Ecocriticism and specifically urban ecocriticism as lens for reading seven poems set in Johannesburg

  • 0


The article deals with Johannesburg as an environment and how it affects and is affected by its inhabitants. The prefix eco- is used not in the biological sense but in the more general sense of a physical environment that acts on and is acted on by its community of interacting humans.

A brief overview of ecocriticism and specifically urban ecocriticism is given; after that ecocriticism and specifically urban ecocriticism are used as reading strategies in seven poems to examine layers of meaning relating to the perspective on environment, location or milieu. The poems are discussed with reference to various components of urban ecocriticism. The aim is to read, from the representation of the environment in the poem, for information about the prevailing ideologies, social, political or cultural conditions. The poems were selected for their shared environment and aspects that connect to a variety of urban ecocritical perspectives: Trekkerswee– Totius; "Puine" – N.P. Van Wyk Louw; "Stadswyk" – S.J. Pretorius; "Wat mis jy nie " – Rosa Keet; "44" – Wilma Stockenström; "Plat foto van ’n vis" – Hans Pienaar; and "Ek het ’n huisie aan die Rand" – Pirow Bekker.

Various subfields of urban ecocriticism, such as ecojustice, ecofeminism, postcolonial ecocriticism and ecopsychology serve as a theoretical framework. The texts are read for environmentality rather than merely for environment and the city is regarded as a social process rather than a topographical entity, uncovering multiple levels of meaning. The article shows that the experiences of figures in the texts are directly related to the environment in which these texts are placed and also that these environments emerge from a greater environmental history.

Environmental activism became popular in especially the USA at more or less the same time that civil rights and women’s and gay rights movements came into being, which gave rise to corresponding fields of literary study; but the environmental movement did not immediately develop anything similar. However, since the 1990s, with environmental problems becoming more urgent, there has been an increase in the publication of ecocritical theoretical texts. After the establishment of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in 1992, “ecological literary study […] emerged as a recognizable critical school” (Glotfelty 1996:xviii).

In her introduction to possibly the first anthology of ecocritical essays, The ecocriticsm reader,Cheryl Glotfelty defines ecocriticism: “(E)cocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (1996:xviii). Bennett and Teague (1999:3) define ecocriticism as “the study of the mutually constructing relationship between culture and environment”.

At first the subject of ecocriticism was mostly literature about nature, but since the late 1990s other subjects have been included in its focus, and Glotfelty (1996:xxiii) notes the frontier, animals, cities, technology, garbage and the body (1996:xxiii). Since then a great number of texts have been published that explore new subfields of ecocriticism, especially urban ecocriticism, such as the collection edited by Michael Bennett en David W. Teague, the title of which exemplifies the expansion of the field of study: The nature of cities: ecocriticism and urban environments (1999). The concept of environment was expanded to include the after-effects of human involvement in the natural environment – as in cities. Oppermann (2011) says that the inclusion of urban ecocriticism in the practice of ecocriticism adds a broader definition to ecocriticism as a field of study.

According to Buell (2005:11) ecocritics do not, on the whole, define the field as a paradigm, framework or method, but regard it as an adaptable practice that is more issue-driven than paradigm-driven.

The article subsequently shows how the spaces in which the human subjects in the poems are placed relate to the larger material, social, cultural or ideological environment. By focusing on this relationship between the immediate environment and the social aspects of the lives of the figures within those environments the article demonstrates the validity of the “social claim on urban ecocriticism” (Ross 1999:28).

Ecojustice is a term/concept used in connection with inequality regarding living spaces. Michael Bennett (1999:170–1) writes in “Manufacturing the ghetto” about the “internal colony” and compares historical colonies and present (American) black ghettoes (comparable to South African townships). He finds connections between place and the political power that white communities exercise over black communities. I use some of his arguments in the discussion of “44” from Monsterverse by Stockenström and show how the poet, by juxtaposing conditions in the township and attitudes in the suburb, portrays inequality and injustice in South Africa.

Catherine Villanueva Gardner writes in “An ecofeminist perspective on the urban environment” (1999:191–2) that this perspective shows the complex interconnections of race, class, gender and the environment. She stresses the empirical reality of the issues that concern ecofeminism and examines the conceptual framework that confirms the subjugation of women as well as nature. Ecofeminist ideas are used as a theoretical framework in the discussion of “Plat foto van ’n vis” by Pienaar: the poem suggests that economic and male power are behind environmental devastation.

Urban and postcolonial ecocriticism overlap to an extent. Visagie (2013a) states that in the developed world there is a growing realisation that ecocriticism cannot develop any further without taking into account the postcolonial contexts of the poorer south. Colonisation has physical, social and political impacts because colonisers often exploit the colony physically for natural resources and imposes social and political structures. In South Africa, and specifically Johannesburg, British rule after 1902 ensured strong support for the mining industry with overseas capital. This industry was the most important driver of the creation of the city and to a great degree determined the character of Johannesburg as a city and as a living space. It can be added that white rule before and after the country became a sovereign republic had equally important effects on communities and their environments. A postcolonial aspect is clear in several of the poems discussed – most obviously in Trekkerswee, by Totius, also in “Puine” by Van Wyk Louw. Trekkerswee is an epic about the breakdown of social and moral cohesion of the Trekkers during the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902 and the subsequent development of the mining industry and city of Johannesburg. In “Puine” Van Wyk Louw celebrates the new Republic of South Africa, making fun of dilapidated and run-down places that were given British names during British rule.

Roszak refers to an “ecological unconscious” (1992:13) and states that despite the prevalence and importance of cities, “modern psychiatry has never undertaken a symbolic reading of the city” (1992:219). Some of his ideas about psycho-ecocriticism are used in the discussion of “Wat mis jy nie” by Keet. The poem dramatises an absence of emotional well-being, lack of human interconnectedness and compassion in the high-rise suburb of Hillbrow.

An important concept for this article is environmentality. Buell writes: “(I)t seems to me […] productive to think inclusively of environmentality as a property of any text”; he adds that all human artefacts bear traces of this (2005:25). By exploring the environmentality of the texts – even in poems that are not “about” the environment – the article attempts to show that almost any text can be read ecocritically.

Roberts (1999:40) states that urban poetry should be read “in terms of social process”, rather than with reference to mere “landscape”. This idea is the theoretical basis for discussions of “Stadswyk” by Pretorius and “Ek het ’n huisie aan die Rand” by Bekker. In “Stadswyk” the neighbourhood can be “read” though the activities of the women who sweep, the man who sits dejectedly after night shift, and the children playing on the verandah of the funeral parlour, thus “creating” the city through the processes of living.

The concept social ecology is associated with the anarchist and libertine socialist Murray Bookchin (2000), who states that ecological problems are caused by deeply entrenched social problems. This idea forms the basis of several of the discussions of the poems in the article; here, however, they are subdivided into aspects such as political and economic causes of urban environmental problems as well as a dualistic views of society.

The phrase “the social claim on urban ecology” by Andrew Ross resonates with Bookchin’s ideas. Ross states that “environmentalism is not and cannot afford to be single-issue politics … Ecofeminists, eco-urbanists, bio regionalists, social ecologists” (1999:28) are environmentalists, to the same extent as “wilderness-obsessed” (1999:28) activists. It is exactly this social claim on urban ecocriticism that is explored in the article; in every poem that is discussed, material, social, cultural, economic and/or ideological matters are introduced. All aspects of society are inseparable from the environment or place within which they occur; society and environment influence one another.

The chronological discussion of the poems set in a shared milieu offers a view of the growth of the city over time. Buell (2005K:867–74) provides five dimensions of place-attachment, of which two are temporal, namely the accrued platial experiences of a lifetime that affect an individual’s response to other places, and the changes during time of place itself. By reading seven poems set in Johannesburg chronologically, the article shows changes in the city over time as represented in the poems. For instance, the deplored mines of Trekkerswee (1915) have long-term effects represented in Pienaar’s “Plat foto van ’n vis” (2002); the social changes noted by Totius have become a way of life in Pretorius’s “Stadswyk” (1963) as well as, hyperbolised and caricatured, in Bekker’s “Ek het ’n huisie aan die Rand” (2002). The new dispensation when the Empire is “gone” (“weg”) in Louw’s “Puine” (1962) has its own socio-political effects, as can be seen in Stockenström’s “44” (1984). The article thus maps Johannesburg as a place in a temporal dimension.

Keywords: ecocriticism; ecofeminist criticism; ecojustice; environment; place; social ecocriticism; space; urban criticism


Lees die artikel in Afrikaans: Huisies aan die Rand: Ekokritiek en in die besonder stedelike ekokritiek as lens vir die lees van sewe gedigte met Johannesburg as agtergrond

  • 0


Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.