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The new ecology of literature

September 23, 2011

I’ve been doing some examination of English students’ essays lately, about the current crop of successful novels and short stories, and the discussion they are responding to centres around the shift from postmodern irony to contemporary sincerity. The difficulty, of course, comes with reintroducing sincere motives and characters to an audience reared on cynicism, who expect their stories to reflect their own questioning of every perspective no matter how true it seems. The value I always saw in postmodernism was that it could decentre the subject from the traditional, claustrophobic confines of king ego so that we could move more fluidly in a new world of cosmopolitan sharing and diversity. How naïve I was; as it turns out, the most common denominator in postmodern identity shifts has been the way the splintered individual is shepherded towards more consumption. In this sense postmodernity became more selfish rather than more selfless. (Sigh.)

Yet, against this, novelists like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace attempt to reinsert a new kind of sincerity, which accepts postdmodern irony and cynicism even while it posits an empathy between author and reader based on shared experiences. Hence, the irony and cynicism of contemporary life are accepted but also resisted; a new possibility is opened out beyond the permanent marketing machines of popular culture and mass media. What I want to add to this in my writing is an associated move towards replacing culture into what I would recall right relations with nature. This entails treating the earth with respect, as if we humans cared about the future of not only our own race and flourishing, but the other creatures and even landforms around us. At the most esoteric and I think valuable level, this could even occur irrespective of our own human desires and values. Clearly this is a part of the ‘sincerity’ school of thinking and certainly requires a disciplined front against naivety as well as against cynicism. Hopefully its value is counted in the degree to which it successfully resists the assumption that we humans enjoy mastery over ‘nature.’ (Nature for this purpose is hazily defined as something bothersome out there, set aside from our cities; or something deep within, a place we become alienated from as socialisation teaches us to turn our attention constantly outwards, towards more of the stuff we should have or towards the person we think we are or should be…)

This separation makes it easier to consume external ‘nature’ without regard for the ongoing health of the biosphere, because we are all that matters. I think a really radical, new rebellion against a tradition that is clearly out of control and dangerous to the possibility that we and our future generations could keep enjoying life on a beautiful planet needs to have this relationship included in it. Human culture is a part of nature – we know this to be true, it’s not just a nice idea – and our destinies are mutually dependent. So for me, twenty-first century literature must evolve to be not only sincere about humanity and its deepest hopes and fears, but also about the future of the planet, the other creatures, the whole biosphere. Sounds ambitious doesn’t it? But what is the other option – that we should keep on telling stories about how interesting we are? It’s just not enough anymore. I want the whole range of life in my stories. That’s what I think is worth writing.

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12 comments

  1. Well, we are interesting aren’t we! But we are even more interesting if we can tell stories about how we fit into the patterns of nature and how we can relate to nature in more sincere and empathetic ways. I am not sure about your hazy definition of nature – I don’t like something bothersome out there. It’s a good item for discussion though – coz how we “define” nature does have a big influence on how we treat it/her/him/them.


    • Haha, yes we are very interesting animals, although i think we could be more beautiful if we were happier with the way things are instead of trying to ‘improve’ them all the time. And that hazy definition is there to highlight the way nature is thought of by the dominant mode of production and consumption. As you point out, it can – and should – mean a lot more than that. Because, i agree, the way we define nature has a powerful influence on the way we treat it. It is easy to mutilate something you think is inert, just dead or dumb matter. Not so much, though, if you think of it as something alive, responsive and vital. Then an ethic of care comes into the game…


  2. Ethically trimming the Virtue bush,but alas Supremacy blooms.


    • Haha, well i like to think my ethical trimming comes from an innate response to nature and its mysterious beauty; i’d also like to think this relationship remains in part immediate/unmediated, as well as the fact that it is obviously channeled through human languages (images and half composed feelings as well as words). That way i could possibly avoid the worst excesses of the agricultural paradigm, wherein nature is just considered something that is there for humans to manage and order in accord with the profit motive. But alas, as you say (i think), the dominant paradigm continues to assume humanity has a divine right to maintain a throne over dumb nature. The longer we cling to this mythic assumption the more dangerous we become to the future of life on earth.


      • Everything is in competition for light. Especially trees.
        I have found an’EasyKneel’is best used for extended periods in the garden of Gaia service.


      • There’s plenty of light to go around.
        And i haven’t resorted to the easy kneel just yet. I do try to bend ze knees as much as possible though, when getting the hands dirty.


  3. Nature provides a wonderful array of human potentials. after all we are of it. It a reflection of us.
    Fortunetly more attention is being paid to ever increasing debt based systems which Turbocharge the destuction of our total existance.


    • You can only have a reflection if two things are separate; but we are truly part of nature. Full awareness of this breeds love and responsibility. Ignorance of it breeds contempt. When nature is defined as something we can use for profit then other things become more important that even the future of existence. As you have pointed out once before, Jung saw this kind of thinking as dangerously disconnected and i think we are agreed that he was right.
      It’s a good time for cynicism, to say the least.
      But it is also a good time to get the psyche aligned with the body, the mind of culture with the world of nature. We may not be able to change the world but we can be part of systemic transformation. And, more immediately, we can live – and die – well.


  4. “Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws.” -Confucius

    this is all i know about Jung. It seemed enough to base his career upon, n saved on paper too.


  5. The cynicism versus sincerety discussion – and hope: I see hope (and therefore the wherewithal to address the moods of cynicism and sincerety) as having 3 dimensions.
    1. A solid grasp of the realities we face: no optimism, no pessimism – we don’t/can’t know how it will all pan out. Just working hard at understanding the poor trajectory we’re on;
    2. A vivid and growing appreciation of a better ‘place’. A steady state economy, local places of fulfilling activity……..
    3. A group of like-minded people to be working with – there’s nothing like the experience of being and working with others who are in it with you.

    ‘Hope’ is a forgotten and misunderstood condition in our lives. We have to make it real if we are not to dry up our inner source that can drive action.


    • This is a great response to the discussion! Funnily enough, i was just having a chat to my friend Maya Ward the other day about hope and she said giving up on it was an important and valuable shift for her. (Maya is the author of “The Comfort of Water”, a book about her walk along the course of Melbourne’s Yarra River from bay to source, just published by Transit Lounge.) But i actually think her position is not that far from yours, especially taking into account that first point, which asks us to work without too much faith. Her realisation was that if we hold on to hope without work we are left with inaction; but also, at a deeper level, that hope can often take us out of our own bodies, times and lives, leaving us living in or for the future we wish could appear over the horizon. Of course, paradoxically, that better future is not going to appear unless we work at it, and probably can only manifest out of people focusing on what is good in life here and now (although i got the feeling she also meant to point out the spiritual value of this approach as a valid way of living regardless of outcome). Your second point is of course vital to the improvement in human relations with nature, while the third sounds like a really good definition of an active community. Nice one all round, thanks.


  6. […] Realismus ist in aller Munde: In den Programmen der anspruchsvollen Verlage, in den Literaturinstituten, in der amerikanischen Sphäre der Philoblogs, bei den postkeynesianischen Ökonomen. Man ist allgemein (und zurecht) genervt von einem Postmodernismus, der sich von einer skeptischen Haltung zum Wohlfühlverhalten runtergemausert hat. Man will sich wieder mit der harten Realität, den echten Problemen beschäftigen. Programmatisch dazu Bruno Latours Manifest: Vom Krieg um die Fakten zu den Dingen von Belang. Eine intellektuelle Völkerwanderung ist zu beobachten: von der postmodernen Ironie zur zeitgenössischen Ernsthaftigkeit. […]



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