Skip to 0 minutes and 17 secondsEco-criticism is a subfield of literary studies and cultural studies that looks at representations of the more-than-human world in poetry, film, and fiction. In the early days of the '80s and '90s, eco-critics didn't have a very complicated idea of nature in their work. But since then, the real problem of naturecultures has been taken on by eco-critics and now is at the centre of the discipline.
Skip to 0 minutes and 46 secondsEco-critics can help in the project of reimagining nature in numerous ways. But one way I think that's particularly important is the historical perspective awarded by scholars that look into the history of artistic representation to show up how nature or the more-than-human world has been represented across time. We tend to think of the world that we inhabit now as the true, right, and only one. And what eco-critical study can show is that there’ve been other ways of reading and understanding the more-than-human world in history, and that can help denaturalise the present.
Skip to 1 minute and 22 secondsSo my book project This Contentious Storm is a historical reading of Shakespeare's play King Lear. And many of you will know it has a very climactic storm event. And we tend to think of that as a metaphor for Lear's mind or political chaos. But what my book does is to try to take the storm on it's own terms, as this material meteorological presence at the heart of the play. And I ask, how does our understanding of the play change when we take the storm seriously?
Skip to 1 minute and 57 secondsSo there's something quite apocalyptic about the mainstream imagining of climate change. It's about ice caps melting, really, really powerful storms, extinctions of all species, and death to humans. And I think that we need to take the challenges of climate change really, really seriously. But at the same time, we also can't just imagine it in apocalyptic terms. And one thing that eco-criticism can do is show us how the apocalypse has had different incarnations across history. Every generation has had its own apocalypse story. So in some ways, our present crisis is no different, and it's just a series of— a part of this bigger history. But at the same time, we need alternative visions for the future.
Skip to 2 minutes and 42 secondsWe need different ways of thinking about the future that aren't all fire and brimstone. And poets and artists, particularly operating in a speculative fictional sense, can help us to get out of this apocalyptic vision and think differently about the future.
Skip to 3 minutes and 2 secondsSo storytelling, and particularly narrative storytelling, is emerging as central to the Environmental Humanities project. And this is because it offers a different way of representing information. So on the one hand, eco-critics look at the structure of stories, the formal techniques, the history of different modes of representation. But Environmental Humanities scholars in different disciplines are using story as a way of presenting their research, and disseminating their research to the world. So whereas a scientist say, broadly speaking, might use facts and figures, an Environmental Humanities studies scholar is using story. And I think that story is really important because, as Donna Haraway said in her recent article in The Environmental Humanities Journal, it matters what stories story stories.
Skip to 3 minutes and 48 secondsSo the stories we tell about the world, matter the world, and actually have an impact on the way that we behave, and the way that we live, and the way that we imagine the future. And so stories, both fictional and non-fictional are really important to this broad project.
Example 2: eco-criticism and re-writing nature
In this video, UNSW alumna Jennifer Mae Hamilton introduces the notion of eco-criticism as a tool for intervening in the way nature is understood, imagined and made.
Jennifer describes how eco-criticism emerged as a field of study that explores the inter-relationships of literature and the environment, not simply as a mode of critique but also as a means of effecting change. Her talk takes up the provocation: how can, and do, literary and poetic forms help to trouble mainstream thinking about the environment?
The video ends with Jennifer contending that storytelling — particularly speculative forms that offer alternative visions of the future — is an important tool for engaging with environmental challenges.
The well-known fiction writer Margaret E. Atwood is also an advocate of the power of storytelling. In an article published in July 2015, Atwood reflects on the growing rise of speculative fiction, principally “cli-fi” (climate change fiction). She asks:
Could cli-fi be a way of educating young people about the dangers that face them, and helping them to think through the problems and divine solutions? Or will it become just another part of the “entertainment business”?
- What do you think? What can ways of exploring the relationship between literature and nature, such as eco-criticism or cli-fi, offer? How can they be used to intervene in environmental crises? Have you come across any inspirational examples that you can share?
Dr. Jennifer Mae Hamilton (Ph.D., University of New South Wales) is a Visiting Fellow with the Environmental Humanities research group at UNSW and teaches environmental literary studies at NYU Sydney. Her book project, ‘This Contentious Storm’: An Ecocritical and Performance History of King Lear (Bloomsbury Academic, Forthcoming) traces the changing significance of the play’s famous storm scenes in order to explore the West’s shifting but consistently ideological relationship with the weather across time. In 2016 she starts a postdoctoral research fellowship at University of Sydney and is an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence in the History of Emotions.
- Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 159-165. (Or watch this video).
- Jennifer Mae Hamilton, ‘This Contentious Storm’: An Ecocritical and Performance History of King Lear (London: Bloomsbury Academic, Forthcoming).
- Ursula K. Heise, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism,” PMLA 121, no. 2 (2006): 503-516.
- Margaret E. Atwood, “Margaret Atwood: It’s Not Climate Change–It’s Everything Change,” Matter (Medium) July 27 (2015).
© UNSW Australia 2016