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"Gary Snyder: A Postmodern Perspective"

Todd Ensign

I try to hold both history and wildness in my mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our time.

–Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder (b. 1930) is one of the most passionate environmentalist-poets of the postmodern era. Unlike some eco-activists who believe in a "pure utopian wilderness" (Powell 147), Snyder blends his beliefs of ancient traditions, formal philosophical study, physical activity, and love of wildness with a political vision. Using the postmodern theories of Lyotard, Jameson, and Baudrillard, one can gain insight about Snyder’s philosophy of Postmodern-environmentalism.

First, let’s consider the relationship of Lyotard’s analysis of heterogeneous micronarratives to the format of Snyder’s poems. "According to Lyotard, postmodernism has to do with skepticism about Grand Narratives; and it is about heterogeneity" (Powell 149). Unlike many contemporary environmentalists who believe in a metanarrative of an utopian society which puts wilderness before all else, Snyder writes his poetry from a heterogeneous perspective that celebrates micronarratives of ancient cultures, love of wildness, and the human spirit. Like Lyotard, who shunned the metanarrative and embraced the globalistic blend of diverse cultural micronarratives, Snyder rejects the binary opposition of wilderness and civilization in favor of a multitude of perspectives.

In contrast to Lyotard’s celebration of "the multiple, incompatible, heterogeneous, fragmented, contradictory and ambivalent nature of postmodern society, . . . Jameson distrusts and dislikes . . . what he feels is the latest phase of a capitalist world system" (Powell 34-35). Jameson’s theory of postmodernism developed largely from his Marxist point of view: "As a Marxist, Jameson is interested in the relationship of the individual to the world of objects . . . which always lead back to historical reality" (Powell 34). Jameson dislikes global capitalism because it alienates the individual from a personal connection with his culture and the world.

In Snyder’s work, Mountains and Rivers Without End, he recreates the human alienation he felt while a smoke-watcher in Alaska. While this physically alienating experience differs from the linguistic and emotional alienation Jameson perceives as a result of global capitalism, Snyder’s work illustrates the individual’s isolation from his physical environment and community. Jameson believes that individuals must create maps of their worlds and experiences in order to connect the fragmented capitalistic world of computers and corporations. Snyder’s poetry does this.

In his poem "Night Highway 99," Snyder re-connects the (micronarrative) descriptions of places and experiences while hitchhiking across country, to show how the individual perceives and organizes his world. The structure of this poem illustrates the effect of global capitalism: individual objects, people, and places are described as alienated and unconnected. However, this poem also offers a solution to Jameson’s central problems with our disorganized, fragmented society: the form of the poem, as a metanarrative which encompasses so many diverse micronarratives, suggests that the individual can create a personal map of his perceptions and reactions to his culture. Although Snyder’s poetry does not develop a map that is able to re-connect the many micronarratives of our fragmented world cultures, his model provides a way for consumers enveloped by capitalism to understand themselves and their immediate surroundings.

Finally, lets consider Baudrillard’s Postmodern perspective in comparison to Snyder’s environmentalist poetry. Baudrillard believes: "Postmodernism is a flow of ultra technological images in a consumerist hyperreality across a mediascape or mindscreen to which we can only passively surrender" (Powell 149). Conversely, Snyder’s purpose in writing prose is to actively influence emotional, political, and physical change. While Baudrillard’s reality is created by images which manifest a world of simulacra (of copies), Snyder uses images of our environment, to re-establish our connection to the world in order to promote political change that addresses the ecological problems which face our capitalistic, image-driven culture.


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