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Earth, World, Text: On the (Im)possibility of Ecopoiesis

From: New Literary History
Volume 35, Number 3, Summer 2004
pp. 427-442 | 10.1353/nlh.2004.0045

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New Literary History 35.3 (2004) 427-442

On the (Im)possibility of Ecopoiesis

Kate Rigby

Monash University

The agnosticism of my title is intended to signal difficulties that cannot be avoided . . ." Flagging thus his critical intentions, Dominic Head, in an article entitled "The (Im)possibility of Ecocriticism," sets out to question whether and how "the premises of ecological thinking" can truly be "accommodated within [the] increasingly rarefied discipline of literary study." Along the way, he problematizes a key element in that deep ecological thinking, with which he nonetheless allies himself: namely, the critique of anthropocentrism. Drawing upon the work of British left ecopolitical theorist Andrew Dobson, Head argues for the necessity of distinguishing between a "strong" "human-instrumental attitude to nature"—an attitude which Australian ecopolitical theorist Robyn Eckersley, in a neat turn of phrase, refers to as "human racism"—"and a weak kind, which is merely human-centred." While it might be essential, in the long run, to overcome the former, the latter, according to Dobson, "is an unavoidable feature of the human condition [and] a necessary condition for there to be such a thing as politics."

An acknowledgement of the centrality of the human actant, however contingent, contextualized, and decentered she might be in herself, is also a necessary condition for there to be such a thing as literature, as commonly understood, along with almost all other kinds of artistic endeavor. This is Head's primary concern in this article, and it leads him to take issue with the "aesthetic of relinquishment" that Lawrence Buell recommends in The Environmental Imagination. For as Buell himself acknowledges, this aesthetic is ultimately incompatible with most forms of lyric, dramatic, and epic writing: that literature which purveys what Buell calls "the most basic aesthetic pleasures of homocentrism: plot, characterization, lyric pathos, dialogue, intersocial events and so on." Reluctant to be confined as a critic to what he terms the "ghetto" of environmental nonfiction, Buell's favored genre, and keen to engage with both the aesthetics and politics of the postmodern, upon which some ecocritics have simply turned their backs, Head proceeds to demonstrate the possibility of an ecologically informed reading of an emphatically postmodern and postcolonial novel, J. M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K. (1983), while acknowledging that his "model of the ecological text, and ecological operation . . . falls short of existing ecocritical calls for a creative practice and a critical methodology which can give 'voice' to the natural world."

Far from endorsing the impossibility of ecocriticism, Head's problematization of some of its existing assumptions and practices ends up lending the ecocritical project a much wider scope and significance than Buell's aesthetic of relinquishment would allow, vitally important though Buell's work and that of other proponents of nonfiction nature-writing has been in rehabilitating a neglected genre. However, the point at which Head's consideration concludes confronts us with the wider question of whether there could ever be a creative practice and a critical methodology that do not fall short of giving voice to the natural world. This is the question that I would like to pursue here, with reference in particular to the specifically Heideggerian model of ecopoiesis developed by Jonathan Bate in the final chapter of The Song of the Earth. Recast in Heideggerian terms, my question might be stated thus: how can a work of art, a thing of human making, or, as the Greeks put it, poiesis, speak, and in speaking "save," the earth? For this, according to Bate, is precisely what ecopoetry can do: "If mortals dwell in that they save the earth and if poetry is the original admission of dwelling," Bate concludes, "then poetry is the place where we save the earth."

Bate's Heidegger is that of the essays on technology, dwelling, and poetry that were penned after the war, and it is accordingly to those that I too would like to return, before going back to a key text from the 1930s that Bate strangely omits from his discussion, namely, "The Origin of the Work of Art" (1935/6). Working back to this essay in reverse-chronological order, I will begin with "The Question Concerning Technology...