Tag Archive: ecocriticism

Or, process-relational ecocriticism 2.0


Two of the courses I’m currently teaching — the intermediate-level “Environmental Literature, Art, and Media” and the senior-level “The Culture of Nature” — require introducing an eco-critical framework appropriate to a wide range of artistic forms, from literature to visual art, music, film and new media.

The process-relational framework developed in Ecologies of the Moving Image is synthetic and holistic in its scope, but it is too advanced for introducing in itself — accompanied by the philosophical underpinnings it requires — in these undergraduate classes. So I’ve been forced to rethink its categories to make them both more accessible and more broadly applicable.

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New ecocriticism book series

The list of advisors for this new book series in Ecocritical Theory and Practice shows just how the field of ecocriticism has internationalized over the last two decades. I’m pleased to be part of it.

Ecocritical Theory and Practice Book Series

Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group 

Ecocritical Theory and Practice highlights innovative scholarship at the interface of literary/cultural studies and the environment, seeking to foster an ongoing dialogue between academics and environmental activists. Works that explore View full article »

Moving Environments, Day 2

Here are my notes from Day 2 of the Moving Environments workshop in Munich. The same caveats apply as yesterday: they’re hastily typed up and reflect only my own interpretation of what transpired. If any of the participants would prefer not to have their ideas shared in this way, I will be happy to remove them upon request.


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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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lines in ecocritical sands

Greg Garrard, who’s become something of a point-man for synoptic treatments of ecocriticism (like this one, and see my previous post on him), has come out with a lucid and judicious review of recent publications in The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory. It covers the years 2007-8, which Garrard, in an email to the ASLE listserv, calls “an exceptionally good couple of years for ecocriticism.” An uncorrected draft version of the review can be read on Greg’s academia.edu page.

It’s a commendable effort to make some sense out of the various approaches one finds in the field. Parsing things into categories is always tricky, and Garrard’s first paradigm, “Normal Science,” is probably the cleanest cut: referring to the “backpacker school of criticism,” this section highlights work by Scott Slovic (Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility) and David Whitley (The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation). This is “established practice,” the dominant paradigm as it were, and the fact that so few pages are expended on it while so many describe four “rivals” tells us exactly how paradigmatically unsettled the field is.

The second classification, “Re-Enchantment,” highlighted here through work by the late Val Plumwood, Patrick Curry, and Anthony Lioi, among others, covers a good swath of fairly traditional (by now) ecocritical writing as well, arguably taking us back to the proto-ecocriticisms of Theodore Roszak, Neil Evernden, and their Romantic forebears. Only with the third section does a sharply announced new paradigm threaten to appear on the horizon. “Against Nature” covers Tim Morton, Dana Phillips, queer ecology, animal studies, posthumanism, and more. That may be too much for a single term to carry, however, especially if the signifier “nature” is seen to be more or less interchangeable with a series of others (ecology, environment, land, etc.), as it tends to be in common usage. In amidst some praise, Garrard reserves some of his strongest barbs for Morton’s Ecology Without Nature, of which he writes,

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cinema, ontology, ecology

I’m on my way this week to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in LA, where I’ll be presenting, in miniature, the ecocritical/ecophilosophical model of cinema that I’m developing in my book-in-progress. This “process-relational” model draws on Peirce, Whitehead, Deleuze, Bergson, Heidegger, and others, with inspirational nods to psychoanalysis, cognitive film theory (which, to be honest, is a little less inspirational, but to some extent inevitable), and individual theorists like Sean Cubitt, John Mullarkey, and Daniel Frampton. Its ecophilosophical basis is that it is primarily concerned with the relationship between cinema — as a technical medium, a thing in the world, and a form of human experience — and the ecologies within which humans are implicated and enmeshed.

Here’s one articulation of that model.

The starting point: Films, or moving images, move us. They take us on journeys (metaphorical or real) into film-worlds. In this sense, films, like all art forms, produce or “disclose” worlds. These worlds are different (according to medium-specific regularities) from the profilmic or extra-filmic world. They are, for one thing, more dynamic (visually-audially) and more synthetic, insofar as they enable a complex array of fragmentations, juxtapositions, and recombinations of elements, and thus for a condensation and multiplication of meanings.

One part of my analysis is of those film-worlds themselves; a second is of our experience of being drawn into those film-worlds; and a third is of the relationship between the film-worlds (as we experience them) and the extra-filmic world.

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Bambi fights back

Kvond has a beautifully written post on James Cameron’s latest, Avatar: The Density of Being (you can tell he’s been reading Brian Massumi), to which I can only add my own quick thoughts after seeing the film this weekend.

1) New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat has it partly right: with its tree/Goddess-worshipping, tribal-shamanic-indigenous-hunter-gatherer-Daoist-pagan New-Age all-is-One-ism, Avatar is an expression of the longstanding American tradition of pantheist nature spirituality. Douthat thinks that that’s mainstream and that Hollywood is fully behind it, but it’s really still the insurgent religion to muscular Christianity and militarist nationalism. This is one of the rare films in which the Goddess (Mother Nature & the Natives) takes on the Capitalist War Machine and… well, you’ll have to see who wins.

2) It is James Cameron: with its rollercoaster-ride, shoot-em-up, special-FX thrills and chills (cf. Terminator, Aliens), it’s probably the most exorbitant and expensive such film in history. There’s cheesy dialogue (JC needs a scriptwriter) and gratuitous violence, with the never-say-die eternally recurrent monster, Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” in the form of the Dr. Strangelove-ish Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). All put to the service of a fairy tale storyline (cf. Titanic, Terminator) of good guys and bad guys and class tension, with the white-boy hero as an intermediary caught between the two and becoming-heroic by siding with — and leading — the underdog. The broken-bodied (war-victimized) and misunderstood marine with a “good heart” is given a (genetically engineered) new body and falls in love with the dark girl — Pocahontas replayed for the millionth time. The good white boy messianically leads the natives in rebellion against their overlord invaders — which makes it Christmassy in more ways than Douthat’s Solstice-timed op-ed suggests. It is, after all, that Messiah story too (cf. Terminator 2, just no virgin in this version). (Cameron’s initials aren’t JC for nothing: the king of Hollywood born in a manger in Kapuskasing, Ontario.)

3) The Na’vi and their planet, Pandora (Pan-Thea, the tree-forest-rhizome-neural-network Goddess and World Soul, Pandora whose box, when opened, unleashed a million megatons of reality on humanity — it’s pagan mythology with a sledgehammer; gotta love it): They are beautiful — as all the reviews say, there are scenes that are among the most beautiful ever put to screen. Cutting-edge CGI in the service of animating and re-enchanting nature, the movie is a cine-kinetic fusion of Bambi, Terminator, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and much else; see kvond).

There are strong resonances with Ursula LeGuin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest” (a Vietnam war-like attack on a beautiful planet and its indigenous inhabitants) and her utopian ethnographic-poetic-musical epic novel Always Coming Home, its future-primitive Pacific Coastal ‘Kesh’ people being a kind of west coast precursor to the Na’vi. The ethnographic theme — the translation/mediation between two opposed cultural worlds, science and anthropology’s dependence and ultimate answerability only to empire/colonialism/militarism, and the cultural intermediary’s desire to go native, is overly stereotypical but, for the Hollywood thriller format, not badly done. It will propagate the gone-to-Croatan meme for a new generation.

4) Ideology: Behind it all is the Spielberg factor, i.e., that the overt message (‘Man vs. Nature’, or rather high-modernist techno-capitalism vs. Body-Shop-nature-tech) is undercut by the implicit message that it is science, technology, and Hollywood magic — the Image Industry, the Spectacle — that enchants us and brings us what we really want. And they bring us new life, maybe eternal life, through the New Age science of neuro-energetics, gene-splicing, virtual-reality, and all the rest. ‘Jake Sully’ the Na’vi avatar (not the marine) is, after all, a zombie: his body is a remote-controlled, genetically-engineered robot. Are we really supposed to believe that this guy will save the universe and that Na’vi wouldn’t all choke to death laughing at the whole idea? There are resonant images here, but also an underlying subtext: what’s the balance between the two? (This repeats a friendly spat I’ve been having with Pat Brereton over his book Hollywood Utopia.)

Yes, it’s entertainment, and ideology, and religion, and politics… Happy Solstice to all.


As ecocriticism expands and deepens in scope (of subject matter & media examined), extent (internationally), and diversity (in approaches, connections with other schools of thought, etc.), its interactions with non-literary fields such as cinema studies, theatre/performance studies, and musicology (as I posted about recently) are starting to develop in healthy ways. The ASLE conference had several sessions devoted to film — four panels, several papers within other panels, and a pre-conference session on film and media — which, I believe, is more than the conference has ever had. Since then, an Ecomedia Studies Wiki has been started, as has an Ecomedia listserv (with very little activity yet, only because I started it and I’ve been too preoccupied to get any conversation going). Among related ventures, the Media Ecology Association‘s 2010 convention will be on “Media Ecology and Natural Environments” (e-mail Paul Grosswiler for further info on that). A group of us are hoping to make a little splash at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference next year. If you have any interest in such things, feel free to e-mail me directly, but expect a slow response during the summer, as I’m on the road through much of it (between the cabin where I’m blogging from in Vermont and Amsterdam the week after next, then the west coast of British Columbia & Alaska, then New Mexico in mid-August).

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The death of Michael Jackson has prompted eco-bloggers to take another look at Jackson’s 1995 “Earth Song“, which some consider the most popular environmentally themed song ever produced. The song remains Jackson’s biggest seller in the U.K, having sold over a million copies there — more than either “Thriller” or “Billie Jean” — but it was never even released as a single in the U.S.

Alex Pasternack at TreeHugger.com describes the epic music video’s “scenes of environmental destruction and war [...] cut with Jackson wandering across a landscape of drought and fire, before he does his yell-through-the-wind thing, undoing all of our ecological damage like magic.” Its messianic portrayal of Jackson staving off the eco-apocalypse apparently ticked off Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker (now a climate change activist rocker) who stormed the stage at one of Jackson’s performances. Other blogs posting about it include the Guardian’s Environment Blog, Rock and Ecology, Moving Images Moving People, and Mark Meisner’s new environmental communication blog Indications, which also provides helpful links to sites examining environmental themes in popular music. One can find lists of such “earth songs” or “eco-tunes” at SierraClub.org, PlanetPatriot.net, and Rich Wallace’s Climate Change Songs site — and see the long list of links at the end of that document for others.

A focus on environmental messages in popular music, however, doesn’t tell us much about the ways music reshapes the material, social, and perceptual ‘ecologies’ within which it is produced, consumed, and lived. (I’ve been developing this idea of “three ecologies,” inspired originally by Felix Guattari’s book of that title, in my writing on film, but it applies just as well to music.) The focus on media messages tends toward an instrumentalist understanding of cultural artifacts — which is helpful enough within an environmental culture that seeks to ‘market’ the ‘right ideas’ and images to audiences, but if those ideas/images remain subject to the short memory spans and limited issue-attention cycles of popular media interest, any effort at social or environmental change remains an uphill struggle. Jackson’s “Earth Song” is a fascinating artifact, and I have no doubt that it got some of his youthful fans excited about environmental issues at the time it came out, but I would want to know to what extent it set this affective energy into motion — the ways it informed fans’ identities (or failed to), shaped the ways they felt and thought about things, and moved them to discussion and even action on environmental issues.

Another moment within the song’s and video’s cultural circulation that does get mentioned in some of this environmental commentary is its production. Pasternack writes, “It was named by MTV one of the top 40 most expensive music videos, and was also likely one of the most carbon-heavy, too: locations included the Amazon rainforest, Croatia, Tanzania, and Warwick, New York, where a safe forest fire was simulated in a corn field.” Ecocritical film scholars have been urging ‘greener’ forms of film production, and the same could be done (and is being done) with music. But ultimately an ecocritical approach to music would have to deal not only with the ways music and its related media forms (such as videos) are produced and the cultural meanings they convey, but also the ways in which they might broaden, or dampen, collective and institutional capacities for socio-ecological change. Popular music of the kind Michael Jackson excelled at did change people through the meanings and affects it conveyed about movement/dance and race (blurring the black-white divide in America perhaps more than any other artist to that time), but I doubt the same could be said of the environmental or eco-social imagery in this song, which isn’t particularly original (neither the video’s romanticization of indigenous people nor Jackson’s role as messianic agent leading a magical movement reversing “man’s” environmental sins were new ideas). What was new was that this was Michael Jackson doing it. But that has a history, too — Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On preceded it by over two decades, and it’s interesting to compare the cool, heady optimism of Gaye’s video (just folks gettin’ together to change things, man) with the hot jeremiadic fervor of Jackson’s.


The message-focused instrumentalism — a focus on songs that would convey or encode new ecological meanings and sensibilities — reaches its apogee, perhaps, in A Singable Earth Charter, a project that relates this task to a broader set of cognitive-psychological and cultural contexts than found in most discussion of popular ecoculture. But there remains plenty of room for the development of a broader agenda within ecocritical studies of music, which would look at the connections between the production of music (including the ways its production enables or constrains the democratic capacity for music/culture-making) and music’s many meanings and uses, including in relation to popular and alternative cultures, dance and body cultures, communication and new media, soundscapes or ‘sound ecologies’, and so on. The work of musicologists like Steven Feld, Charles Keil, Philip Bohlman, and Tim Taylor provides some avenues for the kind of ethnographically informed cultural analysis of music that ecocritics could try to emulate. The Ecocriticism Study Group of the American Musicological Society has put out an impressive bibliography of resources that should be required reading for aspiring ‘ecomusicologists.’ The ESG leans toward the kind of eco-pastoral (rurality and wilderness favoring) normativity that has shaped the field of acoustic ecology since its inception, but there is clearly more brewing in this area than that. More cross-fertillization between the fields of environmental communication, cultural studies, musicology (including ecomusicology), and ecophilosophy could bear much interesting fruit.

A couple of other takes on Michael Jackson which are, in very different ways, attuned to a few of the broader ‘ecologies’ of music, are ANTHEM‘s brief but provocative actor-network account of the Michael Jackson “assemblage” and Steven Shaviro’s more freewheeling cultural analysis of Jackson.

more ASLE observations

Intrigued by the number of times the name of Bruno Latour came up in conversations at the ASLE conference, I counted the mentions of different theorists and philosophers (i.e., not literary writers, artists, et al.) in the titles of conference papers and presentations. (Unfortunately, neither the program nor the conference website provides full abstracts. Note to conference organizers: these are useful to conference attendees and for reference purposes like this one.) Based on titles alone, by my count Latour and Maurice Merleau-Ponty had the highest number of mentions, with full sessions dedicated to them. Mentioned as well, but less frquently, were Agamben, Deleuze & Guattari, Derrida, Dewey, Appadurai, and Haraway, with an implicit nod or two to Heidegger.

But titles alone show a much greater focus on creative writers, which is what I would expect at a literature and environment conference. From just a very quick scan of paper and session titles, those receiving the most mentions were Wordsworth, Thoreau, Melville, Linda Hogan, Shakespeare, Gary Snyder, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Kim Stanley Robinson — which tells us that the same old sources (and a few younger ones, like Robinson’s) are continuing to generate productive scholarly conversations. That said, I would guess that the number of new writers, young writers, and non-North American and non-white writers continues to increase in proportion to the overall mix.

The most commonly focused-on topics included eco-poetics, animal studies, globalization, climate, area/regional themes (of various kinds), urban ecologies, film, islands (both because the conference was held on an island and because this was prominent in the call for papers), toxicity, environmental justice, rhetoric, and science. Most of these were mentioned in the call for papers, so none are particularly surprising, though the themes of animals/animality, film, and toxicity did impressively better than a glance at the CFP would have predicted. (I’ll have more to say on film in an upcoming post.) Longitudinal data spanning several conferences could give us a much more complete picture of the evolution of ASLE and of ecocriticism — which should be of interest to anyone thinking about the future of the latter (and a few responses to my previous blog on this topic, including from both of the plenarists discussed there, convince me that that is a topic of interest).

All in all, the conference was rich in words, readings, meetings, conversations, book exhibits, and presentations, all punctuated with wanders through the most beautiful ravine bordering a university campus I’ve ever encountered or even imagined possible (to which photos just don’t do justice).