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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - David Shaw, English

Terrestrial Realism: Climate Fiction Beyond Liberal Humanism

Date & time
Monday, May 9, 2022 (all day)

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Daniela Ferrer



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


The rise of the Anthropocene in the public imaginary has coincided with the emergence of a particular mode of realism in contemporary fiction that self-consciously struggles against its own tendency toward anthropocentrism. As this dissertation argues, this turn positions contemporary realism as a particularly generative literary mode for addressing the Anthropocene: This project builds on a conception of realism described by Fredric Jameson, for whom realism is a literary mode that emerges in the tension between narrative and immediate experience. Thus, if the present moment is one characterized by a kind of anxious preoccupation with the struggle to articulate the human’s newfound position as an agent of geological impact, then realism, in the Jamesonian sense, seems well situated as a site in which one could encounter alternative modes of articulating the human’s relationship to the rest of the planet. This contention is substantiated through an examination of the theoretical intersection of literary realism and the Anthropocene, followed by a series of close readings of novels in which this literary mode, which I’ve termed “terrestrial realism,” is generatively deployed. Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior illustrate the problematics of comprehending climatological scale, Jenny Offill’s Weather and Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle dramatize the uneven distribution of pressures exerted by environmental change, and Richard Powers’ The Overstory explores the possibility of kinship between humanity and nonhuman life. In each case, the terrestrial realism of these novels works to subvert the anthropocentric individualism that is so often seen as a dominant characteristic of the realist novel and demonstrate realism’s utility in articulating a mode of fiction that can escape the anthropocentric constraints of liberal humanism and bring itself back down to earth.

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