Activism and Ecocriticism

I finally got around to reading the recent issue of ISLE*. As usual, there were a couple of interesting articles in it and I found it especially interesting, considering the kind of times we’re living in, that the contents were fairly openly political and activist-oriented. As I’ve discussed before, ecocriticism is an inherently political field within academia, which I suspect is one of the main reasons for ecocritics to choose this field (i.e., there’s a feeling of urgency in one’s response to the current environmental crises and a corresponding feeling that as an academic one should try to do something about it).

Many (most?) other academic fields are of course just as political as ecocriticism but their ideological premises are mostly hidden from casual view and are therefore taken as something commonsensical that need not be discussed (what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as doxa).

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Yep, that’s the “Winter” edition of this year’s ISLE. They apparently have a bit of a backlog. No wonder with every ecocritic on the planet wanting to publish in this journal.

Veteran ecocritic Scott Slovic is the editor of ISLE, and his Editor’s Note to this issue didn’t pull any punches when discussing the election of the orange clown: “the benighted American public has, through an outdated and anti-democratic system known as the “electoral college,” managed to enthrone a madman in the White House. Either a madman or a monster. Perhaps both. A goon, in any case.”

He then goes on to exhort ecocritics to “cultivate a certain furtiveness in order to do our anti-establishment work during this new era of vindictiveness toward all who oppose the “OILigarchy” (to use author-editor Lorraine Anderson’s favorite new word), while also allowing our skin to thicken as a way of enduring the insults and atrocities that await us. […] and to enable us to be a counter-friction to the forces behind this nuclear winter.”

The first actual article in the issue is written by Simon Estok and discusses ecomedia and activist engagement. I first got acquiainted with his writings during my ecocriticism course at Hacettepe University last year and have since had the pleasure to closely work with Simon in arranging the most recent EASLCE webinar (more info on that and future webinars hopefully coming up shortly). Besides being a highly regarded ecocritic and theorist he’s also a nice guy and has experience with hands-on activism. Being a nice person and participating in “real-life” activism is obviously no prerequisite for ecocritical theorizing but it sure doesn’t hurt either.

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Does this count as political activism? No? Is nothing enough? 

Since focusing on ecocriticism years ago I have myself occasionally struggled with questions about whether I’m doing “enough” to positively contribute to seeking solutions to the current catastrophic situation by “just” writing about it. Writing, talking, and even “clicktivism” may all in their own ways be parts of a solution but there’s obviously always “more” to be done. If I have time, or just feel a proper case of procrastination coming on, I might actually write a longer, even more navel-gazing post on this but for now, let’s get back to the topic at hand, which was supposed to be the current ISLE issue.

Estok’s article is a serious look at ecomedia, ecophobia, and the relationship between ecocritical theory and activism. To discuss it properly would take up much more space than a single blog post so I’ll just include one quote that I thought nicely exemplified the self-reflexive piece: “even ecocritics like me don’t seem to hesitate flying anywhere anytime if someone else is footing the bill.”

I’m supposed to be focusing on writing my article right now but I also have to of course stay on top of current developments in my field (or that’s how I justify to myself taking time off from writing to indulge in some reading). This issue included a special cluster of articles on “ecologies of mobility” and I’m glad to report that this cluster actually had some possible uses for my own current writing, so I wasn’t just pushing back my “real work.”

Jeremy Withers wrote in his article that “to borrow a term from the poststructuralist philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, we often require the creation of an ‘assemblage,’ of one that merges human beings with transport technologies like cars, airplanes, and subways (as well as with technologies like binoculars, smartphone apps, scuba gear, bug spray, etc.) in order to understand and appreciate nature. For Deleuze and Guattari, the assemblage exists as a (often ephemeral) coalition of forces and/or bodies.” I worked with Deleuze and Guattari’s poststructuralist theory in my first article and since learning a lot of new stuff on new materialism and material ecocriticism at Hacettepe the names and theories of Deleuze and Guattari keep popping up.

To finish, just a quick note on a book review found in this ISLE issue. As always, the issue ends with several book reviews on recent environmental/ecocritical books. This issue included a review of an interesting-sounding book on the cultural history of Pacific Northwest mountains but I thought the short book review was extremely weird. It contains the following statement: “The book’s most incisive critique is reserved for Northwesterners’ more recent relationship to the snowpeaks—one in which climbing has morphed from spiritual practice to athletic endeavor to a highly commercialized ‘climb-as-commodity’ that confers status even as it risks destroying the mountains where climbing occurs (119). The apotheosis of this transformation (or, perhaps, its nadir) is speed climbing, in which one’s experience of the mountain has been reduced to nothing more than a race. “

Now, the author of the review is a well-respected senior ecocritic so it’s not just some PhD student like me writing a book review. However, I’ve published a couple of mini-essay-length reviews and even in them, one of the main problems has been how to condense everything I have to say to a few short pages.

That’s why I found it quite strange that the reviewer has sacrificed about a quarter of his very minimal space to this bizarre conjecture. Admittedly, I haven’t read the book reviewed but unless its author makes a very well reasoned empirically based argument where he concludes that, yes, to move quickly in the mountains automatically means that one has no emotional/spritual connection to the mountain environment and that “one’s experience […] is reduced to nothing more than a race, ” then:

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Credit: memegenerator.net

Yeah OK so that’s maybe a little harsh and I should be more appreciative of a look at how some nonparticipants (i.e., the vast, vast majority of the world’s population) view what I passionately love. And, maybe in the book mountain sports, speed climbing, and such have been defined in a way that somehow would make the statement sensible. And, I’m sure both the reviewer and author of the book are nice people and that the bizarre review is just a product of limited space. But, after reading the review I sure as hell am not gonna pay money to buy a book that otherwise might have seemed interesting.

Anyway, even though I sometimes think that…

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Credit: imgflip.com

…then this time I’ll end with the words of Polish alpinist legend Voytek Kurtyka’s (b. 1947) ones from way back in 1988: “I believe that the latest trends [in fast and committing mountaineering, my emphasis] exhibit different qualities […] They are successes both in sporting and human terms. Extreme lightness, the ease of action and the natural relationship with the mountain environment characterise these ascents. Mind and body seem to listen to a new voice, follow a different rhythm.”

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Vojciech “Voytek” Kurtyka. Credit: ukc.co.uk

*”ISLE” is shorthand for Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and is the journal of ASLE, Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. It’s the big dog of international ecocriticism. More info on ISLE here. To join ASLE, click here.

Featured clicktivism image credit: basicknowledge101.com

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