Erick Heroux                                                   

Assistant Professor of English

National Chengchi University

Taipei  116, Taiwan


November 2006



Unsustainable Tragedy and Sustainable Comedy




                The classical genre of tragedy in the West has treated the unsustainable.  This might well be said to be the essence of the tragic genre: due to human flaws, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, the proud hero’s mangled corpse is dragged through the dust by terrified horses, the cloud-capped towers burn to the ground accompanied by wailing widows, now enslaved and carted off in cages; the end.  Beginning with Homer’s The Iliad and its expanding cycles of Trojan War mythology, literature lamented the fall of warrior heroes and entire city-states, a violent undoing wrought by that key Homeric term “anger” or revenge.  Tit for tat, eye for an eye, the spiral of vengeance leads inexorably, as Shakespearean tragedy repeatedly underlined, to an unsustainable society in which all parties are destroyed.  Moreover the concluding acts of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello, show that these parties are not destroyed from without by enemies, but rather suicidally from within.   The implied moral of traditional tragedy will be explained briefly and compared with ecological principles and also with Jean-Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural.

                In complementary contrast, the genre of comedy has treated sustainability.  This paper argues that a founding book of ecocriticism, Joseph Meeker’s The Comedy of Survival is prescient in this regard, and connects Meeker’s thesis to an even earlier an unrecognized work of 1937: Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes Toward History. 




      For a long time, literature in the West has treated the unsustainable.  This might well be said to be the essence of the tragic genre: due to human flaws, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, the proud hero’s mangled corpse is dragged through the dust by terrified horses, the cloud-capped towers burn to the ground accompanied by wailing widows, now enslaved and carted off to distant lands.  The End.  With Homer’s The Iliad and its expanding cycles of Trojan War mythology, literature lamented the fall of warrior heroes and entire city-states, a violent undoing wrought by that key Homeric term “anger” or revenge.  The opening lines of this oldest of epic poems are felicitously translated as:


Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures . . . .[1]


The “it” which appears twice in the second sentence as an active agent is the “anger” of the opening line.  Anger is the subject that brings ills, sends brave souls to the afterlife, and leaves the bodies of heroes for carrion.   Anger is not only introduced in the opening line, but continues to be a subject throughout the epic, for instance the anger of the god Apollo toward  Agamemnon for disrespecting his priest.  The Homeric text contains three distinct layers of angry revenge: between gods, between armed societies, and between individual friends or family members.  These three domains reflect each other and interact with each other, not only in Homer but also throughout later Greek tragedies.  The cosmos, societies, and individuals are prone to conflict within and also between each domain.  In the divine domain of Olympus, we find the comedy of the gods, wherein passionate conflicts lead to additional conflicts, but because the gods are immortal, none can be ultimately excluded from the ongoing game: one wins for now only to compromise later.   This comic game, often said to be a satire about the all-too-human passions, is without a tragic final act.  The object of the game is to keep the game going, the essence of play itself, according to a definition of play by James P. Carse.[2]  Meanwhile in the human domain of mortality, we find the tragic version of this process, a zero-sum game: Tit for tat, eye for an eye, the spiral of traditional blood vengeance leads inexorably to an unsustainable society in which all parties are destroyed -- as The Oresteia part of the cycle makes explicit, especially in The Furies by Aeschylus[3] where a new kind of rational compromise is shown to be necessary for a sustainable society.  More must be taken into account than simply one party’s right to revenge: now we must keep in mind collateral damage, the vicious circle, and also future generations born in relative innocence of the sins of their parents.  By implication then, a sustainable society must create systems of compromise among inevitable conflicts with a view to the needs of future generations.   

Moreover such conflicts are generally internal to a system, as, e.g., later Shakespearean tragedy repeatedly underlined.   In the final acts of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello, (not to mention a few of the History plays) these parties are not destroyed from without by enemies, but rather suicidally from within as if according to the principle of unsustainability, or rather by violating the principles of sustainability.   The same should be said of Faust and Moby-Dick.  This suggests that the western tragic genre teaches why faulty systems implode due to their internal conflicts, whether these systems are seen as individual, social, or cosmic.  The high tragic tradition, properly read, dramatizes the consequences of such errors, of internal conflicts that become a zero-sum game in which the loser is defeated and in which the winner is also next in line for defeat.

As for that Greek epic cycle of revenge, whether due to a fatal curse, a social contradiction, a character flaw such as hubris, an unfortunate miscommunication, a bad apple corrupting the city, etc., these causes always stem from the characters’ typical error: to upset one of the many gods.  The deep background of the Homeric epic is that the goddess of Discord herself, Eris, was snubbed and uninvited to a divine banquet on Olympus.  Ironically this exclusion of Discord is what causes an unsustainable discord.  She plots her revenge in the form of tricking young Paris to judge the best among three other goddesses, who offer three associated bribes.  In this artificial judgment, Paris, as everyone knows, chose the bribe to obtain the love of the most beautiful woman, Helen.  In so choosing, Paris necessarily disrespected the other two goddesses, who curse him.  Symbolically, he has rejected their principles, their domains, their rights.  His blissful relationship with Helen will not last, and her absent face will launch a thousand ships under the murderous ambition of Agamemnon who will sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia for the cause, only to be then murdered by his furious wife Clytemnestra ten years later on the day of his triumphant return with the sex slave Cassandra, who saw it all coming -- but of course no one can believe her.  The young son, Orestes, is then hounded to carry out the traditional blood revenge for the murder of his father, but finds it all too complicated in that it means he would murder his mother, a very grave offense.  The revenge spiral has collapsed in its own inherent contradiction:  destruction calls for destruction in return without end except for the suicide of the whole system.  This mythology encodes a logical comparison between on the one hand, a hierarchical system of exclusions (we cannot have Discord at the banquet) that eventually destabilizes the cosmos, society, and the individual psyche, with on the other hand, a cooperative system of justice as sustainable compromise that will nevertheless always contain an element of discord in its structure and its consequences.

To the degree that the diverse gods represent various powers -- both of nature and of human nature --  one could reasonably conclude that the wise counsel offered by this mythology overall is that the gods must be recognized and respected for their various and sometimes conflicting powers.  The ideal is a kind of flexible balance among the polytheistic forces, each of which is necessary to sustain the cosmos.[4]  Everything has its appropriate place and time.  When conflict occurs, it is best for both sides to compromise in the interest of sustaining the whole.  No thing can dominate everything all of the time, since everything is always already imbricated in relationships with everything else.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Being is always in relationship; indeed relationship itself is Being.”  This old holistic/pluralist vision recurs now and then, here and there and far beyond the West too in the Upanishads (one of Emerson’s favorite inspirations); and in the Taoism of Lao-tze and Chuang-tze; and in some Native American creation stories that emphasize immanence, ongoing process, and cooperation among conflicting agents; and again in today’s ecological version of biodiversity and ecosystems.   We find such a holistic/pluralist vision not only in such common sources of an eclectic perennial mysticism that is always on the cusp of a New Age which never actually begins, but also in the latest post-ontological deconstructive philosophy.  Derrida’s close colleague, Jean-Luc Nancy, has written in the final essay of Being Singular Plural that paradoxically,

The unity of the world is not one: it is made of a diversity, and even disparity and opposition.  It is in fact, which is to say that it does not add or subtract anything.  The unity of a world is nothing other than its diversity, and this, in turn, is a diversity of worlds.  A world is a multiplicity of worlds . . . and its unity is the mutual sharing and exposition of all its worlds – within this world.  

The sharing of the world is the law of the world.  The world has nothing other; it is not subject to any authority; it does not have a sovereign.  Cosmos, nomos.  Its supreme law is within it as the multiple and mobile trace of the sharing that it is.  Nomos is the distribution, apportionment, and allocation of its parts: a piece of territory, a portion of food, the delimitations of rights and needs in each, and at every time, as is fitting [il convient].  (185).


Nancy’s further reflections on what the fact of “coexistence” implies for philosophy and politics today is of great interest, I think.  Nevertheless, he is in some significant sense spelling out an old holistic/pluralist vision, and one that classical Greek mythology enacted if read as a whole.  Literature, as usual, appears to have been tacitly gesturing toward the very idea that philosophy later works out in a more explicit thesis. 

Now if we had time to treat western literature more thoroughly here, we would of course have to examine the other major mythology derived from the Judeo-christian tradition of monotheism.  In this anti-polytheist mythology, balance among conflicting forces is not the moral of the story, but rather submission to the highest authority.  Opposing forces, interestingly enough, are admitted even here, namely in the figure of Satan for example, but rather than recognize and harmonize with that demonic force, the Judeo-christian differs from Greek mythology by way of exclusion and hierarchy.  Some forces are simply inadmissible and destructive, according to this view.  Milton’s epic poem about this, Paradise Lost, is of course tragic: the ideal ecological vision of the Garden is destroyed from within, again as with Greek mythology, by offending a god.  Also, a traditional critical discussion about Milton circles around the irony that his tragic figure Lucifer gets all the most passionate lines of the poem, while the ideologically “Christian” figures get less intensive speeches.  Moreover, we nearly weep (for ourselves?) when Adam and Eve are finally cast out of that environmental paradise as pathetic losers:

They looking back, all th' Eastern side beheld

Of Paradise, so late their happie seat,

Wav'd over by that flaming Brand, the Gate

With dreadful Faces throng'd and fierie Armes:

Some natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;

The World was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitarie way.


In these final lines of Milton’s epic, we encounter the archetypal conclusion of a theological tragedy.  Since our expulsion from the Garden, so the story goes, it has been nothing but blood, sweat and tears.  The earthly paradise was unsustainable – because as Milton explained in the opening lines of the epic: “Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit /

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste / Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, /

With loss of Eden . . . etc.   We remember this story because it is still used by many people today in order to explain why human existence resembles a vast tragedy.   That this grand narrative has also, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, helped to produce the vast tragedy of ecological ruin would be the topic of another study.[5]  Moreover, in this tragic mythology, the divine realm itself is a zero-sum game or winner/loser finite game, unlike the more open-ended multiple play of classical Olympus.  

For the potential comic framework of the Christian grand narrative, I would not turn to Dante’s Divine Comedy as Joseph Meeker has, but instead to Rabelais, who more thoroughly deconstructs the Judeo-christian hierarchy that represses the body and nature.  Rabelais does this in the classic satire Gargantua and Pantagruel of the late medieval / early Renaissance period.  His delirious satire deploys rhetorical excess from beginning to end in a way that reverses the dominant medieval binary structure and satirizes the spirit of righteousness.  This satire brings out the repressed elements in all their downtrodden crudity, only to parade them before the reader as exemplars of a higher civilization.  Rabelais, in having so much lighthearted fun along the way, shows how comedy can suggest a more sustainable worldview than the strictures of a repressive hierarchy; how the social anarchy of his ironic utopia (in the Abbey of Theleme chapters) is more viable than a monophonic, monotheistic theocracy.  I will return to the genre of comedy in a moment.


Principles of Sustainability


At this juncture, we may notice that literary genres so far appear to be only about the social domain.  To address how nature itself figures in these reflections on literary genres, we should begin with how ecologists describe sustainability in ecosystems.   How does the biosphere sustain itself, how does nature manage to keep life going, to multiply and regenerate living beings? 

Fritjof Capra has provided an impressive case for this in his book The Web of Life, which explains that “ecoliteracy” is to be familiar with the new sciences of living systems and complexity, and the ways in which they can inspire how to design and nurture “sustainable communities in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances for future generations” (297).   The principle similarities between our social systems and natural eco-systems are:

“Both are living systems that exhibit the same basic principles of organization.  They are networks that are organizationally closed, but open to flows of energy and resources; their structures are determined by their histories of structural changes; they are intelligent because of the cognitive dimensions inherent in the processes of life” (207-298).


Capra acknowledges that there are also significant differences between human and natural systems, yet proceeds to discuss the ecological principles that would benefit our social systems, namely: “interdependence, recycling, partnership, flexibility, diversity, and, as a consequence of those, sustainability” (298-304).   These ecological principles are then applied to design, to the economy, and to cultural engineering today in the discursive expansion of the term as it is borrowed and transformed by other fields (albeit sometimes dishonestly in the case of corporate propaganda).[6]  

Here is a good example of the promising discursive spread of “sustainability” in a recent and popular book urging social transformation toward a sustainable society: David C. Korten’s The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.  Widely hailed among social progressives, Korten’s book in part asserts that nature can teach us how to create a more sustainable society if we read off the ecological principles analyzed by biologists and then reapply them toward a reformed civilization.  Such principles of sustainability, according to Korten’s appropriation, include (292-294):

·        Principle of Cooperative Self-Organization:  “… one of life’s most important lessons is that species that survive and prosper are ultimately those that find a niche in which they meet their own needs in ways that simultaneously serve others.”

·        Principle of Place:  Species evolve in specific niches and local relationships, co-evolving and co-adapting in ways that produce sustainable bioregions or ecosystems.  An alien species introduced into this intricate co-adaptation is usually destructive.  But human beings are now behaving like an alien species on a planetary scale, where the global expansion of industry and technology occurs without regard to specific places.

·        Principle of Permeable Boundaries:  Organisms at every level must protect their internal coherence or identity by excluding toxins, predators, wastes, etc., while at the same time allowing in food and energy.  Cells have membranes that manage these dual functions of openness and closedness.  Such permeable boundaries are necessarily present in plants, organs, animals, ecosystems, and the entire biosphere.  Likewise, the corporate globalization of free trade threatens such protective boundaries; while conversely, borders that remain too closed will choke in their own wastes and keep out the nutrition of ideas and techniques and cultures that contribute to social vitality.

·        Principle of Abundance:  “Life has learned that frugality and sharing are the keys…”  “The wastes of one become the resources of another . . .”  “Unrestrained growth based on competitive expropriation is the ideology of cancer cells and alien species.”  

·        Principle of Diversity:  “Just as life never exists in isolation from other life, neither does it exist in monocultures.”  More biodiversity equals more resilience of a bio-community.  “Likewise a diversity of age, gender, culture, religion, and race provides an invaluable contribution to the resilience and creative potential of human communities.”


Korten is not the first writer to make such connections between ecological sustainability and human sustainability by enumerating such principles.[7]  But his is a popular and newly influential version.   Yet, a close analysis might seriously question how quickly and easily such passages bridge from biology to sociology and from description to prescription.  Nevertheless, I concur that these normative prescriptions are wise and much to be desired for human progress – or as we nowadays say more pessimistically, “human survival”.   Given that the status quo has now led to the decimation of unrenewable resources, to a new wave of mass species extinctions, to global climate change, to an epidemic of environmentally caused cancers, and to the advent of terrible wars over what little oil remains to be extracted, then this sort of inspired appropriation of ecological principles is much more promising than the cynical notion that we might as well continue to do business as usual.   It is after all highly persuasive to note that if our present course has violated the principles of ecology to the point of endangering humanity’s future viability, then it is only logical that we should attempt to institute a reformed civilization that honors those same principles.   

     Still, it behooves us to pause critically and periodically, especially at the sometimes fatal danger of biologizing the social – a bad habit that historically has upheld racism, sexism, and class privilege.   We scholars in the humanities are all supposed to have learned the fallacy of foundationalism and/or essentialism.   Human societies are not exactly the same as natural ecosystems just because they partake of similar principles and processes.  Nature is not the same as history.  The oldest trick of ideological smokescreens is to naturalize social inequalities.  When Darwinism was simplified and reappropriated to Social Darwinism, this was still the type of harmful biologizing of sociology that we must remain wary about with today’s kinder greener version.  This danger is all the more urgent once we are reminded that the Nazi Party also pushed a version of a “green” eco-fascism.[8]  It remains to be seen if we can indeed actually produce social progress in ecological terms, or whether our social systems might re-adapt to the biosphere in a sustainable manner and yet continue to reproduce social inequalities, exploitation, injustice and the rest that our progressive visionaries of eco-social revolution wish to overcome. 


Sustainable Comedy


Where tragedy closes with a loser in a finite game, comedy concludes with the players continuing in an infinite game.  This, in a nutshell, is why Joseph Meeker connected ecological survival with infinite play, and play with comedy: thus titling his prescient book, The Comedy of Survival (first published in 1974, and revised thoroughly for a recent third edition in 1997)Where tragedy is plotted toward death and destruction, comedy is plotted toward renewal, humble survival, or marriage: the generic “and they lived happily ever after.”  I begin therefore to suspect that there is some intrinsic homology between comedy and sustainability.  I believe that such a homology is worth researching, however I do not wish to make a strong claim at this level.  The principles of ecological sustainability listed above do not map perfectly onto the elements of comedy.  I make rather reserved claims here: that the similarities are enough to warrant further thought and that the comic genre has implied, in striking contrast to tragedy, that a sustainable community is possible; but possible only without the heroic grandeur, self-importance, and zero-sum games played out so painfully in tragic unsustainability.  I might call this framework of comedy a kind of humane ecology.  Neither should this line of thought be understood as asserting that nature itself is a comedian, nor that we must all become more “humorous” in order to somehow get along with the natural environment.   Zoologists and ethologists are indeed learning that certain animals play around, joke, and pretend – more species do so than we used to assume.  But this does not allow us to conclude that the operations of natural systems as a whole are intrinsically “comic.”  These are potentially interesting suggestions, but they are not a way of thinking that I pursue here. 

Instead, it is the literary contribution to an ecological vision that is my topic.  Comedy does not merely describe a system, but also prescribes an attitude, a morality of humility toward error, of tolerance and cooperation and acceptance.  Comedy focuses on the “small” characters: the Fool, the errant, the unwed, the subaltern, the picaro.  These characters seek and find a niche in the wider community, without attempting to make war against it or to become a dominant hero.  Characters in a comic plot eventually co-adapt.  The renewed community that emerges at the conclusion of a comic plot is not imposed from above, but rather self-organizes from below, from the multiple interactions of agencies, from the challenging diversity of types.  Traditional comedy assumes, as it were, that the world can support even the little people, that competition over limited resources is, well, tragic and thus in another genre.  Instead comedy posits an underlying abundance obtained through an economy of sharing.   Likewise, what is rejected by the more elevated genres is accepted as useful in the comic genre:  everything and everyone can contribute to the mistakes, the fortunate fall, and the eventual positive outcome.  In comedy, “waste” is recycled into good fun for all, whereas in tragedy, waste is felt to be rather unfortunate and much is wasted without gain.  Now taken together, this manner of analyzing comedy quite clearly suggests that if comedy did not always already teach ecology, then at least ecological principles clarify the implied world view in the comic genre.   Once this has been grasped, then literary comedy might be taught as interesting lessons in the principles of sustainability.  And this will have been my humbler claim.

            I have already introduced an example of this comedy of sustainability with Rabelais above.  Another classic example is the Greek comedy, Lysistrata by Aristophanes.   Meeker’s study, some say the very first book of ecocriticism gives a quick overview of this comedy that is worth repeating here (16-17):


. . . Athens and Sparta are at war, and all able bodied men are off fighting for their country.  An Athenian woman, Lysistrata, decides to do something to remedy the unfortunate situation that keeps husbands from their wives' beds and puts sons in danger. She gathers Athenian women and persuades them to join her in a sex strike to end the war. The women agree to make themselves as alluring as possible to their men, but to give them no satisfaction. Aristophanes' play then spins its comic story of seduction and frustration, until at last the generals from both sides are led by their erect penises to the peace table where they end the war. Husbands return to their wives' beds, and young men are safe once more at home. This is the basic pattern of comic action.


Meeker’s summary of the plot and theme is concisely to the point.         Meeker then points out that for the women of Lysistrata (17):

It is not a heroic undertaking, but a strategic [tactical] one. No great truths are unveiled in the process, and no triumph is won for the community. Wit and cleverness are put in the service of maintaining the essential conditions for life (sex and safety). Commonly, the ending of comedy is a wedding or a reconciliation, where opposing forces are once more at peace with one another.


In other words, comedy is a tactical means to subvert tragedy in favor of sustainability.  By tactics, I intend to call upon that admirable book by Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, which distinguished between the status quo power of “strategy” versus the nomadic, subversive power of “tactics,” which are minor ways of “making do” – that is to say, surviving within yet getting around the larger strategic structures.  It has been too long since I have heard anyone mention De Certeau’s useful analysis, so it might be time for ecocritics to revisit his work.  “Tactics” belong to play, comedy, subversion, non-hierarchy, and survival.

A final comment, then, about Aristophanes and comic ecology.  Notice that this play addresses the “other” genre of tragedy by enfolding it in the very basis of his plot.  Beginning with the tragic pattern of revenge and fatal competition among masculine heroes – that is, a “finite game” that can only end in the ruin of one city – our comedian then reconfigures the plot for an “infinite game” that aims to keep both communities going for future generations.   Aristophanes does so by introducing overtly “feminine” values of burlesque comedy and domesticity replacing the “masculine” values of sublimely tragic warriors.  Here sustainability is quite literally about sexual reproduction and the rights of the young generation.  It is as if the Lysistrata is the first meta-drama that placed tragedy and comedy in dialogue with each other, showing that comedy can undo a tragic plot and divert it toward a peaceful outcome.  This meta-drama thus inverts the standard hierarchy in which high tragic drama is sublime, while comedy is lower because it deals with ridiculous characters and “lowly” events.  Aristophanes made the case for this reversal within a play that performs the wit and wisdom it argues is inseparable from a humane ecology.  In the Lysistrata, the women’s strategy is aimed at returning to an equilibrium – apparently between the two city-states and between the two sexes.  This process is similar to the dynamic ecological process that readjusts a living system that is pushed or pulled into disequilibrium.   In the speculative level of a meta-drama that I propose here, it is as if this social equilibrium in the contents of the play is then retroactively applied to the form; to the contest between the genres, which might in some sense be said to now be pushed and pulled back into equilibrium with each other, like in now common application of deconstruction: the binary opposition between tragedy and comedy, which tended to place tragedy at the center and comedy at the margin, tragedy as high and comedy as low, is first reversed, but also shown that tragedy can be incorporated into a comedy where it becomes both/and yet neither/nor.  The tragedy comes first and starts the plot, which then ends comically.  The two genres here depend on each other as much as the two sexes in the play depend on each other.  The critical decision to privilege one or the other is then left within a typically Derridean erasure.


This deconstructive refusal to guarantee a center, to austerely avoid privileging once and for all a transcendental signified (here dangerously close to some presence properly named by “Comedy”) is exactly the flexible attitude at work in the wily work of Kenneth Burke, who long ago and before any of my other sources had discussed the “comic frame of acceptance” as an important resource for the construction of our historical survival, but at the same time, one that could not in itself guarantee the security of society.  The tragic sense too, must play its part in alerting us to actual dangers.[9]

Burke, moreover, was the first literary critic to attempt to articulate all of that (appreciation of comedy as an historical framework yet insufficient in itself) in relation to a then barely emerging new science of ecology.   In a chapter on “Naïve Capitalism” Burke pointed out, rather prophetically too, that the capitalist class was already busy moving beyond the national borders in an “anti-patriotic” manner while paradoxically calling “patriotically” upon their own nation to assist them in this transnational move (149).  In other words, Burke spotted a symptom of early globalization in 1937.[10]   In this very moment of his text -- which continually veers off track as if overburdened with its own urgent qualifications, parenthetical asides, extended applications, rhetorical contradictions, historical counter-examples, etc. --  Burke then interjects a long footnote about how the expansion of capitalist production affected the natural environment.  It is worth quoting at length not least to give a taste of the Burkean style (150):

“ . . . There is the dubious kind of ‘profit’ that exports two-dollar wheat and gets in exchange a Dust Bowl.

      “Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention.  He teaches us that the total economy of this planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must itself eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole (as big beasts would starve, if they succeeded in catching all the little beasts that are their prey – their very lack of efficiency in the exploitation of their ability as hunters thus acting as efficiency on a higher level, where considerations of balance count for more than considerations of one-tracked purposiveness).

            “So far, the laws of ecology have begun to avenge themselves against restricted human concepts of profit by countering deforestation and deep plowing with floods, droughts, dust storms, and aggravated soil erosion.  And in a capitalist economy, these trends will be arrested only insofar as collectivistic ingredients of control are introduced, as with the comparatively insignificant efforts that have already been organized by our . . . governments.”


Having thereby showed his basic understanding of the unsustainable practices of industrial capitalist agriculture when such practices violate ecological limits, Burke then returned to this point in a later chapter on “Comic Correctives”.   Burke’s aim was to promote a flexible and progressive attitude toward historical change, and a rhetorical mode that would best convey this.  The frame of reference he chose in this regard is a “comic frame of motives” which can show us,

 “how an act can ‘dialectically’ contain both transcendental and material ingredients, both imagination and bureaucratic embodiment, both ‘service’ and ‘spoils’  Or, viewing the matter in terms of ecological balance [as in sustainable agriculture above] one might say of the comic frame: It also makes us sensitive to the point at which one of these ingredients becomes hypertrophied, with all the corresponding atrophy of the other.  A well-balanced ecology requires a symbiosis of the two” (167). [11]


Burke then proceeds to give many sociological examples in his usual rapid-fire style.  But for my purposes, it is enough to point out again the complex interaction here between a comic genre, sustainability, and the deconstruction of a binary hierarchy leading to the ecological ethic of “both/and” inclusion, or in Burke’s ecological term for interdependence, a “symbiosis.”   There will never have been enough time to fully explain Burke!  So I will have to leave my dear audience here with a recommendation that you experience his text for yourself.  It is both comic and tragic at once that he had, as long ago as 1937, already tried to teach us about the need for some new genre of sustainability, and yet no one was listening.  Too timely perhaps to the point of being untimely; ahead of his time and yet now behind the times.  Alas for us!  And is it really too late now?  This is a question that will, not to over-dramatize, tip us further into the unsustainable direction in which global society is now heading, or conversely to launch us instead into sustainability.






Biehl, Janet and Peter Staudenmaier.  Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience

San Francisco: AK Press, 1995.

Burke, Kenneth.  Attitudes Toward History. (1937)  3rd ed.  U of California P, 1984.

Capra, Fritjof.  The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems.  New

York: Anchor, 1996.

De Certeau, Michel.  The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: U of

California P, 1984

Ferry, Luc.  The New Ecological Order.  Trans., Carol Volk.  U Chicago P, 1995.

Homer.  The Iliad.  Trans. Samuel Butler. 1898.  Project Gutenberg

Korten, David C.  The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.   San Francisco:

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006.

Meeker, Joseph.  The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic. (1974) 3rd ed.

 U of Arizona P, 1997.

Milton, John.  Paradise Lost.  (1667).  Project Gutenberg.

Nancy, Jean-Luc.  Being Singular Plural.   Trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E.

O’Byrne.   Stanford U P, 2000.

Rabelais, François. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Complete. (circa 1532).  Trans, Sir Thomas

Urquhart and Peter Antony Motteux.  Eds., Sue Asscher and David Widger.  Project Gutenberg.







[1] From the classic Samuel Butler translation, widely available in many editions and websites.


[2] Carse’s book, Finite and Infinite Games, is quoted in Meeker (17):  “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. . .  to prevent it from coming to an end, and to keep everyone in play.”  Meeker connects finite games to war and tragedy, while on the other hand, an infinite game is essentially enacted in the comic framework and in sustainable ecosystems.  In terms of Greek mythology, the mortal domain is tragic because it is a zero-sum game of heroic victory or defeat, while the immortal domain of the gods is comic because the game continues without end, and today’s loser might well be tomorrow’s winner ad infinitum.  Playing to keep the infinite game going is another definition of sustainability.


[3] Aeschylus’s drama is often translated as The Eumenides also.   It is the finale of the trilogy that makes up The Oresteia plays about that particular family’s branch of revenge which stems from the larger trunk of the Trojan war epic.


[4]  Long ago, I was sensitized to this aspect of mythology by the voluminous works of Joseph Campbell, James Hillman, and Charles E. Winquist, authors who do not by any means form a school of thought despite the long shadow of Carl Jung over or behind each of them, but who do have in common this emphasis on the overarching mythological system of polytheism and its psycho-social lessons.  Of the three, Campbell had the most widespread influence, including multiple appearances on TV specials two decades ago; Winquist became the most post-structuralist in his last works on deconstructing theology, while Hillman remains the most original and elegant theorist of a polycentric psychology.


[5] For the historical argument that Judeo-christian ideas work against ecology by subordinating the earthly creation to the hierarchy of human dominance in the wish to transcend nature, see the oft cited essay by Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” Science, March 10, 1967: 1203-1207, also reprinted in The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, eds Glotfelty and Fromm, (U of Georgia P, 1996) 3-14.  White nevertheless further points to an “alternative Christian view” aside from this mainstream of dominance and transcendence, namely through the “pan-psychism” of St. Francis of Assisi.


[6]  But a caveat is needed: Corporations and their government supporters continue to greenwash their unsustainable depletion of resources, and deadly pollution of ecosystems – ironically by tossing around the terms Sustainable Development and Sustainable Economy – without so much as showing how an endlessly expanding consumption is physically possible.  These ploys of propaganda should not be confused with the necessary development of actual sustainable economies.   A single instance of this common trend occurred in Taiwan as I wrote this essay: A business and government agency conference on “Sustaining Taiwan's Economic Development” met in Taipei and arrived at a corporate consensus that “set a target of becoming a ‘green value-added island’ with an annual average economic growth rate of 5 percent per capita GDP of US$30,000 and an unemployment rate of below 4 percent by 2015 . . . .”  The greenwashing here becomes nakedly apparent once it is noted that no issues of ecological sustainability were discussed: not even the currently hot topics of global warming, the collapse of viable fisheries, the epidemic of environmental cancers, the deployment of alternative fuels and appropriate technologies, shifting tax burdens onto producers of carbon dioxide, etc.   One environmentalist noted that, "The conference is useless, as all the key issues we hope to sort out here were either not put into the agenda or ended up in disagreement."   Yet corporate propaganda hailed this as a successful conference on sustainable development!   All quotations above are from the news report by Jessie Ho in The Taipei Times, Friday, Jul 28, 2006, p 2. Online.

Of course, Taiwan is not alone in such greenwashing, since it is prevalent wherever corporate PR is found.  Seeing through the dishonest use of “sustainability” is now merely the first step toward understanding its honest use.


[7] Korten’s principles more or less echo Capra’s with merely minor differences.  Capra’s earlier book is much more detailed about the underlying science involved, yet urges similar social reforms -- reforms which are more thoroughly discussed by Korten. 


[8]   Two very informative and also progressively judicious essays about Nazi ecology-as-reactionary and its apparent resurgence under new guises today are by Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, in Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience  (San Francisco: AK Press, 1995).  Biehl, e.g. concludes that “authoritarian mystifications need not be the fate of today’s ecology movement, as social ecology demonstrates [referring to the work of Murray Bookchin].  But they could become its fate if ecomystics, ecoprimitists, misanthropes, and antirationalists have their way” (66).  Luc Ferry has also criticized this reactionary fascist connection to some versions of ecological activism, though to my mind less usefully than the above. Despite his longer study in The New Ecological Order (trans. Carol Volk.  U Chicago P, 1995), Ferry’s critique often returns to dubious binary oppositions and the same old “centrist” liberal humanist rationalizations that have often been shown to be part of the problem behind ecological degradation.  Despite these considerable shortcomings, Ferry’s book serves as a genuine warning for our rush to turn Green, and he deserves a full reading. 


[9] See the densely packed and ironically dialectical chapter on “Comic Correctives” in Burke’s Attitudes Toward History, pp 166—175 which must then be read against Chapter 2 on “Poetic Categories” wherein comedy and tragedy are juxtaposed in endlessly suggestive complexities.


[10] Kenneth Burke published the first edition of Attitudes Toward History in 1937 at a time when the science of ecology was not widely recognized.  His theoretical potential for Ecocriticism is very great, and was recently explored at length by the contributors to a special topic issue of KB Journal, vol 2, n 2, Spring 2006.  Available online at


[11] After writing this passage about Burke’s early ecocritical passage, I discovered that another scholar had previously published a similar note quoting from the same passage, and so will give credit here to: 

Seigel, Marika A. “`One little fellow named Ecology’: Ecological Rhetoric in Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes Toward History.” Rhetoric Review 23 (2004): 388-403.  Seigel’s essay of course differs in its focus.