radical hermeneutic suspicion” of such simplistic and stable definitions of humanity, sexuality, and nature (15).

Azzarello’s book sets out to overcome this impasse by finding a common ground for exchange between the two fields. Its author contends that a more productive exchange might come about if we were to cultivate a queer environmentality that was rooted in, as he puts it, “a habit of thought that conceptualizes human beings, other life forms, and their environments as disregarding—and, at times, flaunting their disregard for—the ostensibly primary, natural law ‘to survive and reproduce’” (4, 136). Assuming that Azzarello is right, this queer habit of thought would not be entirely new. It is, he says, already embedded in our nation’s environmental literature, although we have been blinded to its existence because of our own hetero normative reading practices.

To flesh out this project of a “queer environmentality,” Azzarello reinterprets the writings of four major American authors—Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Willa Cather, and Djuna Barnes. He claims that each of these authors, despite their distance from one another in time and space, proposes in his or her distinct way a queer rewriting of the normative relations among humans, sex, and nature.

In discussing Thoreau, for instance, Azzarello reminds us that the erstwhile Romantic tossed aside his culture’s expectations of heterosexual marriage and the begetting of progeny to pursue a non-normative eroticism with nature—a queer environmentality that was tied up in rethinking the meaning of both human sensuality and human purpose. Azzarello explains that Thoreau’s novel reorientation to nature and the ontology that came out of that reorientation was always non-normative. On the one hand, he dared to celebrate the naturalness of homo sapiens as a decidedly animal species by replenishing the bodily sensuality in our encounters with nature, while, on the other, and paradoxically, he consistently strove to transcend both the notion of an un-problematized animal body and his own culture’s ontological assumptions about human and non-human nature. In a sense, Thoreau freed up space, that is, for a queer ethics by rejecting received binaries and by re-imagining the “human-animal-divine matrix” that framed mainstream Victorian discourse (54). Azzarello’s other sections on Melville, Barnes, and Cather offer equally interesting insights about how we might reread the canon of American environmental literature in similarly productive ways.

Queer Environmentality is an openly theoretical book that is carefully argued, and it will likely find a ready audience among ecocritics interested in the type of [End Page 123] questions that it raises. However, given the book’s overt orientation to that relatively rarified readership, I suspect that it will have trouble finding traction or making waves in the broader environmental community that it sets out to persuade.

Bob Johnson
National University
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