Figuring Nature: Tropics of Romantic Environmentality

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Date: Fall 2018
From: Studies in Romanticism(Vol. 57, Issue 3)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,460 words
Lexile Measure: 1640L

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Language is material in a radical sense: not the medium through which thought communicates, but a multiplicity of relations and traces that enables what comes to experience itself as thought. --Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook, Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols. (2) I remembered that contact zones, called ecotones, with their edge effects, are where assemblages of biological species form outside their comfort zones. --Donna Haraway, When Species Meet. (3) Ecological rhetoric tends to imagine nature as a closed system in which everything is ultimately recycled, like the Romantic idea of the aesthetic object as an organic whole. --Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature. (4)

IT IS A CRITICAL COMMONPLACE TO IDENTIFY THE BRITISH ROMANTIC period as a watershed moment for the development of modern ideas about the environment. Writers like William Wordsworth, Gilbert White, and John Clare have been praised for their painstaking attention to the minute, local details of the nonhuman environment, (5) and generally credited with founding the modern form of what Lawrence Buell calls " environmentality": the evolving consciousness of how one's surroundings condition existence. (6)

Environmentality evolves from what Buell calls "the environmental unconscious," denoting the difference between the subject's conscious understanding of relations between the environment and self, and the actual nature of that relationship. (7) Moving this into a linguistic register, we might use Roman Jakobson's notion of the linguistic agency of formal structures like grammar, syntax, tropes, modes, and genres to hypothesize a zone of "preconceived possibilities" within the environmental unconsciousness. (8) Defining this zone as the environmental imaginary demarks an epistemological horizon of preconceived rhetorical possibilities for figuring "Nature." (9) Eco-imaginaries are a dynamic interface between the cultural and the physical, as Astrida Neimanis, Cecilia Asberg, and Johan Hedren, explain, performing "worlding practices" even as those practices feed new ways of naming the world. (10) Romantics expanded the environmental imaginary by innovating on the tropes that performed their ideas of nature, their environmentality. (11)

While eco-imaginaries can shift suddenly with an influx of new tropic practices, generally the dominant imaginary sustains its influence on the episteme. Ecocritics, who inherited the debate from the nineteenth century, divide on whether Romantic environmentality initiated the science of empirical ecology, or is Modernity's most entrenched mystification of nature. (12) The very fact that this debate has persisted so long makes clear that Romantic environmentality has not faded into the past, but rather, as Timothy Morton puts it, "still influences the ways in which the [contemporary] ecological imaginary works." (13) When we historicize our Romantic idea of nature, we find that it is actually a history of their tropes of nature, (14) which, having saturated our episteme--the Anthropocene--in its dawn, are now, in its "twilight," becoming visible. (15)

If the place of Modernity's ecological thought is the Romantic rhetoric of nature, then "an epistemological critique of tropes," (16) within an eco-materialist understanding of language, is necessary for elucidating those Romantic ideas of nature. (17) For ecomaterialists, "nature is co-extensive with language": what we call the environment is a...

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