Ecocriticism and the Challenge of the Anthropocene

9781472506702Review of Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge. The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept.  (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

By Astrid Bracke

In Ecocriticism on the Edge, Timothy Clark sets out to argue for a new variant of ecocriticism that more adequately deals with and responds to the Anthropocene. Although he provides an interesting and thought-provoking critique and extension of the field, he never really achieves in presenting an alternative.

In many ways, Clark’s criticism of ecocriticism is justified, for instance when it comes to the naïve faith in the cultural imaginary that characterizes some forms of ecocriticism. A more direct engagement with the limits of ecocritical scholarship – or what Clark calls “delusions of self-importance” (198) – would further the field in useful ways, although Clark is certainly not the first to suggest this.

Much of his discussion in the book is concerned with reading literary texts, especially texts traditionally explored by ecocritics, such as Keats’ “To Autumn” and Gary Snyder’s “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout”. The latter poem, about a forest fire, leads to a discussion of how to read texts that express environmental beliefs that, in light of the Anthropocene, have become suspect. While ecocritics have often used older texts to suggest a continuation between, for instance, early modern practices of burning peat (an example by Ken Hiltner) and contemporary environmental crisis, Clark argues that the Anthropocene demands ecocritics to foreground “the irreversible break in consciousness and understanding” that characterizes the Anthropocene, and which makes a belief in mere continuation impossible (62).

Clark’s discussion of scale – a key element of the Anthropocene – entails a recognition that plot elements that may seem innocent or small-scale in a story have far greater consequences when placed on a global scale. For example, while a short story might mention driving to work as a normal and harmless event, on a global scale driving leads to more pollution and a greater demand for oil. The issue of scale is also explored in relation to two late chapters in Ecocriticism on the Edge on Anthropocene disorder and denial.

While especially in these later chapters Clark provides many useful examples of non-ecocritical work that may inspire further development of the field, his own line of argument is often unclear. Although he moves towards a dismissal of the novel, and a deep suspicion of literary narrative in general, the examples that he provides suggest that literature may not be so antithetical to the Anthropocene after all.

What’s more, his analysis of artworks supposedly more suitable to our contemporary predicament in the final chapter is not wholly fleshed out. For instance, Clark adopts Timothy Morton’s definition of “Anthropocene art” as denoting art post-1945 without questioning whether all art since then can be unproblematically called Anthropocene art. Instead, his examples suggest that only art post-1945 which explicitly deals with issues of the Anthropocene – scale, pollution, the attempt to achieve a kind of non-human representation of nature – is Anthropocene art.

In Ecocriticism on the Edge, Clark is not afraid to address potential shortcomings of currently fashionable ecocritical work, including transcorporeality, material ecocriticism and Morton’s discussion of hyperobjects. Yet while this may shake up ecocriticism in useful ways, the bigger contribution that the book might make is never provided. Instead, the ecocriticism Clark envisions for the future remains unclear.

 In April, BASCE organizes an event on Ecocriticism on the Edge. More for info, see our news page.


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