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  • Earth, World, Text:On the (Im)possibility of Ecopoiesis
  • Kate Rigby (bio)

This article is concerned with a key question of ecological aesthetics: that is, the potential of art speak (of) the earth. Following Jonathan Bate’s discussion of Heidegger’s late essays in the final chapter of his book The Song of the Earth (2000), the article revisits one of Heidegger’s earlier essays, “The Origin of the Work of Art”, in order to consider anew his understanding of the earth as “primordial nature”, the world as humanly constructed, and the work of art as mediating between them. Reading somewhat against the grain, it is argued that this essay provides a point of departure for a rather different theory of ecopoiesis from that which Bate gleans from Heidegger’s later work. According to this ecopoetics of negativity, the earth as primordial nature is precisely that which cannot be spoken in the work of art. Indeed, it is only thus, in its very failure to speak the earth while nonetheless responding to its call, entering into dialogue with it, the work of ecopoiesis succeeds in pointing the way to that which lies beyond the merely human logos that shapes our world.

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."1 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."2

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.3 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."4 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 [End Page 427] 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."5

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...