- Seeing Beyond Green
Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green is a collection of essays by mostly well-known scholars in the highly arable field of ecocriticism. The conceit is simple: the color green has dominated the discourse of the environmental humanities for its entire history, first with the early views of nature writing as the (usually white male) genre that valued something called “nature” over a falsely dichotomous “culture,” and next with the modern environmental movement and its rhetorics of sustainability and deep ecology. Ecocriticism has moved well beyond the old boys—Wordsworth, Thoreau, Heidegger, etc.—and has come to question the squeaky values of the “green” lifestyle within the framework of a consumerist, hierarchical, capitalist, late-industrial, technocratic society. Why would we tolerate the label “green studies” a moment longer? Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has assembled a coterie of scholars well-suited to redressing this chromatic imbalance. They do so in a series of sixteen essays titled by tone, from the expected “White,” “Black,” “Red,” “Blue,” and “Brown” (but why not the primary “Yellow”?) to the designer “Chartreuse” and “Violet-Black” and the super-optical “X-ray” and “Ultraviolet.” It is clear that these scholars share a common vision of the proper direction of ecocriticism; the essays are highly inter-referential, and certain names reoccur in nearly every shade of the prism (including Stacy Alaimo, Graham Harman, Jane Bennett, and especially Timothy Morton). This camaraderie gives the volume a theoretical coherence that the splintered colors alone might have diffused, but the effect is also a bit cliquish. Essay collections are strongest when they have an internal structure to support their ventures, and the neo-ecocritical discourse that swirls around “object-oriented ontology,” “transcorporeality,” “strange strangers,” and “hyperobjects” becomes the backbone of this collection. Avowedly, and titularly, this is not Thoreau’s literary ecology. What we get in return for our trust and patience is a cluster of truly enlightening and beautifully written essays, along with some tunnels into esoteric caves of the humanities and a couple of head-scratchers.
My favorite essays were the ones that stayed the course of color, taking their title as an occasion to enlighten the reader on the many physical, historical, and theoretical valences of a particular shade while staying trained on that color in the “natural world,” broadly understood. Tobias Menely and Margaret Rhonda’s chapter on “Red” masterfully manages this multifarious color on the levels of physics, etymology, semiotics, biological mimicry, and cultures of commodity and protest – all intriguing angles – without creating a mess of bleeding signifiers. They show how bodies make it into our channels of consumption by many means: through secretive, industrial-scale slaughter in the off-limits abattoir, where blood nonetheless seeps into regional water supplies; through the mass consumption of Red 40 (think Froot Loops and Gatorade), a food coloring derived from petroleum (that is, ancient biomass); and through carmine, an “eco-friendly” alternative red dye often used in commodities marketed to vegetarians and vegans, yet derived from a species of cactus-eating beetle. Similarly strong is Steve Mentz’s “Brown,” which begins vividly with the passage: “Smelly, rancid, and impure, it is no one’s favorite color. We need brown but do not like looking at it. It is a color you cannot cover up, that will not go away. At the end of a long afternoon finger-painting with the kids, it is what is left, sprawling across the page” (193). Mentz partitions his analysis into three brown regions: dry sand (a very light brown, I suppose); mucky swamps (including icons like the mighty Mississippi); and, of course, poop. “Down in the muck,” Mentz writes, “life is a brown business” (194). I wish more oil culture had seeped into this muck, because the black-brown of crude is a lamentable icon that refreshes itself every few years in our eco-cultural memory on a different “green” coast. Nonetheless, Mentz’s readings of Spencer, Shakespeare, and Borges take the reader to rewarding brown ground.
Stacy Alaimo’s “Violet-Black” plumbs the deepest oceans, where the long wavelengths on...