Jeffrey Insko: November 2022 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for November 2022 is Jeffrey Insko. 

Jeffrey Insko is Professor of English at Oakland University, where he teaches courses in nineteenth-century American literature and the Energy and Environmental Humanities. He is the author of History, Abolition, and the Ever-Present Now in Antebellum American Writing (Oxford, 2018) and editor of the forthcoming Norton Library edition of Moby-Dick. His essays have appeared in journals and collections such as American Literary History, American Literature, Leviathan, Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, and the Cambridge Companion to Environmental Humanities. He lives in Holly, Michigan, with his wife Katy and dog Murphy.

How did you become interested in studying ecocriticism and/or the environmental humanities?

In 2010, an oil pipeline ruptured here in Michigan, spilling over a million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. That was sort of a Santa Barbara moment for me, in part because that pipeline happens to cross my backyard a couple of hours east of the spill site. The following year, the pipeline company replaced the entire pipeline, so I suddenly had front row seats to a major fossil fuel infrastructure project, with massive bulldozers and excavating machines right out our back window. I spent the next few years fighting with the pipeline company and meeting others around the country involved in their own pipeline battles – a crash course in the on-the-ground workings of the carbon economy.

It was only later, after they’d finally finished the project and left our property, that I realized I’d been doing a form of Environmental Humanities work all along and that scholars in the humanities had already been thinking about and theorizing energy, infrastructure, and ecological devastation. I began to devour that work as a way of understanding what I’d been doing. It altered the path of my career in ways I’d never planned or expected.

And it hasn’t hurt living in Michigan and becoming familiar with its extraordinary and diverse natural wonders – its Great Lakes, rivers, and forests – and its rich environmental history, all which I’ve come to love.

Who is your favorite environmental artist, writer, or filmmaker? Or what is your favorite environmental text? Why?

Oh, where even to begin? I suppose my default answer is Herman Melville, whose writings are never far from my mind. But a very different text that I have found myself teaching over and over in recent years is Helena Maria Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus. I read and loved it many years ago as an undergraduate in an Ethnic American Literature course. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age novel. But I think it’s also one of the great works of petro-fiction in US literature, with so much to say about racialized extractive capitalism, about how oil and its appurtenances –automobility, infrastructure – shape and sustain inequalities and disparate experiences of modernity. Plus, its prose is gorgeous.

What are you currently working on?

I just finished up two essays on nineteenth-century writers for Oxford Handbooks on Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson, titled, respectively, “Melville, Energy, and the Anthropocene” and “Emerson, Energy, Infrastructure.”  I’m now trying to complete two interlinked book projects that have their origins in the 2010 oil spill in Michigan. The first is an environmental history of the Kalamazoo River, which situates the spill in relation to a much longer, and yet ongoing, history of ecological devastation of the river. The second book, which began as the final chapter of the first, is a history of another pipeline owned by the same company, Enbridge, Inc, called Line 5. That pipeline crosses the Straits of Mackinac between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan and is the locus of a great deal of current controversy, thanks to a grassroots movement to have the pipeline permanently shut down. But it turns out that the history of Line 5’s construction in 1953 is also a fascinating story about twentieth-century infrastructural development and early forms of environmental resistance.

Lastly, I may as well mention that I also just edited the new Norton Library edition of Moby-Dick, due out in early 2023. Among other things, my introduction highlights how the novel speaks to the climate crisis and our current energy impasse.

What is something you are reading right now (environmental humanities-related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally? Comment briefly on why or how it inspires you.

Two books I’m currently reading and inspired by are in many ways quite different. Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals is a powerful, inventive series of essays about whales, dolphins, porpoises and what they can teach us about being, and not being, human. I’m eager to read it again with my students next semester in a Literature & Environment course I’m teaching on “Cetology.” The other book is Lynne Heasley’s The Accidental Reef and Other Ecological Odysseys in the Great Lakes, which blends natural history writing, creative nonfiction, and environmental history to tell weird and fascinating stories about the effects of industrialization on Great Lakes ecosystems. What inspires me about both books, in addition to the engaging and lyrical prose of each, is the way they push the boundaries of writing on or about the environment, opening up new pathways, perhaps, for ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities work.

Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you? Why?

There are so many! I am such a latecomer to the field I feel like I am still just catching up. But I think some of my greatest debts and deepest admiration is for those scholars who introduced me to the Energy Humanities and modeled for me how to think and write about oil, its materiality and cultural and political effects, first and foremost Stephanie LeMenager. But also any number of others I could name: Imre Szeman, Jennifer Wenzel, Dominic Boyer, Stacey Balkan. Stephanie Foote, Jamie Jones, and John Levi Barnard are three others I continue to learn from. But maybe the one thinker whose work has taught me the the most is the Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Powys White, whose writings about settler colonialism and the climate crisis have challenged and transformed my thinking in so many ways. I can hardly recall the last time I taught a course without assigning one of his essays.