The Problem of the Unstable Signifier
What is ecocriticism? The imprecision with which it has been defined and the increasingly disparate uses to which it and its cognates have been put recall Arthur Lovejoy's classic essay "On the Discrimination of Romanticisms" (1924)—by which Lovejoy meant the problem of distinguishing among conflicting usages that belies the implication of a coherent category implied by its customary deployment in the singular.1
For romanticism, Lovejoy tried to impose a semblance of order through historicization, even though he was sorely tempted to throw up his hands. Romanticism "has ceased to perform the function of a verbal sign," he lamented. "When a man is asked . . . to discuss Romanticism, it is impossible to know what ideas or tendencies he is to talk about, when they are supposed to have flourished, or in whom they are supposed to be chiefly exemplified" ("ODR," 232). In a similarly jaundiced mood, one might say the same of ecocriticism.
Although a term of much more recent coinage than romanticism was in 1924, in the two decades since it took off as something like a movement it too has generated initiatives or camps that draw [End Page 87] on increasingly discrepant archives and critical models, such that even most self-identified ecocritics now read each other's work selectively rather than comprehensively, and distinctions become increasingly hard to make between them and other environmentally oriented humanists who would resist being called ecocritics however relevant their work seems to those who do. As Nirmal Selvamony recently put it, "ecocritics are not agreed on what constitutes the basic principle in ecocriticism, whether it is bios, or nature or environment or place or earth or land. Since there is no consensus, there is no common definition."2 Partly for that reason, even the choice of basic rubric has been challenged, by me among others.3 Ursula Heise rightly observes that "ecocriticism has imposed itself as convenient shorthand for what some critics prefer to call environmental criticism, [or] literary-environmental studies, [or] literary ecology, [or] literary environmentalism, [or] green cultural studies."4
Indeed, ecocriticism—to stay with the usual lumping term if only for convenience, even though I myself prefer "environmental criticism" for reasons that will shortly become clear—has a history both of strong position-taking by individual spokespersons and of reluctance to insist on a single normative, programmatic definition of its rightful scope, method, and stakes. By no coincidence, the most cited definition, by Cheryll Glotfelty in the introduction to the Ecocriticism Reader, characterizes it simply as "the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment."5
Nonetheless, it is possible to devise a usable narrative of that initiative's evolution and present agendas, including reasonable guesses about likely future directions.
From Inception until the Near-Now: The Two Waves
Until a few years ago, as a decent approximation one might characterize ecocriticism as a two-stage affair since its inception as a self-conscious movement in the early 1990s. What follows is an updated version of an earlier attempt to do so that seems to have gained fairly wide if not universal acceptance (FEC, 1-28).6
As a self-conscious critical practice calling itself such, ecocriticism [End Page 88] began around 1990 as an initiative within literary studies, specifically within English and American literature, from two semi-coordinated and interpenetrating epicenters: British romanticism, with a genre focus especially on poetry in that tradition (including its twentieth-century Anglo-American filiations), and U.S. nature writing (ditto), with a genre focus especially on the Thoreauvian imprint.7 At this early stage, few ecocritics, if pressed about the matter, would have claimed that these particular generic and historical foci were to be considered the sole rightful provinces for ecocritical work. On the contrary, most would have granted readily enough that ecocritical work might comprehend any and all expressive media, including not only visual, architectural, and other nontextual genres of practice but also even more purely instrumental, functional discourses—of scholarly articles in the natural and social science, the texts of legislative documents and treaties, and so forth. The initial de facto concentration on...
Dr. Nirmal Selvamony (B.1953-) is an Indian academician and scholar. Currently, he is the Head-in-charge of Department of English in Central University of Tamil Nadu. His major interests include Literary Theory, Eco Criticism, Eco Theory, music and drama. The current president of OSLE-India. He obtained PhD. from University of Madras with dissertation Literary Personhood in tolkappiyam in 1988. He completed BA from Scott Christian College with First Rank in Madurai Kamaraj University. He published 14 books, 50 chapters in books more than 40 research papers in journal and more than 100 conference papers. He has worked in various universities and colleges across India and abroad. He got North East Ohio Tamil Sangam Life Time Achievement Award in 2011.
Nirmal Selvamony completed BA (1973–76) from Scott Christian College affiliated to Madurai Kamaraj University with First Rank in 1976. In 1978, completed MA from Madras Christian College, Chennai in English with A Grade. In 1978, he joined Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, Bangalore as research fellow and submitted an essay titled Personhood in Art in 1982. In 1980 he joined University of Madras, for PhD and submitted dissertation titled Literary Personhood in tolkappiyam in 1988.
Nirmal Selvamony began his career during his time in University of Madras from 1980 as a lecturer in Department of English of Madras Christian College. In 1989 he became a senior grade lecturer there. He was a visiting scholar in Davidson College, NC, USA during 1994-96. In 2006, he became Associate Profossor in the Madras Christian College. In 2009, he worked as a visiting faculty in Department of English in Central University of Tamil Nadu. In 2010, worked as Professor in Department of English of Cleveland State University, Ohio, USA. In 2011, returned to Department of English in Central University of Tamil Nadu as Head-in-charge. He was visiting faculty in many universities in India and across the World.In 2009, he worked as visiting faculty in University of Hawaii, USA, Queen’s University, Belfast, N. Ireland. Elmhurst College, Chicago, USA.
Selvamony has introduced the course, Ecocriticism in the Indian university system and founded a forum now known as tiNai (formerly, OSLE-India). It is he who coined the term "tiNaipoetics", the native Indian [Tamil] theory similar to ecocriticism, which is based on the tiNai concept of Classical Tamil Literature. He also started a journal (Indian Journal of Ecocriticism) to promote this course. He was also the first to introduce the courses, Tamil Musicology and Music and Literature in the University of Madras. He has revived the traditional Indian philosophical tradition called “kaaTci” (in a publication titled tamizk kaaTci neRiyiyal, 1996 [The Methodology of Tamil Philosophy], which precedes the darshanas. Introduced tiNai (ecoregional) musicology that studies the music of the primordial biomic world regions (see: essays published in the reports of Tamil Isaic Cankam, Chennai, 1991, 1995, 1996). For the past twenty-five years he has researched tiNai society and published several papers on various aspects of it attempting to reconstruct it as an alternative social order. He has played the guitar professionally in India and also in musical performances in India, USA, Germany and Hong Kong. Supplementing his doctoral research in dramatic theory, he has scripted, and directed plays and composed music for them.
Awards & Achievements
In 2011, he was awarded Lifetime Achievement Award by North East Ohio Tamil Sangam, Ohio, US. He was awarded with For Best Monograph by International School of Dravidian Linguistics,Thiruvananthapuram for the book, Persona in Tolkappiyam. He was selected as the Best Student, UGC Summer Institute in English Language Teaching, sponsored by British Council Division, Chennai and CIEFL, Hyderabad, at Department of English, University of Madras from 13 October to 8 November 1986.
Music & Theatre
Nirmal Selvamony’s other interests include music and drama. In 2015 he organised Theater Workshop with Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, at Central University of Tamil Nadu, 18–23 March 2015. In 2002, he was the secretary of Tamizicaiyiyal Uyarnilai Aayvu Manram (Forum for Advanced Research in Tamil Musicology), Madurai.
He appeared in Vijaya TV programme Niiyaa Naanaa? (You or Me?) for a talk on “Do We Give Undue Importance to English?” on 30 Oct.2012. He was interviewed in Makkal Television on Tinai in “Cevvi in September, 2007 He appeared in NDTV in a programme “Red Earth and the Pouring Rain” (On Monsoons in India) in 2006.