Hubert Zapf, Literature as Cultural Ecology: Sustainable Texts

Hubert Zapf, Literature as Cultural Ecology: Sustainable Texts (London: Bloomsbury 2016) ix + 301 pp.  £29 Pb, £29 EPUB .  £73 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-350-051966

In Literature as Cultural Ecology, Hubert Zapf posits the ‘mutual interdependence between culture and nature’ as a ‘fundamental dimension of literary production and creativity’ (3).  Drawing on ‘the paradigm of cultural ecology’ (3), he suggests that this ‘living interrelationship’ provides ‘a site of critical self-reflection of modern civilisation as well as a source of creative cultural self-renewal’ (3).  It is, he adds, not just a question of content, ‘but of the aesthetic processes’ at work in imaginative literature, processes that function ‘like an ecological force within the larger system of cultural discourses’ (3-4).

Perhaps self-evidently, Zapf’s belief in the ‘ecological potency’ (5) of texts raises many questions.  In what way, for example, is the interrelationship between culture and nature fundamental to literature, and why does it necessarily provide for a critique of modern society, or provide the basis for its renewal?  What, exactly, is an ‘ecological force’, and if this does characterise the relationship between imaginative literature and others forms of discourse, in what ways does a ‘cultural ecology’ do more than use the relationships between organisms and their physical environment as metaphor?

In Zapf’s view, literary culture ‘both reflects and creatively transforms’ the ‘ecological processes of life’ (4); that is, it offers both ‘a vital mode of ecological knowledge and transformation’ (5).  Zapf’s book is structured around four parts, throughout alternating theory and practice.  The first part develops Zapf’s method and aims, and elaborates on his concept of literature as at once a ‘transhistorical […] and as a historical-specific phenomenon’ (27).  The second part situates his approach within the wider field of ecocritical thinking (coincidentally providing a succinct history of what is now a complex and theoretically diverse field).  It is in the third part, however, that Zapf discusses a series of different theoretical frames – including material ecocriticism, social systems theory, and Charles Sanders Peirce’s theories of the sign (85, 98-9, 97) – and from within them creates ‘a triadic functional model for describing the transformative role of imaginative texts’ (7).  Relational, holistic, and dynamic, Zapf’s model encompasses ‘the functions of a culture-critical metadiscourse, an imaginative counter-discourse, and a reintegrative interdiscourse’ (95).  These are, Zapf argues, the ‘three major ways in which the function of literature as ecological force within its larger cultural system can be described’ (102), a point he then illustrates with reference to a series of American texts.

For example, his contention that texts offer a culture-critical metadiscourse – a ‘critical discursive energy’ (103) – is demonstrated in readings of (amongst others) The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and The Awakening, in which repressive societies ‘paralyze biophilic energies’ (105) or impose a ‘biophobic moral code’ (107).  Zapf’s argument gathers more force as he discusses the second of his triadic functions, pointing out the ways in which, by foregrounding the excluded and marginalized, these canonical texts act as an imaginative ‘counter-force’ that is ‘indispensable for an adequately complex account of the lives of humans and their place in the more-than-human world’ (109, 108), even when that complexity resides ultimately in a sense of radical finitude.  As Zapf says of Melville’s whale, it becomes ‘the source of a potentially infinite semiosis that resists and transcends all forms of discursive appropriation’ (110).  As Zapf adds, works such as Moby Dick then move towards the third of his functions, a reintegrative interdiscourse.  Here, this involves the rescue of Ishmael – and, therefore, of Ishmael’s ‘multi-layered narration of the borderline experience between culture and nature’ – from the vortex that consumes his ship, and, by extension, ‘the civilizational project of absolute supremacy over nature’ that it represents (117).  In this way, Zapf argues, literature reconnects the cultural to the biophilic in a constant process of renewal that underlines his claim that ‘literary texts are a mode of sustainable textuality’ (121).

Zapf builds on these insights in the fourth and final part of his book, in which he takes a number of the polarities or dualisms that have animated ecocritical discussion – such as mind and matter, local and global – and weaves them into the kind of ‘interactive domains of connectivity-in-diversity’ which are, he maintains, integral but also specific to the project of cultural ecology (123).  Here, once again, Zapf relies principally on American, often canonical texts to explore ‘the different dimensions of transdisciplinarity’ (8).  As he stresses, his choices are exemplary, but not exclusionary (9), and by focusing on relatively familiar and well-travelled texts, Zapf is able to demonstrate the distinctive nature of a cultural-ecological approach.  His reading of Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is a case in point.  Quickly summarising what is on the surface a straightforward tale (152), Zapf then offers a series of more-or-less conventional readings of it, culminating in a gesture towards Timothy Morton’s recent articulations of a dark ecology (153-4).  But then Zapf returns to his own approach, using space and time, order and chaos as touchstones around which to build a triadic interpretation that links the story’s aesthetic dimension to its themes.  The result is a convincing argument for the way in which ‘the spectral presence’ of the Red Death challenges the American Dream with the ‘uncontrollable interdependencies between human and more-than-human existence’ (157).

This is just one of many readings in Zapf’s book, and in the interplay of text and theory, his argument builds a strong case for ‘the enormous ecocultural potential of imaginative literature’ as a ‘specifically artistic form of cultural productivity’ (11).  As Zapf insists, his focus on literature (like his use of American texts) is not exclusionary; the approach is more widely applicable, across genre and media (9).  His central insight may, however, be the way in which imaginative literature has always encoded ‘the signature of the deep time of culture-nature co-evolution’ (268) even as it necessarily changes and renews itself through that intra-action.  Zapf’s is, in short, a bold and important contribution to the ecocritical debate, framed with admirable clarity.

Adrian Tait, Independent Scholar