Environmental Philosophy

Volume 16, Issue 1, Spring 2019

Reading Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign

Cary Wolfe
Pages 201-221

Neither Beast nor Sovereign
Wallace Stevens’s Birds

This essay combines deconstruction (chiefly the later work of Jacques Derrida) and systems theory (both social and biological systems theory) to rethink the question of ecological poetics in the work of Wallace Stevens, and in particular some of his most important poems that focus on birds and bird song. Ecocriticism has typically approached literature in general and poetry in particular in terms of its representation of nature. This essay argues for a non-representationalist ecopoetics that derives from replacing the concept of “nature” with the systems theory concept of “environment” (a term that applies equally to human and non-human forms of life). This theoretical shift allows us, in turn, to better understand the relationship of poetry and poetics to the “worlds” in which humans and non-humans live (to borrow the term that stretches from Jakob von Uexküll to Heidegger and then to Derrida).