Tag Archive: ecology

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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the decay of images (& of bodies)

Catherine Grant’s wonderful Film Studies for Free has posted a great set of resources on film preservation as part of the Film Preservation Blogathon, which features blog posts, articles, images, videos, tweets, and rallying calls from distinguished cinephiles including Roger Ebert, David Bordwell, and others.

The video above (included there) is a Studio 360 piece on Bill Morrison’s found footage collage film Decasia, which is one of the best examples of film, or art, that comments on its own materiality, including its origins and, in this case, its inevitable demise. I’ve blogged about the ecologies and temporalities of images a few times here (with more to come), but thinking about Decasia makes me realize that my recent post on Bergson neglected to mention this materiality of the image.

It may be true, as I wrote there, that “the past is divisible into the era of reproducible images and the era that preceded it: BP (before photography) and AP (after),” or more generally, Before Recording and After Recording, with different extension and limit points for different types of recording — oral, literate, electromagnetic, et al. It may also be true that our technologies of archaeological retrieval, interpretation, and restoration are digging ever deeper into the materiality of the world, making more of it available virtually for new actualizations in the present and future. But it is also true that those materialities all have their half-lives, their temporalities of decay and disintegration, and that there won’t ever come a time when the past is rendered fully open, a pure and transparent archive in which nothing has been lost, nothing has slipped away or disappeared in an invisible stream off the edge of the universe. Things do slip away.

I’ve been thinking about this slippage of things since Graham Harman posted a note in reply to Steven Shaviro arguing that Bergson’s intuition about time “isn’t really grounded in reality”. The point of difference between relational and object-centered accounts, according to Harman, “is whether a thing’s process of genesis is inscribed in its current reality” or not, to which he says “no”: “Much of its genetic history does leave traces, but a great deal of history is forgotten by reality in every moment.” I had begun to respond to him, thinking to myself that this Bergsonian intuition is very much a matter of debate, and that it isn’t just relational and processual philosophers like Bergson and Whitehead who believe that everything at one moment of reality gets incorporated, in some form, into the next moment; that reality, in other words, moves forward — developing, evolving, changing, or enduring, as the case may be, rather than dropping off into an abyss. Where, after all, would it go?

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Gilles Deleuze’s cinema books make for difficult reading, and if one is to make headway into them, it helps not only to know something about Bergsonian philosophy, Piercian semiotics, and (a lot about) the history of film, but also to have clips at hand of the films Deleuze discusses. Fortunately, Corry Shores has been very helpfully compiling such clips, accompanied by excerpts from the books, at his Deleuze Cinema Project 1 blog site.

The two books are books of philosophy centered on the moving image — a term that is somewhat redundant in a Deleuzian/Bergsonian framework, for which everything is (in) movement and becoming, and in which the image, which is both visual and auditory, is part of the very texture, or nature, of things. Deleuze, in other words, does not distinguish between a thing and its representation; rather, there are things, which are always in motion, in process, in becoming, and these things appear as “images,” which can be visual, auditory, etc., depending on the sensory equipment that is brought to them. Since the images are always in motion, it is cinema, the art of the moving image, that has best come to capture this quality of world-in-motion. The books are primarily dedicated to articulating Deleuze’s Bergsonian (and Piercian) schema and to setting out a fairly detailed typology of images. Its historical argument — that a shift after World War II allowed for the emergence of the “time-image”, which comes to supplement and ultimately supplant the “movement-image” — can be taken, albeit loosely, or left, but its ontological underpinnings are original, powerful, and I believe very useful for an emergent eco/geophilosophy.

Marcy Saude’s 5 or 6 minutes on cinematic time is a nice short video discussing Deleuze’s “time-image” concept over clips from Rosselini’s Umberto D, Bela Tarr’s Satantango and Gus van Sant’s Gerry:

As I see it, there are at least three reasons why Deleuzian film theory should be of interest to ecophilosophy. The first is the same reason why Deleuze is of interest more generally: because in providing one of the most coherent and self-consistent accounts of the world as process and change, his philosophy helps us understand the ways that things — i.e. relational systems from the molecular to the social to the ecological — come together and drift apart, territorialize and detteritorialize, with us, psycho-biological processes that we are, caught amidst them and acting from within them upon them (and upon ourselves).

The second reason is Deleuze’s Bergsonian and Piercian (and somewhat biosemiotic) focus on the image and its nature as carrier of affect. This brings imagination — the perception of things as not only a passive “reception” of what is “out there” but also an active reconception and engagement with the images and image-affects — to the center of cultural and environmental theory. Environmentalism needs a better understanding of how images do their work in the world; Deleuze can help with that.

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Žižek and his Others


Speaking here at the University of Vermont last Friday, Slavoj Žižek responded to a student query about where to study Lacanianism by lauding our Film and Television Studies Program as the only one anywhere at which Lacanians are actually “in power” — the current chair, former chair, and at least one other faculty member, plus an overflow audience composed primarily of undergrads providing pretty good evidence of this — and then by characterizing the world of Lacanian theory as a kind of widely but thinly spread diaspora, in which the Lacanian had to craftily pretend to go along with the powers-that-be until they got into a secure position at which point they could turn around and “shoot,” i.e. do the real (Lacanian) stuff.

It’s nice to have one’s university marked out as a unique place in this way, not necessarily because of the Lacanianism (though some would say for that, too) as because having Žižek’s imprimatur adds some always-welcome cachet to it. Compared to the talk Žižek gave in Montreal recently, where his topic had been theology and the death of God, he was more on home turf here, both in terms of having the sympathetic packed-hall audience and because his topic was the more familiar one (for his fans) of ideology, film, and Jacques Lacan.

As I’ve related here before (to some extent), I admire Žižek’s passion, am awed by his energy and prolificacy, and strongly sympathize with his overall project, which he has loosely characterized as waking people up from their ideologically induced slumber, where the ‘waking’ is part of a Lacanian unmasking of psychologically driven illusions, and the ‘ideology’ is the one propping up capitalist injustice. But when it comes to the details of his arguments, I don’t always find them as convincing as I would like.

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(On Kevin Kelly’s “The New Socialism,” Paul Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, Steven Shaviro’s “Against Self-Organization,” and more.)

Self-organizing adaptive systems and other networks are more than just the flavor of the philosophical month; they are a model increasingly used to make sense of the natural and cultural worlds. Generally it’s assumed that such distributed self-organization is a good thing and that our intelligence needs to mirror it as best as possible. This message is reiterated in books like Daniel Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence, a worthy recent entry onto the popular market by the psychologist who popularized the terms social intelligence and emotional intelligence. Summarizing the research of ecological economists and industrial ecologists, among others, Goleman argues that what we need is a “radical transparency” about the entire production and consumption cycle of the products we buy. I’ve only skimmed the book, but I imagine that this argument can be added to the social and emotional intelligence arguments he’s previously made, and perhaps to a “political intelligence” piece that may need to be better developed, so that what we’d get is a radical transparency about the ecological and social justice impacts of the things that make up our world.

Transparency and complexity would seem to go hand in hand, then: the more we are aware of the causal loops making up the increasingly complex systems of our uncertain world, the more capable we are of dealing with the results of those complex feedback loops. But there’s only so much knowing that can go around in a world that’s flooded with information, but in which that information comes primarily in the form of distraction. Both the distribution of knowledge and the economy of attention will be areas we’ll need to be concerned with more and more. On the latter, I highly recommend Sam Anderson’s New York Magazine piece “In Defense of Distraction,” an entertaining jaunt through the landscape of twenty-first century distraction, where attention is increasingly becoming a new currency, and attention aids, from neuroenhancement drugs to mindfulness training, will increasingly provide us with what we need to navigate the world (while remaining upwardly mobile).

To better map out the distributive politics of knowledge and of ecological (and other kinds of) intelligence, we may need to retrieve traditional ideological concepts like “socialism,” and also to examine our assumptions about the nature of the whole system (whether that be global capitalism, the biosphere, or the combination of the two). A couple of recent books and articles can help us think about the ethics and politics of globally distributed intelligence.

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Green cultural studies

Cultural studies” refers to the study of cultural objects, meanings, and processes, and their production and use in contemporary society. It is an interdisciplinary field with a twin commitment to intellectual rigor and social relevance. While the “rigor” piece sometimes means “objectivity,” often it involves a questioning of the assumption that objectivity and subjectivity can be easily distinguished and kept separate; studying culture, in other words, is hardly possible without some level of engagement in culture, which raises ethical issues for those doing the studying. The “relevance” piece means an applicability to real-world situations – an applicability that often means critique but that also intends to promise action towards change for the better (which generally means toward the more democratic and socially just).

So what about green cultural studies? Even though not all “natural” environments are green (in arid countries their predominant color is arguably brown; in marine environments, blue; in arctic environments, white), “green” has generally come to signify a commitment to environmental/ecological politics. Its application to the study of culture is intended in this vein. “Green cultural studies” describes the study of cultural objects, meanings, and actions with an eye and ear for their implications for environmental politics, that is, for understanding and improving the relations between people and the places, landscapes, and multi-species ecological relations they find themselves enmeshed within.

The green political spectrum is a big tent. It includes biocentric or ecocentric deep ecologists, ecofeminists, social ecologists and bioregionalists, eco-socialists and eco-anarchists, environmental justice activists, anthropocentric pragmatists, and liberal and even conservative environmentalists (including those who favor market over state mechanisms, or who favor conservation of “traditional” cultural values and institutions alongside the conservation of ecological relations). Green politics overlaps with and engages in dialogue with numerous other political perspectives; likewise, green cultural studies has developed close, though frequently contested and contentious, links with feminism(s), socialism(s), postcolonialism(s), poststructuralism(s), critical race theory, queer and sexuality studies, and other perspectives within cultural theory and politics.

The emerging field of green cultural studies has poked its head in many places, including at conferences (such as Cultures and Environments, Nature Matters, the biennial ASLE conferences, and the Environment and Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association) and in journals of environmental studies (such as Ethics Place and Environment, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Organization and Environment, The Trumpeter, Cultural Geographies, and Capitalism Nature Socialism) and of cultural studies (such as Cultural Studies, New Formations, and Topia). As a relatively new and poorly defined field, green cultural studies also overlaps significantly with ecocriticism and environmental communication.

Some representative texts in the field include:

Laurence Coupe’s The Green Studies Reader

William Cronon’s Uncommon Ground

Andrew Ross’s Strange Weather

Jhan Hochman’s Green Cultural Studies

Sean Cubitt’s Ecomedia

Tom Jagtenburg and David McKie’s Eco-Impacts and the Greening of Postmodernity

Julia Corbett’s Communicating Nature


Robert Cox’s Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere.

more on complex sustainabilities

The “Complex History” mentioned below was published on Archis.org, which also features an interesting essay on architecture’s “Counter-Histories of Sustainability”.

Meanwhile, on the eve of the Oscars it’s interesting to note that globe-trotting green architect Bill McDonough has been making inroads with the Hollywood eco-set, all the while losing some of his sheen as a world-saving superstar. Danielle Sacks wrote a long and very interesting, if not very complimentary, article for Fast Company recently on McDonough as the “Green Guru Gone Wrong.” I recommend reading the whole piece, along with the growing archive of reader comments. Sacks argues that McDonough’s flawed character has left behind a string of disappointments – disappointed clients, acolytes, Chinese villagers, et al. – even while his great ideas continue to thread their way around to some of the right places. For an antidote to Sacks’ iconoclasm, and to be reminded of how effectively he presents those ideas, see one of Bill’s videotaped talks on “cradle to cradle,” such as this one. (Thanks to Toby Miller’s Green Citizen blog for the Sacks/McDonough tip.)

Every grad student in environmental studies (and related areas) should be quizzed on this map: The Complex History of Sustainability. Departments could be evaluated based on how well they cover the spectrum portrayed in it… Within reason, of course — we don’t really need an eco-Nazi, a global warming conspiracy theorist, or even a libertarian transhumanist onboard. My question is: can this be made into a wiki-style collaborative, multi-dimensional, open-source work-in-progress?

Several prominent Deleuzians are collected in Bernd Herzogenrath’s “Deleuze/Guattari and ecology.” The opening chapter is on the publisher’s web site.