What Is an Emergency Ecopoetics? – It’s an Expanded Ecopoetics

Prepared for the ALECC 2020 digital conference at University of Saskatchewan

At a literature conference last year, Anne Raine put together a panel that asked how the climate emergency should affect the way we study and teach literature.  Her feeling was that as a teacher, integrating ecocritical content into a course was not enough.  In “catastrophic times,” she suggested, “I need to rethink not just what I study and teach but how.”  Quoting SueEllen Campbell, she proposed that we “must imagine new job descriptions”—perhaps more focussed on affective response and design in learning, or less bound to professionalism as measured by resource-intensive productivity.  Her remarks set me thinking in a different but related direction.  If what literary scholars or artists do is model an ecopoetics, then how should we model an emergency ecopoetics?  Is there a creative or interpretive practice that emerges to respond not only to the long history of environmental injustices, but also to our unique sense of planetary catastrophe and crisis?

It’s possible that I won’t be using the term “ecopoetics” in a conventional way. I doubt I’ll be using it in a controversial way, though.  In my experience, ecopoetics has most often been used in connection with poetry, even though the root, “poetics,” clearly refers to verbal craft in any medium.  In this talk I’ll be talking about the need for scholars and teachers in particular to bring ecopoetics to absolutely anything they do – interpreting, teaching, writing – in relation to just about any kind of cultural text.

The long histories of harm to the environment and its denizens have, of course, led to the present ecological crisis.  But I would suggest that the structure of feeling for environmental knowledge and art has uniquely evolved over the past decades.  With new pollutions like microplastics, resource depletions, climate change, and mass extinctions, the danger in our lives feels at once more extensive, more various, more powerful, and more intimate.  Evidence that not only the welfare, but also the very survival of human and other life, is imminently at risk has given rise to a new lexicon of climate crisis, climate emergency, and in mental health, climate breakdown.  This paper asks what this shift implies for ecopoetics, which I define in the most general way as the wordcraft of ecological perspectives and worlds, and its study and teaching.  What might an “emergency ecopoetics” look like?  I propose what I see as two essential steps, simple and perhaps embarrassingly obvious, towards an emergency ecopoetics:  (1) we need to dig into the ecopoetics of nearly everything we ask students to read (or that we ourselves study), not only texts belonging to a subcategory of explicitly environmental literature, because environmental messages or meanings are not limited to a special branch of art, and (2) we need to look ahead to the value, for us and others, of the meanings we unearth, that is, to the use we’ll make of them in the story of an emergency that envelopes us and our fellow readers.

(1) The first step I propose responds to Extinction Rebellion’s challenge to media producers, cited by Raine, to emphatically foreground environmental crisis in all news, rather than a specialized segment.  In teaching and researching across literary texts and classrooms, I think that this provocatively translates, for us, to a need to foreground and ecocritically to expose the poetics or fabrication of more-than-human representation in all the texts we read and themes we address, not only environmentally-oriented ones, and to see this fabrication in two ways, as a poetics of both (a) their conditional ecology—their material niche in actual naturalcultural institutions, media, and genres, and (b) their propositional ecology—their imaginative worldbuilding for the reader or audience in language, form, and content.  What messages do literature and art convey to us, positive and negative, subliminal or deliberate, delusive or truth-seeking, about what we are and what we might be?  In this view, the purview of ecopoetics is expanded not only to include the creation or study of all wordcraft or indeed aesthetic representation directed specifically to ecological subjects, but also to encompass all textual or aesthetic production.

(2) A second step is the need to translate these meanings into an engaged ecology, into readerly models of warning, hope and futurity as opposed to nostalgia, alienation or escapism [that is, into models of desire expressed in speculative reverse engineering of alternative conditions of life].  Propositional and conditional ecologies are descriptive.  When I ask what they mean to me in the current crisis – how they might help, hinder, or inspire – they become engaged.  This step requires a craft of “asking” that is practical, social and collaborative, hence a kind of poetics for scholars of reading and teaching, and for artists of creating, in addition to the poetics of any text in itself.

As an example, I’ll use the TV series begun in 2017 and ongoing, Riverdale.  There’s really nothing ecologically thoughtful about this teen drama based on the world of Archie Comics; it is unlikely to show up on any environmental humanities syllabus.  So it is a good test case for an emergency ecopoetic practice.  If I were to take up this practice when I teach Riverdale in comics or cultural studies, then what could I possibly say?  This is how I might go about it.  Despite its many differences from the comic book series that flourished in the 1960s, Riverdale sustains from its Archie origins the portrayal of a social world naively at harmony with its material grounds in nonhuman life and resources.  This material foundation of this world is endlessly renewable and its nonhuman life is absent or recedes into a homogenous background; the only problems are interpersonal ones among its human residents.  That abundance and homogeneity create a delusion of stability and unity, like the stage on which characters strut and fret.  But I want to emphasize also the aesthetic feeling of “harmony,” because in both the comic and the TV show the world pulsates with sensual colour and form, is saturated with visual pleasure.  And these pleasures derive from mundane, small scale effects, like the brooding light hovering around the diner, the carmine vinyl booths, or the sculptural intensity of Archie’s orange hair or of Veronica’s stroke-of-ink eyebrows.  This is why, despite the fact that nonhuman nature is almost never in the foreground or significant to the characters or plot, the show has an ecological message for our desires:  we wish to live in this storyworld, too, in which images of naively modest abundance and sensual pleasure are the poetic elements from which it is made.  This might seem only a negative ecology – a utopian, anthropocentric denial – but it is worth noticing that this world belongs to an experience of youth that is antagonistic (despite itself) to the adult status quo [i.e. to its economic and egocentric values].  The show is premised on the question:  how can the world be made safe for youths and their future?  Without them, its world would lose its extravagant, camp flamboyance and its theatrical freedom; it would turn grey and predictable, a dreary terrain of social orthodoxy and normalized exploitation, exemplied in its villains.  Thus Riverdale may be training us to feel the fragility of its own propositional ecology – of a utopian, unsettled youth culture and its small-scale, sensual fabrication in bodies, images, and interests – of an idyllic strawberry sundae here, a gothic velvet curtain there, that could be all anyone needs, but are irrelevant to adult ambitions.  The show presents an ecopoetics of resources processed anthropocentrically, but for imaginative pleasure rather than social power or economic growth, hence perhaps usefully, to a better ecological future.

The conditional ecology of Riverdale is vast and complex, because it encompasses production, distribution, and reception.  At its heart is a liberal capitalist entertainment industry financed by risk-averse giant corporations with a stake in the current economic regime.  Addicted to it is a consumer culture that is no less conservative in its training of desire.  Such an ecology is fabricated out of high finance, high technology, global labour, and liberal ideology.  Its ecopoetic message, just like that of its propositional ecology, is to forget ecological dimensions of life – that is, the lives of resources necessary for mass electronic media and its reception.  While this message may be decoded diversely, it is a powerful additional constraint on the slightly more hopeful aspect of the propositional ecology I’ve described.

If I brought all this with students in a classroom, then I would hardly have made a valuable contribution responding to ecological emergency.  I would not have shown how looking at the ecology of Riverdale might help us understand ourselves or the future we want.  That would require an engaged ecology, and its ecopoetics – as I’m freely using the term – would involve crafting activities to discuss what a future of ecological justice and sustainability might look like, and how Riverdale, as a fantasy world, moves us closer to that future or avoids it.[i]  This isn’t as radical a change in “job description” as Anne Raine was suggesting, but for me, the imperative to slow down with texts, to unfold their ecological imagination no matter what the text may be (and in intersection with its other concerns), and to find ways of teaching the adaptation of that knowledge to the present, does demand a different teaching practice.  And the intersectional part is important because, of course, there is more than one emergency to be faced – and in Riverdale, the social politics of historically oppressed lives would be a big part of the conversation.  I find myself very challenged to re-design my courses to accommodate these imperatives, to move beyond analytic meanings and lessons to creative translations, in an academically rigourous way.

To sum everything up, with a nod to Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema (1970):  we need an expanded ecopoetics.

Appendix (a little more on Riverdale):

As I said above, there’s really nothing ecologically thoughtful about this teen drama based on the world of Archie Comics; it is unlikely to show up on any environmental humanities syllabus.  One might teach it in a course on comics or adaptation, in American Studies, or in Gender Studies.  I recently taught Riverdale in a course on Cultural Studies approaches to popular culture genres, where it provided a laboratory for discussions of race, gender, and sexuality representation.  But an emergency ecopoetics would call upon me to foreground the ecological work that the series also does, less overtly.  I would argue that there is an ecological message, a kind of ecological unconscious, implied in the fabric of every imagined storyworld, and perhaps every imagined voice.

The nonhuman cosmos, or nature at large, is not missing from Riverdale.  Although most settings are built interiors (e.g. homes, school, diner) with a few built exteriors (e.g. parking lots, football field, work sites), a recurring setting is the great wilderness forest.  In the first episode, a weirdly luminous, dream-like sequence shows a young man and woman dressed in white, rowing a white boat into a river surrounded by a tall forest. As the episode develops, we learn that the young man, a high-school student, has been murdered, and we are introduced to fellow students – Archie and the gang – who become involved in the mystery and its solution. The other-worldly appearance and catabatic role of the forest at the start is not incidental. The forest regularly re-appears as a mythical boundary zone separating the world of Riverdale from everything outside of it.  Riverdale’s criminals and refugees hide out there, transgressions are at play there, but nothing belongs there.  It is a social idea, not a real place – a symbolic vehicle for whatever cannot be seen in Riverdale itself, in its social problems or in its psyches.  Thus it is an expressionist prop or backcloth.  The luxurious postmodernist style of the series often acknowledges this anthropomorphic derealization of nature, photographing the forest, as if in quotation marks, as a horror movie setting.  But Riverdale is not entirely explained by this negative ecology.

The initial premise of Riverdale was that a more or less oblivious group of modern youths wake up to discover that the adult generation, mostly, considers them to be disposable. The world that was prepared for them is a world that is deadly to them.  The series expresses a deep anxiety about the fragile authority and future of youth.  The enemies these youth face in the storyworld are the usual suspects in liberal Hollywood:  inhumane business empires (bad rich people) and intolerant social conservatism (sexism, homophobia, racism).  In short, the series is about survival, specifically the survival of youth in an adult world that is profoundly unsafe, and it frames this problem of survival – as Hollywood will – as a problem of individual character and interpersonal relations, humans dealing with other humans on a stage on which everything else is a prop.  To its credit, unlike the noir tradition which it lovingly appropriates (and unlike much of Hollywood tradition), Riverdale does not isolate the individual as the key to survival or justice, but rather tries to show the necessity (and difficulties and risks) of ad hoc collective action. That it can only do so in permutations of friend groups and lovers, and in a fantasy world in which visible minorities assimilate to a monocultural society are, however, examples of its limitations.

In sum, then, Riverdale, serial in form and liberal in theme, programmatically encodes both a valuable, open-ended social critique and also a rigorously anthropocentric repression of ecological conditions. As terrible as it sounds, I must wonder whether even the violence-ridden social world of Archie and his gang may itself be an escapist fantasy from ecological crisis – perhaps because the latter is harder to represent and plot at the scale of intimate character drama.  If I were teaching the environmental “emergency poetics” of Riverdale, then, I would want to show that the series invites the viewer into a discourse of liberal social critique, although the intersection of social discourses of race, sex, class, and gender with ecological concerns is not part of its storyworld.  Nature in Riverdale is a powerful discourse, though.  It remains either in the background as an unproblematic, self-serving, pastoral suburban imagery of ornament and harmony (like the repetitious, open-space, colourful backgrounds of trees, lawns, and skies in the original comics), or it comes to the symbolic foreground as a psycho-geographical wilderness.[ii] It is an ecological utopia to the simple degree that its world is stable – indeed, it is a gorgeous, baroque pastiche of small town, suburban idyll, noir crime, gothic horror, and other romance storyworld imageries, in which the characters are ensconced as in a thick, iridescent gel.  I confess I’d want to live there – if there means not a place (we only see Riverdale in disjunctive fragments, impossible to identify even as a town, city, or suburb), but a super-saturated, aestheticized experience of place.  It is not a bad thing – nor ecologically – for a work of art to promote a vision of life in which posthuman, small-scale sensual nature, even when confined to its surging through the bodies, textures, and colours of human characters and objects, is preferred to a grey, financially-obsessed industrial culture.[iii]  Politically decentred and existentially creative, Riverdale is a pre-industrial utopia romantically called forth by William Morris but executed with a postmodern wink by Robert Rauschenberg. It invites us to forget about nonhuman nature, but at the same time, to imagine a human nature that is defined by the pleasure of sensual, existential values on a more-than-human continuum (hair, skin, eyes, wainscots, curtains, chairs, asphalt, neon, sunlight, mist), rather than by the pleasure of power or domination. Does this conflicted ecological message do any positive work?

This returns us to what I called the conditional ecology of the text. The propositional ecology of Riverdale is a secret, conflicted message of utopian desire that we live in harmony with nature and our only problems are narrowly social.  The conditional ecology of Riverdale is the set of institutional practices that convey this message:  especially, the high-finance, capitalist entertainment industry embedded in advanced electronic and other technologies (and hence their unsustainable and often unjust, global resource and labour chains).  Additionally, the viewer of Riverdale consumes such popular entertainment in a cultural and commercial institution of leisure-recreation that is at least partly a conservative, therapeutic practice in capitalist society, rather than an empowering or subversive one.  Corporations financing these series – in the case of Riverdale, traceable to the international conglomerates ViacomCBS and AT&T – exert some control over what may be produced and what may be said, in the interests of what will sell.  One doesn’t need to please everybody, but one needs to please a mass audience, the bigger the better.  In this light, both the ideological and material institutions of entertainment production and consumption in which Riverdale is embedded are antithetical in response to the radical action needed to reject the material norms and structures of feeling of industrial consumer culture in the current global climate and biodiversity emergency.  Obviously, these conditions are true for many cultural products today.

So what room is there for an ecopoetics of Riverdale, or any text not explicitly interested in the current environmental crisis, to be useful today?  How is it relevant?  My answer is that its relevance is not fixed in the text but is there to be shaped and crafted.  We can hack Riverdale to understand how it is encoded, what its messages are, to recognize our ecological desires or fears in it, and build something new out of it, understanding ourselves better.  This is what I mean by an engaged ecology of the text.  It means an ecopoetics of questions crafted for oneself (what do I want?) and among others (what do we want to do?) in relation to entangled human and inhuman relations that might as well begin in Riverdale as elsewhere.

[i] For example, asking students to create a Riverdale toolkit for surviving the ecological crisis, and also a toolkit for not surviving it, based on elements from its storyworld and aesthetics that could help or hinder its viewers.  Or adaptation exercises: creating an ecologically aware Riverdale character and seeing how they would fit in with Archie and the gang and their typical plots; or writing a fan fiction with an ecological theme or crossover.

[ii] The forest is in one sense a quotation: the producers have said that it the show was inspired by Twin Peaks, a very different series set in a small-town in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. It is worth mentioning that the forest of Riverdale might be decoded or experienced less anthropocentrically than is encouraged by the plot and style.  It is my own feeling that the images of wilderness often oddly stick out, as if they resisted assimilation to their storyworld. Such object effects in cinema are what Roland Barthes called “obtuse” or “impertinent,” as they exceed or defy their script and indeed interpretation itself. Similarly, the mundane beauty of the forest sometimes fails, I think, and for no good reason I can name, to collapse into the self-consciously artful, expressive, and intertextual beauty of the postmodern Riverdale.  In one episode, Archie and Jughead are walking along railroad tracks surrounded by forest, leaving Riverdale.  I found it impossible not to see them, like the trees, as also having left Riverdale – to see them as the bodies of the actors KJ Apa and Cole Sprouse, and to be reminded (impertinently) of the act of shooting the scene and producing the series.

[iii] I regret not including an ecopoetical close reading in this theoretical paper, but I hope that my statements here give a fairly clear idea of what that would look like, as a cinematographic reading, in particular, of elements of mise-en-scène in relation to narrative construction.