Stacey Balkan: November 2021 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for November 2021 is Stacey Balkan. 

Stacey Balkan is Assistant Professor of Environmental Literature and Humanities at Florida Atlantic University where she also serves as an affiliate faculty member for the University’s Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Initiative. She is co-editor of Oil Fictions: World Literature and our Contemporary Petrosphere (Penn State Press, 2021) and author of Rogues in the Postcolony: Narrating Extraction and Itinerancy in India (West Virginia University Press, 2022) as well as numerous essays on energy cultures and environmental justice including, most recently, “Energo-poetics: Reading Energy in the Ages of Wood, Oil, and Wind” (Revue Études Anglaise). She lives in Delray Beach, Florida, with her partner and her nonhuman research assistant Asbury (also pictured here).

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

Long before I would submit my first essay to ISLE on the aesthetics of global toxicity, I was keenly aware of the greenwashing of environmental violence. The geography of my childhood (Lower Manhattan, Staten Island, and ultimately New Jersey) figured the stark antithesis of the pastoral idylls so celebrated in my high school English classes – effectively offering an imaginative salve for the industrial corridors of the Garden State. To offer one example: New Jersey’s lower Passaic River, brimming with the residue of Agent Orange (manufactured by Diamond Alkali), flanks the working-class city of Newark that is now home to some six acres of dioxin-contaminated soil; and yet, discussions around such egregious forms of corporate malfeasance and environmental violence were entirely disconnected from the formal study of landscape and “nature” to which I was accustomed in the early 1990s. Interested in the uneven geographies of environmental toxicity, I studied Environmental Conservation (and also English) in college and eventually pursued my PhD in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, where my coursework and research were situated at the intersection between Postcolonial and Environmental Studies.

I chose the Graduate Center because the faculty demonstrates a unique commitment to public scholarship and activism, and I hoped to cultivate such a scholarly and pedagogical practice – one framed by the intersectional methodologies immanent to the field of Energy Humanities in which cultural critics like Ashley Dawson, Imre Szeman, Stephanie LeMenager, Dominic Boyer, and others expose the complicity between our disastrous reliance on fossil fuels and the cultural productions that continually manufacture and reinforce our petrocultural desires. I was initially inspired by discussions around postcolonial ecologies and the viability of an energy commons while studying with Ashley; subsequently, I would explore the work of the Petrocultures Research Group, the After Oil collective (with whom I would eventually study the promise of “Solarity”), and projects like “Cultures of Energy” led by Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer at Rice University. Howe and Boyer’s duography Wind and Power in the Anthropocene, Dawson’s People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons, and Imre Szeman’s voluminous work on petrocultures instantiate precisely the kind of radical scholarship to which I continue to aspire.

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

This is, of course, an extraordinarily difficult question: there are those works that I love to teach – among them Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, and Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Each has generated brilliant and productive classroom discussions around late capitalism and the stakes of aesthetic representation – whether Tsing’s “rush of stories,” or Roy’s magnificent commentary on what has been termed the “prose of counter-insurgency,” and the ways in which local forms of street theatre, e.g., have effectively contested such rhetorics.

There are also visual works like Ganzeer’s graphic novel The Solar Grid that brilliantly dramatize the human costs of petroculture as well as the material stakes of “green capitalism” – illuminating the vast injustices attendant to such “transitions” as we see in the corporate solar industry. And then there are those novels that I can read again and again and again: Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest, which masterfully indicts the onto-epistemologically impoverished Cartesianism immanent to much popular environmental discourse, will likely appear on my syllabi until I retire.

What are you currently working on?

I have just completed two book projects. My forthcoming monograph, Rogues in the Postcolony: Narrating Extraction and Itinerancy in India, is now in press and will be published in early 2022 as the inaugural title in the Histories of Capitalism and the Environment Series for West Virginia University Press. Rogues in the Postcolony is a study of Anglophone Indian picaresque novels that dramatize the impacts of extractive capitalism and colonial occupation on local communities in several Indian states. A materialist history of development on the subcontinent, the project considers works by Amitav Ghosh, Indra Sinha, and Aravind Adiga, each of which critiques violent campaigns of enclosure and dispossession at the hands of England’s premier trading company and its corporate legatees. In foregrounding the intersection(s) between landscape ideology, agricultural improvement, extractive capitalism, and aesthetic expression, Rogues also attends to the complicity of popular aesthetic forms with political and economic policy; so too, the colonial and extractivist logics that often frame discussions around the so-called Anthropocene epoch – those which tend to ignore the uneven histories of industrial development across the Global South. I am also incredibly excited to announce that Dr. Swaralipi Nandi and I have just published an edited anthology entitled Oil Fictions: World Literature and our Contemporary Petrosphere, which was released this past month as part of the AnthropoScene Series for Penn State University Press. A collection of essays dedicated to petrocultural expression, Oil Fictions presents an attempt to grapple with the pervasiveness of this often-invisible biocultural agent through the cultivation of a robust petro-aesthetic practice.

I am now completing a series of essays that speak to similar concerns, among them an essay on cycling and infrastructural justice for a forthcoming collection entitled Energized: Keywords for a New Politics of Energy and Environment for West Virginia University Press.

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.

As a teacher of Environmental and Energy Humanities, I am privileged to be reading a great many texts that illuminate both the injustices attendant to the violent energologics of fossil capitalism as well as the promise of speculative fiction for imagining just futures “after oil.”  Jane Caputi’s call your “mutha”: a deliberately dirty-minded manifesto for the Earth Mother in the Anthropocene, Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, and Adonia E. Lugo’s Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, and Resistance have generated rich discussions about the simultaneous cheapening and commodification of human and nonhuman bodies in my Literature of Social Movements class. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Sonya Posmentier’s Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature, and Mahasweta Devi’s magnificent prose indictments of India’s disastrous “green revolution” are among the many texts that we are exploring in my Honors Seminar on Global Environments; and Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of my Mother is one of several novels in Critical Approaches to World Literature that has allowed for a robust scrutiny of imperial taxonomy and its toxic fruit – that is, the production of “cheap lives” that has been so central to the cultivation of global fossil capitalism. As I prepare for next semester, I am currently reading Simon Orpana’s wonderful new book Gasoline Dreams: Waking up from Petroculture, which I cannot rave about enough for its critical and pedagogical promise.

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

Another dramatically difficult question! Among the many scholars who have profoundly impacted my thinking are Ashley Dawson, whose Extinction: A Radical History has become a staple in my Environmental Literature courses – a wonderful work that interweaves the long histories of uneven development, species extinction, and cultural representations historically aligned with the extractivist logics of global fossil capitalism. I am indebted to the imaginative labors of writers and critics like Rebecca Solnit, Macarena Gómez-Barris, Donna Haraway, and Shelley Streeby, who marshal speculative praxes in their work in order to transcend the prison-house of conventional critiques of capitalism and to, in fact, “imagine otherwise.” I continue to be inspired by, and grateful for, the work of Imre Szeman, Graeme Macdonald, Dominic Boyer, and the After Oil collective, for demonstrating precisely how we might work to actualize a world “after oil.” And I will always look to the work of Amitav Ghosh, who is not only the author of the now-infamous essay (really book review) “Petrofiction,” but who has also been a friend, colleague, and mentor; watching Ghosh generously work with my students as they asked questions about his novels Sea of Poppies and The Hungry Tide was truly a gift.