Novel theory sets out to explain a set of literary objects that are already fairly familiar to most modern readers. In fact, it is this assumed familiarity—the sense that there is something in the novel form that aligns with the lived experience of modernity—that animates the tradition of novel theory. Instead of seeking to explain one novel, or to narrate a history that includes all novels, theories of the novel tend to describe a certain set of recognizable, usually formal, features that conform to certain notions of modern subjectivity. The result, nearly across the board, is that theories of the novel operate by excluding far more books in the category of “novel” than they include. Although assuming a descriptive rhetoric, they are instead prescriptive, vastly delimiting the field of possible novels into a much smaller, more manageable, group. This is not offered as a critique as much as definition: what separates novel theory from a critique or history. By seeing the tradition of novel theory in terms of its exclusions, we are better able to understand both the larger “novel theory” genre. But we are better able to understand its blind spots too. By focusing on a particular model of European modernity, and centering its formal concerns around realism and the everyday, academic discussions of the novel have often found difficulty in describing non-European experiences, the experiences of historically marginalized populations, and the catastrophic changes brought about by the Anthropocene. Yet this is not so much a shortcoming of the novel form, as some have suggested, but rather a set of possibilities that lies in the negative space of the novel demarcated by previous novel theory. Reading the history of novel theory in terms of its exclusions, then, offers a sense of the future possibilities of the novel form.
Theory of the Novel
The “posthuman” is an umbrella term frequently employed in a number of theoretical and critical discourses. It is difficult to find a definition of the term that is shared by all the different approaches that use it, since “posthuman” seems to denote a very diverse group of phenomena, some ongoing and others only predicted or imagined. The “posthuman” is used to describe modes of being resulting from potential enhancements to human nature generated through applied science and technological developments. However, it is equally adopted to identify the decentering of human exceptionalism and the overcoming of the principles of humanism. Depending on the descriptive strategy adopted, the term can be used to identify very different philosophical and theoretical positions, from technoprogressive stances to outlooks that are very critical of technological determinism. These positions, rather than seeing in posthumanism opportunities for an extension of rational mastery and an overcoming of humanity’s biological limits, see in the posthuman condition a chance to redress the balance between human and nonhuman and promote horizontal ontologies and expanded ethics. What these different conceptual positions share is the blurring of boundaries between human, technology, and nature in favor of more hybrid and fluid configurations. Finally, while the term “posthuman” finds a home in science-fiction, it has come to be applied to literary and filmic works that are less rooted in traditional science-fiction themes and subject matters but rather respond to specific events or phenomena, in particular environmental and ecological ones.
Australian Climate Fiction
Climate is an important part of fictional scene setting, whether it be geographical—is the scene in the desert or in the tropics?—or seasonal—is it winter or is it summer? And this is perhaps especially true of Australian literature, where the majority of writers are still descendants of Anglo-Celtic settlers, living in more or less uneasy relationship with a distinctly non-Anglo-Celtic natural environment. Climate has thus been a characteristically Australian literary preoccupation: the titles of Vance Palmer’s Cyclone (1947), for example, or Patrick White’s Eye of the Storm (1973) speak for themselves. But “cli-fi” in the sense of the term coined by Dan Bloom in 2007 refers, not to climate per se, nor even to climate change per se, but much more specifically to fictions concerned with the effects of anthropogenic climate change, that is, to the literature of global warming. This is a much more recent preoccupation, which dates only from the late 1970s when the US National Research Council and the World Meteorological Organization first published predictions that then current levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would result in significant increases in average global temperatures. The short history of Australian “cli-fi” can be traced from the first publication of George Turner’s The Sea and Summer in 1987.
In the works of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, a philosophy of history developed to consider how thought and culture are historically situated and to present human civilization as an organizing force that subdues nature toward a form of progressive improvement. This new sense of being situated in history subsequently shaped philosophies of “historicity” in the writings of Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, and others. It also led to less desirable political investments in collective fate and destiny. Against these teleological and culturally reductive forms of historicity, poststructuralist articulations of multiple historicities conceive of historical engagement as a cyclic or stratigraphic configuration of unlimited potential. Theorists such as Derrida, Deleuze, and Baudrillard provide more open, associative, and playful approaches to historical frameworks. An understanding of historicity requires the articulation of related terms such as historiography (the writing of history) and historicism (the analysis of culture through historical context). Historicity as a sense of historical development as well as of future potential is an important theme for discussions of diverse topics, including identity, community, empire, globalization, and the Anthropocene. Literary engagements with historicity range from the rejection of history to the interrogation of historicism as a series of competing and contradictory narratives. Historicity is a vital concept used by literary theorists to critique authoritative accounts of history, as well as a self-reflexive mode for considering institutional and disciplinary biases. The following article surveys different forms of historicity in philosophical and theoretical traditions, analyzes institutions that influence official accounts of history, and posits literary and imaginative engagements with the past as an important mode of social and cultural critique.
Performance Art, Performativity, and Environmentalism in the Capitalocene
Jane Chin Davidson
Since the late 20th century, performance has played a vital role in environmental activism, and the practice is often related to concepts of eco-art, eco-feminist art, land art, theatricality, and “performing landscapes.” With the advent of the Capitalocene discourse in the 21st century, performance has been useful for acknowledging indigenous forms of cultural knowledge and for focusing on the need to reintegrate nature and culture in addressing ecological crisis. The Capitalocene was distinguished from the Anthropocene by Donna Haraway who questions the figuration of the Anthropos as reflexive of a fossil-fuel-burning ethos that does not represent the whole of industrial humanity in the circuit of global capital. Jason W. Moore’s analysis for the Capitalocene illustrates the division between nature and society that is affirmed by the tenets of the Anthropocene. Scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer had dated the Anthropocene age to the industrial acceleration of the late-18th/mid-19th century but Moore points to the rise of capitalism in the 15th century when European colonization reduced indigenous peoples to naturales in their modernist definition of nature that became distinct from the new society. As material property, women were also precluded from this segment of industrial humanity. By the 20th century, the Euro-American system for progressive modernism in the arts was supported by the inscription of cultures that represented un-modern “primitivist” nature. The tribal and the modern became a postcolonial debate in art historical discourse. In the context of the Capitalocene, a different historiography of eco-art, eco-feminist art, and environmental performances can be conceived by acknowledging the work of artists such as Ana Mendieta and Kara Walker who have illustrated the segregation of people according to the nature/society divide. Informed by Judith Butler’s phenomenological analyses of performative acts, the aesthetic use of bodily-oriented expression (with its effects on the viewer’s body) provides a vocabulary for artists engaging in the subjects of the Capitalocene. In the development of performances in the global context, artists such as Wu Mali, Yin Xiuzhen, and Ursula Biemann have emphasized the relationship between bodies of humans and bodies of water through interactive works for the public, sited at the rivers and the shores of streams. They show how humans are not separate from nature, a concept that has long been conveyed by indigenous rituals that run deep in many cultures. While artists have been effective in acknowledging the continuing exploitations of the environment, their performances have also reflected the “self” of nature that humans are in the act of destroying.
Renaissance Literature and the Environment
Todd Andrew Borlik
As the environmental humanities have gained traction, its practitioners have ventured beyond a predictable canon of modern nature writers and Romantic poets into earlier eras to better fathom the origins of our ecological predicament. It has become abundantly clear that the Renaissance (c. 1340–1660), often reframed as the early modern era (c. 1500–1800), marks a pivotal epoch in the history of the earth. Spurred by the rediscovery of classical learning to rival the grandeur of Ancient Rome and by Columbus’s plundering of the West Indies, European powers studied and exploited the environment with unprecedented zeal, while investing in resource extraction, overseas colonization, and technoscience. These developments left an indelible imprint on both the planet and the period’s literature. In tandem with the invention of landscape by Renaissance painters, writers in the generations between Francesco Petrarch and John Milton sought new ways—while reviving and adapting ancient ones—to capture the beauty, fragility, and animacy of the natural world. In the works of poets such as Torquato Tasso, Michael Drayton, and Mary Wroth, trees can bleed, rivers speak, and nightingales transform into violated maidens. As such conceits suggest, the prevailing views of nature can seem quaint or anthropomorphic by post-Enlightenment standards. Yet Renaissance literature has proven, in part because it enables us to interrogate those standards, surprisingly responsive to ecocritical concerns. Bringing these concerns to bear on the era has revealed startling new facets of familiar texts, thrown more limelight on undersung authors, unsettled complacent assumptions in environmental history, and greatly enriched eco-theory. Nature has always been a site of ideological contestation, but the historical distance afforded by the Renaissance can bring this into shimmering focus. If the label “early modern” underscores the era’s continuity with the present and its foreshadowing of ecological issues and sensibilities, the somewhat old-fashioned label Renaissance reminds us to keep sight of its alterity and to view its literature as an archive of radically different attitudes, epistemologies, and material practices that might help us to better understand and combat environmental problems. The urgency of the climate crisis makes it imperative to trace or insinuate parallels between then and now, but newcomers to the field would also be well advised to acquaint themselves with the contours of early modern cultural and environmental history so as to undertake ecocritical interpretations responsibly without peddling anachronisms or reductive caricatures. Early modern worldviews can be both familiar and alien, and its literature can jolt us into a greater awareness of these tensions. It is, for instance, ironic yet strangely apt that the same Francis Bacon reviled as an architect of the Anthropocene was one of the first to denounce the anthropocentric prejudice of the human sensorium and mind. Bacon also feared that language and an excessive reverence for the received knowledge of the past might warp our understanding of nature. Four centuries later, his words provide a cautionary reminder that we should not approach Renaissance literature as a repository of timeless, universal truths. Rather, insofar as studying Renaissance literature enables us to see beyond the shibboleths of our own culture and historical moment, it offers valuable cognitive training that might help us recognize and overcome species bias.
Travel Writing in the Age of Globalization
Globalization and global travel have existed for centuries. It is over the past century in particular, however, that travel has become truly global, in the sense that most and not just some travel can in some way or other be said to globalized. Indeed, with the invention and spread of new technologies of mobility (like jet travel), and new technologies of information (like the internet), as with the increasingly invasive impact of human activity on the planet at large (like global warming), it is difficult to conceive of travel in the 21st century that is purely “local.” Travel in the age of globalization, then, is at one and the same time both more widespread yet also more irrelevant than ever. As humans, goods, and information move around in ever-increasing quantities, and at ever-greater speed, it seems that mobility is at an all-time high in human history. On the other hand, as a rising number of people and places are interlinked through ever-faster travel and various forms of communication technologies, the local and the global are becoming harder and harder to distinguish. In this, travel writing has faced a range of challenges that are both old and new. With contemporary travel writers facing a global reality that is very different from the colonial legacy of a traditionally Eurocentric genre, travel writers in the age of globalization have been forced to radically reconsider the itineraries, the destinations, the purpose, and the identity of the traveling subject. Traditionally defined as a white (European) male, the global traveler of the 21st century can take on many forms in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality. At the same time, however, a large number of contemporary travel writers have found it hard to break with the mold of old, desperately continuing to pursue the exotic adventure and the untouched “otherness” of the blank spaces of a map that, in the age of Google Earth, satellite navigation, jet and space travel, global warming, and an explosive growth in human population, are no more.
Environments in Western American Literature
Western American literature is a diverse body of writing that documents human responses to the ecological changes that have reshaped the region over the years. The literature includes narratives of contact and encounter, nonfiction nature essays, borderlands literature, popular Westerns, hard-boiled detective narratives, Dust Bowl novels, eco-memoirs, climate change fiction, and other genres. At a time when the West faces a number of environmental crises, a survey of the region provides insights into how we arrived at this point by addressing key moments in the environmental past, including struggles over land use, conflicts over resources, the historical meanings of eco-disaster, and efforts at finding solutions to these problems. In settler colonial imaginaries, the region appears as a space of promise and possibility. It offers a retreat from a hyper-modernizing world and serves as a bulwark against changes taking place elsewhere. In this way, the region is also a shifting terrain associated with the nation’s moving frontiers and contact zones, as Europeans continually pushed beyond the spaces of their previous settlements. Before the West was called the West, however, it was home to hundreds of tribal groups who did not configure the land through this geographical lens. Likewise, for some Hispanics, it was known as Aztlán, the mythic land of the ancient Aztecs, and also el Norte. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants called the area in what is present-day California “gold mountain,” while from 1733 to 1867, parts of the West from Alaska to California were recognized as “Russian America.” As a place that calls forth diverse memories about encounters and conflicts, stories about dispossession and recovery, and dreams of enrichment and tales of going bust, the West remains a contested terrain whose literature carries traces of the economies and ecologies of the people who have made it their home.
Time is not a strictly literary category, yet literature is unthinkable without time. The events of a story unfold over time. The narration of that story imposes a separate order of time (chronological, discontinuous, in medias res). The reading of that narrative may take its own sweet time. Then there is the fact that literature itself exists in time. Transmitted across generations, literary texts cannot help but remind us of how times have changed. In doing so, they also show us how prior historical moments were indelibly shaped by their own specific philosophies and technologies of timekeeping—from the forms of sacred time that informed medieval writing; to the clash between national time and natural history that preoccupied the Romantics; to the technological standardization of time that shaped 19th-century literature; to the theories of psychological time that emerged in tandem with modernism; to the fragmented and foreshortened digital times that underlie postmodern fiction. Time, in short, shapes literature several times over: from reading experience to narrative form to cultural context. In this way, literature can be read as a peculiarly sensitive timepiece of its own, both reflecting and responding to the complex and varied history of shared time. Over the course of the 20th century, literary time has become an increasingly prominent issue for literary critics. Time was first installed at the heart of literary criticism by way of narrative theory and narratology, which sought to explain narrative’s irreducibly temporal structure. Soon, though, formalist and phenomenological approaches to time would give way to more historically and politically attuned methods, which have emphasized modern time’s enmeshment in imperialism, industrial capitalism, and globalization. In today’s critical landscape, time is a crucial and contested topic in a wide range of subfields, offering us indispensable insights into the history and ideology of modernity; the temporal politics of nationalism, colonialism, and racial oppression; the alternate timescales of environmental crisis and geological change; and the transformations of life and work that structure postmodern and postindustrial society.
Transnational Capitalism in Latina/o Literature
Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita
Latina/o cultural production has long dealt in different ways with the impact of transnational capital, globalization, and imperialism not only on immigration from Latin America, especially since the 1970s, but also on Latina/o residents (whether citizens or immigrants) in the United States, particularly with respect to social location, positionality, and labor conditions. Of particular importance to contemporary Latina/o writers is noting that transnational capital has led not only to the restructuring of the U.S. economy but also to the creation of free trade zones in the Global South, especially on the Mexican border, where workers, especially female workers, are extremely exploited and subject to feminicide. In view of the continued participation of a number of Chicana/o workers in the agricultural fields of the Southwest and Northwest, Chicana/o writers have also been especially concerned with ecological issues and the health of all workers subject to pollution and contamination of the air, soil, and water. These are all issues reconstructed in Chicana/o—Latina/o literature, past and present.
T. Hugh Crawford
Actor-network theory (ANT) is a methodology developed in the 1980s by scholars working primarily in the sociology of science and technology. It is a novel approach as it attempts to redefine actors not so much as willful or intentional agents but instead as any entity—human or nonhuman—that in some way influences or perturbs the activity of a techno-social system. Most effective when examining limited systems such as ship navigation, electrical network failures, and the like, ANT resists large generalizations and categories, including the very notion of the “social” which, according to actor-network theorists, is never an explanation but instead is that which must be explained. Well into the 21st century, practitioners have both embraced and critiqued ANT, but it remains a useful form of inquiry.
Ecocriticism describes and confronts the socially uneven encounters and entanglements of earthly living. As a political mode of literary and cultural analysis, it aims to understand and intervene in the destruction and diminishment of living worlds. A core premise is that environmental crises have social, cultural, affective, imaginative, and material dimensions. Although ranging in its critical engagements across historical periods, cultural texts, and cultural formations, ecocriticism focuses on the aesthetic modes, social meanings, contexts, genealogies, and counterpoints of cultural practices that contribute to ecological ruination and resilience. These include myths about frontiers, progress, and human mastery over animality and nature; capitalist modes of valuing, devaluing, and radically transforming lifeworlds; and biopolitical and racialized inequalities in health, risk, development, and disposability. Ecocriticism also involves broad theoretical engagement with discursive formations and semiotic significations, including the interrogation of crisis frameworks and apocalyptic representations, considering their histories, scales, and temporalities, while also asking how any particular socioecological arrangement comes to count as a matter of concern, for whom, and in which contexts. The concept of nature is a long-standing theoretical topic in ecocriticism. While nature may seem, rather straightforwardly, to be the domain environmentalism seeks to protect, it is a concept on which hinge crucial and contested claims about ontology (the nature of something, such as assertions about human nature as an inherent, often determining set of shared qualities) and epistemology (how we know what is real, such as the scientific practices through which credible assertions can be made that the planetary climate is changing), claims whose modern authority has rested on positioning nature as a domain outside culture. While structuralist and poststructuralist theorists have destabilized the binary opposition of nature to culture, the political and epistemological imperative to engage with nature as simultaneously material and semiotic has spawned an array of theoretical developments, from Donna Haraway’s cyborg figure and other “natureculture” assemblages to new materialisms. Meanwhile, nature circulates as a commodity form and spectacle animating digital, film, and television screens as well as many other consumer products and experiences. Cultural studies approaches to ecocriticism raise questions about the relationships of visual, narrative, and sound representations to economic power, media technologies, and the material and social ecologies through which they are produced and which they form and transform.