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8.3: Focus on Ecocritical Approaches - Ecofeminism and Darwinian Literary Criticism

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    As you may have guessed from its name, ecological feminism, or “ecofeminism,” combines the ideas of ecocriticism with those of feminism (for an in-depth look at feminism, see Chapter 4). In other words, it is a form of feminism that critiques the oppression of nature as well as the oppression of women, and argues that our relationship to nature is a feminist issue. Ecofeminists explore the ways in which both women and the natural world are devalued and exploited by the patriarchal societies in which we live. They call attention to the way that women are seen as connected to nature, while men are conceptually linked to culture, and how these connections have been used to justify both the abuse of the environment and the oppression of women. As you can imagine, ecofeminism is heavily influenced by the “green” movement, or environmentalism, as well as by feminism; in fact, ecofeminism as a movement really developed in the 1970s and 1980s, alongside environmentalism and second-wave feminism.

    Like other feminist critics, ecofeminists often take an intersectional approach in their analyses. Intersectionality refers to a sociological theory that sees social inequalities as being interconnected and inseparable from one another. It explores how the various categories of identity—gender, sexuality, race, class, ability, religion, and so on—interact with one another to create the complex system of inequalities in society. As individuals, we experience this matrix of oppression in unique ways: for example, a gay African American man might experience his oppression in a very different way than a white lesbian experiences hers, though they are both affected by homophobia. Ecofeminism lends itself well to an intersectional approach since it already explores the intersection of two systems of oppression: gender inequality and the domination of humans over nature. In addition, some ecofeminists consider how the oppression of women and nature intersects with other forms of oppression. As Jens, the author of our first student sample paper in this chapter, points out, we could look at Disney’s Pocahontas through a variety of critical lenses: ecocritical, feminist, racial, ethnic, and cultural studies. An ecofeminist might use all these lenses in the same analysis!

    Let’s revisit Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills to see how an ecofeminist approach to the story might differ from the ecocritical approach we took earlier. Here are the links to the story again:

    Harding Davis sets her story in “a town of iron-works,” where the character Hugh Wolfe works in a mill making railroad iron. While Harding Davis focuses on the hardships and oppression faced by those who work in the mills, an ecofeminist critic might point out that the first stage in the iron manufacturing process is the mining of iron ore from the earth. Mining is a highly problematic practice from an ecofeminist perspective, as it involves digging into the earth, removing materials that naturally belong underground, and disrupting ecosystems by destroying plant and animal life in the process. Furthermore, because we have historically gendered the earth as female (you may already be familiar with the image of “Mother Earth”), mining can be seen as parallel to—and even a justification of—sexual violence against women. As Carolyn Merchant explains in her influential ecofeminist text The Death of Nature (1980), mining used to be viewed as an unethical practice for this very reason—at least, until the Scientific Revolution from the sixteenth to eighteenth century changed our attitude toward nature. Merchant writes, “The image of the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother has served as a cultural constraint restricting the actions of human beings. One does not readily slay a mother, dig into her entrails for gold or mutilate her body, although commercial mining would soon require that. As long as the earth was considered to be alive and sensitive, it could be considered a breach of human ethical behavior to carry out destructive acts against it.”Carolyn Merchant, Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003).

    “Digging into the matrices and pockets of the earth for metals,” she continues, “was like mining the female flesh for pleasure”—or, in more explicit terms, mining turned Mother Earth into “a passive receptor of human rape.”Carolyn Merchant, Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003). Although some would argue that it is not appropriate to compare mining the earth to raping human women, this parallel forces us to see mining in a new light: as a violation of the earth rather than as a human “right” to take whatever we desire from nature.

    Our perceptions of Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills are certainly altered when we add an ecofeminist dimension to our critique. Now, not only do we see how Harding Davis is responding to the oppression of the working class and the large-scale pollution that resulted from the Industrial Revolution; we also recognize that the iron mills exist because humans’ attitudes toward the earth changed dramatically just prior to the time when Harding Davis’s story is set. Hugh Wolfe can work in the iron mill because other men work as miners, enacting violence on the feminized earth. We can begin to see the matrix of oppression in this relationship: mining—an act of violence against nature that parallels violence against women through the gendering of the earth as female—leads to iron manufacturing, an industry in which rich individuals exploit and oppress members of the working class. In addition, the gendered division of labor in the town (Wolfe and other men work in the iron mill, while Deb and other women work in the cotton mill) and the pollution caused by the mills bring us, full circle, back to the oppression of women and of the environment. Thus, by simultaneously examining the treatment of women and the treatment of the natural world in an intersectional ecofeminist analysis, we can bring to light multiple forms of oppression at the same time—and begin to understand how they are related to one another.

    Darwinian Literary Criticism

    Also called literary Darwinism or Darwinian evolutionary literary criticism, Darwinian literary criticism grapples with a key notion: What is the adaptive value of literature and art to human survival? We can understand, for example, how humans evolved to create a spear for hunting since food is essential for survival. But what do we make of a spear that is ornately carved into a beautiful, artistic object? How does that art add to the adaptive survival value of a person or a species? Two questions central to Darwinian literary critics are the following: Why do humans tell stories? Do stories provide some genetic advantage in the pursuit of survival? Darwinian literary criticism examines literature, in particular, through the lens of evolutionary theory.

    When Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, he transformed the way we viewed the natural world. Darwin argued that humans—that all species—evolved from a common ancestor. Over time, species diversity developed according to four key principles, according to Darwin: (1) nature provides limited resources for survival, though there are more organisms than resources; (2) as a result, these organisms fight for survival (which became known as the “survival of the fittest”); (3) organisms pass on genetic traits to their heirs, though those traits that survive are the ones that have the greatest survival value; (4) those with the strongest genetic traits survive, while those who do not receive those traits become extinct. In this Darwinian scheme, why do humans continue to tell stories and make art? For Darwinian literary critics, the answer is that creating art must be a key survival trait.

    For example, in 1813 Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice, a story about the Bennett sisters who must make advantageous marriages so that they will be cared for. This novel, Austen’s most famous and well loved, is a popular love story elevated to high art. How might Darwinian literary critics read this love story? One way to interpret is to focus on biological survival. Elizabeth Bennett, for example, finally makes the best match by marrying the aristocrat, Mr. Darcy, and this marriage combines the best genetic traits of both lovers, which makes their survival more likely. How’s that to destroy a love story?!

    While Darwinian literary criticism is a varied and complex field, a useful focus for you is to speculate how particular stories—specifically those that have survived the test of time—reflect core narratives of survival. Such stories may include mythic stories that provide humans with a way to bond together as a group, thus increasing the probability of survival. An interesting example of this comes from the field of fairy tale studies. Jack Zipes in Why Fairy Tales Stick and The Irresistible Fairy Tale argues that the classic fairy tales—“Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White,” or “Hansel and Gretel,” for example—replicate patterns of survival that are attractive to readers, providing them with strategies for survival.Jack Zipes, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012). Zipes evokes the theories of Richard Dawkins who, in The Selfish Gene (1976), argued for the idea of a meme, “an informational pattern contained in a human brain (or artifacts such as books or pictures) and stored in its memory, capable of being copied to another individual’s brain that will store it and replicate it.”Jack Zipes, Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre (New York, Routledge, 2006), 4. In other words, important stories that help with human survival are inherited, passed down, and replicated or transformed to meet a culture’s need for survival.

    In The Irresistible Fairy Tale, Zipes provides a reading of “Hansel and Gretel,” a favorite tale found in the Brothers Grimm’s collection of fairy tales (which has inspired the popular television show Grimm). Zipes suggests that “Hansel and Gretel” evokes key issues about survival that continue to plague us—“the problems raised by the discourse in this tale have not been resolved in reality: poverty, conflict with stepparents, the trauma of abandonment, child abuse, and male domination.”Jack Zipes, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 220. Thus fairy tales continue to impact contemporary readers because the issues raised by the tales are central to human survival. The tales are also revised and adapted for contemporary readers to further show the relevancy of these unresolved issues.

    Darwinian literary criticism is an evolving field (no pun intended) in literary theory, which may suggest that literary theory itself is an important meme for the survival of literature in the twenty-first century.

    Your Process

    1. List your favorite fairy tale.
    2. List the key adaptations or retellings of the tale (Disney, for example).
    3. Write down reasons why you think this fairy tale is so important to you and what the adaptations have done to the original tale.
    4. Now connect this to Darwinian literary criticism: Does your fairy tale provide you with a technique for survival? Explain.

    This page titled 8.3: Focus on Ecocritical Approaches - Ecofeminism and Darwinian Literary Criticism is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anonymous.