Here’s the abstract for the keynote I will be giving at Nature and the Popular Imagination in Malibu this August. It builds on my recent talk at Bucks College, but without the nod to pop-cultural interest in Avatar.


starring the Cinematic Earth, with cameo appearances by Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson, Martin Heidegger, C. S. Peirce, Gilles Deleuze, Lynn Margulis, James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, Donna Haraway, and Koko the Gorilla

Philosopher Martin Heidegger once characterized the modern world as the “age of the world picture,” an era when the world itself became conquered by humanity as a picture or representation set fully and clearly before our gaze. In the 1960s, the first images of the Earth from space delivered a glimpse of a world picture that was global and ecological, but that also suggested humanity’s domination both of the earth (today) and of outer space (tomorrow).

Fifty years later, we have not colonized other planets, but we can speak instead of the “age of the world motion picture,” an era when our colonization extends to imaginary planets (like James Cameron’s Pandora), and where we see our own world and our very selves in turbulent and uncontrollable motion — on screens around the globe. The moving image in all its variations — from the first short films through the eras of talkies, technicolor, IMAX and 3-D, alongside television, videos, virtual reality games and the rest — has been with us a little over a century, but over that time it seems the world itself has come to move faster and faster all around us.

A conference on nature in the popular imagination, held in the region with the greatest density of film and television production sites and studios on Earth, provides an opportunity for a reflection on the ways in which the moving image has changed our perception of ourselves, the Earth, and our place in the universe. This talk will provide glimpses across that history, in its evolution from the first motion picture shorts to epics like Avatar (2009) and The Tree of Life (2011), with many stops along the way. Films like 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1973), and others have delivered powerful images by which viewers have made sense of ourselves and an uncertain, mysterious cosmos. Like Darwin’s image of nature as an ever branching bush, a “tangled bank” so “interesting to contemplate,” cinema’s branching bush continues to become ever more interesting to contemplate.

For cineaste and philosopher Gilles Deleuze, it was cinema that provided the greatest resource for reviving our lost “belief in this world.” How is cinema faring today, on the cusp of a digital era that heightens the speed of life in every direction — through the uncertainties of global hyperfinance, the turbulence of cultural identity clashes and looming ecological collapses, and the rapid mutations of all manner of images, representations, spectacles and simulacra? Is there a picture of the world that can carry us safely through this torrent of cataclysmic motion?

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