Carnegie Mellon University

Appalachian Coal Culture and the Residue of Fossil Capital, 1968-Present

Author: Jacob Goessling

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2019

In Appalachian Coal Culture and the Residue of Fossil Capital, 1968-Present, I examine literary and visual representations of coal waste in contemporary American culture. Though much has been written on energy and culture, most energy humanities scholarship emphasizes the dominant social formations of a global petroculture, a perspective which emphasizes how this culture is maintained through financial speculation and consumption. Little scholarly attention has been given to contemporary cultural formations in regions that have been shaped by and through extractive industries. As a result, energy humanities scholarship fails to account for the particular experiences of communities that have long fought against social and environmental inequality and for environmental justice, much less what such perspectives contribute to a world experiencing climate change.

I consider coal waste products such as slurry, ash, and acid mined drainage as important social processes that support to the reproduction of fossil capital. By treating waste as both product and process, I demonstrate that coal waste is a significant material force that devalues people, communities, and environmental in extractive regions such as Appalachia. By engaging with documentary film, fiction, photography, studio art, and landscape design, I argue that expressions of coal waste enable audiences to see the material, social, and historical structures of fossil capital. Across these cultural texts, coal waste connects similar experiences of environmental violence across time and place. In works like the documentary film Sludge, Ann Pancake’s novel Strange as this Weather Has Been, J Henry Fair’s photography project Industrial Scars, John Sabraw’s painting series Chroma, and the AMD & Art acid mine drainage reclamation project, I show that coal waste permeates local identity and historical memory. Ultimately, my dissertation shows that cultural representations of coal waste trace fossil capital’s structures that have been built onto the landscape. By situating Appalachia’s particular experience of fossil capital in the context of the need for a global energy transition, my dissertation illuminates the crucial intersection of energy, waste, and contemporary environmental criticism.