Tag Archive: documentaries

Moving Environments, Day 1

What follows are notes from the first day of Moving Environments: Affect, Emotion, and Ecocinema.

These are, needless to say, my own hastily drawn up notes (and I’m still a little jet-lagged from my arrival yesterday). Forgive the point form and abbreviation inconsistencies. Any errors are my own; any wonderful ideas are other people’s, unless specifically attributed to “ai.” Other initials refer to other speakers/participants. My tiredness toward the end of the day shows…


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This beautifully photographed new BBC documentary, The Secret Life of Chaos, evocatively illustrates one way of thinking about immanence, i.e., the spontaneous emergence of beauty and complexity from natural process. Morphogenesis, self-organization, the collapse of Newtonian physics (into chaos/complexity theory, etc.), the “butterfly effect,” fractal geometry, delicious little biographical details about Alan Turing, Edward Lorenz, Benoit Mandelbrot, and others — it’s all there. Iraqi-born physicist-host Jim Al-Khalili gives us the enthusiasm and hipness of a newfangled (and perhaps more respectable) James Burke, and the music, from Arvo Part’s opening strains (“Spiegel im Spiegel”) to Satie, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, et al, adds a great deal to the pleasure of watching it. Nice work on BBC’s part.

The doc provides helpful tools for visualizing dynamic systems, which are part of what’s making it possible for science and culture, Latour’s two poles of the “modern constitution,” to work their way toward a rapprochement. What’s still missing is the integration of first-person subjectivity — mind as opposed to body — which biosemiotics (drawing on Peirce, von Uexkull, Bateson, Sebeok, et al), Whiteheadian process metaphysics, enactive cognitivism, and related schools of thought, help to get at. To actually bring these together into a successful and convincing synthesis — one that would put Newton, Descartes, and the rest fully into the past and put cognitive science on a much stronger footing (in my opinion) — will require a lot more work, of course. Philosophers in particular have their work cut out for them (as my recent exchange with Levi Bryant might suggest).

The Secret Life of Chaos is in six 10-minutes segments, but if you only have a few minutes to sample it now, watch the bit on feedback loops and the butterfly effect that begins this segement:


Incidentally, John Law’s post-Actor-Network-Theory After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, which I’ve mentioned positively a few times here recently, has now been made available at the fabulous ever expanding scholar-hipster’s online library aaaarg.org. A few of the missing social-science pieces I mentioned work their way into Law’s book…

Thanks to Integral Options Cafe for blogging about the BBC doc, which just premiered in the UK this past week.


Before Ken Burns’ 6-part, 12-hour series on the national parks was aired, a perceptive article by the LA Times’ Scott Timberg warned that it might be greeted by “sharp knives.” Ten years in the making, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, finally came to our television screens last week, and so far no sharp knives seem to have been drawn. But there have been blunt forks poking into the meat and leaving large parts of the six-course meal undigested on the plate, its servings a bit too super-sized for easy consumption. (There are, of course, the stealth knives and box-cutters of right-wing bloggers, who criticize the series for its NPR liberalism, communism, paganism, and whatever else, but so far the jabs have been mostly off the mark, and few and far between.)

The US national park system would seem to make for an ideal subject for the Burns treatment — a treatment Apple has captured, at least in part, on its iPhoto program as the “Ken Burns Effect.” Timberg describes the Burns style as a “combination of a deep, authoritative male voice, pan-and-zoom camera work over sepia-toned photographs, period music and extravagant claims about American exceptionalism.” The Washington Post’s Tim Page has less charitably called Burns’ style an “unreflected populist Hallmark-ese,” a “strange mixture of New Deal and New Age.” The latter was said in reference to Burns’ “Jazz” series, with its idea that improvisation was an integral element of the American spirit, but it could easily also be said about National Parks.

But there’s something to Burns’ claim about improvisation: one finds that improvisational spirit in the pragmatism of the country’s best philosophers (John Dewey, William James, et al) and in the poetry of Whitman, the Beats, and the nature romanticism of Thoreau and Muir. All of which is another way of saying that progressivism, the very backbone of the American conservation movement (the national parks being one wing of that, the national forests being another), is very American, and those who forget that — like today’s rabid Republican right — are not nearly as American as they would like to think.

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