4. The philosophy supporting this inquiry

The philosophy supporting this inquiry.

Ecorhetoric is progressive learning about composition environments (PLACE)

                              Osage Oranges photo by Carol Joan Haney McVey

“When Gabriel Marcel describes him (Sartre) as existentialist, Sartre replies that his philosophy is a philosophy of existence and that he doesn’t even know what existentialism is!” (Steven Unger 7)

“This sense of writing for one’s time expresses what Edward Said describes as Sartre’s missionary aim of upholding literature’s singular capacity to disclose and reveal the present:  ‘literature was about the world, readers were in the world; the question was not whether to be but how to be, and this was best answered by carefully analyzing language’s symbolic enactments of the various existential possibilities available to human beings'” (Unger 7).

Sidney I. Dobrin and Christian Weisser note that ecocomposition borrows largely from Darwins’s study of the relationships that emerge in the struggle for  existence. ” Ernst Haeckel fist defined ‘oecologie’ in 1866 as ‘the total relations of the animal both to its organic and to its inorganic environment’ as ‘the study of all the complex interrelationships referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence'” [qtd in Ricklefs, 1].  This claim by Dobrin and Weisser,two of the leading ecocomposition experts in the field, deserves comment.

Perhaps, if such ecocomposition studies arise out of the struggle for human existence,  then it becomes necessary to clarify our understanding of existentialism at its most essential Level.  A common misconception regards existentialism as begging the great Shakespearean queston, “To be, or not to be” as if it were a true/false question on a pop quiz, with the ultimate answer, for the fictive tragedy of Hamlet, obviously favoring the second phrase in the interrogative. 

Rather, for the purposes of this inquiry, existentialism is a philosophy that asks, ponders, in the Sartrean or Burkean sense as noted above, “ways of being in the world” with a chronotopically dispersed approach to the writing process (See notes on Paul Prior’s Lecture regarding Kenneth Burke and Bakhtin).  This means that the time and place considerations of the writing process explore ways of writing that do not always follow the path of clear, linear logic involved with traditional writing, such as is the case with the tasks involved in composing a website.

Let’s explore the writing of a Jean Paul Sartre, who, like Kenneth Burke, imagined many “ways of being in the world” through his plays, novels, essays, and other literate action before, during, and after World War II.  In his collection What is literature? and Other Essays, edited by Steven Unger, Sartre notes that all literature is a call to action to disclose the problems the world.  So, a work of literature is not simply a temporal reading of zeitgeist to be relegated to the dusty shelves of the library where  the inscribed cambium of trees await discovery.  “Writing is a testament to freedom”(Sartre 54-69).

So, how do the existential philosophies of Sartre and Burke resonate with teachers and students exploring ecorhetoric?  They resonate  because the great contemporary conflict, on a global and local scale, involves making decisions about the existence of all living things, and this conflict involves choices between freedom and sacrifice.  First, let’s review what Jean Paul Sartre has to say about freedom, sacrifice,  and responsibility as we look for ways to engage students in the topic of writing about ecology and conservation or environmental dwelling without burdening them with excessive anxiety or guilt over problems that they did not create.

“To write is to make an appeal to the reader that he lead into objective existence the revelation which I have undertaken by means of language…Thus the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work” (54).

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