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

Goessling, Jacob. “Appalachian Coal Culture and the Residue of Fossil Capital, 1968-Present.” PhD Diss., Carnegie Mellon University, 2019.


Brief Dissertation Abstract

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 tends to emphasize how culture is maintained through financial markets and consumer practices. Little scholarly attention has been given to contemporary cultural formations in regions shaped by and through extractive industries.

I consider coal waste products such as slurry, ash, and acid mine drainage as important social processes that reproduce 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 environments in extractive regions such as Appalachia. 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. 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.