Date of Award

5-2012

Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

History

Advisor

Richard W. Judd

Second Committee Member

Nathan Godfried

Third Committee Member

Justin Wolff

Abstract

The thesis describes the interactions between humans and the environment over time through the analysis of specific cultural texts. Artistic media coevolve with technological advancements; this discourse is further mediated both by and within an environmental contextualization. For example, nineteenth-century landscape painting was made possible in part by the rise of the railroads; the train naturally became a central figure within the boundaries of the canvas. Both art and technology were employed as symbols of an optimistically progressive nationalism; this exhortation of progress as both necessary and desirable was most overtly manifested within the material and ideological landscape. However, the alternative strand of Romanticism also depended upon the reverence of nature in the protest against the possible environmental (or moral, or spiritual, or economic) costs of unmitigated progress. The discourse between these two strands of thought was bound to the land and the frontier; the shift in geographical and environmental reality produced a parallel shift in the American environmental consciousness. One hundred years later, the artistic medium, the technological manifestations, and the material and ideological landscape had all changed drastically, but the discourses of progress and perspectives continued in much the same fashion as before. The ascendant science fiction genre of the post-World War II era was centrally concerned with technological manifestations such as the atomic bomb, the spaceship, and the computer; there was a concomitant evolution between art and technology behind the camera as well. Again, these shifts in the discourse between art and technology were reflected and refracted within the larger environmental perspective; Americans crossed new geographical and ideological frontiers simultaneously. More specifically, the mastery of nuclear technology coincided with a consolidation of geopolitical power; the last vestiges of the landed frontier had been conquered. But this foray into previously uncharted territory also contained a palpable danger, and the resulting anxiety was most cogently expressed within the science fiction films of the fifties. In turn, as humanity broke from its terrestrial bonds and started to explore outer space, there was an identifiable current of optimism in the power of technology and the ability to traverse any frontier; but the newfound Archimedean perspective also forced humanity to turn and look back upon itself and the world from which it had come, revealing the urgency of impending ecological disaster. Moving from the landscapes of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, and on into the desert, the city, and outer space, the thesis uses the sublime spectacles created within specific cultural texts such as The Course of Empire, Them!, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Soylent Green to mark the development of the discourse of progress and the evolution of the American environmental movement. In short, specific technologies coevolve with their cultural counterparts, reflecting and refracting the orientation of the broader assemblages, altering both the materiality and ideology of the American perspective, and etching an environmental history into the multiplicitous entity of landscape.

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