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  • Ecocriticism’s Hard Problems (Its Ironies, Too)
  • Dana Phillips (bio)
The Meaning of Rivers: Flow and Reflection in American Literature, T. S. McMillin. University of Iowa Press, 2011.
The Ecstatic Nation: The American Landscape and the Aesthetics of Patriotism, Terre Ryan. University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.

The growth of ecocriticism since the early 1990s is dizzying. For at least a decade, ecocriticism was regarded as marginal, if not avocational, and ecocritics struggled to secure beachheads in English departments and the academic job market. Now, some 1,300 of them hailing from across the liberal arts—and all around the globe—belong to the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, or ASLE. (First irony: the population of ecocritics has exploded, though the means of their reproduction has not been the one Thomas Robert Malthus had in mind. It has instead been viral.) Of course, the most important measure of ecocriticism’s success is the scholarship it has produced. Thanks in no small part to ASLE’s organization and promotion of ecocriticism, anyone interested in the field can ponder hundreds of articles, many of them published in dedicated journals; multiple clutches of special issues, conference proceedings, and edited volumes; a few score monographs; and many dissertations, along with a sprinkling of blogs and websites. (Second irony: forests have been felled and cheap labor sweated by multinational corporations to help make ecocriticism possible. Ecocriticism, an indictment of modernity and globalization, is one of their offspring, too. Its carbon footprint must be enormous.)

Against this backdrop of rapid development, territorial expansion, and escalated productivity, I would like to review the progress ecocriticism has made to date on what I will call its “hard problems.” The hard problem in philosophy involves coming to terms with the experience of consciousness. Pondering the hard problem has traditionally meant an appeal to something incalculable, supererogatory, and transcendental, such as the soul, the spirit, the cogito, and “the ghost in the machine” (Ryle 15–16), or even—as potent [End Page 455] counterexamples—zombies and bats. At the heart of the hard problem is the concept of “mind,” or the lack thereof, which philosophers have fretted about while spending several millennia in fruitless introspection as they attempted to turn the concept into a percept. However compelling philosophers have found it, the hard problem holds no appeal whatsoever to neuroscience, where genuine advances in the understanding of conscious have been made in the last 50 years. Consciousness is beginning to be explained, as Daniel Dennett (Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness [2005]) has suggested and as the work of Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain [2005]), like that of other neuroscientists, illustrates. This explanation, as is usual in science, has been piecemeal, a matter of benchwork. Neuroscientists have mapped the different regions of the brain and stimulated them by electronic or other means, so that the extensive roster of functions these regions perform while generating consciousness, along with many other neurological phenomena, can be filled in. The brain is not a meat puppet for the mind; plug it into the nervous system, supply it with oxygen, bathe it in the right chemicals, and it will pull its own strings.

I think it is obvious that ecocriticism does not and should not have the opportunities and resources available to neuroscience: for instance, granting ecocritics direct access to brains, so that they might explore the material origins of ecological consciousness, is clearly out of the question. Ecocriticism is therefore unlikely to make dramatic progress on solving its own hard problems, and in mapping the terrain of its concerns with an eye to the functionality of this terrain’s many and diverse regions. (Third irony: one of ecocriticism’s hard problems is rhetorical, as you may have surmised, and results from the temptation ecocritics feel when they meet with metaphors like the geographical, topographical, and cartographical ones—explore, mapping, terrain, regions—I have just used. The temptation needs to be resisted, since it is not merely stylistic; it is also discursive, even cognitive. One might well call it theoretical. More about this later.) I doubt that additional cash and better methodologies will alleviate ecocriticism...


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