Emergent worlds: Storytelling and collaboration in the Anthropocene

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2023-05
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Sterk, Bailey
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Burke, Brianna
Withers, Jeremy
Shenk, Linda
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English
Abstract
Storytelling shapes human understanding of agency and vulnerability. In the Anthropocene, an epoch defined in many ways by human influences on the world, it is complicated to reconcile the massive agencies of climate change, globalization, and capitalism with the lived experience of individuals, many of whose agency is reduced by these forces. Contemporary weird, speculative, and literary fiction reveals the gap between agency and vulnerable reality created by futile attempts at human control over the environment, the economy, one another, and our own bodies. Chapter 2 defines what I call “weird feeling,” a diagnostic affect that emerges from the double-consciousness created by the varying agencies of climate change and late-stage capitalism, particularly when individuals and communities are alienated from their changing environment in order to survive. In Lydia Millet’s novel A Children’s Bible, I track the way the relationship between the children and their parents in a world wracked with increasing climate disasters is disturbed by the gaps between responsibility and agency. Then, in Helena María Viramontes’ novel Under the Feet of Jesus, relationships are made weird because of the divorce between individuals laboring in industrial agriculture and their ability to protect themselves and form meaningful relationships with place. Both of these examples illustrate gaps between idealization and reality in which we can more closely examine how relationships in the Anthropocene have become, or been made, unhealthy. In Chapter 3, I illustrate the ways in which powerful economic entities can use the narrative gap between idealization and reality to obscure the violent and poisonous impacts of industrial farming practices. In Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats, the meta-narrative advertising program My American Wife! exports an idealized American lifestyle to Japanese housewives in order to sell both American beef and American misogyny and consumerism. This chapter emphasizes the compounding dangers of malicious misrepresentation to marginalized and oppressed groups, with a particular focus on gender, poverty, and race, or the mechanisms of environmental justice. I question the ways in which corporate power influences storytelling practices and wields them against consumers, endangering them and denying that danger while reinforcing values of patriarchy, American nationalism, and glamorized consumerism. Chapter 4 expands upon the interconnected, inter-webbed reality of not only our transcorporeal bodies but also of our imaginative lives wherein humans collaboratively build the world in which we live. I analyze Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Inventory” to understand how citizens of the Anthropocene participate variously in storytelling and world building. Through the multiple subject positions of the short story, the audience practices the cognitive shift between the individual, community, and global perspectives. Embodying multiple scales of storytelling - sometimes simultaneously - is necessary to collaborative world-building practices. The novels examined in this thesis demonstrate the emergent nature of reality, including the ways in which that relationship can be violent, uncanny, and alienating. Through my analysis, I direct audiences towards conscientious collaboration as a way to heal these disturbed relationships. Together, this thesis asks what it means to be a citizen of the Anthropocene and to exist within - and help bring into being - the cultural narratives that shape human lives and experience and argues the importance of narrative in shaping what humans view as possible futures.
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