Sunday, June 1, 2008

Nature's Metropolis

William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: WW Norton, 1991)

Here, Cronon looks at Chicago as both a product of and a shaper of the "first-nature" environment surrounding its metropolitan areas. This is the best possible example of how environmental history could integrate the urban and the rural and downplay the concept of "wilderness," a goal that everyone is always talking about. Cronon shows how Chicago used its position on Lake Michigan to attract railroads, which in turn attracted trade from the "great West"'s hinterlands, which in turn located Chicago as a gateway city: raw goods would enter the city and exit as value-added commodities, with Chicago performing the work of abstracting the commodity from its original context. Chicago was dependent on the strength and financial capital of New York and Philadelphia, which financed the railroads and established Chi-town as the broker of Midwestern ecological capital.

Commodities that Cronon looks at include wheat, lumber, and meat. In each case, Cronon argues, manufacturers in Chicago figured out how to use economies of scale to aggregate these goods into mass quantities and to abstract their value from their physical presence. This last happening worked especially well with wheat, which created the modern concept of the "exchange," at which people traded wheat without ever even seeing the wheat in question. (Here is where I figured out what a "futures market" is - it's more fascinating than one could ever imagine.)

Cronon writes that Chicago's effect upon the rural sites which came within its orbit was both positive for people's lives (easier selling of their goods; better access to cheaper things) and negative (they were at the mercy of distant forces for their livelihood; if they were merchants, they were undercut by cheaper Chicago prices). Cronon shows how certain small-potatoes merchants and farmers resisted the pressure of the giant Chicago firms through associations (sometimes more effective, other times less).

I've been waiting to read this one for a long time, and it was definitely un-disappointing. Cronon's ability to be both a good storyteller and a "man of infinite research" (as TR said about Henry Adams) is a thing to envy. His inclusion of financial records, technological analysis, and cultural productions (novels, esp. in the World's Fair chapter) makes this book a model of enviable American Studies practice.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cultures of United States Imperialism

Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, eds. Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham: Duke UP, 1993).

This (654-page) anthology of essays aims to integrate the study of foreign relations and the study of American culture, breaking down boundaries between internal and external imperialisms and generally rejecting the idea that America is special because it hasn't had an empire (except for those little island states taken over at the end of the 19th century). Authors look at the ways in which America's project has been a fundamentally imperial one since the beginning.

Some of the noteworthy essays that I may need to refer to later:
-Donna Haraway's "Teddy Bear Patriarchy," on the fear of degeneration and white male anxiety in the founding of the AMNH (this essay originally appeared in Social Text and also appears in Primate Visions)
-Bill Brown's "Science Fiction, the World's Fair, and the Prosthetics of Empire, 1910-1915," is fantastic - analyzes the ways that scifi from this period merges man's perfect body and the extensions of his machines to imagine the technological manipulation of distant "prosthetic" places (as exemplified by the Panama Canal - which is the gap which Hercules creates in the body of the earth, in the image appearing on the cover of the book). Brown contrasts this emphasis on the perfect body with the previous century's scifi, and scifi from Europe, which sees science as a way to recuperate lost bodies or make up for deficiencies. Brown is at Chicago and co-edits Critical Inquiry - he also has written on "Thing Theory," which Janet had referred me to earlier this year and which integrates the analysis of the movements of material objects into an analysis of lit
-Vincente Rafael's "White Love: Surveillance and Nationalist Resistance in the US Colonization of the Philippines" contrasts the United States census, which was used as an "educational" tool by American colonizers intent on "lifting" certain Filipinos above others, and which fixed categories of race and gender, with Filipino street theatre which celebrated indigenous gender categories and created a Filipino identity
-Amy Kaplan's "Black and Blue on San Juan Hill" describes the controversy over TR's description of the supposed "cowardice" of the black soldiers during the Rough Riders' surge over San Juan Hill - Kaplan writes that the black community resisted this categorization, and that the way that TR focused on this cowardice, and the supposed disorganization of the Cuban resisters who assisted the United States, shows that race, and the organization of categories, was the most visible "happening" in the middle of a confusing battlefield. This episode also shows how TR lumped Cubans and American blacks together - they are seen as usable, when commanded by a white man, but not effective soldiers if working by themselves.
-In "Anti-Imperial Americanism," Walter Benn Michaels (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago, writes on race, literature and national identity) describes how pro-KKK southern writers saw themselves as "colonized" by Reconstruction.
-In "The Patriot System, or Managerial Heroism," Susan Jeffords talks about the Gulf War (which took up an inordinate amount of space in this book - see pub date, 1993) - she writes that Americans justify the war by describing themselves as the most competent of techno-managers - it's interesting to think about how different this thesis would look if applied to the current Iraq War...

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Bulldozer in the Countryside

Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge UP, 2001)

I can't decide if I love it or hate it when a book tells me all of its major arguments in the introduction, summarized in bullet-pointed numbers and even bolded for my convenience. Part of me thinks that this is a sign that I should forsake trying to read this whole book and simply read the intro. But then the other part of me thinks "If I stick to the intro, maybe I will miss something really cool..." Like, for example, the chapter on septic tanks in this book.

Rome argues that environmentalism really took shape around the time of the development of the postwar suburbs (194os-1970s). Contrary to earlier interpretations, Rome says that gov't agencies (such as Fish and Game) had a much bigger hand in conservation efforts than previously thought; that scientists and policymakers acted for conservation even before the publication of Silent Spring (1962) and that common perceptions that citizen action formed the basis of environmentalism are erroneous; and that consumerism, in this case epitomized by the purchase of homes, works counter to environmentalism. Comfort-seekers of the post-war era, many of whom were working-class and were being offered the opportunity to own a house for the first time in their lives, were not apt to mind when developers cut corners with environmental protections.

Rome looks at the septic tank (which was intended to facilitate development of areas distant from the city center) as an exemplar of the way that developers tended to push the limits of the topography where they operated, and that home-owners did not look too closely at the specifics of their new homes (until the tanks failed and it was too late). The anti-detergents outrage, which took hold after some homeowners in Long Island and New Jersey found suds in their tap water, was another crusade that, Rome argues, came about only because of inconveniences to homeowners - not because of fearfulness about damaged ecosystems. The chapter on the fight to preserve open space was also interesting, because of its inclusion of homeowner activists.

teaches at Penn State, and writes that he is working on a book about Earth Day and another about environmentalism of the Progressive Era. I hope he comes out with the latter before I write my dissertation, so that I may read it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Natural Visions

Finis Dunaway, Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Dunaway's book looks at imagery of environmentalism in the twentieth century, examining how photographers and filmmakers participated in and were funded by organizations both governmental and non-governmental whose mandate was to foster environmental awareness. Dunaway moves from looking at a Progressive-era photographer, Herbert Gleason, who created romantic-sublime imagery of the West; to the New Deal-era documentaries of Robert Flaherty, who lamented the death of the farm family, and Pare Lorentz (whose "The Plow That Broke The Plains" provides this image of a baby with the implement in question, which Dunaway argues exemplifies Lorentz' belief that the early pioneers were like prodigal children who wrecked the land without thinking); to the Sierra Club coffee-table books by the likes of Eliot Porter, which were the brainchildren of David Brower, whose vision of a nature outside of technology and humanity directly contradicted the New Deal technophilic imagination.

Throughout, Dunaway argues that environmental reformers who used art in their appeals passed over Benjamin's anxieties about the efficacy of the mechanically reproduced work of art, choosing instead to believe that their art could create a new "ecological sublime" (shades of David Nye) which would "rejoin beauty and sublimity, turn the ordinary into the astonishing, find awe in the diminutive, seek wonder in the everyday" (212).

But my question is: does it work? Do people change their minds after seeing pictures of bugs or cows? Nye's argument was that the technological sublime operates in part by bringing people together to witness something that exemplified human progress. How could the ecological sublime take advantage of this same dynamic? Nye also argues that the technological sublime always trumps the ecological sublime - at least, the "bigger" ecological sublime, of Adams' Yosemite and the like.

Dunaway is a professor of history at Trent University in Ontario. I know he has an article in the recent American Quarterly about use of imagery in seventies environmentalism.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Through Other Continents

Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

This book is a call to think outside the limits of American literary study (and study of other literatures as well). Dimock calls for interpreting American culture as an extreme holism incorporating human experiences reaching back into "deep time" and across the globe, a paradigm she sees as best illustrated by the spread of religion and languages. (She also uses Deleuze/Guattari's rhizome idea to illustrate this.)

Articulating an understanding of humans as fundamentally connected through the experience of embodiment, she then goes on to destabilize any number of other supposed "connections" which create the categories by which we define our academic studies. "Eras," she argues, should be seen as more plastic; even death should not curtail our inclusion or exclusion of particular people in categories of inquiry (this is a post-human moment). Dimock argues that the nineteenth century, with its expanding scientific knowledge, created opportunities for some people to see themselves as part of a "species" instead of as nations.

An example of a person in the nineteenth century American scene whose thought must be seen as transcending these boundaries is Thoreau, whose interest in the Bhagavad Gita Dimock sees as a "translation" across time. (John Brown, she argues, is also translated "across death" by his actions and by Thoreau's writings.) The acts of reading, writing, and translation are all radical acts, she argues, which challenge the primacy of time and allow us to hear the dead and reaffirm connections between ourselves and those who live far from us. Ezra Pound and fascism; Henry James in Italy; Robert Lowell and Vietnam all show up in different chapters. Her final chapter, on Gary Snyder and Native American and Japanese thought about tricksters (liminal animal/human figures), animals and ecology, reaffirms her conclusion that embodiment points the way to connection and empathy.

is in the English and American Studies departments at Yale. She recently co-edited a book on transnationalism and literary studies, Shades of the Planet, with Lawrence Buell; has written a book on Melville and individualism; and co-edited, with Priscilla Wald, a special issue of American Literature which I should read: Literature and Science: Cultural Forms, Conceptual Exchanges (Duke UP, 2002).

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Crimes Against Nature

Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, and Thieves and the Hidden History of American Conservation (University of California Press, 2001)

Jacoby, who now teaches at Brown (and who got his PhD from Yale's history program), is working on a second book about cultural remembrance of violence against Native Americans since frontier times. He describes himself as interested in how "human and non-human actors" create history in mutuality.

Teddy Roosevelt's picture is here as a reminder of the way that famous conservationists get all the credit for early 20th-c conservationism, while, as Jacoby claims, we forget to mention all of the people whose lives were altered for the worse by this new understanding of who should be in charge of the land. Jacoby describes conflicts between more elite conservationists and different brands of environmental transgressors, suddenly categorized as abusers by the new environmental order: hunters who persist in ranging over the Adirondack reserves of the wealthy New York set; poachers who kill Yellowstone bison (the Army was actually sent out to stop them!); and Havasupai Indians in the Southwest who continue to hunt in the new national forests which are established on the peripheries of their new, land-poor reservations.

Throughout, Jacoby contends with Roderick Nash's assessment that wilderness "appreciation" appeared first in the Eastern elite (2) and tries to reach an understanding of what he calls the "moral ecology" of the working-class residents of newly conserved lands.

Friday, May 16, 2008

American Technological Sublime

David Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994)

Nye teaches at the University of Southern Denmark, and has written several other books on technology and modernity in the US, including Electrifying America (on my list) and Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. I'm not sure if he was trained in American Studies, but he apparently got his degree from Minnesota, so it seems likely. Regardless, this book could easily be used to answer the question "What does an ideal American Studies book look like?"

This book approaches its subject not through some artificially delineated rubric defined by race, age, gender, or time ("Italian immigrants in the cities, 1881-1911"). Nye picks an idea - that there is a particularly American form of expression/social interaction, called the "technological sublime" - and then picks a bunch of examples throughout American history in order to develop this idea. He effectively, then, creates a new rubric or a new category. And he uses the breadth of methodological sources that I would want from an American Studies book - responses from observers both "high" and "low"; examples from public entertainment settings (such as from expositions) and from cityscapes and defense departments (this shows how "technological sublime" is produced and managed by various agencies, with a larger or smaller degree of intent); the inclusion of fiction. I do think he could have had more in here about film, though.

Nye traces how the sublime, originally a concept articulated by Burke and Kant in order to describe a response to a natural object of great magnitude or impressiveness, shifted its boundaries in America to encompass the technological. On the way, Nye argues, the experience of facing the sublime shifted from an individual to a crowd context; from being provoked by nature to being provoked by machinery; and from an experience of "substance" into an electric image (277). His examples of various varieties of "technological sublime" include the electric sublime (see: lighting displays at World's Fairs); the industrial sublime (the curving, uniform lines of the factory walls at Manchester, NH's Amoskeag Mills - "complexity and order on a massive scale" [113]); the geometric sublime (skyscrapers and dams) and the dynamic sublime (the railroads).

His penultimate chapter, which describes the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, shows how the technological sublime as practiced in these public contexts participates in a utopianism that promises not a difference in social interactions but a difference in the kind of "stuff" that we own. These sort of un-radical (or even repressive) historical precedents for the technological sublime of television can be found way earlier, however, in the "industrial sublime," which subsumed images of workers below images of machinery, beginning in the late nineteenth century, and in the "geometric sublime," embodied by skyscrapers that shut out and alienated the street-level public while impressing a generalized "public" with their mass.

There is interesting thought in here too about the interplay between nature and technology - Nye claims that if a naturally sublime site faces down a technologically sublime possibility, as in the case of dam construction, the naturally sublime will always lose to the potential of construction, because while the natural sublime speaks of limits, the technological sublime speaks of "the idea of reason in constant evolution" (60).