Helena Feder, Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture: Biology and the Bildungsroman

Helena Feder, Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture: Biology and the Bildungsroman (Abingdon: Routledge 2014) 192 pp.  £95.00 Hb.  ISBN: 978-1-409-40157-5

In Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture: Biology and the Bildungsroman, first published by Ashgate in 2014, Helena Feder reinterprets that ‘most enduring of modern Western cultural forms’ – the Bildungsroman – as ‘humanism’s origin story of culture’ (2).  In so doing, she sets out to tackle the persistent and problematic binary of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ by bringing to bear ‘a more biologically, ecologically informed critique’ (1) that will in turn generate an expanded, even expansive (re)definition of human culture as ‘itself a product of nature’, and just one of many (2); as she stresses, there is a growing body of research to support the existence of animal cultures (6-18).  In parallel, Feder sets out to develop a broader form of Marxist dialectic that takes into account the recent theoretical inflections of new materialism, and the work of writers as diverse as Stacey Alaimo, Judith Butler, and Karen Barad (3).  Cultural questions, as she adds, are also political ones (3), and a ‘more materialist, more “worldly multiculturalism” might intervene in forms of oppression that have long functioned by excluding some – human and nonhuman – from the realm of culture’ (3).

Developing the theoretical basis of the ‘materialist ecocultural analysis’ (18) – the ‘larger world’ (6) that Feder has in mind – occupies the bulk of a lengthy introductory chapter (1-28).  Over the next four chapters, Feder brings it to bear on ‘critically significant works that represent major literary movements of the modern era’ (22): Voltaire’s Candide (29-48), Shelley’s Frankenstein (49-74), Woolf’s Orlando (75-96), and Kincaid’s A Small Place, which she contrasts with the same author’s Among Flowers (97-130).

How then do these diverse texts create (or challenge) the sense of world as an anthropocentric space (21)?  In her discussion of Candide, a ‘quintessential Enlightenment narrative’ (22), Feder juxtaposes the protagonist’s education – an education inextricably bound up with both the natural and the social (23) – with Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.  As she points out, the Dialectic describes an exclusively human history of domination over nature, whilst simultaneously precluding the possibility of any meaningful response to it; yet ‘nonhuman natures intervene in our lives daily’ (29), with or without the force of a Lisbon earthquake.  In the next chapter, by contrast, Feder reconsiders the way in which texts such as Frankenstein, but also Percy Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’, reflect anxieties over the uncontrollability of sublime (as opposed to domesticated) landscapes.  As a narrative, Frankenstein is, she notes, surrounded by the ‘chill waters’ of the Arctic, a Freudian ‘oceanic’ that ‘signifies origin, embodiment, and embeddedness’ (64), yet the novel instead describes (even as it deconstructs) Victor’s attempt to overcome that materiality.  The result of his intervention is ‘the ultimate Other in humanist culture (65), but also one whose very monstrosity enables it to be relegated ‘to the shadows’ (65).  As Feder adds, reading the monster as symbol ‘elides his radical agency, the very essence of his textual life’ (65), even as it also reflects ‘the humanist anxiety of objectification’ (73): ‘[t]he horror of Frankenstein is a horror of ourselves’ (73).

Feder’s focus on the meanings negatively imprinted on Frankenstein’s monster provides a conceptual bridge to her next chapter, on Woolf’s Orlando, a ‘mock-biography’ (24) whose narrative opposition to biological determinism – and whose transcendence of space and time – place it in an interesting position in relation to any discussion of human embeddedness in the more-than-human.  Yet (Feder argues) the ‘fantastic movement of time and space around one equally fluid individual exposes the absurdity of rationalism and the assumption of human superiority as its core’ (77), whilst its sense of the ‘common nature’ revealed by biography underlines the extent to which ‘all men and women share qualities and desires’, and to that extent are alike androgynous (87); it is the ‘feminist fear of nature and biology as (to quote Alaimo) “the repository of essentialism”’ that Woolf addresses (91).

Jumping forward sixty years, Feder’s final chapter centres on Kincaid’s ‘polemical’ travel narrative, A Small Place, which ‘explicitly characterizes the bad faith of capitalism, of the tourist/colonizer’s racist ideologies and instrumental reason, as the bad faith of the discourse of animality’ (104).  As she adds, however, Kincaid’s work does not escape the Enlightenment’s own ‘foundational error’ – its neglect of the ‘signifying subjects of nature’ (129) – and it is to the continuing question of dehumanization and animality that she turns in her conclusion.  As Feder contends, the Bildungsroman is rooted in a ‘fantasy of detachment’ (140) that defines the human and asserts its superiority over the otherwise undifferentiated ‘Others’ (152).

The Western discourse of animality is a fantasy about others as bestial, as monstrous – as appetite without empathy, pleasure without meaning – and so it is also a fantasy about our ‘freedom,’ about the right rightness, the ‘good faith’ of not taking their feelings into account.  It is a fantasy in bad faith (140). In the name of what Feder calls a ‘more worldly politics’, a ‘multispecies multiculturalism’ is, therefore, a much-needed intervention (154).

Not without difficulty, ecocriticism has always sought an interdisciplinary approach, fusing disciplines, or bringing them into a constructive dialogue.  Feder’s own, ambitious intervention underlines what is at stake.  ‘[R]ead radically’, as she argues, the Bildungsroman’s ‘narrative of acculturation’ (18) reveals ‘humanism’s knowledge’ of the nonhuman agency and subjectivity it denies (2), and the biological factors at work on human culture (15).  Exposing this interplay highlights the simple fact that, as Feder concludes, the world ‘is mediated by multiple cultures in nature’ (153).  Recognizing that mediation makes it possible, not only to reject ‘ideologies of nature’ that further ‘human supremacy’, but to challenge ‘structures of power that oppresses both human and nonhuman animals’ (154). Complex and highly theorized, Feder’s attempt to extend the scope of ecocriticism is, therefore, a challenging but highly rewarding and timely one; it is recommended.

Adrian Tait, Independent Scholar