When Alan Liu asserted in Wordsworth: The Sense of History (1989) that there is “no nature except as it is constituted by acts of political definition made possible by particular forms of government” (104), Romantic ecocritics like Jonathan Bate and Karl Kroeber were outraged and offended. Reducing Liu’s complex assertion to the mere proposition that “there is no nature” (Bate 56; Kroeber 36), they responded by pioneering the establishment of a new “green” mode of Romantic literary criticism that would, in contradistinction to Liu’s faulty new historicist critical practice, take the materiality of Romantic nature seriously, for the sake of the planet no less. A major aim of this “Green Romanticism” was to rescue Romantic nature writing from the clutches of an overly cultured, overly theoretical approach to criticism that, in its very assumptions and practices, supposedly participated in the modern-day despoliation of the Earth.
One waits with bated breath, then, to see how the same critics and their followers will respond to Timothy Morton’s new book Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. For not only does Morton invite ecocritics to shout “‘down with nature!’” (13), but in the process of explaining why they should do so he makes seemingly audacious claims like “nature is history” (21), “environment is theory” (175), or “nature is … the quintessence of kitsch” (169)—claims made not solely in the name of a critically rigorous cultural politics, but in the name of ecology itself. As “a transcendental term in a material mask,” Morton convincingly argues, “nature” is a term that, “in all its confusing, ideological intensity, … ironically impedes a proper relationship with the earth and its life-forms” (14, 2). Thus, despite its anti-natural rhetoric, Ecology without Nature does not aim to undermine environmentalist philosophy or practice. The book’s sympathy for what is otherwise the very object of its critique—the theory and practice of ecocriticism—stems from Morton’s own plainly stated desire to investigate nature “in the name of sentient beings suffering under catastrophic environmental conditions” (12). Wearing his heart on his sleeve as a self-identified environmentalist, Morton does not even pretend ultimately to escape the ecocritical traps he so pointedly criticizes; but he does an impressive job showing us where those traps are located, how they might catch us in their jaws, and why we should be wary of them.
Among the most dangerous of the critical traps that Morton’s book identifies is “the idea of ‘nature writing’” itself (8), for, by creating an illusion of unmediated and unalienated contact with the physical environment, such writing—which Morton dubs “ecomimesis”—pulls the ecocritical wool over our eyes, implicitly proclaiming: “‘This environment is real; do not think that there is an aesthetic framework here’” (35). If we allow ourselves to be seduced by this sort of injunction—as many ecocritics do—we not only remain blind to the ways in which “nature” as a concept encodes normative politics, but we ultimately distance ourselves from the ecological world with which we desire so ardently to connect: “By setting up nature as an object ‘over there’—a pristine wilderness beyond all trace of human contact—[nature writing] re-establishes the very separation it seeks to abolish” (125).
One of the modes of nature writing that Ecology without Nature examines is “Strong ecomimesis” (32), which attempts to disguise its own representational framework by depicting the writing subject as fully immersed in the here and now of a surrounding or circumambient natural world. As part of an effort to expose the questionable representational dynamics of such writing, Morton begins the book’s first chapter by performing some “strong ecomimesis” of his own:
As I write this, I am sitting on the seashore. The gentle sound of waves lapping against my deck chair coincides with the sound of my fingers typing away at the laptop. Overhead the cry of a gull pierces the twilit sky, conjuring up a sensation of distance. The smoke trail of an ocean liner disappears over the far horizon. The surrounding air is moist and smells of seaweed. The crackle of pebbles on the shore as the waves roll in reminds me of England, summer holidays on stony beaches.
No—that was pure fiction; just a tease.29
This is wonderfully cheeky stuff. But if the last laugh here is on the parodied ecocritic who celebrates “strong ecomimetic” modes of writing, Morton’s “tease” is hardly gratuitous, for it ultimately serves to illuminate the ways in which “a poetics of ambience” (33) functions to undermine the environmentalist project dearest to the ecocritic’s heart.
In Morton’s critical vocabulary, “ambience” refers to the “fantasy … that we could actually achieve ecology without a subject” (183) by imagining the subject as fully immersed in, and therefore as an integral and unalienated part of, the circumambient objectal world. Creating the illusion that subject and object “have dissolved into each other” (15), an ambient poetics attempts to challenge the subject-object dualism generally regarded in ecocritical circles “as the fundamental philosophical reason for human beings’ destruction of the environment. If we could not merely figure out but actually experience the fact that we are imbedded in our world, then we would be less likely to destroy it” (64). Or so the story goes. But as Morton succinctly notes, “I am immersed in nature is not a mantra whose repetition brings about its content. Thinking so is wishful thinking, otherwise known as beautiful soul syndrome” (182-3).
According to Ecology without Nature, “The beautiful soul is ecological subjectivity” itself (121). A persona of the “unhappy consciousness” that, in G. W. F. Hegel’s formulation, severs humans from the world of nature, the beautiful soul is characterized primarily by an aspiration to attain moral sensitivity and purity of vision. Because this aspiration is maintained largely via an aestheticized distancing of the self from a social world considered morally corrupt or evil, the beautiful soul is generally understood as “incapable of action” (Milne 65). As an effect of the beautiful soul’s contradictory desire to maintain “a split between self and world” while at the same time “yearn[ing] to close the gap” (Morton 118), this incapacity for action is not something that one would generally associate with environmentalist modes of literary critique. Given that modern-day ecocritical perspectives are commonly associated with—if not directly founded upon—grassroots modes of environmental activism, Morton’s assertion that ecocriticism suffers from “beautiful soul syndrome” (121) seems counter-intuitive—notwithstanding the incisive deconstructive logic informing his related argument that both “quietism and activism are two sides of the same beautiful coin” (117).
But Morton’s critique of “Beautiful ecological souls” (121) takes on persuasive force as a result of his focus on the relationship between ecology and consumerism, both of which have historic roots in the Romantic period. For Morton, in short, the beautiful soul is caught up in a mode of Romantic ecological consumerism “that makes of the forest a shop window—and allows the ambience of a shop window to be experienced as the temple of nature” (115). Like window shoppers viewing “an object of value in a shop window,” Morton continues, “we consume the wilderness in a purposively nonpurposive way” (139). Since ecocritical discourse often indicts Western capitalism for instrumentalizing and commoditizing environments and organisms represented under the sign of nature, Morton’s critique of Romantic and ecological forms of consumerism can help ecocritics more carefully to scrutinize their critical assumptions and practices. Openly admitting that Ecology without Nature does not itself entirely escape the effects of “beautiful soul syndrome” (142), Morton, far from proselytizing, offers fellow ecocritics an exemplary object lesson in the troubling politics of political complicity and critical self-scrutiny.
As a “solution to beautiful soul syndrome” (187), Morton formulates a concept of “dark ecology.” Noting that “Ecological politics is bound up with what to do with pollution, miasma, slime”—“things that glisten, schlup, and decay”—“dark ecology” indicts a tendency among ecocritics to turn away from the disgusting “leakiness of the world” (159) by favouring “pretty or sublime pictures of nature” (160). One is reminded here of John Tallmadge’s recent assertion that ecocriticism must temper its primitivist tendencies by developing a philosophy and practice of urban ecology. In The Cincinnatti Arch: Learning from Nature in the City (2004), Tallmadge notes that the aesthetic idealization of exurban areas has had dire consequences for the ecological health of the planet: “Enshrining wilderness in distant places allows us to justify our abuse, neglect, or exploitation of local nature, which appears less worthy and so less heinous to victimize.” But whereas Tallmadge laments that the wilderness ideal ultimately enables urbanites “to tolerate, on a daily basis, the consequent ugliness … and filth” of cities (Tallmadge 41), Morton argues that the very “task” of dark ecology is to embrace this ugliness and filth, “to love the disgusting, inert, and meaningless” (Morton 195; emphasis added). By investigating the slimy “underside of ecomimesis” (159-60), Morton’s “dark ecology” issues a potent challenge to an ecocritical idealism that too often tends to represent ecological experience in terms of “love and light” (198).
Since ecocriticism is a relatively new discursive practice still very much in the process of working out its concepts and methods, its practitioners would do well to heed the many fine insights that Morton offers in Ecology without Nature. For it is only by considering more carefully and intensively the theoretical and aesthetic underpinnings of its discourse on “nature” that ecocriticism will become a more finely nuanced and more effectively self-scrutinizing mode of literary and cultural critique. Encouraging and pointing the way toward such a development, Ecology without Nature marks a profoundly important moment in the history of ecocritical thought. I say this despite my desire to question certain aspects of the book’s rhetorical presentation of the current state of ecocritical affairs. To be sure, there is more than a grain of truth in Morton’s argument that “ecocriticism has either not engaged with, or has positively shunned, ‘theory’” (161), and that it “consciously blocks its ears to all intellectual developments of the last thirty years” (20). But such statements suggest a rather narrow definition of what constitutes ecocriticism, failing, for example, to account for the scholarship of “ecocritics who situate their work at the poststructuralist end of the spectrum” (Heise 510). Such ecocritical theoreticians include, to name only a few, Thomas H. Birch, whose writings on American preservationist practices productively deploy Foucauldian concepts of power and social surveillance; or Verena Andermatt Conley, whose primer on Ecopolitics: The Environment in Poststructuralist Thought (1997) demonstrates a sustained engagement with contemporary theoretical models; or David Mazel, whose book American Literary Environmentalism (2000) “treats the environment as a discursive construction, something whose ‘reality’ derives from the ways we write, speak, and think about it” (Mazel xii).
But Morton’s occasional tendency to over-generalize about ecocriticism’s deliberate shunning of “theory” and related contemporary intellectual developments in no way compromises the validity of his book’s polemic against ecomimetic fantasy narratives, ambient poetics, and “beautiful soul syndrome.” Provocative and compelling as a polemical treatise, creatively eclectic in its deft synthesis of modern theoretical perspectives, yet surprisingly accessible and engaging as a result of Morton’s elegant and refreshingly colloquial style of writing, Ecology without Nature offers nothing short of a virtuoso ecocritical performance. Given the long and well-established role that “nature” has played as a central concept in Western history, philosophy, and popular discourse (not to mention “nature’s” ubiquitous terminological usage in the roll-up-your-sleeves world of environmental activism), it remains to be seen whether Morton will ultimately be successful in his ambitious effort to inaugurate an “ecology without nature.” But if, as he persuasively argues, the idea of “nature” indeed “impedes a proper relationship with the earth and its lifeforms” (2), I wish him well in his effort to banish nature from our critical vocabulary. I, for one, will be reflecting on, and coming to terms with, Ecology without Nature for years to come.
Kevin Hutchings is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Romantic Studies. He is the author of Imagining Nature: Blake’s Environmental Poetics (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002) and co-author of the BC Book Prize-winning Birds of the Raincoast: Habits and Habitat (Harbour Publishing, 2004). He has also written numerous articles on the theory and practice of ecocriticism, focusing in particular on the relationship between ecological poetics and environmental politics. Kevin’s most recent publication is a CD entitled Songs of William Blake (2007), which features fourteen of Blake’s poems set to music, plus a substantial liner-note essay on Blake’s life, art, and musicianship. Currently, Kevin is co-editing a collection of essays entitled Native Americans and Anglo-American Culture, 1750-1850 (forthcoming with Cambridge University Press); and he is putting the finishing touches on a new book entitled Romantic Ecologies and Colonial Cultures.
- Andermatt Conley, Verena. Ecopolitics: The Environment in Poststructuralist Thought. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
- Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. London: Routledge, 1991.
- Birch, Thomas H. “The Incarceration of Wildness: American Wilderness Areas as Prisons.” Postmodern Environmental Ethics. Ed. Max Oelschlaeger. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1995, 137-61.
- Heise, Ursula K. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism.” PMLA 121.2 (2006): 503-16.
- Kroeber, Karl. Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
- Liu, Alan, Wordsworth: The Sense of History. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989.
- Mazel, David. American Literary Environmentalism. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2000.
- Milne, Drew. “The Beautiful Soul from Hegel to Beckett.” Diacritics 32.1 (2002): 63-82.
- Tallmadge, John, The Cincinnatti Arch: Learning from Nature in the City. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2004.