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Ecocriticism: Where Literary Criticism and Science Converge

Can ecology and the sciences really be brought to bear on literary criticism, and if so, how?

Andrew Battista

on 31 March 2014

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Transcript of Ecocriticism: Where Literary Criticism and Science Converge

Ecocriticism: Where Literary Criticism
and Science Converge
Andrew Battista
ES 200 Introduction to Environmental Studies
March 31, 2014
Green Cultural
Eco theology
Ecological Literary Criticism

Biological Literary Criticism

Phillips, Dana. The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
Gottschall, Jonathan. Literature, Science, and a New Humanities: Cognitive Studies in
Literature and Performance. New York: Palgrave, 2008.
Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm, eds. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996.
Love, Glen. Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and the Environment. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2003.
Ecocriticism is “the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature.”

William Rueckert (1978)
“Ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment [that] takes as its subject the interconnections between nature and culture, specifically the cultural artifacts of language and literature ... [Ecocritics ask,] how is nature represented in this sonnet? What role does physical setting play in a novel? How do metaphors of the land influence the way we treat it? Do men write about nature differently than women? What bearing might the science of ecology have on literary studies? How is science itself open to literary analysis?”

Cheryll Glotfelty, The Ecocriticism Reader (1996)
Ecocriticism maintains a "triple-allegiance to the scientific study of nature, the scholarly analysis of critical representations, and the political struggle for more sustainable ways of inhabiting the natural world.”

Ursula K. Heise, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Ecocriticism"
"Although the field has been described as an interdisciplinary one, ecocriticism has been lamentably under-informed by science studies, philosophy of science, environmental history, and ecology, subjects ecocritics cannot afford to ignore”

Dana Phillips, The Truth of Ecology (ix).
Ecocriticism must, “abandon its rather mystical view of ecology as the binding force holding together not only all of the sciences, but nature and culture as well. […] We want ecology to simplify things for us, and that is something it really cannot do.” (45-46)
“If ecocriticism is to ground itself in ecology—that is, ecology as a science rather than a buzzword—it needs to come to terms with questions about the place and worth of science in our lives.”
Glen Love, Practical Ecocriticism (39)
1. Are there differences in the way that scientists and humanists (or literary critics) think about knowledge, and if so, what are they?

2. What counts as knowledge? How is knowledge established in the humanities? In the sciences?

3. Because time is limited and one person can’t learn everything, must ecocritics rely on (and defer to) the expertise of “actual” scientists? What insights can literary critics bring to the table that exist outside the purview of scientists?

4. Is post-structuralism in any way compatible with the scientific method?

5. Are efforts of ecocritics to incorporate the biological sciences little more than a desperate attempt to keep the humanities relevant in an academic (and popular) culture that reveres the power of scientific inquiry?
The handicap principle is the idea that some species paradoxically bear traits or engage in behaviors that would inhibit their survival but ultimately increase it.

See Amotz Zahavi, Alan Grafen, and Thorstein Veblen
Literary Criticism
1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.

2. Human interest in the world is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.

3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.

4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than a constant is a given.
Zahavi, Amotz and Avishag. The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
Heise, Ursula K. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism.” PMLA. 121 (2006): 503-16.
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995.
A “cognitive ecocriticism,” as Nancy Easterlin calls it, would take knowledge from evolutionary biology and cognitive brain science to transform the way we interpret literature.

"The human brain is an evolved biological organ shaped by natural selection to address the problems of survival and reproduction that plagued the lives of our ancestors.”

Jonathan Gottschall
Cognitive Ecocriticism
The Handicap Principle
Costly Signaling

Stotting of the gazelle
Shreaks of the babbler
Bungee Jumping
Women with large breasts
Douchey conversation in a bar
Guys who pick up the tab

How to do Things with Tears
"Hark ye yet again- the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event- in the living act, the undoubted deed- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike though the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me."
Why does Ahab cry in front of Starbuck?
Does the answer to this question help us to understand the "environmental vision" of Moby Dick?
Moby-Dick is "the greatest book about nature ever written." -- Glen Love

In Moby-Dick, Melville "underscores the irresistable interdependency among diverse species of life" and develops "an environmental position whereby nature and culture might co-exist." --Elizabeth Schultz

From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.
What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm
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