ENGL 894 Reading Notes: Ecology (Week 11)

With our readings for this week I found myself thinking about connections to Spinuzzi and Latour, and ultimately my interest was in how humans were portrayed as part of ecosystems in the readings. I was really struck by an early passage from Spellman in which he provides a passage he believes helps explain ecology. He states, “Probably the best way to understand ecology–to get at the heart of what ecology is all about is to read the following by Rachel Carson (1962):

We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled step by step through the now familiar elm leaf–earthworm–robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life–or death–that scientists know as ecology” (4, emphasis mine).

I think this passage is worth spending some time with because of Spellman’s proclamation that it gets to the “heart” of ecology. A few things really stood out to me. First, though certainly cast as the bad guys poisoning ecosystems, this model still felt very human-centric to me. Ultimately it was humans and our actions that shaped what happened in ecosystems. Along with this, all the animals were cast as our victims. This idea is supported by the fact that human actions are described using an active voice construction “We poison” while animals are given a much more passive role “spring are silent of robin songs. ”This victim language actually made me think about Spinuzzi. Though focused specifically on victim frameworks in a human context, his desire to move beyond that framework seemed apt here–something seems off about only seeing animals and the environment  as victims to be either poisoned, or conversely saved by humans. I saw connections between that idea and this passage from Guattari: “Chernobyl and AIDS have dramatically revealed to us the limits of humanity’s techno-scientific power and the ‘backlash’ that ‘nature’ has in store for us” (28). Here Guattari reminds us that humans are not always all powerful against nature. Guattari is interested in breaking down the supposed divide between nature and culture. Though Carson is obviously interested in showing how we impact nature, her description seems to make us outside it in a way that I think Guattari is trying to correct.

Tree branch and metallic arm are depicted as if shaking hands
Nature and Culture (and thus technology) cannot be separated. Image from http://www.biology-questions-and-answers.com/the-ecosystem.html

I was also struck by the focus on causality in this passage. While Latour specifically denounced causality in thinking about the interrelationship of actants impacting each other, Carson’s quote posits movement as a clear “step by step” process, initiated by a specific action. Ecosystems may be a “web of life–or death” but this web has a clear directionality. Thus while ecology is interested in both living and nonliving things like ANT, while ANT focuses on how actants create action, ecology seems to focus on a chain of action, how one action spawns another. Untangling Activity Theory, Actor Network Theory, and Ecology is something I am still in the process of figuring out, but it is proving a helpful exercise in getting a more concrete idea of each approach.


Guattrari, Felix. The Tree Ecologies. Trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton. London: Continuum, 2008.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Spellman, Frank R. Ecology for Nonecologists. Lanham: Government Institutes, 2007.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.


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