Expanding The Spatial Imaginary
How can eco-criticism (the study of literature and its intersection with environmental concerns) and geo-criticism (a literary approach that incorporates the spatial analysis of geographic space) benefit the humanities? What specific, unique contributions they can bring to the table? These were the questions raised by Asst Prof. Samara Cahill in her talk on the spatial imaginary.
Asst Prof. Cahill points out that the category and concept of the “humanities” itself can problematise this particular discussion because it presupposes the centrality and superiority of the human perspective. In short, it reflects our anthropocentrism.
But why would a distinction between eco- and geo-criticism be necessary in the first place? The answer is that geo-criticism and eco-criticism are concerned with our ways of seeing. One of the questions that I asked Asst Prof. Cahill was: “What are some ‘knots’ that the two fields can help address and undo?” She explained the way in which these two fields help to address the necessarily limited nature of our perspective. One of the most central functions of eco-criticism is its interrogation of our anthropocentrism. Meanwhile geo-criticism helps us to interrogate the privileging of some countries and continents over others on maps. In other words, geo-criticism constitutes a literary cartography that analyses the representation of space.
These two critical approaches move us into a more complex understanding of what the humanities can do. These approaches are critical engagements with space that are also expanding the space of what is possible in the humanities.
We later discussed the interdisciplinary potential of eco-criticism and geo-criticism and the concept of “systems literacy”. Associate Professor Gillen D’Arcy Woods (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) argued that if the humanities become insular and fail to reach out to other disciplines they risk painting themselves into a corner. Being equipped with at least a cursory understanding of disciplines across the humanities and sciences can help us to make connections that are not immediately discernible and interrogate some of the functions of power. Asst Prof. Cahill provided the example of how pesticides on a farm in Nebraska would influence the supply of shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico. She also explained Naomi Klein’s work on “sacrifice zones” that refer to areas that disproportionately bear the consequences of our ecological mistakes. This is one example of how systems literacy and eco-criticism can be wielded for the purpose of social justice activism.
In order to reconnect with some of the traditional concerns of literary criticism, Asst Prof. Cahill recalled the work of Professor John Sitter (University of Notre Dame) who has argued that instructors have a moral obligation to consider the environment as a matter of literary context1. How can you think about fiction without thinking about the natural environment—pollution, climate change, fossil fuel use, access to water—that informed it? Ecocriticism thus encourages us to pay attention to these factors in analyses of the material conditions of literary production.
Looking to the future of ecocriticism, Asst Prof. Cahill anticipates more postcolonial eco-criticism, the incorporation of more non-Western metaphors, more contributions to the burgeoning field of animal studies, and research into how these fields will help the sciences and the environmental humanities to seek greater synergy and engagement.
1. Sitter, John, “Academic Responsibility and the Climate of Posterity,” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Global Warming Special Issue, vol. 21, no. 1, Winter 2014, pp. 164-173.