- It's the End of the Field as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)
This changes everything.Naomi Klein,
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
If, as Rob Nixon points out, the Anthropocene concept has become an intellectual "cavernous maw" into which "enthusiasts and skeptics [have] poured in from paleobotany and postcolonial studies, from nanotechnology and bioethics, from Egyptology, evolutionary robotics, feminist psychology, geophysics, agronomy, post-humanism and druidic studies" ("Anthropocene"), what, in the case of literary studies, might come out the other side? And what, more pointedly, ought to come out? If ecocriticism is guided, at least for many of us, by political, ethical, and ecological investments, what would we like it to look like? How might it best address the problems and dilemmas of the environmental crisis in which we live? And since the Anthropocene—with its metanarrative might—takes in, not just our scholarship and reading practices, not just our political positions and economic views, but our very selves, our daily lives as we eat, drink, and produce wastes of various kinds, as we commute to work and type on computers, in our offices, our homes, and on vacation, what might we look like once we have allowed ourselves to think through the Anthropocene's implications? The personal is once again political, though, as Timothy Clark reminds us, the political itself has changed: "someone's routinely driving a car may be condemned as an act of more significance, on the planetary scale, than their voting habits. The opinions that a critic may air at a [End Page 565] conference may seem of less significance than the fact of having taken a flight to reach it" (9–10).
In an offhand reference to the role of scholarly work in an age of environmental apocalypticism, geographer Erik Swyngedouw reasons, "if we were to believe that the earth is really in the dismal state we are told it is in, we would not be sitting around writing and reading arcane academic journal articles" (219). His point is that, since he is writing such an article (and his audience is reading it), the earth likely is not in such a dire state—or at least those of us academics writing about it do not really believe that it is. His aside raises, however, the question of what we would do if in fact we did—as many of us do—believe the earth is in a dismal state. Would there be a place for academic articles and books at all? And what would they look like? How might we retrain ourselves not to "sit around"? These questions shape my approach to these three recent studies. My first-person plural is most narrowly ecocritics, those trained to read texts and invested in reading them in environmental contexts, but, as each of these books emphasizes, the Anthropocene requires us to think also on the level of species, the survival of which seems only marginally more secure than that of the other myriad species with whom we share the earth. Trexler, Clark, and Morton each stage the confrontation of the ecocritic and the Anthropocene, weighing the degree to which the field of ecocriticism—and more broadly literary studies, the humanities, and the university—might be transformed in that confrontation. Their answers range from moderately (Trexler) to more significantly (Clark) to fairly dramatically (Morton), as the scope of what is appropriate to ecocriticism expands. Each book offers something valuable to the field as it stands—from compendia of texts to new reading strategies and increasing interdisciplinarity—but each also gestures toward an ecocriticism to come, a set of practices that might respond more directly to the call to responsibility represented by the Anthropocene.
Representing the Anthropocene and one of its chief manifestations, climate change, is no small feat, and literary critics first and foremost may be responsible for tracking how literary texts attempt to grapple...