I finished reading E Cram’s Violent Inheritance: Sexuality, Land, and Energy in Making the North American West (University of California Press, 2022) in the midst of a snowstorm that took the power out for two days. I read it with the aid of a headlamp while tending the fire that kept at least one room warm. As the darkness and cold set in, I also hung solar string lights to illuminate the living room of my log cabin in the woods. I managed a text (and a photo!) to those in other places to assure them I was okay. Better than okay. Luxurious camping, I called it. Cue tent emoji.

By night two, though, my mood had shifted. I spent the day in howling winds and snow that never stopped falling. I strapped on snowshoes to search for the technician sent out by the energy company. I first followed the truck’s blinking lights, but when I got closer, I realized the cab was empty and there were no tracks to tell me which way he (the story in my head has always been he) had gone. I picked up his tracks by following the power line, but he was also too far ahead of me, or rather, the snowfall too furious and dizzying. I started gulping in air and snow. I called someone to say that I was so tired, confused. That I couldn’t find the energy guy, and maybe he was lost. What if he was lost? What if I am lost? The person I called was talking me through, but then her voice started to fade away, like she was speaking through a string attached to a tin can.

The whole affair seems a little silly to narrate now. It was just snowing. Even if the blizzard disoriented me, I wasn’t that far from my house, which contained food and firewood, warm clothes, and string lights. And still, I think about the stories I have inherited, like the one about the blizzard of ‘49 when people were found dead between their house and barn, “only 150 feet between them,” because when they went out to feed the horses, they couldn’t find their way back to the house. These were ultimately unremarkable days: Only two nights without energy infrastructure at full capacity, with my petroleum-dependent 4x4 unable to traverse the three miles down a forest road to reach town, but now I consider the experience from another angle after reading Violent Inheritance, a book that asks a reader like me—white settler, queer, able-bodied, attached to the constructs of the American West despite a politics that knows, believes, and wishes otherwise—to realize their violent inheritance through a discourse of extractive, affective, and sexualized energy infrastructures. Cram’s book admirably and crucially foregoes mere acknowledgement or expressions of white-settler guilt in favor of difficult and necessary questions, unexpected readings of potentially familiar archives, and arguments that cannot be unthought.

Violent Inheritance mobilizes a network of energy grammars and analytics to argue for another story of sexual modernity, one that accounts for the body as ecological and administered by, and producing in turn, racial and sexualized value. Cram isolates a tension between innervation and enervation unique to the North American West, where the respective expressions of capacity and exhaustion navigate scale, from the individual to the population. In other words, the West is a region defined by innervation and its cognates (energy, vitality, capacity) where settler-colonial expansion depends on enervation, or a constant extraction of energy. And Cram treats energy as both bodily capacity and the production of energy through extractivism.

The book’s own innervation begins with Foucault’s formulation that sexuality modulates labor capacity and economic utility, producing and perpetuating an expansive set of social relations and politics. Each chapter devotes itself to situating capacity in environmental terms in order to dispel myths of the self-made, vital, autonomous white settler. Instead, settler-colonial expansion and extractivism depend on a vast network of racialized labor and incarceration, on cartographies of energy, animations of innervating archives, and a proliferating discourse on the racialized and infrastructural causes of white-settler enervation, which are treated by travel to and settlement in the North American West.

Cram locates the complex and residual layers of violent inheritance in the term land lines, or the “nonlinear traces” of a material and sedimented ecological, energetic, and affective inheritance (6). Cram claims land lines as the book’s central concept and method. As concept, land lines refer to tethers between sexuality and land use (enclosure, appropriation, sacrifice zones, and labor) that produce racialized relations and violence. Land lines articulate a biopolitics of land whereby sexual modernity is also a function of energy. Land lines also “evoke a temporal trace that mediates settler whiteness and ecological affect” (7). Finally, the book invites the reader to a method, to trace the land lines that produce memory and forms of memorialization, and affective attachments. By encountering and confronting archives and sedimentations of violence through the concepts and entanglements of vitality, capacity, energy, and sexuality, white settlers may come to find collaborative and regenerative methods to cultivate “more just” futures.

Land lines compose and comprise the book’s central intervention and innovation, which brings the energy and environmental humanities into intimate contact with queer studies and histories, decolonial politics, and affect studies. As I’ve mentioned, Violent Inheritance conditions a grammar and vocabulary that claim land lines to be both concept and method. Cram is attuned to language and its own heritabilities, so that forge, sedimentation, trace, vitality, energy, infrastructure, innervation, enervation, moorings, lineament, tether, regeneration, mosaics, atmosphere and more become conceptual and metaphorical touchstones throughout the book. The terms and concepts mobilized so stridently in the introduction tend to fall away as the book progresses, even land lines. At some point I lost track (and perhaps not incidentally, tracking is another term but one from Queer Nature, a collective Cram profiles in chapter 5) of how the terms map onto the book’s central claims; and the metaphors—though lively and catching—become mixed at times.

I suspect the profusion and mixing are symptoms of the book’s commitments to interdisciplinarity, which are ambitious and admirable. Cram sets out to incite conversations and constitutive methods among fields that are at times closely aligned but don’t always (or often enough) cross, such as environmental humanities, queer studies, Native/Indigenous studies, settler colonial studies, Marxist cultural theory, museum and archive studies, affect theory, and cultural geography. The book’s dispersal of fields and associated lexicons provokes a key question about the reach and capacities of interdisciplinary work. There are several clauses interspersed throughout the book that identify Cram’s training in communications, but for readers who aren’t grounded in that field, the point that follows can be unclear. Put another way, I struggle to understand the connections between “As a communications scholar…” and the assertion or observation made in the rest of the sentence. What does it mean to be thinking about violent inheritances in the field of communications? If this isn’t a point the book intends to make, then I think specifying at the outset and omitting references to the field would help the reader determine their own attachments, or lack thereof, to field-based methods, especially those associated with communications.

Given the book relies on an interpretation of Foucault’s formulations on sexuality and modernity, it offers little by way of Foucault—neither a deep engagement with or study of Foucauldian claims, nor of Foucaudian methodologies. Thus, readers unaccustomed to Foucault will need to look elsewhere, while those already well-versed may have more questions about Cram’s reading of sexual modernity. And quite connected to this point, one could argue (though Cram does not) that biopolitics and biopower undergird the book’s key arguments, and yet these analytics are primarily and rather tangentially framed in the introduction, with some later connections made to the biopolitics of residential schools and Japanese internment camps. To put this yet another way, Violent Inheritance appears to be eminently informed by and indebted to scholars of biopolitics and affect, particularly those grounded in 19th-century North American contexts, such as Dana Luciano and Kyla Schuller, but Cram does not in fact devote time to just how their book sits next to these other scholars’ studies. This is perhaps especially a key and curious lacuna vis-a-vis Schuller’s The Biopolitics of Feeling (2018), for its thorough-going and field-shifting approaches to biopolitics and sentimentalism. I understand that these projects are importantly distinct, especially with Cram’s turn to energy infrastructure, but how Violent Inheritance builds from, converses with, or intervenes on other studies that engage impressibility, affect, capacity, and sexuality remains a bit opaque, or at least left to a reader’s inference. On the subject of capacity, Cram does include a key endnote to Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (2017), but given that the book’s central arguments hinge on notions of vitality and capacity, I’m struck by the lack of close engagement with disability studies and critical disability theory.

While it would seem that my readings above indict Cram for not doing something I think they should have (which is, I think, a thoroughly paranoid and ungenerous mode of review), I actually mean to argue the obverse: the book favors a profusion of constellated terms and metaphors over a stable rhetorical fulcrum in Foucauldian theory or biopolitics, even as it seems intimately entangled with these, and I’m trying to understand why. I’m really quite interested in why. Is this what land lines entail? Is this a necessary and productive effect of interdisciplinarity?

The chapters move through variously and creatively disparate sites: the 1983 Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition and a thorough reading and interpretation of neurasthenia diagnoses and climatological and environmental cure in the West; the intimacy of archives in Cram’s own exploration of Grace Raymond Hebard’s Wyoming and western (read white settler) sentimentalities; the aesthetics of violence produced by residential school incarceration in Canada and perpetuated silences in reconciliation discourse as evidenced by visitor exhibits in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights; the potential for regenerative politics and aesthetics produced through collaboration, sovereignty, and listening; jurisprudence of land and property rights, and how the sedimentations of history lead to various and often conflicting desires for and imagined futures of the land; and the petrocultures of queer mobility, and what it means to desire or depend on automobility for one’s affective and literal survival. This list doesn’t capture the range and nuance of Cram’s archival engagements and readings, embedded field research and interpretation, or their original and trenchant arguments associated with each.

There are moments when I wonder why they chose a certain archive or site. For instance, the third chapter’s engagement with residential school histories, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Carey Newman’s profound Witness Blanket at points rehearses familiar arguments; but Cram’s insistence that the inheritance of settler subjectivity become a key site of study and interrogation within the necropolitics of residential schools offers key insights and interventions in the discourse of apology, acknowledgment, and reconciliation so favored by setter nation-states and their political and cultural institutions. Moreover, Cram’s engagement with queer subjectivity and the methods of queer decolonizing quite admirably and crucially refuses to harbor queerness as a way out of the land lines we (queer) beneficiaries of settler colonial violence have inherited. Even in the chapter on Grace Raymond Hebard’s Wyoming boosterism and her intimate friendship with Agnes Wergeland, Cram deftly avoids romanticizing queerness. This is one of the strongest and most insightful chapters in the book for its clarity, originality, and archival reading and interpretation. More than the other chapters, with the exception of the final, which takes us back to Wyoming and the university, I truly understand why and how the archive sits in this book, and how it illustrates so thoroughly and honestly the land lines and infrastructures of feeling that the book ambitiously delineates.

Here at the end, I want to linger on where the book begins: an intimate scene wherein Cram narrates riding along in a truck with their father at the wheel, navigating a Wyoming landscape and attendant histories to which Cram is relatively, but complicatedly attached. In a way, I hoped to resist acknowledging my attachments to these scenes, where Cram swerves toward their personal histories, because I do not intend to eclipse the scholarly rigor and contributions throughout the book. And yet still, the ground of so-called Wyoming resonates on the page because of Cram’s “personal” histories. The book actually demonstrates that a white settler’s inheritances are never personal or solely private, even if they depend on filial attachments and privatized possession. Cram poses a profound question near the book’s end:

“As more evidence accumulates to document the intermingling of colonialism and the climate crisis, those who occupy settler colonial terrains face an important question: In these times how will you mobilize for a power shift in intimate and infrastructural terms?” (201)

The book does not offer answers. I take this not to be a shortcoming, but a strength. Cram’s second person is quite deliberate. Colonialism and climate change, infrastructures of feelings, and intricate land lines are as inescapably personal as they are biopolitical. I found my way home, and the power was restored in more ways than one. That’s the problem.

KT Thompson holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Davis, and is the author of Blanket (Bloomsbury, 2018) and essays in Tin House, Social Text, Avidly, and The Atlantic. KT is Associate Professor of English at Northern Arizona University, Assistant Director of the Office of the University Ombuds, and Associate Editor of Creative Nonfiction for the journal Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.