Since completing my dissertation in 2003, I have continued to develop my interest in the relationship between culture and environment. This research interest began as an investigation of the relationship between the politics of gender and nature as it is played out in popular media (my dissertation explored the ways in which cinematic and new media representations of nature served, ironically, as a kind of staging ground for reconstructions of essentialized or “natural-ized” notions of Western masculinity). Out of this project emerged two peer-reviewed publications: “Wallowing in the ‘Great Dark Lake of Male Rage’”: The Masculine Ecology of Don DeLillo’s White Noise” (Journal of Ecocriticism, January 2009) and “The Feminine ‘Nature’ of Masculine Desire in the Age of Cinematic Techno-Transcendence” (Journal of Popular Film and Television, Winter 2008). In these articles, I examine the technologically mediated relationship of “man” and “nature” in key literary texts, contemporary films, and cultural contexts of the twentieth-century.
Bringing together new media theory, ecocriticism, and gender studies, I analyze the complex relationships between gendered identity and nature, as it is mediated by American technoculture. I argue that these relationships are marked by a discernible cultural malaise–a sense of profound dislocation in the midst of technological hypermediations of self and reality. Films such as Fight Club and The Matrix, as I discuss in the latter article, offer popularizations of ecological attitudes (such as the “primitivism” of Deep Ecology that developed in the mid-eighties) at the same time that they mask the complex environmental history that anticipates more recent “postmodern” lamentations regarding man’s alienation from nature. I work historically to map two competing notions: that masculinity is defined in opposition to nature, which is characteristically figured as feminine; and that true or essential masculinity can only be found in nature. In this double-logic of gender-nature relations, masculine identity is constituted both through an impossible transcendence of nature by technology and the illusion, accelerated by media technologies, of unmediated access to nature.
More recently, this interest in environment and cultural politics has led me to explore the complex interplay between narratives of American masculinity, the rhetorics of post-nationalism, and environmentalism in novels by Michael Crichton (State of Fear) and Kim Stanley Robinson (Science in the Capital trilogy). Considered in the context of public debates about climate change and the global context in which these debates take place, as well as the discourse of the “war on terror,” I argue that these novels and a number of popular discussions (Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded, David Orr’s The Last Refuge) enlist climate change as an occasion to dramatize the recovery of an imperiled national (and implicitly masculine) identity, adding to the crowded stage of perceived challenges to the privileges of an elite majority whose supposed “citizen trauma,” (Lauren Berlant), threatens to overshadow the real consequences of environmental calamity. At stake in this discussion is the direction of the global conversation about climate change and environmental justice, and the possibility that we will ever be able to move toward what Ursula Heise has called “eco-cosmopolitanism,” an environmental ethic that moves beyond localism or nationalism to engage in a more global or “deterritorialized” environmental imagination. This research appears as “Nationalism, Masculinity, and the Politics of Climate Change in the Novels of Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Crichton” in Extrapolation, vol. 54, no. 1 (2013).
One way in which we can understand the context out of which narratives of American nationalism, particularly in relation to the environment (or what I increasingly come to think of as this nation’s failure to forge a material ethics rooted in justice and sustainability) is by looking back at the American mythography of technological and social progress that has been so pervasive up to this point. This has led to my most recent scholarly endeavor, a collaborative multimedia project (with Helen Burgess of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) called Highways of the Mind. This project is an interdisciplinary, scholarly work in iBook format that investigates the figure of the superhighway (as metaphor for social progress through technology) in the twentieth-century cultural imagination. Using extensive archival materials, including vintage film footage and digital imagery, we argue that the rhetorical construction of the highway has been haunted, first by narratives of promise and progress and then by narratives of decay and death. Highways, we show, are figured as technological wonders marking the advent of a better future in the 1939 World’s Fair and the advertising campaigns of the 1950s, and then as wired-up networks of death and disembodiment in science fiction accounts from the 60s to the 90s. The highway is a compelling 20th-century metaphor that reveals the contradictory cultural logic of humankind’s fascination with and fear of technologies of transportation. The highway reveals fantasies of technological utopianism as well as anxieties about the destruction of the environment and the dehumanizing impact of modern technology. As a more recent example of this contradictory cultural logic, the highway as metaphor has been a way to imagine infrastructure in a globalized electronic age, in the shape of the “information superhighway.”
One key strength of this project, as both a relevant scholarly work and as an innovative teaching tool, resides in its ability to combine the immediate presentation of cultural materials with a skillful critical narrative that contextualizes original materials culturally and historically. The capacious iBook format allows us to present much more detailed analyses and extensive examples of original film footage and visual imagery, creating both a portable archive and a critical contribution to the scholarly field of cultural and new media studies. More importantly perhaps, as this project relates to my scholarship so far, Highways of the Mind represents a continuation of my investigation of the role that technology has played in rationalizing (through the complementary myths of social progress and national power) the intensification of environmental destruction and social injustices, and leads me toward even more pressing questions: How, going forward, do we compete with such compelling narratives that resonate so strongly with our sense of national identity? How do we begin a different conversation that offers alternatives to the alienating, and often deadly, forces of technology? A conversation that values community over corporations, and immaterial relations—based on diversity and justice—over material possessions. How can we, in short, forge a meaningful material ethics that addresses the needs of global citizens while at the same time leads us toward a more sustainable future.
(Last updated in 2014)