Do You Want to Monkeywrench?: Tracing Inventive Discourses Through Environmental Media
Tyler Quiring & Emma Lundberg

Paper presented at the Rhetoric Society of America Conference, Minneapolis, MN in June 2018

What it’s about: Critically exploring how environmental storytelling shapes the world

Abstract: Edward Abbey’s classic environmental manifesto The Monkey Wrench Gang spurred a wave of social activism in response to the plight of people and places disenfranchised by the flurry of U.S. dam construction in the 20th century—at least according to the 2014 documentary DamNation. At various points in the film, Abbey’s book serves as a form of visual and argumentative shorthand for referencing the cross-sectional activities that ushered in what many have come to call the modern environmental movement. This intertextual relation exemplifies the kind of rhetorical linkage Laurie Gries invokes when she asks “what if we hyperfocus on an image’s constant flow and transformation and try to account for a single multiple image’s distributed rhetorical becomings?” (Still Life with Rhetoric 20). As documentary film continues to emerge as a major mode of visualizing social action for environmental change, it is worth tracing the genre’s argumentative systems that connect with other modes of discourse. How, for example, does a documentary film link multiple forms of media to reinvent the world? Furthermore, how does it present this new world as one worth contributing to? Finally, what kinds of material discourses become entangled with such persuasive efforts?

In this paper, we argue that documentary reinventions of the world rely on particular affective orientations through which certain possibilities are ignored or obscured, even as others can be taken up more fully. To illustrate these claims, we bring critical feminist epistemologies to bear on DamNation, an environmental documentary produced by outdoor clothing company Patagonia. The film, which advocates for extensive political intervention and guerrilla activism as major rhetorical modes aimed at promoting restoration of the United States’ rivers through dam removal, casts the rise of hydropower as a pressing environmental “wicked problem” that must be addressed. We trace this inventive discourse across other domains, including news and social media, to identify resonances between the film, the social context it speaks into, and the arguments of its viewers. Using themes from a comprehensive media analysis and social media hashtags as our discursive cues, we identify key public arguments, discussions, and events that have emerged alongside DamNation. In conducting this analysis, we draw from an extensive news media database compiled as part of a multi-state sustainability science project by the New England Sustainability Consortium. Together, these diverse materials help us glimpse how DamNation portrays dams, rivers, fish, native tribes, and settler-colonial governments and citizens, and how these portrayals come to matter.