(Ashgate: 2010) 159 pp.
Reviewed by Laura Zebuhr on 2012-09-15.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

What would it mean for the human to be "cat-wise"? With this intriguing question, sprung from a close reading of Djuna Barnes's 1974 version of her poem, "There Should Be Gardens," Robert Azzarello begins his book. The cipher to this riddle, he suspects, might be glimpsed from a perspective that sits at an intersection of queer studies and environmental studies. His chief objective is to "promote a meaningful exchange" between these fields, which have "historically lacked much contact" (3) because, as he shows, their aims and methodologies often clash, if they aren't downright irreconcilable. For one thing, while environmental studies have tended to ground themselves in a concept of nature, queer studies tend to destabilize any idea of the natural. Azzarello bridges this gap by bringing queer studies' questioning of nature to so-called nature writing, which he hopes will make it richer and more complex. So he defines "queer environmentality" as a "habit of thought that conceptualizes human beings, other life forms, and their environments as disregarding--and at times, flaunting their disregard for--the ostensibly primary, natural law to 'survive and reproduce' "(4). While he is not the first to do so, using the concept of queerness this way is sure to raise eyebrows and stir worries that as a critical tool, the term queer will become overextended and thereby detached from any connection to the lived experience of lesbians and gay men. Nevertheless, what he hopes that eco-criticism can teach queer studies is to stop equating the "body" with the human body, for in his analysis, the question of human sexuality cannot be strictly separated from the world around us, organic and inorganic.

Fortunately for anyone interested in the tough questions that come from bringing these two fields together, the rich terrain of their intersection has recently been getting more and more attention. Even though Azzarello's project precedes Timothy Morton's recent call to create a field of queer ecology, Queer Environmentality takes up many of the challenges Morton lays down: to really read Darwin; to develop a vocabulary for a queer ecological approach; to engage with the non-organic and the ugly; to show how both queer and eco-critical studies take for granted conceptual boundaries such as life/not life and human/not-human, and to destabilize these boundaries; and to "begin with open appreciation, for no particular reason, of another's enjoyment" ("Guest Column: Queer Ecology," PMLA 125.2 [2010], 280). That Azzarello does these things in a decidedly literary historical context distinguishes his work from other recent contributions to this field, such as the collections titled Queer Ecologies (2010) and Queering the Non/Human (2008), where literature is underrepresented (though Azzarello has a chapter on Dracula in the latter collection). Queer Environmentality aims to show that in Romantic and post-Romantic American Literature, "the queer project and environmental project are always already connected" (4).

For Azzarello's purposes, nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature exemplifies this connection well because it emerges in and responds to crucial developments in evolution and biology during the mid-nineteenth century. The authors he chooses to study--Barnes, Cather, Melville, and Thoreau--are each already part of debates on eco-criticism or queer studies. His opening question about Barnes's cat-wise landing typifies his way of focusing each chapter on puzzling moments in the texts he examines. What is Thoreau doing with those owls, for example? What do we make of Cather's zombie cottonwood trees? And what about that sperm-squeezing scene in Moby-Dick? To answer these and similar questions, he makes his primary authors converse with nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers like Darwin, Nietzsche, Butler, and Deleuze. Along the way he asks us to reconsider how eco-critics and queer theorists alike have characterized Thoreau, Melville, Cather, and Barnes. Though long adored by eco-critics, Thoreau's writing proves darker in content and much less realist in form than is typically acknowledged. Melville, on the other hand, is much funnier than commonly thought and ought to be considered a "perverse version" of Thoreau rather than his opposite (65). Cather's fiction likewise challenges common generalizations about it. Though seemingly preoccupied with the will to live and reproduce life, it lovingly delineates non-reproductive pleasures, so her notion of home, her oikos, is queer and uncanny. As for Barnes's fiction, Azzarello sidelines psychoanalytic and biographical approaches in favor of evolution. Radiating a queer sense of evolution, he argues, her texts suggest a way of thinking about reproduction beyond "viable offspring."

One of the most interesting moments in the book comes early and passes quickly. In Barnes's poem "There Should Be Gardens," Azzarello identifies a "comparativist poetics" that is interested not in comparing language or culture, but in the "inter-species" and "inter-being" that produce a "symbolic ecology" (1). This symbolic ecology insists, he says, that our being entails other beings--beings that include, in Barnes's poem, not other humans only, but rather plants, animals, and inanimate matter such as beehives. This lesson seems absolutely crucial to the most striking interventions Azzarello makes, for if we follow the deconstructive implications of his argument, we come to see, as Morton does, that "queer ecology must...embrace silicon as well as carbon" (Morton 277). Queer Environmentality does not take us to silicon, but it points a way. This particular way will be forged by attentive reading of literary texts, not simply by the practices of activists or the policies of governments, and this is exciting. As queer ecology continues to develop a methodology, I hope it will take from Azzarello not just the claim that human sexuality is always already connected to the world around us, but also the claim that literature and art reveal that connection distinctively. Just as biology teaches us--in his words-- "how much more complicated, beautifully and compellingly complicated, reproduction is than the old story of boy meets girl" (11), Azzarello's analysis can teach us that the kind of reproduction we call "representation" is likewise beautifully complicated. Literature is more than the old story of word meets world, and the literature Azzarello probes prompts us to consider not only when the two fail to meet, fail to reproduce each other, but also when words and worlds fail to remain neatly distinct. At such moments we might learn to read, think, and write without imposing our own interpretive teleology on either words or worlds.

Like other scholars who have recently sought to take matter seriously without essentializing it--for example, Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter (2010)-- Azzarello tries to perform a difficult balancing act. On one hand he tries to resist seeing human beings as self-conscious actors confronting and dominating a passive, non-human world. On the other hand, he wants to uphold the constructivist argument that human activity produces, rather than discovers, meaning in the world. Drawing his methodology from Eve Sedgwick's reparative reading and Paul Ricoeur's restorative reading, Azzarello advocates a reading practice of cat-wise upside-downness that embraces a "second naïveté," a "maturity of belief" (28). I'm intrigued--I want to believe--but I'm left wanting a more thorough discussion of this cat-wise methodology, and particularly of Ricoeur's influence.

Azzarello seems generally more interested in the human activity of interpreting the world than in theorizing how the world itself acts. Especially in his readings of Thoreau and Melville, these two seem to analyze their environments from a distance rather than becoming attuned to and through them. Glossing, for instance, Ishmael's realization that the whiteness of the whale is what most "appalls" him, Azzarello notes that the verb appall means, "to make pale." "[T]he whiteness of the whale, it would seem, is contagious," he strikingly infers, "bringing all those who gaze upon it into the orbit of incomprehensibility" (67). To say that whiteness "is contagious" suggests a production of meaning, or resistance to meaning (which is of course also a way to produce meaning) at work somewhere other than in the human body. Yet Azzarello focuses on Ishmael's reports of his subjective experiences--and later Melville's--rather than on what the text itself might reveal that its protagonists and narrators cannot. At points like these I wish Azzarello had spent more time elaborating his readings of his main authors.

But this book definitely challenges current opinion. While usefully considering how environmental and queer studies have received the work of its four main authors, it also frequently and compellingly questions this reception through provocative readings of enigmatic moments in their texts. The chapter on Barnes interestingly links her to the aesthetics of Nietzsche and the neo-Darwinism of Nicholas Wade. Also, in placing the writings of Melville and Thoreau along a continuum of queer environmentality, Azzarello should stimulate useful debate among their devotees.

The book will also be useful to anyone working in the emerging field of queer ecology. Lengthily assessing longstanding conflicts between eco-critics and practitioners of queer studies, Azzarello situates them in the philosophical debate between constructivism and objectivism. By entering this debate--and Azzarello sides with the constructivists--he raises a host of questions about ethics that his analysis can't satisfactorily meet (which he acknowledges). It is, he argues, "through the double process of semiotics (as sign interpretation) and semiogenics (as sign production) that ethics emerges" (79). In other words, a world we make is a world for which we are responsible, and it is here that we might ground ethics, rather than in a given conception of the natural. For my part, I'm not sure how this conviction can be reconciled with the literature Azzarello examines, for this literature repeatedly highlights the unknown and the ambiguous, questioning rather than answering, and what resists a single meaning also resists being made meaningful, or indeed, seems to impose meaning on us. In my judgment, this literature shows that not knowing or knowing otherwise (through affect, for example) is the norm, not the exception. In particular, Thoreau's work shows an ethical impulse working not in spite of epistemological struggle--not in spite of an unknowing that must be overcome to think about ethics--but rather with unknowing, in the struggle with it. Nevertheless, Azzarello's book rightly springs from questions about the relationship between knowing, being, and ethics, and we will surely see such questions re-examined many times as the field continues to develop.

Laura Zebuhr is Assistant Professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois.

Leave a comment on Laura Zebuhr's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org