American Literature and the Identity Politics of Ecology
My principal research interest is American literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, especially as it overlaps with concerns in the environmental humanities. I have additional specialization in nineteenth-century literature, multiethnic literatures of the United States, and gender studies. I also have research interests in queer theory, critical race studies, Indigenous studies, and the history of psychoanalytic thought.
My first book, Wild Abandon: American Literature and the Identity Politics of Ecology (Cambridge University Press, 2020), argues that, in the late 1960s, environmentalists affiliated with the American New Left began to borrow rhetorical strategies from social movements organized along lines of race, ethnicity, and gender to frame ecology as an identity position rather than a scientific philosophy. I argue not only that this shift shapes mainstream American environmentalism today but also that literature played a central role in it. Literary environmentalists from the 1960s to the present designed an environmentalist identity politics whose chief representational strategy—dissolution—aimed to erase socially mediated subject positions and related power structures in favor of an ostensibly natural, expansive identification with the ecosystem writ large. As a result, appeals to “natural” identity have endured in environmental discourse, even alongside the gradual demise of essentialism in ecological science, postmodernist and posthumanist art and literature, and American cultural criticism in general. They have also done so at the expense of women and people of color, whose particular political concerns an environmentalist identity politics would seek to erase in favor of a more universal vision. Each chapter traces this tradition as it has borrowed—yet also met resistance—from theories of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in works by Edward Abbey, Simon Ortiz, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Jon Krakauer, among others. However different, these texts all engage environmentalist identity politics to dramatize its shortcomings. In the process, they undermine the concept of authenticity and grant insight into alternative narratives of identity, environment, and American politics.
I have several additional projects in progress. These include a handful of articles and a second book project, Everyday Ecofascism: Crisis, Consumption, and Contemporary US Narrative, which arose from an article I published in Mosaic on the popular resurgence of organic hallucinogens. The book examines how representations of consumption (of microbes and bodies as well as food, drugs, and commodities) in the United States from the 1960s to the present have informed both overt and casual expressions of American ecofascism, or environmentalism of a white-supremacist, anti-Native, and/or anti-immigrant persuasion. The book expands recent work on “climate fiction” by considering its resonances with ecofascist political rhetoric, as well as attending to multiethnic responses to it. Bloomsbury Publishing has requested a proposal for the project, which I intend to submit early in 2021. Another portion of the project, on white-nationalist tendencies in queer Appalachian food cultures, is forthcoming in GLQ.
I regularly participate in meetings of the MLA, Association for the Study of the Multiethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS), and Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), among other organizations. I participated in a session on “Queer White Trash” at the 2020 meeting of the MLA and a workshop on “Performing Ecological Attachments” at the 2019 meeting of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present (ASAP), at the invitation of Nicole Seymour. These new projects point toward my goal for the next two to three years: to develop greater fluency in the fields of critical race studies and digital humanities. I draw on these resources in various forms already, but I plan to more thoroughly immerse myself in order to more effectively put them into practice in my scholarship and teaching.
All of these projects capture my broad commitment to writing in defense of inauthenticity. Wild Abandon demonstrates that a number of critics still ask the question: What is the human at its most natural? It also poses my own: To what extent is any answer to this question politically useful, and for whom?
"The American wilderness narrative, which divides nature from culture, has remained remarkably persistent despite the rise of ecological science, which emphasizes interconnection between these spheres. Wild Abandon considers how ecology's interaction with radical politics of authenticity in the twentieth century has kept that narrative alive in altered form. As ecology gained political momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, many environmentalists combined it with ideas borrowed from psychoanalysis and a variety of identity-based social movements. The result was an identity politics of ecology that framed ecology itself as an authentic identity position repressed by cultural forms, including social differences and even selfhood. Through readings of texts by Edward Abbey, Simon Ortiz, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Jon Krakauer, among others, Alexander Menrisky argues that writers have both dramatized and critiqued this tendency, in the process undermining the concept of authenticity altogether and granting insight into alternative histories of identity and environment."
“The Ecological Alternative: Edward Abbey, the New Left, and Environmental Authenticity.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, vol. 61, no. 1, 2019, pp. 51-71.
“The Natural Death of Alexander Supertramp: Ecological Selfhood and the Freudian Rhetoric of Into the Wild.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 26, no. 1, 2019, pp. 46-64.
“Hallucinogenic Ecology and Psychoanalytic Prehistory in Margaret Atwood.” Mosaic, an Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 52, no. 3, 2019, pp. 19-36.
“The Reluctant Environmentalist: Finding Evidence of Injustice in James Wright’s Ambivalent Writing of Place and Identity.” Forthcoming in Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, vol. 9, no. 1, 2022.
“Hicks, Homos, and Home Cooking: Literary Recipes in Queer Appalachia.” Forthcoming in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, 2022.