Environmental Ethics And Literature

Green Shakespeare : The Ecology of Self in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Professor Robert N. Watson, UCLA

Lillis Notes

• “ Scientist catalog zoo of bacteria inside our guts” by Seth …AP science writer
o Bacteria rules this planet and our bodies
o We are a walking colony of bacteria
• Journal of American scientists 2008
o Prof Robert Dorit
• “ each of us harbors approximately 10 bacterial cells for every one of our eukaryotic cells…”
o – Fairies are the microbes….
• “All images of nature were still present …
• Stephen Greenblat
• Demetrius “ come to his natural taste” still in the spell of the juice of the magic flower…
• Is love an idleness? A magic spell? Or just a common fact of adolescence?
• Erotic love is a possession, buries itself in the human heart
• Being loved = being drugged
o Actual physical difference
• Love involves a merchant phenomena
o “We might as well turn the names of compounds into the names of fairies”
• He noticed that human actions were not always applicable by human choice…
• “ The world we do not know but couldn’t live without”
• “All flesh is grass” becomes more then a metaphor in the play
o “Woo’d by this wood” (2.1.249)
• Hermia’s father Egeus (goat -man)
o Theseus fathered by combined sperm of aegeus and Poseidon
• Theseus was famous for battling the minotaur and centaurs
• Theseus: Now, fair Hippolyta our nuptial hour draws on apace…”
o “ The next thing then…” (2.1.176-82)
• Snakes molting their skin as a measure of instability
• It is an “orgy of life”
• For plants and humans a like can…
o what is shared may be stolen
• They are like parasites→ steal and consume the heart but may not be of their essence
• There is a crescendo of the ecosystem, a sweet thunder of all the scaled of nature, each under each.
• Pasiphae and Minatour
• Pride may be the deadliest of the suns→ an immune disorder, attacking all the parts of the human body


Kevin's Take

"The Ecology of Self in A Midsummer Night's Dream"

The lecture was preceded by a small speech from Professor Scott Newstok on how Rhodes is becoming “green.” A “green approach” represents a reflection on our relationship with the natural environment. He reminded us that our idea of “wilderness” means something radically different than what it did for Shakespeare. He concluded his introduction by noting that perhaps Shakespeare’s work reflects a turning point in environmental thought whose effects we still feel today.

Professor Watson then provided recent scientific scholarship on the biological human, Nature magazine claiming, “The human gut is a virtual zoo,” (Nature, March, 2010). Colonies of microorganisms ensure the proper functioning of our bodies, while decreased numbers of these normalizing microbes cause various diseases and more resilient infections. Thus, largely unseen species rule our bodies and our world. But the view of our bodies as “a series of linked and densely populated ecosystems” presents us as a microcosm of the natural world. Shakespeare’s fairies represent these microscopic organisms. A major premise in Prof. Watson’s argument, Shakespeare’s comedy can be seen as a possible mode of spreading this past environmental consciousness.

Comparable to a scientific view of our bodies, Prof. Watson characterizes environmentalism as a belief in unseen natural forces. Concomitantly, Shakespeare appears as a skeptic for the ideally autonomous self, recognizing our necessary interrelatedness with those forces of the natural world. As we are not disembodied minds, our animality as embodiment must be dealt with in either constructive or destructive ways. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare presents sexual choice as an example of our battle with natural, determinate forces and the incoherence of conceiving ourselves as wholly autonomous beings; our bodies bear a physical relation to other bodies in a biological naturalness. Love is another example of unseen natural forces, along with our various desires, and the problems of love are seen as similar to the problems of parasites. Thus, the magic of fairies constitutes a pre-scientific approach toward understanding unexplained natural processes.

Dr. Watson points to humans as interwoven rungs of the chain of being; similar to other natural entities, humans change upon entrance into new natural environments. In terms of constructing a viable environmental ethic, Shakespeare suggests the way toward a constructive middle ground between rigid, essentialist ideas of the self and losing oneself into animality in “nature.” From this point, Dr. Watson explored various forms of hybrid species illustrated in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Men become fauna and women flora, while the popular conception of the “rude mechanicals,” the underclass of laborers, as between man and animal is universalized for all humanity. This idea transgresses a forbidden recognition of humans’ naturalness found in both the popular opinion and philosophical discourse of the time. Such recognition found credence as well as damaged human narcissism further through the Darwinian message, centuries later.

“All wrapped up in the warp and the woof,” a weaving metaphor for the structure of one’s life, signifies human existence as being necessarily of two worlds. The liberation of domesticated animals is as impossible as the liberation of humans from nature. As generations of domesticity have left their mark upon otherwise wild animal species, humans are bound to physical bodies bearing animality and some relation to nature. Ecological imperatives shift through disciplines, but too many philosophers have claimed that “to be is to be one,” separating humans theoretically from necessary interconnectedness with their environments and the colonies of life forms within. The theoretical boundaries of discrete individuals are fearful constructions. Dr. Watson believes that a way around these culturally dominant modes of environmental consciousness is to study the literature of the past, reviving preexisting conceptions of relating to nature. Displacing “biophobia” then becomes a matter of acknowledging human pride as an immunological problem leading to the unhealth of both the human and the environment.

A “round table” discussion followed Dr. Watson’s lecture, with several “eco-critical Shakespeareans,” responding to questions of “eco-phobia.”
1.) Interested in Shakespearean representations of the English landscape, the first commentator spent years travelling aboard a ship and found humans’ effects upon the ocean to be deplorable: plastic detritus, micro-plastics covering the surface in many places, the Texas-size plastic field in the Pacific Ocean, etc. We’ve viewed the oceans as timeless, eternal, unchanging, but it hasn’t been so since the emergence of humans on the scene.
2.) The second commentator approaches Shakespeare by studying sylvan ecotourism as pertaining to Shakespearean theater troupes. Often these concerns lead to preservation of nature over the ways of life of woods workers. This dichotomy reflects objections raised by Holmes Rolston III in his article, “Feeding People versus Saving Nature?” The obvious question eventually arose, “What does studying Shakespeare contribute to environmental criticism?” The most mundane answer is that through reading, writing, and teaching more, we consume much less and contribute to reducing our size and, thus, ecological impact.
3.) The third commentator is based in Seoul, South Korea. With Seoul on one side of his university, and national park on the other, he’s placed in the supposed middle area between nature and culture. He coined the term “ecophobia” to describe fear and hatred of the natural environment. He views himself as a shallow Shakespearean but deep eco-critic, claiming that our environmental problems arise from our ways of thinking about the natural environment.
4.) With a background in animal studies, the fourth commentator has a “vexed relationship with eco-criticism.” She argues that her hobby of riding horses generates within herself a unique sort of knowledge of animals, a broadened, nuanced relationship with animals. Could this knowledge be characterized as kinship feelings with fellow domesticated animals, a la Nietzsche? From her introduction, I think the use of horse bridles reveals a sort of species solipsism – the horse seeing us differently than how we see it. Studying animal embodiment, investigating their form of experience, this commentator hopes to mitigate the impact of species solipsism in moral consideration of animals. In closing, she assured the audience that the viewing of the humanities and sciences as separate subjects is a modern development.
5.) Commenting on the power of a culture’s biophobia, Dr. Watson presented a gradualist view. Cultural criticism which takes up a critical history of the tradition is more likely, in Dr. Watson’s view, to legitimize past views which mesh well with our current ecological concerns. If we take our “green” assertions as certitudes, presenting them as a sort of Jeremiah, we make no progress with others. We should explore, rather, the possibilities of imparting these ideas through more palatable means, such as Shakespearean comedy. A false dichotomy between literary scholarship and eco-criticism will leave both without vital resources.

In the Q&A session, the most potent questions revealed the deep difficulties of ecological disagreement in effecting positive social change: “How do ecocritics deal with counter-assertions that legitimize the dominion of man over nature (anthropocentrism), such as the Book of Genesis? Must literary criticism and activism remain separate?” This sort of questioning implicates the philosophical pursuit of an “ample” animal, land, or broadly environmental ethic. A divide among ecocritics as to the proper course of action parallels disagreement among the academic philosophical community as to the proper moral assessment of various concepts and entities.

On the efficacy of environmental concerns within literary and philosophical scholarship, one of the commentators pulled the Peter Singer card: he’s not politically powerful but profoundly influenced the ways we live with Animal Liberation. The maltreatment of animals by cosmetic companies or in scientific research found an opponent within philosophical discourse and had to reckon with his arguments. From here, the commentators agreed that teaching must be the platform by which the values of sustainability, cultural criticism, and appreciation of complexity are transmitted to future generations. Shakespearean conceptions of the interdependency of life forms seem more agreeable with ecocriticism than the modern biophobia. Thus, through learning the tradition, supposedly we can be better equipped to dislocate more ingrained, exploitative relations to nature. Though, the obvious objection would be that mere literary criticism does not equate to “moral,” ecologically friendly actions. The example used was Eichmann reading Goethe in his free time, when not facilitating the deaths of millions.


Kaity's Take

On March 26, Professor Robert N. Watson of UCLA came and presented a lecture entitled “The Ecology of Self in A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. While the focus of the lecture tended to veer a little more into personal biology, some of the points made by Professor Watson were quite interesting and relevant to the class. One main theme that continued to be emphasized was the idea that we are participants, not just inhabitants, in this world; in this ecosystem. This concept was clear from the beginning of the lecture, when he started off discussing the fact that the human body is filled with all sorts of bacteria, that “each of us harbors approximately ten bacterial cells for everyone of our eukaryotic cells” (Professor Robert Dorit, Journal of American Science, 2008). This awareness of smaller organisms was neatly tied into the discussion of Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. In the play, fairies and magical plants and herbs help to influence the human characters and move along the plot of the play. Professor Watson likened these small influencers to the microbes, bacteria, and hormones within the human body. Just because they are tiny and we cannot see them does not mean that they are very much indeed a part of our eco-community. Another item that was brought up was the concept of human-animal hybrids. These “creatures” are featured prominently within the play most notably in the form of Bottom the Weaver, who is transformed magically into a donkey. Professor Watson argued that this particular example serves as a reminder to us all that we are all wrapped up in this ecosystem. That we are all members of the community whether we are human, plant, or animal. We need to avoid thinking in a linear fashion and work towards a symbiotic ecosystem. He closed up the lecture by stating that we need to understand our past in order to be able to fix our current environmental problems and that despite what we may think, nature knows us rather intimately and we need to respect and nurture that relationship.

Overall I thought the lecture was interesting. Initially I was concerned about whether there would be enough information to discuss. Not that information was lacking in the lecture, but it seemed a bit like the information was going to be difficult to relate to the class. Once I realized the overarching themes, however, it began to make more sense. As far a critique goes, while I ended up enjoying the lecture, I would have liked to have heard a more specific discussion regarding environmental ethics. Clearly it was touched upon, but I kind of felt like a lot of it was more bits and pieces regarding how more minor environmental or perhaps more specifically biological references were made within the play. While an interesting idea for a lecture certainly, it seemed a bit of a stretch. This may be purely personal opinion, but I found the continually changing references to be a bit distracting. It is going to be interesting to hear other opinions. Would it make a difference if the lecture was longer? I think it might. I think it would be more helpful if the lecture were either longer or presented as a more in-depth series, because otherwise I found it to be more a lecture about pointing out symbolic biological references as opposed to environmental ethics, more specifically.

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