Review of Ecology without Culture - Aesthetics for a Toxic World
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
160 pp., illus. 9 b/w. Paper, $25.00
Within the scope of recent publications on or about the Anthropocene, within the context of ecocriticism, Ecology without Culture certainly represents an original take on the subject. As its title already suggests, Marran formulates an answer to Timothy Morton’s book Ecology without Nature (2007). Whereas Morton tries to free ecological thinking from nature as it impedes too much on it due to its romantic tradition, Marran points her finger to human culture in general as the culprit as the material world, in her opinion, exceeds culture (p. 5). As the subtitle of her book suggests, Maran focuses on several toxic events and sees how these lead to a “transcorporeality”, a terminology borrowed from Stacy Alaimo, that connects humans and nonhumans with a strong “recognition of the agency of the nonhuman world” (p. 44).
As a solution for the influence of cultural humanism Marran introduces as a solution in four chapters “ecological imaginaries and ways of thinking ecocritically outside the protective enclosure of cultural and human exceptionalism,” while the introduction is completely dedicated to “the problems of culture for ecocriticism” (p. 6).To address these problems Marran introduces the concept of the biotrope. She observes how various cultures have used “biological elements to prove their strength and longevity, to make themselves appear as inevitable as the earth itself.” This results in some unmovable connotations, “fixe[d] … as if in amber,” between nature and culture. Marran names two explicit examples of these biotropes, one of which is “America’s amber waves of grain” as part of the hymn “America the Beautiful”. The other, about which Marran is very explicit and unforgiving is Murakami Haruki’s use in July 2011 of “the biotrope of the cherry blossom to claim Japan as an ethnic national collectivity that would inevitably recover from the catastrophic experience of tsunami flooding and nuclear meltdown” (p. 7). Both instances indeed demonstrate how an aspect of nature is used to claim a nation’s identity without much attention for its wider implications. They make very clear how nature is trapped in a certain narrative for which there needs to be found an alternative.
Marran, a professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota, declares herself to be inspired by new materialist perspectives as proven amongst others by her reference to Alaimo and others. With the biotrope clearly being connected to both materialism and storytelling, it will be no surprise that the latter takes the lead in her discourse, in the first place as an obligation, where storytelling is connected to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s concept of “minor literature” which allows to draw attention to wilfully overlooked situations. Obligate storytelling is defined by Marran as coming out of a relation, investing in a particular kind of voice, describing what storytelling means for its subject. Her main example in this chapter is Ishimure Michiko, who has written extensively about the poisoning of the Shiranui Sea, amongst others in her Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow (1969). Ishimure has attention for the stories of material objects, such as stones, just like Ursula K. Le Guin who quotes from “The Marrow” about a crying stone opens the chapter.
The other chapters, on slow violence in film, the domestic turn in environmental literature, and finally, literature without us, are explicitly illustrated by many non-Anglophone, often Japanese examples. The chapter on slow violence is for instance almost solely dedicated to Tsuchimoto Noriaki and his films on mercury poisoning and seems therefore somewhat out of balance. The chapter ‘Res Nullius’ on the domestic turn, its title referring to “property belonging to no one”, equally focuses mainly on one case study, namely Ariyoshi Sawako’s Cumulative Pollution that takes the compounded toxic effect of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a biotrope and discusses the poisoning in urban domiciles (p. 98). The chapter ‘Literature without us’ functions as a conclusion in which Marran criticizes the concept of the Anthropocene as being “trapped by a tautology of human exceptionalism” (p.118) and thus too narrow. She further discusses a possible “planetary” perspective from the point of view of amongst others comparative literature scholars Masao Miyoshi and Gayatri Spivak, but eventually opts for the necessity of reading on different scales, including that of the animal. Citing several poems, short stories and plays by Tawada and again Ishimure that are told from an animal perspective, Marran concludes that these representational worlds can “imagine a world without us in order to imagine a world anew with us” (p.142).
Marran certainly brings an interesting, highly readable perspective, all be it somewhat unbalanced in its references. The major stumbling block in my view remains however her elimination of culture. It is an interesting thought experiment, and listening to and including the nonhuman in ecocriticism is a noble and necessary endeavour that will however eventually lead to yet another culture. Today’s turn to a (renewed) interest in the nonhuman will no doubt be at its basis. It might be that Marran views this taking out of human culture of the equation as a way to create a ‘Body Without Organs’ in the sense of Deleuze’s use and its original by Antonin Artaud. Although it might seem superfluous, it is interesting to quote the latter's use of it in his radio play To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1947):
When you will have made him a body without organs, then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions and restored him to his true freedom.
This seems to fully sum up Marran’s intent, but she fails to make this connotation herself whereas Timothy Morton in his Ecology without Nature to which she refers is clearly conscious of it. Marran might of course consider the connotation implicit in her reference to Morton’s book, but it is a pity she does not unpack it.