Counter-Desecration: A Glossary
for Writing Within the Anthropocene
edited by Linda Russo and Marthe Reed
Wesleyan University Press, 2018; 144 pp
Reviewed by Zack Anderson
In an essay complementary to his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh asks, “[w]hy does climate change cast a much smaller shadow on literature than it does on the world? Is it perhaps too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration?” Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene, a collaborative project edited by Linda Russo and Marthe Reed, addresses the issue raised by Ghosh by offering a rich and non-hierarchical field of possibilities for both criticism and poesis.
This project is fascinating in part because it explodes received ideas of the glossary as a genre. Instead of functioning as merely a reference point subordinate to a primary text, the entries in Counter-Desecration often exceed their limits, encouraging polysemy over pure explication. To this end, the glossary contains a mixture of neologisms (like “echoherence,” “nomensuture,” and “thereoir”) and familiar but repurposed terms (such as “game trail,” “bodied,” and “desire line”). “Prioritizing poesis,” Russo writes in her introductory essay, “its lexicon is both material and motive for writing.”
Because of this investment in cultural production, Counter-Desecration revels in cross-pollinating the lyric with the didactic. For instance, Brenda Sieczkowski’s entry for “The Great Plaints” yokes plains, plants, and plaintiveness to arrive at a definition: “plant haunting. Conjured by uneven ecotones (echotones) carved out by homestead plows. Litany . . . bluestem tumblegrass purpletop needleandthread buffalograss western wheatgrass switchgrass mannagrass salt grass wildrye squirreltail threadleaf sedge.” Other entries allude to canonical ecocritical thinkers like Timothy Morton, Rob Nixon, and Kamau Brathwaite. The glossary is also presented as a collective labor, challenging traditional conceptions of authorship and authority by prioritizing the communal work. Russo and Reed include a contributor list at the end of the text, but each individual entry reads anonymously, committed to a larger mission of “directly engaging with the histories, traditions, and foundational beliefs to which we are heirs, not mere cataloguers of beauty or loss” (Reed).
Additionally, Counter-Desecration is constantly self-referential, emphasizing the value of the network by linking terms to each other throughout the glossary. As a result, the text encourages a rhizomatic reading; one can enter and exit the network at any point. Fittingly, the list of entries ends with “woveness,” Gillian Parrish’s contribution indicating “[p]oetics as weaving, seeing the seams, feeling a way along the threads, the web. Learning how we are made as we make.”
During the composition of his Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot observed that “[a]n encyclopedia ought to make good the failure to execute such a project hitherto, and should encompass not only the fields already covered by the academies, but each and every branch of human knowledge.” In its intimacy and ambition, its lyricism and didacticism, and its privileging of the collective and reciprocal, Counter-Desecration will prove to be an indispensable text to all writers responsive to the conditions of the Anthropocene.