About E Cram, Ph.D.: E Cram is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and the Department of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at The University of Iowa. Dr. Cram’s innovative research brings rhetorical criticism into conversation with queer, trans, and disability studies, critical perspectives on settler colonialism, and environmental communication and cultural studies, as reflected in their first book Violent Inheritance: Sexuality, Land, and Energy in Making the North American West.
Dr. Cram’s research has been published in some of the field’s leading rhetorical criticism and cultural studies journals, including Quarterly Journal of Speech, Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies, and Philosophy & Rhetoric. Their article “‘Angie Was Our Sister:’ Witnessing the Trans-Formation of Disgust in the Citizenry of Photography,” received the Monograph of the Year Award from the GLBTQ Studies Division of the National Communication Association (NCA), as well as the Stephen Lucas Debut Publication Award from NCA.
Dr. Cram is also an accomplished editor. They were Guest Editor of the forum “Queer Trans Culture and Invention Beyond Visibility: Experiencing Cassils” in QED: A Journal in GLBTQ World-Making, to which they contributed the introduction, “Prelude to an Encounter.” They are also co-editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Queer Studies and Communication. Dr. Cram received their Ph.D. in Communication & Culture from Indiana University, their M.A. from the University of Northern Iowa in Women’s and Gender Studies, and their B.A. in Sociology and Women’s Studies from the University of Wyoming.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in environmental communication, rhetorical criticism, cultural studies, and queer theory, and begin to draw these perspectives together to examine how normative constructions of gender, sexuality, race, and ability are articulated to dominant modes of relating to the environment?
[Dr. E Cram] When I was an undergraduate, I was deeply involved with competitive debate. As for many communication people, debate is a root for me. During my undergraduate I was also very academically focused in gender studies, women’s studies, and sexuality studies. The combination of those two things put me on the path towards my master’s degree, which was at the University of Northern Iowa.
It was sort of serendipitous that I ended up working with Cate [Catherine] Palczewski at Northern Iowa, who was both in the Communication and Media and the Women’s and Gender Studies programs, and had a long debate history. She was really my guide to rhetorical criticism. My undergraduate education was primarily in gender studies and sociology, and I definitely felt like I fit with Gender Studies, but not so much sociology. I was really interested in critical theory, but also really interested in aesthetics.
When I took Cate’s rhetoric classes, something awakened in me, and I thought, “This is what I’ve been missing, this is the perspective that I really want.” I saw it as an approach towards creativity and world-making that allowed for thinking about communication in really expansive ways — ways that engage the body and embodiment, images, affects, and all sorts of things beyond speech. When I delved into my work at Northern Iowa, I was strongly focused on bodies, embodiment, and counterpublics. My master’s thesis explored the medicalization and public surveillance of fatness in the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At that moment, fat positive movements were less visible than they are now, when body positivity has really been mainstreamed.
Cate really encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D., and Indiana University’s Department of Communication and Culture stuck out to me in part because it was interdisciplinary. It focused on culture and power and, again, a truly expansive understanding of communication and rhetorical inquiry. When I was there, I was working with faculty who were deeply into cultural studies. There was also a small group of faculty who were working under the umbrella of “rural queer studies.” At that time, there was some interdisciplinary work in this area, but it was a relatively fresh conversation.
That conversation and the work of those faculty members really resonated with me because of where I grew up. I grew up mostly living outside of major cities in the United States in Colorado, Wyoming, and, for a very short time, in Oklahoma. I always describe my early exposure to practicing queer theory as an awkward experience where I had to wrestle with my lived experience in contrast to what other people in queer studies were talking about. There just was not that resonance with the rural cultures I grew up in. Because rural queer studies resonated so deeply with me in terms of emotional landscapes, environment, and connection to place, I started building community with other graduate students and faculty who were working in that area across the nation.
At that point, I started to think more critically about what we were talking about when we say rural queer studies. It is a capacious idea, and, for me, it is deeply environmental as much as it is an approach to studying queer and trans life. That is my long journey into what people call environmental cultural studies and queer ecologies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your new book is Violent Inheritance: Sexuality, Land, and Energy in Making the North American West, in which you examine the articulation of the development of racialized sexualities in the United States to dominant, settler-colonial modes of understanding, transforming, and extracting resources from the environment. Would you provide us with some background on this book project, and discuss how it maps the violent construction of the linkages between gender, sexuality, race and energy in the United States?
[Dr. E Cram] The seeds of the book are twofold. First, during my days at Indiana, I attended a workshop called Queering the Countryside, which was hosted by a faculty member in CMCL [Communication and Culture], one in Gender Studies, and another in Indigenous Studies, all at Indiana. That conference had keynote talks in addition to spaces to workshop. I workshopped the book chapter that was published in the edited collection Queering the Countryside. That workshop was formative for me, because it made me realize how, culturally, our association with the rural is really embedded in, or overdetermined by, the genre of the pastoral [traditionally, a genre in literature, art, etc., that romanticizes relationships to the land and nature such as those found in shepherding]. Coming from a Rocky Mountain perspective, the genre made sense, but I could not transpose it onto the Rocky Mountain context. Our conversations about rurality are also saturated by assumptions about regional culture. Southern styles or southern genres tend to overdetermine what we think about rurality, aesthetically and culturally.
I wanted to think about the context of the Rocky Mountain West expansively. When I was a child, my dad would always tell myths about the Rocky Mountain context and its history. He also worked for the state of Wyoming for the Department of Audit and the Department of Revenue, ensuring that mineral companies paid their taxes to the state. I grew up with an ambivalent and even agonistic relationship to the energy industry because of my dad’s bureaucratic role and because members of his family were involved in building parts of certain pipelines, working in gas plants, and other sectors of the energy industry in the mid 20th century. I had a lot of mixed feelings about growing up in Wyoming. The book was a way for me to engage these complex landscapes of emotion in ways that required that I moved outside of my experience toward thinking about the history of the West and how it was constituted through violence.
In writing the book, I had two major questions. The first was how the history and mythology of the West meet up with the history of sexuality. Asking that question is different from asking about LGBT experiences in the West, which I think is an important question, but it did not quite work for the kinds of things that I was interested in tracing. The second question was how the environment may have something to do with the way regimes of sexuality take shape over time.
If we look at the story or the history of Western settlement, one of its functions was to engineer and manage land. For example, the Department of the Interior is this huge bureaucracy that is about managing resources. It is also about managing people. Its history is in managing Indigenous people in the Americas, in addition to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. Settlement was really about engineering and managing land, water, minerals, and human and non-human bodies to make matter usable in different ways to the settler state.
The practice of making matter usable to produce value is really at the core of what energy means in a colonial and racialized capitalist context. I thought that was really striking, especially when you look at histories of sexuality. For instance, in the 19th century, the way that people were talking about sexual degeneracy in the United States was very much obsessed with energy and specifically bodily vitality. This discourse is mired in white supremacy. For them, the idea of being a vital subject is key to reproducing whiteness in a culture obsessed with degeneration.
Think of this as a precursor to the more familiar arguments about eugenics that emerge in the 20th century. For example, in Chapter 1, I detailed how the scientific and popular culture of neurasthenia — something of an umbrella diagnosis for various nervous maladies — imagined the diminishing capacity of vitality amongst white elites as a serious problem. They were concerned with how to name and target the external forces of climate, modernity, and cultural transformation they believed were responsible for a loss of vitality.
Then the question becomes, “How did they materialize this vitality? How did they make vitality? When you look at stories about Owen Wister, a famed writer of the Western myth, or President Teddy Roosevelt going west to be “cured” of neurasthenia, the West becomes a site of extraction: of making this ideal, non-degenerate sexual subject. When you start tracing that relationship to energy across different sites throughout the West, it starts to clarify how energy is an implicit logic in much of the state violence that was practiced in the Western United States in addition to Canada.
When we look at the residential school era in Canada, for example, we see a project of making Indigenous children usable to the settler nation state through multiple forms of violence. These policies and programs intended to abduct them from their families, subject them to violent reeducation, and erase their languages and identities, constituting spaces of violence and neglect that often culminated in death. The state believed their programs would also produce new agricultural workers trained in settler farming skills. In all, this was a process of extracting labor in order to make usable subjects of the nation state — extracted labor and dispossessed childhood make state energy.
Similarly, in the context of World War II Japanese incarceration, we see incarcerated labor directed to improve arid and remote lands in order to be used by settler soldiers returning from war who do not have to pay for that land. In short, Japanese American labor cultivated the agricultural potential of public lands in the West through their forced detention. That public land was then transferred to private landowners. It really cuts against this whole mythology of agrarianism, individual ingenuity, and an Anglo-American obsession with the myth of the family farm.
Although these two examples are usually marginalized in both histories of sexuality and the environment, state planners in both cases invoked arguments about sexual and racial malleability when considering the design and layout of detention centers and residential schools, their proximity or distance to other locations, and the useability of existing land for agricultural development. In both cases, space, design, and infrastructure facilitated state control of racialized sexualities — and generated value for the state through the dispossession of energy, life, and so much more.
I think that retracing these cultural histories of energy are important in imagining and materializing a broad understanding of climate justice. We are in a moment in which people talk about divesting from fossil fuels and what energy resources we will replace them with. That is an important conversation, but we also must grapple with how our cultural ideas of energy and extraction have historically been used to subjugate people, and then those ideas become naturalized into a commonsense, especially in terms of how we think about the politics of life and living.
I am interested in both denaturalizing the myth and unsettling these histories, while also attending to the ways in which these histories are already being contested through different kinds of memory practices. That memory component is vital in terms of the actual work that people can do in the present to come to grips with some of these destructive beliefs.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Violent Inheritance: Sexuality, Land, and Energy in Making the North American West, like much of your scholarship overall, is based on extensive archival research. You have written about your approach to archival work in essays like, “Archival Ambience and Sensory Memory: Generating Queer Intimacies in the Settler Colonial Archive.” Could you tell us a bit about your archival research practice, perhaps discussing the “queer archival practice” you advocate for in the article and how it challenges traditional paradigms of archival work?
[Dr. E Cram] For me, archival work is both careful historical analysis and a wellspring of creativity. That intersection is really indebted to the work that people like Chuck Morris [Charles E. Morris III] and K.J. Rawson have done around engaging archives not just as places one would go to find primary documents but also as spaces to think about the project of the archive, especially in the context of queer and trans pasts or gender and sexuality in general. The archive is so integral to how we even think about these categories of society. What I mean by that is that I am inspired by the archive itself — how it transforms into a landscape of feeling — and thinking about how the body aligns or misaligns with the archive itself.
In the contexts that I work in, oftentimes a person’s sexual identity is not always obvious, and you have to work with the ephemera that exist and think about how your awareness of the sexual field comes into being through your attention practices. One of the experiences motivating the article you mention was going through one of the largest collections at the American Heritage Center. I found that archival mistakes became these meaningful moments. You may find a letter tucked into a journal that is really not supposed to be there, or notice that the organization of the archive does not make sense. I think about how things like acquisition, classification, description, and organization all shape the ways that the bodies meet up with the archive, and how gender or sexuality become meaningful in these contexts.
So, for me, archival work is very much an inventional process. In “Archival Ambience,” I was trying to both think about archival practice while also thinking about how this implicates the way that we think about invention and what invention means when we look at bodies engaging with objects and the kinds of affects that emerge from that. The payoff moment of that really comes through the longer version of the revised essay as Chapter 2 in Violent Inheritance, which is a commitment to reflexivity and regeneration.
Culturally, we have these debates about how we can recuperate or understand figures from the past. For example, we want to find stories of same sex intimacy from the past, but how do we also grapple with the ways that these people also participated in state violence? This is what I grappled with when writing about [the historian] Grace Raymond Hebard. Thinking about what I wanted and interrogating my own desires when I moved into the archive became integral to thinking about archival practice in general.
Relative to the discipline, because so much queer rhetoric specifically comes out of a public address tradition primarily concerned with speeches by the “great white men” of society, there is now all sorts of scholarship that aims to question who is a great orator and show public address was and is so much more than this. The work that we have aims to recover or recuperate these figures who do not fit into that canon.
I’m thinking of Chuck Morris and Jason Edward Black’s work on Harvey Milk, for example, or the book Queering Public Address: Sexualities in American Historical Discourse, which is all about finding figures who complicate the story of public address in general. I would say that my contribution to that conversation is to say, “Yes, let’s find public figures from the past and think about how their memories are mediated and the kinds of projects they did, and let’s also interrogate our own attachments to the value of that work in terms of thinking about what rhetoric can be.”
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your current scholarship centers the relationship between the environment and ability, considering questions of how ability and disability are constructed as a category in relationships with dominant constructions of the environment and arguing for the vital importance of centering disability in contemporary environmentalist movements. For example, your recent collaborative essay, “Cripping Environmental Communication: A Review of Eco-Ableism, Eco-Normativity, and Climate Justice Futurities,” traces the inattention to ability in environmental communication research. Could you introduce us to how your work conceptualizes the relationship between ability and the environment, the “eco-ableism” of environmental communication, and the importance of disability to what you term “climate justice futurities”?
[Dr. E Cram] Disability studies has long worked with what is called the social model of disability, which asks how disability emerges through culture, through interactions with the built environment, in relation to the so-called “natural” environment, and so on. That is a different model of disability than the model that would otherwise imagine disability as an individual attribute or a quote unquote “defect.”
The social model is already a deeply environmental or ecological model of disability, in terms of thinking about how disability itself is structured into the ways that the environment is built, engineered, imagined and overdetermined in terms of what kind of user it reflects. Environmental communication, for a variety of reasons, has largely yet to engage that intersection with real seriousness, even though disability and ability are alive in so much of the history that environmental communication scholars have engaged.
In Violent Inheritance, part of what I did is confront the connections between energy and ableism. I think about networks of capacity building as one example. Ableism is so prolific within the Western myth, and it is also fundamental to regimes of sexuality. The Western myth is a story of ableism through violence and the disablement of people and lands. Extractivism is a machine that is disabling by its very nature.
In “Cripping Environmental Communication,” my coauthors and I wanted to grapple with well-trodden themes in environmental communication: everything from public land research, to environmental justice, to questions about climate justice. Disability is threaded through all of these things, but not really named and engaged with in a really careful, thoughtful way. Phaedra [Pezzullo], Martin [P. Law], and I were all working on projects related to disability politics. We wanted to take that opportunity to collaborate with each other to say that the field needs a comprehensive literature review about how we can better engage with disability politics, explore ableism, and question how ableism and its supporting systems of white supremacy and capitalism structure the environment and environmental relationships.
That is the idea of eco-ableism as a structuring mechanism. In the article we talk about how there are more and more reports about how disabled people are systematically excluded from decision-making processes around things like climate resilience, or planning for environmental catastrophe, or even emergencies. To me, that is something that must be confronted, in part because environmental justice ethics foreground process, collaborative decision making, and ensuring that the people who are the most precarious and vulnerable have seats at the decision-making table.
It is also important because we are also living in a moment of rapid disablement in terms of the effects of COVID-19. The climate crisis itself is a mechanism of disablement. We really must take on disability justice principles that help us think about how to build care webs that are necessary to survive. There are also values within disability justice and disability culture that I think should be in conversation with reimagining what kind of life we want to live, whether that is about resisting productivity, resisting extraction, resisting the pace or speed of life. How can we reimagine our entire way of life? I think that disability culture offers a really important voice in that regard.
There are disability justice advocates right now who always remind people that everybody, at some point in their life, is going to become disabled. A primary argument that many disabled activists make today is that when you become disabled, you become disposable to society. The combination of mechanisms of disablement and disposability are incredibly dangerous when they operate together. You become a problem. You become something to be managed, often against your will. It is vital for everybody to learn and practice disability justice and ethics, because everybody’s survival depends on it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Alongside your own scholarly work, you are an accomplished academic editor. You currently serve on the editorial board for Quarterly Journal of Speech, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, and Women’s Studies in Communication and are Associate Editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Queer Studies and Communication. Could you tell us a bit about your experience working on the Oxford Encyclopedia project and your perspective and approach as an academic editor more broadly?
[Dr. E Cram] Queer work in communication studies is still a relatively newer conversation. Our team’s vision was to think about the Encyclopedia as a resource, especially for graduate students, to map out the conversation as it has developed through its early stages, while also thinking about future directions given certain urgencies in the discipline right now. We wanted to do that while also thinking about how we can also build capacities for addressing things that we have not done a whole lot of work on in the field. For example, there are a few people doing transnational work, but we really have an America-centric approach in queer studies.
More generally, we wanted to think about various intersections that can emerge through queer rhetorics and queer communication studies. The Encyclopedia is split between a rhetoric component, interpersonal and family communication, and then media studies, imagined broadly. We wanted to bring together people who were working across these fields to think about major conversations or major themes and ways that we can also grow the conversation.
In my work as an editor for the Encyclopedia, I worked closely with authors both by reviewing their work and helping them to respond to reviews they received as part of the peer review process. My ethic as an editor or in the review process is to help authors identify the strengths of any given piece and how can we build those strengths and address certain gaps. My vision is to really support the author rather than say, “I have this vision that I want to impose on your work.”
For me, it is about mentoring people, especially when I am editing or reviewing something that is written by a graduate student or a junior scholar. I think mentorship is important, especially for people who are doing innovative work that presses against the common assumptions of the discipline. Innovative, critical work that might oftentimes get stalled in a review process takes a lot more care and attention in terms of building strengths and identifying the people in the field that I think would be really interested in this argument. How can you engage that conversation and tell them why your argument is important for them to engage with as well? I see editing as being about mentorship and about building communities across existing conversations.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students who are interested in bringing critical perspectives on gender, sexuality, race, class, ability, and colonialism into conversation with research in environmental communication who are currently considering pursuing a graduate degree?
[Dr. E Cram] I would say the most important thing is to find community. The content of the conversations we have in the field can be intense to engage. At the same time, like I have found in my own work, having to read a lot of interdisciplinary work can be difficult because of the way that disciplines have been structured to occlude their connections and similarities. I have often had to fight the disciplinary silos that keep these conversations apart.
Community has been vital because it allows me to work with people who maybe are not doing work about the history of sexuality or disability, but nonetheless support what I’m doing. We listen and we support each other through our moments of uncertainty.
There is an extraordinary amount of work on these topics. Some of it is in communication. The important thing is to find the people who are having the conversation and resist the feeling that you must work on this by yourself — that you have to topple the disciplinary walls, so to speak. You should just find the people who are doing the work and build community with them, and that community does not always have to be just scholars.
I think that in environmental communication people should work toward having a practice of community engagement and community collaboration. That could mean working with organizers, activists, storytellers, or artists in your local community collaboratively to build public capacity around the topics or themes that you are interested in. I think that is one way that we can cultivate the care webs that we write about and be part of the process of establishing resilient communities for the years to come.
Thank you, Dr. Cram, for sharing your insights on environmental cultural studies, queer studies and disability studies, rhetorical criticism, and archival research!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.