on Against Sustainability

December 2023

In December 2022, graduate students Karah Mitchell (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Max Laitman Chapnick (Boston University) and Rachael DeWitt (University of California Davis) spoke with Michelle Neely, Associate Professor of English, Director of American Studies at Connecticut College about her monograph Against Sustainability: Reading Nineteenth-Century America in the Age of Climate Crisis (Fordham University Press, 2020). 

Against Sustainability explores sustainability's underlying logics of consumption and extraction through its uses and abuses in the nineteenth century. With chapters that pair nineteenth-century authors with more contemporary writers, Neely surveys a series of sustainability “paradigms” like recycling and conservation. Neely critiques the ethics of these paradigms, showing the ways they often perpetuate the problems they nominally seek to mitigate.  Neely talked about the project’s development from dissertation to book, the generative intersection between literary studies and environmental critique, and the relationship between pedagogy and scholarship. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachael DeWitt (RD): As graduate students, we’re curious how your book project began, and the process of transformation between dissertation and book. How did you convert single- or double-author chapters to the wider clusters of text that organize this book?

Michelle Neely (MN): What's that line that Emerson said about Whitman? That there must have been a long foreground? The answer to this is that there was a long foreground. In graduate school, one of the things that I did right  was just “following my weird.” 

When it was time to pick a dissertation topic, I remember I wanted to work on animals, because I had a background as a teenage animal rights activist. As I was reading for my qualifying exams, I just kept noticing pets everywhere, and animals, and everybody I was reading was vegetarian and not just in a sort of goofy eighteenth-century-health way, but they were actually talking about things in ways that were in interesting relationships to the present. In case I couldn’t [write on animals], I came up with some really conventional, super boring dissertation topic. I remember I took both of my ideas to my advisor, Elisa Tamarkin, and thank God, she was like, “Oh, the animals, absolutely the animals one!” 

Then I got a postdoc after graduate school where I was at the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto. They have different themes every year. My year was food, and so I spent a year as a “food studies person” in really beautiful interdisciplinary conversation. And then, when I got my job, that was kind of the first time someone said, “No, you're the environmental humanities person.” That was some of the framing of the job that I got, and the teaching that I started doing was in environmental humanities, animal studies, food studies…. And so I just started offering classes. It broadened the frame of what I was doing. During the postdoc and my first couple of years, I wasn't thinking very much about the dissertation–I did kind of set it aside. I was working on two shorter food studies pieces during my postdoc, and some of the food study stuff landed in the introduction years later, much to my surprise, as well as the stuff about pastoralism, and I didn't think that had anything to do with the book project at all. So I really set the dissertation aside, and these layers of the framing changed–I didn't even totally realize it at the time. I think I was out in California having lunch with Elisa, and she was like, it sounds like the framing of the project has really changed. It sounds like it's an environmental studies project. And I was like, Oh, yeah! 

And so what changed a lot from the dissertation was the framing, but it was also the chapters. The dissertation chapters were really single-author chapters originally. There was a chapter on Thoreau, and there was a chapter on Whitman, and there was a chapter on Hannah Crafts. What happened is I started teaching these classes, and I found that in the classes I wanted to organize my syllabus in dialogic ways, where I was taking two texts or clusters of texts that were all thinking about a similar topic, and having students read them, so that they were reading these sort of staged dialogues, and eventually that was just what happened to the book itself, that became a kind of methodological organizing device that that structured it. So a lot of that came from my teaching. I sometimes feel like if I'd landed in a different place, a place where I had to teach a bunch of historical surveys, instead of the thematic seminars that I teach at a small liberal arts college, I sometimes think I might have ended up writing a different book. 

Karah Mitchell (KM): I really love hearing how much your teaching shaped this book. So often it feels like it can be so difficult to bring one’s research and teaching together.

MN: So, I teach this seminar on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and their literary afterlives. I'm teaching it right now, actually, and one of the strangest things I've observed is sometimes the way that I organize the particular poems that I put together in particular clusters– the way I kind of stage Lucille Clifton as a literary afterlife, and it's not anything I say, but it's literally just the way that the poems I'm having them read and the places I'm putting them, the students end up replicating my arguments in the book, which they've never read, about Lucille Clifton, and what I argue about Emily Dickinson and desire, and it's deeply weird. So yeah, teaching it works both ways. Strangely. 

RD: That's how you know you didn't just make it up!

MN: Which was nice actually in relation to Whitman in particular!

Max Laitman Chapnick (MLC): Speaking of Whitman, in your book there's sort of an anti-Whitman argument. 

MN: So this is where I distinguish between practices and paradigms. In the book, what I'm talking about really is the paradigm of recycling as something that encourages a fantasy that we can consume endlessly without consequence. Because we'll just recycle, and so it's the thing that makes it possible to imagine unlimited consumption. And for me, Whitman is the ultimate spokesperson for that, because he imagines a consequence-free, endless consumption. Precisely because his devices are sort of metaphysical, and also sometimes literal. 

For me, that confidence that he displays that we can consume endlessly, and the earth, the universe, poetry will endlessly recycle such that we can just keep consuming, keep consuming, keep consuming. I think he's really in some ways the spokesperson for the zeitgeist that we actually live with. 

I have mixed feelings about Whitman. He's a complicated figure, so I'm not a Whitman hater at all. And in fact, this semester in a senior seminar I'm teaching, my students hated Whitman. They were reading Whitman lines out loud and laughing at him, and I was the one who had to say “no, no, this is so beautiful.” I was positioned as the Whitman lover, who had to figure out how to bring them around to seeing what's special about Whitman. 

I guess what interested me is how Whitman has been seen as an ecocritical poet, and the way that that can coexist with this logic of just eating everything, consuming everything, taking it all in forever. There's a logic of endless consumption that I see. And so for me, that becomes really clear when you put him into conversation with Lucille Clifton, who, I think, is self-consciously rewriting these aspects of Whitman in ways that really throw them into relief.

RD: That's awesome. I wonder if you could just talk a bit more about your central concept of “sustainability.” Seeing that the book is structured around negative examples and positive examples of sustainability, I wonder if you could talk about how that structures your thinking and also the concept of what is “sustainability.” What is it you're offering there for environmental discourse?

MN: One of the last things to come for me, and for a lot of people, is actually the framing. For me, it was realizing that what I was talking about was environmental paradigms. It took me a lot of revision time to realize that – and even calling it “against sustainability” was late. And so you know, the book is “against sustainability,” because sustainability is for me the epitome of the guiding environmental paradigm that is about continuity with everything that is. And I believe that what we actually need is radical transformation, and that we can't believe that radical transformation is possible. 

There's that super famous Frederick Jameson line that everybody loves, including me: “It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” The lack of imagination is actually our central problem. We have the answers that we need to a lot of things. We just literally don't believe that we can enact them. We don't believe in transformation. In the end I was trying to talk about the ways in which these paradigms of recycling and preservation actually perpetuate the problem. But I wasn't interested in writing a book that was just down with recycling, down with preservation. I had an intuition of the texts that I wanted to put together before I understood what they were, what they were saying to each other, or the ways in which they could talk to each other. Paradigms came so late. None of the paradigms that I put forward as being about transformation are ideal–I think I call them “meantime environmental ethics” or something. I’m very clear that they're not for all places or for all times or for all situations. I think of that José Muñoz line regarding “the . . . illumination of a horizon.” That was ultimately what I became really interested in, and what I'm still interested in are things that feel like illuminations of a horizon.

KM: So to what degree would you say that this book is a polemic? Is that how you would characterize it? There’s also a lot of discussion now regarding public-facing humanities. To what degree do you view this book as a public-facing monograph?

MN: Stylistically it's an academic book, and part of that is just the reality of writing a first book. I sometimes joke that my methodology is “weird but sincere”–I’m driven by ethical questions. I appreciate that there is room in our discipline for a lot of different kinds of work. I have given talks about this book to a kind of general audience. I like having written the book that I wrote for our scholarly audience. But then I also like being able to communicate the information or the ideas to a general public– I've given talks at art museums and similar places, and it was really fun to take these arguments and present them to a broader audience.

MLC: Can you talk a little bit about the Emily Dickinson chapter? And this idea of joyful frugality in relation to her own social status?

MN: What interests me is not the historical living conditions of Emily Dickinson or Henry David Thoreau, but more how their work helps reframe the whole question of consumption. What's so interesting to me is the way in which Dickinson says, “there is no satisfaction. There is no getting the thing.”  It's what we would now call the hedonistic treadmill. Right? She's talking about the fact that getting the thing is not actually the moment of joy or satisfaction. It's the moment just before. And so it becomes this reveling in desire that's a little bit queer and almost masochistic, you could say, if you wanted to use that term about this sort of mingling of pleasure, with a little bit of pain of not having this thing. That's actually the best feeling you're ever gonna have in relation to the object of your desire. 

KM: For those who will be reading this interview and who may not have read the book, can you provide a bit of a recap of what “radical pet keeping” means?

MN: I was thinking about the scenes of pet keeping in Hannah Crafts The Bond Woman's Narrative, and in Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, where counterintuitively the closeness of an enslaved or indentured pet keeper and their dog, their nonhuman pet, is insisted upon–not just depicted, but insisted upon. The enslaved woman Rose and her little white dog are described in terms that emphasize their closeness and that trouble the species boundary. This troubles distinctions that in most other anti-racist and anti-slavery, especially Black-authored writings, in the period emphasize the boundary between the human and the animal. They emphasize how one of the techniques of white supremacy is to put non-white individuals, and especially Black individuals, on the other side of a human-animal divide. 

This chapter started with the observation that there's something really different happening in these scenes. As I explored these scenes I started thinking about the Combahee River Collective’s claim that “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” I started feeling like that's illustrated here: the interactions give the lie to white supremacy by exposing a spurious logic of speciesism. The dehumanizing treatment and the extreme violence being inflicted upon these humans, who are being dehumanized, is attacked by humanizing their pets and insisting that this treatment is not even acceptable for non-human animals. And so it gives the lie to all of these white supremacist visions of community and racist and sexist techniques of exclusion. It does this through these scenes of multi-species community and care between pet-keeper and their beloved pets.

KM: Your book in many ways builds to this idea of radical pet keeping, and there you return to the Anthropocene as a term, even though you point out the limitations of it. You point out how to some degree we become these planetary pet keepers. As a pet owner and someone obsessed with her pets, and who spends lots of money on her pets, I think a lot about how the pet industry itself is implicated in these larger capitalocentric developments. Can you talk a bit about how we can be radical pet keepers while also, of course, being stuck to some degree within this paradigm of the problems of the pet industry? (For example, we can think about how pet food and pet toys are made.) 

MN: Great question. As I write, I’m interested in writing myself into places where I feel personally provoked or unsettled or uncomfortable. The idea of being planetary pet keepers is uncomfortable, if not distasteful. Conservation biologists talk about how many threatened wild species actually are depending upon intensive human management of their habitat. They're managing their food sources, breeding, predators, and so on to ensure their survival. Conservation biologists estimate that eighty-four percent of the species listed under the Endangered Species Act are actually conservation-reliant–which means, if we humans stopped managing all of the things I just mentioned that we manage, they will go extinct right? So we have to sit with that and realize that we're already in this situation to some degree. 

Then that's where a “meantime environmental ethics” of radical pet keeping becomes interesting because the alternatives are 1) we do nothing or 2) we embrace the paradigm of domestication. Which is actually something that a lot of a lot of people are doing: embracing the paradigm of domestication. And I think that paradigm has a lot of problems, but I think radical pet keeping (especially the kind of radical pet keeping that you see in Hannah Crafts and Harriet Wilson and people like Donna Haraway as well) provides a way to think about a problem that's already there. We don't get to choose the circumstances that we find ourselves in. And so how do we respond to it? A lot depends on how we approach any of these ideas, right? 

One of the things that interested me about compost, for example, is how people have really embraced the idea. There are writers that I really respect, Haraway included, who have really embraced the idea of compost and taken it as a really promising paradigm. It’s not so much that I disagree with that work–I would distinguish between compost and recycling a little bit–but I think we have to be careful in the way that we're thinking about compost and the kind of recycling and regeneration that we expect compost to make possible. We have to think about the work that recycling has done to perpetuate the problem that compost would be responding to. I would say the same thing about pet keeping as an environmental paradigm. There are all kinds of dicey things that come with it, and it wouldn't have been the paradigm that I would have chosen, but it was one that I found.

Michelle C. Neely is Associate Professor of English, Director of American Studies, and affiliated faculty in Environmental Studies at Connecticut College. Her scholarship has appeared in or is forthcoming in venues such as American Literature, Thoreau in Context (Cambridge University Press), and The Oxford Handbook of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Oxford University Press). Her first book, Against Sustainability: Reading Nineteenth-Century America in the Age of Climate Crisis (Fordham University Press, 2020), explores environmental paradigms emergent during the nineteenth-century in light of both nineteenth and twenty-first century struggles for racial and ecological justice. She is at work on a new project about nineteenth-century U.S. literature and utopian possibilities.