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The Sublime as a Rhetorical Strategy in the Contemporary American Ecobiographical Memoir

  • Lombard, David André; 141790;
Publication Date
Jun 03, 2023
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In the late twentieth-century, as Jennifer Richards claims, the Wordsworthian conception of the sublime as evoking the inexpressible and overwhelming power of nature was a “revolt against rhetoric” (2008, 105). More specifically, she explains that philosopher Jean-François Lyotard embraces the sublime because it resists “technè” in favor of a more poetic approach to representation (105–106). Richards, however, highlights that both Wordsworth’s and Lyotard’s critiques could also be rhetorical (107–108), thus suggesting that the sublime constitutes a rhetoric itself. Narrative theorist James Phelan extends such considerations by introducing what he terms “rhetorical poetics,” which holds that authors use narrative materials such as narrators and techniques always with the aim to “influence their audiences in particular ways” (2017, ix). This paper will present the sublime as a rhetorical strategy that fits in the narrative project of the contemporary ecobiographical memoir, which is to represent humans’ relationship with the natural world and/or how this relationship has been impacted by recent environmental changes. The American ecobiographical memoir or "eco-memoir" traditionally continues the legacy of Henry D. Thoreau’s Walden (1854; 2012) insofar as it “involves the writing of self into place and place into self” (Lynch 2020, 119). It can also be “material” when the self is inevitably interconnected with environmental hazards (Alaimo 2010, 89). This paper shows that the American ecobiographical memoir is a promising site for exploring the various ways through which the sublime is deployed as a rhetorical (and narrative) strategy to describe humans’ relationship with an environment suffering from crises (e.g., air pollution, global warming) that conventional language fails to address because they escape perception. By means of rhetorical analyses (inspired by Phelan’s insights) of passages from Silvia Vásquez-Lavado's In the Shadow of the Mountain (2021), Steven Rinella's American Buffalo (2008) and Lindsey A. Freeman’s This Atom Bomb in Me (2019), it argues that the sublime can either be a dangerous or a useful notion depending on its reconceptualizations, one which therefore still deserves critical attention. / status: published

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