All posts by Nature Critical

Stephanie Dabrowski On Nature and Connectedness in A Monster Calls

The Concept of Nature and Connectedness in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls – Stephanie Dabrowski

The term “Nature” has famously been described by Raymond Williams as “one of the most complex words in the English language” (in “Post-Secular” 287). This is an observation enforced by Lorraine Datson and Fernando Vidal’s assertion that “nothing even approximating a full-dress account of the multiple meanings and histories of the word ‘nature’ and its cognates (or lack thereof) [is to be found] in other languages”, emphasising instead the significance of the term’s “varied and complex meanings” (5). The value of this term lies precisely in this complexity as it becomes emulative of the character of humankind’s relationship with the natural world it occupies, a relationship more than ever in need of interrogation since the onset of modernity and particularly in consequence of the current ecocrisis. Significantly, the word ‘environment’ which has come to supersede ‘nature’ as the term of choice since the onset of this crisis obscures much of the meaning that was once inherent in the conception of the natural world. Various literary critics have focused on the significance of the loss of the word nature, citing in particular its coincidence with the disenchantment of the natural and the consequent exploitative practices that have led to the plight of the environment (see Marx). Within this context literature emerges as an important tool not only for drawing attention to specific environmental concerns and powerful imaginings of the future consequences of such practices but, moreover, as a forum for reconnecting with some of the lost meaning previously intrinsically connected to the concept of nature. One such literary example is Patrick Ness’s young adult novel A Monster Calls which, although not primarily concerned with environmental issues, evokes interesting thoughts on nature by embodying it as an ancient, shape-shifting monster which comes walking in the modern day world in the form of a yew tree. The monster, which comes to help an isolated thirteen-year-old boy, Conor O’Mally, confront his feelings about losing his mother from cancer in the absence of any other familial or social support, can be argued to represent a return to older mythic relations with nature as well as highlighting the disconnectedness which pervades modern society, a disconnectedness from nature which extends to a lack of connection between people.

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Louis Roux on Nine Inch Nails and the Politics of the Apocalypse

Living in the End Times: Year Zero and the Politics of the Apocalypse – Louis Roux


To say that Nine Inch Nails is a band is a bit of a misnomer: it is in fact the brainchild of one artist, Trent Reznor, who writes all of the lyrics, composes most of the music and plays most of the instruments. Coming mostly from a single artist, then, it is easy to see a unified vision in the albums that are for the most part concept albums, following direct story lines. The Downward Spiral (1995), for instance, tells the story of a man descending into madness and isolation, building an emotional wall between him and everything else. The Fragile (2005), released a decade later, follows on this album by exploring the consequences of tearing down this wall.

Year Zero (2007) takes place in the year 2022. After an unprovoked atomic attack by the USA on the Middle East, and the resultant conflicts and terrorist attacks on American soil, the world is in chaos. Global warming has reached crisis point and the weather has become more destructive than ever, especially after the nuclear holocaust. Resource scarcity is the biggest factor in international warfare. The American government has clamped down and renamed the year to year zero, the year America was ‘reborn’. Elections are no longer free, the draft has been instituted and there are tranquilizers called Parepin in the water supply to keep the populace calm. The most powerful authority is the U.S. Bureau of Morality, an NSA-like organization that keeps tabs on the people, apparently to combat terrorism, but also abducting, interrogating, torturing and executing dissenters, communists, homosexuals, Muslims, and any other ‘deviants’, under the auspices of an extreme version of the Patriot Act. Reports and rumours about ‘the Presence’, a ghostly hand reaching down from the sky, are beginning to circulate and no-one is sure whether it is God, aliens, a weather phenomenon or the hallucinatory effects of the medication in the water. The album shows, in my view, that ecological disaster can never be divorced from political, religious, class or gender concerns, and although much of the album focusses on technology, religion, violence and imperialism, it is always against the backdrop of a ruined earth.

Year Zero is the first Nine Inch Nails album to have an overt political message, and its story is also much looser, following several characters instead of the usual lone protagonist. What makes Year Zero truly special, though, is its use of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) for promotion, allowing listeners to become directly involved in the story of Year Zero through websites, secret codes hidden in merchandise, USB flashdrives dropped at strategic locations at concerts and other interactive materials. This makes the story of the album highly personalized for every user, since no-one will follow the same chronology. Due to the fluid, transient nature of the ARG, I will not try to follow the plot, or to construct a specific storyline, I will rather isolate motifs, themes, phrases, characters and other aesthetic elements from the album and its associated media and subject them to a close reading. In short, I will not be analysing the work as one would a traditional novel, but rather as a rhizomatic,[1] open-ended artwork. It is difficult to grasp, to tame, but all the more valuable for that: if the rhizomatic creates confusion in the ‘normal’ homogenous order of things, it also creates the space for dissent and rebellion in the gaps left by that confusion – spaces that Year Zero makes full use of. I will enter the work through the songs and attempt to link them to some of the websites and other media found in Appendix A, Exhibit 24,[2] a collection of many of the websites and other media, collected as evidence against someone only known as [SUBJECT CLASSIFIED].

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Byron Caminero-Santangelo at Stellenbosch University (4 September)

Please take note that Byron Caminero-Santangelo will give a talk at the Department of English at Stellenbosch University on 4 September. The topic is “Different Shades of Green: African Literature, Environmental Justice, and Political Ecology.”

Contact Louise Green for more information.


Byron Caminero-Santangelo is an associate professor at the University of Kansas. He is coeditor, with Garth Meyers, of Environment at the Margins: Literary and Environmental Studies in Africa (University of Ohio Press, 2011) and author of African Fiction and Joseph Conrad: Reading Postcolonial Intertextuality (SUNY Press, 2005). Some of his recent articles include “Different Shades of Green: Ecocriticism and African Literature,” African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory (Blackwell, 2007); “Of Freedom and Oil: Nation, Globalization, and Civil Liberties in the Writing of Ken Saro-Wiwa,” Research in English and American Literature (2006).


For a comprehensive list of his publications, click here for a link to the website of the English Department at Kansas University.


Waste and problem creation

-Melissa Da Costa

Fifty years back, when paper bags ruled the consumer circuit, concerns started arising about their impracticality on domestic and environmental levels. Not only were paper bags no longer durable enough, but people became concerned about the amount of trees that were cut down to fuel the world’s growing consumer needs. “That’s terribly environmentally unfriendly!” they cried. “There must be another way!” And so, to solve the problem of the paper bag, the plastic shopping bag was invented.

Manufactured from polyethylene, plastic shopping bags were lightweight and durable, and successfully solved the problems that the paper bag had introduced. However, the aforementioned merits were exactly the problems with the plastic bag. Their light weight allowed them to travel great distances on the wind, and their resistance to decomposition meant that they remained in the environment for thousands of years. In addition, because these bags are mass produced on one side of the world, shipped all over it to be used, and then shipped back to where they started to be recycled, created the even greater problem of excessive fuel consumption. What was originally sought out as a solution to an environmental problem was in fact the start of an even greater dilemma.

Another solution to a popular consumer problem was the introduction of the disposable plastic water bottle in the place of bottles made of glass. Inexpensive, shatter resistant and lighter to transport, the plastic water bottle seemed like the rational way to go. Both disposable plastic bottles and plastic shopping bags, however, are manufactured using petroleum, and play a role in the combustion and inevitable exhaustion of fossil fuels.

In both cases, supposed solutions to interconnected environmental and consumer-driven problems have resulted in further problems, yet the same problem-solving methods are continuously employed to solve new resultant problems. The reasoning and problem-solving methods utilised in these processes are obviously not the right ones. Something in our problem solving therefore needs to be altered in order to solve problems without creating new ones. The situations need to be looked at in a new way to prevent the same mistakes being made over and over again.

Being only a third-year Fine Arts student, I can offer no solution to these problems at this point, and the knowledge that we are stuck in this pattern of recidivism has turned me into a cynic. I no longer have faith in a humanity that turns its attention away from the problems that it itself creates. All I can do right now, therefore, is to hope that by writing posts such as this, I can open the eyes of a few of the people around me to the ineffectiveness of our current “solutions” to environmental problems, and hope that together we can change our problem-solving patterns to finally end the patterns of problem creating.

The Queer Ecology of Derek Jarman’s Garden

– François Olivier

Derek Jarman was an independent filmmaker in Britain during a period which stretched from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. His films express a decidedly queer sensibility and depict homoeroticism on screen during a period marked by the homophobia of Thatcherite politics. In a review of one of his films, the noted film critic, B. Ruby Rich, fondly describes Jarman as the “King of Queer” and explains that “as an artist and activist, Jarman has a life history that seems to encompass the very development of modern gay culture” (49). In 1986, Jarman was diagnosed as HIV positive, and discussed his condition in public. His illness prompted him to move to Prospect Cottage, Dungeness in Kent, near the nuclear power station. In 1994, he died of an AIDS-related illness in London, aged 52.

With the humble Prospect cottage as the central feature, Jarman filled his garden with drought-resistant native plants, rusted and weathered debris found around the shingle beach, and traditional English flora (which include an impressive number of rose variations). In his garden, flotsam and jetsam compliment the forms and shapes of the exquisite plant life, and vice versa. Michael Charlesworth describes Jarman’s found objects as “things that most people would see no beauty in, or would see their value exhausted. They bring a connotation of collage, of art brut or arte povera, of a garden made by an ‘Outsider’” (136).

Recently two ecocritics have written about Jarman, and the garden he created at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness. In a recent anthology of essays on “Queer Ecologies,” Mortimer-Sandilands chooses Jarman alongside Zita Grover to demonstrate a queer ecological approach to environmental politics. Mortimer-Sandilands sees the relation between Jarman’s gardening, his sexual politics and the mourning of friends lost to AIDS as an example or a template for a radically alternative approach to environmental politics. Mortimer-Sandilands reworks Judith Butler’s theory of gender melancholia and she describes certain forms of ecotourism and present-day wildlife documentaries as “nature spectacles” that phantasmagorically preserve the ‘lost’ object of ‘Nature’ in the present to avert its complete destruction. For Mortimer this melancholic process hinders any real engagement with the environmental crisis, thus environmentalists “exist in … a condition of melancholia, a state of suspended mourning in which the object of loss is very real but psychically “ungrievable” within the confines of a society that cannot acknowledge nonhuman beings, natural environments, and ecological processes as appropriate objects for genuine grief (Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson 332).

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How big were the fish?

 – David Reiersgord

When I think about waste, I am reminded of my childhood. I am reminded of lazy summer afternoons somewhere in central Minnesota where I spent much of my adolescence fishing. Once upon a time, there were fish in the lake – small fish and big fish. Many of my first memories are of my grandfather taking my cousins and I out in the boat. It instilled in me a bond with nature, with the outdoors, and most importantly fish. I grew to understand how the lake worked; I grew to learn how the patterns of waves affected where fish would be; I grew to learn what the sky looked like – and how the air began to smell differently – before it was going to rain; I grew to learn how water depth influenced the type of fish in an area. We used to catch many fish on this lake. But as I got older, I began to notice a change. It was as if the lake was empty, save for the water and one bastard of a fish.

I am reminded of a particular song lyric when I think about this lake: “Now progress takes away what forever took to find”. It used to be boats and canoes on the lake. Then it was boats, canoes, jet skis, jet boats, water tubing. I tell my grandfather – whenever I happen to find myself ‘up north’ – that there are not any fish in the lake anymore. I know it kills him to hear this; but he defiantly tells me otherwise even though he and I both know he is wrong. I am sure he blames it on Obama, but we both know it is the abundance of gasoline excreted by the boats; moreover, it is perhaps, more importantly, the ecology of the lake that has changed. There is a particular species called the Muskellunge, which is one impressive fish designed specifically to hunt, kill and eat other fish, birds, whatever it can find. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources decided to transport many of the ‘muskies’ to the lake. Over the course of several years, the wise guys at the DNR transformed the lake into a dying bowl of water. Now, the boats that come to fish are in search of the ‘muskies’ and the populations of other fish have been all but decimated. Muskies used to be considered waste because there are difficult to catch, do not taste particularly good (too bony) and are nuisance for the ecology of lakes.

I do not fish on this lake anymore because it is a waste of time. Instead, I sit on the stoep looking out at the lake trying to imagine what it was like before the muskies came, before we came. I wonder how quiet it was. How big were the fish?

Perceptions of Waste

– Megan Reddering

Since I started recycling three years ago my perceptions of waste have drastically changed. I realized that about seventy-five percent of what I previously took to be waste could actually be recycled. This reduction in my own production of waste has made me more aware of waste and how it comes to be waste. When can something be classified as waste? Is this classification different for different people? Why is there a difference in what people consider to be waste?

In my neighbourhood it is waste and recyclables collection day every Tuesday. I go for a run every Tuesday at six in the morning and I noticed that already at that early time homeless people with their trollies start rushing towards the neighbourhood. Many people put their waste bags and recycle bags out the night before, so these early birds I’ve see migrating up the Dalsig hill are doing so in hope of getting the best pick out of our waste and recyclables.  Whenever I see them digging about in the bins it seems like they are on a kind of a treasure hunt and I am ashamed that what appears to be waste to me and the rest of the neighbourhood seems so precious to them.

This made me think back to the December holidays when I volunteered at a soup kitchen in the industrial area that is right next to one of the informal settlement just outside Plettenberg Bay, and I realized that all the shacks I had seen were made out of things that had been used for other purposes before. I did a lot of work with the children in the area and I was completely blown away with how little they are satisfied with. They made anything they laid their hands on into some kind of toy; old bottles, crates, boxes and ropes are just some of the things I saw them playing with or reusing as it were.

During the time I was volunteering at the soup kitchen a room in the building used for something else previously was being converted into a little classroom to keep the smaller children whose parents cannot afford to send them to crèche off the streets and to provide a safe place for activities for the bigger children during school holidays. While the classroom was being fixed up we did our activities outside on the stoop and the one day one of the kids came running to me very excitedly with a big crumpled and muddy poster he had picked up somewhere, which I could see had previously been used in a classroom and said, “Teacher for classroom” with a huge very proud smile on his face. The poster was in no condition to go up on the wall and I had to throw it away once the children had left.

Looking back on my time at the soup kitchen and seeing the homeless people every Tuesday I have realized that these are perfect examples of how huge the differences are on the view of what waste is in a country like South Africa with such great economic inequalities. I read an article by D. Scott on low carbon citizenship this week and this quote from that article sums up the point I want to make, “The best way to reduce carbon consumption is to be poor.”

December 2012
December 2012
December 2012
December 2012

The missing R’s: The ideology of recycling

The missing R’s: The ideology of recycling and waste management in consumerist culture

– Taryn Bernard

Like many cultural practices, recycling has deep historical and ideological roots. As a modern practice, recycling originated in America in the 1970s when there was growing awareness of environmental issues and a strong uprising of environmentalist activists who later coined the 3 R’s: “reduce, reuse, and recycle”.  In contemporary globalised and consumerist society, recycling is framed as a way to protect the environment, a “moral” activity, but also a trendy one – a middle-class and elitist activity, ranked high on the “hip hierarchy” along with purchasing organic products from weekend farmers’ markets. Deconstructing the act of recycling might look like this: search out the arrowed triangle, and once the stamped product has been consumed, sort through your waste and throw it in the appropriate bag for collection. But the activities of “searching” and “sorting” don’t seem to curb production, nor do they prompt us to reduce consumption, two variables fundamental to the neoliberal capitalist system, to the continued dominance of big businesses and to environmental degradation. The “recyclable” stamp is not only a contemporary sign, but a modern myth so steeped in cultural ideologies and practices that it’s hard for us to recognise it as such.

According to Barthes, the sign derives its value from its surrounding context. On a macro-level, we understand the sign in a consumerist context. On a micro-level, individual instances of the sign contextualise and frame our interpretation of it. When situated on a consumable product, the recycling sign tells us “this company cares”. When visible in their corporate social responsibility report, the company says “we are doing good things” and “the corporate citizen is a moral citizen.” Cloaked in the green robe of sustainable development, neoliberal corporations appropriate environmental discourse of the 70s and declare their love for the environment, while simultaneously whispering “most profit for the least cost”. Companies clean up the environment, engage in “waste management projects”, because dirt and waste bottleneck their economic growth, not because they want greener pastures, and this leads to the production of more waste. The politics and rhetoric of recycling merely mask the problems of overproduction, overconsumption and resource-depletion, all of which can be addressed by the first two R’s – reduce and reuse –  and by halting the production and consumption process, rather than simply disguising negative externalities with modern recycling processes.


Conspicuous Destruction

– Dr Megan Jones

When we think of waste, we imagine opportunities missed, lives ruined or environments polluted. “What a waste” we say, and we mean despair, destruction, desolation. Eliot’s clean, austere lines, the “vacant lots” of the dying city, shape our words in the throat. Rarely does waste conjure economies of affect or resilience, or the possibilities of forging counter-publics. For Achille Mbembe, the neo-liberal pursuits of post-apartheid South Africa have exacerbated the production of poor bodies as socially elided detritus, set adrift in no-man’s lands between the spectacle of consumption and rigorously defended privatization. In a landscape of excess —excess wealth, excess consumerism, excess security— the poor are rendered admissible, and so they remain below the horizon of social visibility. But what are the ways in which we think about waste as a means of articulation? How might waste offer opportunities to pressurise the distribution of wealth and well-being in South Africa and beyond?

I want to linger briefly on recent images of waste surfacing in urban communities in Mumbai and Johannesburg. Go to Youtube and watch Nandos’ recent ads, and you’ll see how the company has appropriated the stylings of izikhothane, a youth practice emerging from Johannesburg’s townships. Izikhothane’s participants, mostly men, burn expensive clothes and designer goods in a display of apparent indifference to the commodity. The idea behind this performance of wastefulness is that one has so much, one needs nothing—we might call it conspicuous destruction. Responses in the media and public discourse online have been scandalised; how dare people with so little behave in this way. What the responses miss is how practices like izikhothane push for a presence in the public domain and resist invisibility. Is there is a limit to which modes of consumption are able to provide their practitioners with agency? Yes, of course. Its appropriation by Nandos signals exactly the triumph of exchange value. Burning clothes and cars will not shift structures of power and privilege. Nonetheless, the reaching for presence that izikhothane attempts has rich symbolic and psychic value.

Refuse and Refuge

Published last year, Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers charts the difficulties endured by the Hussain family in the slum of Annawadi, located next to Mumbai’s expanding international airport.  The airport is a sleek symbol of India’s economic successes; the inhabitants of Annawadi survive by picking through its piles of discarded junk. On one level, the book is about the vast inequalities shaping the city’s spaces and the social and political injustices this often produces. Yet there is another facet to these lives lived through and in waste. The focaliser of the book is the Hussain’s eldest son, Abdul, who makes a living as a collector and seller of waste. Let’s not sentimentalise: Abdul dreams of escape from the slum’s desperate conditions – filth, disease, crowding, persecution by the authorities. But waste is also the site of his resilience and aspiration, is a cage and a refuge. Thus Boo asks us to read the inhabitants of Annawadi not only as victims but also as actors, and the waste-filled landscapes of their homes as home.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Waste, ideology and nature – blog assignment #1

The theme of our first blogging assignment is waste and who better to introduce the subject than Slavoj Žižek. In the following video clip, Žižek discusses “the ecological problematic” by considering the ideological dimensions of waste and nature:

Remember the ideal length for your written piece is between 300-500 words and it can be creative or critical. Please try to include at least one image (more than 700 pixels wide).

A garbage dump near Johannesburg