Environmental Humanities: Ecocriticism and Cultural DecolonizationLímites, tensiones y desafíos de la Teoría de la Literatura y la Literatura Comparada en el siglo XXI
The fact that the scientific community, trained to use language that is prudent and seldom alarmist, has started to emphasise that the rate of biodiversity loss is resulting in a «sixth massive extinction of the species», in that it is an anthropogenic process of «biological annihilation» without precedent, should not pass unobserved in either society in general, in literature, nor in art in particular. Recent reports conclude that the window of opportunity to avoid the direst consequences of climate change might close within the next decade and that, since 1970 to the present, there has been a global decline of 60% in wild animal populations. Faced with this information, only a society that is delirious, with a dysfunctional social imaginary, would continue to assume that the dominant model of civilization is both viable and desirable. Given such overwhelming evidence, the only mature, acceptable, and reasonable response would be a radical and immediate change in the organisation of social reproduction: including paradigmatic changes in urban design, energy and food systems, cultural imaginaries, knowledge production, economic and political theory, lifestyles, the models for production and consumption, educative practices, etc.
Unfortunately, to date, not only has there not been a massive mobilisation toward a full eco-social transition adequate to the circumstances, but rather, as a society, we remain profoundly immersed in the semiotic and material inertia of an hegemonic cultural economy designed to expand and intensify its metabolism, ignoring the ecological limits of said expansion, accelerating its destructive rate, and impeding the changes necessary in order to avoid a civilizational collapse. In other words, the dominant cultural imaginary is not only intrinsically unable to conceive of a deceleration of the necrotic inertia taking place, but an increasing number of official discourses—economics, technology, education—invite us to focus human creativity and innovation on the goal of accelerating the automation and efficiency of the existing model. Only a society enveloped in a delirious and pathological cultural hegemony would insist on accelerating, automating, and making more efficient a system that in four decades has exterminated 60% of the planet’s wildlife and has generated an unacceptable global inequality.
Decolonizing cultural hegemony and questioning the common spaces of the dominant imaginary are essential today if we are to enable the emergence of alternative systems of social reproduction that are
desirable and viable in the context of a planet that is radically corroded and poisoned by capitalist dynamics of accumulation: “we need an intellectual state shift to accompany our new epoch” (Patel and Moore, 2017: 2). This new geo-historical era (Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Phallocene, or whatever we choose to call it), in which the global expansion of extractivist, patriarchal petromodernity has drastically altered the physical, chemical, and biological planet, requires modes of thinking and feeling that are radically different from those sanctioned by the hegemonic imaginary. Today, as Boaventura de Sousa Santos reminds us, there are no modern solutions for problems generated by the expansion of capitalist modernity. “The catastrophe of this century, however, may turn out to be not capitalism’s end but its persistence on a hotter, geoengineered, ecologically simplified, and more toxic Earth” (Menely, 2017: 54).
The Humanities Crisis and the Environmental Crisis are part of the same crisis (Plumwood, 2002; Scranton, 2015: 26), that of an extractivist, patriarchal petromodernity that operates by devouring and exterminating life on the planet. This model of civilization has proven to be not only historically violent, unjust, and unequal (remember that in 2017, less than ten people accumulated more wealth than 50% of the world’s poorest people), but also intrinsically necrotic and defuturizing. Its global hegemony has been built through colonial and neocolonial processes of accumulation and dispossession and supports itself by pushing increasing numbers of beings (humans and non-humans alike) into precarity and destroying the conditions which would enable an inhabitable future: «carbon-fueled capitalism is a zombie system, voracious but sterile» (Scranton, 2015: 23). In other words, the climate crisis is a symptomatic manifestation of the terminal crisis of the hegemonic culture. “This culture is, of course, intimately linked with the wider histories of imperialism and capitalism that have shaped the world” (Ghosh, 2016: 10). On one hand, it is clear that the “urban-agro-industrial” (Fernández Durán, 2011) model of civilization that has been globalized in recent decades is biophysically impossible to universalise without collapsing the planet’s living systems, upon which it depends. In other words, it is not a model to be imitated. On the other hand, the more intensely it extends its metabolic material and its cultural imaginary on the planet, the faster it will consume and exterminate the possibility of imagining and materializing different futures, futures that are more prosperous, just, desirable, and livable. This is why it is so urgent, if we want to avoid the extinction of all the possible biological and cultural conditions for a planet that is habitable in a way that is dignified for the majority, to recognise that the civilization is already dead. The more we persist in attempting to resuscitate its corpse, the more we amplify its necrotic and defuturizing processes. Until we abandon the “cruel optimism” (Berlant, 2011) that blocks us from recognising the increasing environmental and social costs of our structural addiction to the dominant culture, given its inherent conflict between capital and life, we will continue to foment an inertia in which “every advance is achieved at the cost of making the world more unlivable” (Ghosh, 2016: 84).
In this context, what role should literature, cultural studies, the Arts, and Humanities in general play when it comes to radically changing the imaginary of the dominant economic culture, and contributing to the design and promotion of what I have called postgrowth imaginaries (Prádanos, 2018)? Up until now, the scientific community has shown certain limitations in terms of motivating social and political mobilisations that are appropriate to the circumstances. This is why Environmental Humanities should play a primary role in ousting obsolete imaginaries and articulating new cultural narratives that are better able to successfully navigate the new biophysical reality. There is more than sufficient data and analysis on the devastating social and ecological consequences of petromodernity, but there is a lack of new stories, narratives, and metaphors to displace the toxic and dysfunctional ones that legitimate and perpetuate the inequalities and asymmetries of existing power structures that make the urgent eco-social transition inviable. The new climate reality does not need more scientific reports but rather new material dynamics and regenerative semiotics that significantly modify affects, desires, subjectivities, and power relations.
Within the framework of a reductionist, economic, and technocratic culture that “sabe calcular, pero no sabe entender qué o para qué calcula” (Pigem, 2013: 64), limiting ourselves to adding more and more studies and indications showing the spiral of ecological and social collapse currently under way will not contribute toward driving radical eco-social changes. Offering more information is not the answer, rather we need to alter the logic with which the information is processed and used. This is why a shift in the cultural paradigm, in the broadest of terms, is so necessary, to redefine the relationship of the human with itself and with the non-human. Decolonial Environmental Humanities offer a starting point (though not the only one) for this gargantuan, but inevitable, task, to replace the dominant cultural paradigm with new imaginaries that are socially and environmentally regenerative. In this sense, and pardoning my simile, Environmental Humanities act much like the mushrooms that thrive in degraded post-industrial ruins, both the fruit of and a result of overcoming the toxic dynamics of petromodernity. “In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin” (Tsing, 2015: 6).
It is worth mentioning that the majority of the formal contributions to eco-criticism and Environmental Humanities have, until recently, come from universities in the Global North and, in most cases, harbour more or less explicitly an ethnocentrism—Anglocentrism or Eurocentrism (or both)—that lacks a decolonial sensibility. However, there are an increasing number of people involved in the emergence and evolution of the Environmental Humanities who emphasise the vital necessity of actively incorporating decolonial perspectives. Said perspectives recognise that any celebrated prosperity associated with industrial modernity, the enjoyment of which was always forbidden to the social majority, is not just making the planet uninhabitable for a large part of humanity (and many other species), but also that it was built in the last 500 years and it is maintained through the genocide and epistemicide inherent to colonial and neocolonial processes (see Prádanos and Anderson, 2017; Patel and Moore, 2017). This is why it is so important that contra-hegemonic imaginaries, if we do not want to reproduce certain dynamics of oppression, emerge from an ecology of knowledge that goes beyond the ways of knowing that fit within the pre-fabricated framework of colonial power (De Sousa Santos, 2008). Thus, any truly emancipatory imaginary should, simultaneously, celebrate the differences and reduce the inequalities or, in other words, prevent difference (intra and extra-human) from being translated into inequality (Pérez Orozco, 2014). The non-negotiable double objective of these new imaginaries would be “zero poverty and zero extinctions […] zero worlds destroyed” (Escobar, 2018: 150).
Environmental Humanities in general, and eco-criticism in particular, offer a critical framework (activist and academic) that is transdisciplinary and globally emerging. Further, in the last ten years, they have radically altered literary and cultural studies (as well as other disciplines such as History and Philosophy). However, their critical presence is still marginal within language, literature, and culture departments at the majority of universities worldwide. What’s more, the most relevant journals and publications on Environmental Humanities are almost always in English (in an academic context that is predominantly Anglo-Saxon). The goal of this monograph is to contribute, along with many other recent projects in the same vein, to the flourishing of debates on Environmental Humanities and that these reach (and are co-produced by) cultural critics, educators, and activists who work in diverse epistemological contexts. These debates are key to confronting the socio-ecological challenges of the 21st century. The objective would be for Environmental Humanities and eco-criticism to constitute an essential aspect of every university program and cultural agenda, from languages, cultural studies, literary theory, and comparative literature, and thus contribute to the decolonization of the dominant imaginary. This anthropocentric, productivist, patriarchal, colonial, racist, utilitarian, and reductionist imaginary that, on not a few occasions, the aforementioned disciplines have helped to perpetuate. The Humanities, if they wish to decolonize and be a power for change (that is, emancipatory), must first change themselves and unlearn some of their institutional inertias and epistemological limitations. Environmental Humanities harbour an important potential for encouraging said transformative processes.
Environmental Humanities, in its most critical version, implies breaking with hegemonic culture and with the dominant academic paradigm by expressing social and ecological problems jointly with cultural criticism, social justice, decolonial theory, feminism, and ecology. Environmental Humanities are articulated across a broad critical framework, but this is necessarily transversal and counter-hegemonic, almost always postnational, ecofeminist, post-extractivist, degrowth-based, postcapitalist, and posthuman. This makes it possible to identify and critically interrogate the relations between cultural dynamics and ecological processes. For example, this critical framework permits the exploration of the correlation between globalization and the dominant cultural economy and the sixth massive extinction of the species, or the ontological and hierarchical distinction between humans and non-humans, which opens the possibility for the exclusion and exploitation of all those beings (humans and non-humans) theoretically excluded from what was considered human in a specific historical context. This makes it possible to not only criticise but also propose alternatives to hegemonic culture that justify a necrotic socioeconomic system of reproduction which operates by annihilating life on the planet, and is unequal and based on the general exploitation of the human and the non-human.
All the essays included in this monograph explore the relationship between cultural manifestations and ecological processes through textual analysis or emerging artifacts in diverse territories, from Abya Yala to the Iberian Peninsula. Many of them emphasise the interdependence between species and the agency of the non-human implicated in all human action. This emphasis on the more-than-human goes beyond animal studies and includes vegetables, microorganisms, and abiotic substances. Almost all the contributions pay attention to flows; of water, microorganisms, bodies, imaginaries, memories, agrotoxins, mobilised by the metabolism of the dominant economic culture. This emphasis coincides with the proposals from ecology and systems theory that show us that, to better understand the workings of complex systems, it is necessary to pay attention to the relationships, intersections, and flows instead of concentrating on objects, parts, or heuristically disconnected individuals in the contexts in which they emerge. Promoting a systemic perspective of today’s reality is essential in order to question the reductionism of the dominant economic culture and displace its “ideology of disconnection” to achieve an eco-dependent consciousness on the multispecies relationships that stem from just and regenerative economic cultures (Alaimo, 2010; Capra and Luisi, 2014).
This monograph includes seven essays. “At the Biocultural Borderland: The Unfolding of Multispecies Encounters in Latin American Bioart”, by Azucena Castro, explores two examples of bioart in which the work of art is an emerging process of collaboration between microorganisms and humans. As these works suggest, the potential of all human practices is always mediated, conditioned, and facilitated by processes that are more-than-human. Appreciating these types of interventions helps us recognised that there is no cultural, political, economic, or social project that is not the fruit of a multi- species encounter.
Continuing in a similar posthuman vein, Kata Beilin reminds us, in “Messages from the Underground: Interspecies Memory in Times of Climate Change”, that all emancipatory and decolonial practices emerge through the biocultural collaboration between species. Beilin shows how various counter- hegemonic projects make use of the memories of past relationships between humans, land, and plants to generate eco-social practices and regenerative cultural narratives. The examples of interspecies memory mobilised by Beilin offer an important corrective to the massive and selective amnesia that legitimates modern colonial capitalism as a globalizing project and a structural design of accumulation via plundering, displacement, annihilation, and dispossession.
In “El cuento de la criada y Castoriadis: Entre la creación social y el imaginario de la catástrofe”, Adrián Almazán demonstrates the fruitful potential of incorporating Cornelius Castoriadis, the Greco-French philosopher who had an irrefutable influence on the degrowth movement but who has since passed into relative obscurity in cultural criticism, into environmental studies. Castoriadis, with his criticism centred on the signification of social imaginaries, allows us to interrogate the way in which certain cultural manifestations mobilise said imaginaries, and the possibility (and difficulty) of constructing or promoting more emancipatory imaginaries.
The following three contributions focus on literary works. “La piscina global: el Mediterráneo de Rafael Chirbes desde el spatial turn y la ecocrítica”, by Aina Vidal Pérez, analyses two of Rafael Chirbes’ novels from an ecocritical perspective that contextualises said works within the framework of spatial criticism of neoliberal development in general and its Mediterranean manifestations in particular. In “Gestos ecofeministas en Después de la ira de Cristian Romero”, David Loría Araujo studies the Colombian author’s work, paying close attention to the negative consequences of agrotoxic substances in the ground and in the bodies represented. In “De ficciones climáticas centroamericanas: ‘Abel’ de la escritora costarricense Anacristina Rossi”, Lucía Leandro Hernández also mobilises an ecofeminist perspective in her reading of the story.
The final contribution to the monograph, “Ecologías líquidas: geografías acuáticas en las artes audiovisuales de Brasil, Argentina y Chile”, by Irene Depetris Chauvin, offers a panoramic view of South American visual art that helps us to fruitfully re-think ecological problems from an aquatic ecocriticism.
The Miscellaneous section includes four additional essays on varying topics: “Escrituras alternativas y prácticas lectoras en la era digital” by Eloísa Alcocer Vázquez, “‘Iberofuturismo’ herido: Estética y reinicios en Eva (Kike Maíllo, 2011)” by Isabel Alvarez-Sancho, “Umberto Eco y la teoría de la arquitectura como herramienta crítica” by Marc Fernández Cuyàs, and “El lamento de Ariadna: entre el esperpento y la fiesta. Transiciones poéticas del grupo teatral Manojo de Calles” by José María Risso Nieva.
To a greater or lesser degree, most of the articles included in the monograph are informed by new materialist feminisms and decolonial theories and they are articulated from an ecological politics that recognises that the environmental crisis is not a technical problem resulting from poor management, but rather a politics of exploitation and unequal distribution of power (including the power to design the economic, political, legal, and cultural systems to the benefit of the few). It is a problem of discernible vulnerabilities and responsibilities, where the bodies that suffer most from the environmental degradation are those that benefit the least from the expansion of the economic culture that provokes them.
The types of cultural imaginaries that prosper and are mobilised in the coming years will define the way in which we respond to the current ecosocial crisis that was created by the dominant imaginary. The response from the hegemonic economic culture to its own crisis is not difficult to predict (given that it is already happening): flight towards an increase in militarisation and xenophobic and nationalist totalitarianisms with elitist, technocratic, and exclusive logics, and generalised precarity. I hope that this monograph contributes to the displacement of these toxic imaginaries for others, decolonial, ecofeminist, post-capitalist, and posthuman, that are more socially desirable and environmentally regenerative.
Luis I. Prádanos. Miami University