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Meeting trees halfway: environmental encounters in theatre and performance

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How do trees (live and representational) participate in our theatrical and performed encounters with them? If trees are not inherently scenic, as their treatment in language and on stage might

How do trees (live and representational) participate in our theatrical and performed encounters with them? If trees are not inherently scenic, as their treatment in language and on stage might reinforce, how can they be retheorized as agents and participants in dramatic encounters? Using Diana Taylor’s theory of scenario to understand embodied encounters, I propose an alternative approach to understanding environmental beings (like trees) called “synercentrism,” which takes as its central tenet the active, if not 100 percent “willed,” participation of both human and non-human beings. I begin by mapping a continuum from objecthood to agenthood to trace the different ways that plants and trees are used, represented, and included in our encounters. The continuum provides a framework that more comprehensively unpacks human-plant relationships.

My dissertation addresses the rich variety of representations and embodiments by focusing on three central chapter topics: the history of tree representation and inclusion in dramatic literature and performance; interactions with living trees in gardens, parks, and other dramatic arenas; and individual plays and plants that have a particularly strong grasp on cultural imaginaries. Each chapter is followed by one or more corresponding case studies (the first chapter is followed by case studies on plants in musical theatre; the second on performing plants and collaborative performance events; and the last on the dance drama Memory Rings and the Methuselah tree). I conclude with a discussion of how the framework of synercentrism can aid in the disruption of terministic screens and facilitate reciprocal relationships with trees and other environmental agents.

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  • 2018

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The “New Human Condition” in Literature: Climate, Migration, and the Future

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This thesis examines perceptions of climate change in literature through the lens of the environmental humanities, an interdisciplinary field that brings history, ecocriticism, and anthropology together to consider the environmental

This thesis examines perceptions of climate change in literature through the lens of the environmental humanities, an interdisciplinary field that brings history, ecocriticism, and anthropology together to consider the environmental past, present and future. The project began in Iceland, during the Svartárkot Culture-Nature Program called “Human Ecology and Culture at Lake Mývatn 1700-2000: Dimensions of Environmental and Cultural Change”. Over the course of 10 days, director of the program, Viðar Hreinsson, an acclaimed literary and Icelandic Saga scholar, brought in researchers from different fields of study in Iceland to give students a holistically academic approach to their own environmental research. In this thesis, texts under consideration include the Icelandic Sagas, My Antonia by Willa Cather, Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita, and The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. The thesis is supported by secondary works written by environmental humanists, including Andrew Ross, Steve Hartman, Ignacio Sanchez Cohen, and Joni Adamson, who specialize in archeological research on heritage sites in Iceland and/or study global weather patterns, prairie ecologies in the American Midwest, the history of water in the Southwest, and climate fiction. Chapter One, focusing on the Icelandic Sagas and My Antonia, argues that literature from different centuries, different cultures, and different parts of the world offers evidence that humans have been driving environmental degradation at the regional and planetary scales since at least the 1500s, especially as they have engaged in aggressive forms of settlement and colonization. Chapter Two, focused on Tropic of Orange, this argues that global environmental change leads to extreme weather and drought that is increasing climate migration from the Global South to the Global North. Chapter Three, focused on The Water Knife, argues that climate fiction gives readers the opportunity to think about and better prepare for a viable and sustainable future rather than wait for inevitable apocalypse. By exploring literature that depicts and represents climate change through time, environmental humanists have innovated new methods of analysis for teaching and thinking about what humans must understand about their impacts on ecosystems so that we can better prepare for the future.

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  • 2019

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Curating the Desert Southwest: Distortion as a Way of Knowing

Description

The Desert Southwest has no shortage of representations in literature, art, and film. Its aesthetics—open horizons, strange landscapes, and vast wilderness—inform and saturate the early Western films of John Ford,

The Desert Southwest has no shortage of representations in literature, art, and film. Its aesthetics—open horizons, strange landscapes, and vast wilderness—inform and saturate the early Western films of John Ford, the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and continue in today’s popular imaginations. My work acknowledges such contributions and then it challenges them: why are those names more widely associated with the Southwest than Luis Alberto Urrea, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, or Pat Mora?

The project intersects the environmental humanities, critical theory, and cultural studies with the Desert Southwest. It explores the fullness of desert places with regard to cultures, borders, and languages, as well as nonhuman forces and intensities like heat, light, and distance. Dispelling the dominant notion of desert as void or wasteland, it sets a stage to suit the polyvocality of desert place. My work is interdisciplinary because the desert demands it. It begins with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in order to reorient readers towards the rupture of the US War With Mexico which helped set the national and cultural borders in effect today. I then explore Denis Villeneuve’s film Sicario to emphasize the correlation between political hierarchy and verticality; those who can experience the desert from above are exempt from the conditions below, where Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway and Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood take place. The novels expose the immanence and violence of being on the ground in the desert and at the lower end of said hierarchies. Analyzing Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World and Mora’s Encantado enables what I term a desert hauntology to produce a desert full of memory, myth, ancestors, and enchantment. Finally, the project puts visual artists James Turrell and Rafa Esparza in conversation to discover a desert phenomenology. The result is an instigation of how far is too far when decentering the human, and what role does place-based art play in creating and empowering community.

John Ford was from Maine. Georgia O’Keeffe, from Wisconsin. Edward Abbey, Pennsylvania. As someone born and raised in the Desert Southwest, I’ve written the project I have yet to encounter.

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  • 2020

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Hydronarratives: water and environmental justice in contemporary U.S., Canadian, and Pakistani literature and cultural representations

Description

This dissertation examines cultural representations that attend to the environmental and socio-economic dynamics of contemporary water crises. It focuses on a growing, transnational body of “hydronarratives” – work by

This dissertation examines cultural representations that attend to the environmental and socio-economic dynamics of contemporary water crises. It focuses on a growing, transnational body of “hydronarratives” – work by writers, filmmakers, and artists in the United States, Canada, and the postcolonial Global South that stress the historical centrality of water to capitalism. These hydronarratives reveal the uneven impacts of droughts, floods, water contamination, and sea level rise on communities marginalized along lines of race, class, and ethnicity. In doing so, they challenge narratives of “progress” conventionally associated with colonial, imperialist, and neoliberal forms of capitalism dependent on the large-scale extraction of natural resources.

Until recently, there has been little attention paid to the ways in which literary texts and other cultural productions explore the social and ecological dimensions of water resource systems. In its examination of water, this dissertation is methodologically informed by the interdisciplinary field of the energy humanities, which explores oil and other fossil fuels as cultural objects. The hydronarratives examined in this dissertation view water as a cultural object and its extraction and manipulation, as cultural practices. In doing so, they demonstrate the ways in which power, production, and human-induced environmental change intersect to create social and environmental sacrifice zones.

This dissertation takes an interdisciplinary environmental humanities approach, drawing on fields such as indigenous studies, political ecology, energy studies, cultural geography, and economic theory. It seeks to establish a productive convergence between environmental justice studies and what might be termed “Anthropocene studies.” Dominant narratives of the Anthropocene tend to describe the human species as a universalized, undifferentiated whole broadly responsible for the global environmental crisis. However, the hydronarratives examined in this dissertation “decolonize” this narrative by accounting for the ways in which colonialism, capitalism, and other exploitative social systems render certain communities more vulnerable to environmental catastrophe than others.

By attending to these issues through problem water, this dissertation has significant implications for future research in contemporary, transnational American and postcolonial literary studies, the environmental humanities, and the energy humanities. It demonstrates the potential for a focus on representations of resources in literary texts and other cultural productions to better grasp the inequitable distribution of environmental risk, and instances of resilience on a rapidly changing planet.

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Date Created
  • 2018