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

Ecocriticism in The Nordic Countries – Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Västerås 4-5 may 2017

Today things are different. Networks have been formed, research projects have been carried out, educational efforts have been made, and the field of Ecocriticism has been broadened.

We now think it is time to assess the place of Ecocriticism in Nordic research and educational contexts. We therefore invite you to a conference whose aim it is to take stock of and discuss Ecocritical achievements and approaches in the Nordic Countries.

For CFP and further information see:

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

Children’s Literature and the Environment

Children’s Literature and the Environment– AustLit

QUT Project team: Kerry Mallan (team leader), Amy Cross, Cherie Allan

June 2016: The team collaborated with QUT library to put on a display on the resources. Amy prepared the ppt and the library provided multiple computer stations for viewing and interacting with this and other projects on AustLit. Library also prepared a book display of some of the titles in the project. High attendance rates reported.

Gecko logo: image permission received from the illustrator Narelle Oliver from her book Leaf Tail.

Texts: young adult novels, children’s fiction and picture books.

Spotlight on 12 authors/illustrators, each contains a link to the Author’s record in AustLit, where further bibliographic details on all their publications are available.

Exhibitions: include a variety of records (fiction, information books, film, poetry, and multimedia) relevant to children and young adults that deal with the environment in imaginative, scientific, educational, and creative ways. There are a number of components to this project clustered around key concepts and issues:

  1. The Australian Environment: Aboriginal Texts about country, place & environment; Australian bush; Daily life of Australian animals; Great Barrier Reef; Lakes and rivers; Life and Death of the Thylacine.
  2. The environment in contemporary narratives: Antarctica; Bushfires; Dystopias; Forests; Global warming and climate change; Ocean settings and underwater worlds; The pastoral, farming and station life; Urban environments.
  3. Environmental destruction: Habitat destruction; Illegal activities; Negligence; Pollution; Threat of Introduced species.
  4. Safeguarding the environment: Animal rescue; Conserving Australian wildlife; Other species conservation; Parks and conservation areas; Recycling; Rehabilitation and regeneration; Science and Scientists.
  5. Award Winning Environmental Literature: (i) The Whitley Awards; Environment Award for Children’s Literature.
  6. Curriculum Connections: Cross curriculum priorities of the Australian Curriculum: Indigenous Texts and the Environment; Flora and Fauna of Asia; Sustainability.
  7. Resources for Further Research: Secondary sources related to environmental research in children’s literature.

Further work:

Develop a glossary; Section on ecowarriors and ecocitizens; Update current sections; include some sections with quotes from critical works.


Kerry Mallan 23/08/16

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