Rice University

Events at Rice

Thesis Defense

Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Speaker: Derek Woods
Doctoral Candidate

What Is Ecotechnology?: Biopolitics and Trophic Writing in American Cultures of Science

Wednesday, May 10, 2017
3:00 PM  to 5:00 PM

255  Herring Hall

In the environmental humanities, there is a growing consensus that the concept of nature can no longer serve as a guide for politics and aesthetics in the climate change era. In this context, ecology has become a keyword with expansive significance, yet critics rarely situate cultural analysis in relation to the history of ecological science. This is in contrast to scholarship on biology, which has, for example, tracked the politics and poetics of the genome-as-language metaphor in detail. What Is Ecotechnology? addresses this gap by rethinking the eco of ecological criticism in relation to the controversial ecosystem concept itself, which emerges following Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky’s work on the biosphere and British ecologist Arthur Tansley’s 1935 critique of (colonial) holism. The dissertation argues that a fundamental engagement with technology characterizes the cultural reception of the ecosystem, drawing on texts that embody this concept in machines. Applying biopolitical and systems theories to ecological criticism, each of the project’s five chapters gives a different answer to the its guiding question. For example, “The Computer in the Garden” discusses the dual and related impacts of information media on ecological science writing and U.S. paranoia culture; “The Logic of the Terrarium” looks at the artificial closed ecosystem as a setting in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis novels (1987-1989); “Terraforming Earth” scales up from the terrarium to the artificial biospheres of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996); While utopian efforts to mimic nature in design stretch from Bauhaus to Arizona’s Biosphere 2, these efforts have never realized the goal of integrating machines with the full complexity of ecosystems. Different from biotechnology, then, ecotechnology in the present matters less in its economic impact than as a reservoir of cultural memory that shapes how we think about climate change. My approach to this reservoir draws on late modernist literature, science fiction, and (specialist and popular) science writing, developing a comparison between literary and scientific languages. This comparison yields a multifaceted perspective on the re-scaling of the ecosystem to describe what scientists now call the “earth system”—a scaling contemporaneous with the globalization of the American economy.

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