Cluster of Empirical Ecocriticism Published in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment

In the Spring 2020 issue of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Alexa Weik von Mossner, and W.P. Małecki edited a thematic cluster of articles dedicated to introducing empirical ecocriticism.

The introduction to the cluster, “Empirical Ecocriticism: Environmental Texts and Empirical Methods,” was co-authored by Schneider-Mayerson, Weik von Mossner, and Małecki. It describes the ways that empirical ecocriticism picks up on convictions about the influence of environmentally engaged literature on readers’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that have always been central to ecocriticism. It explains what empirical ecocriticism does and doesn’t do, how it might productively contribute to ecocriticism, and the kind of scholarship and synergies that might be possible in the future.

The first article is by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, “‘Just as in the Book’? The Influence of Literature on Readers’ Awareness of Climate Injustice and Perception of Climate Migrants.” It considers the questions: Does environmental literature lead readers to be more aware of environmental injustice? To empathize with climate migrants? Who reads environmental literature, and why? It offers empirical answers to these questions through a survey of 86 American readers of The Water Knife (a 2015 novel by Paolo Bacigalupi) and a parallel survey of 183 Americans who regularly read fiction. Its methodology includes a novel measure for evaluating an individual’s awareness of environmental or climate injustice. It finds that The Water Knife was effective at reaching a diverse group of readers, raising awareness about climate injustice, and leading readers to empathize with climate migrants. However, its violent, dystopic future led some readers to fear climate migrants, which might lead to support for reactionary responses to climate change. These results are situated within relevant scholarship from ecocriticism, environmental communication, the empirical study of literature, and environmental psychology.

The second article is by W.P. Małecki, Alexa Weik von Mossner, and Małgorzata Dobrowolska, titled “Narrating Human and Animal Oppression: Strategic Empathy and Intersectionalism in Alice Walker’s “Am I Blue?.” Using three kinds of data, it explores the puzzling results of two quantitative experiments on the impact of Alice Walker’s essay “Am I Blue?” on Polish readers. The experiments showed that the essay, one of the most well-known literary texts advocating for animal rights, failed to have any impact on the readers’ attitudes toward animals, unlike various literary texts that apparently make the case for animal rights in a less emphatic way. The article hypothesizes that this may have something to do with the narrative strategy adopted by Walker in the essay, which juxtaposes human and animal oppression. In order to assess the soundness of this hypothesis, the article first analyzes the narrative structure of Walker’s text, highlighting its strategic use of trans-species empathy and the parallels it draws between human suffering and animal suffering. It then looks at the controversy around the 1994 decision of the California State Board of Education to ban the essay from a statewide test for 10th graders. Finally, it considers experimental data on the essay’s impact on attitudes toward human minorities. In their final discussion, the authors indicate how these three kinds of evidence shed light on one another and suggest that drawing parallels between the oppression of underprivileged human groups and the oppression of non-humans, as Walker does in her text, may be unsuccessful, at least with some audiences.

The final article in the cluster is by Pat Brereton and Victoria Gomez, titled “Media Students, Climate Change, and YouTube Celebrities: Readings of Dear Future Generations: Sorry Video Clip.” The objective of this study is to advance understanding of the use of media by young audiences, as they become informed and come to an awareness of climate change, as part of a process of developing environmental literacy. The paper explores the under-researched question about the role that online videos play in the perception and evaluation of these issues. Insights are obtained through both an ecocritical reading of Prince Ea’s popular rap-music video Dear Future Generations: Sorry and a report of what was perceived and recalled by the students. This is illustrated using textual and focus group analysis of a video that has been highlighted as an emergent environmental text in previous surveys of students. The video also offered an alternative genre and a formally distinct approach to communicating climate change, compared with the well-known Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio’s viral media productions. The methodological design merges the traditional analytical tools of ecocriticism, alongside social science techniques aimed at adding empirical value to the research.

This cluster marks an introduction to empirical ecocriticism. The work that has already been conducted in empirical ecocriticism offers only a glimpse of the kind of scholarship that is possible, and there is potential for a great deal more, in terms of approaches, methodologies, and subjects. This cluster is an invitation, not a definitive statement. If you’re interested in learning more, doing similar work, or collaborating, feel free to contact us at [email protected].