The Good-Natured Feminist: Ecofeminism and the Quest for Democracy.
University of Minnesota Press 1999 245 pp. $29.75 paper (0816630976)
The Good-Natured Feminist is a 'respectful debate' with ecofeminism from a postmodern perspective that makes the case for a poststructuralist radical democracy. The main influences are Laclau and Mouffe, and Lacan, although there is some discussion of the work of Hannah Arendt. As might be expected given the postmodern/poststructuralist influences, the main criticism of ecofeminism is its identification of women with nature and the use of female metaphors of nature.
The book, which is based on Sandilands' doctoral dissertation, has two main parts: Part I 'On the Subject of Ecofeminism' and Part II 'The Quest for a Radical Democratic Politics'. The Introduction opens with a critique of the notion that women identify with environmental issues through their experiences as mothers and home-makers. The danger of this approach for Sandilands is that it leads to a Green consumerism based on household ecology. This, in turn, becomes a barrier to radical critique through a stress on private solutions captured in the 'ecolitany' of 'saving, scrimping, buying, choosing, mulching, repairing, insulating, economizing, squashing, shoveling, reducing, reusing and recycling' (p.xii). Sandilands points to the 'neoconservative aroma' of family values in this process, which leaves the public world and abstract principles such as self-determination, democracy, liberty, inherent value, equality, ecology (p.xiii) to men. Sandilands' question is 'where is the feminism in this'?
The focus of the book is primarily North American, providing an overview of the emergence of ecofeminism up to the early 1990s. The discussion is largely framed within the postmodern critique of identity. However, unlike many critics, Sandilands does not dismiss ecofeminism as irredeemably essentialist. In fact she ends the book in praise of Noel Sturgeon's Ecofeminist Natures (Routledge 1997), a defence of 'strategic' essentialism. Sandilands shares the key elements of an ecofeminist perspective in seeing dualistic thinking as alienating humanity from its own natural conditions, which in turn, leads to the domination of nonhuman nature. The political and philosophical project of ecofeminism is then to 'reconcile what has hitherto been torn asunder, to show the actual integration of what historically has been polarized and hierarchically valued' (p.195).
Far from rejecting ecofeminism, Sandilands argues that it can potentially open up a democratic voice for nature. She sees her work as developing a 'post-identitarian critical democratic project' (p.xviii) for ecofeminism. Sandilands is also sympathetic to ecocentrism. In seeking to give a voice to nature, Sandilands is keen to oppose the 'ideological' voice of women or some other (self) nominated group who claim to speak for nature. She rejects the notion of equivalence, where dominated groups see their struggles as linked to the problems of the natural world so that the voice of nature is brought into the democratic 'conversation' via another movement such as feminism, social justice or environmentalism. Instead, the task of ecofeminism is to overcome alienated nature by revealing its specificity as something that cannot be captured and 'tamed' in language and thereby in democracy, which is seen in poststructuralist terms as a 'conversation'. For Sandilands 'radical democracy involves a desire for the cultivation of plurality, an ongoing scepticism about the ability of any political representation to represent' (p.151). Democratization in this context, is the involvement of nature in that conversation through the 'proliferation of discourses around nature' which ' offers up the possibility of thinking of nature as an actor in the process of co-constructing the world' (p.196). There is, however, no 'natural standpoint' from which nature can speak, or be spoken for.
Central to Sandilands' perspective is the Otherness of nature, its wildness. She sees ecofeminism as providing the basis for an openness in the democratic conversation, not through the cosy metaphors of nature as 'female' or 'home', but by revealing nature's inability to be captured. She sees ecofeminism as forming the basis of an 'écriture naturelle' akin to Irigaray's 'écriture feminine'.
Although this book will please those who are sympathetic to postmodernism, for those who are less convinced the language may seem somewhat convoluted at times. However, when the author is not addressing Lacanian material the book is written in a readily available style and there is plenty of useful material for the non-convert.
The limitations of a poststructuralist theoretical framework become most evident in Part II. The problem with this perspective is that it leaves very little room for discussion that is not filtered through cultural theory. Even a discussion of the Real is largely achieved through a literary analysis of 'nature' (which as would be expected is not defined or framed in any material sense). The final theoretical chapter on the 'Return of the Real' begins with an exploration of Marian Engel's novella Bear. Despite some attention to the problems of alienation in human interaction with nature and some reference to the visceral, I did not feel that the dualism of humanity/ 'nature' was theoretically bridged. Sandilands' notion of wild nature retained overtones of the North American concern with wilderness, despite her critique of the social construction of the latter concept. There was little sense of the contradictions in the materiality of human existence in nature and even the wildness of nature was theoretically identified as a limit on human language, rather than on the conditions of human existence.
Despite these reservations, this book is to be welcomed as contributing to the growing scholarship on ecofeminism. It will also be very useful for those interested in postmodern perspectives and the debates around radical democracy.
Professor in Sociology and Chair, Sustainable Cities Research Institute
University of Northumbria at Newcastle