Seeing Beyond Green

Heidi Scott (bio)

Florida International University


Review of Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2013.
Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green is a collection of essays by mostly well-known scholars in the highly arable field of ecocriticism.  The conceit is simple: the color green has dominated the discourse of the environmental humanities for its entire history, first with the early views of nature writing as the (usually white male) genre that valued something called “nature” over a falsely dichotomous “culture,” and next with the modern environmental movement and its rhetorics of sustainability and deep ecology.  Ecocriticism has moved well beyond the old boys—Wordsworth, Thoreau, Heidegger, etc.—and has come to question the squeaky values of the “green” lifestyle within the framework of a consumerist, hierarchical, capitalist, late-industrial, technocratic society.  Why would we tolerate the label “green studies” a moment longer?  Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has assembled a coterie of scholars well-suited to redressing this chromatic imbalance. They do so in a series of sixteen essays titled by tone, from the expected “White,” “Black,” “Red,” “Blue,” and “Brown” (but why not the primary “Yellow”?) to the designer “Chartreuse” and “Violet-Black” and the super-optical “X-ray” and “Ultraviolet.”  It is clear that these scholars share a common vision of the proper direction of ecocriticism; the essays are highly inter-referential, and certain names reoccur in nearly every shade of the prism (including Stacy Alaimo, Graham Harman, Jane Bennett, and especially Timothy Morton).  This camaraderie gives the volume a theoretical coherence that the splintered colors alone might have diffused, but the effect is also a bit cliquish.  Essay collections are strongest when they have an internal structure to support their ventures, and the neo-ecocritical discourse that swirls around “object-oriented ontology,” “transcorporeality,” “strange strangers,” and “hyperobjects” becomes the backbone of this collection.  Avowedly, and titularly, this is not Thoreau’s literary ecology.  What we get in return for our trust and patience is a cluster of truly enlightening and beautifully written essays, along with some tunnels into esoteric caves of the humanities and a couple of head-scratchers.
My favorite essays were the ones that stayed the course of color, taking their title as an occasion to enlighten the reader on the many physical, historical, and theoretical valences of a particular shade while staying trained on that color in the “natural world,” broadly understood.  Tobias Menely and Margaret Rhonda’s chapter on “Red” masterfully manages this multifarious color on the levels of physics, etymology, semiotics, biological mimicry, and cultures of commodity and protest – all intriguing angles – without creating a mess of bleeding signifiers.  They show how bodies make it into our channels of consumption by many means: through secretive, industrial-scale slaughter in the off-limits abattoir, where blood nonetheless seeps into regional water supplies; through the mass consumption of Red 40 (think Froot Loops and Gatorade), a food coloring derived from petroleum (that is, ancient biomass); and through carmine, an “eco-friendly” alternative red dye often used in commodities marketed to vegetarians and vegans, yet derived from a species of cactus-eating beetle.  Similarly strong is Steve Mentz’s “Brown,” which begins vividly with the passage: “Smelly, rancid, and impure, it is no one’s favorite color.  We need brown but do not like looking at it.  It is a color you cannot cover up, that will not go away.  At the end of a long afternoon finger-painting with the kids, it is what is left, sprawling across the page” (193).  Mentz partitions his analysis into three brown regions: dry sand (a very light brown, I suppose); mucky swamps (including icons like the mighty Mississippi); and, of course, poop.  “Down in the muck,” Mentz writes, “life is a brown business” (194).  I wish more oil culture had seeped into this muck, because the black-brown of crude is a lamentable icon that refreshes itself every few years in our eco-cultural memory on a different “green” coast.  Nonetheless, Mentz’s readings of Spencer, Shakespeare, and Borges take the reader to rewarding brown ground.
Stacy Alaimo’s “Violet-Black” plumbs the deepest oceans, where the long wavelengths on the red side of the scale are unknown and a surreal alternative world of “dark liquid expanses and the flashing spectrum of light produced by abyssal creatures” appears outside the window of the bathysphere (235).  Alaimo shows the inability of the first descenders into the depths to create objective, rational accounts of what they saw in the blue-black, a realm that defeated anthropocentric “logic, sanity, and imperviousness” (236).  In the 1930s, explorer William Beebe wrote that “The blueness of the blue, both outside and inside our sphere, seemed to pass materially through the eye into our very beings.  This is all very unscientific; quite unworthy of being jeered at by optician or physicist, but there it was” (236).  Alaimo argues that recent abyssal photography books such as The Deep convey artificially clean aesthetics: the original photographs of deep sea creatures are altered to make uniform the many “different blacks” in the backgrounds, and floating detritus is erased from the images.  She rightly notes that

The genre mirrors the myth that the deep sea is an abyss, a nothingness, an immaterial zone separate from human incursions and transformations and, thus, a sort of anachronistic space for the innocent pleasure of ‘discovery,’ free from environmentalist hand-wringing.  The clean aesthetic, in other words, may mask the contaminated waters. (241)


This history of the alteration of color in order to attain a clean aesthetic consonant with environmental ideals is the kind of leitmotif that would have supported the array of essays, in effect raising a [color] flag on greenwashing.
Graham Harman’s “Gold” and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Grey” both deserve reading for the  stylistic pleasure alone.  Harman’s brief history of the physical creation of the element gold (“from Supernovas to the Ganges”) and his subsequent philosophy of aesthetic chemistry stand out as classic vignettes of scientific literary writing (108).  Cohen’s gentle disquisition on the emotives of grey is similarly alluring:

The grey hour is liminal, a turning point at which owls, mosquitoes, monsters, and the wind thrive, when stone cools for a while and persists in its epochal process of becoming dust, when animals and elements continue indifferent to our proclivity to think that an evening’s color drain is a metaphor for human impermanence, a cosmic acknowledgement of our little fits of melancholy. (270)


In these moments we are reminded that literary criticism can be an art form suggestive of its subject.  However, both essays choose a singular focus that perhaps limits their expansive potential; for instance, Cohen descends amusingly into the hip world of zombies and their grey cadavery, with several illuminating observations about why the zombie apocalypse so noisily resonates with our cultural moment.  But the reader may be left wondering about the grey rock crumbs, the skulking fog, the coal-dust smog.  As with any of these colors, the potential has more volume than the container, and the inevitable exclusions will register differently with each reader.  Should we have a book on the ecology of grey?
One outstanding essay is Vin Nardizzi’s “Greener,” a timely exploration of how biotechnology has vaulted the color green into an unnerving hyper-chlorophyllic menace.  Nardizzi’s chosen hue is best suited to interrogate the popular literatures of sustainability and shallow environmentalism, which he describes as “that sweet spot of equilibrium … that capitalism has generated to sustain its own development and to safeguard its own hegemony” (148).  The source text for the word “greener” is Ward Moore’s neglected 1947 science fiction novel Greener Than You Think (a book I ordered immediately after finishing the essay), which imagines an apocalypse of the technocratic “Green Revolution” in mid-twentieth century agriculture that infused machinery, fertilizer, and pesticides into the standard operations of ever-upscaling farmers.  Nardizzi’s text of choice is the perfect platform for discussing the complex hegemony of the American lawn as both symbol and center of the troubling technocratic turns of environmental history in the industrial era.  His topic resonates with the important work on food systems, suburbia, and biotechnology that has made the careers of writers like Michael Pollan, James Howard Kunstler, and Margaret Atwood.  This essay will be at once accessible, relevant, and exciting for students who are getting an introduction to the wooly world of applied human ecology.
Timothy Morton’s “X-ray” takes the opposite approach to Nardizzi’s in many ways. This increasingly renowned ecocritical theorist corrals a herd of wild ideas within the realm of the x-ray, that form of seeing that shows us that “perceiving and causing are one and the same” (321).  The gamma ray “has a causal effect on things precisely insofar as it measures or ‘perceives’ them,” and the body that perceives too much x-ray perception dies of radiation (321).  Morton loops his analysis of the x-ray into his larger inquiry on “hyperobjects,” the subject of a monograph released in the same year from the same press.  Morton is a brilliant neologizer, and his recent discussion of “hyperobjects” joins the earlier coinages “dark ecology” and “strange strangers”: “hyperobjects” designates phenomena so much larger than humanity in temporal and spatial scale that we struggle to conceive of them even as we find ourselves mired in their muck.  Global warming and radioactive half-lives are examples of hyperobjects that, in Morton’s words, “bring about the end of the world” (326).  Readers who love high theory and are looking for an ecocritical scholar to bring the field into postmodern critique will find plenty to admire in Morton’s motions.
One of my qualms with the volume is its unevenness; the authors take so many different approaches to their chosen color that the partitioned arc can appear scattershot.  In two of the essays, “Orange” and “Gold,” the noun often associated with the color (fruit and metal, respectively) is substituted for the color throughout without adequate discussion of this sleight of hand. Similarly, “Blue” is an exclusively emotive excursion.  Each essay reflects fundamental differences in the author’s dedication to close reading their color of choice.  A stronger imposition of the thesis-motif “a [color] ecology would look like X” would have improved the overall coherence of the volume.  At times the color has so little relevance to the essay that the work appears more a vehicle for the scholar’s pre-existing concerns than a dedicated effort to elucidate that color for a curious audience.  These moments coincide with a bizarre selection of primary texts, as in the chapters on “White” and “Beige.”  In the latter, we are asked to imagine beige as a combination of the solid and liquid waste products of the human body (brown and yellow), and piles of these wastes accumulate in the essay’s hypersexual content.  It is not with a prudish nose that I raise objections to its prurience; sex, piss, and shit are the method and materials of nature.  Rather, it is with a concern that this color receives little illumination beyond its sort-of existence as a blend of gross bodily output.  What about the beige of Saharan sands, the chaff of the grain, undyed sheep’s wool, or (if you prefer urban ecologies) the monotonous beige-scapes of the concrete jungle?  The essay on the even more potent theme of “White” pursues surface links with Biblical Genesis, snow, and yes, Alaska, before spending most of its analysis on a spuriously related aural work of Alaskan artist John Luther Adams.  Global cultures have variously associated white with virginity, nutriment, and death; humans have for centuries defiled their water to bleach dun colors to make fashionable, saleable white.  Where are these shades? And then there’s the racial angle, which receives short shrift throughout the volume despite strong movements towards postcolonial and racialized environmental justice theory in ecocriticism.  “Pink” and “Beige” are read through queer theory, but race informs none of the colors.  The generally enlightening essay on “Brown” openly “wants to bracket race” – and so it does, by not discussing it.  “Black” allows a single paragraph to mention the work of two scholars who bring race studies into ecocritique.  Otherwise, it theorizes black as the (non)color that best captures the inherently chaotic, stochastic nature that has come to replace the greeny balanced, harmonious paradigm of nature in both sciences and humanities.  Such an important paradigm shift deserves a more fulsome polychromatic treatment, particularly in a volume aimed at postmodern ecology.
The best chapters in Prismatic Ecology will be useful in the college classroom.  Twenty-page, accessible, somewhat challenging essays on the physics, biology, history, and philosophy of individual colors will open fruitful discussions about the ways that green discourses of sustainability and deep ecology are insufficient to an analysis of environmental conditions in the twenty-first century.  Readers interested in the more recent inventions and terms of ecocritical theory will find them on display throughout the volume.  The authors and editors are to be commended—and more importantly, read—for striking upon an intriguing if gimmicky theme, and for opening many of the colors to new ecocritical perspectives.

Heidi Scott
Heidi Scott is Assistant Professor of English at Florida International University, where she teaches Ecocriticism and British Romanticism. She is the author of Chaos and Cosmos: Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British Nineteenth Century (Penn State, 2014) and articles on the interfaces between literature and science.