Date of Degree
American Literature | American Studies | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Literature in English, North America | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Nonfiction
personal essay, environmental humanities, climate change, ecocriticism, queer theory, creative nonfiction
“The Personal and the Planetal: Essaying the Ecological” investigates contemporary American personal essays in an environmental mode in order to illuminate the boundaries between “self” and “planet.” It does so with an eye toward ecological devastation—namely, the violent effects of global warming—because I sense that thinking about the essay can help us better understand the ethical problems of climate change. Part of our climate crisis is a failure to recognize the boundaries of the personal and what I call the “planetal” (in an attempt to defamiliarize it from the more common “planetary”). Using a method that I call “the ecological essay,” I read for the forces that structure those boundaries in how Americans narrate their personal experiences. How we define a sense of self—how we define “us” (human self) and “them” (other selves, both human and not)—is a crucial question for reading in the time of climate change. An assumed rigidity in those categories has confused liberal humanism with the human, a collapse that threatens to unravel the planetary systems that give us life because it diminishes our capacity to imagine ourselves in ways that are not short-sightedly masterful, voraciously extractive, and proudly oblivious to the interdependent webs of life on which our lives depend. Using critical concepts from the environmental humanities, I define how a personal essay works to narrate a sense of a conscious self in literature. Critical discourses in humanism, queer theory, and the environmental humanities—specifically, environmental literary nonfiction—also provide key insights. With a heightened awareness of genre, the study asks whether an essay’s anthropocentrism might position it strategically in order to shift the bounds of the personal beyond the hyper-individual. Literary analysis that challenges our definition of “human” is vital to the humanities—as to our understanding of global warming—because it clarifies how we narrate ourselves living on the planet. Each chapter analyzes a different contemporary American essay: “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer; Planetwalker by John Francis; and “In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins” from Close to the Knives: a Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz. Between these chapters, I interspersed personal essays, which I call “interludes.” The three personal essays offer an alternative mode for inhabiting the eco-philosophy and genre mechanics discussed in the chapters. “The End of Summers” dissects an episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer while thinking through the urgency of mourning for global warming, the terminal illness of my mother, and the end of a long relationship. “Wandering Star” recounts an experience of walking a 1:1 billion scale model of the solar system in Switzerland, which prompts a sublime experience at the inability to think across immense scales of geologic time and place. And “The Sea Around Me” tells the story of how I almost drowned at Riis Beach, the queer haven, after meeting a man for the first time on Grindr. Finally, the conclusion reads “Crude Love in the Anthropocene,” a photograph by David Benjamin Sherry which depicts two men kissing while covered in oil.
Wilson, Eric Dean, "The Personal and the Planetal: Essaying the Ecological" (2023). CUNY Academic Works.
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