Timothy Clark, The Value of Ecocriticism

Timothy Clark, The Value of Ecocriticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019) 194 pp. £41.99 Hb £13.99 Pb ISBN: 9781107095298

Ecocriticism in the age of the Anthropocene, transcending its beginnings in the critique of nature writing, addresses a diversity of cultural productions that aim to make sense in a world haunted by problems that elude human conception. Rising to prominence in the twenty-first century, the Anthropocene remains a much-debated notion. At the root of this debate is not a disagreement about mankind’s involvement in the current crisis of the Earth System, but rather disciplinary queries on its ‘golden spike’ and the validity of the term beyond its geological origins. In The Value of Ecocriticism, Timothy Clark suggests that, used as a ‘loose interdisciplinary translation’ (29), the Anthropocene enables ecocriticism to address a ‘synthesis of environmental and social concerns’ (18). As such ecocriticism, ‘an avowedly political mode of analysis’ (11), follows in the footsteps of other critical turns that conceived of literature as a vehicle of societal issues. Its value is thus described as reaching beyond a rejuvenation of literary criticism into the realm of cultural self-critique and political activism.

In the first two chapters, ‘The Anthropocene? Nature and Complexity’ and ‘Scalar Literacy’, Clark discusses the challenge of engaging with a crisis of planetary scale and incalculable time. Ecocriticism, he argues, raises questions about the Western project of modernity, which - sometimes inadvertently- has caused irreversible damage to the planet whilst improving human lives. Consequently, the Anthropocene is marked by the dilemma that both action and inaction will have incalculable consequences, making mankind an imperfect steward of the planet. Through the processes of modernity, Clark writes, ‘[t]he Earth has become itself an increasingly hybrid entity in which human impacts interact in emergent ways with partially understood ecological systems, with sometimes counterintuitive interactions that cross the continents’ (56). This requires that humans must think on different time and spatial scales at once, introducing a new complexity to writing and reading.

In the following two chapters, ‘Ecopoetry’ and ‘The Challenge for Prose Narrative’, Clark turns to writings that attempt to capture such simultaneous incongruities. Identifying different categories of poetry dealing with environmental themes he weighs advantages and disadvantages of poetic formalism on the one hand and experimental forms on the other. However, he concludes that most poetry is written for an academic audience and often lacks clarity and accessibility. In contrast, the novel appears a more useful medium for meaningful intervention (cf. 145). Clark argues that, ‘humans crave to understand things by embedding them in some linear story’ (91), and that, it is ‘[a] supremely important task for modern literature and for criticism […] to find ways of representing this new reality of elusive agencies and distant or invisible wrongs […] and to do so in ways that are engaging, credible and pertinent’ (92). He illustrates, using a variety of authors, how different narrative techniques, such as juxtaposing local to global events, alternating narrative time frames, open endings, and ‘assemblage’ (95) can aid in this task. In a short digression to ‘petrofiction,’ he introduces the idea that human dependence on certain natural resources has elevated these to agents, formative of human stories.

In Chapter Five, Clark returns to this issue of the material and agency: A ‘loose amalgam of various positions held together by the common theme of affirming the view that non-human matter has incalculable agency of its own’ (120), material ecocriticism is inspired by the understanding that in the Anthropocene, the ‘material and natural world is [no longer] falsely conceived as the realm of passive, separate entities, ripe to be used at will as resources for humanity’ (123). The result is a shift of focus from large-scale notions of nature, to small, even microscopic, elements. Micro-plastic, bacteria, or even ‘the crude materiality of excrement’ (127) now feature in ecocritical readings of fictional and non-fictional texts, and increasingly other cultural productions. Yet, Clark also cautions against overstretching by assigning meaning to events and elements that exist beyond the human altogether.

In the final chapter, Clark explores the possible future(s) of ecocriticism. He identifies a continuous development away from its western roots in favor of furthering postcolonial influences. If anything, an Anthropocene perspective will demand more attention to the ‘grave disparities in economic and cultural power’ (146) which govern environmental policies and activism. Furthermore, he argues for an extension of the scope of ecocriticism beyond purely environmental texts and counsels against the loss of literary diversity in face of a growing environmental cosmopolitanism (159).

Clark provides an impressive overview of the diversity in ecocriticism, which has made it a ‘global academic phenomenon’ (145) over the past thirty years. His exploration of the different strands and foci gives the reader a thorough sense of the field without getting lost in detail. He neither bores with tedious translations of terms taken from natural sciences, nor does he indulge in lengthy explanations of philosophical stances, which often render publications on the Anthropocene inaccessible to a diverse audience. Instead, each chapter takes up clearly defined elements of ecocriticism and the thought traditions they draw upon. Well-structured, he illustrates each concise introduction to a specific topic, its origins, and links to other areas in the field, with clear examples. Alongside his own analyses, he provides critiques of other ecocritical readings to showcase different modes of Anthropocene reading. His goal of capturing the value of ecocriticism as a powerful mode of literary inquiry, literary production, and not least, political activism, is thus accomplished. While clarifying its limits, he yet shows that ecocriticism in the Anthropocene may well-serve to establish new modes of thinking about the challenges of a destabilizing political order and environmental system. He points to the contradictions without resolving them, acknowledging that the temptation to re-establish a linearity to both human and literary narratives is a significant obstacle to Anthropocene writing.

All in all, Clark provides a comprehensive introduction that is useful to a broad audience. This little volume will be useful to teachers and students, as much as to scholars of the field that seek to brush up on their grasp of the field.

Eva Rüskamp, University of Freiburg