Literature and Theatre

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The poetics of sustainability and the politics of what we’re sustaining

Outlining tensions that scholars and critics have discerned in the concept of sustainability, this chapter proposes that Jorie Graham’s 2008 poetry collection Sea Change employs a poetics that engages formally as well as thematically with the term’s complexities. Her work is shown to challenge the model of ‘sustainable poetry’ advanced by Leonard M. Scigaj, and the reflexivity of her technique is seen to enact the difficulties and contradictions of sustaining the cultural metanarrative of sustainability. Attention is paid to the way Sea Change’s dialogue with the literary tradition attempts to sustain our culture – as represented by T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare – and to how it reveals that such an endeavour always changes what it seeks to pass on. The chapter concludes by suggesting that Graham’s sequence incorporates such contingency into an aesthetics akin to music rather than narrative, sustaining a human habit for art even under the extremes of environmental change endured in the twenty-first century.

in Literature and sustainability
Concept, text and culture

Sustainability is a notoriously fraught and slippery term, and yet one that is now well-established in mainstream usage across the contemporary world. While sustainability is widely discussed and theorised across range of disciplines, this book sets out to consider what innovations literary scholarship might bring to the sustainability debate, and indeed what sustainability as a concept might bring to literary scholarship. Putting forward a range of essays by leading and upcoming scholars, this book takes a non-prescriptive and critically reflective stance towards the problem of sustainability – a stance we describe as critical sustainability. Essays in this collection accordingly undertake a range of approaches, from applying tools of literary enquiry in order to interrogate sustainability’s paradoxes, to investigating the ways in which literature envisages sustainability or plays out its tropes. Overall, this book seeks to demonstrate how sustainability’s difficulties might open up a productive opportunity for interrogation and exploration of the kind that literary scholars and ecocritics are ideally placed to carry out.

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Sustainability, the arts and the watermill

In the relationship between the arts and sustainability, the watermill is important, but often neglected. Frequently sentimentalised and abstracted from its historical moment, the watermill was the point at which food entered most transparently and immediately into the world of politics and governance. It was a complex institution within which communities were created and negotiated, through cultural as well as material relationships. The present essay tells the stories of four watermills, actual and (re-)imagined: Trumpington Mill in Cambridgeshire, setting for Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale (c.1390); Flatford Mill in East Anglia, often associated with John Constable’s 1821 painting now known as ‘The Hay Wain’; Dorlcote Mill, home to the Tulliver family in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860); and Felin Ganol in Llanrhystud, Ceredigion, a building with medieval origins and recently restored to working order by the owners. The stories of these watermills, their loss and recovery, mediates important (sometimes inconvenient) truths about our fraught relationship with the land and remind us of the central role of the creative arts in reimagining alternative, more sustainable interconnections between land, water and communities and the food chain they support.

in Literature and sustainability
The paradoxes of sustainability and Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island

Sustainability is fraught with paradox: it seeks to change society in order to enable it to remain the same; it aims to reconcile a Neo-Malthusian conception of absolute natural limits with an emancipatory politics, and a normatively charged conception of ecology as ‘natural law’ with the imperative of species survival. Even though it also makes sustainability susceptible to co-option, this paradoxical quality is not a flaw; rather, it is what makes sustainability a fundamentally contestable and therefore political concept. This essay reads Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (2005) as a satire on the discourse of sustainability which highlights these inherent contradictions, extrapolating from the confused desire for a more natural lifestyle a future which reveals the latter’s potentially dehumanising logic. The novel offers no positive vision of a sustainable society, but it clarifies what is at stake in the debate over what such a society might look like.

in Literature and sustainability
Cardboard publishers in Latin America

Bell’s chapter examines the cardboard publishing (editoriales cartoneras) movement that has spread widely across Latin America since Eloísa Cartonera was founded in Buenos Aires in 2003. Editoriales cartoneras are small, independent publishers who make their books by hand out of recycled cardboard, whose common principles include anti-capitalism, inclusivity and sustainability. Through close readings of the mixed-media collection Catador (Waste picker, 2013) by the São Paulo-based publishing cooperative Dulcinéia Catadora, Bell argues that cardboard publishers offer an implicit and explicit critique of the ‘three pillars’ of sustainability, of ‘full-stomach’ environmentalism. The chapter highlights the way the Brazilian catadores make use of the liminal zone between the human and more-than-human world, not so much to raise the standing of the latter (as with new materialist critics like Stacy Alaimo and Jane Bennett), nor to reflect negatively on social exclusion in the modern capitalist world (as in Zygmunt Bauman’s Wasted Lives), but rather to sustain themselves and (re)generate their collective identities through the regeneration of materials

in Literature and sustainability
On last animals and future bison

Many endangered species are being saved from extinction, only to end up stuck in small population pools that are deemed sustainable but not much more expandable. This essay discusses the biological and theoretical issues of animals that live near extinction. Specifically the fate of the North American plains bison is examined as an example of how the animal is 'rewilded' literally and fictionally today after its near extinction in the nineteenth century.

in Literature and sustainability
Open Access (free)
Precedents to sustainability in nineteenth-century literature and culture

This essay argues for a more historicised conception of sustainability that transcends contemporary preoccupations (e.g. with climate change) in constituting part of modernity’s long counter-tradition. It is suggested that proto-ecological discourses of sustainability emerged from the formulation of the concept of ‘environment’ (milieu) in nineteenth-century European intellectual culture before being articulated in literary works informed by that tradition. The essay looks at William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890) and, in detail, at Emile Zola’s La Terre (1887). Zola’s novel is imbued with the ambiance (Leo Spitzer) of an environment coloured by the struggle of reconciling human, social, and economic needs with the earth. Sharing contemporary preoccupations – the possibilities and perils of technology, global capitalism, human folly – Zola concluded that human sustenance compels careful, productive action in environments we must ‘cultivate […] in order not to starve’. Far from offering a template for the ‘stationary state’, Zola recognised, as should we, that sustainability is a dialectical, contingent, ongoing project.

in Literature and sustainability
Sustainability in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy

This chapter examines how Kim Stanley Robinson explores the possibility of transitioning toward a sustainable future in the Science in the Capitol trilogy. It begins by examining science fiction’s longstanding engagement with futures studies and moves on to consider how sustainable images of the future offer alternatives to unsustainable carbon-based energy regimes. Building on Roger Luckhurst’s identification of the trilogy’s use of “proleptic realism” and on Douglas De Witt Kilgore’s discussion of its status as “structural comedy”, this chapter considers the multiple interventions that are imagined as providing opportunities for a movement toward a sustainable future. It ends by locating interventions based on the adaptation of energy infrastructures, landscape restoration, climate rectification and climate mitigation in the context of geoengineering.

in Literature and sustainability
Sustaining literature

Despite the supposed game-changing nature of the Anthropocene as a geological event, popular culture and literary theory have tended to intensify the supposedly intrinsic value of human agency and survival. If there is a sublimity in the articulation of the Anthropocene it has been predominantly recuperative, where the threat to human existence intensifies a seemingly necessary moral future. To think about material sublimity would be to consider the Anthropocene as an inscriptive event that precludes the lures of redemption that have accompanied the geological stratigraphy. By exploring the logic of literary sustainability, which discloses an intimate relation between survival and destruction, I argue for rethinking the supposedly prima facie value of the future of what has inscribed itself as humanity.

in Literature and sustainability
The sense of an ending in Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods

Jeanette Winterson’s 2007 novel, The Stone Gods, is a critique of progress. It juxtaposes two worldviews, the first an ethics of receptivity toward human and nonhuman others and the other the impulse toward technological mastery and endless economic growth. The novel therefore replays some contemporary debates around sustainability. Crucially, the novel also conflates social and sexual norms with literary form and, as such, offers both an ethics and aesthetics of sustainability. This rewriting of politics, ethics, and aesthetics in the name of sustainability destabilises the very category of novel. Beginning with a brief overview of debates around sustainability in order to show how these are replayed in the novel’s contrasting modes of sustainability and unsustainability, I explore some theories of the novel, particularly to studies of endings, which are so relevant to an analysis of Winterson’s alignment of sustainability with sexual and with narrative impulses, and particularly with romantic and narrative foreclosure. In analysing Winterson’s novel, I suggest that the result – the novel’s case for its own unsustainability – is borne out by its dénouement.

in Literature and sustainability