"Can the Eco-Other Speak?"
Dr. Doolittle in the Postmodern Wilderness

--Tom Gannon--
("Introduction" of Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam Portfolio, November 2000)


                                                    "For every thing that lives is Holy" (Blake 44){1}


         Starting with Blake's utterance as an intuitive truth close to my own heart, I set out on a course of reading--ranging from British Romantic poets to current ecological literary criticism--to find some confirmation of such a belief. But, like some recent ecocritics with backgrounds in colonial discourse theory, I wondered (half-cynically), "How can these poets and scholars actually speak for the Other?"--in this case, the non-human Other--"without implicitly propping up their own imperialist" (including anthropocentric) "agendas?" And, like some recent ecocritics acquainted with poststructuralism, I wondered (half-despairingly), "Can the 'Real' of 'Nature' even be represented in discourse, without the seemingly inevitable bevy of human constructions and projections that accompany any such linguistic enterprise?" At last, like SueEllen Campbell,{2} I was torn between my naturalist avocation and my academic "training," an experiential holistic impulse opposed to an intellectual bent to tear down all such grands récits and to question all surrogate-god candidates for Transcendental Signifier, including "Nature."

         Several essays written for my graduate coursework were symptomatic of this dilemma. An essay on Wordsworth's birds read the poet's numerous appropriations of the avian Other as Lacanian gestures, indicative of a drive to recuperate a sense of integral Self that is at last wanting, insufficient. Wordsworth's skylarks and swans, I claimed, are but parts of a chain of metonymic, surrogate-object signifiers--a series of associative links from human mothers to "Mother Nature" to birds--which are, each and all, metaphoric of the "occulted" signified, the repressed "Mother" or "Real Other." But in attempting to escape this psychoanalytical prison of a Self forever unable to truly "know" the "Real," I could do little more than invoke in my conclusion Jonathan Bate's end-around effort to counter poststructuralism: just look at the current disaster that is the environment, you nature-as-human-construct people (Bates says), and then tell me that "'There is no nature'" (56).{3} But I still felt like Dr. Johnson kicking a stone to refute Bishop Berkeley, painfully aware that Berkeley's postmodern philosophical descendants would sneeringly deem me a mere naïve realist. And my concurrent naturalist obsession in a lengthy appendix to that essay to identify, count, and categorize every bird species mentioned in Wordsworth's poetic corpus was also, I realized, an exercise outside any acceptable critical purview--until I discovered that there was a recent approach that does attempt, in part, such mergers of literary and naturalist concerns: ecocriticism.{4}

         My essay on La Fontaine's Fables found the poems to be an "anthropomorphic bestiary" of animal metaphors. "Nature" and animals, again, are human constructs, and I even adopted a New Historicist angle in which the various animal species could be grouped under the Foucaultian social forces of coercion and subversion, an approach somewhat similar, I later discovered, to Ritvo's reading of the various animal tropes in Victorian society.{5} A more recent paper of mine tackled some actual modern nature writing as its subject, Roger Tory Peterson's venerable Bird Guide. Now armed with the weapons of Cultural Studies and postcolonial theory, I attacked my childhood hero for his complicity in the white, male, classist, and imperialist appropriation and domination of the natural "Other" that has characterized much so-called scientific literature to this day--and rather despised myself in so doing. But a recurring call in ecocriticism of the 1990's is for the need of this very self-critique: ecocriticism should cast a wary glance at even its favorite genre of nature writing and point out the political biases that underlie these works. Moreover, this self-policing should include within its scope the various utterances of environmentalists, ecologists, and ecocritics themselves, especially those relatively unaware of how much they themselves are indeed constructing nature. In sum, I would first emphasize the need to provide ecocriticism with a greater theoretical sophistication through the insights of, especially, poststructuralism and postcolonial theory; but secondly, a way out, at last, from a closed circuit of anthropocentric narcissism is the next order of the day, without begging the (poststructuralist) question by simply kicking a rock, or spitting on Derrida and Bhabha. My tentative dissertation plans, then, are to do both, in a more extended analysis of animal (especially avian) tropes in the British and American literature of the last two centuries, concluding--I hope--with an environmental and "ethical" stance that navigates between high theory and Romantic intuition--aware as I am that this may be a rough-water trip in a bateau ivre, to be sure.

         The more radical ecocritical tacks that issue from Arne Naess's Deep Ecology already have at least one thing in common with poststructuralist theory, and, indeed, represent one more manifestation thereof. For the notion of an egalitarian ecocentrism is certainly another decentering or deconstruction--in this case, of the "man/nature" hierarchic binary.{6} Thus, after human race, class, and gender, the next bridge to cross is that of species: and, given the poststructuralists' antipathy for humanism, Ryder's and Singer's animal-rights attacks on "speciesism"{7} fit right in with poststructuralism's overall decentering (and, often, "rights"-extending) agenda.

         However, here the ground gives way: mentioning Naess and Singer in one breath might misleadingly give the impression that there is some monophonic voice in favor of animal and ecological concerns. However, the theory and politics thereof, I discovered, have rather produced a Bakhtinian polyphony--or cacophony--of voices, of attitudes. Donald Worster has traced the various threads of "ecology" and found the last two centuries to be commonly divided into the "arcadian" and "imperialist" camps (epitomized in Thoreau and Darwin);{8} but the contemporary debates within even the "arcadian" school (within which I'd perhaps too boldly place both the deep ecologists and the animal-rights spokespeople) are strident indeed. And so my venture into my "Special Area" reading list was like attending the last night of a family reunion where everyone is half-drunk and tired of each other: some shouting and name-calling ensues. I listened to deep ecologists scorning the vegetarianism of animal-rightists for privileging animals over plants; I heard animal-rights people scorn deep ecologists for considering worms and rocks as "equal" to cows and dogs. I heard hunter-gatherer types mourn the advent of agriculture, and agro-pacifists mourn the advent (or continuation) of hunting. I heard St. Francis of Assisi called both the "patron saint" of ecology and a loose screw whose mystical feelings were like those of a dope fiend. I watched ecocritics thumb their noses at French theory, and other ecocritics thumbing their noses at ecocritics who thumbed their noses at French theory. I also heard animal-rights philosophers complain that the environmentalist/ecology movements were taking attention away from their agenda--as if the animals they've championed didn't require the "right" to a decent environment in which to survive. And I read ecocritics wax euphoric a whole essay long on the "land" and "landscape" and "environment" without one word about the fauna (including homo sapiens) inhabiting said environment.{9} And I walked away, my initial blithe enthusiasm for my entire "nature" project chastened and subdued, but my resolve to fashion my own synthesis of these various antagonisms into a study of animal-and eco-alterity all the more strengthened and made urgent.

         For my Historical Period area, I chose British literature from 1780 to 1900 primarily because I grew up reading Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley as "nature" poets--before Hartman, de Man, and Harold Bloom could deconstruct my enthusiasm--and I deemed the characteristic Romantic "pantheism" epitomized in Wordsworth's "one life" as the closest thing in Western literature to Native American notions of an imminent natural "theology" (and most in accord with my own introverted-intuitive personality type). The "century" was extended backwards twenty years to include much of Blake, the early Wordsworth, and some interesting precursors to the Romantic revolution. I'd read much of the Victorian poets and novelists, too; and, although I've long considered Arnold, Browning, etc., to be something of an epiphenomenal falling-off from the Romantic "golden age" of poetry, they've always possessed a great fascination for me in their own right, particularly Hardy's much more sardonic "nature" poems and the stoic resignation (and alienation from a real ocean?) in "Dover Beach." As for fiction, the chronological progression from the hilarity--my main impression, at least--of Dickens and Thackeray to the less happy smirk of Wilde and the darker frown of Hardy might have something to do, at last, with a further proto-modernist estrangement from that "Nature" intuited by the Romantics: for example, Hardy's Wessex forests and Conrad's Heart of Darkness speak of an environment that seems inordinately and painfully "other," however much those settings are employed as metaphoric "characterizations" of the human inhabitants thereof.{10}

         My Historical Period questions issue from personal literary interests, a potpourri designed at last to display a certain versatility--and to avoid too much overlap with my Special Area nature/ecocritical interests. In retrospect, however--aside from the question on prosody--they all have a relation to an alterity that I would read as an alienation from "nature." Ruskin's religious critique might issue at last from such an alienation; the figure of the "solitary" often involves an alienation from, or return to, "nature"; the "border" theme concerns in part that border between civilization and the "wild"; and the question on literary animal tropes is, admittedly, straight from my Special Area ecocritical bent, applied to this literary century. (Conversely, the "loner," "border," and "animal" questions might all be said to concern a "space" of liminality from which such an alienated/repressed alterity might "speak.")

        The syllabus for my Historical Period consequently centers upon the various alterities manifest in the Romantic recuperation of "Self," a combination of my Masters-thesis explorations of Wordsworth and company's use of marginal/border figures such as "primitives," women, and children as means of ego transcendence, and my more recent perception that animals and landscapes have served similar purposes in this body of literature.

         My Special Interest "area" is actually a thematically related group of areas, as evidenced in the breakdown of my Reading List into 19th-century British "naturalist" writing (both poets and scientists), 20th-century American nature writing (including several bird guides, aiming towards an avian-based dissertation), contemporary Native American "nature" writing (heading, with hope, towards a synthesis of high theory and traditional "native" views) and, finally, recent animal-rights and ecological/ecocritical texts. (The supplementary works are relevant texts from my Historical Period list and/or my previous reading that may ultimately prove useful in the writing of my dissertation.) The list was chosen in line with what I conceive, again, my current dissertation direction to be: a treatment of 19th-century British and 20th-century American nature writing, particularly works about the animal, and especially of the avian--in ecocritical terms: in my case, a theory informed by the various ecological and Native American scholars whose works make up this list, and by the poststructuralist and postcolonialist theorists who have previously made an impact upon me.

         My Review Essay, then, continues the speculations of this introduction, via an exploration of eleven authors from my Special Area reading list who address the issues spelled out here in particularly helpful, or problematic, ways. I'm thinking right now, especially, of Gerald Vizenor's essay on "Literary Animals," of Buell's touchstone text on The Environmental Imagination, and Gare's concerted "environmental" response to poststructuralism as essential points of entry into any discussion of the plight of a "Dr. Doolittle" such as I, who would "talk to the animals," and yet feels (at least initially) that he can "do little," in the current postmodern milieu of social constructivism.

         My "Special Area" Syllabus on 20th-century eco-literature begins with Vizenor's division of animal tropes into authentic "metaphors" and inauthentic "similes," and would serve as an attempt to ascertain the validity of Vizenor's seminal dichotomy through students' (lack of?) comprehension and feedback. Aside from Vizenor, I would begin with such accessible (and basic, "required") eco-texts like Glotfelty's "Introduction" to her renowned anthology of ecocriticism, and continue with "primary" texts that have both an eco/animal and literary interest, such as those by Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, N. Scott Momaday, Linda Hogan, and J.M. Coetzee.

         Finally, my concluding article, "Reading Boddo's Body," is a recent venture into another "other," the racial Other: here, the Native American and those "hybrid" humans of "mixed blood." As one of the latter myself, my personal interest is obvious, but--more to the point for my general eco-persuasion and dissertation intent--recent colonial-discourse theorists have identified parallels between racial and spec-ial alterity, just as ecofeminists have traced the common denominators in the othering of women and "nature." Furthermore (although peripheral to the essay itself), the whole, too often Romanticized, notion of "Native American ecology" will certainly play a significant role in my eventual dissertation direction. If nothing else, the poststructural critique of "nature" that the "white male" in me is so worried about is at last a Western Civilization construct itself; and the Native American worldview(s) may well provide me with the best--uh, moccasins--with which to perform a "kick" at Bishop Berkeley's ideational "stone."



1  Blake, William.  The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  The Poetry and Prose.  Ed. David V. Erdman.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1965.  33-44.

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2  Campbell, SueEllen.  "The Land and Language of Desire: Where Deep Ecology and Post-Structuralism Meet."  The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology.  Eds. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm.  Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996.   124-136.

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3  Bate, Jonathan.  Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition.   London: Routledge, 1991.

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4  See http://incolor.inetnebr.com/tgannon/wordbird.html for a web version of my "Wordsworth's Birds" exercise in monomania. By the way, Lawrence Buell (The Environmental Imagination, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995) is "bemused" by a recent similar effort to count the species of flowers in William Cullen Bryant--and "chagrined" that he would never have considered this tack himself: "This kind of passion went out with new critical formalism in the forties and seems almost antediluvian today" (11). (Buell intends this as a compliment.)

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5  Ritvo, Harriet.  The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age.   Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

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6  For the sometimes close relation between ecocriticism and poststructuralism, cf. Campbell (Glotfelty and Fromm 126-133); Michael Branch, "The Nature of Nature in Literary Theory and Practice" (Weber Studies 11.1: 44-47).

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7  Singer, Peter.  Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals.  New York: Random House, 1975.

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8  Worster, Donald.  Nature's Economy: The Roots of Ecology.  San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1977.

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9  The various "voices" referred to here are cited and discussed in more detail in my Special Area annotations and my Review essay.

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10  Months after writing this obvious overgeneralization, I found some corroboration in Lawrence Buell: regarding the "Anglo-American lyric from Victorian to modern," at least, there seems to be an "increasing separation of mind from nature" (199).

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