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The Ecological Function of Imaginative Texts: A Recent Model in Theory and Practice

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Among the more recent developments within ecocriticism is the increase of voices calling for a less restrictive understanding of an ecological approach to literary texts. After a period in which the focus tended to be on a given text's “ecological correctness,” its potential for environmental consciousness-raising or its attitude towards the natural world, which in a way led to a disregard of the differences between literary and non-literary texts, more and more ecocritics have come to be interested in imaginative literature as such and demand that its aesthetic dimension be taken seriously. For these critics, the quality of a text's representations of nature may still be an important question, but they neither regard it as the sole relevant issue, nor do they insist that nature should always be described as minutely and realistically as possible. Rather, they try to take into account all the various aspects of literary texts, including content, perspective, structure, form, language, and function.

Many of these critics seem to share the fundamental assumption that nature must be respected as a prediscursive reality, as the basis of all life or indeed as a value in itself—an assumption that is not at all self-evident considering the postmodernist idea that our perception of the world is entirely mediated through texts (and thus through culture), or considering the precariousness attached to postulating a universal value. However, ecocriticism does not simply ignore the insights of postmodernism. On the contrary, it follows poststructuralist insights insofar as it cherishes, for example, the principles of diversity, plurality, and indeterminacy. But recognizing the necessity to counteract some increasingly threatening developments in the extratextual world that have become a danger to all of humanity, and beyond that, to every living being, ecocritics take an ideological position—albeit one that they are aware of. Austrian ecolinguist Alwin Fill, for example, states that in cultural studies, an ecological point of view entails a preference of the small and the vulnerable over the large and the powerful, because it advocates diversity and the tension between many rather than the dominance of few (1). A cultural ecological point of view is not impartial. This is one of the differences between scientific and cultural ecology: while the one aims at describing the world “as it is” on the basis of empirical data, the other also includes, to a much higher degree, what “ought to be” or what “might be” (cf. Bergthaller 102). This is not to say that one is more relevant than the other; in fact they complement and enrich each other. Cultural ecology has adopted some of its central ideas from scientific ecology, such as the indissoluble interconnectedness and interdependence between the small and the large, and of the individual and its environment. However, it does not claim that cultural developments always follow the same rules as natural ones. Peter Finke, who has formulated a concept of culture as an “ecosystemically organized product of overall evolutionary processes” (175), argues that culture originated in nature, among animals and prehumans, and met the necessities of the psychical dimension of their existence; but he also stresses that natural evolution is not paralleled oneto- one by cultural evolution and that some evolutionary principles that may apply to the natural world, such as the “survival of the fittest,” cause grave ethical problems when applied to culture. He therefore chooses to reject this principle in cultural contexts and instead points to the principle of symbiosis, which, accommodating all parties involved, is a more satisfying cultural guideline and has also been playing an important part in natural evolution (189–98).
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2011

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