Elemental America (special issue of ZAA)

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
University of Konstanz

Elemental America

A special issue of ZAA Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik: A Quarterly of Language, Literature, and Culture (http://www.zaa.uni-tuebingen.de)

Guest Editors:

Moritz Ingwersen, American Studies, University of Konstanz,

Timo Müller, American Studies, University of Konstanz

This special issue seeks to address the construction of American subjectivities and cultural narratives by tracing the material elements that sustain and suffuse them. Many American foundation narratives center on the struggle of a bounded heroic individual against the unruly forces of a “natural” environment that taunts and incites fantasies of human mastery, control, and containment. As the nation’s primordial adversary, the elemental world of wind, ocean, heat, or dust is itself a participant, or collective of participants, in the production of America as a material-semiotic entity. Long before the interpellation of the human as a geologic subject and namesake of the Anthropocene, the elements had already been on the inside of frontier, house, engine, lung, and cell. Who are these elemental intruders, cohabitants, boundary-crossers, and “strange strangers” (Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought [Harvard UP, 2010] 15) that traverse American narratives of progress and exposure?

         Recent proposals to think with the elements—from Cohen and Duckert’s “elemental ecocriticism” to Peters’ and Parikka’s work on “elemental media” and Macauley’s “elemental philosophy”—have revisited the Empedoclean quartet of water, air, earth, and fire to address the shifting material affinities, affects, and motilities that connect global climatological forces to cultural production and emplaced material ecologies. Building on such approaches, this special issue examines American literature and culture as both constitutive of and constituted by the elements, which, following Cohen and Duckert, we understand as “the perceivable foundations of which worlds are composed, the animated materialities with and through which life thrives” (Elemental Ecocriticism [U of Minnesota P, 2015] 13). Both “ultradeep” (Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil [Oxford UP, 2014] 6)) and multiscalar, elemental America reveals itself in the volatile poietic capacities of floods, blizzards, earthquakes, and wildfires. It also takes shape in recent additions to the periodic table like Tennessine or Livermorium (respectively named after an American state and city). As “storied matter” (Cohen in Serenella Iovino & Serpil Oppermann (eds), Material Ecocriticism [Indiana UP, 2014] 6), elements are not an ontological given or passive background but the products and producers of cultural texts and material metaphors. Put in the registers of elemental media theory, they are infrastructural operators that connect. 

         Accessing America via its elements both expands and departs from canonical investigations of American encounters with “nature” in that the environment is apprehended “disanthropocentrically” (Cohen), highlighting material dimensions that ground, envelop, and decenter cultural production. An elemental perspective encourages questions such as: How do American texts follow and shape elemental trajectories such as those that lead from Lithium mines to Silicon Valley to toxic landfills? Whose political voices—human and nonhuman—are amplified or silenced in economies of cotton, corn, carbon, or cobalt? How does the distribution of and exposure to American elements highlight issues of environmental racism and justice? Which images of American identity emerge from transcorporeal exposure to the elemental world of wind, ice, atmosphere, toxins, and oil spills? What are the cultural and literary traces of anthropogenic radioactive isotopes like Strontium90, the lead in Michigan’s waters, or America’s plastisphere? 

         Building on such questions, we invite contributions that unfold American culture from its elements—be they oil, wood, plastic, plutonium, helium, ocean, concrete, superstorms, or others. We specifically encourage engagements with theoretical directions in fields that include but are not limited to the energy humanities, petrocultures, environmental media theory, the blue humanities, materialist ecocriticism, science and technology studies, critical infrastructure studies, ecofeminism, and new materialism.

We encourage proposals on a wide variety of literary genres and artistic media that include music, land art, performance activism, photography, design, and painting. Contributors might address but should not feel constrained by the following themes:


-   nonhuman modes of storytelling

-   the cultural agency of the elements

-   the elemental unconscious in ecohorror, climate fiction, new weird, and science fiction, etc.

-   pollution, toxicity, and radioactivity

-   trans-corporeality and exposure

-   resource extraction and environmental justice

-   petromodernity and speculative energy futures

-   nature writing and landscape painting

-   site-specificity and situated knowledges

-   thinking through and designing with seawater, wind, atmosphere, dust, etc.

-   Indigenous narratives of more-than-human relations

-   Anthropocene, climate change, ecotopia, and post-apocalypse

-   the life cycles of consumer objects and geological media

-   the aesthetics of coal, oil, steel, and plastic

-   environmental politics and activism


Please send a proposal (400 words) and a brief biographical note (100 words) to moritz.ingwersen@uni-konstanz.de and timo.mueller@uni-konstanz.de by September 30, 2020.  

The special issue is scheduled to appear in spring 2022. Completed articles (of approximately 5000 words) will be due in April 2021.