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  • Ecocriticism:Some Emerging Trends
  • Lawrence Buell (bio)

The Problem of the Unstable Signifier

What is ecocriticism? The imprecision with which it has been defined and the increasingly disparate uses to which it and its cognates have been put recall Arthur Lovejoy's classic essay "On the Discrimination of Romanticisms" (1924)—by which Lovejoy meant the problem of distinguishing among conflicting usages that belies the implication of a coherent category implied by its customary deployment in the singular.1

For romanticism, Lovejoy tried to impose a semblance of order through historicization, even though he was sorely tempted to throw up his hands. Romanticism "has ceased to perform the function of a verbal sign," he lamented. "When a man is asked . . . to discuss Romanticism, it is impossible to know what ideas or tendencies he is to talk about, when they are supposed to have flourished, or in whom they are supposed to be chiefly exemplified" ("ODR," 232). In a similarly jaundiced mood, one might say the same of ecocriticism.

Although a term of much more recent coinage than romanticism was in 1924, in the two decades since it took off as something like a movement it too has generated initiatives or camps that draw [End Page 87] on increasingly discrepant archives and critical models, such that even most self-identified ecocritics now read each other's work selectively rather than comprehensively, and distinctions become increasingly hard to make between them and other environmentally oriented humanists who would resist being called ecocritics however relevant their work seems to those who do. As Nirmal Selvamony recently put it, "ecocritics are not agreed on what constitutes the basic principle in ecocriticism, whether it is bios, or nature or environment or place or earth or land. Since there is no consensus, there is no common definition."2 Partly for that reason, even the choice of basic rubric has been challenged, by me among others.3 Ursula Heise rightly observes that "ecocriticism has imposed itself as convenient shorthand for what some critics prefer to call environmental criticism, [or] literary-environmental studies, [or] literary ecology, [or] literary environmentalism, [or] green cultural studies."4

Indeed, ecocriticism—to stay with the usual lumping term if only for convenience, even though I myself prefer "environmental criticism" for reasons that will shortly become clear—has a history both of strong position-taking by individual spokespersons and of reluctance to insist on a single normative, programmatic definition of its rightful scope, method, and stakes. By no coincidence, the most cited definition, by Cheryll Glotfelty in the introduction to the Ecocriticism Reader, characterizes it simply as "the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment."5

Nonetheless, it is possible to devise a usable narrative of that initiative's evolution and present agendas, including reasonable guesses about likely future directions.

From Inception until the Near-Now: The Two Waves

Until a few years ago, as a decent approximation one might characterize ecocriticism as a two-stage affair since its inception as a self-conscious movement in the early 1990s. What follows is an updated version of an earlier attempt to do so that seems to have gained fairly wide if not universal acceptance (FEC, 1-28).6

As a self-conscious critical practice calling itself such, ecocriticism [End Page 88] began around 1990 as an initiative within literary studies, specifically within English and American literature, from two semi-coordinated and interpenetrating epicenters: British romanticism, with a genre focus especially on poetry in that tradition (including its twentieth-century Anglo-American filiations), and U.S. nature writing (ditto), with a genre focus especially on the Thoreauvian imprint.7 At this early stage, few ecocritics, if pressed about the matter, would have claimed that these particular generic and historical foci were to be considered the sole rightful provinces for ecocritical work. On the contrary, most would have granted readily enough that ecocritical work might comprehend any and all expressive media, including not only visual, architectural, and other nontextual genres of practice but also even more purely instrumental, functional discourses—of scholarly articles in the natural and social science, the texts of legislative documents and treaties, and so forth. The initial de facto concentration on...


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