Bookshelf with AQ Issues

Energy Pasts and Futures in American Studies

A proposed special issue of American Quarterly

Edited by Natasha Zaretsky (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale), Michael Ziser (University of California, Davis), and Julie Sze (University of California, Davis)

In June 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that recorded carbon dioxide levels had exceeded 410 parts per million. This marked the sixth consecutive year of steep increases in global concentrations of greenhouse gases, a sign that humans are currently burning through fossil fuels at a rate that exceeds the planet’s capacity to absorb emissions. The accelerating threat of catastrophic climate change is one part of a contemporary crisis of petro-capitalism in which current modes of resource extraction, capitalist production, mass consumption, transportation, distribution, and disposal are destabilizing the planet’s ecological systems. This crisis—at once environmental, economic, political, cultural, and social—demands a new interdisciplinary, humanities-centered approach to the study of energy.

This proposed special issue calls on American studies scholars to explore the place of energy in our field and to deepen our collective understanding of energy as a conceptual, analytic category. Throughout the history of the United States, the emergence of distinct energy regimes (such as steam, coal, oil, and nuclear) and energy transitions have been intertwined with other histories that are at the center of our discipline. These histories include but are in no way limited to the following: capitalist expansion, racial capitalism, regimes of accumulation, labor, and the commodity form; resource extraction, territorial dispossession, and indigeneity; Fordism, post-Fordism, and the rise of mass consumption; US militarism and imperialism; gender and social reproduction; posthumanism and the relationship between human and nonhuman agency; and the racial, class, and regional dimensions of public health and environmental risk.

The aim of this volume is to uncover and probe the hidden history of energy—what we call an “energy unconscious”—in American studies and to explore how distinct energy regimes and imaginaries have shaped the nation’s social, cultural, affective, literary, and political life. We also hope to examine how the search for extractive resources (such as fossil fuels and uranium) have structured and mediated relations of power, both within the territorial boundaries of the nation and between the United States and other parts of the world. The volume will not be limited to a particular time period or any single energy regime. While we encourage scholars to submit essays that explore the social, political, and cultural dimensions of oil (what has come to be called “petroculture”), we are also interested in essays that look at other energy forms, including steam, coal, nuclear, and renewables.

This volume is driven by a sense of political urgency, and we welcome submissions that are written in that spirit. Its goal is to bring American studies into fuller dialogue with the emergent interdisciplinary field of energy humanities, which proceeds from the premise that artists, writers, activists, and scholars within the humanities have a vital role to play in taking up the ethical, political, and cultural challenges posed by the environmental and energy crises of our time.

  • Emergence of energy as a scientific concept; intellectual histories of energy
  • Space, place, and the mapping of energy infrastructures
  • Representations of energy in US art, literature, television, film, and music
  • Energy in science fiction and climate fiction
  • Petroculture and literary/cultural representations of oil
  • Energy transitions in US history
  • “Fossil capitalism,” racial capitalism, labor history, and the commodity form
  • Animal studies and relations between human and nonhuman agency
  • Resource extraction, territorial dispossession, and indigenous rights
  • The quest for energy resources, US militarism, empire building, and hegemony
  • Mobility, car culture, and oil in the twentieth century
  • Intersections between environmental justice and indigenous rights/climate justice and pipeline struggles (e.g., Keystone XL and Standing Rock)
  • Climate change and the Anthropocene
  • Renewable energies (wind, sun, water) 
  • Atomic history, the Cold War, and nuclear power debates
  • Transnational politics of energy waste and disposal
  • Energy booms and busts
  • Green capitalism and corporate green-washing
  • Sustainability, conservation, and multispecies management
  • Energy-related accidents and disasters
  • Energy predictions, utopias, and dystopias

Essays of up to ten thousand words are due August 1, 2019. Authors must address the guest editors and clearly indicate in a cover letter that the submission is intended for the 2020 special issue. Information about American Quarterly and submission guidelines can be found at

Post date: April 1, 2019

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