Systems Theory for Ecocriticism

Systems Theory for Ecocriticism

Environmental Renaissance: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Systems of Nature.
Andrew McMurry
Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2003.

Reviewing Andrew McMurry’s Environmental Renaissance, Stephen Dougherty questions the systems approach to ecocriticism.

Lori Emerson:

McMurry continues his work on ecocriticism in a review of Lee Rozelle’s Ecosublime. In a similar vein, William Major measures academic “ecocriticism” against the practical “agrarianism” of Wendell Berry.


“Despite the broad scope of inquiry and disparate levels of sophistication,” Cheryl Glotfelty proclaimed a decade ago in her essay “Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis,” “all ecological criticism shares the fundamental premise that human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it. Ecocriticism takes as its subject the interconnectedness between nature and culture” (xix). Glotfelty’s premise entails that ecocritical inquiry ought to be shaped primarily by ontological rather than epistemological concerns: that the study of the being of the world, and its relation to our being in the world, ought justifiably to trump the study of how we know the world.

In Environmental Renaissance: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Systems of Nature, Andrew McMurry chides mainstream ecocriticism precisely for this kind of ontological orientation. McMurry’s study resembles David Mazel’s American Literary Environmentalism, at least insofar as Mazel’s work also questions “the ontological priority of the environment as the object of and the motivation for the environmental movement” (Mazel 19). But it is different too. Mazel’s theoretical orientation is rigorously poststructuralist: his study “approaches the environment not as the prediscursive origin and cause of environmental discourse but as an effect of that discourse” (19). For Mazel, our connection to nature is illusory, or ideological, because nature is nothing more than “nature,” a product of the stories we tell about it, a cultural construction rooted in cultural needs and informed by human desires whose historical variability it is precisely the critic’s task to expose. As for McMurry, his weariness of such critical ventures is welcome. Such critiques, he complains, often “leave us strangely enervated and let down, as if all along the game had been merely to remain critical” (8). McMurry wishes to play another game, presumably (given the terms of the criticism) one where the stakes are not merely critical, or merely academic. The gamble in Environmental Renaissance is that systems theory is the right game to rescue cultural studies in the humanities from irrelevancy, just as once poststructuralism was considered the cure for New Criticism’s irrelevancy. But in order to reconnect ecocriticism to a meaningful politics, McMurry argues that we must come to grips still more fully with our disconnection from the object of our critical inquiry - in this case our environment, or environments.

The task McMurry announces in the introduction is to get beyond ideology in order to train an eye on more deeply embedded cultural formations: social systems. He explains: “Social systems… are themselves constructions; their boundaries appear and reappear each time we conform to them. But they are constructed very densely, and - unlike with ideology - scales will never fall from our eyes once we see them for what they are. Social systems are like balloons and ideologies are like gases: it does not matter what gas you put in the balloon so long as you fill it” (8). It follows, then, that McMurry shows no interest in this or that particular gas. It is only the balloon he wants to talk about. Thus the initial hypothesis: “the ideological construction of nature has no appreciable effect on the problem of nature from the perspective of a social system” (9, emphasis in original). In other words, it is not so much what we say about the environment that is important. Instead we must recognize, or somehow more fully appreciate, how whatever we say is always already constrained by the particular communication system in which the utterance is made. While the balloon metaphor is helpful, it is only a start, indeed a kind of balloon itself. For the conceptual and theoretical heavy lifting McMurry turns to Niklas Luhmann, the chief contemporary expositor of systems theory:

For Luhmann, the historical development of society has produced a situation in which the various zones of social communication (the legal, the political, the economic, etc.) have differentiated into self-referential subsystems, which are organizationally closed but structurally open to their environment. The internal dynamic of each is a programming structure that reduces environmental stimuli into a binary code of the form x/not -x, by means of which the system can carry out its operations (e.g., any communication to be processed by the legal system must be reducible to a decision about legality or illegality); only stimuli that can be coded in this fashion can be processed and incorporated into the system’s unity. Thus, each system can only see what it can see - it is effectively blind to stimuli that exceed its functionally specific encoding capacity. (48)

Judging simply on the basis of the number of times it gets repeated in the book, the fundamental point here is that, as observers always situated within specific zones of social communication, we “see” only what we can see: the lawyer sees like a lawyer; the politician sees like a politician; and presumably the ecocritic sees like an ecocritic. This is either fresh and insightful or it’s rather obvious. But in either case what it underscores is that in Environmental Renaissance the problem for environmental criticism has little to do with “man and nature” - for the phrase reeks of a philosophical naïvete rooted in the privileging of ontology - and far more to do with the nature of man’s observation of nature. “As a consequence,” McMurry writes, “I claim that any future politics of the environment must embed the problem of observation in its self-description and develop theory that does not demand that we relinquish that which we are required as observers to possess: a sense of separation from nature, from each other, and indeed from the society we have created” (20). Such is the human condition, and we had better learn to live with it. “Inwardness and self-reference are here to stay, a blessing and a curse” (20).

Note the strident emphasis on separation, distinction, self-ness, and alienation. If Luhmann’s influence is behind it, so too is Emerson’s and indeed, McMurry’s future politics of the environment entails a striking reorientation from a Thoreauvian to an Emersonian perspective. Thoreau has always been the national prophet of deep ecology, while Emerson is frequently lauded as an important proto-spokesperson for conservationism. In American environmental history, the creation of these two lineages has played out as the distinction between the kind of romantic preservationism of John Muir on one hand and the wise-use philosophies of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot on the other. Ecocriticism both before and ever since its official academic institutionalization in the early 1990s has been guided by the greener Thoreauvian vision, and McMurry wishes to break from it decisively. This does not mean that his environmental politics are conservative rather than liberal, for indeed he argues that there is really very little difference between the two. (Remember that it doesn’t matter what gas you put into the balloon.) What recommends Emerson for the systems approach is not his power of observation, for Thoreau had him beat there. It is rather that “Emerson was a keener observer of observation than Thoreau…” (25).

In another frame this means that Emerson was a philosophical skeptic and Thoreau was not. Unlike Thoreau (most of the time), Emerson knew (most of the time) that he could not achieve the connection with nature that he was after. Things in their thingness eluded him: “his desire for the new is the drive to grasp an environment that must remain out of his reach, a drive that depends on its certain failure to deliver precisely that which it makes one long for” (104). This is well-spoken, though it sounds much like Stanley Cavell, a debt which McMurry openly acknowledges on numerous occasions in his long chapter on Emerson. Compare the above to Cavell on Emerson: “As in the case of his unapproachable America, and as I say in the case of the world withdrawn before skepticism, there is no nearer for him to get since he is already there; somehow that itself is what is disappointing; that this is what there is” (133). McMurry’s wager is that reinscribing Cavell’s philosophical investigations within a systems theoretical framework will enrich Emerson criticism, and ecocriticism too: “What Cavell from the skeptic’s perspective admires as Emerson’s capacity to simultaneously grieve for the closure of the world while still appreciating its limited openness, I wish to rewrite as Emerson’s anticipation of the paradox of observing systems - that the reason they can see anything is because they cannot see everything, partial vision turning out to be not tragic but absolutely indispensable” (103).

To be sure, the subject/object problem for Cavell’s Emerson is rerouted as a “more basic, biological predicament” (104) and the skeptic’s resignation in Cavell is refitted as “the handsome/unhandsome condition of being a self-conscious, living system” (104). But in the end, to invoke Gregory Bateson, this is not a difference that makes a difference. We learn with the aid of systems theory that Emerson “and the world were necessarily disunited,” and “that our confidence in the reality of nature is won by its slipping from our grasp” (130). But Cavell reached the same conclusions without systems theory in This New Yet Unapproachable America and Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome. The paradox of the observing system, as McMurry has it, is precisely that we must grieve the very perceptual limitations that allow us to experience the world at all, as Cavell had it before. The only difference is that in McMurry’s treatment Emerson is called “an observing system.” The sometimes obvious straining to say something new in the name of systems theory makes McMurry’s chapter on Emerson still less convincing, occasionally leading to Rube Goldberg-ish statements: “[T]he ideal observer, unlike the first-order animal eye, can observe his own observation of nature; he sees himself seeing… ” (114). Worse, the straining can produce a massive fog: “The promise of mobile subjects with multiple observational domains under functional differentiation is suppressed by the emphatic resonance of the economic, which recontains partiality and submits the subject to the continued stratification of…” (89). This is painful prose, an example of the “unwelcome scientization of literature and culture” McMurry elsewhere warns against.

But what about McMurry’s claim for Emerson’s greater relevance for contemporary ecocriticism? If it provokes ecocritics to think more deeply about what they teach and why they teach it, then it is useful indeed. If it ends up validating a passive response to the environmental crisis, then it is useless. McMurry insists in his final chapter that the ecocritic’s mission is not to decipher nature because that is a fool’s game. Only a fool, or the first-order observer, thinks that nature is decipherable; and only the very foolish college literature professor would make any claim for the authenticity of Thoreau’s first-order observations. The systems-savvy ecocritic McMurry has in mind should rather “observe and theorize”: “As critics - and this will be the stumbling block for many in the ecocritical community - we must be concerned with the observation of observation, not the observation itself… . The goals are to theorize how systems interact” (223). To my mind this sounds suspiciously like the bureaucrat insisting that “more studies are needed.” In the bureaucrat’s case the motivation is to fuck over the weakest and most vulnerable constituencies in the name of the rich and the powerful, which is far more reprehensible than anything going on in Environmental Renaissance. Still, it is never helpful for a scholar in the theoretical humanities to expose him- or herself to the charge of solipsism, because too often the charge is entirely justified from a lay perspective.

The ecocritical community is made up largely of academics who teach college and university courses in literature, history, political science, sociology, psychology, environmental justice, comparative environmental politics, and so on. It seems likely, as McMurry senses, that many ecocritics will balk at the suggestion that their part in the struggle for our planet’s future survival is to observe themselves observing. Their part - our part - is to teach; and the real value of Environmental Renaissance is in its trumpet call to open up the ecocritical canon and to interrogate assumptions about what kind of teaching should occur in the name of environmentalism. Thus, as McMurry profitably argues:

[E]cocriticism should be wary of [the] tendency to commit what I call the deep ecological fallacy: the idea that the job of ecocritics is, via the writers they approve of most, to champion, crudely speaking, the natural over cultural elements of the text under consideration, and so make their criticism uphold in a way that previous criticism did not the palpable and meaningful expression of selected texts’ ecological unconscious. Perhaps ecocritics imagine that only in this way can they make good on their own environmental commitments in the world at large. But for ecocriticism to appear to those who do not practice it (but might) as more than simply a greening of the canon or the hagiography of favored authors, … it seems to me that it must try to account for more than the particular attachments and predilections of individual writers. It must instead place their words in the contexts that extend well beyond the quotidian details of their ecosurround; it must do, in fact, exactly that which some in the ecocritical movement think ecocriticism should not do: talk about environment in terms that do not restrict it to questions of nature, landscape, or place. Rather than simply explaining through a green canon why ecocritics prize some environments over others or why other critics with different commitments have marginalized nature as setting, we must dare to do much, much more. (220-221)

This is undoubtedly related to the task of observing observation, but in more amenable language, and in a far more limited and practical sense, it is about taking teaching seriously. And it is recognizing that what college professors do can make a difference, despite the fact that we can never know exactly how thinking leads to action. Fearing “that we are operating in an echo chamber,” as McMurry writes, “might even elevate the dialogue - or radicalize it” (219). In which case the more general pessimism about the academy’s cultural and political irrelevancy McMurry elsewhere urges is both unhealthy and unnecessary.

The fact that McMurry is so pessimistic about the fate of ecocriticism only underscores the sincerity of his desire to rescue it from its own worst tendencies. But the skeptical diagnosis has already been made. It would be useful if systems theory could help us more effectively to theorize our connections with environment and materiality. But perhaps the answer is not more epistemology, which has always been the poststructuralist rallying cry anyway, and which only perpetuates the bad Cartesianism most everyone claims to want to overcome. Perhaps what we need is a new sense of how epistemology and ontology can complement one another; not in the sense that encourages more rote arguments about the cultural constructedness of nature, or the environment, or our bodies, but in a sense that respects how materiality feeds back into the way we can think about and observe the world. The new emphasis on biological explanation in cultural studies will be fruitful as long as it doesn’t lead to reductive theorizing (as in sociobiology, for example). If it is reductive to insist on the primacy of ontology, simply dismissing ontology as beyond the pale of thought is just as bad. So for theory, perhaps in the near future the work of Brian Massumi, William Connely, and Elizabeth A. Wilson will get tried out by ecocritics. All three seek to connect rather than disconnect questions of epistemology and ontology.Since everyone who is anyone after Kant agrees that the real eludes us in its concreteness, Massumi suggests that we instead start focusing on “the real incorporeality of the concrete.” In Parables of the Virtual he wishes to give “new urgency to questions of ontology, of ontological difference, inextricably linked to concepts of potential and process and, by extension, event - in a way that bumps ‘being’ straight into becoming”(5). In Psychosomatic Elizabeth A. Wilson similarly calls for a rededication to questions of ontology in order to comprehend the body’s participation in the development of psychological and social/cultural formations. William Connely’s efforts to theorize a “multilayered conception of biology and culture” (63) in Neuropolitics is helpful in this matter as well. Their appropriation would obviously lead to a very different kind of environmental ethics, perhaps one more attuned to a traditional green perspective and more forward-looking at the same time. As for pedagogy, we may indeed be disconnected from our environments, as Environmental Renaissance teaches, but we are connected to our students. Although it is both the blessing and the curse of teaching that we can never accurately gauge what that is worth, in our better moments we ought to admit that it could mean a lot. Perhaps what we say does matter.

Works Cited

Cavell, Stanley. Emerson’s Transcendental Études. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Connoly, William E. Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Glotfelty, Cheryll. “Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Eds. Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Mazel, David. American Literary Environmentalism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000. Wilson, Elizabeth A. Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

McMurry, Andrew. Environmental Renaissance: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Systems of Nature. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2003.