Faculty Favorites: Books for the Struggles to Come
Each semester we here at Edge Effects invite some of our favorite scholars from a range of fields to share with us the environmental books and essays they are most excited to teach in the weeks ahead. This spring’s list features eight books that, each in their own way, plumb historical conflicts that look likely to belong as much to the future as to the past. We hope you enjoy the recommendations below and find new titles for your bookshelves.
Hester Blum, Associate Professor of English, Pennsylvania State University
Course: English 597, “Archipelagic American Studies”
Recommendation: Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, transliterated and translated from Inuktitut to French by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, translated from French by Peter Frost (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014)
This sharp, witty, and evocative series of sketches follows an Inuk woman and her relatives across seasons, years, and lifeways, as members of Sanaaq’s community (in Nunavik in northern Quebec) struggle through food shortages and increasingly interact with Qallunaat, or white settlers and priests. In short, punchy chapters, Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk highlights the competencies of Inuit women and the often comical shortcomings of the community’s men. The exclamatory prose and blunt humor are counterposed with scenes of violence, starvation, and colonialist cultural pressures on Inuit in the mid-20th century. The novel teaches beautifully and might be paired with Inuk environmental activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet (Penguin, 2016). Sanaaq is a bracing look at indigenous lifeways and sustainability in the Canadian Arctic in a time of rapid cultural change.
Bénédicte Boisseron, Associate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan
Course: Afroamerican and African Studies 558, “Animal Studies and Black Studies”
Recommendation: Kafka’s Blues: Figurations of Racial Blackness in the Construction of an Aesthetic by Mark Christian Thompson (Northwestern University Press, 2016)
Mark Christian Thompson’s Kafka’s Blues, which offers a thought-provoking mediation on race and the animal, is ground-breaking in its attempt to read Franz Kafka’s work through the lens of African American studies. Chapter 3 (“Beyond Negro”) on animal metamorphosis/Gregor Samsa and Chapter 5 (“Negro’s Manumission”) on the anthropomorphized ape/Rotpeter are particularly illuminating and food for great conversions with students around the nexus of race and animality. Thompson reminds us of the importance of revisiting the canon through an intersectional lens, particularly so when the human, the animal, and the racialized subject are ranked on an evolutionary scale of Being.
Jaskiran Dhillon, Associate Professor of Global Studies and Anthropology, The New School
Course: Global Studies 3515, “Politics of Violence: Indigenous Lands and Bodies”
Recommendation: Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawai’i Statehood by Dean Saranillio (Duke University Press, 2018)
In Unsustainable Empire, Saranillio unveils the inherent contradictions and complexities of settler colonialism at its intersection with imperialism through the exemplary case of Hawai’i, and with particular attention to the connections between Native histories and the Asian diaspora in occupied Hawai’i. For undergraduate students learning about historical and contemporary realities of settler colonial violence, this book stretches one’s thinking to consider how the relational, spatial, and temporal logics of settler colonialism render experiences of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion, expulsion, deprivation, and multivalent violence for Indigenous peoples and the Asian diaspora alike—albeit through varying technologies of violence with different social, environmental, and political implications. What is so crucial in Saranillio’s intervention, however, is that he is careful to avoid flattening colonial encounters of power and domination and instead reveals the ways that race and Indigeneity are deployed in relation to one another. In this regard, Unsustainable Empire demands that scholarship in Asian American studies rightly theorizes imperialism and migration while arguing for the importance of a settler colonial framework. A very powerful book with which to teach about what it means to work across social movements.
Gabrielle Hecht, Frank Stanton Foundation Professor of Nuclear Security and Professor of History, Stanford University
Course: History 303E, “Infrastructure and Power in the Global South”
Recommendations: Edges of Exposure: Toxicology and the Problem of Capacity in Postcolonial Senegal by Noémi Tousignant (Duke University Press, 2018) and Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal by Rosalind Fredericks (Duke University Press, 2018)
Studies of infrastructure and inequality have exploded in the last decade, with STS scholars entering into conversation with area studies, post/colonial studies, and other scholarship on the “Global South.” These conversations have produced dramatic new understandings of what infrastructures are, how to theorize them, and how to analyze them as conduits of social and political power. In this context, we’re reading several first books by emerging scholars. I’m especially looking forward to putting Noémi Tousignant’s Edges of Exposure in conversation with Rosalind Fredericks’s Garbage Citizenship. Both center on Senegal, analyzing how neoliberal policies condition infrastructural possibilities. Tousignant examines what she calls the “problem of capacity” in Senegalese toxicology, exploring how material scarcity shapes opportunities to do science, politicize toxic risk, and protect citizens from harm. Fredericks analyzes the labor of trash collection in Dakar, using the production and politicization of waste to explore the ecologies of urban infrastructure and citizenship. They’re both marvelous, sparkly reads—I can’t wait to discuss them in class!
Toshihiro Higuchi, Assistant Professor of History, Georgetown University
Course: History 099, “World War III: A History”
Recommendation: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (Del Rey, 1968)
We usually don’t read this classic science fiction novel as a source of environmental history. But what if we reverse the conventional wisdom of learning history and say that we should study the future to understand the past? The novel, published at the height of anxiety in Cold War America, explores the existential question of what it means to be human against the backdrop of an imagined landscape and life in the wake of a global nuclear war. Set in a post-apocalyptic world blanketed with radioactive poisons that slowly brought all forms of life left on the planet to extinction, it offers a fascinating glimpse into a wide range of issues that gripped the United States in the midst of the 1960s “Civil War,” to borrow from Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, including consumer capitalism, warfare, outer space, racism, gender, the urban crisis, environmental degradation, and alienation in modern society.
Mario Ortiz-Robles, Mellon-Morgridge Professor of English, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Course: English 532, “Literature and Animal Studies”
Recommendation: The Animal That Therefore I Am by Jacques Derrida, edited by Marie-Louise Mallet, translated by David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008)
In this tremendously useful series of lectures, Jacques Derrida asks us to reconsider how we relate to animals, and to our own animality, in the context of the West’s historical imperative to maintain a categorical divide between humans and animals.
Students tend to find Derrida’s work challenging, but ultimately rewarding, because it opens up a new way of thinking about difference—not as something to be erased but as a supplement to our inevitable anthropocentrism. This is an invaluable perspective to have as we face the sixth mass extinction of animal species in the history of life on earth, the first one caused by humans.
Paul Sutter, Professor of History, University of Colorado at Boulder
Course: History 6410, “Readings in Environmental History”
Recommendation: The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (Princeton University Press, 2015)
How does one end a fundamentally depressing course? This semester, my Global Environmental History graduate seminar focuses on historicizing the Anthropocene. We will be marching through 10,000 years of accelerating human impact upon the natural world, and it won’t be pretty. I chose to end with Tsing’s elegant ethnography of the trade in matsutake mushrooms because it captures, in hopeful ways, the interconnected lives we lead, with humans and other species, in this damaged world. As a rarified commodity that springs from disturbed and degraded forests, the matsusake and its stories usefully triangulate the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, and Chthulucene concepts. Tsing allows us to see that beautiful lives continue amidst the mess we have made.