Climate Impasse, Fossil Hegemony, and the Modern Crisis of Imagination

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2022

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I argue in this dissertation that “climate impasse” — knowing much and doing little about climate change — has become a defining political, social, and cultural problem of the contemporary period (1980s to the present). Supposing that representations of impasse reveal something about the origins, features, and trajectories of U.S. climate politics, I perform close readings and historical analyses of exemplary texts across a range of media (novels, feature films, eco-political manifestos) to consider how the gap between knowing about climate change and doing something about it has been narrated in four U.S. environmental discourses: an “ecocritical” discourse that narrates impasse in terms of representational failure; an “ecofascist” discourse that closes the gap between knowing and doing by vowing to defend Northern borders against rising seas and migrant tides; an “ecofugitive” discourse that holds out the possibility of escape from the dangers of the present; and an “ecosocialist” discourse that resolves impasse by imagining decommodified forms of “social reproduction” that decouple life from fossil fuels. I find, first, that the material and epistemological dimensions of impasse arise from the ownership structure of “fossil capitalism” in the neoliberal period, which not only yokes the reproduction of waged/salaried life to the combustion of fossil fuels, but also profoundly shapes how climate change passes into the cultural imagination. I observe, second, that climate impasse calls into question the political imaginary of U.S. liberalism, which understands social progress to be driven by cycles of revelation and reform. Finally, I conclude that the imagination has a crucial role to play in moving beyond impasse — not by making the effects of climate change more visible, immediate, or dramatic, but by illuminating concrete strategies for abolishing the political economic structures that give rise to impasse in the first place.

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Williams, Casey A (2022). Climate Impasse, Fossil Hegemony, and the Modern Crisis of Imagination. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25146.

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