What “Taking Place” Means: Pierre Schoentjes’ Écopoétique

Schoentjes CoverReview of Pierre Schoentjes, Ce qui a lieu. Essai d’écopoétique (Marseille: Éditions Wildproject, 2015).

By Sébastian Thiltges

Ce qui a lieu aims to open up the new critical field of “écopoétique” which must not to be conflated with ecocriticism, the latter struggling to gain a foothold in France, partly because of the scepticism towards national, lyrical and militant approaches. Écopoétique is described as the study of the relationship between literature and the environment as perceived by the senses. It is defined not by a literary topic, nor by a conceptual turn, but rather is seen as the contextual result of an increasing concern for the environment.

The cornerstone of Schoentjes’ écopoétique is his reading of French writer Pierre Gascar: “The sensual appetite for the world defines Gascar: it is the intimate experience of nature that helps the writer to imagine the real. Without this intimate experience, mythology, history, ethnology and natural sciences are not able to describe the real world”. Along with the rejection of positivism, anthropomorphic symbolism, and moralism, literature’s aesthetic unveiling of place encourages the reader to rethink the relationship between reality and imagination. This onto-geographic bond is best illustrated by the book’s title, Ce qui a lieu, which suggests – as does the English expression “taking place” – that everything that happens is locally situated. This “poetic paradigm” shows how literature changes the way we look conceptually and phenomenologically at places and landscapes. All in all, whereas ecocriticism in its first iteration focuses on nature writing, écopoétique is about the writing of place (“lieu”) and a particular European literary “sense of place” which is always “situated historically and geographically” (Heise 2008: 8).

Schoentjes describes his book as an “essai” (attempt) to combine the reader’s curiosity and pleasure with theoretical ambitions. He thus emphasizes the relationship between ecocriticism and postmodernism, the theoretical attempt to escape localism and regionalism through irony and cosmopolitanism, and the tension between reality and imagination. His commentary on (and translations of) the American tradition of nature writing and Anglophone ecocriticism provides French-speaking researchers on literature and the environment with a better insight into the field and possibly enable them to develop their own orientation(s). Schoentjes indeed regrets that, even if ecocriticism has developed internationally, the “French cultural and literary reality” has not been a field of interest, but stays at the same time surprisingly elusive on the French and European contexts and how they have adopted ecocriticism.

In order to show that nature is in perpetual transformation, the book proposes a typology of natural places, which, especially in the French context, does include domesticated territories: Planet Earth “and beyond”, spectacular landscapes (inherited from romanticism), rural nature facing urbanisation and being rediscovered by contemporary writers such as Jean-Loup Trassard, urban nature and, last but not least, wilderness. The latter receives particular attention from the author. Wilderness has been rightfully described as a concept rooted in a US American cultural tradition, which cannot be easily applied to other geographical and cultural contexts. However, with reference to the work of Hubert Mingarelli and André Bucher, two well-known readers of nature writing, Schoentjes insists that texts do travel and that the fascination with wilderness has become a global phenomenon.

Ce qui a lieu proves that the multidimensionality of place experience manifests itself by way of distinctive themes like pollution, aesthetic figures such as anthropomorphism and analogy, and cultural concepts, first of all polarities. It gives birth to a range of different genres, including both traditional literary forms (pastoral, fable, utopia, exempla) and more recent ones, such as science fiction. This heterogeneity of the primary texts which Ce qui a lieu addresses, as well as the multiplicity of approaches and theoretical frameworks on which it draws, take its readers on a journey that unsettles many of the assumptions ecocritics tend to take for granted. It is for good reasons that in the book’s conclusion, Schoentjes speaks of “les écopoétiques” in the plural, suggesting the need for a further diversification of the field.

A more elaborate review of Schoentjes’ book, with all the references, can be found in the ecocriticism journal Ecozona@, Vol 7, No 1 (Spring 2016).

See http://ecozona.eu/index.php/journal/issue/view/18/showToc


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.


Literature and the Things of Climate Change

Cover Anthropocene FictionsReview of Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015)

By Tom Idema

The topic of climate change has been on the ecocritical radar for some time now, but its rise has been slow. Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (2015) is the first book-length study to address climate change head on. Trexler’s book maps the terrain of climate fiction since the 1970s, identifying over one-hundred and fifty novels that deal with climate change in one way or another. He contextualizes climate fiction by bringing in public and scientific debates, political controversies, and economic policies. Or perhaps ‘contextualization’ is not the proper term to use, because Trexler wants to disengage his study from textual and media-oriented scholarship, instead forging a connection between literary studies and science studies. Chiefly inspired on the Latourian theory of distributed agency, Trexler wants to show how climate change “emerges from a host of interrelated sources, including natural effects, (solar radiation), industrial processes (car emissions), and scientific practices (climate modelling), but also cultural processes such as popular science writing, policy papers, political speeches, and novels” (24). One of his principle goals is to shed light on how, and to what extent, novels have been able to assemble the multiple agents of climate change, including literature itself, into narrative.

Given Trexler’s investment in the representation of multiplicity, block-buster films such as The Day After Tomorrow receive very little attention, as they reduce climate change to a single spectacular event (a super-storm drowning Manhattan) , rehearsing a common conflation of climate and weather. While such films place agency in the hands of a handful of American heroes, climate novels such as Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012) offer much more intricate, global perspectives on climate change. Trexler singles out science fiction as the genre best equipped to take on the challenge of narrating climate change. As climate change is an inherently emergent event, speculation is the appropriate mode. Moreover, science fiction has been most successful in incorporating scientific practices, which for Trexler are crucial when trying to get to grips with climate change’s complexity. A realist fiction focused on psychological interiority will fail to do justice to the many things of climate change.

A particularly bold statement in Trexler’s provocative study is that the condition of climate change affects the form of the novel to the extent that, in the foreseeable future, all fiction will be climate fiction. This speculative claim is probably too large to substantiate within the scope of one study, but Trexler demonstrates that it is a productive one. For example, he argues that climate fiction, by connecting multiple human and nonhuman agents, poses a challenge to generic conventions: “Chiller fiction becomes wholly implausible when supernatural forces resolve enormous, atmospheric effects. . . . Safe identification with the hero of a suspense novel breaks down when he drives sports cars and exotic yachts, not to mention serves a government that has repeatedly thwarted climate accords. It is even more difficult to condense the distributed, impersonal causes of global warming into a climate villain” (14). Trexler argues that, in response to these challenges, climate fiction emerges as a trans-genre phenomenon that will replace the realist novel as a dominant literary form.

Anthropocene Fictions is an impressively broad and detailed study of climate novels placed within the wider public and academic debates around climate change. Although I missed a consistent engagement with literary and ecocritical theory, the book contributes greatly to the Environmental Humanities through its innovative use of Latourian science studies and its subtle weaving of climate change discourses.  It is also a very enjoyable read and I highly recommend it.

A more elaborate review of Trexler’s book written by myself can be found in the ecocriticism journal Ecozona@, issue 6.2 (Fall 2015). See http://www.ecozona.eu/index.php/journal/article/view/629