- Political Environments
Following relations between texts and environments, ecocriticism has typically examined how human cultures affect and are affected by the physical world, while at the same time pointing to the political stakes of these issues. In her introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), Cheryll Glotfelty observes that "most ecocritical work shares a common motivation: the troubling awareness that we have reached the age of environmental limits, a time when the consequences of human actions are damaging the planet's life support systems."1 By reflecting on key historical, aesthetic, and ethical concerns, ecocriticism provides crucial insights into the conceptualization of nature and the political implications of these views.
Addressing ecological issues in this way, most ecocritical texts uphold a distinction between human action and cultural modes of perception, on the one hand, and the material environment, on the other. Even though ecocriticism pursues a dense web of connections that link texts and humans to natures, its political aims tend to focus on the agency of humans and social constructs. Figuring [End Page 299] humans as conquerors of lands, exploiters of natural resources, or even as contemplative subjects moved by the sublime, ecocritics challenge readers to reexamine how certain cultural practices shape human interactions with the natural world. In these accounts, humans are actors, while the environment serves as a physical frame and limit. During the fifteen years following publication of The Ecocriticism Reader, approaches considered by ecocritical writers have broadened and expanded considerably; the range and scope of these new tendencies is suggested by this special issue of Qui Parle. Nonetheless, both within ecocriticism and in the environmental movement more generally, political action continues to focus on human agency and challenges posed by humans to environmental limits.
In this review I turn to two works at the interdisciplinary edges of ecocriticism, both of which transform this political tack. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, by Jane Bennett, a professor of political theory at John Hopkins University, follows the participation of nonhumans in Western political thought and practices. Drawing on the work of Spinoza, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Darwin, Adorno, and Deleuze, she puts forth a theory that recognizes the role of nonhuman forces in events. Arguing that action can never be confined to a solely human realm, Bennett points to what she calls the "vital power" of materiality. She contends that ecological politics should take up a distributed view of agency that extends beyond human actors. Cosmopolitics I, by Isabelle Stengers, a philosopher of science at the Free University of Brussels, transforms the other side of the political framework usually taken up by ecocritics, highlighting the role of science in constituting limits and thus challenging the idea of an already given nature. Drawing on her previous work in the history of physics, she proposes that scientists develop an ecology of practices. Stengers suggests landscapes are constituted through contingent relations between human and nonhuman elements and the practices that make them known, troubling easy distinctions between the natural world and how it is understood. By focusing on knowledge of the physical world, her analysis maintains there are no limits outside politics and, instead, suggests that a central tenet of political ecology would be the critical [End Page 300] examination of the diverse and divergent ecologies of practices that give limits form.
These books propose two corresponding moves to transform current configurations of environmental politics: agency should be broadened to incorporate the participation of nonhumans, while environmental constraints should be analyzed through an ecology that cannot be debated outside the cultural and natural practices from which they emerge. Taking on these themes, the authors connect with recent turns in ecocriticism, yet their projects pursue explicitly political dimensions that would significantly transform the politics of ecocriticism. In what follows I take a closer look at how the authors formulate political ecology and examine the significance of their transformations.
To theorize "the force of things," Bennett begins with...