Rebecca Earles, PhD Candidate, Department of History
Advisor: James Sidbury
My dissertation is titled “Medical Mobile: Constructing Medical Cultures in an Eighteenth-Century Port City.” I trace the creation of hybrid medical practices in a colonial port in both the imperial borderlands of North America and the ecological zone we call “The Greater Caribbean.” Mobile’s position on the Gulf Coast made it regionally significant. Over a hundred years, the French, the British, the Spanish, and the United States fought over Mobile and control of the Gulf. They desired Mobile not because it was a “great town,” but because of its surrounding landscape. Consequently, Mobile was more than a crossroads of empires and indigenous nations; it was an instance of larger forces, such as native power, colonialism, slavery, ecological change, and racism. My dissertation uses healing as a lens to study how these various themes impacted the lives of eighteenth-century inhabitants. Thus, the dissertation follows two stories. From the imperial perspective, I investigate how Europeans envisioned and used the Gulf Coast’s landscape. For example, the need for healing became acute as plantation slavery, ecological destruction, and an active port encouraged the spread of epidemic disease. The second story of my project is how internally diverse groups— “Europeans”, “Africans”, and “Native Americans”—adapted their healing practices to combat the new challenges posed by colonialism. Rather than rejecting non-western medicines, Europeans from all levels of society adopted indigenous and African medical knowledge, coopting it for their own purposes. This second narrative is especially significant, as it challenges the literature on tropical medicine, which emphasizes the creativity of white elites over the experiential knowledge of enslaved Africans, indigenous societies, and Atlantic Creoles.
Bren Ram, PhD Candidate, Department of English
Advisor: Cary Wolfe
My dissertation project, tentatively titled "The Poetics of Apocalypse: Thinking Ecologically Across Media after 1945," examines a wide range of global Anglophone poetry, novels, and films, arguing that a careful attendance to media and mediation is the key to understanding essential ecological concepts having to do with time, space, and experience. Through a novel blending of nuclear criticism, ecocriticism, and media theory, I trace the development of ecological precarity, the ending of worlds both local and global, and the opening and closing of virtual futures as literary-aesthetic concepts.
Kelly McKisson, PhD Candidate, Department of English
Advisors: Krista Comer, Cary Wolfe
My dissertation project, “Weird Ecological Figures in Contemporary American Literature,” analyzes twenty-first-century fiction to show how this literature’s increasingly strange forms and aesthetics are expanding the knowledge produced from within Anthropocene discourse. The project mobilizes feminist and science and technology studies methodologies to show how the theoretical work matters, materially, and I ultimately aim to address questions of response-ability in an era of global weirding: I analyze weird literary figures that allow audiences to re-see issues of ecological crisis as also issues of environmental injustice. As intensified conditions of globalizing capital, neoliberal policies, and ecological devastation challenge lived experiences of reality, this project examines how recent literary fiction is making strange—thus interrupting, exposing, and reconfiguring— inherited knowledges and traditional responses to ecological problems.
John Crum, PhD Candidate, Department of History
Advisor: Randal Hall
As a writer and researcher, I am primarily interested in how the development of nineteenth-century political institutions shaped the relationship between humans and nature in the U.S. South. In my dissertation, provisionally titled: “Headwaters of Empire: Ecology and State-Formation in the Upper Tennessee River Valley, 1805-1865,” I explore how the exercise of American imperial power in a region rich in human and non-human diversity transformed ecosystems, displaced communities, and laid the foundations of the modernizing nation-state. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Black, White, and Native communities along the Tennessee River relied on local knowledge and communal decision-making to guide interactions with the mountain ecosystems they depended on for survival. In the fifty years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, less than a single human lifetime, multiple state-building projects vied to confine these ecosystems to the fixed category of “land,” drawing boundaries of ownership, structuring systems of labor, and transforming space to serve the intertwining interests of state and market. Historians have long described these transformations as part of an inexorable process of settlement and economic development. In this project, I argue that these processes required the sustained application of state violence and new forms of state intervention to redistribute land, dictate who would work it, and deny Black and Native communities access to production and profit. During campaigns against Native resistance in the 1810s, the forced migration of the Cherokee Nation in the 1830s, and both Confederate and Union operations in the 1860s, military occupation displaced communities and enforced new regimes of property and labor. And in the decades between these occupations, state-sponsored missionaries, surveyors, lawyers, and engineers brought new technologies and epistemologies that altered local modes of production and forms of knowledge. By the 1870s, a centralized, bureaucratic state, working hand-in-glove with extractive capitalism, controlled a landscape defined by economic and racial inequities that persist to this day.
Bradley M. Johnson, PhD Candidate, Department of Religion
Advisor: Elias Bongmba
I am writing my dissertation on the recent Cape Town water crisis. In late 2018, I conducted fieldwork in Cape Town, South Africa, to understand how Christians in three different church communities around the city were dealing with the manifestations and imposed restrictions of the three-year-long drought and subsequent water shortage. Through focused interviews with church members and leaders, I learned about the practical steps they had taken to deal with 50 liters-per-day-per-person limits, how they thought through the causes of and solutions to the crisis, and how they were conceiving of this crisis in theological and ethical terms. We discussed the future of Cape Town, given the prognosis of climate change, and what kinds of ethical obligations it demanded of Christians individually and collectively. The project is an attempt to understand how Christian communities of different traditions (in this case, Anglicans, evangelicals, and Pentecostal-charismatics) wrestled with the realities of a recent ecological crisis, its material constrictions, and how their faith and values impacted their response.
Clint Wilson III, PhD Candidate, Department of English
Advisors: Judith Roof, Cary Wolfe
My dissertation—Toxic Media: Poison, Pollution, and Modernist Aesthetics—draws on foundational scholarship in the field of modernism and the avant-garde, critical media studies, and the environmental humanities in an effort to reconjugate the concept of “toxicity” in the literary worlds of the twentieth century. I have recently completed a draft of my second chapter, which traces how the aestheticization of “space” sheds light on the means of toxic dissemination within the modern city’s infrastructure. This chapter discusses African American writers Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, whose vision of environmental racism in the mid-century lays the groundwork for understanding contemporary toxic events like the Flint Water Crisis and the chemical afterlives of Hurricane Harvey. These events, and the texts that elucidate their full meaning, bear uncanny parallels with the material that organizes my next chapter, regarding toxic waste in the novels of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, among others.
Eliot Storer, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology
Advisor: James D. Faubion
My dissertation, “Bogs Blanket Ethnography,” investigates the cultural politics of climate change solution projects. Based primarily on thirteen months of field research in the “carbon-rich” blanket bogs of northern Scotland, my project explores the Euro-American “environmentalist vanguard” project of “natural climate solutions,” the cultural politics of wetlands and scientific practices, and spatiotemporal theories of the environment, ecology, and nature. As a sociocultural anthropologist whose work is specifically concerned with the theorization of contemporary cultural forms and the bodily social life of “the everyday,” I analyze the significance of environmental land use regimes--like ecological restoration—reimagined as “carbon solutions” to mitigate climate change for an emergent environmentalist vision of a “carbon neutral” society. Are these simple solutions or do they over-simplify the problem?
Kevin MacDonnell, PhD Candidate, Department of English
Advisor: Joseph Campana
My investment in the environmental humanities has largely shaped the underlying questions that have guided the trajectory of my dissertation project, Innovating the Enlightenment: Literature, Technology, and Political Economy in Eighteenth-Century Britain. The project attends to the changing reception of the idea of innovation in Enlightenment Britain. Once a pejorative used to decry institutional reform, by the late eighteenth century Samuel Johnson could describe Britain as ‘running mad after innovation.’ Innovating the Enlightenment tracks the shifting fortunes of innovation by analyzing literary encounters with emerging techniques and technologies, and posits the literary as a domain where the union of technical production and Enlightenment notions of progress is codified. Despite continued opposition to innovation, the reimagining of these literary forms effectively sanctioned technical change and accelerated growth within the major industries I target in each of the project’s four chapters: mining, manufacturing, shipping, and urban design. What makes eighteenth-century Britain’s ranging attitudes toward innovation worth exploring further is their concurrence with the onset of the Anthropocene, the current geological epoch that is defined by humanity’s emergence as a geophysical force on a planetary scale. According to atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer, the Anthropocene commences with the onset of industrial production in late eighteenth-century Britain, during which time large-scale fossil fuel consumption made human activity stratigraphically legible. To make sense of such profound social and environmental legacies of the eighteenth century, though, we must also consider the discursive formations embedded in the period’s cultural artifacts; technological, literary, and otherwise. Doing so, I argue, allows us to situate Britain’s fledgling culture of innovation alongside the conceptual foundations of the Anthropocene, aligning the pre-history of our current preference for all things innovative with the environmental histories whose legacies have radically shaped our world.