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Literary Ecology and the Ethics of Texts

From: New Literary History
Volume 39, Number 4, Autumn 2008
pp. 847-868 | 10.1353/nlh.0.0066

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I. Ecology and Ethics

Among the various “turns” in recent literary and cultural studies, the ecological turn and the ethical turn are perhaps the most conspicuous. They have both opened up promising new areas of transdisciplinary inquiry and are, in many ways, at the heart of current trends in the humanities. In my paper, I would like to look more closely at the relationship between ecology and ethics, with particular attention to the ways in which literature and literary studies can contribute in significant ways to that transdisciplinary dialogue.

If one tried to point out some of the convergences and common tendencies within recent ecology and ethics, one could name the following: (1) Both of them newly focus on the relationship between text and life that has been reduced to only one pole in the pantextual and pansemiotic universe of postmodernism. (2) Both of them deal not only with facts but with values, that is, with a critical attitude to a given state of things and with the necessity to think beyond it and imagine possible alternatives. (3) For both of them, the relationship between culture and nature and thus between the natural sciences and the humanities seems to have special significance, even if they approach this relationship from different angles. (4) Both of them share the assumption of an interconnection between local and global issues and are, therefore, transcultural and transnational in orientation.

At the same time, it is helpful to approach any such transdisciplinary dialogue from an awareness not only of the affinities, but also of the differences and indeed the tensions between the disciplines involved, which cannot simply be subsumed under each other’s premises. After all, ethics has been that discipline within traditional Western philosophy in which the opposition between culture and nature, human and nonhuman life provided the foundational terms and concepts. Human consciousness and conscience, the freedom of the will, the autonomy of the subject, the moral sense of good and evil, the hierarchy of values between the spiritual, intellectual, psychological, and physical spheres have been characteristic axioms of ethical thinking from Aristotle to Kant and into the twentieth century. Ethics appears, therefore, as an expression of precisely that logocentric and anthropocentric ideology that modern ecological thought tries to overcome.

What is more, ecology, from its origin in biology, has been an empirical-descriptive rather than a normative-philosophical form of knowledge; it favors a collective and objectifying rather than a decision- and subject-oriented approach; it posits an ecocentric instead of an anthropocentric orientation; it assumes the priority of nature over culture and, by extension, of the natural sciences over the humanities. Thus the bringing together of scientific and humanist-culturalist versions of ecology, which some ecocritics so emphatically advocate, is not as unproblematic and self-evident as it may seem. Let me illustrate this point by briefly discussing the relationship between ecology and ethics as formulated from the viewpoint of the natural sciences by Edward Wilson in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998).

II. The Unity and Diversity of Knowledge

Wilson is one of the foremost scientists and ecological voices in the world today, and apart from his role as environmental expert and public representative of a global conservation ethics, his aim is to overcome the division of modern knowledge into the “two cultures” already deplored in the 1950s by C. P. Snow, and to achieve a new “unity of knowledge” on the basis of interdisciplinary work. In his book Consilience, Wilson argues for a concept of knowledge that is fundamentally the same throughout the various fields of science. Consilience is not synonymous with coherence but is “literally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.”1 While Wilson in his earlier Sociobiology (1975) had still described ethics as a mere strategic function of selfish genes and “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate” (that is, in the all-governing biological purpose of species reproduction),2 he provided a more productive concept for connecting biological ecology with ethical considerations in his books Biophilia (1984) and The Biophilia Hypothesis...



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