Ecofeminism and rhetoric: Critical perspectives on sex, technology and discourse

My review of Ecofeminism and rhetoric: Critical perspectives on sex, technology and discourse is now available on Anthropological Forum. Unfortunately I forgot to check whether the journal was open access before agreeing to do the review, but I’ve made a pre-publication copy available for download here.


Ecofeminism and Rhetoric is helpful as an introductory text on ecofeminism for undergraduates, as well as for researchers open to incorporating an ecofeminist outlook into their work. Glynis Carr provides an effective positioning of ecofeminist theory and practice in the foreword, writing that ‘Ecofeminists recognize the connections—theoretical and practical, discursive and material—between the oppression of nature and the oppression of women. Ecofeminists act to realize a world free of sexist oppression that is also environmentally and sustainable and sound’ (ix). Carr also gives a brief introduction to the significance and uses of rhetoric, outlining its importance as a tool for analysis and activism. Jeffrey Bile’s ‘The rhetorics of critical ecofeminism’ builds on this by providing a good, if dense, discussion of different theoretical tendencies within ecofeminism. The chapter revolves around critiques of three dualisms, spiritual/natural; public/private; and self/other, which will serve as a useful overview for newcomers to the field. Murphy’s afterword draws out common themes from the chapters and suggests further reading, including fiction, which may help those new to the area to explore further.


At the same time, Ecofeminism and Rhetoric is a valuable resource for those already familiar with ecofeminism. Bile’s chapter offers a categorisation of ecofeminism which may be helpful for those working in the field, as well as highlighting areas of disagreement which may benefit from further attention. The case study chapters are, on the whole, useful contributions both to ecofeminist analysis as an academic discipline and to the specific areas which they address. Karla Armbruster’s examination of humans’ role in shaping the reproductive lives of pet dogs elaborates on Donna Haraway’s ideas while also raising important ethical questions about our relationship with companion species. Stacey K. Sowards also builds on Haraway’s work, emphasising the ongoing relevance of her writings on primatology and applying them to popular narratives surrounding orangutans. Merle Kindred and Julia E. Romberger invite us to consider how an ecofeminist critique could transform architecture: Kindred discusses the use of a more open, inclusive, rhetorical practice in her attempts to transform energy use in the residential built environment, and Romberger looks at the ways in which an ecofeminist perspective might help us to rethink the architecture of popular word processing tools. Each of these chapters demonstrates ways in which an ecofeminist perspective might challenge our existing view of the world.


These chapters also offer strategies for action in answer to the challenges they raise. Armbruster and Sowards suggest alternative ways of relating to other sentient beings. Armbruster argues that although there is no simple way to evade responsibility for the role we play in domestication, we can rethink our relationship with dogs in ways which might allow us to rework our relationship with wildness, and therefore open the door to broader transformations in how we relate to nature. Sowards draws on Richard Rorty’s construction of ironism to suggest that we take a more cautious and tactical approach to the anthropomorphism which shapes many popular primatological narratives, and work instead to build ‘narratives that foster identification and connection but also invite critical interrogation because they are never final narratives or vocabularies’ (86). Kindred’s discussion of her personal experiences with invitational rhetoric outlines both the ways in which this can be useful, and the limitations involved in the approach. Romberger encourages educators to teach students how to question the software which they use, as well as to collaborate in design frameworks which lead to different priorities being embedded into software architectures. These suggestions are valuable contributions to the academic literature while also opening pathways for activists and individuals concerned with creating change in their communities.


There are, however, some misfires in this book. As Murphy notes in the afterword, ecofeminism has been particularly concerned with an intersectional and inclusive analysis (147). Given this, I would have expected to see more inclusion of voices from the Global South and other marginalised perspectives, to complement the brief (and somewhat romanticised and Orientalist) discussion of the Global South in Kindred’s chapter. The decision to frame the case-study chapters, contributed by women, with explanatory chapters in the form of a preface, introduction, afterword, and epilogue written by men, may also raise some eyebrows, as might Jeffrey Lockwood’s epilogue. Lockwood’s aim of guiding ‘the open-minded but discerning academic into the field of ecofeminist analysis by framing the venture in terms of a more familiar topography’ (158) is laudable. However, his assertion that ecofeminism has developed in an ‘academic cradle that has allowed the field to develop in relative tranquility’ (157) and his offer to provide ecofeminists with ‘a guide to the obstacles that are likely to impede a journey into the larger landscape of academia’ (158) demonstrates a lack of understanding of ecofeminists’ struggles within the academy: ecofeminists are likely to already have a highly developed understanding of the obstacles they face, including the difficulty of surviving in poorly-funded departments which are more akin to windswept mountainsides than tranquil cradles. Despite these issues, Ecofeminism and Rhetoric is a worthwhile contribution which will be valuable for undergraduates and researchers both within and outside the academic field of ecofeminism. It has much to recommend it as an introductory text in the area, although it should be complemented by work which provides a more global and diverse perspective.


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