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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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Jessica Maufort: Multiple Convergences: Ecocriticism and Comparative Literary Studies

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Multiple Convergences: Ecocriticism and Comparative Literary Studies

Jessica Maufort

I. Introduction

Two decades into the twenty-first century, concerns over the accelerating pace of climate change and its manifold challenges have risen to the forefront of debates both in public and academic spheres. In news broadcasts, for instance, some of the most recurrent topics include the increased frequency of ecological disasters. While the issue of waste disposal and the task of finding more sustainable means of dwelling on Earth primarily retain the attention of scientists and the general public, the interdisciplinary field of ecocriticism in social sciences and the humanities investigates the intricate interface between “culture” and “nature.” In so doing, ecocritical scholars, activists, and artists fulfil a most important task, one that must complement scientific research currently being carried out to remedy the ecological crisis: sustainability must also be achieved through a critical questioning and re-evaluation of sometimes deeply-rooted cultural and epistemological conceptions. Conducting research in the various disciplines of the humanities – such as literature, history, figurative and performing arts, film studies, cultural studies, or political sciences –, ecocritics and ecopoets call for reflections on the philosophical roots of our conception(s) of the environment, the motives underlying human cultures’ (ab)use of natural resources, as well as our shared sense of ethical responsibility. “Can ecocriticism save the world?” some may ask, either genuinely or with a touch of blasé sarcasm. Themselves tormented by this question, ecocritics generally embrace a programmatic self-criticism in such a way as to constantly renew and improve their methodological approaches, discourse, and scope of investigation.

The following pages provide an overview of the ways in which, over the last few years, the critical field of literary ecocriticism has diversified ←101 | 102→its geographical and cultural perspectives as regards its choice of textual corpus. By investigating the points of convergences between ecocriticism and comparative literature, this review essay aims to show how numerous ecocritical studies have contributed to expand a field that was originally viewed as a product of American academe and primarily focused on texts written in English. The following two subsections offer to non-specialists a preliminary synthesis of the main definitions and paradigms of ecocriticism.

Preliminary Definitions and Delimitations

Such versality can already be detected in the initial definitions of ecocriticism and the various modifications they underwent over the years. First of all, the term “ecocriticism” is in itself problematic. Other formulations are also used, i.e. “green humanities,” “environmental (literary) humanities,” “literature and environment,” and “literary ecology.” As Cheryll Glotfelty remarks in the landmark book, The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), “ecocriticism was possibly first coined in 1978 by William Rueckert” (xx) in one of the first essays seeking to develop “an ecology of literature” or “an ecological poetics by applying ecological concepts to the reading, teaching, and writing about literature” (Rueckert 107). The most authoritative definition of ecocriticism is that advanced by Glotfelty herself: “Simply put, ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (xviii). Despite its vagueness, this definition as it stands aptly encompasses the myriad ways in which ecocriticism has developed. Moreover, the analytical methods and critical paradigms of ecocriticism also prove difficult to define. As Richard Kerridge claims, the “starting point for the ecocritic is that there really is an unprecedented global environmental crisis, and that this crisis poses some of the great political and cultural questions of our time” (5). The issues of scarcity and management of resources, pollution, global warming, toxicity, and species extinction constitute some of the well-known problems discussed in cultural debates over environmental crisis. However, unlike ecologists, ecocritics delve deeper into these questions by re-examining the basic principles underlying Western, rationality-based, philosophy: i.e. they interrogate our very conceptions and perceptions of “nature,” “culture,” “the environment,” the “human,” the “animal,” and “the world.” As Glotfelty states, “ecocriticism takes as ←102 | 103→its subject the interconnections between nature and culture, specifically the cultural artifacts of language and literature” (xix). The ultimate aim, it would seem to Kerridge, is “to evaluate texts and ideas in terms of their coherence and usefulness as responses to environmental crisis” (5).

Ecocriticism can neither be simply amalgamated with nor be reduced to the philosophy and practice of environmentalism. As I shall explain in further detail below, the first stage of ecocriticism – deep ecology – precisely developed in reaction to what was termed “shallow environmentalism”: while the latter indicates concern about environmental issues, its proponents do not challenge “the ruling socio-economic order” and Western values, such as “liberal democracy, human rights, Christianity, and notions of historical or scientific progress” (Garrard 22). “Shallow environmentalism” is thus characterised by a non-radical and technocratic human management of the Earth, a project which Martin Lewis calls “Promethean environmentalism” (15–17). This persisting human-centred focus is denounced by more subversive forms of environmentalism: this is precisely where ecocriticism begins.

The Vexed Question of Theory: Ecocritical Methodologies and Principles

In his Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment (2011), Timothy Clark stated that “no distinctive method defines environmental criticism” (4). Glotfelty’s and Kerridge’s preliminary definitions of the field highlight the strong interdisciplinary drive of ecocriticism, as its dual focus on “nature” and “culture” aims to de-cluster scientific disciplines and to foster enriching dialogues between the “hard sciences” (e.g. biology and physics) and the social sciences (e.g. literature and philosophy). As a result, major ecocritical “trends” or approaches comprise: deep ecology, ecofeminism, animal studies (zoocriticism) and posthumanism, social ecology and eco-Marxism, Heideggerian ecophilosophy, ecophenomenology, social and environmental justice, postcolonial ecocriticism, urban ecocriticism, material ecocriticism, ecopoetics, studies of the Anthropocene, and the very recent field of energy humanities. Thus, the choice of ecocritical method and reading of texts will significantly vary according to the selected type of conjoined critical concepts from these fields.

As in other literary movements, some ecocritics favour a thematic approach, focusing on materials with a clear environmental focus. ←103 | 104→Many of such studies are overtly eco-political (activist) and ethical in scope. While some critics do balance thematics with aesthetics, others exclusively investigate the question of form, genres, and modes, sometimes scrutinizing artistic works that do not necessarily feature any ecological concerns. Finally, a third cluster of scholars, such as Freya Matthews, Lawrence Buell, Patrick D. Murphy, Timothy Morton, and Serenella Iovino seek to lay down the theoretical and philosophical premises of ecocriticism. Nevertheless, ecocritics’ diverse research methods are informed by the same major principles: a rejection of dualistic binaries rooted in anthropocentric (human-centred) and speciesist (favouring one species over others) epistemologies and cosmologies. Instead, an ecocritical study strives to adopt an ecocentric or biocentric perspective in its analysis of themes, poetics, aesthetics, and even teaching pedagogy.

Finally, in addition to its core transdisciplinary outreach, ecocriticism has also progressively come to study a wide range of artistic processes and products, historical events, as well as political, philosophical, and sociological concepts and issues, “in which, and through which, the complex negotiations of nature and culture take place” (Garrard 5). Most importantly, the notion of “nature” or the “world” has now been expanded “to include the entire ecosphere” (Glotfelty xix). Such amplification not only reflects the area of expertise from which the critic approaches ecological issues: it has become increasingly apparent that this diversification also depends on the local culture that informs both the text under scrutiny and the critic’s methodology and concerns.

To illuminate the current multifariousness of environmental criticism, this review essay first re-examines its early iteration as “deep ecology” and its development as an academic field of research, an impulse particularly noticeable in America. Subsequently, insights from Indigenous and (post)colonial studies broadened the field’s cultural and geographical scopes. The most recent developments have to do with Latin American, African, Irish, and Asian branches of ecocriticism, which extend postcolonial ecocritical debates into world literature. Finally, ecocritical studies have been booming in Europe these last few years, with a myriad of studies examining and theorising localised European material. Postcolonial and European contexts show strong affiliations with the field of comparative literary studies.

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II. Keystones: Deep Ecology and “American Ecocriticism”

Although some might disagree, the flourishing of ecocriticism as an organised academic field mostly began in the United States. Because ecologically-minded scholars in literature “did not organize themselves into an identifiable group,” the field of literary studies was mistakenly considered as behind the times when compared to other humanities disciplines that had been “ ‘greening’ since the 1970s” (Glotfelty xvi). The first association specifically devoted to environmental criticism was founded in 1992, i.e. ASLE: The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, with Scott Slovic as its first President. Its journal, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, was subsequently created in 1993 by Patrick D. Murphy. Literary ecocriticism also gained in visibility around that time in academic curricula and programmes (see Glotfelty xvii). However, in Glotfelty’s synthesis of this “birth of environmental literary studies,” one can detect a predominantly American orientation foregrounded in subject matters and cultural issues: the wilderness narrative and the genre of nature writing as practised by American authors were recurrent topics of investigation. These issues may evidently be linked to the time-honoured concepts of the frontier and the pastoral, as well as the American transcendentalist tradition that have marked the American ecological consciousness over the centuries. To understand the reasons for privileging these artistic genres and cultural issues, one should relate them to the wider philosophical and methodological orientations that characterised this “first-wave ecocriticism” (Buell 8). The latter was largely marked by the movement of “deep ecology,” which articulated the foundational concepts for ecocritical thinking.

Deep ecology arguably constitutes the most radical and influential critique of the shallow environmentalism hinted at above. This movement advocates for a drastic shift to a nature-centred, i.e. an ecocentric or biocentric, system of values (Garrard 23–24). A subversive form of philosophical ecocriticism, deep ecology emerged in the Sixties, notably under the guidance of philosopher Arne Naess, who identified the founding tenets of the movement (Naess 68). The ecocentrism as developed by deep ecologists is in stark opposition to the hierarchical dualism between the non-human and the human that has been deeply embedded in Western philosophy and culture since the Enlightenment. ←105 | 106→This humans-nature “hyperseparation” harks back to Descartes’s polarisation between mind (humans and thinking species) and body (animals and nature as unconscious machines) (see Plumwood Feminism 115). This hierarchy resulted in the objectification of (allegedly) non-thinking entities and the elevation of the human cogito as the centre of the world. This commodification was aided by the advent of modern science and technology in Western Europe. By contrast, the crucial key concept of ecocentrism is predicated upon an egalitarian stance towards all life forms – a “recognition of intrinsic value in nature” (Garrard 24) and of the web-like interrelations between earthly creatures. In the long term, biocentrism pleads for “a return to a monistic, primal identification of humans and the ecosphere” (Garrard 24).

First-wave ecocritics are further characterised by their exclusive examination of natural environments and their endeavour to devise a possible “environmental literary canon.” The primary focus on natural locations stems from the “earthcare” agenda of the field, while a redefinition of “the concept of culture itself in organicist terms” is sought so as to defeat the humanity-nature philosophical hierarchy (Buell 21–22). Typically, the genre of nature writing – i.e. “the bringing together of science and the belles lettres” (Cranston 363) – constituted the main interest of many scholarly works in the first stage of ecocriticism, alongside Romantic poetry and wilderness narratives (Garrard 5). Interestingly, unlike factual “nature history writing,” nature writing was already a hybrid, interdisciplinary and subjective form from the start: as CA. Cranston explains, it is “concerned with the relationship between the human and non-human, expressed through data (the language of scientists) and metaphor (the language of poets)” (363). The taxonomy of nature writing initially encompassed many types of non-fictional texts (e.g. diaries recounting country life, field guides, natural history essays), but remained within the “conventional genres of the pastoral or of the mimetic rendition of nature” (Bellarsi “Ecocriticism” 163).

Deep ecology and Naess’s ecocentric theory also sparked numerous debates, especially as regards the exact nature of “intrinsic value” and of the “entities” and “forms” endowed with it (Garrard 24–25). The appeal to a “greater scientific literacy” by first-wave ecocriticism also relies on questionable premises, as it presupposes the assumption of a stable “human condition,” praises “the scientific method’s ability to describe natural laws,” and envisages science “as a corrective to critical subjectivism and cultural relativism” (Buell 18). Most importantly, criticism about ←106 | 107→the potential misanthropy of biocentrism was raised when “advocates such as Dave Foreman and Christopher Manes […] made inhumane and ill-informed statements about population issues” (Garrard 25). The misanthropic tendencies of deep ecologists resurface in their “pursuit of an ‘aesthetics of relinquishment,’ ” i.e. an aesthetics of “environmental writing” whose non-anthropocentric viewpoint occasionally verges on “wholly eliminating human figures from its imagined worlds” (Buell 100). From this derives the potential slippage of deep ecology into a pastoral vision of nature, which is not only free of the polluting presence of humanity, but which also privileges the harmonious balance of the environment instead of its inherently fluctuating quality (Garrard 65).

To put it in a nutshell, in reaction to the early stages of the field, the “revisionists” of the “second-wave ecocriticism” integrated into their ecocritical approaches a “sociocentric perspective” which acknowledges the critic’s embeddedness into social institutions, and thus into the political sphere (Buell 8). These scholars have reinforced the emphasis on the complex interlocking between given cultural frameworks and the representation of the non-human world in artistic production. In this regard, significant contributions emanated from the trends of ecofeminism, the social and environmental justice movement, postcolonial ecocriticism, and animal studies. Branches such as social ecology, urban ecocriticism, ecopsychology, and ecophenomenology further examined the cultural constructions of space as well as the individual’s navigation and perception thereof.

III. Decolonizing “Nature”: From Postcolonial to World Ecocriticism

Significantly, these social-oriented ecocritical branches marked an increase in transnational and transcultural perspectives within the field. In “second-wave ecocriticism,” the deep ecological notions of bio-egalitarianism and of earthly life as an interconnected system were further nuanced in the light of cultural and epistemological specificities. Indeed, the logic of domination of the Earth is predicated upon more factors than just an anthropocentric worldview. For instance, ecocritics with a (post)colonial and/or feminist focus respectively denounced the fact that Naess’s critique of anthropocentrism in favour of a bio-egalitarianism overlooked the racist and male-centred underpinnings Western rational culture. Thus, ←107 | 108→“anthropocentrism” denotes but one kind of rigid hierarchical duality, as the term suggests that all human beings equally share a philosophical/cosmological separation from the environment. Instead, everyday and institutionalised forms of discrimination based on gender and ethnic, religious, class, or cultural differences, both in past and present times, reveal that many human beings were associated with a “natural” world viewed as an inferior, unintelligent, and disposable object. These oppressive associations typically concerned women, Indigenous people and other marginalised communities, children, animals, and disabled individuals. They also served as legitimising arguments during the colonisation of the “New Worlds.” The concepts of wilderness, the pastoral, and nature writing were revised in the light of these loaded pairings: in his famous article, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon unveils the ideological constructedness, or “cultural invention” of wilderness in the United States (79), a myth which is closely linked to the sublime and the frontier imaginary. These supposedly “virgin,” uninhabited, and remote natural places – as in many an American national park – were actively tamed, re-organised, and emptied of their prior Indigenous dwellers by early settlers and subsequently by many conservationists.

As the subject matter of Cronon’s study shows, just as in postcolonial studies, the critique of the first environmental premises of ecocriticism emerged from the American “centre” itself. A turning point was Joni Adamson’s book, American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice and Ecocriticism (2001), which opened up the initial literary canon of ecocriticism to texts by and perspectives of Native Americans. This study helped bring to the fore an analysis of the various struggles experienced by these long-marginalised communities, especially in relation to environmental questions and conceptual revisions of the notion of “nature.” Such a project also tied in with the correlated insights from activists, writers, and scholars researching the combined phenomena of environmental and social injustice (e.g. Di Chiro). Concomitantly, the introduction of a Native American corpus reinforced deep ecology’s interest in non-dualist epistemologies. Indeed, many of these Indigenous cosmologies nurture a dialogue with the non-human biosphere that fundamentally differs from Euro-American anthropocentrism and its propensity towards a consumerist and progress-based control over the Earth (Dreese 6). On the other hand, much work was done to debunk the controversial stereotype of the “Ecological Indian,” which derives from the notions of the “primitive” and “noble savage,” as well as colonialist ←108 | 109→perspectives (Krech III; Harkin and Lewis). While “[t];he assumption of indigenous environmental virtue” (Garrard 129), predicated upon the Natives’ animistic beliefs, may potentially improve the general perception and the status of these communities (135), it actually tends to reinforce the myth of “the non-European ‘other’ ” (129).1 Following in the wake of Adamson’s book, the major contributions specifically studying the representation of Indigenous and other ethnic minorities in relation to the environment in American literature include: Adamson, Evans, and Stein’s The Environmental Justice Reader (2002), Dreese’s Ecocriticism (2002), Schweninger’s Listening to the Land (2008), and Ray’s The Ecological Other (2013). A recent collective work of note in this specialised field is Monani and Adamson’s Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies (2016).

However, as today’s ecological crisis forces us to think in terms of combined local and global scales, ecocritical studies of Indigenous cultures and literatures favour transcultural approaches as well as transnational corpuses. For instance, Monani and Adamson’s edited book juxtaposes contributions discussing a vast array of texts, artistic production, and practices by Native Americans, Māoris, First Nations people, Sámi people, Indian Indigenous people, the Zoque people, as well as Latin American and Amazonian Indigenous people. In the field of postcolonial environmental criticism, such cross-cultural conversations often exceed a trans-Indigenous scope: given the polysemous nature of the term “postcolonial,” ecocritics in this area may choose and compare texts emanating from the former settler or occupation colonies around the world, or, in the case of English-speaking regions, from countries belonging to the Commonwealth. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous narratives may be examined. The term “postcolonial ecocriticism” has arguably been popularised by Tiffin and Huggan’s seminal work, Postcolonial Ecocriticism (2010). The turn of the twenty-first century saw the flourishing of similar endeavours to place the two fields in a mutually-enriching dialogue. The most notable monographs within literary studies examining this alliance are Huggan and Tiffin’s co-authored book, DeLoughrey and Handley’s Postcolonial Ecologies (2011), Wright’s Wilderness into Civilized Shapes (2010), Roos and Hunt’s Postcolonial Green (2010), Crane’s Myths of Wilderness in Contemporary Narratives (2012), and more recently, DeLoughrey, Didur, and Carrigan’s Global ←109 | 110→Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities (2015). Predating these publications, the important milestones in the history of postcolonial ecocriticism include Helen Tiffin’s Five Emus to the King of Siam (2007), and several monographs focusing on the landscapes and literatures of the Caribbean (e.g DeLoughrey, Gosson, and Handley (2005); Campbell and Somerville (2007)).

The interdisciplinary field of postcolonial ecocriticism developed in reaction to the strong biocentrism and “claims to universality” of deep ecology (Guha 71), to the notion of a dehistoricised nature (Guha; DeLoughrey and Handley), to the arguably “elitist” and “whiteness” of mainstream American environmentalism (Guha; Huggan “Greening” 703), as well as to the prevalence of an Anglo-American national framework (DeLoughrey and Handley 20). These last two aspects implied that some environmental issues were overlooked (such as American militarism), and that the ramifications of some philosophical, cultural, and epistemic concepts (e.g. wilderness as pristine areas devoid of human presence) were not envisioned outside a particular socio-cultural and geographical point of view (Guha). Indeed, an excessively biocentric and elitist conception of wilderness which forcibly removed Indigenous, marginalised, or poor populations from the “targeted conservation wilderness area” (DeLoughrey and Handley 21) is often complicit with a discriminating economic tourism, in which “the enjoyment of nature is an integral part of the consumer society” (Guha 79). As another example, Huggan and Tiffin discuss how some fictional works by writers from Africa, the Pacific islands, Aotearoa New Zealand, and Canada denounce the environmental racism pervading the decision-making process of their governments and/or of foreign polluting companies. Indeed, their destructive effects on the environment and Indigenous people in particular are overlooked in the name of economic development. In exploring the multiple ramifications of such events, postcolonial ecocriticism shows its indebtedness to social ecology’s critique of capitalist and institutionalised systems of domination as contributing to alienated intra-human relationships and human/nature interactions.

Evidently, these postcolonial, transcultural, and transnational approaches to environmental issues as well as their literary representations raise questions of comparative methodology, whether ecocritics opt for a dialogue between American and non-American corpuses, or for a juxtaposition of narratives from the Commonwealth, Third-World, and/or postcolonial regions only. In any case, Rob Nixon warns against ←110 | 111→merely “diversifying the canon” of texts: not only should predominant paradigms, such as the centre-periphery, be re-imagined, but Euro- and American-centric reference systems must also be avoided. Accordingly, the concepts of wilderness, the pastoral, and the genre of nature writing as deployed in Anglo-American philosophy and literature may not be simply transposed to other cultural, social, human and non-human contexts if one wishes to avoid perpetuating “an unthinking and self-defeating form of cultural imperialism” (Cronon 82). On the one hand, non-Euro-American artists revise and adapt these notions and literary forms; on the other hand, they may rely on different system values, historical backgrounds, and aesthetic experiments in order to transcribe their distinct relation to the environment as informed by local knowledge and practices. Indeed, the very specific connotation of “wilderness” as designating “empty,” virgin lands is inconceivable for non-dualist, non-anthropocentric, and/or Indigenous cosmologies, in which the entire ecosphere is full of agential presences manifest in plants, animals, the natural elements, and spirits. Furthermore, utilitarian agendas of working the land, pastoral conceptions of gardening, as well as purely Western or rational versions of natural science at large must similarly be “decolonised,” i.e. attuned to the specificities of native flora, fauna, and cultures (Plumwood “Decolonising”; Kincaid’s My Garden).

At the same time, these postcolonial ecocritical projects do not aim at establishing binary comparisons that would categorically exclude formerly established, Western modes of dwelling in and representing the non-human world. For instance, Huggan and Tiffin show how selected texts by writers from Australia, South Africa and the Caribbean may be understood as offering a “partial rehabilitation of the pastoral, either in terms that are self-consciously ecocentric or that work towards a re-appraisal of more pragmatic, though not necessarily non-idealised, pastoral modes” (85, my emphasis). Rose and Davis’s Dislocating the Frontier (2005) and Dixon and Birns’s Reading Across the Pacific (2010) similarly engage in a cross-pollinating dialogue between American and Australian concepts (e.g. the frontier) and artistic/philosophical movements (e.g. transcendentalism). Therefore, these transnational juxtapositions and exchanges take into account Nixon’s early prediction: namely that the most important challenge in bridging postcolonialism and ecocriticism lies in the negotiation between the local (“literature of place,” a nationalised critical framework) and the global (e.g. issues of displacement and cosmopolitanism) (Nixon 235–45). ←111 | 112→Recent studies in postcolonial ecocriticism, comprising Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), DeLoughrey, Didur, and Carrigan’s co-edited volume, and Monani and Adamson’s edited work, rise up to that challenge.

Most importantly, transnational discussions indicate how the traditional theoretical paradigm of the “postcolonial” is currently morphing into that of globalisation and world literature. Slovic, Rangarajan, and Sarveswaran’s pioneering edited collection, Ecoambiguity, Community, and Development (2014), deserves a special mention. The editors pursued their endeavour towards a “global ecocriticism” of sorts in another volume entitled Ecocriticism of the Global South (2015). It offers an impressive bundle of international contributions by scholars “living in, coming from, or in other ways deeply familiar with regions of the world (even in the Northern Hemisphere) that have traditionally been un- or under-represented in […] ecocritical scholarship” (“Introduction” 2). Through these multicultural voices, the editors aim to show that “[t];he North American and Western European ‘centrism’ of ecocriticism and environmental artistic and journalistic expression is an illusion – or rather, a delusion on the part of scholars based in North America and Western Europe” (9). In addition, what recurs in these discussions is “a critique of the impacts of global capitalism, a force largely transplanted from the Global North to the developing world” (9).

In terms of geo-cultural scope, some contributions in Ecocriticism of the Global South represent two innovating developments in the field of environmental criticism, i.e. the rapid emergence of scholarship devoted to Irish and Asian artistic/literary production respectively. In the last few years, the dialogue between ecocriticism and Irish studies has intensified, with the most recent monographs comprising Flannery’s Ireland and Ecocriticism (2015), Potts’s Contemporary Irish Writing and Environmentalism (2018), and Wenzell’s Woven Shades of Green (2019). In these book-length studies, Irish culture, ecologies, and literature are at least in part examined through the lenses of (eco-)imperialism and/or postcolonial ecocriticism. The other flourishing trend – Asian ecocriticism – decidedly opens the postcolonial to world literature. Among the numerous contributions in that area, Estok and Kim’s edited collection, East Asian Ecocriticisms (2013), proves an indispensable tool for the neophyte: its remarkable multicultural scope not only introduces the reader to key ecocritical concerns and challenges specific to Taiwan, Japan, China, and Korea, but also enables him/her to juxtapose these ←112 | 113→regions and their “eco-literatures” as a way to establish both differences and similarities between them. And yet, one can only hope to gain but “partial visions” of the “enormous” field that is East Asian ecocriticisms (Estok 2). The impossibility to acquire a vision of totality is also due to “matters of distortion and of how we see” (2). The editors and some contributors evoke the potentially imperialist or centric aspects characterising Anglo-European ecocritical perceptions. This book reacts to “the one-sidedness of information flows, a one-sidedness that predictably and dangerously reiterates colonialist dynamics and structures” (2). Thus, Estok and Wim’s volume takes “the question of carrying across, [of] translations” as one of its core concerns (Estok 2). So far, most of the literary texts discussed in the monographs mentioned in this review essay are written in English. Moreover, only a minority of ecocritical scholarship compares linguistically mixed corpuses, in the manner of Hoving’s book, Writing the Earth, Darkly (2017), which examines literary works from both the English-speaking and Dutch-speaking Caribbean. Certainly, such linguistic comparative projects pose a number of methodological challenges. Nevertheless, they could substantially enrich ecocritical investigations.

To conclude this section on the ever-expanding map of postcolonial or world ecocriticism, let me mention a few titles from the booming array of ecocritical publications that concentrate on the regions of Latin America and Africa. For the former, one could cite McNee’s The Environmental Imaginary in Brazilian Poetry and Art (2014), Anderson and Bora’s Ecological Crisis and Cultural Representation in Latin America (2016), and Murphy and Rivero’s Written in the Water (2017). Book-length investigations of African ecologies and green literature and aesthetics include: Caminero-Santangelo’s Different Shades of Green (2014), Moolla’s Natures of Africa (2016), and McGiffin’s Of Land, Bones, and Money (2019).

IV. The Mosaic of “European Ecocriticism”

In a manner that perhaps some will find unusual, from the “New Worlds” we now turn to the “Old Continent.” The last few years have seen an extraordinary growth in research and publications that examine the very modalities of ecocriticism in non-Anglophone regions and academic circles. If “the very active branch of British ecocriticism” is “the one most visible to non-European eco-scholars across the Atlantic” (Bellarsi, ←113 | 114→“European” 129), national trends from the continent increasingly receive attention, thanks to innovative work by ecocritics, such as Serpil Oppermann in Turkey, as well as localised research groups, such as The Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (NIES). The principal ecocritical journal in continental Europe, Ecozon@, is a joint initiative of GIECO (Grupo de Investigación en Ecocrítica, Universidad de Alcalá) and EASLCE: the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture, and Environment. As such, the journal has published several issues exploring regional European trends of ecocriticism and environmentally-aware artistic production. Furthermore, the journal actively promotes linguistic diversity, as it accepts contributions in English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian.

This sense of multiplicity precisely constitutes one of the central challenges for European ecocriticism and scholars researching European material: more precisely, the complexity of such ecocritical research lies in the sheer diversity of languages, as well as of cultural, political, and geo-physical contexts that characterise the continent. It suggests a sense of fragmentation, which is more deeply felt by European practitioners than their North American, and perhaps even British, colleagues (Bellarsi, “European” 126–28). Taking Canada as a point of comparison, Franca Bellarsi observes that “[a];s reductive these concepts may be, Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality” […] and Margaret Atwood’s focus on survival […] at least confer some degree of national/continental identity on non-indigenous Canadians” (127). These notions have of course been interrogated and adapted, but Bellarsi points out that, from an outsider point of view, “they at least appear to offer, as in the U.S. with its past Frontier, some shared human experience of Nature from shore to shore (if only as a mere hypothetical starting point), and therefore to hold some confidence-giving, potential promise of federating a community of eco-scholars spread over a huge landmass the size of a continent.” There is simply no such “common denominator” (127) which would make up a European “ecological identity” (Bellarsi 126).

In an illuminating panel discussion coordinated by Carmen L. Flys in 2010, prominent ecocritics from Europe shared their perspectives on the development of the field in their home regions. Very interestingly, the questions posed by Flys for the panel were rooted in a comparison with the state of the discipline in the United States. For example, the first question was “is ecocritical theory and practice understood the same way in Europe as in the United States?” The second question asked: “Do ←114 | 115→key concepts such as nature, pastoral, and wilderness mean the same in Europe in the United States?” (Flys 109). In relation to linguistic multiplicity, the question of terminology constitutes a major concern: the very terms “nature,” “wilderness,” “environment,” and “sense of place” often cannot be readily translated into some European languages. Some eco-scholars even contest the label “ecocriticism”: José Manuel Marrero Henríquez (Flys 111) and Hennig Fjørtoft (114) argue that it may not be necessary for the researcher to explicitly refer to that term to qualify his/her environmentally-aware research in the humanities: “environmental history and environmental justice are examples of neighbouring fields where quite similar research is produced without any connection with ecocriticism whatsoever” (Flys 114).

The reluctance to employ the term “ecocriticism” also stems from differences in theoretical sources (111) as well as in localised cultural, political, and historical backgrounds. Axel Goodbody states that this term “is not popular in Germany: the ‘öko-’ prefix sounds ugly, and is associated with a purely thematic approach, one reinforcing the instrumentalization of culture for political ends” (Flys 111). Similarly, the notion of “sense of place,” denoting the individual’s “knowledge of and commitment to a particular locale,” is a “prerequisite for environmental ethics” in the American tradition (Heise 3). Yet, in the German context, this concept is not only difficult to translate (Heimat might be the closest term), but after the second world war Heimat was also “doubly tainted by its association with a bourgeois tradition […] and by its abuse in Nazi propaganda focused on reconnecting to ‘blood and soil’ ” (3). This example illustrates how, in Europe, “nature” has generally been dissociated from the idea of national identity (Goodbody and Rigby 3).

Another reason for these terminology and epistemic issues has to do with the various topographies of European landscapes and the Europeans’ relations with them, which fundamentally contrast with the American experience of the terrain: Iovino points out that the concept of cultural landscape “is more extensively researched in Europe than the concept of place,” place being “more susceptible to interpretation in philosophical, sociological or anthropological terms […] than a typically literary category” (Flys 112). Indeed, in the German variant of ecocriticism, Heimat could be substituted with Landschaft, which “plays a central role that might seem comparable to the American emphasis on place, yet Landschaft in this context usually means humanly transformed landscapes that combine culture and nature rather than the wild landscapes that ←115 | 116→typically inspire conservation in the American context” (Heise 3). This concern is also true for the Italian territory, as Patrick Barron observes that “Italy is rife with overlaying human and nonhuman signs of residence and alteration” (Barron xxiv). The Italian rural landscape is characterised by “an overlapping, long-evolved spatial organization of land and housing.” Therefore, although “in Italy there is plenty beautiful ‘wilderness,’ ” “in the Italian language there is no equivalent of the word” (xxv).2 Expanding these reflections to the Mediterranean regions, Elena Past argues that ecocritical investigations focused on these locales necessarily include the issues of human-engineered modification, the urban, “impurity” and dirt, as well as a strong human/non-human “cohabitation” (Past 370–71). Therefore, as Goodbody and Rigby summarise, ecocriticism in Europe “is likely to be primarily concerned […] with the pastoral rather than wilderness, given the shaping impact of relatively dense populations on the land over the centuries, and hence with a largely domesticated and, in places such as the low countries, even ‘artificial’ nature dependent for its survival on human agency” (2–3).

However, there seem to be some exceptions to the “commonplace” idea that wilderness “has long been surpassed in European imagery,” as Iovino suggests (Flys 112). Indeed, in Nordic countries, the environment is still linked with a wilderness imaginary, which incidentally recalls the myth of the Great North in Canada. Werner Bigell is quick to show its constructedness: “The North too is a cultural projection screen, perceived as the last frontier, a space for adventurous explorers, a pure land never touched by industrialization, a treasure chest of resources, a setting of naturalistic tales, and an empty land” (Bigell 1). Arguably, these regions appear to be located on the margins only in the eyes of those residing in Western Europe’s metropolises. Instead, the landscapes of northern Scandinavia, northern Russia, northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland are all interconnected by the “seascape of the Arctic Ocean” (2). Interconnection also characterises the long history of cohabitation and exchange between European and Indigenous populations dwelling in these cold areas unamenable to agriculture (2). Nowadays, common challenges such as climate change and the economic and technological exploitation of resources also bind these regions and their inhabitants together. To counter outsider perspectives on this “Northern imagery of ←116 | 117→white emptiness,” Bigell and other scholars call for a “platial perspective,” which implies “seeing the North and its complicated interactions from the inside […] as well as seeing people as part of their ecosystems” (Bigell 4).

Such projects anchored in comparative interconnectedness between different geographies and cultures are also of paramount importance for continental European eco-scholars. Europe must find its own ecocritical tradition (Flys 119) – albeit one rooted in mosaic-like, “bioregional networks of thought and research” (Bellarsi, “European” 128, emphasis in original). At the same time, Marrero Henríquez highlights that ecocriticism in America developed thanks to “Humboldt’s geography, Haeckel’s ecology, Stuart Mill’s idea of a stationary state of the economy, or Spinoza’s ethics” (Flys 114), thereby alluding to a long cross-Atlantic theoretical dialogue. Another instance of this cross-Atlantic conversation is provided by the Spanish branch of ecocriticism, in which Marrero Henríquez sees “more critical interest in the study of Latin American literature,” despite a potentially rich Spanish environmental literature (118). Beyond institutional compartmentalization, the differing methods of academic circles, the notorious funding issue, and gaps between academic and public spheres, or between public awareness and government policy making regarding ecological problems, the participants in Flys’s panel discussion remain determined. They exhort researchers to engage in comparative work between the regional branches of European ecocriticism, as well as between their various internal human cultures, environments, languages, and literary traditions (119–21).

Finally, taking place almost ten years ago, this pioneering panel discussion led by Flys commented on the absence of any existing ecocritical conference in French (110). Today, this situation has changed, as illustrated by a recent international conference in Perpignan (University of Perpignan, Via Domitia, June 2019) in which a good deal of the contributions were presented in the French language. Moreover, the remarkable flourishing of “French ecocriticism” should be noted. I specifically refer here to critical investigations of environmentally-aware, eco-poetic artistic and/or literary work that is published in French, or that examines Francophone territories.

Interestingly, this branch of ecocriticism has gained prominence not thanks to France-based critics only: Stephanie Posthumus from Québec, Daniel Finch-Race from the United Kingdom, and Pierre Schoentjes from Belgium recently published groundbreaking volumes attempting to theorise and federate critical voices around this subject. French academe, ←117 | 118→however, has a strong comparatist tradition: numerous French ecocritics, such as Bertrand Guest and Alain Suberchicot, put Francophone literature in conversation with that of other geographic, cultural, and linguistic regions. In his book entitled Ce qui a lieu: Essais d’écopoétique (2015), Schoentjes first offers an overview of the difficulties of including the discipline of ecocriticism into the French institutional system (22–24). Importantly, comparative studies played a crucial role: for instance, Americanist Suberchicot’s Littérature et environnement (2012) not only included Francophone fictional works alongside non-Francophone ones, but, as the book was written in French, it also reinforced the visibility and relevance of ecocritical approaches to French literature inside French academe itself. Indeed, the first problem proved to be the linguistic barrier: “as none of the major [ecocritical] studies have been translated into French, the framework remains inaccessible to the majority of critics here” (Schoentjes 22, my translation). Second, the foundational figures of ecocriticism appeared – at least at the beginning – “less theorists than excellent readers of American, and then British, literature” (22, my translation). Finally, the difficulties also stem from the painstaking inclusion of cultural studies in French academe and curricula “where they are frequently condemned as too specific to a community and as displaying a naive commitment” (22, my translation). In France, cultural studies were also criticised for their inclusive literary canon that transcends the belles lettres (22–23). Significantly, Schoentjes prefers the term écopoétique (ecopoetics) to ecocriticism, which retains too much of its American cultural, ideological, and activist framework (24). Ecopoetics, instead, foregrounds the importance of form and aesthetics: thus, it refers to the writing as well as reading processes (Schoentjes 24). However, it is an écopoétique that brings back “the real” into these reflections: although “referential literature” and realism have been devalued in France for their “association with regionalism,” and thus “the negation of the literary itself,” the scholar argues that it is vital to regain a concrete and direct contact with the environment in today’s context of ecological crisis (41, my translation). As regards the recurrent question of wilderness, as its Italian and German neighbours, the French landscape proves a cultural and urbanised one. Areas of wilderness exist but in liminal degrees: for example, one speaks more of a “spectacular” than a “wild” kind of nature in certain places (30–31, my translation).

Lastly, in her book, French Écocritique (2017), the bilingual scholar Posthumus makes a powerful commitment to “build a French ecocritical ←118 | 119→on the premise of cultural difference” (Posthumus 3). As she writes in English, the Québec-based critic feels in a unique position to take advantage of “the central and productive tension at the heart of [her] method, which is to hold together the cultural specificity of French textual ecologies and the ways in which they extend beyond their linguistic and cultural boundaries” (3). Posthumus thus conjoins ecocritical theories in both French and English (3) and adopts the cultural studies tendency of “reading fiction and theory together” (7). In her conclusion, Posthumus refers to the article by Dennis Chartier and Estienne Rodary, “Globalizing French écologie politique,” which “describe[s]; some of the potential problems of insisting on difference and diversity in terms of intellectual traditions and linguistic communities” (Posthumus 166). Posthumus takes stock of their reflections and argues that, in her monograph, she “avoid[ed] exoticizing these [French] approaches by acknowledging the ways in which the concepts [she] consider[s] are already part of cross-cultural dialogue” (166).

V. “Glocal” Juxtapositions: Open Conclusion

As this review essay has hopefully demonstrated, the dialogue between comparative studies and environmental humanities is stronger than ever. It could be said that some artists and scholars, in Europe and multicultural countries, have become more aware of how comparative approaches enrich ecocritical debates. These researchers more directly engage with and question the methods of comparative literary perspectives, whether they involve differing linguistic, cultural, and geographic realities. Anglophone critics researching postcolonial ecocriticism are implicitly adopting comparative approaches thanks to their frequent transcultural and transnational points of view. In this manner, they follow in the wake of Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin’s The Empire Writes Back, which already favoured an epistemic juxtaposition of the cultures and texts from the various nations of the Commonwealth. Today, we witness a double movement: on the one hand, with the inclusion of ecological issues in their postcolonial or neocolonial discussions, such studies continue to reinforce their transcultural and interdisciplinary focus. On the other hand, an incredible amount of volumes seeks to develop more localised ecocritical approaches.

In the current age of climate change, global warming, species extinction, unequal access to resources and services, environmental ←119 | 120→and social injustice, the acidification of oceans, the Anthropocene, and geopolitical tensions between North and South, ecocritics generally agree that the most important challenge in pragmatic, theoretical, imaginary, and cognitive terms is to address both global and local issues. In an ideal world, human beings must find a way to associate both “situated knowledges” (Haraway) and a non-homogenising world vision that is not confined to human-made or natural borders. Whether one opts for the term “comparative” or not, this practice of juxtaposing miscellaneous realities in a cross-pollinating conversation is necessary to keep up with today’s “glocal” ecological challenge. Perhaps this approach to reading and writing has always been “green,” as it reflects the interconnection pattern of the earthly ecosystem, in a dynamic web-like movement linking all forms of life and artistic “texts,” from the non-human to the human, the inert to the mobile, the body to the mind, the microscopic to the colossal.


Jessica Maufort

Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)

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1 See Garrard’s summary of how these different concepts crystallise in the myth of the “Ecological Indian” (129–45).

2 As in German, one must rely on approximate Italian expressions, such as regione selvaggia [wild region] or territorio incolto [uncultivated territory] (Barron xxv).