Gersdorf, Catrin, and Juliane Braun, eds. America After Nature: Democracy, Culture, Environment. Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016. American Studies 270.
What is the State of the Union, what the state of US-American culture and politics at this point in time, a decade and a half into the twenty-first century and under the condition of the current environmental crisis? If America, the imaginative core of the United States’ cultural and political identity, shares much of its conceptual history with nature and democracy, then what happens when the material reality named by one of the concepts – nature – changes its character as we knew it? (18)
So ask Catrin Gersdorf and Juliane Braun in their introduction to America After Nature. Democracy, Culture, Environment, the most recent monograph compiled from the German Association for American Studies’ 61st annual conference from June 12th to the 15th of 2014 in Wurtzburg, Germany. Spanning the disciplines, Volume 270 considers America and its environment from an interdisciplinary standpoint, with articles on literature, history, sociology, and philosophy. While this was written before the game-changing events of the American presidential election in November 2016, their questions appear to have anticipated the roll-back in American environmental policy which every day appears more and more possible. The question of what will become of an America that is willing to reject its growing ecological concerns is even more relevant now, with a newly-formed cabinet who are already reneging on the recent progress that has been made on environmental protection in the United States.
At this most pressing juncture, the importance of a thorough understanding of ecocriticism cannot be overstated, and as such America After Nature could not be more relevant. While events of the last year have, in a certain sense, rendered some of the advice being extolled somewhat quaint and antiquated at first glance, overall the message is as relevant as it was then. No longer can we afford to relegate ecology to a separate or lesser sphere. In recent years there has been a trend of prominent anthologies that have worked to establish ecocriticism as a subject of primary importance. These include Jonathon Gottshcal and David Sloan Wilson’s The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (2005), which collapses the borders between the Sciences and the Humanities, arguing that a consilience of the often disparate subjects could lead to a new understanding of both the human and the wider world. Andrew Shyrock and Daniel Lord Small’s Deep Time: The Architecture of Past and Present (2011), meanwhile, removes the boundaries between history and prehistory, demonstrating that human culture did not start at one point but has always been shaping and reshaping our and our ancestors’ experience with the world. America After Nature: Democracy, Culture, Environment continues this trend, challenging the distinction between what is traditionally considered ecocritical—the pastoral, the rural, the frontier—and the realities of a modern, integrated America in which all surroundings influence daily living. All environments are ecocritical and can (and should) be treated as such. Echoes of this sentiment are found throughout the anthology: keynote Sylvia Mayer writes in “Risk Narratives: Climate Change, the American Novel, and the World Risk Society,” “Climate change is represented as involving both drastic ecological change and drastic cultural transformation, thereby putting emphasis on the fact that the natural and the cultural are inextricably linked to each other” (108). Nassim Winnie Balestrini writes in her essay “Hip-Hop Life Writing and African American Urban Ecology,” in which she considers how rapper Jay-Z utilised the urban environment of Brooklyn as a visual canvass for his memoirs Decoded (2010), that ecocriticism has “started to become inclusive of urban landscapes, which is crucial for the African American experience in the northern states more than in the comparatively less urbanized southern states” (287), while MaryAnn Snyder-Körber observes in “Flarf: E-Detrius Composition,” “A fully realized ecopoetics must attune awareness not just to ‘bears, foxes, woods and mountains,’ as poet and theorist Marcella Druand has challenged, […] [t]he environment we variously describe as ‘online,’ ‘digital,’ or ‘net,’ but most regularly designate as the internet can be added to that list” (463).
Moreover, as the scope of ecocriticism has widened so have the time parameters. As is now common practice, Rachel Carson’s mid-century cautionary tale regarding the United States’ increasing use of pesticides, Silent Spring (1962), is a central text of the collection. As contributor Michelle Mart writes, it is recognised as the touchstone text that both expressed growing American fears of environmental changes while also creating its own cultural phenomenon (143). Mart’s article, “Pesticides and the Transformation of the National Audubon Society,” examines how Carson’s text led to more nuanced legislation regarding pesticide use in the 1960s and ’70s. However, as is becoming more and more prevalent in ecocritical circles, Silent Spring is no longer considered the beginnings of ecocritical thinking in the United States: in their introduction, Gersdorf and Braun discuss the role of nineteenth-century transcendentalists’ nature writing and the importance of re-emphasising what was lost in the late twentieth-century revisions of the American Renaissance: the significance that writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Douglass put on nature as a pillar of society. “Nature was no longer seen as a liberatory instrument,” write Gersdorf and Braun, “but, rather, as a concept complicit in legitimizing regimes based on the ideologies of racism and sexism” (16).
Ecocriticism, then, can no longer be applied simply to the American natural world as we cling to in tradition; and indeed, America After Nature challenges the assumption that this was ever the case. Focusing on the staples of nineteenth-century American Transcendentalism, the anthology features several works considering how the tenets of nature were being reconsidered at this time. Heike Schäfer examines how the immediacy of photography caused Whitman and Thoreau to reconsider their interactions with the natural world in “Nature, Media Culture, and the Transcendentalist Quest for the Real.” Frank Mehring argues that Thoreau’s classic pastoral narrative Walden State of Mind hearkens to the twentieth-century “urban matrix” by creating a “topographical, technical counter-point to the literary, often subjective, poetic descriptions of life at Walden Pond” (259-62). Drawing on the work of avant garde musician, and self-identified follower of Thoreau, John Cage, Mehring demonstrates how Thoreau created a sense of urbanization through the use of technical and highly precise mapping techniques. Meanwhile in “Walt Whitman’s Politics of Nature and the Poetic Performance of Future in ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’,” Sascha Pöhlmann examines how Whitman’s archetypically American epic can be read as not only a welcoming call to the increasingly diversifying landscape of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century but also a recognition of the changing nature of America through time; Pöhlmann writes that at times “Whitman conceives of the future in terms of sustainability and responsibility that are perfect matches for the discourses of environmentalism and risk that became more and more prominent in the final decades of the twentieth century” (139).
America After Nature often becomes Nature After America as it considers the possibilities of a post-human society, in which America itself may or may not survive, certainly not in its current form. J. Jesse Ramírez provides a fascinating overview of the American obsession with the apocalypse in popular culture, from biblical texts via Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring all the way to modern-day eco-apocalyptic texts such as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, before settling on case studies of Lori Nix’s contemporary work of post-societal photography Library (2007) and George Stewart’s mid-century novel Earth Abides (1949), demonstrating the American desire for the “gratification of utopian wishes” found in such apocalyptic narratives. However, Ramírez’s assertion that “[r]arely has a culture been so fascinated with narratives and images of its imminent destruction” goes unqualified; considering the overarching influence of the Abrahamic texts throughout the world for over two thousand years, and numerous other end-of-world religions and cultures that have come before (one need only recall how pervasive the discussion of the Mayan apocalyptic predictions were back in 2012, for example), not enough is done to delineate the United States in the twenty- and twenty-first-century as a society uniquely preoccupied with the end of times. James Dorson’s cautionary examination of the problems of posthumanism is a warning against embracing a post human economy too readily, as he demonstrates the similarities between twenty-first century posthumanism and the rise of “the managerial outlook in the late nineteenth century.” Drawing on Weber’s idea of the “iron cage,” however, Dorson’s compelling argument feels somewhat lacking at times, namely as the article does not address what others who have drawn on Weber, such as Ronald Takaki, have observed; namely that this relatively recent form of individualism was one that has only really been extended to white males in power (122-23). Babette B. Tischleder’s examination of the fetishisation of waste culture in popular media, drawing on Pixar’s Wall-E, and Emanuel Tristan Kugland’s treatise on the ultimately repetitive cycle of political and social order in Brian Wood’s comic book series DMZ provide sobering pictures of a future America which may be inevitable. Sylvia Mayer and Michaela Catellanos both posit that an understanding of ecocritical risks may allow us to subvert or at least prepare for the unintended future consequences of American actions in the Anthropocene. Illustrating the importance of narration in discussions of climate change, Mayer argues that a full and frank understanding of the dangers posed to the populations most at risk of climate change may enable us to more fully deal with its effects, while in “Star Trek IV and Environmental Risk: Balancing on Irony’s Edge,” Catellanos points out that risk can even be “a catalyst for chance or opportunity as well,” demonstrating how the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home “shape[s] elements of an emerging risk discourse into an intelligible story” (393, 395).
America After Nature also considers the best pedagogical approaches to take with regards to sustainability and fostering a sense of stewardship on both current and future generations, the pervasive message being that ecological concerns must be integrated into all areas of academia and beyond. In an article which has taken on further resonance as of late, keynote John M. Meyer proposes a collapsing of the unnecessary and frequently detrimental labels that have fractured America’s ability to work together on issues of climate change and sustainability in “Denialism versus the Resonance Dilemma in the US.” Meyer argues that a belief in the over-pervasiveness of denialism has caused environmentalists to adopt inappropriate overarching aims, calling instead for community-based environmental management initiatives and everyday environmentalism that sound more achievable to the average citizen. Laurenz Volkmann, meanwhile, similarly argues for a ground-up approach in “Transcultural Learning and Ecodidacts: New Trends in Teaching English as a Foreign Language.” Writing, “It is crucial that local issues are shown to be inextricably intertwined with global issues,” Volkmann demonstrates how introducing the ideals of ecocriticism into regular classroom activity can open up students to an ethics of environmentalism (200). Several articles, meanwhile, demonstrate the importance of art in the representation of environmental catastrophe, including keynote Julie Sze’s “Environmental Justice and Environmental Humanities in the Anthropocene,” Ingrid Gessner’s “‘We see the surface, but there is something beyond the surface’: Recovering Masumi Hayashi’s EPA Superfund Site Photo Collages,” and Antonia Purk’s “A Photo Album of History: Ekphrasis in Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden (Book).”
One of the collection’s most pertinent articles is Gesa Mackenthun’s “Bisonside and Neo-Savagism: The Myth of the Unecological Indian.” With the recent and indeed current events surrounding the Standing Rock pipeline controversy, Mackenthun’s article calls for a reconsideration or a reinterpretation of past judgements on indigenous populations which have shaped America’s current attitude towards its environment. Illustrating the ways in which research since the 1990s has attempted to re-establish Native Americans as another version of the noble savage, thus deflecting blame from the much larger problems of climate change and the industrial complex, Mackenthun, in a sense, attempts to deconstruct two myths—“the ‘green’ myth of the ecological Indian and the ‘savagist’ myth of the unecological Indian”—demonstrating that the native populations are heterogenous groups whose interactions with the environment are not rooted in any type of essentialism. These ideas are instead ideologically-perpetuated stereotypes used to bolster the dominant American economic and political beliefs in fashion at different points in time. Mackenthun astutely asks, “which of the two myths […] has proven more beneficial to humans and the environment (preservation of fauna and flora habitats, biodiversity, toxic-free existence?)” (188-89).
Indeed, myths themselves are another feature of the anthology. It appears that the human desire to adhere to overarching narratives is one that has followed us into the realms of ecology, as keynote Frank Zelko observes in “Natural Wonders: Ecological Enchantment in a Secular Age.” There he examines various holistic ecological worldviews that can be used to encourage a greater sense of interconnectedness between humans and the universe around them. Boris Vormann, meanwhile, attempts to put a more dangerous myth to bed. In “Beneath and Beyond the Sustainable City,” he argues that the belief in cities as the ultimate paradigms of ecological sustainability is unwarranted and counterproductive, demonstrating that this idea is far from new, having historical precedents that have never succeeded. The possibilities of extending human rights to non-humans are examined by Wojciech Malecki in “From Speculative Darwinism to Interspecies Narratives: The Consequences of Pragmatism for the Posthumanities.” Much in the same way a widening of our understanding of the world has permitted us to deconstruct many of the myths of racism, sexism, and imperialism, which has led to an expansion of the Western world’s circle of empathic concern, Malecki proposes replacing the myth of the homo sapiens as a superior species and recognising a wider empathic circle which would acknowledge the rights of non-human animals.
The precarious nature of America at this point in time is demonstrated by the wide range of responses found within America After Nature. This uncertainty is (perhaps) the correct response: for, as the volume itself argues, the future of ecology in America is uncertain and the possibilities are increasing. The “State of the Union,” which Gersdorf and Braun consider in their introduction, and which is examined throughout, is now in a far more uncertain position than it was when they posed the question. America After Nature is a much-needed call regarding the importance of integrating the values of ecocriticism into all areas of academia and beyond.
Takaki, Ronald. Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Athlone Press, 1979.
Image credit: IJAS Online believes that the use of the image above of a book cover to illustrate a review of the book in question is excepted from copyright under fair dealing or fair use.