Timothy Morton. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-674-02434-2. Price: US$49.95.[Record]

  • Kevin Hutchings

…more information

  • Kevin Hutchings
    University of Northern British Columbia

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 …