2020–21 Dissertations in the Environmental Humanities

June 4, 2021

We are excited to feature several dissertations filed this academic year that engage with Environmental Humanities. Please join us in celebrating this year’s graduates, and in wishing them well in their future endeavors! 

Maximilian Chaoulideer (German) — “Figuring Collectivity in the Age of Climate Crisis”

This dissertation confronts a contradiction that has come to define human life over (at least) the past quarter millennium: though we have, collectively, become the first species to inscribe ourselves into the geological record, we have, individually, diminishing power over the shape of the world toward which we blindly work. While imperial expansion and unfettered fossil fuel extraction threaten to undermine the material conditions of all human life, there is, I argue, a more fundamental problem manifest in anthropogenic climate change, one that poses a representational challenge. Because of its own globality, the threat posed by something as diffuse and total as the climate seems to demand the articulation of an equally global subject: the human as a species. What does it mean, however, to represent the everyday experiences of individuals as unified by such an abstraction? While some scholars have argued that this abstracted collectivity poses a challenge to the traditional tools of humanistic representation, this dissertation begins with the claim that experiencing ourselves as a species is a problem of representation. Climate change, I argue, exposes the inadequacy of a social totality emptied of its determinacy and demands that we represent our universality through the materiality of our everyday phenomenology. If we are to take a humanistic approach to the ecological crises we face, we must begin by developing new figures for the unity of our social world.

Nicholas Robbins (History of Art) — “Oceans of Air: Landscape and Climate in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World”

This dissertation examines how climate emerged as a central subject of aesthetic experiment and scientific investigation in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. Rather than the particular, instantaneous, and local effects of weather, climate describes long-term, average states of the atmosphere distributed across the globe. Such spatial and temporal scale, along with the elusive materiality of climate’s constitutive phenomena, defied existing conventions of artistic and scientific representation. The dissertation charts experiments across mediums—from painting and printmaking to photography and architecture—that aimed to fashion new aesthetic forms responsive to the challenges climate posed to representation.