What is Green Criticism?

The last time I was purposefully academic was probably when I sat my finals. Even then, we’d only been educated in the philosophical contexts of the writers we studied; not in the 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. But I do want to understand how the work I and my colleagues do in the arts fits with the urgent need, in the face of imminent climate breakdown, to view society as part of an ecological system. The question ‘what is green criticism?’ is neither theoretical nor rhetorical. Green thought has provided us with a sophisticated analysis of society and its relationship to planet. How can we apply it to artistic practice?

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, and Kim Taplin’s Tongues in Trees; I probably should re-read them. The aim of these books seemed to be to understand how writers related to nature: how ‘green’ they were. But that approach is 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 literature 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 swooning romanticism but because they suggest two ways of modelling our desire for the external. Briefly, as I still haven’t got to the real point I want to make, 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. And it was also mainly ‘about’ the natural world. Yet it made me realise that there’s a deeper analysis which can – and probably should – be be applied to any kind of discourse.

So what might real green criticism be? Is anyone writing about how ecology could be a useful way to look at culture? 

There may be libraries of the stuff, I don’t know. 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 it. As I mentioned, this is not a matter of making work about green issues – that ask why we’re in denial about climate change, for example, or celebrate the transformative power of trees – although I passionately believe in that kind of work, and am in fact collaborating on projects that explore just those two topics. Such things are massively important things to investigate, and hugely exciting artistically, but subject matter in itself doesn’t make a piece of work green.

So what, in my academically rusty opinion, might a green approach be?

The exciting thing for me about green/ecological ways of thinking, is that they burst the bubbles that let us compartmentalise things; things that should be connected intellectually, because they are in reality. The best example is economics. Most economics assumes an indefinite amount of growth is possible, using an indefinite amount of resources. Green thought points out that this is fairytale because it’s an incontrovertible fact that we live on a planet. It also points out 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. Conventional discourse chooses to ignore this.

How do we apply this approach to cultural criticism? I suspect it has to do with acknowledging the reality of the contexts 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 world-views? 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 in life we choose to ignore, much 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.

That said, this must not be limited to the tangible and measurable. I don’t agree with the practice of putting a financial value on the environment as a strategy to make the case for conservation, etc. While you can obviously put a value on certain aspects of the environment (and environmental damage), it seems to me to be harmfully reductive to put a value on the “mysticism” of the natural world. Leaving space for – and having respect for – things that can’t be reduced to measurable usefulness is key to green thought. So being able to acknowledge the mysticism of art would absolutely have to be part of any kind of green criticism.

What critical structures are there to support this radical contextualising? 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. The idea of the post-dramatic also seems key. Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre is one of only a handful of academic books I’ve read since university but its insistence that we acknowledge the reality of the situation in which we perform, and the choices we do or don’t make about this, is magnificently on target. As I might explain in more detail another time, I’d been exploring some this territory already in my own work, almost unconsciously, and to hear these ideas articulated, analysed and taken much further than I ever could, was uplifting.

This also seems to resonate with John Cage’s ideas that every point of view is valid and all aspects of the experience are part of the art. While I can see the value of these ideas in theory, in practice we have a set of norms and behaviours that get in the way. People are excluded; that’s a fact. Whether it’s someone who can’t afford to buy a ticket, or doesn’t think theatre is for them, or simply has a seat with a bad view of the stage, the utopian idea that their experience is also valid rings hollow. It only works for the people inside a space that has been delineated by an artist with those values. Similarly, although when I make work I aim to make the whole experience as dramaturgically cohesive as possible, including the external framing of the work, you can’t ask always audiences to embrace the passing ambulance siren that stops them from hearing a key line. You can set up situations, as Cage brilliantly does, where this does work. But these ideas, useful as they are for making work that acknowledges its place in an ecosystem, are prescriptive not descriptive. A green theory of performance perhaps, but not of criticism.

You may ask why my tentative definition of green criticism (i.e. exposing and analysing the ecosystem 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 missing the point, as can be seen with most mainstream ‘green’ political policies. And it’s probably a category error.

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


NB This blogpost has been revised in response to some very helpful feedback from Theo Holloway and Ben Elsey over on Facebook. Thank you!

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