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Jennifer Carlson

Overview

Jennifer Carlson (A.M., University of Chicago; Ph.D., University of Texas) is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the energy humanities. Her research focuses on the relationship between energy infrastructure, public feeling and environmental action, particularly in the United States and Germany. Her book project Unruly Energies (Duke University Press) shows how sentiment shapes public engagement with—and surprising forms of exclusion from—sustainable development in the Energiewende, a national transition to renewable energy. In addition to lecturing in anthropology at Southwestern University, Jennifer is a visiting research fellow at Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences, and recently held a Carson Writing Fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich. 

Research Focus

Denial’s Authority: The Cultural Force of Environmental Ambivalence in “Illiberal” Times

While a majority of North Americas and EU citizens agree that climate change is real and driven by human activity, recent elections in the US, United Kingdom, and now Germany have elevated populist leaders who would enshrine climate denialism as public policy. My project explores the social dynamics at the heart of this contradiction, asking how expressions of climate denialism in public culture become authoritative, attracting popular sympathy or support that undermines efforts at climate remediation. Complacency with climate denial stems not simply from “low information” or a willingness to overlook environmental problems in favor of other political projects, but also—and, I argue, pervasively—from a popular affinity for denial as an aesthetic phenomenon. My project asks how denial could become something that people vote for, how climate denialism intersects with gender, race, and class, and how people who embrace denialism simultaneously make sense of ecological precarity.

In my prior research on ambivalence in Germany’s energy transition, I found that expressions of denial speak less to an embrace of factless irrationality and more to emergent forms of authority not articulated in terms of empirical science or liberal democratic politics. As “merchants of doubt” peddle skepticism about climate concerns on behalf of industry polluters, I ask how skepticism is authorized in everyday life, as people aware of global warming take up anti-environmentalist discourse in mundane interactions and expressive culture. This project lends critical nuance to debates on reactionary or “illiberal” politics in the West by exploring how economic instability and social inequality are negotiated through contagious aesthetics. This work will refine existing findings on the social underpinnings of climate denial exploring how complacency with climate change articulates with a rising tide of political authoritarianism in avowedly democratic states. Recent political developments beg the question of how the negation of established values—Hegel’s “labor of the negative”—works as an authorizing process, giving freight to entirely new (or newly recombined) regimes of value and understanding. As I follow this process through cultural analysis, I hope to theorize new ways of communicating about climate change in a rapidly degrading, still-living world.

Departments/Programs

  • Society for the Humanities

Publications

  • “Eagleville,” Inventing Place, Southern Illinois Press, forthcoming April 2018. Edited by Casey Boyle and Jenny Rice.
  • “Making a Case for the Green Good Life,” Somatosphere, March 2016.
  • “The Legibilities of Mood Work,” New Formations 82 (2014), 114-133. With Kathleen Stewart.