on March 13, 2004
Phillips has made an outstanding contribution to ecocriticism, and I see it as positive. He makes thoughtful connections to contemporary theory but obliterates cultural studies and the school of social construction, which have denigrated natural science for too long and discouraged humanists from absorbing the realities of biome and genome. Yes, his tone is brusque but not dismissive; he echoes the kind of discussion familiar to philosophers, where logic and reason prevail over sentiment. The claim that he has nothing new to offer is wrong: in the late chapters he calls for a "wild" ecocriticism that is diverse, eclectic, and pragmatic. I see this approach as far more constructive, and instructive, than the dewy-eyed reverence that preoccupies too many nature writers and their critics to date. Fifty years ago, Leslie Fiedler performed the same service for New Criticism, when he called Huck back to the raft. Instead of reacting defensively, I hope ecocritics will realize that a good mind and wit has taken up their cause and urged them to get serious and active: a languid pastoralism will not win attention in the academy or clean house at the Department of Interior.
on December 3, 2003
Phillips book is flawed on a fundamental level. As he works through his arugement he not only essentializes and trivializes the work of ecologists and ecocritics alike, he goes at them from a perspective wholly foregin to their own. Phillips seems to be trying to play the role of the disillusioned environmentalist, yearning for a better, more equitable ecocritical paradigm, but in his self professed attempt to "philosophize with a hammer," he comes off instead as trying to completely undercut the ecological values and aesthetics of the Green Left. He takes pot shots at everyone from Muir and Thoreau to Lopez, Dillard and Ammons. Constantly crying foul at their lack of objectivity, Phillips argues that ecocritics should take on more of a scientific approach, and abandon the world of the spiritual, aesthetic and mystical. His attack at, what he considers to be, the cliche of the "ecological epiphany" is particularly barbed, as is his attack of Dillard's sense of the mystery and awe she feels when confronted with the Blue Ridge Mountains (he does quite a number on her "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"). In the process of dismantaling the ecocritical aesthetic Phillips aligns himself with Joyce Carol Oates in trivializing the "REVERENCE, AWE, PIETY, MYSTICAL ONENESS" that characterize ecocritical responses. In one of his attacks Phillips questions whether "any sense can be made out of" Andrew Pickering's assertion that "the claims that the Earth circles the Sun and that it rests on a stack of turtles were of equal validity." At this point I should have stopped reading, because it should have become clear that Phillips is someone who just doesn't get it. Clearly he is confusing facts with truth, mysticism with positivism, and in asserting that there is some fundemental problem with this statement he is revealing himself is an enemy of the ecocritical project. Clearly ecocriticism, being a young field, is in need of maturing, and admittedly Phillips points out some real problems in its application, but he falls into trap of cutting down the field without sewing new seeds or seeing to the fertility of the ground. Clearly the values that Phillips has brought to the table are so fundamentally different from the ecocritics that he deems to speak of that they can never be reconciled. I will however throw Phillips a bone and point out that he does admit to being unapologetically argumentative, though I'd say dismissive would be more accurate.
on February 15, 2004
The previous review is a bit unfair and so I am moved to add a few words. Yes, if you are drawn to an environmentalism that is underwritten by spiritual or mystical motivations, then you probably will be irritated by Phillips' irreverence. However, there is much to be said for this literate and well-researched book. Phillips has astoundingly wide interests, which include contemporary environmental thought, environmental history, environmental literature, and the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. His book does contain some positive suggestions about how the environmental movement might take a more pragmatic approach and so become more successful. Also, there is some pleasure, and perhaps glory, to be found in the witty and withering barbs that Phillips hurls at his objects of study. The environmental movement is too important to recoil from criticism like this. It can only be strengthened by the intelligent, informed and, sometimes, acerbic voice of Dana Phillips.