The Sixth Extinction. An Unnatural History (2014)

the-sixth-extinctionKolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction. An Unnatural History explores the somewhat unsettling phenomenon of extinction. Extinction is not uncommon in history, since most of the species that have existed are extinct. This is normally an extremely slow process, but very occasionally it speeds up, and we have what is called a «mass extinction». This has happened five times in the course of Earth’s ancient history, and on these occasions the planet has undergone “a change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted.” The main point of this book is that a sixth extinction is going on right before our eyes, but this time it has “a novel cause: not an asteroid or a volcanic eruption, but ‘one weedy species’ (…), the human beings» (p.266).

Kolbert is not a researcher, but a journalist with the New Yorker, with a special concern for ecocritical and environmental issues, and her approach is storytelling. Although the book includes an impressive number of facts, detailed explanations and references, it is both accessible and fascinating to non-experts. The sources are interviews, observations and extensive reading, but also Kolbert’s own experiences. As a journalist, she actually travels to the places and situations in which extinction is a reality: In the jungle of Panama hunting golden frogs, in the mountains of Peru overlooking rain forests or in museums or research stations in various parts of the world. The style of the book is not strictly academic, but the prose varies from almost poetic descriptions of animals or views, to detailed outlines of the mastodont’s teeth.

In 13 chapters on almost emblematic events, Kolbert explores extinction through the life of various species. However, Kolbert’s real topic is the pattern in which all these individual organisms participate. What she has tried to do, she claims, is to “trace an extinction event – call it the Holocene, or the Anthpropocene extinction […] and to place it in the broader context of life’s history” (p. 265). In short, this history reveals that life on earth is extremely resilient, but not infinitely so.

Kolbert starts out by introducing the reader to the history of mass extinction. The idea that animals or other species can become extinct is actually fairly new in western intellectual history. Aristotle didn’t mention it, and Carl Linnaeus, who developed the current system of binomial nomenclature, Systema Naturae, in the mid-18th century (1758), included no extinct species. Kolbert dates the concept of extinction to Enlightenment France, more or less initiated by the accidental discovery of the remains of enormous mastodonts in North America during the Civil War. The concept was first launched by the French “naturalist” Cuvier. It was not an idea easily accepted by researchers, and this in itself is interesting for the NaChiLit project. It is also a history of resistance to alterations in the dominant view of nature.

A question that is raised several times in the course of the book is whether human beings may be said to have a special status “outside nature” or not. In the Prologue, the author presents a “species” – homo sapiens – that from the beginning seemed to have no special advantages, other than the capacity to adapt and invent – and therefore to spread all over the globe. The changes humans have been responsible for on earth are only partly deliberate, and the consequences often unforeseen. On the other hand, as people start to realize what is going on, their normal response has been to discount or explain away everything that does not fit into the familiar (or desired) framework. Here Kolbert refers to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution.

Viewing the human being as an animal or a species that is part of the ecological system, Kolbert declares that the life of the planet has never before been altered by only one creature. This puts human beings in a privileged position. But Kolbert also raises the possibility that the conduct that may lead humans to ”saw off the limb on which it perches” may be part of “humanity” itself – of our nature as human beings.

For the NaChiLit project, both the theme of the book and the discussions of different positions and debates concerning extinction are highly relevant. Obviously, the book is also relevant because it elaborates on what it takes to change people’s attitude to the environment and environmental change, and perhaps also to foster ecocitizens.

 

Marianne Røskeland

Interspecies Ethics (2014)

interspecies

What can we learn from the story about the last surviving elephants in Uganda? According to Cynthia Willett, professor of philosophy, the important ethical implications of biosemiotics are revealed in such stories. In Interspecies Ethics (2014), she stresses that the anthropocentrism within the field of ethics needs to be explored from posthuman and ecological perspectives.

Willett’s reasoning opens with an anecdote about elephants and elephant poaching in Uganda. The widespread poaching kills elephants, causing the rest of the surviving elephant tribes to fight one another in downward spirals of destruction. The poaching tears apart the elephants´ communal structure, as is evident in Elephants on the edge, a book by psychologist Gay Bradshaw (2009) that tells the elephant story. It is a paradox, Willett argues, that modern humans are relearning the importance of communal ties in our ancient species through the destruction of these relationships in other species.

The seminal idea of Interspecies Ethics is a rejection of prominent ideas and assumptions in Western ethics. Willett challenges traditions in the philosophical canon of ethics: the character virtue in classical virtue ethics (Aristotle), the rationale principle in deontological moral theory (Immanuel Kant), and the focus on individual preferences in utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill). According to Willett, all of these rely on the assumption of human exceptionalism, that human beings are inherently superior because they possess rationality and language skills, with logos representing superiority. Willett goes on to claim that modern philosophers have described autonomous individuals and abstract principles as the exclusive basis for moral life. The moral theory consigns practical ethical life to the personal or religious sphere, where ethics becomes primarily a question of how to deal with human vulnerability.

Willett is aware of, and discusses, the response ethics tradition (from Emanuel Levinas to Jacques Derrida and Maurice Merleau-Ponty), a tradition also known as alterity ethics. This tradition offers an important reaction to the rationalist bias in modern moral theory, although Willett argues that it fails to cross the species barrier. Levinas, for instance, dismissed our animal others as lacking sufficient otherness for ethical status. Willett argues that the challenge is to change the prevailing attitude of sublime verticality of compassionate responses towards the other, to a horizontal reciprocity that requires vigilance, social attunement and resonance in a biosocial society.

The way in which Willett sets up an interspecies ethics is radical, and it has several implications. It forces us to move from an ethics of logos to an ethics of eros. It changes focus from the vulnerable other to ”the agonistic politics of the rough-and-tumble social field of interspecies life” (12), building on the main idea of a society as a communitarian biosocial network in which all species live together in interaction. Communication is not only about verbal language, it is not least about humour, laughter, solidarity, compassion, capacity for agency, social intelligence and community life; about interaction with all living entities, including animals and plants. Willett develops arguments regarding animal’s laughter, ethics’ evolution from play, affect attunement and other topics that make the reader aware of our human prejudice against animal life, concluding in the final chapter with a model and a vision of ethical life.

Interspecies ethics is of particular interest to the NaChiLit research group. It challenges our innermost anthropocentric beliefs, especially related to how the discourse of goodness and the human love for animals, nature and the other prove dysfunctional in an ecological perspective. However, the book is a challenging read as it builds on a wide variety of texts from the philosophy of ethics, phenomenological studies, biology, neuroscience and psychology, including child development theory. Perspectives from research are elaborated with anecdotes that often make it hard to follow the argumentation. Nevertheless, Interspecies ethics includes thorough notes, making it possible to use the text as a further guide to this field.

Aslaug Nyrnes 15.10.2016

The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979)

gibson

J.J. Gibson’s book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception marks the end of Gibson’s long career as one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century.

The seminal idea in the book is the rejection of two of the prominent ideas in the philosophy and psychology of perception. The first is often known as the representational theory of perception. This is, very roughly, the idea that perception is the process of giving mental representations corresponding to properties and objects in the world. The second is the (related) view that perception is the process of representing a three-dimensional world as a two-dimensional visual field on the retinal image. As an alternative, Gibson argues that perception is both direct and a form of action.

From a philosophical perspective, Gibson’s view is radical since it turns the traditional picture of perception on its head. Instead of searching for, like Kant and many after him, necessary and sufficient conditions for perception to represent the world, Gibson starts by describing the actual possibilities that perceivers have and the opportunities offered by the environment. This is the ecological aspect of his theory; i.e. a detailed description of the properties of our surroundings, and the role they play for our perception of them and interaction with them.

Gibson’s work is now commonly regarded as an early defense of a so-called embodied account of perception, based on two fundamental and related insights. One is that much object-perception consists in detecting possibilities for action, which Gibson calls affordances (ch. 8). Different things afford different possibilities for action to different organisms; for example, the surface of a lake affords different possibilities for spatial navigation to insects, birds and mammals. The second is the fact that much of visual perception consist of an agent’s movements, that enable her to extract and manipulate information lying in the optic array. In this view, perception is a form of embodied active engagement with the world.

The theory of affordances is of particular interest to the NaChiLit research group. It presents the view that there is a fit between properties in our environment and our biological preconditions that makes nature available to us in a direct way. For example, we directly perceive features in nature as beneficial when they offer shelter; or as harmful, when we stand atop of a cliff. Moreover, the emphasis on perception as embodied and active brings to the fore the role being in nature, moving around in it and experiencing it with a multitude of sense modalities. Thus, it highlights the contrast between experiencing nature by affordances and other ways of experiencing nature, like those mediated by pictures or literature.

However, Gibson’s development of the idea of affordances gives rise to some questions. First, the theory is quite radical in suggesting that we directly perceive meaning and value in the world. We do not impose this on the world, since affordances themselves can be either beneficial or harmful. This idea is controversial and is related to his views on human and animal perception. Gibson’s description of properties and events in our landscape in chapters 1-3 are all from a human perspective; for example, water is swimmable for humans but this is not the case for all other animals. What he calls the ecological laws of surfaces varies from creature to creature, however, and affordances are only affordances for a given animal (p.134). This raises the question of the extent to which affordances are meaningful for non-linguistic animals.

Finally, this short review has omitted important parts of the book, such as Gibson’s detailed discussion of ecological optics in chapters 4-7 and his ideas related to picture perception in chapters 15-16.

 

Gunnar Karlsen, 29.09.2016

Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture: Biology and the Bildungsroman (2014)

image001Helena Feder’s book makes a noteworthy contribution to the humanities, especially in the fields of ecocriticism and green studies, in that it challenges the problematic nature-culture binary. Her arguments are relevant to the participants of the NaChiLit research group as they explore the way in which culture is defined with a view to including animal culture, and to redefining human culture as a product of nature.

A focal point for Feder is the fact that the human race is just one amongst many, but still humans search for the radical uniqueness that distinguishes it from nonhuman animals. For example, we might perceive an animal track as a sign of the nature of the animal that created it, whereas we might view a path made by humans as a token of a human culture. Feder claims that this discourse of culture denies animals politics and, in accordance with Hume, empathy (p. 148). In turn, this discourse has broad consequences with regard to who counts in our world. Thus, Feder calls for a more diverse ecocultural materialist approach when dealing with human and nonhuman nature.

In developing such a critique, Feder explores how the genre of the Bildungsroman is itself the story of culture´s origin within humanism. She presents readings of classical Bildungsromane to illustrate how they form narratives that may ultimately reject the idea of human supremacy over nature and nonhuman animals.

Participants of WP2 on landscapes should direct their attention to Feder’s analysis of the similarities between the garden and the narrative of the Bildungsroman. Much as the garden is a cultivation of nature, the Bildungsroman presents a story of emergence from nature, but also a narrative of nature coming into culture. In this sense, culture cannot be free from nature.

Her selection of novels includes Candide (Voltaire), Frankenstein (Mary Shelley), Orlando (Virginia Woolf) and A small place (Jamaica Kincaid). Central to these novels is the search and longing for a utopian or paradisiacal place. In addition, they all identify the garden as a place of origin. The texts therefore present movements between different ideas of nature, and the movement from a garden into culture can be understood as “Western culture’s fantasy about nature” (p. 152). In the end, the novels reject the idea of a paradise, of a utopian Garden of Eden within reach. This story of origin would also apply to Heidi, Tonje Glimmerdal and other children´s literature with similar narratives.

Another crucial point for Feder is the fact that human consciousness is socially mediated and embedded. Feder´s case study on Frankenstein sheds light on Viktor Frankenstein’s attempts to transcend the limitations of the human body. To understand Frankenstein’s monster simply as a symbol of nature or “the ultimate other”, is to overlook its human nature. Feder reads the novel as the monster’s “coming-of-age story”, and claims that the “novel speaks to our relationship with our origins and the origin of culture itself as a response to nonhuman nature” (p. 65), concluding that our horror of Frankenstein’s monster “is a horror of ourselves” (p. 73).

Feder points out that the humanities rarely consider biology outside the context of posthumanism. In this book, Feder demonstrates how literary examples can provoke us into challenging mainstream ideas of nature and culture in other fields of study by calling for a new materialism that considers a “multispecies multiculturalism”, an approach that seems strictly biocentric.

Ahmed Khateeb 15.09.2016

How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999)

PosthumN. Katherine Hayles’ text is frequently cited within the posthuman debate and is consequently an important point of reference for NaChiLit: Ecocitizen’s WP 3 “Beings” in particular.

The book is based on six years of research into the history of cybernetics, cognitive science, computational biology and artificial life (AL), involving visits to laboratories engaged in research on virtual reality and readings of cultural and literary texts concerned with information technologies.

The book develops three interrelated stories that took shape from this immersion: 1) how information lost its body in becoming conceptualized as separate from material form, 2) how the cyborg was created as a technological artefact and cultural icon in the years post World War II, and 3) how the historical construction of the human is giving way to the different construction of the posthuman.

Drawing on both scientific texts (to reveal foundational assumptions) and on literature (to discuss the complex cultural, social and representational issues tied up with these conceptual shifts and technological innovations), Hayles presents an informed, multi-layered and involved discussion of these three complex and interwoven strands of thought which is not easily summarized. However, a central concern for Hayles is the erasure of embodiment that she finds is a feature common to the liberal human subject as a historical construction and the cybernetic posthuman, since they both place emphasis on cognition over embodiment.

Arguing against such an erasure, Hayles stresses that “human being is first of all embodied being, and the complexities of this embodiment mean that human awareness unfolds in ways different from those of intelligence embodied in cybernetic machines” (p. 284). Thus, she argues, the time to vie for what the posthuman means is now.

Of particular interest to WP4 may be her discussion of embodied learning, and the distinction she draws up between incorporating practices (embodied learning) and inscribing practices (that correct and modulate performative learning) (pp. 199-207).

Understanding the human and posthuman as “historically specific constructions that emerge from different configurations of embodiment, technology and culture” (p. 33), Hayles argues that the shift from print to digital media involves a shift from a presence / absence dialectic (material basis) to a pattern / randomness dialectic (digital electronic media), and that this shift is encoded into “every aspect of contemporary literature” (p. 35). Noting how Derrida focused on the gap that separates speaking from writing, she holds that while Derrida’s narrator is the (absent) scribe, digital texts transforms the narrator into “a cyborg authorized to access the [pattern of] relevant codes” (p. 43).

Tracing the changing relationship between technology, embodiment and human identity, Hayles shows that the dislocation between embodiment and self has increased with digital technologies, as the ability to store our voices and images in machines render them subject to potential erasure and rewriting, transforming them into “flickering signifiers”.

Highly pertinent to the work of NaCHiLit, Hayles critically examines the persuasive rhetoric of linguistic figures and metaphors underpinning the construction of the posthuman within various scientific disciplines and shows how these may subtly hijack the mind into thinking that some descriptions and trajectories of the present or future are inevitable.

 

Lykke Guanio-Uluru 01.09.2016

Book report – The Ecocriticism Reader (1996)

 

Still questions to be answered

One may ask why it is important to study a book from 1996 in 2016, especially when a great number of the 26 articles included in the book were published even earlier (5 before 1980, 16 from 1980-1996, and 5 new).

Well, we still study Aristotle, Kant and Arendt because they contributed important concepts and perspectives to the struggle centring on man’s relation to the world. There is no doubt that The Ecocriticism Reader (TER) is another seminal work addressing the same issue, but for the first time taking “an earth-centred approach” (xviii) not only to literature, but also to humankind’s relation to the natural world. The book develops and examines concepts (ecology, ecocriticism, nature writing) and suggests definitions, as well as providing analytical tools, historical background and examples of how to apply theory to a literary text.

The book’s subtitle, “Landmarks in literary ecology”, suggests that we can read the book as a map. More precisely, as a historical map of American nature literature – writing and theorizing. Although the American landscape, thinking and writing predominates throughout the book, it is still extremely useful to the NaChiLit-project; it motivates us to find and develop our own view on how landscapes and beings are represented in Norwegian or Nordic children’s literature, and how our own language and literature transmit values with profound ecological implications.

A number of features of this book in relation to the NaChiLit-project are particularly interesting: (a) the various explanations regarding how the anthropocentric perspective on nature (man first) can be attributed to the Judaeo-Christian perception of man and nature, and how this has caused the present environmental crisis (see White; Manes). (b) The efforts to find alternatives to the British aesthetic (domesticated) view on landscape (see Byerly; Campbell). (c) A number of close readings of nature literature (see Branch; Scheese; Norwood; Slovic). (d) Meeker’s exploration of the tragic and the comic approaches to man and the natural world, a distinction much in line with the axis from anthropocentric (tragedy) to bio centric (comedy) in the NaChiLit-matrix: “Comedy illustrates that survival depends upon man’s ability to change himself rather than his environment, and upon his ability to accept limitations rather than to curse fate for limiting him.” (pp. 168-169)

However, and perhaps most important, is the fact that the list of questions posed by Glotfelty in her introduction are still relevant and need to be answered, not least when studying children’s and YA literature. Hence, I will conclude this report by repeating and partly rephrasing some of these questions to remind us, the research group Nature in Children’s Literature, of the work yet to be done:

How is nature represented in children’s and Young Adult literature?

What role does the physical setting play in the plot?

Are the values expressed in the texts consistent with ecological wisdom?

Do men write about nature differently than women do?

In what ways has literacy itself affected humankind’s relationship to the natural world?

In what ways and to what effect is the environmental crisis seeping into contemporary children’s and YA literature and popular culture?

What cross-fertilization is possible between children’s and YA literary studies and environmental discourse in related disciplines such as history, philosophy, psychology, art, history, and ethics?

Nina Goga, 15.08.2016