What is Green Criticism?

The last time I was purposefully academic was probably when I sat my finals. Even then, we were well-educated in the philosophical contexts of the writers we studied, but not in the theoretical context in which we ourselves were operating. Since then, I’ve taught at half a dozen universities at least, but always as a practitioner. Academically cutting edge I am not. The question ‘what is green criticism?’ is not rhetorical.

Around the time I did my English degree, there were some books emerging that used ecology as way to approach literature: Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology springs to mind; I probably should re-read it. The aim of these books seemed to be to understand how writers related to nature: how ‘green’ they were. But that’s about ecology, not employing it as a critical tool. I wrote an extended essay in my third year. It was about depictions of landscape in landscape and painting at the time of the first generation Romantics. I was interested in the sublime and the beautiful, not out of any kind of swoony romanticism but because they suggest two ways of modelling our desire for the external. I don’t really want to get into this in any detail here, as I still haven’t got to the real point I want to make in this post. Suffice to say, I’d noticed how some writers saw nature as a force that transformed the tiny figures traversing its landscapes while some saw it as something that framed or provided a kind of extension to, or illustration of, heroic anthropocentrism. I was somewhat out on a limb, frankly. It probably wasn’t my best work.

So, what might real green criticism be? Is anyone writing about how ecology, or ecosocialism, or green thought (which are of course all different – but that’s for another time) could be useful ways to look at culture? 

I don’t know the answer. There may be libraries of the stuff. Perhaps it has all passed me by because these days I only know about new books if they’re in the Guardian’s Saturday Review or chosen for Daedalus’s currently dormant Radical Performance Reading Group. But I have been putting some thought into this: specifically, what my green politics might mean for my artistic practice. It seems to me that this is not a matter of making work about, for example, how bad it is that we’re in denial about climate change (although I passionately believe in that kind of work and am indeed collaborating on just such a project) or about the transformative power of trees (although I passionately believe in that kind of work too, and am indeed also collaborating on just such a project). These are massively important things to investigate, and hugely exciting artistically, but that doesn’t make the work we produce green (although they may be that as well, I don’t know yet). So what, in my academically faded opinion, might a green approach be?

The exciting thing for me about the green/ecological way of thinking, is that it bursts the bubbles that let us compartmentalise things that are connected. The best example is economics. Most economics assumes an indefinite amount of growth is possible, using an indefinite amount of resources. Green economics points out that this is fairytale because it’s an incontrovertible fact that we live on a planet. Green politics points out, among other things, the simple fact that how we run our society is fundamentally connected to the reality of our existence as biological entities in an increasingly troubled ecosystem: another simple fact that conventional discourse chooses to ignore.

How do we apply this approach to cultural criticism? I suspect it has to do with acknowledging the reality of the context in which we operate. To take theatre as an example, we might ask things like: Who is in the audience and what baggage do they bring? What is the significance of the space we’re in? How might the journey here, or the weather outside, or the fact that one of the actors has a label showing, change the experience? How has funding affected the piece? How familiar might audience members be with the story and what other things might it remind them of? What is the relationship between the actors and the audience as a group of human beings in a shared space? What is the social and environmental cost of making the play? Is the cost of the ticket, or any other factor, limiting who is in the audience? What does it mean to perform in one town rather than another? Should the piece be the same for different audiences? What are the assumptions the play is making about the audience’s worldviews? What’s the consequence of having a scene that makes some people in the audience feel really awkward? Why are there lots of people who, quite reasonably, have no interest in seeing the piece, and how does that impact on the experience of those that do see it? I suppose much of this boils down to one question: what have we been ignoring?

There are lots of things we choose to ignore, in the same way that, in theatre, we like to pretend that anything painted black is invisible. Perhaps “green criticism” is what bursts the bubble. It’s a kind of radical equality of all the things that affect how we experience something. It’s exposing the ecosystem in which the play operates.

What critical structures are there to support this? Field theory, perhaps. Not because fields are green, before you make the obvious joke, but because of its approach to analysing the contexts in which we operate. But this is where I’m really out of date and out of my depth. The idea of the post-dramatic also seems key. In fact Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre is one of only a handful of academic books I’ve read since university. Its insistence that we acknowledge the reality of the situation in which we perform, and the choices we make, or fail to make, about this, is magnificently on target. As I might explain in more detail another time, I’d been almost unconsciously exploring much of this already, albeit in protean form, and to hear these ideas articulated, analysed and taken much further than I ever could, was uplifting.

You may ask why my tentative definition (i.e. exposing the ecosystem the play in which the play operates) doesn’t put specifically green issues at the heart of the critical process, such as giving extra gold stars to art that shows how great it is to love nature. But the fact is this: when you look at things as a whole, the ecological emerges by itself. We are animals in an ecosystem, and however much we ‘civilise’ ourselves, there’s no escaping this fact. The way to ensure that ecology is at the heart of things isn’t to isolate it, or put it on a pedestal, but to let it take its natural place, which is sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground but always present. Treating green issues in isolation is dangerously missing the point (cf most mainstream ‘green’ policies) and probably a category error.

I don’t have a neat concluding paragraph. That’s it.

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