Monday 2 April 2007

Underlying Propositions

for Richard Kerridge's paper, "Public and Private Environments," delivered at the Poetry and Public Language Conference at the University of Plymouth on Saturday, 31 March, 2007 (all written by Kerridge):

"Environmental crisis (abrupt and catastrophic climate change, intensifying conflicts over natural resources, desertification, loss of water, environmental refugees, loss of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity and natural habitat) is likely to transform the world in the next one hundred years.

"To perceive this crisis clearly and act effectively in response to it, people will need to change a number of assumptions common and traditional in literature and culture: assumptions about human responsibility and about the meaning of the natural world.

"Our customary habits of mind 'are no longer adequate and appropriate for understanding and responding to the kind of below-the-surface, beyond-the-present, time-distantiated hazards that have arisen (Barbara Adam, Timescapes of Modernity, 1998, p. 59). 'I suspect we're reluctant to think about it because we're worried that if we start we will have no choice but to think about nothing else.... We deeply don't want to believe this story' (John Lanchester, London Review of Books, 22 March 2007).

"It isn't that people aren't persuaded, nominally. The impasse environmentalists face, with increasing urgency, is that environmentalism can be found all over the place in culture but has made only tiny differences, if any, to behaviour. The government's inconsistency in simultaneously proclaiming climate change as the greatest threat the world faces and planning huge expansions of British airports reflects similar inconsistencies in the behaviour of individuals.

"Some literary traditions, most obviously Pastoral, Romanticism, Nature Writing and Apocalypse, are relevant to this crisis and of great potential in relation to it, but problematical in their characteristic motifs and plots, and the values and characteristics they assign to nature.

"Ecocriticism (literary and cultural criticism from an environmentalist position) has often sought to challenge biblical, Baconian and Cartesian traditions that assert a strong distinction between humanity and nature, with other binary oppositions in train (mind/body, thought/feeling, rational/irrational, sciences/humanities, culture/nature, civilised/primitive, modern/premodern, masculine/feminine). This Cartesian tradition is frequently identified with Western industrial modernity, the bundle of beliefs and practices held responsible for global environmental crisis. Ecocritical anti-Cartesianism is itself problematical as a response to environmental crisis, but it has prompted ecocritics to be interested in literary traditions and forms that attempt to break down the oppositions mentioned here.

"Ecological perspectives are required right across culture; perspectives that foreground the interdependence of all life forms, the relative positioning of the different niches they occupy and the common ecosystem they constitute between them in continual dynamic action. Analogies between natural ecosystems and cultural dispositions are valuable if they demonstrate that, for example, the love of nature is confined to a cultural niche in which it has no power to touch other assumptions and behaviours. 'Leisure' is such a niche. Or pastoral lyricism about rural England can still co-exist with brutally industrial farming methods that imply and seek a totally managed and instrumentalised environment; these two discourses are rarely obliged to confront each other.

"As an antidote to Cartesian dualism, some ecocritics have turned to phenomenological traditions, especially the work of Heidegger, whose late essays expressed a kind of explicit environmentalism, and Merleau-Ponty, whose account of embodied perception opens up possibilities for increased awareness of the body's continual material exchange with its ecosystem. These traditions seem to promise a way of getting underneath the problem rather than confronting it ideologically. The possibility they hold out is that our physical senses, once liberated, will make us environmentalists where direct persuasion has failed (failed at least to change behaviour, however it may have changed professed views). Some innovative poets in the Modernist tradition have also been deeply interested in these phenomenological ideas. The literary forms these poets have used--forms of utterance not attached to a particular superintending speaker--have been associated by critics with phenomenology (see, for example, Tony Lopez on Heidegger's influence on W. S. Graham).

"The problem with that phenomenological tradition, from the ecocritical point of view, is its renunciation of long term and long distance perspectives, its continuation of Romantic wistfulness for escape from self-consciousness, its Heideggerean horror at shrinking distances. Environmentalism arises from long term scientific and global perspectives; that is its own modernity. The 1970s slogan 'Think globally, act locally' captures the movement's modernity well: its basis in a perspective that moves between local ecosystems, porously bounded by specific conditions of climate, geology and land use, and the global ecosystem that contains them. Global warming tells us, if we didn't know already, that no corner of the earth can hope to be unaffected by events elsewhere. The global perspective that environmentalism needs and is generated by is distinctively modern, depending on forms of communication that send abundant information and images rapidly around the world. Environmentalism cannot relinquish either the global or the local perspective. It needs some form of dialogue between them.

"Poetry could not have any subject matter more important than this."

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