Postgraduate students research a broad range of topics across the School disciplines.
Reading Literature in the Anthropocene: Ecosophy and the Ecologically-Oriented Ethics of Jeff Noon’s Nymphomation and Pollen
We live in an era of anthropogenic climate change. That is, we have an awareness—founded in scientific knowledge—that human industry is changing the earth’s climate and that the overall “damage costs” of these climactic changes “are likely to be significant and to increase over time.”1 Nonetheless, despite this awareness, changes in cultural values and practices that would foster the political and economic shifts required to mitigate the impact of climate change are far from becoming accepted norms.
Given this cultural and environmental context, which demands immediate environmental action, why engage in the critical analysis of literary texts and the development of literary theory? How do such activities participate in our environmental situation? What, if anything, do they contribute? These are the questions that animate my research.
Drawing from the concept of ecosophy advanced by late-twentieth century philosopher Felix Guattari, my research argues that fictional novels are well-placed to prompt readers to re-evaluate the social and physical worlds they inhabit, and, in turn, to interrogate their values and behaviours regarding the nonhuman environment. Literature is likely to have such an ecologically-directed impact at this historical moment because of our awareness of the Anthropocene (the proposed name of our geological epoch where human activity is having a significant impact upon the earth’s ecosystems) and the prevalence of discussions of climate change in the public arena it has instigated. In other words, our knowledge of human-caused climate change shapes what ideas we see in texts and the significance we attribute to them.
From this position of an awareness of the Anthropocene, I analyse two novels by British science fiction author Jeff Noon in my thesis, Pollen (1995) and Nymphomation (1998). My reading of these novels examines their representations of technological efficiency, virtual reality and mass media technologies, and post-industrial capitalism and neoliberalism. I argue that these phenomena are portrayed as contributing to both the environmental degradation and restoration of these novels’ fictional worlds, and I suggest that they convey an ecologically-oriented ethics that is at once descriptive—highlighting the cultural barriers impeding humans’ ability to deal with environmental problems, and prescriptive—outlining how the situation can be addressed via a cultural “solution.”
1IPCC 2007, Summary for Policymakers, in Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, p. 17.
Our scientific knowledge and understanding of climate change outstrips our collective economic, political and cultural will to reverse or undo its "damage costs." The reasons for this inertia are many and complex, and among them is the difficulty of apprehending and emotionally investing in the significance of the scientific data about climate change, especially for non-scientists. Fictional narratives, by contrast, are cultural texts that excel at communicating nuanced and sophisticated meanings in ways that engage audiences emotionally and intellectually, drawing audiences' attention to ideas, issues and connections that are only dimly perceptible in reality. In the context of the Anthropocene, analysing how texts represent the relationship between humans and their nonhuman environment, as well as considering the significance of such representations on the ideas, values and behaviours of audiences, is important for better understanding how existing attitudes are both perpetuated and potentially transformed through fictional narratives, and language more generally.
Ecosophy is an important part of this project of understanding because it provides a conceptual framework through which to consider and articulate the relationship of mutual influence between cultural artefacts, identity, society and the physical environment. Moreover, within an academic context, the importance of this research lies in its detailed analysis of Nymphomation and Pollen, and its theorisation and demonstration of an “eosophical reading practice.” These two interrelated strands of the thesis represent original contributions to the existing bodies of scholarship both on Noon’s work and ecocriticism.