Featured Member shines a spotlight on the diverse research interests of, and the exciting projects undertaken by, those affiliated with the Cultural Memory Studies Initiative. In this eighth instalment of the series, we speak to River Ramuglia, a PhD candidate at Ghent University working on nuclear memory and climate change fiction.
Could you tell us a little about your PhD project? What are you working on right now?
My project considers how nuclear history and memory inform the way we think about and confront the ongoing climate crisis. I examine climate change fiction, or “cli-fi,” exploring how this emergent genre repurposes Cold War symbols of nuclear anxiety in order to frame and manage the scale and complexity of global environmental problems. I am particularly interested in the fallout shelter, a space that proliferated throughout American suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation in the wake of the atrocities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fallout shelter became a feature of containment culture, which upheld the power of white, patriarchal nuclear families within racially exclusive suburban localities that for many came to stand in for the space and place of the nation, charging collective existence in the United States with a survivalist mentality inseparable from the growth demands of petrocapitalism.
I have discovered that variants of the fallout shelter appear regularly in cli-fi. For example, my article “Tearing Down the Greenhouse” engages with T. C. Boyle’s novel The Terranauts (2016), a satire of the events surrounding the construction and operation of Biosphere 2, a multimillion-dollar ecology experiment beginning in the 1980s that had the goal of creating a contained, self-sustaining environment that could support human life in the event of the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem. The project was, in every sense, a kind of ecological fallout shelter: the characters of Boyle’s novel even refer to Earth’s ecological collapse as a kind of nuclear attack that their greenhouse structure is designed to withstand. In the novel, “containment” comes to mean not only the maintenance and protection of white identity under the pressures of Biosphere 2’s media spectacle, but also takes on ecological significance as the characters struggle to survive in an artificial environment impractically situated in an Arizona desert ecosystem. As we delight in his retelling of such an absurd and ironic experiment, Boyle alerts us to the dangerous tendency toward literary escapism in the face of environmental crisis. Thus, I see the fallout shelter not only as a figure repurposed for use in cli-fi, but also as a rhetorical space in which we produce and consume narrative, while outside the planet burns.
Right now, I am finishing my dissertation, working on a chapter about Chris Ware’s Building Stories (2012), an innovative graphic novel that deconstructs how we locate ourselves in the overwhelming material infrastructure of the climate crisis. The entirety of Ware’s novel, a fragmentary assemblage of comics printed on paper of various dimensions and formats, is presented inside the unifying container of a box. While this paratext fulfills the necessary function of displaying eye-catching graphics in order to draw the eyes of potential buyers, it also draws attention to the role of “containment” in apprehending narrative. Understanding the novel this way suggests the novel’s title has a double meaning: readers are called to understand narrative as inseparable from the physical structures that shape and mediate it, but are also required to “build” a narrative timeline from an unordered tactile encounter with physical objects. There is a sense that this process of building might not be possible if not for the comics’ containment in a sturdy box. By making his readers cross the threshold of such a paratext, Ware forces readers to re-anchor themselves in the temporal, spatial, and environmental realities of producing and experiencing narrative, all while nuclear memory manifests throughout the story as the characters come to terms with life in a bleak contemporary America.
What first attracted you to studying climate change literature?
I have a background working in Alaskan politics, but I had always been more interested in education-based forms of public engagement. Thinking back, almost all of my “aha!” moments in life, particularly with regard to the environment, have happened through the study of literature. I wanted to work in a setting where I could promote and facilitate those experiences in others, so continuing my studies seemed logical. Initially I was interested in Victorian novels, but once I moved to London in pursuit of a Master’s degree, everything changed. Having spent most of my life in Alaska, I was accustomed to low population density, easy access to wilderness, and plenty of space. London had none of these things, awakening me to the realities of global resource demands, the psychological effects of urban crowding, and consciousness of a global environmental community. My reading necessarily took a hard turn toward work by ecocritics and novels that explored contemporary urban perspectives on the environment. I branched out from there, finally landing on what has come to be known as cli-fi. I haven’t turned back since, and continue to read and write with the belief that literature can awaken the environmental consciousness of readers and create lasting, positive change in the world.
How would you describe the relationship between memory studies and the environmental humanities?
Both memory studies and the environmental humanities are increasingly being called upon to think in terms of deep time. Built in to the concept of the Anthropocene, for example, which has been taken up by memory and environmental humanities scholars alike, is the idea that there will be a future human observer who will register and remember our collective physical impact on the planet through study of the geological record. Of course, such an observer is not guaranteed, though we certainly like to imagine one: the field of nuclear semiotics, for example, considers how best to signal to a far-future civilization the presence of toxic underground nuclear waste, which takes thousands of years to become unhazardous, likely far beyond the endurance of civilization as we presently conceive of it. This is the subject of Michael Madsen’s documentary Into Eternity (2010), which profiles a nuclear waste storage facility in Onkalo, Finland. It is also a question considered in detail by Peter C. van Wyck in his book Signs of Danger (2005). I find such planning for these scenarios to be strangely optimistic.
I often think about a wonderful comic by Randall Munroe, the creator of xkcd, that powerfully captures some of the dynamics between memory studies and the environmental humanities, particularly in relation to the possibility of extinction. Donna Haraway also briefly discusses this comic, entitled “Bee Orchid,” in her book Staying with the Trouble (2016). I love it because it showcases the extraordinary complexity joining these fields, demonstrating how memory is not the exclusive province of humans, but rather works along interspecies ecological networks operating at a variety of “memorative velocities,” to borrow a term from Lucy Bond. What the human stick figures in the comic experience as the fleeting memory of an extinct pollinator comes into being through the deep time of evolution, the pattern of a bee that for millennia remembered where it could find delicious pollen.
To add another layer of complexity, when we read Munroe’s comic, we are looking at a digital painting of the Bee Orchid, a representation enmeshed in unbelievably complex material and symbolic infrastructures of data and code that facilitate its retrieval for us on our computer screens, objects that today seem indispensable for the operations of memory. I need not rehearse the environmental impact of our digital lives, which demand not only the use of fossil fuels but also of rare earth minerals mined across the globe. To put it simply, to the extent that our continued life under late capitalism depends on resource extraction and other uses of the natural environment that contribute to climate change, all memory is environmental.
You are from Alaska, but you’ve worked and studied in several countries. What insights have you gathered from your work in Belgium (and beyond)?
I have had the privilege of living and working in Alaska, Oregon, Texas, London, and Belgium. In each of these places I have learned unique lessons about what it means to be human and how to think about my limited role and brief time on this planet. Having grown up in Alaska, which has an economy dependent on the success of extractive industries, I am aware of the social and political climates promoted by petrocapitalism and how they can shape people’s environmental beliefs, often in negative ways. Going to school in Oregon and teaching in Texas, I have come into contact with people holding many different political views and attitudes about climate change. Living in London and working in Belgium, I have had the opportunity to gather perspectives on environmental issues outside of the United States, and worked alongside people from all over the world. I’ve come to recognize that René Dubos’s slogan from the 1970s, “think globally, act locally,” discussed in Ursula Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet (2008), is one to live by. Heretofore a global traveler, I am painfully aware of my own contributions to the environmental destruction of the planet. While broad systemic changes to global capitalism are necessary to combat runaway climate change, we can all participate in the creation of a new paradigm by taking inventory of our own life choices and making better ones in local contexts. To quote Greta Thunberg, what we also need is “cathedral thinking” that transcends the nationalistic, popcorn politics that seems to prevail these days. We need to work together as a global community if we are to avoid going over the precipice of climate disaster.
Are there any specific texts, concepts, or methods from memory studies that you have found particularly useful?
I have already mentioned Lucy Bond’s idea of “memorative velocity” as an important concept for both memory studies and the environmental humanities. In addition to this, Ann Rigney’s idea of the “relay station” is essential for my project and potentially useful for a wide variety of scholarly interests. According to Rigney, relay stations are memory sites that work across media, discursive genres, and practices and can become “collective points of reference for individuals inhabiting different locations” (350). For me, the term seems to capture the way memory works in a global society networked by a variety of transportation and communication infrastructures. Relay stations are everywhere. A particularly memorable one I encountered while traveling from Alaska to Oregon by car was the Watson Lake Signpost Forest, a collection of roughly 72,000 signs from all over the world: license plates, road signs, and name plates posted by global travelers passing through this sparsely populated zone in the middle of rural Canada. Because of its position as a rest stop on a cross-continental highway, the forest is a monument to global petrocapitalism and a relay station of global transportation memory and fossil fuel infrastructure.
For the purposes of my project, I understand the fallout shelter as a relay station for nuclear memory, particularly because it slips into a variety of globally-dispersed contemporary media—novels, films, television shows, games—and becomes a reference point for how we repress awareness of our use of nuclear power and the possibility of future use of nuclear weapons.
Are there any recent or forthcoming conferences, exhibitions, or other events that you are particularly enthusiastic about?
I am very excited that the next Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) biennial conference will be held in Portland, Oregon, a city I love and traveled to frequently as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. I was not able to attend last year’s conference, but now that it is being held a little closer to home, I should be able to enjoy it and connect more closely with the environmental humanities community. I do not yet know where a career in academia will take me, but somewhere in the Pacific Northwest of the United States would certainly be nice.
Bond, Lucy. “‘In the eyeblink of a planet you were born, died, and your bones disintegrated’: Scales of Mourning and Velocities of Memory in Philipp Meyer’s American Rust.” Textual Practice, vol. 31, no. 5, 2017, pp. 995-1016.
Heise, Ursula. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: Environmental Imagination of the Global. Oxford UP, 2008.
Rigney, Ann. “The Dynamics of Remembrance: Texts Between Monumentality and Morphing.” Cultural Memory Studies: An International Interdisciplinary Handbook, edited by Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning. Walter de Gruyter, 2008, pp. 345-53.
Interview conducted via email by Mahlu Mertens.