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Hubert Zapf and Timo Müller

The ecological dimension of literature has found proper attention only in the late 20th century, with the rise of ecocriticism as a new direction of literary studies. Ecocriticism emerged from a revalorization of nature writing in the United States and initially understood itself as a countermovement to the linguistic turn in literary and cultural studies. Since the early 21st century, the scope of ecocritical studies has widened to include literary texts and genres across different periods and cultures. Against the background of the global environmental crisis, it has made a strong case for the contribution of literature, art, and the aesthetic to the critique of anthropocentric master narratives as well as to the imaginative exploration of sustainable alternatives to the historically deranged human–nature relationship. Ecocritical scholars have examined the ecological potential of texts in various periods and literary cultures that make up American literature. They have given particular attention to the Indigenous poetic and storytelling modes of Native Americans, the Romantic and transcendentalist movements of the mid-19th century, the aesthetic practices of modernism and postmodernism, the ethnic diversification of American literature since the late 20th century, and, most obviously, contemporary writing that explicitly defines itself as a critical and creative response to the Anthropocene. Thus, an ecological awareness in American literature emerged in different forms and stages that correspond to major periods, styles, and cultures of literary writing. While it is impossible to do justice to all relevant developments, the rich archive of ecological thought and perception in American literature can be productively brought into the transdisciplinary dialogue of the environmental sciences and humanities. The value of literary texts in relation to other forms of environmental knowledge lies not just in the topics they address but in distinctive aesthetic features, such as embodied multiperspectivity, empathetic imagination, reconnection of cultural to natural ecosystems, polysemic openness, and participatory inclusion of the reader in the transformative experience offered by the texts.