Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Housebreaking Humans – Critiquing Ecocriticism

If anyone is actually reading these, please know that they are mainly written for my own benefit – it’s a psychological thing, a way of forcing me to process the information in the article. Actually posting my musings online in turn forces my notes to be coherent, and I’ve found coherent notes to be much, much more useful than scribbles. That said, if they’re of some interest to anyone, that’s an added benefit!

I recently read another interesting article on Atwood’s two novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, written by Hannes Bergthaller (full reference below as always). Bergthaller’s analysis is quite crisp, and dives straight into the post(-post)modern issue of the usefulness or uselessness of art, a topic close to Atwood’s heart in these novels. Framing the whole piece is the idea of ecocriticism and how it fits into the general humanist discourse. His own summary:

The first half of this essay argues that the idea of sustainability, and the question of species survival lying at its heart, poses a direct challenge not only to ecocritical orthodoxy, but to traditional conceptions of the humanities, as well. It challenges ecocriticism insofar as it exposes the untenability of the normative conceptions of nature which, under the name of ecology, have informed much ecocritical work. It challenges the humanities insofar as it forces them to revise the very understanding of humanitas that has traditionally underpinned them, and to recognize the arts as ‘‘anthropotechnologies’’, in Peter Sloterdijk’s terms: they are technologies of self-domestication that deal with human beings as evolved, biological creatures so as to make them governable.                                                                                                                                (Bergthaller 2010: 729)

The reference to Sloterdijk here is not a one off occurrence; Bergthaller keeps referencing this particular philosopher. Unfortunately I am not very familiar with him, but I might need to familiarize myself after this – point is anyway I might have missed some of the author’s original points just because I am unfamiliar with Sloterdijk.

According to Bergthaller, the modern idea of ‘sustainable development’ was a response to the more Malthusian, nihilistic views on ecology prevalent during the 1970s, (Bergthaller 2010: 730), but has since been criticized as being an ideology of having the cake and eating it: the idea being that we cannot simultaneously sustain the constant capitalist need for growth while also sustaining our natural world. This criticism is what Bergthaller terms ‘ecocriticism’ (with ties to Deep Ecology), which claims that the problem with the world today is a failure of imagination: we must understand that humankind is a part of nature and can exist as a part of the natural order. Bergthaller however astutely points out that this criticism is just “a continuation of Romantic critiques of modernity” (Bergthaller 2010: 731) and claims that “Atwood’s novels expose the woeful inadequacy of this formula as an ethical foundation for humanity’s relationship to its natural environment” (Ibid).

The ecocritical/Romantic fallacy is the fact that although humanity is indeed a part of nature, “there is little comfort in this realization” (Bergthaller 2010: 732). Humanity is after all following its own destructive, but wholly natural, urges when it wipes out other species and destroys their habitats (and humanity is hardly alone in this kind of behavior either – all of natural history is an endless succession of such cataclysms). The solution to this, Bergthaller (via Sloterdijk) contends, is that humankind must in fact de-naturalize itself, we must ‘housebreak’ ourselves and  “tame the human animal.” (Ibid).

How this can all be applied to Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood has already been intimated in other critical essays I’ve previously mentioned, especially the two conflicting views the novels present (posthumanism/Crakers versus spiritualism/God’s Gardeners). Oryx and Crake is a world on the brink of apocalypse (even without Crake’s interference) exactly because culture has “failed to produce workable strategies for taming the human animal” (Bergthaller 2010: 732). Via Sloterdijk, he makes a (in my view) rather odd aside into eugenics, claiming that humanists are simultaneously the shepherds and the breeders of the herd of humanity (a role that Jimmy-Snowman literally embodies with regards to the Crakers) – in essence then the argument is that any culture work (attempting to ‘housebreak’ the human animal) is also an eugenics project attempting the breeding of better humans. The Crakers represent the final and finally successful attempt at creating a thoroughly housebroken human being through genetics, one that no longer needs or even is able to perpetuate the kind of destructive, natural behavior us regular homo sapiens are prone to. A useless piece of hyperbole, probably inherited from Sloterdijk, but the idea itself is solid: ‘humanists’ do see themselves as shepherds of good ideas versus bad ideas (thus the eugenics would be memetic, rather than genetic). This is where Jimmy-the Snowman comes in.

However, disagreeing with other critics (such as Bouson 2004) Jimmy alone is not a solution, as he (in Bergthaller’s words) only embodies a kind of “half-understanding”: “He is fully alive to the thrill of artistic beauty, yet does not understand that it is meaningful not in itself, but because it provides a way of coping with the conflicting tendencies rooted in our biological being” (Bergthaller 2010: 738). The real solution, that brings together the two half-understandings of Jimmy and of Crake in Oryx and Crake, is, Bergthaller contends, the God’s Gardeners in In the Year of the Flood. Bergthaller quite simply states that the reason the God’s Gardeners turn out to be successful in the end is that they have created “a symbolic order within which the fact of survival can appear as meaningful and ‘good’” (Bergthaller 2010: 738) – in other words, they have reintroduced God (this in turn ties into e.g. Dunning 2005). This, Bergthaller says, is a necessary element of the fiction of the whole symbolic order (the rituals, the sermons, the arbitrary rules etc) – “as fictions, they are, in a sense, self-supporting structures for which our biological nature can provide no warrant” – we have no imperative to do any of it, there are no actual norms in place, thus “nature acquires normativity only by virtue of its createdness at the hand of God” (Bergthaller 2010: 740).

What we have here then, in conclusion, is a rather wonderful piece of post-postmodern criticism (more of that old validation, I’d say!): we need ‘imagination’ (art, culture, literature, etc) not in order to see some Romantic ideal of man and nature living together in harmony, but rather we need it to see what is not there (since there is no such natural harmony in the world!): we need it to imagine that we can live in harmony with nature (which is only possible thanks to a meaning-creating entity such as God), yet without forgetting the scientific evidence that suggests we cannot. A return to Romanticism perhaps, but a slightly jaded, cynical return. A return to believing-without-believing, to leaps of faith, to blind trust in things that we rationally know cannot be trusted. Very strange, very curious. I do wonder however if the reintroduction of God is the true solution to this dilemma, and Atwood is I think equally wary of it – but there is no denying that the God’s Gardeners have a lot of good points.

Bergthaller, Hannes. 2010. “Housebreaking the Human Animal: Humanism and the Problem of Sustainability in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.In English Studies; Nov 2010, Vol. 91 Issue 7: 728-743

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this! I read Bergthaller's article too but I found it a bit too short and too many deep and thought-provoking ideas all cramping in together. It's so much clearer after reading yours!