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Book Review: Ecological Poetics, or, Wallace Stevens’s Birds

1 September 2021

Sean SeegerUniversity of Essex

Cary Wolfe, Ecological Poetics, or, Wallace Stevens’s Birds (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020)

Cary Wolfe’s Ecological Poetics, or, Wallace Stevens’s Birds (2020) may be read as a continuation of the critical project he began in What is Posthumanism? (2010), one of the most widely cited texts on posthumanism to date. While familiarity with that earlier work isn’t a prerequisite for understanding Ecological Poetics, reading or rereading Posthumanism before beginning is certainly advantageous. Although Wolfe generally avoids the baroque excesses of some theory-heavy work in literary studies, his complex argument does presuppose a degree of familiarity with his theory of the posthuman in order to be fully appreciated.

Wolfe characterises Ecological Poetics as ‘a theoretical recasting of the problem of ecocriticism in relation to poetics’ (vii). The first component of this involves articulating a challenging and original new ecocritical theory, drawing on insights from systems theory, American pragmatism, and contemporary biology. The second involves putting forward a novel interpretation of the work of the American modernist poet Wallace Stevens and showing how Stevens’ poetry and criticism enable us to ‘rethink’ the relationship between ecology and poetics (vii). Despite the inclusion of this second component, however, and despite the book’s subtitle, Ecological Poetics is more like a wide-ranging interdisciplinary conversation about ecological ideas which uses Stevens as a recurring touchstone, rather than an extended study of Stevens himself. A significant amount of the book is taken up with close analysis of the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann, for example, while much of the first and last thirds of the book are philosophical in nature. Wolfe’s book is therefore not a conventional work of literary criticism, but rather a theoretical treatise interspersed with discussions of literature.

Wolfe’s ‘non-representational understanding of ecopoetics’, which draws on recent work in theoretical biology, is quite intricately constructed, making it resistant to easy summary. The theory centres on two claims, however: firstly, that biological science has shown representational theories of language to be false, and secondly, that this has implications for our understanding of literature and culture. Representationalism holds that the purpose of language is to accurately reflect or mirror an external reality. According to Wolfe, there is an emerging scientific consensus that ‘no organism has a representational relationship to its environment,’ that is, no ‘neutral, transparent access’ whose utility is determined by this neutrality and transparency (viii). Rather, organisms access limited selections from their environment based on their needs, capacities, and biological structure. This selectivity is not confined to the non-human domain, but encompasses human bodily senses and, crucially, the capacity for language. If this is correct, then representationalism and other ‘picture’ theories of language are false. This is because if language is, like a beaver’s dam or a spider’s web, a practical means by which an organism copes with its environment, the question of representational adequacy ceases to be relevant. ‘The issue,’ as Wolfe says, ‘isn’t about getting an accurate picture of the world, it’s about getting on in the world’ (x). Language no more succeeds or fails in representing the world than a horse’s hoof succeeds or fails in representing the ground (as opposed to establishing a firm or weak footing).

Repeating a move made in Posthumanism, Wolfe supplements his borrowings from biology with ideas drawn from Niklas Luhmann, for whom an organism is a self-referential system confronted by an environment. Organisms actively organise the input they receive, giving it form and coherence, but always in terms of their distinctive way of grasping the world. In an echo of the work of Timothy Morton, this leads Wolfe to say that organisms ‘create their worlds,’ and that this takes place ‘at different scales and different temporalities’ depending on the lifeform in question (x). The worry that this may imply a form of idealism or even solipsism is countered by Wolfe’s insistence, following Luhmann, that it is the degree of a system’s internal elaboration that determines whatever degree of objectivity it can attain in its knowing. The thought here would appear to be that, given that no system can ever grasp its environment in an exhaustive way, the choice can only be between more or less highly elaborated formal structures, on the basis of which organisms are able to respond to whatever they encounter in a more or less articulate manner. Both a bacterium and a human being must cope with reality, but the latter is able to use language to do so in a vastly more internally differentiated and hence complex way. Wolfe’s theory allows him to draw contrasts of this sort while adhering to his ban on representationalism.

Wolfe links this theory to what he characterises as the post-Kantian poetics of Stevens’ essays in order to show how the poet’s reflections on literary form might contribute to current thinking about form in an ecological context. Here he explores an intriguing parallel between Stevens’ doctrine of the co-constitution of the world by the imagination, on the one hand, and the biological view of organisms as co-creating their world, on the other. What Stevens shares with contemporary biology, Wolfe claims, is the broadly Kantian idea that reality is actively structured in an ongoing way as opposed to passively received. Wolfe connects this with Stevens’ poems by emphasising their thematic preoccupation with the desire for unmediated contact with reality, which the poet considers both inescapable and impossible to satisfy. Taking Stevens’ frequent depictions of birds as a guiding motif, Wolfe argues that much of Stevens’ poetry is concerned with ‘ways of meaning-making beyond the human domain’ and the difficulties this involves (11). He sees Stevens’ late poetry as especially revealing in this regard, with its disclosure of the partiality of any and all perspectives, including the poet’s own. Uniting this discussion is the contention that Stevens’ poetry exhibits ‘the possibility of a shared form of meaning among human and nonhuman beings’ (89). Whether or not readers are persuaded that Stevens achieves this, the fact that Ecological Poetics engages so energetically with several major issues within literary and cultural studies means its interest is by no means limited to scholars of Wallace Stevens.

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