Helena Feder: Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture: Biology and the Bildungsroman (2014)

Helena Feder’s book makes a noteworthy contribution to the humanities, especially in the fields of ecocriticism and green studies, in that it challenges the problematic nature-culture binary. Her arguments are relevant to the participants of the NaChiLit research group as they explore the way in which culture is defined with a view to including animal culture, and to redefining human culture as a product of nature.

A focal point for Feder is the fact that the human race is just one amongst many, but still humans search for the radical uniqueness that distinguishes it from nonhuman animals. For example, we might perceive an animal track as a sign of the nature of the animal that created it, whereas we might view a path made by humans as a token of a human culture. Feder claims that this discourse of culture denies animals politics and, in accordance with Hume, empathy (p. 148). In turn, this discourse has broad consequences with regard to who counts in our world. Thus, Feder calls for a more diverse ecocultural materialist approach when dealing with human and nonhuman nature.

In developing such a critique, Feder explores how the genre of the Bildungsroman is itself the story of culture´s origin within humanism. She presents readings of classical Bildungsromane to illustrate how they form narratives that may ultimately reject the idea of human supremacy over nature and nonhuman animals.

Participants of WP2 on landscapes should direct their attention to Feder’s analysis of the similarities between the garden and the narrative of the Bildungsroman. Much as the garden is a cultivation of nature, the Bildungsroman presents a story of emergence from nature, but also a narrative of nature coming into culture. In this sense, culture cannot be free from nature.

Her selection of novels includes Candide (Voltaire), Frankenstein (Mary Shelley), Orlando (Virginia Woolf) and A small place (Jamaica Kincaid). Central to these novels is the search and longing for a utopian or paradisiacal place. In addition, they all identify the garden as a place of origin. The texts therefore present movements between different ideas of nature, and the movement from a garden into culture can be understood as “Western culture’s fantasy about nature” (p. 152). In the end, the novels reject the idea of a paradise, of a utopian Garden of Eden within reach. This story of origin would also apply to HeidiTonje Glimmerdal and other children´s literature with similar narratives.

Another crucial point for Feder is the fact that human consciousness is socially mediated and embedded. Feder´s case study on Frankenstein sheds light on Viktor Frankenstein’s attempts to transcend the limitations of the human body. To understand Frankenstein’s monster simply as a symbol of nature or “the ultimate other”, is to overlook its human nature. Feder reads the novel as the monster’s “coming-of-age story”, and claims that the “novel speaks to our relationship with our origins and the origin of culture itself as a response to nonhuman nature” (p. 65), concluding that our horror of Frankenstein’s monster “is a horror of ourselves” (p. 73).

Feder points out that the humanities rarely consider biology outside the context of posthumanism. In this book, Feder demonstrates how literary examples can provoke us into challenging mainstream ideas of nature and culture in other fields of study by calling for a new materialism that considers a “multispecies multiculturalism”, an approach that seems strictly biocentric.

Ahmed Khateeb 15.09.2016