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  • The Deconstructive Turn in Environmental Criticism
  • Timothy Clark (bio)

A “deconstructive turn” characterizes recent criticism on the environmental crisis. Within the past few years, there has been a spate of texts that address environmental issues with recognizably “deconstructive” arguments, or with frequent, though sometimes critical, references to the thinking of Derrida, and, in one striking recent study, to Paul de Man.1 This paper sums up the salient force of this new work, justifying the term “deconstructive turn” and highlighting the intellectual break being made from most given critical work on environmental issues.

The thinkers at issue here, from various disciplines, are Nigel Clark, Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook, J. Hillis Miller, Timothy Morton, and Bronislaw Szerszynski, along with some of my own work in ecocriticism. If any one thing gives impetus to this rush of texts, it is an engagement with the intellectual challenge of climate change, something still often absent from mainstream ecocriticism. It is as if this topic were inherently deconstructive of many previously reliable assumptions in the humanities. Ironically, some of the features that earlier ecocritics associated loosely with “deconstructionism,” “post-modernism,” or “post-structuralism,” etc. (usually not bothering to discriminate between them) sound like several now associated with climate change—lack of fully determinable reference; uncertainty as to authorship; a disconcerting sense of the arbitrary and of the incalculable; the refusal of clear moral/political signposts; the “specter” of “nihilism.”

It is not a matter of discussing or debating the empirical effects of climate change as predicted or already underway (flooding, drought, mass extinctions, and many unpredictable possibilities) nor the desirability of trying to curtail or diminish them, but the broad intellectual issue of what climate change “means,” of how it challenges inherited conceptions of the good, of economics, the earth and above all, the human. Most current readings render climate change too easily recuperable into given kinds of economic or moral accounting, with accusing critiques of anthropocentrism, of rampant global capitalism. Granted. But the issue in these essays finally [End Page 11] becomes something more disconcerting—readability itself, meaning, making sense. This new work is also just starting to face some of the uncomfortable intellectual implications of collective humanity’s patent inability significantly to engage with climate change, dangerous emissions continue ever to rise.

The first half of this essay sets out the basic arguments of these texts. The second considers the kinds of ethical or political prescriptions that they suggest for confronting global environmental degradation, and highlights some darker but unavoidable implications of their specific weaknesses.

Rejection of Knowledge as Representability

As opposed to romantic idealizations of nature through notions of harmony and homeostasis, these more deconstructive understandings are “textualist” in the broad sense of seeing natural processes in terms of the algorithmic or the semiotic, as open, complex systems of information exchange. One significant context for this has been the growing interest in the relatively new field of biosemiotics—though critics still tend merely to refer to biosemiotics rather than to engage in detail with its basic postulate that definitions of life broadly coincide with definitions of semiosis (i.e., the capacity for storing, replicating and expressing messages, either within the auto-poetic systems of an organism or between organism and environment).2 These readings also instantiate the contemporary interest in new or renewed kinds of materialism, comparable to those at issue in the cognitive sciences. It is a materialism of the automaticity of structures of information. Pheng Cheah writes of Derrida in relation to a “materialism without substance” (2010, 73), an understanding of matter through the notion of the text in general. Derrida had proposed “a certain materiality, which is not necessarily a corporeality, a certain technicity, programming, repetition or iterability, a cutting off from or independence from any living subject—the psychological, sociological, transcendental or even human subject” (qtd. in Cheah 2010, 77). Derrida’s maxim, “there is nothing outside of the text” (1998, 158), is far from being the kind of naïve linguistic idealism for which it was often taken (“that we are submerged in words—and other stupidities of that sort” [1984, 123]). It formed the far more challenging argument that modes of being first associated with textuality...


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