Guided by Exuberance

Quick Study: Stephanie LeMenager
Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo

Stephanie LeMenager—a 2016–2017 Radcliffe Institute fellow and the Barbara and Carlisle Moore Distinguished Professor of English and American Literature and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Oregon—ponders what it means to be human in the era of climate change and how the humanities can help us behave in a more ecologically connected manner. She is an early adopter of a new area of research, the environmental humanities, and is using climate change as a touchstone for exploring her Radcliffe project, “Weathering: Toward a Sustainable Humanities.”

Who are your heroes?
I have many. To name three: Rachel Carson, Octavia Butler, Henry David Thoreau. All writer-scholars. All passionate critics and (essentially) utopianists. We need both powerfully informed critique and utopian imagination to navigate this complex world. There is no courage without joy, as Ed Abbey—another of my heroes—once wrote.

Which trait do you most admire in yourself?
I’m fundamentally joyous. Not frivolous—although Henry James would adamantly defend frivolity in The Europeans. By joyous, I mean that I tenaciously love the world.

Who is your muse?
Dogs. Birds. The smell of trees after rain.

Tell us your favorite memory.
Horseback riding through a derelict pasture behind a barn in Northbrook, Illinois. The horse was named Jello, because he “shook”—bucked. I rode double bareback with my friend Sonia. We were five. That field is now a strip mall.

Describe yourself in six words or fewer.
Exuberance and rumination are my poles.

What is your most treasured possession?
1. Any writing implement. 2. Anything that carries me out of myself and out of doors (e.g., shoes, kayak, horse).

What inspires you?
Everything not me. I’m keen on the world and eager to feel it—as a walker, reader, museum gaper. I recently spent a conference weekend in New York City walking between 10 and 15 miles a day. I was ecstatic, in the old sense—outside of myself.

Name a pet peeve.
Careerism. Among the careerist’s many drawbacks is her commitment to a very limited range of time: the 25 years of a professional arc rather than the longer spans necessary to build and preserve community, ecology, peace. In the era of climate change, I could also say that mortality is a pet peeve, to the extent that it encourages thinking within the human life span, a fatal blindness.

Were your life to become a motion picture, who would portray you?
A bird. I’d be the curious creature hopping at the edge of frame.

Where in the world would you like to spend a month?
In my own home. Surprising how hard it has become to sit still in an academic career.

What is your fantasy career?
Field biologist. When I was a student, I didn’t realize that meaning could come from the smallest things and from tedious practice. The big words and ideas hailed me. Not that I have regrets. But if I could have a second career . . .

What is your greatest triumph so far?
Remaining joyous. And writing my last book, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (Oxford University Press, 2014). That project was an intellectual labor of love, in many respects a love poem to California and the Gulf Coast, two places that played a prominent role in my family history.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a Radcliffe fellow?
Staying steady at the helm. By which I mean doing the project that you most want to do, without a clearly imposed structure (e.g., I make my workday) and with plenty of rich distractions (e.g., the exciting events offered at the Institute and the cultural attractions of Cambridge).

What aspect of your work do you most enjoy?
1. Teaching. 2. Everyday epiphanies in the research process. When I read something, see something in a gallery, or have a conversation with a scholar or artist and realize that a new world has opened.

What do you mean by “sustainable humanities”?
A few years ago, I wrote an article with a colleague, the West Virginia University professor Stephanie Foote, that spells it out in many words. In a few words: A sustainable humanities acts in the world by making clear that no present-tense, let alone future, is inevitable; by offering empathy and robust sociality as profound sources of pleasure; by building durable new stories from the archives of cultural memory. The humanities have always been conservationist in orientation, relatively cheap (e.g., energy efficient), and generative of possible worlds. Critical and utopianist, attuned to mortal time and time spans far beyond the individual life. The punchline to this “new” phrase, the sustainable humanities, is that the humanities always have been sustainable.

You’re a scholar of literature and a proponent of “cli-fi,” or climate fiction. What does this latest literary genre offer to our times?
Cli-fi offers both realism and fantasy with the science of climate change as their empirical horizon. Climate change now names the material limiting conditions of human and nonhuman life and culture, and yet it is not widely acknowledged. Even those who believe in it, a majority of the US population, push it to the margins of consciousness. My colleague at the University of Oregon, Kari Norgaard, recognizes climate change denial as a result of “ontological insecurity,” fear of extinction or of losing what it has meant to be human. Cli-fi offers an exorcism of this ontological insecurity by practicing umpteen scenarios of living with climate change. Even its dystopian imaginings allow us a relatively safe—because fictional—means of thinking into this unprecedented future.

Can you offer an example of a cli-fi book that our readers might enjoy?

I would recommend Liz Jensen’s The Rapture (Bloomsbury, 2009) if you are prepared to face ontological insecurity head-on. It’s a beautifully written contemplation of the limits of human imagination in the face of unprecedented ecological facts. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (Harper, 2012) offers a more conciliatory and hopeful response to climate change—one that might feel increasingly precious as we move into the Trump presidency. Both Jensen and Kingsolver are deeply interested in climate science. Octavia Butler’s Parable novels comment on the relationship of environmental to racial justice; they have been described as early cli-fi and as an eerie prediction of our current political malaise.

What inspired you to join a new interdisciplinary area of research, the environmental humanities, and to found its first journal?
Climate change was my primary inspiration to do these things. I believe that we (humans, animals, Earth) need the humanities more than ever, by which I mean we need to remember and to practice the aspiration of being human—the best that “the human” has meant and can be. Disciplinary turf wars, careerism, and the insecurities attendant upon doing any interdisciplinary project must be put aside as much as is possible. The human species, but most importantly the best practices of being human, will be profoundly challenged by climate shifts in the coming century. We already are seeing this happen: how an environmental shift of this magnitude can threaten the very fabric of knowledge, the basis of democratic culture.

Stephanie LeMenager will discuss her work at the Radcliffe Institute, "Weathering: Toward a Sustainable Humanities," on February 22 at 4 p.m. in Sheerr Room, Fay House, which is a part of the 2016–2017 Fellows' Presentation Series.


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