‘Progress’: ethics, awards and the environment

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Ali Alizadeh

My last post took aim at a rather obvious ideological edifice, the new literary patriotism in Australia and its mostly transparent role in the generation of cultural and literary surplus-value for publishers, cultural organisations and affiliated individuals. But this phenomenon is a rather rare instance of an openly conservative, proudly old-fashioned bourgeois ideology at the service of the ruling classes–patriotism has been the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson would have it, for well over two hundred years. Today’s capitalist superstructure is often far more innovative and deceptive. It is an ideology that bears the aura of positive, progressive thought; and its ability to entrance us into accepting the decisions and prerogatives of those in power is not to be underestimated.

Here one must seek, as Marxist thinker Slavoj Žižek has, the fetish dimension of our dominant ideals. The inclusive, progressive capitalism of our time–with its “new libertarian spirit epitomised by dressed-down ‘cool’ capitalists such Bill Gates” (Žižek 56)–is precisely that which we have come to refer to as postmodernism: ruthless commodification and exploitation with a ‘hip’, ‘experimental’ and ‘compassionate’ symbolic feature. Such symbolism is explicit in the ‘ethical’ messages accompanying consumer products such as (so-called) Fair Trade coffee,

the price [of which] is higher than [non-Fair Trade] since you are really buying into the “coffee ethics” which includes care for the environment, social responsibility towards the producers, plus a place where you yourself can participate in communal life […] And if this is not enough, if your ethical needs are still unsatisfied and you continue to worry about Third World misery, then there are additional [ethical, environmentally friendly] products you can buy (Ibid 53-54).

In other words, in today’s liberal capitalist societies, it is precisely the discourse of consumer ethics which compels one to consume. But this ideology should not be mistaken for a disingenuous advertising campaign, there to simply trick gullible consumers into further participating in capitalist economy.  Žižek points out that this kind of ideology functions by giving meaning and aura (albeit of a transferred, fetishistic kind) to the utterly banal, meaningless acts of drinking coffee or buying vegetables:

Who really believes that half-rotten and overpriced “organic” apples are healthier than the non-organic variety? The point is that, in buying them, we are not merely buying and consuming, we are simultaneously doing something meaningful, showing our capacity for care and global awareness, participating in a collective project (Ibid 54)

Hence, under the aegis of new progressive capitalism, shopping is transformed into a meaningful, cathartic and, in the precise sense of the term, ‘politically correct’ activity. And it is this kind of meaning which progressive discourses of literature make available to many in charge of production, evaluation and distribution of writing in a capitalist society such as Australia. By being told that we are being provided with a new literature which is in some way positive or progressive, we come to feel that we are not merely buying and consuming (often unnecessary) cultural products, and that our very act of purchasing these products is in itself an ethical achievement that makes the world a better place.

Among the key tropes of such a progressive ideology in the contemporary literary scene are cultural diversity –‘multicultural writing’ provides much solace to ‘tolerant’ readers in a country which has been found, time and again, in breach of international human rights for its treatment of foreign refugees–and digital technology, which, as many champions of the medium would have it, is supposed to one day liberate us from the tyrannies of traditional publishing and so on. (In my view, the digital medium will do nothing of the sort and will instead result in continued, rabid consumption of electronic gadgets, among other things.) For the rest of this piece, however, I’d like to briefly speak to what is fast emerging as a central tenet of today’s progressive literary ideology – the environment.

One of the great potentials of contemporary ecocriticism resides in the philosophy’s demystification of the relationship between literary, pastoral signifiers and their ecological signified. A truly ecopoetic text has the power to present nature as an undecidable void, as an ‘empty set’, the naming of which as such may produce a truth that could alter or even rupture anthropocentric knowledge. But an ‘environmental turn’ is not in itself a radical discourse. If the statements and propaganda surrounding the worth of contemporary literature are anything to go by, ‘literary environmentalism’ is, in many instances, an ideological justification for the hierarchies of valuation and cultural capital. It is a perspective which provides an ‘ethical’ rubric for assessing literary aesthetics and shores up the theses of those with the power to assess our writing.

Consider, for example, these samples from judges’ reports apropos of the most recent winners of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and how ‘earthy’, natural motifs are enlisted to establish the value of the winning works. The 2011 winner of the fiction award is praised for its “tactile, redolent evocation of the physical world of sheep-farming in New Zealand”. Last year’s winner of the fiction category is extolled for its “aching affinity for the harsh landscape the book describes”. Also in 2012, the Prize for Australian History went to a book which apparently enhances “our understanding of the historic Australian environment and its land care. [The book’s author] forces us to reconsider our intellectual landscape, and thus present day environmental practices, through his dramatic historical revisioning of our physical landscape.”

I am not concerned with whether or not the books referred to in these reports are worthy winners of a very worthy prize, nor am I critical of these books’ supposed ‘evocations’ of and ‘affinity for’ the environment. What concerns me is the very problematic, indeed phantasmatic perception which correlates literary value with an ethics of ‘land care’, promoting the rather absurd view that the practice of writing, reading and awarding books–whatever their presumed ethical message–could in itself directly benefit the environment.  To state the obvious, buying and reading a book is categorically not the same thing as actually taking care of the land. And yet the magical, sublime power of ideology is such that it makes two very different objects–e.g. reading a book and planting a tree–seem coterminous, even identical. Such an operation is perhaps most evident in the raison d’être of a literary prize such as the Environment Award for Children’s Literature  which conflates aesthetics with environmental agendas in praising one of its current winners for writing a “beautifully illustrated” book which teaches children “about extinctions, and why they occur”.

As an unashamedly political writer, I have no problem with literature having a (preferably unsettling) didactic dimension; but the commodification of a book as a basically pedagogic tool is, in my view, a sign of capitalist ideology. Another rather dubious symptom of such an ideology is the presentation of professional writers as sincere environmentalists. Even an author of commercial erotic fiction now tells us–and is, more importantly, provided with the space in our only national newspaper to tell us–that she is unhappy with how nature “has been tamed, reconstructed” and suggests that we should all immerse ourselves in the “beautiful, beachy, bushy, wild”. My hope is that literature won’t be ‘tamed’ by this fetishistic invocation of the environment. If nothing else, the planet’s battered and crumbling ecosystems deserve better.

Work Cited

Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, then as Farce. London: Verso, 2009.

2 thoughts on “‘Progress’: ethics, awards and the environment

  1. Ali,

    For me this is an important polemic, one that I hope has some traction, but who knows. Your demonstration of the hypocrisy in an ethics of land care in literary culture was welcome: indeed for whom and for what is this ethics? Under what meaningful definition?

    My question is to what extent would philosophy want to intervene if there are no truths produced in “capitalo-environmental” literature anyway? I do see precisely how a demystification of the literary (pastoral) signifiers and the ecological signified could be a useful contribution to knowledge, but if no gap opens up for truth to be subtracted then what would a philosophical (re)thinking of environmental poetics be?

    More broadly, why do we feel the need to immerse ourselves today wholly in the ecological signified? if we borrow our “way of life” from the natural world you’d think we’d be even more against stagnation, complacency, stasis, etc., since evidence suggests that nature is not a balanced Whole but (somewhat like us) a series of imbalances that thrive on further fractures and imbalances.

    Mao had a much more nuanced version of nature and the natural than we have even now. He presumed that since nature certainly undergoes constant change, this would be the only real thing we could learn from it: “In the fields of the struggle for production and scientific experiment, mankind makes constant progress and nature undergoes constant change, they never remain at the same level. Therefore, man has constantly to sum up experience and go on discovering, inventing, creating and advancing. Ideas of stagnation, pessimism, inertia and complacency are all wrong. They are wrong because they agree neither with the historical facts of social development over the past million years, nor with the historical facts of nature so far known to us (i.e., nature as revealed in the history of celestial bodies, the earth, life, and other natural phenomena).”

    Thanks for this post,

    Andy

  2. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    I think ecocriticsim can promote the opening of a gap in environmental knowledge. (Although the extent to which ecocrticism may be viewed as a philosophy is something that a smarter person than myself will have to speak to.) For me personally some of the poems of, say, Denise Levertov do perform a sort of subtractive operation along affirmationist lines; but i do take your point re: capitalo-environmentalism (did you just coin that, btw?! Nice one!). I feel much (but not all) of what passes as ‘radical ecopoetry’ and suchlike is in fact postmodernised — ‘innovative’, ‘difficult’, etc — landscapism.

    As to why one would engage with an ecological signified — and i think Mao’s is one of the much more compelling arguments here — I personally feel the situation of ‘nature writing’ is there to be ruptured, as it’s quite a hegemonic aesthetic construct. And i feel properly radical ecopoetry can do that. But, precisely as you’ve implied, i don’t nature as such could benefit from any of this one way or the other.

    Take care,
    Ali

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