In recent times, environmental literary discourse has taken multicultural and rhizomatic trail from its beginning in the early 1990s. The necessity to respond to complex material entanglements is at the heart of the ongoing environmental discourse. Multiple theoretical methods, representations, alliances, and interpretations have opened-up environmental literary criticism into diverse ways of reading the natural environment which disseminates in all directions resistant to being framed or fixed in a particular defining methodology. Previous approaches of eco-criticism continue to cross pollinate with new theoretical conversations to bring in new lenses that broaden understanding of the 21st century environment. This is because, according to Donna Haraway, “life is recognised to be more than a mere human quality…. Life is read ecologically in constitutive relations with heterogeneous others in the post human condition”. To this end, this article is organised around the notions of ecocriticism in tandem with trans-corporeality and the consequences of human practices and actions on the environment.
For many, the description ‘environment’ is conceived as a reference to the natural elements of a physical landscape. The “environment has been conceived as a system within which living organisms interact with the physical elements” (Sada 29). It is the surroundings or conditions in which a person lives. The environment includes one’s home, place of work, schools, and community parks. These are places people spend their time, and these play a big role in the overall well-being of an individual. The environment has also been described to be made up of spheres which include the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, the lithosphere, and biosphere. However, conceptions of the environment have continued to develop throughout ecocritical discourse. The environment has moved beyond the inkling that, “nature is out there mentality” to a more interconnected term. More broadly, the environment is a reference to space that are composed of more than just “nature” or “culture” to include subjective elements of individual memory, imagining, disjointed thoughts and ideologies all of which are dictated by the human and the place.
The term “Eco-criticism” is a movement known by a number of nomenclature such as “green cultural studies”, “eco-poetry”, “environmental literary criticism”, “green-poetry”, “eco-literature” and “eco/environmental studies”. Ecocriticism has its source from two Greek words Eco (oikos) and Critic (kritis) meaning “house judge”. By this, Ecology means man’s house and the critic is its judge- an arbiter of taste who wants the house kept in good order: no technological tillage, no oil spillage to ruin the original décor. For William Ruekert, an eco-critic is one that judges the merits and faults of writings that depict the effect of culture upon nature with the view of celebrating nature, bearing its despoilers, and reversing their harm through political actions (107). By analogy, ecocriticism combines the natural science and humanistic discipline. Lawrence Buell explains eco-criticism as the relationship between literature and environment or how man’s relationships with the physical environment are reflected in literature (1091). Ecocriticism investigates literature in relation to the histories of ecological thought, ethics, and activism. It explores the relations between literature and the biological and physical environment conducted with an acute awareness of the devastation being wrought on the environment by human activities (Abrams 87-88). Some widely known eco-critics are Lawrence Buell, Cheryll Glotfelty, Scott Slovic, Simon Estok, Harold Fromm, William Rueckert, Michael Branch, William Howarth, and Glen Love.
Scott Slovic offers a broad description of “Ecocriticism as the study of explicitly environmental texts from any scholarly approach or, conversely, the scrutiny of ecological implications and human-nature relationships in any text, even texts that seem, at first glance, oblivious of the nonhuman world” (160-162). Corroborating, Michael P. Branch espouses the significance of Ecocriticism theory as a call for cultural change. Ecocriticism, to him, is not just a means of analysing nature in literature rather it implies a move towards a more biocentric worldview, an extension of ethics, a broadening of human conception of global community to include nonhuman life forms and the physical environment. Ecocriticism enables us to identify works of arts, ideas and texts that offer needed perspectives on the relations between the human and the non-human relations experiences, or environmental crisis.
Trans-corporeality, on the other hand, has been circumscribed as a post humanist (the idea that humanity can be transcended or eliminated) mode of new materialism where all organisms, as embodied beings and species, are intermeshed with the dynamic material world, which crosses through them, transforms them, and is transformed by them. Notable new materialist theorists are Stacy Alaimo, Claire Colebrook, and Karen Barad. Stacy Alaimo in her book Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self illuminates Trans-corporeality as “the time space where human corporeality in all its material fleshiness is inseparable from ‘nature’ or ‘environment’. “Trans” indicates movement across different sites. The movement across human corporeality and non-human nature necessitates complex modes of analysis that travel through the entangled territories of material and discursive, natural, and cultural, biological, and textual… (238).
“Trans-corporeality emerging in social theories, science, science studies, literature, film, activist websites, green consumerism, popular epidemiology, and popular culture, counters and critiques the obdurate, though postmodern, humanisms that seek transcendence or protection from the material world” (4). It does not foreground the spiritual/ mystical argument that everything is interrelated; rather, it is a radical rethinking of epistemologies which implicates science, disability studies, environmental studies, arts, literature, and everyday socio-political engagement. Trans-corporeality grapples ways in which environmental ethics, social theories, popular understandings of science, and conceptions of the human self are profoundly altered by the recognition that ‘the environment’ is not located somewhere out there but is always the very substance of ourselves (4). Alaimo’s notion of trans-corporeality zeroes in on the porosity and permeability of bodily boundaries. It focuses attention squarely on the “fleshy realities of socio-ecological interdependence’ detecting how bodies ‘always bear the trace of history, social position, region and the uneven distribution of risk” (261).
In “Porous Bodies and Trans-corporeality”, Alaimo argues that the idea of trans-corporeality traces the material interchanges across human bodies, animal bodies, and the wider material world. Here, “Body” refers indiscriminately to any material entity that exists. Thus, while there are many differences among bodies, and while bodies have very different powers and capacities, any entity that is a unit from the smallest to the largest is a body regardless of scale. In other words, every single body is a multiplicity of multiplicities –a heterogeneous and complex network of entities that is itself an entity or unit. All entities or bodies are characterised by a porosity that allows the outer world to flow through them…. Entities flow through each other, influencing and modifying each other in all sorts of ways (larvalsubjects.wordpress.com). As noted above, critics, activists, and environmentalists bemoan how bodies, matter, and the environment in the twentieth and twenty-first century have been subdivided into manageable “bits” or flattened into a “blank slate” for human inscription, and significations that fit into technologies. This way, the environment is been sapped of its blood, its lively creatures, its interactions and relations- in short, all that is recognizable as “nature–in order that it become a mere empty space, an ‘uncontested ground’ for human ‘development”… (Alaimo 1-2).
Consciously or not, engaging trans-corporeality, or movement across bodies and nature, would alter mankind’s’ sense of self and prompt the perception that the natural world often visualised as a resource for human use is a world of fleshy beings with their own desires. By focusing on the complexities of the human and non-human bodies enriches understanding of environmental principles of interconnection. The concept of trans-corporeality, therefore, opens an epistemological space that acknowledges the often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, non-human creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors. Emphasising the material interconnections of human corporeality with the more than human world and at the same time acknowledging that material agency necessitates more capacious epistemologies allows us to forge ethical and political positions that can contend with numerous late-twentieth century / early twenty-first century realities in which “human” and “environment” can by no means be considered as separate (Alaimo 2-3).
Trans-corporeality interrogates the place of the human corporeality and the more-than-human world, by considering their interconnection and implications for environmental values. It speaks for the environment by addressing mankind’s everyday attitudes, beliefs and practices which shoves away and manipulates the natural environment as a mere disposable entity, a blank slate, a screen on which humans’ scheme for profit in the post-colonial culture. Corroborating this, Diane Coole and Samantha Frost remark that “…the most basic assumptions that have underpinned the modern world including, its normative sense of the human and its beliefs about human agency, but also regarding its material practices such as the ways we labor, exploit and interact with nature…” (Introduction 4).
Along these lines, modern-day practices are predisposed towards over exploitation, exploration, manipulation, and annihilation of the material world. Diane Coole and Samantha Frost in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics write that, “our daily existence depends from one moment to the next on myriad micro-organisms and diverse higher species, on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions on pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artefacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socio-economic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday lives” (1). Hence, at different twists, humans encounter physical objects that are reconfigured to human schemes whose imperatives structure our daily routines for existence. Buttressing, Alaimo in Protest and Pleasure: New Materialism, Environmental Activism, and Feminist Exposure asserts that posthuman ethics of trans-corporeality insists that even the most routine human activities, such as purchasing plastics, impact human and nonhuman lives across vast geographic and temporal scales, extending even to the bottom of the sea. (Alaimo 2016). The bizarre enormity of the effects of the minutest everyday actions underscores the urgent need for rethinking ethics and politics in the Anthropocene- an epoch in which human activities have profoundly altered the planet.
To counter the ongoing ecological despoliation, this essay calls for the dematerialising of systems in contemporary everyday behaviours and practices by engaging in complex sensitivities pertaining the materiality of the earth. The exposé lends credence to Thomas Berry’s assertion that “the mission for 21st Century is to develop a new philosophical framework that can overcome the existing system of high consumption and waste” (19) in conjunction with contamination. On this backdrop, Sale Kirkpatrick writes that:
To come to know the earth, fully and honestly, the crucial and perhaps only and all- encompassing task is to understand the place, the immediate, specific place, where we live. In the question of how we treat the land, our entire way of life is involved. We must somehow live as close to it as possible, be in touch with its particular soils, its waters, its winds; we must learn its ways, its capacities, its limits; we must make its rhythms our patterns, its laws our guide, its fruit our bounty (224).
This essay foregrounds that radically rethinking the role of the human and the non-human in all ramifications from an interdisciplinary stance as demonstrated in the idea of eco-criticism and trans-corporeality are vital innovative paradigms in understanding that all bodies in the environment are vulnerable, interdependent, interconnected and symbiotic. The models are decisive in studying the intermingling/entanglements of nature and culture, and of the human and the nonhuman, as well as for questioning the underpinnings of related hierarchical dichotomies if all bodies are to survive the raging age of the anthropocene (viewed as the age during which human activity has been the dominant influence on the environment) where the chronic violence of modernity, industrialisation and globalisation have obliterated countless multispecies liveability. Therefore, the theories could help us meditate more on human / non-human ecological interaction and ecological destruction and the ways in which literary discourse have started to transform by such central concerns. Taken together, the designated theories contribute in exciting new ways to literatures, environmental health and environmental justice in critiquing the implacable postmodern capitalist world where practices that are unethical have metamorphosed into the contemporary ecological calamities at hand.
Dr Joyce Onoromhenre Agofure, a Fulbright Foreign Student Research Fellow, American Council of Learned Societies/AHP Fellow, is with the ßDepartment of English and Literary Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Email: [email protected] or [email protected]