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Other Frontiers: Administrative Media and Intimate Domains of American Settler Futurity

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This dissertation argues that the rhetorical and material production of frontiers has remained crucial to the sustenance of American modes of futurity (ideas like progress, growth, prosperity) since the mid-twentieth century. It tracks, on the one hand, how what I call “administrative media”—literary and audiovisual objects produced by governments and corporations—have, at specific historical junctures, foreclosed environmental anxieties by propagating new frontiers of expansion. On the other hand, it examines how such foreclosures have shaped the lives of normative citizens and racialized others of the settler state.

The first chapter reinterprets the postwar era, usually conceived of as a time of abundance, under the sign of resource scarcity. Reading an influential report by the President’s Materials Policy Commission, it shows how acknowledgments of futures constituted by scarcity became occasions for envisioning frontiers of extractive growth at home and abroad. In parallel, the chapter examines how plastic flowers in the home helped normative suburban subjects stabilize scarcity-induced-anxieties by promising permanence and security from the vagaries of nature. The second chapter engages the last decade of the twentieth century when, after the Cold War, pronouncements of the end of history produced a sense of temporal unsettlement. At this time, the rhetoric of technological frontierism leveraged a nostalgic and eternal image of nature to authorize electronic futures. The chapter discerns this dynamic in a 1995 book by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, and examines how frontier nostalgia filtered into intimate domains by analyzing an iconic Microsoft desktop nature wallpaper, Bliss. The third chapter transitions into the early-twenty-first century to examine how, in the context of global ecological crises, the American state and corporations now invoke renewable energy as the “next frontier” of economic growth. Reading these claims against photojournalistic images of everyday toxicity in Los Angeles, the chapter argues that those living in the debris of energy economies, cultivate inattention as a survival strategy. Where the first two chapters zero in on the ways in which normative subjects are enrolled into foreclosures of environmental crises, the third elucidates how racial others live on in the knowledge that such foreclosures are always illusory.

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