Meet a Fellow: Jennifer Gutman
Meet Jennifer Gutman, a 2021-2022 RPW Center Environments Graduate Student Fellow. She is a fifth-year joint-Ph.D. candidate in English and Comparative Media Analysis & Practice (CMAP). Her dissertation, “End-Holocene Realism: Archiving Epochal Transition in the Contemporary Novel,” explores how contemporary realist novels respond to the distinct forms of crisis, risk, and uncertainty that characterize life at the onset of a new epoch.
What is your research about and why does it matter?
My research focuses on the novel in the age of the Anthropocene, a proposed new geological epoch defined by the impact of human activity on Earth. My dissertation project considers how contemporary Anglophone novels mourn the loss of familiar environments and reimagine the art of representing the real at a time when the “real” faces a crisis of stable meaning.
Novels are excellent forms to think with. They provide imaginative spaces that allow readers to test and formulate ideas about the real world and invest in the possibility of arranging worlds differently.
While some scholars argue that realism—a founding genre of the novel—must adapt to the apocalyptic, sci-fi quality of contemporary life, I identify a subset of contemporary fiction that revises the strategies and investments of realism on realism’s own terms. Novels by Ben Lerner, Tom McCarthy, Rachel Kushner, Ruth Ozeki, Richard Powers, Teju Cole, Valeria Luiselli, Jesmyn Ward, and Rachel Cusk represent a distinctive fiction of our times that confronts how the underlying structures of ordinary experience—not merely the eventful expressions of a rioting planet—have become newly strange and vital. I’m especially interested in novels that engage themes of risk, insurance, accident, and art to consider new methods for projecting future worlds in a time of unprecedented uncertainty.
This research is important to me because it allows me to think of narrative fiction as a site for processing and even creatively responding to our current moment of crisis. Novels are excellent forms to think with. They provide imaginative spaces that allow readers to test and formulate ideas about the real world and invest in the possibility of arranging worlds differently. Realist novels in particular can help to re-adjust our sense of the real and destabilize dominant frameworks that prioritize the experience and means of some over others. Especially now, it is essential to understand the “real” as comprising an array of social, cultural, political, and ecological experiences that include diverse agents and temporalities beyond a strictly humanist frame.
Describe a discovery or a moment in your research that excited you.
Right now, I’m interested in the role of the “archive” in contemporary novels and was excited to discover the scientific concept of the “natural archive.” The “natural archive” serves as a tool for dating the start of the Anthropocene as a marker of geological time by identifying material evidence of large-scale human activity in geological strata, like rocks, coral, minerals, and other organic materials.
The natural archive interests me because it complicates an understanding of the archive common to fields in the humanities, where it is often thought of as the collective and highly meaningful output of human societies. The natural archive raises the specter of a time when the material culture of societies will be reduced to mere deposit in the stratigraphic layer, which scientists imagine as the reading material of alien geologists of the future. Where natural archives meet human archives, the conditions of possibility for telling stories or producing art change in radical and fascinating ways.
First job and what I learned
I worked in the service industry from my early teens through my late twenties—from short-order breakfast cafes to East European-inspired fine dining to college-town beer bars. Working in restaurants has taught me some of the best things: multi-tasking, durability, patience, kitchen banter, table tennis, the “Perfect Manhattan,” and the importance of makeshift, misfit communities.
Jennifer Gutman is a 2021-2022 RPW Center Environments Graduate Student Fellow and a fifth-year joint-Ph.D. candidate in English and Comparative Media Analysis & Practice (CMAP). Her dissertation, “End-Holocene Realism: Archiving Epochal Transition in the Contemporary Novel,” explores how contemporary realist novels respond to the distinct forms of crisis, risk, and uncertainty that characterize life at the onset of a new epoch. Jennifer’s article “Cyborg Storytelling: Virtual Embodiment in Jennifer Egan’s ‘Black Box’” is published in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction.