Stuart Cooke and Peter Denney
from their introduction to 'Transcultural Ecocriticism'
[First published by Bloomsbury Academic in Great Britain 2021]
Thinking about Transcultural Ecocriticism: Space, Scale, and Translation
We present the following collection of essays at a critical juncture in the Anthropocene. Urgently, planetary responsibility and situated knowledges need to be entwined in propositions for social and environmental justice. All around us, bodies, texts, and artworks are converging in old and new forms of politics and earthly accountabilities. Never before has the world been smaller, but never has it been so overwhelming in its complexity, either. Suddenly, the critical project has become planetary, biological, even geological. As Timothy Morton puts it, “ecological science, with its three-kilometer ice cores and its close reading of the weather, has transformed the environment into a gigantic library, a palimpsest of texts waiting to be read.” Life in all of its manifestations — from DNA to forests — has textual qualities; what does it mean to “read” such a staggering variety of data? The use of imaginative, synthetic scholarship has never been more important; reading, interpretation, and translation have become not just critical but essential skills. Transcultural ecocriticism emerges in response to these concerns.
Next to alarm at the looming planetary emergency, we are inspired by the trajectory of a century or more of avant-garde poetics and criticism, particularly as it has crystallised in revised formulations of “English,” “American,” and “New World” poetics. Here the path was lit by those like Jerome Rothenberg, who, from the 1960s onward, helped to inaugurate a radically new conception of poetry, which “drew in whole worlds we hadn’t previously imagined,” and demanded “new forms of writing & thinking” — all in order to effect “an expansion of what we could now recognize as poetry.” Crucially, combining myriad traditions of global poetics along with a bold, neo-Romantic fervor, the new poetry was no longer literature per se but rather a means “for experiencing & comprehending the world,” through which “the visions of the individual” doubled as what Mallarmé had called “the words of the tribe.” Poetry had become a means for both ecological and transcultural, transcorporeal relation. More recently, dismayed by “an upsurge of new nationalisms & racisms,” Rothenberg has proposed an omnipoetics in order to seek out “an ever greater assemblage of words & thoughts as a singular buttress against those forces that would divide and diminish us.”[i]
If an omnipoetic assemblage that reaches towards the infinite strays too far from the bounds of analytical precision, then a transcultural ecocriticism might nevertheless retain its germinal impulses. Such an approach recognises not only that Western literatures are but a minority portion in a much larger compendium of global literatures, but also that there are vital exchanges and parallels between and across many of these literatures. We don’t want to stop here, either; the whole world is out there. Accordingly, we are interested in pursuing the opportunities proposed by the ecological text for more-than-human relation. One aim in this context might be to theorize how the creative formations of other animals, plants, insects, and forces can be drawn into relation with some of the discourses surrounding human art. As much as possible, we seek here to abandon what Marcella Durand calls the “idea of the center,” venturing instead into a dynamic system where the values of all living and non-living things are contextually integrated, and the myriad perspectives of all things are explored “as an attempt to subvert the dominant paradigms of mono-perception, consumption and hierarchy.” Implicit to transcultural ecocriticism is a radical, decolonial theorization, where Western modes of conquest, categorization, and extraction are checked in order to embrace a multi-vocal array of complex expressions. There is potentially an infinite variety in such an array; therefore, a transcultural ecocriticism attempts to embrace the myriad ways in which an ecological system might articulate both itself and the connections between its various parts.
If there is a “traditional” ecocriticism, it relies upon Romanticism. Often inflected through Heideggerian and phenomenological accounts of unitary, coherent subjects, the first waves of ecocriticism often focused on how texts might cultivate deep and lasting attachments to particular, cherished places. By and large, in traditional ecocriticism “the assumption is that identity, whether individual or communitarian, is constituted by the local.”[ii] As Lynn Keller outlines, the “tenacity” of Romanticism in ecocriticism is evidenced by the fact that, until the early years of the new century, many environmental critics continued to lament what they perceived to be the increasing separation of industrialized humans from the natural world, “much as the Romantic poets themselves did nearly two centuries earlier.” Simply, the ecocritics lamented that split, and treated poetry “as a means of transcending it.” In the New World, too, settlers had imported from Western Europe a sense of nature as something apart from human civilization, “a sacred and vanishing space offering escape from industrialized modernity, a treasured refuge for human and nonhuman species alike.”[iii] In ecocriticism so conceptualized, nature poems were of value because they returned readers to “a sense of being at home on earth,” and allowed at least momentary solace from city life.[iv] Like the literature it privileged, early ecocriticism sought an experiential immediacy in nonurban environments.
However, more recent ecocritical work has sought out poetry and fiction that, in Keller’s words, “are more analogous to landfills scavenged by gulls or city boulevards awash in diesel fumes.” Instead of trying to escape the problems of “a warming, toxified world,” ecocriticism has embraced them.[v] Indigenous ecological knowledges have also played a significant part in interrogating the split between urban and nonurban spaces; in Australia, for example, many have adopted “Country” instead of “nature” to foreground the priority of Indigenous sovereignty and the continent’s material-semiotic-spiritual complex, which includes humans and human societies in an entangled, polyvocal network. In this context, much of the anxiety of early ecocriticism about a “vanishing nature” is inseparable from the cultural heritage of those ecocritics themselves: until recently, ecocriticism has been predominantly the concern of white, European scholars who, much as they might lament the fact, were beneficiaries of European invasion, colonization, and theft of Indigenous peoples’ lands, labor and resources. In all, ecocritical scholarship has increasingly understood “nature” as thoroughly inextricable from “culture(s)”; resisting focus on Romantic pastoral and depopulated “wilderness,” for the past decade or more it has been pushing beyond narrowly conceived, Western understandings of the environment and humanity’s place therein.[vi]