The last time I was purposefully academic was probably when I sat my finals. Even then, we’d only been educated in the historical contexts of the writers we studied; there was little contemporary theory. Since then, I’ve taught at half a dozen universities at least, but always as a practitioner. Academically cutting edge I am not! But I do want to understand how the work I and my colleagues do in the arts fits with the urgent need, in the face of imminent climate breakdown, to view society as part of an ecological system. The question ‘what is green criticism?’ therefore seems to me to a pressing one. Green thought has provided us with a sophisticated analysis of society and its relationship to planet. How can we apply it to artistic practice?
Around the time I did my English degree, there were some books emerging that used ecology as way to approach literature: Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology springs to mind, and Kim Taplin’s Tongues in Trees; I probably should re-read them. The aim of these books was to understand how writers related to nature: how ‘green’ they were. But that approach is about ecology; it’s not employing ecology as a critical tool. I wrote an extended essay in my third year about depictions of landscape in literature and painting at the time of the first generation Romantics. I was interested in the sublime and the beautiful, not out of any kind of swooning romanticism but because they suggest two ways of modelling our desire for the external. I’d noticed how some writers saw nature as a force that transformed the tiny figures traversing its landscapes, while some saw it as something that framed or provided a kind of extension to/illustration of heroic anthropocentrism. I was somewhat out on a limb, frankly. It probably wasn’t my best work. And it was also mainly ‘about’ the natural world. Yet it made me realise that there are analyses of nature which can – and probably should – be be applied to any kind of discourse.
So what might real green criticism be? Is anyone writing about how ecology could be a useful way to look at culture? Continue reading “What is Green Criticism?”