Özden Sözalan and Inci Bilgin Tekin (eds), Environment and Fiction: Critical Readings

Özden Sözalan and Inci Bilgin Tekin (eds), Environment and Fiction: Critical Readings (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2020) 158 pp. £24.00 ($35.95) Hb, ISBN: 978-3-631-81981-4

Environment and Fiction is an engaging, provocative collection of critical essays that seeks to emphasise the importance of interconnectedness between species. Opening with a reflection on the current COVID-19 crisis, a pandemic that began with cross-species contamination, this collection advocates for a move away from anthropocentric relationships with non-humans that normalise their exploitation, towards the construction of more caring relationships between humans and the environment.

The collection of work focuses primarily on Turkish film and literature, such as Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer (1963) and Zülfü Livaneli’s Son Ada (The Last Island), but it also incorporates a breadth of global texts, such as the work of Edgar Allen Poe, the poetry of Carol Anne Duffy, and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). This broad spectrum of analysis offers a convincing argument regarding the global immediacy of its subject. Given that our planet has entered the ‘Sixth Extinction’ of species, the first mass extinction caused by humans, Environment and Fiction is a demonstration of the way in which literature and film, as well as the academic criticism examining these fields, has continued to respond to these issues by attempting to re-imagine fictional spaces in which more empathetic interspecies encounters can occur.

Özden Sözalan and İnci Bilgin Tekin state in their introduction that the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder that we must think of ourselves in relation to environments ‘as always already environed embodiments, impacting on as well as impacted upon by natureculture’ (8). As such, they argue that we must ‘develop even more innovative ways of thinking in non-anthropocentric and non-dichotomic terms that seek interconnections and alliances across boundaries’ (10). This collection of essays, therefore, attempts to examine a number of different relationships with both non-human animals and the environment in a broad spectrum of literature and the state of interconnectedness within each text.

The collection is split into nine chapters. Chapter 1 explores the relationship between the city environment and the body in Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’. The author argues that urbanisation is a crisis of bodily experience, in that the subject both becomes a part of the city and also externalises the ‘troubles of urban life’ (29) as more natural spaces are declined by the increase in urbanisation. Poe’s poetry, then, is offered as a source through which to examine how subjects respond to the physical environments around them, operating in a binary-like psychology that associates green spaces within the city as sites of wildness and more urban environments as symbolic sites of civilisation. This is an early indication of the ways in which problematic dualisms between civilisation/savagery and culture/nature become entrenched and inform structural hierarchies.

Chapter 2 argues that ecofeminist thought can be traced back to Greek mythology, making the connection between women and nature a deeply held, historical one. The author argues that this relationship depends on the idea that women hold the potential to reproduce rather than simply consume. Drawing on these myths, the chapter states that it is vital to rethink humankind’s relationship with nature before nature becomes ‘man’s protagonist’ (41). Thus, ecofeminism itself is a theory that seeks to reclaim nature as inherently aligned with the female experience in defiance of patriarchal control. The importance of this connection is that eco-feminist literature is therefore a means to imaginatively conceive of deconstructing patriarchal structures by reinforcing the potential power in the unity of those oppressed.

Chapter 3 examines Erksan’s Dry Summer and its film adaptation. It demonstrates that the same patriarchal control we witness pervading the characters’ intimate relationships extends to the protagonist’s brother’s control of the land and water. The originality of this chapter lies in its argument that the expansion of environmental justice relies on an abandonment of anthropocentrism and simplistic and dualistic ways of thinking about relations.

Chapter 4 turns to utopian Turkish literature and emphasises that interconnectedness with nature is ‘not isolated from cultural and political dynamics of human communities’ (59), in that environmental policy is anthropocentrically constructed. Through a focus on Zülfü Livaneli’s Son Ada (The Last Island), the chapter argues that Turkish dystopian and utopian literature draws on Turkey’s history of military coups and the erosion of democracy to contemplate what it might look like to give agency to the oppressed. As such, the genre is well positioned to contemplate issues such as animal agency. Ultimately, the chapter provides an effective contemplation of the ‘implications of authority, evil, consent, and solidarity’ (69) and argues that sustainable ways of being depend on the ‘coexistence of beliefs, worldviews, and species’ (71).

Chapter 5 examines Yusuf Atılgan’s Motherland Hotel, presenting specific moments in the text where there is an established connection between humans and the animal species with which they interact. For instance, masculinity is played out through cockfighting, with each victory being a symbolic indication of the cock owner’s masculine prowess and each loss being felt personally. Similarly, the author compares the world of the maid with the world of a cat, using Carol J. Adam’s criticism to refer to them as absent referents and victims of exploitation at the hands of the male protagonist. The chapter subsequently argues that humanity must move beyond thinking of itself as ‘an independent ethical subject’ (73) and accept that we are a part of an environment that includes being connected to, and empathetic towards, animals.  

Chapter 6 engages with Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man and his binary argument regarding Treadwell’s trespass of the human–animal boundary. The nuanced argument within this chapter lies in the author’s focus on the propensity for emotional transformation in encounter, which can close the theoretical distance between humans and animals that is used to objectify and exploit animals to anthropocentric ends.

Chapter 7 is a fascinating exploration of the relationship between humans and cats, with a particular focus on the species politics of companion animals. The author builds on Donna Haraway’s emphasis on respect and responsibility to respond, moving beyond Derrida’s recognition of his cat as an active viewer to argue that compassion towards cats relies on an abandonment of anthropocentrism and recognition of pets as reciprocal beings in the act of relating.

Chapter 8 argues that post-humanist theatre, such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, partakes in a ‘dehumanizing’ (123) of the stage, which makes it a prime genre for considering environmental relations. This dehumanising involves deconstructing the subject from their place at the centre, thereby removing all sense of environmental hierarchy and opening up the potential to restructure relations with nature and animals.

The ninth and final chapter of this collection examines Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry and argues that it is deeply committed to paying tribute to all those oppressed by the patriarchal order, both human and non-human. The chapter argues that through a vegetarian ecofeminist outlook, Duffy’s poetry affirms the essential role of language and literature in preserving nature and its inhabitants. As such, the author describes ecopoetics as a 'healing process' (150), offering a significant means through which to repair relationships with the more-than-human world by engaging in less-oppressive narratives of relating.

There is a tendency throughout the earlier chapters to draw upon theoretical perspectives that are arguably out-dated in the field of critical animal studies, such as Descartes’s Animals are Machines and Jeremy Bentham’s early work on animal rights. Often, the authors rely on more simplistic binary arguments to construct their theses, such as in chapter 2, which maps ecofeminism onto Greek myth by emphasising femininity and womanhood without contemplating the essentialist nature of this binary. Aligning women with nature in this way risks enforcing dualisms of femininity/masculinity, nature/culture and human/animal that ecofeminism theorists such as Carol J. Adams have reiterated are the antithesis of ecofeminist aims. Rather, ecofeminism addresses the problem of these value dualisms and challenges the hierarchies such dualisms enforce. Indeed, chapter 9 responds to the question of holding femininity and masculinity in a binary with nature/culture that I posed in relation to chapter 2, as Özlem Karadaǧ‎ argues that increased urbanisation of our environment means that ‘urbanity is taking over nature,’ thus erasing ‘the opposition that creates or defines what is urban’ (137).

However, in the later chapters, the originality of the research flourishes. Chapters 7 and 9 in particular push their analysis beyond more binary forms of analysis to provide nuanced arguments surrounding anthropocentrism and the work of theorists such as Val Plumwood, Donna Haraway and Josephine Donovan in a move towards responsibility and care. The inclusion of these theorists, combined with the effective responses the later chapters develop from these more contemporary and nuanced critical materials, shapes the second half of the book into an effective meditation on how we might develop the ‘interconnectedness’ that the editors of the collection emphasise.

There were moments in the collection where I felt the authors could have pushed their critical engagement further or considered different theoretical approaches. For example, Helen Tiffin and Graham Huggan’s Postcolonial Ecocriticism could be usefully deployed in the introduction and throughout the collection to contextualise Environment and Fiction within this field of literary environmental criticism; however, their work is only momentarily referenced in relation to Son Ada in chapter 4. In addition, in the discussions surrounding patriarchy and structural inequalities that similarly effect women and animals in chapters 5 and 9, Derrida’s ‘“Eating Well”, or the Calculation of the Subject’ would work well to emphasise the carnophallogocentric system that upholds both androcentrism and anthropocentrism, which the authors refer to. Moreover, the repeated references to Val Plumwood throughout the chapters were often fleeting and could have better engaged with her arguments regarding the fallacy of human exceptionalism and the consequent dominion of nature. Finally, further contemplation of both the critical field of animal representation and the politics of representation in the texts themselves would boost the critical relevance of this collection. For instance, drawing upon similar texts, such as Timothy C. Baker’s Writing Animals: Language, Suffering, and Animality in Twenty-First-Century Fiction and Mario Ortiz Robles’ Literature and Animal Studies, would significantly advance this collection by helping to situate it within a critical field from which it did feel quite detached due to limited theoretical engagement.

Ultimately, however, Environment and Fiction does put forward a convincing argument regarding the immediacy of re-evaluating our relationship with the environment around us and the non-human animals that inhabit it. Moreover, the collection convincingly demonstrates the influence that literary representations have on cultural understandings of animals, reinforcing the importance of moving away from anthropocentric representations. By drawing on a wide breadth of literature and film, the collection builds towards a consensus that literature holds the propensity to heal the relationship between humans and their environment because it provides a space for thinking through and reframing the politics of species relations. Through literature, we might re-imagine stories of human–animal relations built upon empathy and care. Environment and Fiction effectively demonstrates the global relevance of this issue and the need to embrace interconnectedness as the key concept in redefining interspecies relations.

Alice Higgs, University of Sheffield