Beyond Goodwill and Language: Why Ecopoetics Should Embrace Policy Wonks

21 Mar

(This post is part of conversation with poet and friend Moriah Purdy. The first post can be read over at Here Now, Myriads.)

Moriah has already provided some good working definitions of ecopoetics already, so I don’t have much to add on that front. My primary interest in ecopoetics is how it intersects with policy and political activism. I welcome responses from anyone, though I’m eager to hear the thoughts of my co-blogging conversationalist.

The oft posed questions surrounding poetry and practice run something like, “Does poetry do anything? Can ecopoetics help change environmental policy for the better?” These are often rhetorical questions or placeholders for future debates that don’t materialize.  I want to try to begin addressing them, and so I’ll offer what I see as the major limitation of ecopoetics (however defined): It doesn’t help us think about the environmental problems currently facing us.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if we’re focusing on ecopoetics as a poems themselves; poetry doesn’t pretended to offer the kinds arguments and evidence that essays or policy papers do, so it would be unfair to criticize ecopoets for not doing something they’ve never pretended to do. But much of the discussion surrounding ecopoetics seems to offer up questions without attempts to work through problems or offer potential solutions. An excerpt from Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice highlights my concern:

Consider another subject, which is beginning, at long last, to receive the attention it deserves, that is, the neglect and deterioration of the natural environment. It is, as is increasingly clear, a hugely serious problem and one that is closely linked with the negative effects of human behaviour, but the problem does not arise from any desire of people today to hurt those yet to be born, or even to be deliberately callous about the future generations’ interests. And yet, through lack of reasoned engagement and action, we do still fail to take adequate care of the environment around us and the sustainability of the requirements of good life. To prevent catastrophes caused by human negligence or callous obduracy, we need critical scrutiny, not just goodwill towards others.

Critical scrutiny is the key here, even though I think many ecopoets would argue that they are offering a kind of “critical scrutiny”—for example, by examining the ways we use language to talk about the environment. But I think that (much) of the critical scrutiny offered by ecopoetics is severely limited and often fails to address some of the most pressing concerns. This Tamiko Beyer post about the BP oil spill at the Kenyon Review blog is one such example¹:

I understand that to mean that the act of thinking through an ecopetics forces us to ask questions about the role and function of art/writing/etc. as we approach a critical ecological/environmental breaking point. The problems – as in the oil spill – are so huge and seemingly impossible to tackle – what use, then, poetry?

It’s a question that’s been asked before in many different contexts, but for me, it makes intuitive sense that an ecopoetics is a reasonable, appropriate, even vital response to ecological disaster. As one panelist pointed out (Iijima? Durand?) all poetry in some respect is ecopoetic: our language and language production cannot help but be influenced by and indicate the ecology that we exist in.

Given that, I want to think that we can start to reconsider our relationship with our ecology/environment by putting pressure on the language that is a manifestation of that relationship.

Though the problem is seemingly impossible to tackle, we already have a host of critical tools we can use to think about the problem: What are the environmental costs? What sort of regulation is missing? How have government regulators failed (or overreached)? What sort of legal remedies are effective/available? What kind of political action could communities muster to prevent future disasters?. It’s not that language is unimportant, it’s that the numerous disciplines that ecopoetics claims to include have spent some time thinking about these issues and these disciplines would be a great edition to the vocabulary of ecopoetics.  See, for example, Ryan Advent discussing the tension between environmentalists and the economic models which politicians and policy makers rely on to craft climate change legislation (or, as is the case with the US Congress, not make policy).

My feeling is that many ecopoets would nod along with some of these criticisms, admitting that, of course short term policy is indeed important, but that ecopoetics is playing a long game that is interested in changing the ways we think about the environment, breaking us out of status quo thinking and critical approaches (like economic models) which are too limited (or even damaging). I’m skeptical that many of these ecopoetic alternatives consider the full scope of the problem (global climate change is history’s greatest collective action problem–which problematic language game stands in the way of turning China, the US, and India into green nations?).  Which is why I’m interested to hear how others think ecopoetics can (or even shouldn’t) take into account some of the policy concerns of environmentalists and public debate.

fn.1: I don’t mean to suggest that Beyer is wholly unaware of other approaches to the oil spill besides language analysis; she says in the post that she hopes to revisit ecopoetic concerns in another post which, unfortunately, she didn’t write (only so many things you can address as a guest blogger). Perhaps she has since addressed similar concerns elsewhere.

The End of Lost as an End to Mystery

24 May

[NOTE: This post contains spoilers about the series finale. The usual precautions apply.]

Update: See also Tracie’s excellent re-cap/analysis over at Jezebel.

I think Charlie Anders’s response to the finale of Lost over at io9 is representative of the reaction many other Lost fans had last night:

In the end, it’s hard not to see Lost as the longest con of them all. Not because we didn’t get enough answers – it’s really true that after this episode, I don’t need any more answers than what we got. But because all along, Lost seemed to be a story. Until the end, when it wasn’t. In the end, it was just a bunch of stuff that happened.

[...] It just felt like a cheap, cop-out ending.

Slb over at Postbourgie has a similar take:

I haven’t encountered too many fans who weren’t at least a little let down by this resolution. The whole, “Surprise! You’re all dead!” thing seems far too convenient for a show that encouraged its audience to invest so much time cracking codes and trouble-shooting mysteries. If you think about all the websites with secret messages and comic book plotlines and DVD commentaries and literary references and numerical fake-outs this show employed over the years, in light of the show’s last few minutes, it’s enough to make you want to throw something at your TV.

Contrast this with Tyler Cowen’s take:

Most of all I viewed the ending as tragic.  It was not mainly about any particular account of the metaphysics of the island.  It was about how few couples had the chance to actually live together, love together, and stay together.  The perfect reunions of the couples in the “we’re all dead” scenario only drove this point home.  I found this contrast moving.

[...] Overall I thought it was the best final episode of a series I have seen, with close competition from The Sopranos.

I favor Cowen’s reading for several reasons, mostly because I think it captures what was resonant and frustrating to the viewers annoyed by the finale: the promise of an end to mystery left us with another mystery and that mystery was different than the mysteries proffered by the show before the finale.  But first some quick background on what kind of Lost watcher I was for context: I wasn’t a committed Lost fan over the entire series.  In fact, I began watching the series starting with (I believe) the Season 3 DVD and stayed with the show mostly because 1) I had enough character background and basic mythology that I could watch an episode and follow the rough contours of the mysteries and revelations while grounded in the character drama and 2) I was sucked in by the Lost cultural phenomenon and was curious to see how it would all end.

Continue reading

Whither Pax?

21 May

When I first started this blog, I had hopes that I could make it a group blog–not just because it would make the writing load easier on myself, but because there are a lot of areas that I find very interesting beyond my narrow personal and academic experience (e.g. science, law, philosophy).  I was also much more foreign policy focused, in large part because foreign policy issues dominated politics at the time.

In the intervening years, I’ve alternated between neglecting the blog and occasionally dipping back in to write about some of those disparate issues.  That’s required a lot of reading and, frankly, a lot of energy that isn’t as helpful to the (few, transient) readers of this blog. I don’t have the intellectual or policy experience that a lot of other bloggers have, and that makes my posts a lot less useful for making sense of an issue, something that I think is important if I’m going to add to the debate and not simply add to the noise.

That’s why I’ve decided to start blogging again while taking the blog in a different direction.  As my blogroll suggests, I want to draw from a range of disciplines and approaches, and this is part of my comparative advantage. So I’m going to embrace my disparate intellectual interests and see if I can’t serve as a rough translator between disciplines and ideologies. Even if I don’t have the policy experience of the experts, I can make some of the disagreements and points of contention between philosophies and political positions clear and hopefully add to understanding even if I can’t provide answers.  Here’s hoping some of you will stick around for it.

Poetry Blogs You Should Be Reading

25 Jun

In my long blogging absence I’ve negleted to highlight two great blogs about poetry and the process of writing poetry:

1. First Book Interviews: Keith Montesano interviews Rauan Klassnik in his 21st interview for the series (while in the midst of getting his own first book published).  Choice excerpt:

Yes there’s certainly a lot of violence in Holy Land. I don’t think it’s gratuitous though. And, yes, there’s also a lot of tenderness. Perhaps some of the tenderness is gratuitous. But I’m quite sentimental and as much as I guard against it does come through in the poems sometimes. I’ll cry over just about anything. Over a raindrop. The latest Star Trek movie. An old man in a doorway.

2. How A Poem Happens: For aspiring poets–or those who simply want’s to peal back the the veil of inspiration and Romantic ideas about poets–Brian Brodeuer asks poets about their process writing and shaping a single poem.  The latest post takes a look at Philp White’s “Six O’Clock Flight to the Interment”.  An excerpt:

What is American about this poem?

Even if death is the great universal, love and grief, and attitudes toward time and place, self and other, are all tinged, if not shaped, by culture. I’m sure the poem is American in some way. But it doesn’t make a point of it.

Saving Globalization from the Poets

18 Jun

Jeremy Schmall has a post over at HTML Giant that argues that poetry’s larger cultural irrelevance makes it a useful site of resistance against globalization.  Schmall’s description of globalization (and capitalism in general) however, is mostly caricature bolstered by some hand-waving and talk about the power of imagination.  The central mistake is, I think, an attempt to define “true culture” against market exchanges:

The crucial point here is understanding the difference between a consumer market and true culture. A consumer market is based on what kinds of people buy what kinds of things, i.e. how to make money by selling what to whom. True culture is the spread of what is critical to people, beyond the control of corporate manipulation, and without regard to profitability; culture is precisely how humanity itselfunderstands humanity itself. Capitalism seeks to manipulate this process by producing its own manufactured meaning; if it can control the endpoints, it can control the means to achieving those endpoints, e.g. if you want to be a “hip enlightened nerd,” here’s your type of shoe, TV show, soft drink, and automobile.

As a categorical tool for thinking about these different relationships, the cultural/market (Geminschaft and Gesellschaft) are, in the abstract, useful.  But Schmall defines “true culture” as that which is “critical to people,” and then cites poetry’s continued existence in the face of overwhelming forces that poetry must be critical to people while neglecting all of the other things we consider “critical” that are part of market exchanges.  As someone who values and writes poetry, I’ll readily agree that poetry (in whatever form) had be deemed important, across cultures and historical epochs. But what about the most critical resources and goods like food, clothing, and shelter? We consider these part of cultures (and often leave their distribution to the market, with some controls and exceptions).  There are many creative, cultural products and traditions that are part of market exchanges and the result of market forces (think of something as simple as French toast or stews in cooking; both use leftover or day old ingredients as a creative response to limited resources).

Moreover, Schmall’s description of capitalism oversimplifies things to the point of distortion:

A consensus has emerged that our current place of existence—severe economic crisis and pervasive paranoia—can be blamed on poor management, that with a few tweaks—tighter regulations, less leveraging, more honest accounting—the catastrophe unfolding before us could’ve been avoided; but what has really been revealed is a crisis of our collective imaginations. It’s been revealed that we were incapable of imagining a world without a receding economic horizon that must be sped toward at an increasingly rapid pace, despite the fact that the faster we sprint—the longer we work with increasing productivity—the faster it recedes; that we failed to imagine our lives without consumer electronics, name brands, oversized homes, green lawns, shopping malls, and automobiles; that we failed to imagine for ourselves a world we could truly thrive in.

How has increasing productivity lead to “a receding economic horizon”?  I’d argue (or agree, as the case may be) that increasing income (the result of increasing productivity) shouldn’t be the only measure of welfare and flourishing in a society, but the list of consumerist evils (name brands, shopping malls, oversized homes) is simple hand-waving.  How do any of these things prevent us of from thriving (the argument that we don’t pay the true costs of these–the negative externalities–is a valid one, but one that has a market/government solution, but Schmall rejects these in favor of improving our “collective imaginations”)?

Finally, consider also that “true culture” can be restrictive in ways that inhibit flourishing and reduce welfare (whether material or something more abstract).  There are many cultures that have cultural practices, dress codes, mores, and roles that aren’t the result of the market, but tightly inscribe what women should do and wear, or what jobs a certain ethnic or religious sub-group may hold.  These are real restrictions on flourishing (women can’t earn a living not provided by a man, can’t be educated and improve their own understanding) that have nothing to do with the market.  Contrary to what many of globalization’s critics argue (or assume about their work of economists and other proponenets of markets) there isn’t a single market policy or process of liberalization that a country must persue (see Dani Rodrik”s work).  But what Schmall is describing is a caricacture of capitalism, a caricarture with little explanatory power.

In Defense of Writing Programs

12 Jun

Actually, this isn’t technically a defense of writing programs; I don’t think writing programs need defending*.  Rather, it’s a quick look at what I believe to be some of the unexamined (or at least not widely cited) benefits of writing programs.  In a much discussed review essay of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, Louis Menand lays out the raison d’etre of the book and one of the inescapable features of the modern (post-war) literary era:

As McGurl points out, the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature. McGurl’s claim is simple: given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is processed through the higher-education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way the system affects the outcome.

The proliferation of creative-writing programs is sometimes cited as a sign of fiction and poetry’s decline; if poets and authors had to produce works the literate public actually wanted to buy from their local bookseller then more people would be reading (or at least there wouldn’t be so much surplus literature produced that few people are interested in reading).   But these are two separate claims: 1) That the supply of literature, in some way, determines demand (through some unseen magical process) and that 2) There is an overproduction of literature.  The second claim is most likely true, but it also irrelevant (at least considering the other possible options).  It’s a matter of how we want to go about supporting literature and the arts.  This requires a little bit of explanation

Writing programs do not choose who the next great writer will be.  Readers, critics, and publishers help determine that.  So if writing programs don’t necessarily produce great writers, what are they good for (besides the aforementioned benefits, which aren’t particular to writing programs)?

  1. Writing programs make up a large, decentralized subsidy . This is my Hayekian argument for the MFA. Most art produced can’t survive the whims and vagaries of the market by itself, so it needs support from other sources.  This is okay, given that, for whatever reason, we make a lot about appreciating the arts and like the idea of having a country that produces its fair share of great cultural works in addition to cutting edge technology and iPhones.  Universities and colleges are a good public/private mix of funding that doesn’t pursue one type of literature or any one school of writing within literature.  So (for the sake of argument) Columbia University can have a “house style” if they like, but that still leaves several hundred other programs that can have their own different house styles (NB: From my experience, this isn’t the case–programs rarely enforce a party line and exclude writers who won’t toe it.  But there are many programs that favor certain kinds of writers and thus tend to attract student interested in writing in that style.  The bottom line is that even if programs produced a kind of “house style,” its unlikely that they would all produce the same one, giving us a variety of literary works to choose from.)
  2. Writing programs are an alternative to other kinds of literary study found in English departments. In many ways, Creative-writing programs ask many of the traditional questions of literary study, without as much of the academic apparatus of theory and cultural studies: What makes this text a great work?  How do the author’s choices affect our understanding of the work?  What is it that we admire in a text?  That is not to say that the Literature faculty of English departments are not concerned with these questions.  I’m not trying draw an arbitrary line between those Theory weirdos deconstructing Moby Dick, and the true defenders of traditional culture in creative-writing programs (I’m aware the some people who dismiss big Theory commit little theory).  But I do think it says something about the practice (or at least the study) of literature when many undergrads choose creative-writing classes as their entry into the discipline (especially considering that many–if not most–of those students will not become published writers, at least not professionally).

This last point is something I’d like to explore further, but for right now I think these are the two biggest, unexplored arguments in favor of the increasing influence of writing programs(to my limited knowledge–please highlight anyone who has raised either of these points elsewhere**).  As an institution, creative-writing programs are decentralized, which means that it’s responding to different demands in geographically (and aesthetically) different locations, and that this demend represents a popular alternative to the kinds of literary analysis and interpretation done in other parts of English departments.


* Not because writing programs are self-evidently useful or productive, but because the sorts of things programs are good for (time to write, a community of writers) are either valuble to someone intersted in writing or they aren’t (or are provided through other means–in which case an MFA is unnecessary).

** Actually, now that I think about it, David Wojahn makes a similar argument to my second claim in his book Strange Good Fortune.

A Question About Literature and Political Philosophy

30 Sep

And since people are thinking about literature I’ll take this opportunity to ask a question I’ve been considering recently: Why doesn’t more literary criticism make mention of rights-based liberalism?  Not that I expect a lot of lit professors to approvingly cite Rawls, but he doesn’t even get name checked.  This might seem like a silly question considering that Rawls didn’t have a lot to say about literature (as far as I know), but I’ve never heard him referenced.  Not even as figure to disagree with.  Then again, I never hear Nozick or Judith Sklar either. Marx, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, yes–but nothing about Rawls.  

There’s a lot of vague comminitarian talk that gets thrown around and plenty of discussion about the difficulty of language, but seemingly nothing about rights-based liberalism.  What gives? (I leave this an open question for people who probably have more experience considering the two fields).


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