Session 6C: The Red and the Green: Rethinking the Relation between Ecocriticism and Ideological Criticism

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6C. The Red and the Green: Rethinking the Relation between Ecocriticism and Ideological Criticism

Special Session: Robert Anderson (Oakland)
Michael Kohler (SUNY Binghampton): "A Romantic Critique of Environmental Modernization"
Gary Harrison (New Mexico): "Millennial Ecology: Malthus and Young on Population and Agriculture"
Thomas Hothem (Rochester): "Romantic Ecology and Visual Aesthetics: Re-reading WW's Guide to the Lakes"

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"A Romantic Critique of Environmental Modernization"
Michael Kohler
SUNY Binghampton

Kohler argues that recent accounts which offer guarded optimism that capitalism will inadvertently bring about progressive environmental changes "fatally lack a conception of ideology." He links this problem to the Romantic redefinition of nature and the relation of man to the natural world which the tradition misunderstood as it inherited it. Lacking from the contemporary discourse of environmental modernization is an account of the "humanizing" potential of the non-human world, which the first generation of Romantic writers demonstrated in their poetry and explicit political tracts. Without a comparable examination of the human, dominant environmental thinking in the West will rely upon an unexamined, and hence dogmatic and suspect, presumption that competing economic interests will on balance lead society into environmentally responsible modes of existence.

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"Millennial Ecology: Malthus and Young on Population and Agriculture"
Gary Harrison
New Mexico

Alongside Jonathan Bate's Romantic Ecology, Karl Kroeber's Ecological Literary Criticism has come to stand as a sort of touchstone to the developing field of romantic ecocriticism. As many reviewers, including myself, have pointed out, both of these books inaugurate a return to romantic naturalism while castigating recent political, social and historical criticism of romantic literature. As I argue in my review, claims that romantic naturalism leads inevitably to an egalitarian, socially responsible society or system of ecological balance are at best nostalgic, at worse spurious. As John Barrell, Ann Bermingham, Elizabeth Helsinger and Tim Fulford, among others, have shown, romantic constructions of nature offer up examples of hierarchy, aristocratic privilege, and so-called "natural processes" that in fact enabled the the exploitation of the land and people in the English countryside. To avoid revisiting the "echoing green," we would do well to follow Lawrence Buell's advice in The Environmental Imagination; in his view, we must examine even "the most searching works of environmental reflection to find disclosed . . . both the pathologies that bedevil society at large and some of the alternative paths that it might consider" (2).

In this paper, I propose to examine he pathological tendencies latent in the "progressive" discussions of nature in the works of Arthur Young and Thomas Malthus. Focusing upon the issues of enclosure and population, I will show that Young and Malthus participate in what M. Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline S. Palmer call "millenial ecology." That is, the ideas of progress in Malthus and Young, draw upon apocalyptic narrative as a rhetorical strategy to promote technological control over agricultural land. Quite unlike contemporary writers such as Murray Bookchin and Rachel Carson, whose prophecies of doom support a "back to the land" movement, the millenial jeremiads of Young and Malthus portray the mechanistic management of land and the poor as the last best hope for an England perceived to be growing too dependent upon imported foodstuffs and threatening to exceed its carrying capacity. By means of this discussion, I hope to show that a critical discussion of ecological issues in the early nineteenth century cannot revert back to a romantic ideology of nature, such as that advocated by Kroeber.

Kroeber rightly aligns Malthus with the "fundamental romantic 'ideology' . . . that political attitudes must be grounded in awareness of every human society's peculiar interrelations with its natural environment" (84). Yet, Malthus is no John Clare. Indeed, in the early nineteenth century, the naturalistic and progressive doctrines of Young and Malthus made comfortable bedfellows with the aristocratic apologetics of Edmund Burke. Together these doctrines helped to promote the enclosure of commons lands that wreaked havoc upon the rural poor. Indeed, the reckless indifference to the poor that emerges from Malthus's treatises on population and Young's tracts on agricultural improvement contradicts the democratic tendencies that Kroeber associates with ecological thinking and points again to the need for a dialectical criticism--one that recognizes both ideology and utopia in the "environmental reflections" of Malthus and Young. By way of example, I hope to show that romantic ecocriticism can only move us closer to understanding nature and our relationship to nature by taking advantage of the contributions of critical theory, new historicism, and cultural materialism impugned by Bate and Kroeber. We want both red and green, in my view, if our ecocriticism is to move beyond familiar paradigms and find a new metaphor, or a new language, for thinking about and acting within our life world.

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"Romantic Ecology and Visual Aesthetics: Re-reading WW's Guide to the Lakes"
Thomas Hothem

This paper will argue that recent reassessments of Romantic Ecology need to consider eighteenth-century traditions of representing landscape (and nature in general) in order to better contextualize the "new" version of self-centered environmental consciousness that is suggested in Romantic poetry. The Romantics inherited a politics of landscape viewing that was popularized in part through eighteenth-century travel literature. Picturesque travel writing emphasized the subjective imagination of land and thereby helped to establish the authority of personal experience so intrinsic to the Romantic imagination. Hence Romantic conceptions of environmental consciousness are indebted to viewing parameters and aesthetic traditions which suggested a language for both environmentalism and individuality (as we know them). Romantic writing personalized the spatial relations between self and world which became implicit in eighteenth-century landscape viewing. The result was a self-centered experience of the environment which has tended to inform popular nineteenth- and twentieth-century conceptions of environmentalism.

The important project of contemporary critics such as Jonathan Bate and Karl Kroeber has been to emphasize Romantic writing's influence on modern environmentalism and to point out the valuable lessons poets such as Wordsworth have taught us about nature. Yet in unproblematically recommending the Romantic model of environmental consciousness and using it to trace a literary history of ecology after the Romantics, these critics forgo an important analysis of the origins of Romantic Ecology in eighteenth-century landscape aesthetics. In leaving the aesthetic influences of Romantic Ecology unaddressed, they do not interrogate assumptions about the self and nature which Romantic writing helped to naturalize. If we more completely historicize popular ecology in the eighteenth-century aesthetic movements which fostered it, we make inroads into how Romantic Ecology as envisioned non-ideologically by Bate and Kroeber has some of the same blind spots we tend to find in popular conceptions of modern ecology. Among these assumptions are the espousal of a positivistic view of natural science; an over-sentimentalization of nature; a refusal to consider the self and nature as historically situated and not "timeless"; and a confusion of a Romantic "ecology of the individual self" with that of the environment at large--i.e., in the sense that if the object of the Romantic project is to explore selfhood, we cannot always take self-revelation discovered through the experience of nature as a literal mandate for how to conceive of the physical environment. In sum, if readers posit Romantic writing as an absolute origin for ecology, they themselves risk naturalizing certain assumptions about the experience of nature which suggest that seeking it is a solitary pursuit, constituted by a spectatorship which begins and ends with the individual self and signals a separation from the world. In this sense, we might see "the frequency with which ecologically oriented critics clear a space for themselves by rejecting ideological criticism" as a Romantic self-substantiating gesture. Such critics exclusively hold the textual and critical "environment" of Romanticism at arm's length in order to command a perspective.

Reconsidering eighteenth-century traditions of representing nature according to visual aesthetics suggests a momentary move away from self-centered conceptions of Romantic Ecology and toward greater environmental consciousness. It (1) alerts us to the spatial relations of landscape viewing which are often implicit in Romantic Ecology, and thus (2) helps to posit the self as one aspect of a larger world. This, in fact, was Wordsworth's project in his Guide to the Lakes, an important Romantic text which is particularly engaged with the politics of eighteenth-century landscape aesthetics. This paper will attempt to re-read the Romantic Ecology suggested by Bate and Kroeber by better situating the Guide in the rich tradition of picturesque tours. Bate's analysis of the Guide does not assess how it participates in a grand tradition of Lake guides--a tradition which constituted a kind of genre in itself, with well-known tropes and commonplaces. We might say that picturesque guides to the Lakes created a "textual environment" which supplanted the physical environment in the popular consciousness. As such, Wordsworth set out to correct any fanciful misconceptions these travel narratives helped to suggest. The Guide aims for objectivity. It is informed by scientific classifications and, as Bate notes, a sense of what it means to live--and not tour--in the region. Yet, perhaps in alignment with the genre of picturesque tourism, many of the picturesque points of view which help to substantiate individual solitary viewing remain intact, and in fact inform Wordsworth's art here and in his poetry. Hence the Guide retains elements of subjectivity, is empowered by the very aesthetics it seeks to address, and includes its share of commanding views based on distance and art. Wordsworth's "new" environmental consciousness, focused on the self yet suggestive of a larger environment, is thus consonant with an older tradition of representing landscape which--if we privilege his brand of environmentalism unproblematically--we may be tempted to take for granted. This is not to say that Wordsworth was not environmentally innovative. Rather it suggests that we need to better contextualize his innovations in aesthetic developments which helped to suggest them.

Romantic writing centers the self and through it familiarizes the world at large. If we want such literature to articulate a model of ecology, we need to acknowledge the politics of representation and self-privilege it assumes. To genuinely elaborate a Romantic Ecology, readers must understand the ramifications of both the physical environment and the literary environment in which such conceptions came into being. Such an approach will help us to better contextualize Romantic Ecology as well as popular conceptions of ecology in general.

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Last updated July 26, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell