About Joshua Trey Barnett, Ph.D.: Joshua Trey Barnett is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), where he holds a joint appointment at the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. Alongside his primary appointments, Dr. Barnett is Affiliated Faculty with the Sustainability Institute at Penn State. He serves as Associate Editor for Special Issues for Rhetoric Society Quarterly and as an associate editor of Culture, Theory & Critique. Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Dr. Barnett was Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota (Duluth) where he also served as Research Associate for the Institute on the Environment. Dr. Barnett received his Ph.D. from the University of Utah, his M.A. from Indiana University, and his B.A. from the University of Georgia.

Dr. Barnett’s current research explores ecological rhetorics and the rhetorical mediation of humans’ relationship with the earth and more-than-human beings and ways of being. His first book, Mourning in the Anthropocene: Ecological Grief and Earthly Coexistence (MSU Press, 2022), received the Tarla Rai Peterson Book Award in Environmental Communication from the National Communication Association (NCA). Dr. Barnett’s work also explores communication issues relevant to the LGBTQ+ community, including the experiences of transgender people in the military and the politics of drag.

His scholarship has appeared in leading publications, including The Quarterly Journal of Speech; Rhetoric & Public Affairs; Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies; Environmental Communication; Communication, Culture & Critique; and Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture. Dr. Barnett’s scholarly contributions have been honored with an Early Career Award from the Rhetorical and Communication Theory Division of NCA, as well as NCA’s Karl R. Wallace Memorial Award.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in rhetorical criticism and, in particular, begin to focus your work on, on the one hand, queer and transgender perspectives in communication, and, on the other hand, on ecological or environmental rhetorics?

[Dr. Joshua Barnett] In some sense my identity as a scholar of rhetoric took form early. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia beginning in 2008. I went there to study journalism. I wanted to publish magazines. I happened to find myself in a class on rhetorical criticism with a Ph.D. student named Jamie Landau. Over the course of that semester, she had lots of opportunities to read my work. At the end of the semester, Jamie made a comment on my final essay that I should consider graduate school.

I was 18 or 19 at the time. I had no idea what graduate school was. I knew that professors had to go through some kind of process to end up at the front of the classroom, but I had no idea what that process was. Her comment was really eye opening and world shifting for me. I suddenly had this concept of graduate school and higher education to consider and the prospect of an entirely different career. It had never occurred to me to go into teaching, and certainly not in higher education. I took her recommendation very seriously. I thought, “If this person I respect and admire thinks I would be good at this thing, maybe I would be.” This radically shifted my plans and goals for my life. I decided I would be a rhetorical scholar, and, for the last 15 years, that is what I have been pursuing.

Because I made this decision so early, my engagement with rhetorical criticism took shape at a formative time in my life. I was coming to understand parts of my own identity that I had not really allowed myself to think about, and certainly not in an intellectual way. When I was 18, I came out as gay. I became part of the queer community in Athens, Georgia, and part of various community building projects and resistance networks. I participated in a number of protests. At the same time, I was involved in a number of environmental organizations, some of which I had been part of for years, and some of which I started working with as a college student.

These were two big parts of my life: on the one hand, trying to understand my own identity as a gay man, and on the other hand, working on environmental issues and climate change in particular. It had never occurred to me that those two pieces of my life might be related, nor had it occurred to me that they might become the focus of my intellectual projects.

The same instructor I just mentioned, Jamie Landau, encouraged me to do rhetorical criticism about the things that mattered the most to me then. At the time, what mattered most was figuring out how to be the person that I am in a world that does not always make that very easy. In particular, as an undergraduate student I turned my critical attention to what I would think about now as community building projects around queer culture. The first essay I wrote was an analysis of a queer kiss-in in downtown Athens. Then I turned 21 and started going to gay bars, and lo and behold, I began writing about gay bars and how they both create and constrain spaces of liberty and queer community. As I look back, I can see myself coming into who I am alongside coming into my scholarly identity. They were linked.

It took me a number of years to start thinking about the work that I was doing with environmental groups as another possible area of study. I was often a leader in environmental groups, and, because I was leading, I think there was a mental blockage that led me to think I could not be critical of the thing that I was driving. In my work with queer community building, I was not steering the ship, so I had more critical distance.

Over the years, I have shifted to focusing more on environmental and ecological concerns, what I call “earthly coexistence.” I realized I had more — and more interesting — things to say about environmental issues. I have also become convinced that without the ecological, our conceptions of the social, the political, the cultural, and the ethical do not make a whole lot of sense. We need a world to live in and an earth to live on, and we need that earth to be sustainable. All too often, it seems to me, we lose sight of this condition to our own detriment.

As my career has progressed, I have become more and more interested in thinking through how the ecological and earthly condition all of those other spheres of life. It has become important to me, professionally, politically, and ethically, to foreground the fact that, whatever else we are, we are earthlings, and we have to take that fact of the human condition seriously.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there important ways your work in these areas of your research mutually inform one another — is your approach to studying environmental rhetorics, for example, influenced by perspectives in queer theory, or has your ecological work impacted how you view the politics of cultural identity and difference?

[Dr. Joshua Barnett] Part of what made me so excited about queer theory and studying queer culture was its insistence on, appreciation of, and celebration of difference. It holds space for us to think about the plurality of beings, of desires, and ways of being in the world. That was very exciting to me as a young person trying to figure out how to live the life I wanted to lead. I think that is an important sensibility that makes its way into how I think about environmental issues.

I wrote an essay on Todd Haynes’ film Safe, as well as an essay on Judith Butler’s thought as it applies to environmentalism. Both, I think, offer interesting moments of convergence. Safe, which came out in 1995, is often read as an AIDS allegory. It is also a film about ecological entanglement and impurity: about coming to terms with how we are impacted by and implicated in the worlds in which we live. We are implicated in them by policy, as well as physically and materially. We are implicated in our world by toxins that move through those spaces and shape who and where we can be in the world. With regards to the Haynes film, I wanted to insist on a notion of impurity, which is another way of saying difference, and say that, on some level, we have to embrace our impurity in the world. Not only our social and ethical impurity, but the impurity that emerges from living in a post-industrial capitalist society that often privileges profit over life.

The Butler essay was quite fun to write. I had been reading her work on queer theory for years, but, following 9/11, she really shifts toward thinking about ethics and relationality far more broadly than before. I had been reading her work on grief, grievability [the conditions under which certain bodies are subjects of grief, while others are excluded from being grieved], and precarity. All these concepts have since entered the scholarly lexicon. At the time, Butler had only brushed up against questions of earthly coexistence. She would have a line here or there in an essay or book where she would situate the earthly as one condition among many for structuring political, social, and ethical life.

To me, having engaged with work in the environmental humanities and ecology, there were very strong resonances between what she calls the “social ontology” of the human, which is how she thinks about how we become who we are in relation to others, humans and more-than-humans alike, and ecological notions of relationality that existed in very different academic spaces. I wanted to really think through what Butler had to say to those of us who are deeply interested in what it means to share the world with others.

Part of what you begin to realize when you study ecology is that ecologies are always shifting and changing. It is an error to think of ecosystems and ecological relationships as stable. So, in ecological thought, you find a comparable appreciation for difference and difference in motion to that which you find in queer theory.

At the same time, many of these connections I can see only in retrospect. There are many people who are focusing on queer ecologies, for example, who have brought these things together more explicitly. I have not quite made that move, but I think it is quite possible. My scholarly interests have developed organically over the years, and I have not felt the need to square every new iteration of my work with what I have thought or said before.

I think some scholars believe that their life’s work has to be coherent and cohesive, but I have never felt that compulsion personally. I was encouraged early on by a mentor to value and cultivate eclecticism, partly as a strategy for keeping oneself interested in one’s work and open to change. There are many connections between my early work and my current work, but many of them are forged unconsciously, and I can only excavate them retrospectively. But this also allows my work to be somewhat unpredictable and lets me think about things very differently than I did five years ago or ten years ago. It allows me to remain open to change as my life, interests, and intellectual engagements shift.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your first book, Mourning in the Anthropocene: Ecological Grief and Earthly Coexistence, came out this year from Michigan State University Press. For our readers who may be unfamiliar with this terminology, would you introduce us to the Anthropocene as a way of understanding our contemporary ecological crisis and the concept of “earthly coexistence,” which is central to this book and to your work more broadly?

[Dr. Joshua Barnett] The Anthropocene is an idea and a name. Back in the early 2000s, a couple of scientists were trying to come to terms with the fact that, in their view, earth had entered a new period of its history. Their contention was that this new period is and has been shaped by humanity, and in particular by the actions of the human species over the last few hundred years as society has industrialized, though the time period is a matter of debate. Some people argue that the Anthropocene actually began 11 or 12 thousand years ago as society shifted from hunter-gatherer migratory cultures to more sedentary agricultural societies. Others argue that it began just 75-or-so years ago.

Whatever the time frame, the Anthropocene marks the moment when humans take on geologic force. We impact not just our local environments, landscapes, or relationships, but we take on a force as a species. We have that force, in particular, because of our entanglements with fossil fuels. By extracting and burning fossil fuels we have changed the atmosphere, which in turn changes the conditions of life on earth.

The Anthropocene comes from two Greek words, anthropos which means human, and kainos which means unprecedentedly new. This gives us another way of looking at it as signaling a novel period in earth’s history in which humanity has become the dominant force. It also invites us to think about the “age of the new human” alongside the idea of the “new age of the human.” What it means to be a human has shifted so considerably that it is the new form of humanity that has these profound impacts on earth’s systems. The term emphasizes both our planetary existence and our planetary impact.

This concept shifts what it means to think about how we ethically live on earth. If one lives in a world in which humans primarily have impact on local landscapes, ecosystems, and relations, that entails a particular ethics and politics. It can be local, regional, and relatively small scale. If, on the other hand, one lives in a world in which humans’ actions have global or planetary impacts, then one’s politics and ethics also have to be global or planetary in scope. They have to be planetary both in the sense that we understand the interconnection of things in a given moment and in a deep historical sense.

What humans were doing three or four hundred years ago when they began extracting fossil fuels and burning them has created the conditions under which we currently live, which means that whatever we do now will construct the conditions under which humans — if there are humans — will live in the future. This sets up a different framework for ethics and responsibility, where we are in some sense obliged to think on bigger timescales and much larger geographic scales.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Mourning in the Anthropocene argues for the political potentiality of grief and grieving the “more-than-human,” in particular. Would you explain your argument that grief can guide us toward “earthly coexistence” and discuss how the rhetorical practices of “naming,” “archiving,” and “making visible” work to provide a foundation for this politically productive form of grief?

[Dr. Joshua Barnett] One of the consequences of the planetary impact of humans named by the Anthropocene is that earth has experienced a cascade of transformations and losses: losses at the level of landscapes and ecosystems, losses of species, losses of countless individual beings, plants, animals, and so forth. My book starts from the premise that we live in a time of tremendous ecological loss and transformation, both of which have been set into motion by particular configurations of human societies.

In other words, humans are implicated in the losses we are now witnessing and experiencing. Humans are not implicated equally or in the same ways, to be sure. There has been a lot of great work that details and describes how distinct cultures are differently responsible for and impacted by ongoing environmental crises. We have to hold that in mind. But the point still stands that humanity is implicated in the creation of these losses and transformations.

The book argues, then, that we owe it to ourselves and the earth to confront those losses. In confronting those losses, we ought to be moved to mourn them and to grieve them, but we so often are not. We live in this interesting moment where most of us have an understanding that something is not right and that we cannot live the way we have been living, particularly in fossil fuel dependent countries like the United States. We cannot live this way anymore because it is destroying the conditions for life itself.

On one level, it seems we understand this. On the other hand, there does not seem to be a great deal of grief or mourning for the more-than-human, at least not on a large scale, or in mainstream cultures. The book attempts to sketch out some of the conditions and practices that might make it more likely for a greater share of us to see those losses as worthy of our grief, care, and concern.

For me, this is where rhetoric becomes important in the conversation. Often, grief and mourning are framed primarily as psychological issues and as private or personal. Sometimes we discuss the cultural dimensions of grief and mourning, but more commonly we think of it as happening at the level of the individual. My work, and the work of the scholars with whom I am in conversation, emphasizes the social, cultural, and rhetorical conditions that make grief more or less likely.

I think it matters how connected we feel to other beings, human and more-than-human alike. I think it matters how connected we feel to other species, to landscapes, and earth systems. We tend to grieve those we know. How well do we know these others? That is something the 20th century ecologist and author Aldo Leopold asked in 1949 in a book called A Sand County Almanac in reflecting on ecological grief long before it entered the cultural lexicon.

How do we come to know, to understand, and to find ourselves in connection with these more-than-human others? Sometimes we have lived relationships with particular beings. Maybe you have a pet or a strong connection to a particular landscape. That can provide the grounds for care and grief. Often, though, we are losing beings and ways of being that we are not connected to in our everyday lives, at least not consciously.

It seems to me that rhetoric can mediate our relationship with a host of more-than-human others with whom we might not be close, including beings and ways of being that are already gone. In the book I focus on three practices: naming, archiving, and making visible. I think of these as different ways of conditioning our relationship to loss. I argue that naming helps us anticipate losses, that archiving reveals losses past, present, and to come, and that practices of making visible, or visualization, help us to imagine losses.

[MastersinCommunications.com] At Penn State you have a joint appointment in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. Could you tell us a little bit more about this and your work there?

[Dr. Joshua Barnett] When I came to Penn State, my position was co-funded by the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. The Huck Institutes bring together people from across the life sciences and organizes them into smaller collaborative units, some of which are focused on research, some of which are focused on policy, some of which are focused on pedagogy, and some that bring all of those things together.

What I try to do is build bridges between the work of scholars like myself in rhetoric and communication studies and the work that folks do in programs like ecology. In my experience, a lot of life and environmental scientists are interested in communication, but primarily in an instrumental sense. They have knowledge, information, and data that could make the world a better place if the right people saw it, and they view communication as instrumental to that process of disseminating what they know.

As a communication scholar and rhetorical critic my interest in communication is somewhat different. While I am interested in its instrumental and practical uses, I am also interested in thinking about rhetoric and communication as such and what they do in the world. Part of what I try to do with the Institutes, then, is build bridges between these areas on campus and to help those working in the life and environmental sciences to see communication in all its richness, not just as a means of conveying information and disseminating knowledge, but as a way of building worlds and shaping what people think, believe, value, feel, and how they move in the world.

Practically, that means speaking at campus events, being the voice of the humanities in spaces where humanists often are not present, bringing scientists who do publicly engaged work to campus to learn from them, and sometimes participating in research collaborations.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in rhetorical criticism or environmental communication who are currently considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Joshua Barnett] Decide whether you like to read. Decide whether you like to write. Decide whether you like to think. There are a lot of responsibilities and burdens an academic life presents, but the activities you have to engage in day-in, day-out, year after year, are reading, thinking, and writing. If those things get you excited, make you want to get up in the morning, and keep you up at night, then I think that graduate study can be a really rewarding undertaking, whatever your particular area of study.

That is the foundation, and I am surprised, sometimes, to meet students who are not as committed to those practices as one needs to be in order to do more than just endure graduate school, but also enjoy and find pleasure in it.

Thank you, Dr. Barnett, for sharing your insight on ecological rhetoric, grieving the Anthropocene, queer theory in communication, and more!

Photo of Ben Clancy
About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

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.