Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Wendell Berry, Deep Ecology, and Hermit Studies

Free Photo: Posing Lumberjacks

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading some writing on the environment recently. It’s my first significant exposure to the field of environmental studies, and I’m still sorting out some of the basic categories. The term “environmental studies” seems to refer to the interdisciplinary study of the environment not only through natural science but through the social sciences and the humanities. It’s a major or concentration in some colleges. But if you read an anthology of “environmental writing” in America, it will probably have few contributions by natural scientists. Most of the writings will take a more or less humanistic (philosophical, historical, literary, journalistic) approach, in the tradition of Thoreau, although these writings will often make reference to or draw upon the writings of natural scientists in a non-technical way.

Then there’s the term “ecology,” which seems to be used by many different people to mean many very different things. (The unusually disorganized entry on “ecology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may reflect this confusion.) On the one hand, ecology might simply refer to the work of natural scientists — such as biologists — who study ecosystems. On the other hand, ecology might refer to a philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things in nature, sometimes accompanied by a commitment to the inherent value of all living things: biocentrism, as opposed to anthropocentrism or (what I called in the last post) animacentrism. This biocentric commitment is sometimes associated with the term “deep ecology.” There also appear to be a number of uses of the term ecology that aren’t primarily focused on the study of the natural environment as we usually think of it — urban ecology, social ecology, molecular ecology, and so on.

I’ve mostly been reading the non-technical, humanistic variety of environmental writing — especially by American writers like Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. In the last post, I mentioned my concern that ecology in the second sense above appears so dominant in environmental studies that competing perspectives may be excluded. Now I’m less concerned. Ecology in the sense of the scientific study of ecosystems appears to be no different than any other natural science, and does not appear to be dominated by any problematic methodological orthodoxy. Ecology in the philosophical sense of “deep ecology” may represent a problematic orthodoxy in humanistic environmental studies — but the orthodoxy doesn’t appear to be enforced in a problematic way. In fact, nearly all of the key figures in American environmental writing have worked outside the academy, with very few tools to enforce orthodoxy.

Oddly, I couldn’t help but noticing that a surprisingly large number of these figures also lived at various times in isolated wilderness cabins as hermits: Thoreau, Leopold, Annie Dillard… The rumor is that even Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the classic literary study Forests (1992), lives in a cabin in someone’s back yard in the Stanford area. Then, of course, there’s Heidegger, whose later writings have profoundly influenced deep ecology and green parties in Europe, and who sometimes lived in a cabin in the Black Forest. And any list of environmentalists living in cabins would not be complete without mention of the Unabomber.

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Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Is Ecology to Environmental Studies as Rational Choice is to Economics?

Free Photo: Homeless Family Walking US 99

I’ve been working on some poems about the environment lately, and as part of that project I’ve been getting my first exposure to environmental studies and some related fields like ecocriticism. Previously, my exposure to environmental writing was mostly through popular journalism and history by writers like Elizabeth Kolbert and Jared Diamond.

I have to say that what I’ve encountered of environmental studies so far has been a little troubling. The issue is summed up in the title of this post: does the theory of “ecology” dominate environmental studies in the same way that the theory of “rational choice” dominates economics?

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If, Literature

If and Gamebooks

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As I’ve mentioned before in a post on the relation between If and “interactive fiction,” the process of publicizing If has made me aware of related genres and media with which I wasn’t familiar while I was writing the book. The earlier post noted the difference between a novel like If — where the reader makes a choice at the end of every chapter — and interactive fiction, a kind of text-based online game. The post noted that according to Wikipedia, the general category to which If belongs is not interactive fiction, but “gamebooks.”

Just as I discovered that there’s a thriving subculture devoted to interactive fiction (IF, not If), so it turns out there’s a thriving subculture devoted to gamebooks. The leading online resource (and the first result when one Googles “gamebooks”) is a site run by Demian Katz, Demian’s Gamebook Page.

I mention all of this today because Demian just posted a review of If in an online magazine devoted to gamebooks. The review can be accessed here.

 

 

 

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If, Literature

Emily Short, interactive fiction, and If (a novel)

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When I finished writing If, a novel of ideas with a choice at the end of each chapter, I knew almost nothing about interactive fiction, other than that it existed and made a nice acronym. For anyone who shares my ignorance, “interactive fiction” does not refer to Choose Your Own Adventure-style novels with a choice at the end of every chapter. It refers to a thriving genre of often online text-based games where the player makes frequent choices by clicking on hyperlinks in the text. The hyperlinked choices may arrive every few sentences, or even every few words. After clicking on a link, new text appears based on the reader’s choices, leading to new choices, etc.

If you felt like it, you could go and write your own work of interactive fiction using Twine right now.

By contrast, novels with choices at the end of each section — like If, Kim Newman’s Life’s Lottery, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series — apparently aren’t usually called “interactive fiction” at all. As discussed in my interview with Joe Rositano, there’s no commonly accepted general term for this kind of work. Most people say “Choose Your Own Adventure novels,” even though that’s a trademarked term for a specific series of books. Rositano favors “choicefic.” Wikipedia uses the term “gamebook.”

So: I’ve never written a work of interactive fiction — and, to be honest, I still haven’t had a chance to finish reading one, either. But working on the publicity for If has made me increasingly aware of interactive fiction, which appears to be going through a kind of golden age right now. One of the leading writers (and organizers) responsible for that golden age is Emily Short, so I was delighted that she recently took the time to write a lengthy blog post on If.

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If, Literature

An interview about If at SeattleWrote

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The intrepid Norelle Done at SeattleWrote recently posted our interview about If. I feel like I’m finally getting a little better at describing what kind of book If tries to be — in a way that neither sets readers up for disappointment by making it sound more lighthearted-and-easy than it turns out to be, nor alienates readers by making it sound more experimental and challenging than it actually is. For example:

Q: In any case: why write a literary choose-your-own-path (or “choicefic,” or “gamebook”) novel?

A: Partly because it had never been done before. People have come close, but I wanted to write a piece of literature that’s as serious and literary as my favorite novels, while still using this format associated with children’s books. I’ve always been attracted to works of art that bring together the difficult and experimental with the simple and playful. Like the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth, Andy Warhol, Laura Riding Jackson, Borges. There are all sorts of strange ways that punk and surrealism and the avant-garde intersect with children’s literature and music. If tries to belong to that tradition. Continue reading

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If, Literature

If (a novel) now available on Kindle

 

 

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For anyone who was curious about my experimental novel If but thought — can I really afford to spend $17 on an unfamiliar novel of ideas by an author who does not even exist? — Livingston Press is making If available on the Kindle for only $2.99 for a few weeks. Please take a look — and if you like the novel, consider writing a review.

As mentioned in earlier posts, If is a philosophical novel with a choice at the end of each chapter. It explores themes of freedom and constraint. I discussed it in an interview with Electric Literature earlier this month, and I’ll have more to say about it in a soon-to-be-published interview with the Seattle Wrote blog. In the words of the publisher:

In If, you are the nameless protagonist, a young dreamer from northern California. At the end of each chapter, you must make a decision, some seemingly frivolous, some traumatic, but all far from inconsequential. These decisions shape your identity as the novel swerves toward twenty-two possible endings. From the margins of starvation in a third world country, to a romance in Paris, to an opulent party in a Manhattan high-rise, your life becomes the unexpected result of the choices you make. Can there be too much freedom? And how much of life lies within our control?

 

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Literature

An interview about If at Electric Literature

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Here’s a link to the recently posted interview between me and the multitalented Joe Rositano at Electric Literature. We talk about If, the use of the term “choicefic” to describe books with branching narratives, skepticism, Burke, and what comes next.

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