“Theorizing in a Space of Ambivalent Openness: Ecocriticism and Ecophobia” is an article written by Simon C. Estok and published in ISLE in 2009. This article is frequently cited in ecogothic and ecohorror criticism and for good reason: it establishes and defines the term “ecophobia” and explains its vital importance to ecocritical work.
Current ecocriticism is lacking a theory of ecophobia, or the “irrational and groundless hatred of the natural world, as present and subtle in our daily lives and literature as homophobia and racism and sexism” (208). We need to develop a language to discuss the “contempt and fear” we feel towards the non-human, natural world (207). Without this, ecocriticism will never be able fully theorize itself, nor will it attain its “activist promises” (206).
Notes & Quotes
- Estok points to the current Anglo-American desire to control and maintain nature as symptomatic of our cultural ecophobia:
…the constitutional moment in history that gives us the biblical imperative to control everything that lives. Control, of course is the key word here. Ironically, the more control we seem to have over the natural environment, the less we actually have… Increasingly, the effects of our actions are becoming more intense and less predictable, producing in turn, though, a very predictable storm of ecophobic rhetoric. (208)
I think this desire to control nature is a great jumping off point when engaging in ecogothic criticism. Control is sought after in both early American texts and current anglo-American horror films. It’s a very clear thorough-line that can easily be traced, especially when considering the “biblical imperative” Estok cites. The early puritan settlers viewed the American landscape as something that needed to be controlled so that it could support their lives. They also read nature as a second book of God’s writing for humanity. However, while nature could provide benefits to humanity, so long as it was controlled and maintained, the dark forests were interpreted as sites where the devil could lurk and where witchcraft took place. “Wild” men and women were unruly, while the godly puritan was heavily controlled. I think also this desire to control nature is partly due to the fear of death. By performing such rituals as shaving, dying hair, trimming hair, tanning, dieting, etc., humans can control their body in such a way that it feels we have moved beyond nature (this can definitely connect with the transhuman impulse, as well). In doing this, we separate ourselves from the cycle of life and the inevitability of death.
- Estok also notes that nature is morally neutral, therefore, it can neither be factually interpreted as either good or bad.
It forces us to rehash the problems associated with the term “beauty.” It suggests that biotic systems are static when, in fact, they are not. It compels us to believe that nature is kind and good, when in fact, it is morally neutral. Nature actively disrupts the integrity and stability of biotic communities all of the time, and this is neither food nor bad… Historically, things have been thought to be right… when they have allowed us to flourish and wrong when they have killed us or when they have (or when we have imagined them to have) hindered, threatened, or hurt us. Representations of nature as an opponent that hurts, hinders, threatens, or kills us- regardless of the philosophical value or disvalue of the ecosystemic functions of the dynamics being represented- are ecophobic… we may easily see how our media daily writes nature as a hostile opponent to be feared and, with any luck, controlled. (209-10)
This passage highlights the work that popular culture can perform to reinforce the ecophobic (ecophilic) view of nature. It is often something that goes unnoticed, perhaps because, as Estok notes, we have yet to have developed a language for grappling with ecophobic ideas and beliefs.