Hubert Zapf is Professor and Chair of American Literature at the University of Augsburg, Germany. Here, he tells us 4 things you need to know about his new book Literature as Cultural Ecology, out now in our new Environmental Cultures series.
- Literature as Cultural Ecology is the first study which systematically connects ecocriticism and literary studies with the discourse of sustainability. In this way, ecocriticism and literary studies are assessed in their hitherto underestimated relevance for the sustainability debate and for the new interdisciplinary framework of the environmental humanities. The book conceives of literature as a form of sustainable textuality which produces ever-renewable sources of creative energy for language, narrative, and imagination that continually transform and renew the larger cultural system. In this view, literature reconnects cultural to natural ecosystems and links the imaginary futures of modern civilization to its evolutionary conditions of emergence. Literature is described as a long-term form of cultural self-reflection and storehouse of creative energy, which offers a powerful potential of cultural critique and self-correction that is indispensable for the future evolution of culture beyond merely economic and techno-scientific concerns.
- The book considers literature not just as a medium that illustrates insights from other, supposedly more authoritative forms of knowledge but as a distinct and culturally relevant form of ecological knowledge in its own right. Concrete textual analysis and interpretation as the core competence of literary scholars gains new significance not as a derivative application of pre-existing scientific knowledge but as a specifically rich and complex source of ecocultural knowledge which is relevant to other disciplines in the environmental humanities in turn.
- My book practices a transnational and transcultural approach to ecocritical thought both in its theoretical premises and in its concept of the text. In terms of its theoretical foundations, a cultural ecology of literature resonates with the work of theorists such as Gregory Bateson, a British scholar living in the US; Peter Finke, a German biologist, linguist, and systems theorist; Wendy Wheeler, a British biosemiotician with strong theoretical links to the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Pierce as well as to the Baltic-Scandinavian school of biosemiotics; the Frankfurt school of critical theory and its postmodern ramifications in the eco-aesthetic philosophy of Gernot Böhme and in the sociological theory of Ulrich Beck’s world risk society; as well as Italian and Turkish ecocritics Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann’s approach of a material ecocriticism. In terms of the textual examples discussed in the book, they range from the 19th and 20th century to contemporary literature, from poetry to novels, from American to British, Indian, South African, and German literatures, thereby advocating a transcultural concept of literary texts and an ‘ecocosmopolitan’ (Ursula Heise) perspective on literary ecology.
- Finally, Literature as Cultural Ecology is transdisciplinary in its scope and theoretical-methodological conception. Beyond environmental issues in a more narrow sense, the book also deals with more general topics of an ecocultural aesthetics and epistemology. Among these are “Text and Life,” dealing with literature as a cultural-ecological form of ‘knowledge of life’ different from and complementary to the contemporary life sciences; “Order and Chaos,” discussing the necessary co-agency of the forces of order and chaos in both ecology and in aesthetics; “Connecting Patterns and Creative Energies,” exploring the interplay between ‘patterns which connect’ (Bateson) and transgressive excess in creative processes; “Matter and Mind,” examining the dynamic interactivity between matter and mind in literary texts as exemplified in the poetics of the four elements; “Solid and Fluid,” focusing on the beach as a liminal space between land and sea, culture and nature as a particularly productive site of literary creativity; “Wound and Voice,” mapping the outlines of a cultural ecology of literary trauma narratives; “Absence and Presence,” placing a cultural ecology of literature within the polarity of absence and presence as discursive modes of texts; and “Local and Global,” tracing conflicting orientations between the local and the global, and between postcolonial and transcultural-ecocosmopolitan models of ecological thought in contemporary texts within the frameworks of climate change and the Anthropocene. In all of these chapters, different dimensions of transdisciplinarity are explored, in which the epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic functions of literature as cultural ecology are demonstrated both on a theoretical plane and in textual examples.