This is not the first time Kristen Angierski ’12 has been an enrolled student at Cornell. Before the fourth-year English PhD student began studying climate change fiction and ecogothic aesthetics in 2014, Angierski had received her BA in English from Cornell in 2012. In between, she received her master’s degree from SUNY Buffalo, near her hometown.
In high school, Angierski found solace in books and enjoyed her English courses, but applied to Cornell as an undergraduate archaeology and French major. “I got here and did the work, but I would always procrastinate by reading novels. It was a sign. I should be studying literature because that’s where my heart is. The rest is history,” Angierski reminisces.
A Growing Interest in Eco-Literature
While a master’s student at SUNY Buffalo, she discovered her passion for eco-criticism—literary criticism that takes the natural world into account. This, paired with her love of animals and environmental politics, inspired her to pursue doctoral study in the environmental humanities.
Angierski knew that a plethora of resources would be available to her at Cornell, a leading university in environmental research with a well-established English PhD program. While it is somewhat unusual for an undergraduate English major to be accepted back into the PhD program at Cornell, Angierski was the perfect fit.
“I think the English department here is remarkable. The program gives you the freedom to kind of do whatever you want to do, to take classes in whichever department you like. This is especially helpful for my interdisciplinary style of research. The faculty is also very supportive and open; they put their trust in you as a scholar,” Angierski says.
“I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted to do after receiving my master’s. I knew that I wanted to think ecologically about literature and become a part of that ever-growing community here,” says Angierski, who stressed that blending every aspect of oneself into the work one wants to do is needed to get through the gruelling process of obtaining a PhD. “Passion pulls you through the tougher moments.”
Cli-Fi, Climate Change Fiction
Angierski’s research at Cornell centers on climate change fiction—cli-fi, for short. “It’s different from, but indebted to, traditional science fiction, which may or may not have an ecological focus. I am especially interested in novels and films that have been made in the past 20 years, including movies like The Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Witch,” says Angierski.
Angierski’s work examines how the literary world is responding to environmental instability, especially climate change but eco-disasters as well. More specifically, she works on the Gothic aesthetics of cli-fi, identifying patterns in the fiction and thinking about why they might matter ecologically, politically, and culturally.
One important aspect of Angierski’s research is that it bridges the gap between scientific data and artistic production—for a political purpose. “Climate change and its future are hard to see, to imagine, to feel (here in Ithaca, at least). If you look around today, the sun is shining, the sky is blue. Nothing appears obviously wrong. Climate change fiction and film can fill in this imaginative gap in a way that data alone cannot,” explains Angierski.
Fear and Occulture in Contemporary Culture
The day-to-day work of cli-fi and ecogothic research involves lots of reading, from climate change fiction, to literary ecocriticism, to archival reading in Cornell’s Witchcraft archive. Angierski’s first dissertation chapter is on the figure of the witch and witchcraft in cli-fi. Angierski thinks a lot about how cli-fi relies on the legacy of Gothic literature—which consists of things, such as ghosts, haunted mansions, witches, zombies—and tries to understand why it matters. Fear might be part of the answer.
Indeed, Angierski also studies fear and its political potential, resisting the knee jerk assumption in some critical circles that fear is always, inherently bad.
“You look at something like the resurging interest in witch occulture and craft right now, especially among young women, and it’s not accidental. In a fear-filled age, we turn to fearsome figures for guidance, for solace, for resistance.”
“The escalation of environmental and political volatility in this country and elsewhere causes fear, especially for marginalized people. I think you look at something like the resurging interest in witch occulture and craft right now, especially among young women, and it’s not accidental. In a fear-filled age, we turn to fearsome figures for guidance, for solace, for resistance,” Angierski says.
Gothic themes—tarot cards, crystals, spells—are much more prevalent in contemporary culture than one might assume. A quick Instagram search makes it clear that interest in witchy magic is widespread. “I examine these pop culture manifestations of occulture, which often have a natural component like using certain herbs for spells, and ask what it might be saying about ecological politics,” says Angierski.
Ironically, one positive aspect to Angierski’s research on ecogothic as a genre is that it has the potential to teach its readers about coping with fear. Ecogothic fiction can theorize a counter-intuitive politics of acceptance in the current political landscape.
“Fear can be productive rather than paralysing. A lot of ecogothic fiction isn’t really about overcoming fear or coming out of disaster absolutely okay; it’s not about the happy ending. It often, like Gothic fiction, is ambivalent. That state of ambivalence, existing with the terrors of climate change for instance, is something that can actually be politically productive,” Angierski says.
Angierski was at first surprised by the prevalence of supernatural themes in climate change fiction, a genre one might expect to be predominantly realist. “You wouldn’t necessarily open a book about climate change expecting ghosts, witches, spells—seeing the supernatural all over the natural. But there it was,” explains Angierski.
In Addition to Research in the Environmental Humanities
When Angierski isn’t knee-deep in literature, she enjoys going for a hike, visiting the local SPCA, or watching horror films with her cat, Milo. Angierski, with a fellow graduate student, also began an environmental humanities reading group on campus.
One of the most rewarding aspects about getting a PhD is teaching the next generation of undergraduates at Cornell. “Teaching about climate change and animal rights is a means by which I make, I think, a real impact—one that grows exponentially as my students talk to their peers and parents about the issues we study in class,” says Angierski.
Although Angierski despises the word trendy, she concedes that the type of work she is doing is becoming increasingly popular and, perhaps unfortunately, important. “Occasionally, the humanities are looked at by the sciences as mere communication, but the environmental humanities are far more complicated than that. I believe the sciences and humanities really need each other, especially now, in the face of climate change. We need art and data, and data as art—a genuine alliance that, while it might not save us, it can maybe help us imagine how to adapt, creatively and ethically,” says Angierski.