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Title:Uncommon work: Utopia, labor, and environment in late twentieth-century American fiction
Author(s):Jones, Brandon
Director of Research:Littlefield, Melissa
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Littlefield, Melissa
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Alaimo, Stacy; Foote, Stephanie; Markley, Robert
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):American Literature
Late Twentieth Century
Abstract:Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, critical theorists have lamented in elegiac fashion the disappearance of any political economic system, real or imaginary, that could feasibly offer an alternative to liberal capitalism. Utopia, understood as the aesthetic expression of the desire for alternative social realities, has been declared impossible for political imagining since the late twentieth century. This obsolescence of utopia has been felt particularly acutely among the environmental movement. After its optimistic emergence in the 1960s and 1970s as a corollary of the New Left, the environmental movement became increasingly characterized by a heightened sensibility of ecological precarity and everyday crisis, which emerged in response to the frequency of natural disasters and environmental injustices appearing both in headlines and citizens’ backyards. As a result, utopian narratives of sustainable and pastoral alternatives to capitalist growth registered as irresponsibly out of touch. Instead, apocalyptic stories of nature’s anthropogenic decline became the predominant form of environmental rhetoric circulating in fictional and political discourse. Unfortunately, apocalyptic environmental narratives largely registered as redundant among American publics, their mimetic approach to environmental crisis provoking nihilism and despair more than preventative action. A way out of this imaginative impasse lies, my project claims, in a select archive of late twentieth-century American fiction writers that sustained the relevance of utopia for environmental activism and political economy. Namely, I argue that Ursula K. Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, Octavia E. Butler, and Amitav Ghosh, among others, revived an American tradition of georgic writings—that is, texts attending to issues of political economy through a focus on relations between human labor and the physical environment—and directed it toward global projects of economic and environmental justice. The political efficacy of such fictions for environmentalism, I contend, lies in the way their georgic utopias are subject to change rather than static, unlike the majority of utopian fictions prior to the 1970s. The conditional, unfinished status of these hopeful stories encourages the participation of characters and readers in the work of composing ecologically viable futures.
Issue Date:2018-04-06
Rights Information:Copyright 2018 Brandon Jones
Date Available in IDEALS:2018-09-04
Date Deposited:2018-05

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