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Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 295-313

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The Ecology of Victorian Fiction

Joseph Carroll


In the past ten years or so, ecological literary criticism--that is, criticism concentrating on the relationship between literature and the natural environment--has become one of the fastest-growing areas in literary study. Ecocritics now have their own professional association, their own academic journal, and an impressive bibliography of scholarly studies. Ecocritical scholars divide their attention between "nature writing" and ecological themes within all literature. In other words, some scholars write on Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Annie Dillard; others write on topics such as the representation of nature in romantic poetry, the American West as a symbol, metaphors of landscape, or Dante's Inferno as a polluted ecosystem. Ecocritics have a distinct subject matter, and they share in a certain broad set of attitudes, values, and public policy concerns, but they do not yet have a firmly established framework of commonly accepted theoretical principles. In the absence of any overarching theory, ecocritics have usually sought to incorporate their ecological subject matter within other, already established theoretical schools: feminism, Bakhtin's dialogism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, or English romantic and American transcendentalist, idealist philosophy. Most commonly, ecocritics have affiliated themselves with the standard contemporary blend of Foucauldian ideological criticism--a blend that is vaguely Marxist and Freudian, generally radical, and strongly tinctured with deconstructive irrationalism and textualism. 1

Given its specialized themes and topics and its ready affiliation with the standard theoretical blend, ecocriticism might seem little more than a special topic area within the general field of contemporary [End Page 295] literary study. But ecocritics do not see their approach that way. They share in a feeling of being at the forefront of critical response to an urgent practical problem of world-historical magnitude: the prospect of irreversible environmental devastation. They thus have a strong sense of a political mission, and they often feel that the urgency of their environmental concerns should sanction realigning the canon to give much greater prominence to nature writers and to the study of ecological themes. In their view, the natural world claims a special status as the ultimate ground and frame of all existence. It is an object of peculiar veneration and of primary experiential importance.

The special conceptual status of ecology as a theme and a topic necessarily raises a question about its theoretical import. If the subject of ecocriticism is the relation of literature and the natural world, and if this relation is more important and more elemental than any other concern, does it not follow that ecocriticism should identify itself as a matrix for all literary study? To put the question operationally, in what way could ecology, as a subject matter and a concept, generate a theory of literature? Since the relation between organisms and natural environments is a necessary precondition of all experience, one could reasonably argue that the special topic of ecocriticism is more elemental than the topics of feminism, Marxism, or any other form of political criticism, and that the basic physical conditions of organic life take conceptual precedence over semiotics and theories of "culture" and "discourse."

I shall argue that ecology cannot by itself generate a theory of literature or serve as the basis for a theory of literature, but I shall also argue that responsiveness to the sense of place is an elemental component of the evolved human psyche and that it thus can and should be integrated into a Darwinian literary theory. E. O. Wilson's notion of "biophilia" provides a Darwinian alternative to the ecological transcendentalism of "deep ecology," and the evolutionary epistemology of Konrad Lorenz provides a Darwinian rationale for locating the human psyche within its physical world. In constructing a bridge between the evolutionary epistemology of Lorenz and the idea of place within verbal narrative, I shall make use of a new branch of Darwinian aesthetics, Joseph Anderson's "ecological" version of "cognitive film theory."

In order to illustrate the ways in which setting can be integrated into a Darwinian literary criticism, in the latter part of the essay...


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