In Media Res is calling for guest curators on the theme of the representation of environmental issues in the media. The deadline (alas) is March 11.
See the call here.
H/t to Ecomedia Studies.
This blog was added to the Directory of Best Green Blogs earlier today. To honor that I thought I would re-post a link to one of my favorite climate change related videos: the plastic bag polar bears emerging from the subway vent and melting back into them (i.e., the Environmental Defense Fund NYC subway ad campaign video, with music by Stars of the Lid).
(But do we still say “Save the Planet” these days? Can someone come up with a better three-word slogan?)
Folks, do something. First about greenhouse gases, then about the impending ocean aquacalypse, and global poverty, and everything else. Enjoying every minute of it while you’re doing it.
Also published at Indications.
Having just written a piece for Environmental Communication about the promises and pitfalls of cognitive science-based approaches to communicating about issues like climate change, I can’t help commenting on this video and blog post that arrived this morning on my blog reader from identity campaigning, re-posted from Cognitive Policy Works. The piece both captures and fails to capture salient issues in this debate…
The author, Joe Brewer, gets it right in arguing that the video successfully applies the following “lessons” from cognitive science:
1) That our thinking works in visual and embodiment-based metaphors: Yes, the video employs the graphic physical embodiment of such metaphors portrayed through movement, gesture, dress, etc.
2) That it “makes climate change sexy”: Yes, it does this through the way it elicits, solicits, and interpellates the viewer in a process of desire, a directional build-up whereby we want to “finish the job” of stripping the supermodel. It’s left up to us to do that in our imagination. It’s now in our hands, like a video-game joystick. (Take that where you will…) This point is made by Brewer’s second (“sexy”) and fourth (image schemas) arguments. (The latter, his “balance” and “source-path-goal” schemas, are a fancy way of saying that the metaphors are based in the capacities of the body — for movement toward a goal, for balance, etc.)
3) That it’s effective marketing. Indeed. At 160,000 views as I write, it’s now had 50,000 more views since he wrote his piece.
But his point that it “deconstructs the fashion industry” is wishful thinking on Joe’s part. It plays along with that industry, adding fuel to its workings. (Underwear ads are just as much a part of the industry as are ads for jeans and fur coats, and provoking viewers’ desires to see naked bodies doesn’t take anything away from clothing manufacturers’ ability to sell those bodies clothes.) It adds to the normalization of a certain body image for women: all the models are unhealthily tooth-pick thin women, and all follow the script of how sexy women are supposed to look at their audience of unseen voyeurs. (And did anyone else notice that the more they strip, the more they look 15 years old?) Of course, there’s nothing to stop others from doing alternative versions of this featuring non-white models, male strippers, transvestites, or anything else — which is the argument of the pro-porn feminists, the green fashionistas, et al.
But another thing that strikes me is that the final take-home verbal message — “If you want to see 350, our natural state, you have to get your politicians to act now” (emphasis added) — is not conveyed in a visually or metaphorically effective way. When it comes to graphically embodying any kind of action (other than stripping, or being stripped), our cognitive (embodied, visual, metaphorical) mind is left at the door.
The first text comment below the video when I watched it was dagrimreefah’s “This media cartel sure is doing a great job on all of you livestock” — which is probably intended as a witty interjection of climate denialism, but there’s a more general point that could be made with that. A quick glance at the rest of the comments tells us a few interesting things:
(1) Most of them refer to the physiques of the models (some of them, wisely, asking to see more — not less clothing, mind you, but just more healthy flesh covering their bones);
(2) Of those that refer to the science of climate change, a large number deny it and/or politicize it with anti-Obama rhetoric (or with critiques of his compromises); and
(3) Not a single one seems to get the metaphor of “supermodels” being both the women displayed and the ways — the only ways — in which we actually know about climate change itself and the role “350 parts per million” plays in it.
Climate change models are highly sophisticated, complex pieces of science that deserve a bit more discussion. Riffing on that, however, would take away from the project of making hegemonic (“common-sensifying”) the message about climate change. But I would argue that part of making that message broader is playing up its science (just to raise awareness of how we know about climate change) and, secondly, playing up its ethics and politics: its potential (and already claimed) victims, its costs, and the vested interests on both sides (“old energy” on one, new entrepreneurialism on the other).
Okay, I’m asking too much of a simple 90-second ad. But discussing the ad seems useful, even if it contributes to the viral spread of something I’m ambivalent about…
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.
The eco-arts blogosphere has kept simmering through the early summer. Greenmuseum.blog, connected to the excellent online environmental resource and exhibition space Green Museum, has taken on a new look. The blog had recently covered the Earth Matters on Stage EcoDrama Symposium, held at the University of Oregon. Mike Lawler’s EcoTheatre blog also provided coverage of EMOS. Ecoartspace has been blogging from the Seattle Public Arts Conference, the theme of which this year was Renewable Resources: Arts in Sustainable Communities.
Over at Sustainability and Contemporary Art, Maja and Ruben Fowkes have been blogging about the Hard Realities and New Materiality Symposium, which took place at Central European University recently. Antennae magazine has an interview with the Fowkes in which they discuss the sustainability of contemporary art, the ethics vs. the aesthetics of form, Felix Guattari’s ‘three ecologies,’ and other topics. Some of the Fowkes’ writings, including Unframed landscapes: Nature and Contemporary Art and Towards the Ecology of Freedom, can be found at Translocal.org. (Some of these overlap with issues I discussed in my piece Sustainable vision from the 2004 Natural Grace exhibition catalogue; you can find a brief overview of the environmental and eco-art movements there.)
Smudge has been blogging about the massive LAND/ART exhibition/project in New Mexico. In many ways, land art reflects an earlier moment in the evolution of ecological art, one premised on making statements in wild or open landscapes, but much of what’s presented in this exhibition goes well beyond that, for instance, to the documentation, questioning, and interrogation of land uses in their social, perceptual, and ecological contexts. Among the events is an Experimental Geography exhibition, featuring The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Trevor Paglen, and others. See the CLUI’s database of unusual and exemplary sites — which range from nuclear and industrial accident sites and weapons plants to tourist caves, ghost towns, and UFO sites across the U.S. — to get an idea of what this unusual ‘research organization’ does. Artist and “experimental geographer” Paglen‘s work on “black sites” — secret military landscapes and other “blank spots on the map” — has even gotten him onto the Colbert Report; see his media page for articles, reviews, and videos. Paglen writes about Experimental Geography over at Brooklyn Rail, while Rhizome provides a good list of reading materials on the topic. See also art:21′s interview with EG curator Nato Thompson.
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).
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.
In Why Environmental Understanding, or “Framing,” Matters, published today on the Huffington Post (and on AlterNet), liberal framing guru George Lakoff provides a useful critique of a forthcoming EcoAmerica report on the framing of environmental and climate change issues. While his conclusions are perceptive and make the article a valuable read — I’ll get to those — I find the assumptions underlying his critique worthy of examination. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist, and he contrasts his use of the term “frames” with sociological work on “discursive frames,” rather unfairly biasing the comparison in his favor by suggesting that the sociological approach is “superficial” while his is rooted in the neurobiology of brain functioning.
“We think,” he writes, “mostly unconsciously, in terms of systems of structures called ‘frames.’ Each frame is a neural circuit, physically in our brains [sic]. We use our systems of frame-circuitry to understand everything, and we reason using frame-internal logics. Frame systems are organized in terms of values, and how we reason reflects our values, and our values determine our sense of identity. In short, framing is a big-deal.
“All of our language is defined in terms of our frame-circuitry. Words activate that circuitry, and the more we hear the words, the stronger their frames get. But if our language does not fit our frame circuitry, it will not be understood, or will be misunderstood.”
In translating science for a popular audience, especially in a political context, one of course has to simplify. But I find Lakoff’s simplifications here a bit jarring. They remind me of those Cartesian diagrams of human mental circuitry by which a physical stimulus leads to a neurochemical response leads to a physical reaction (see illustration above), with no place for culture or for a feeling human agent in the middle of it. Lakoff reduces all of our understanding to words (“all of our language” works this way) activating distinct neural circuits called “frames,” which are “organized in terms of values,” with the latter in turn “determin[ing] our sense of identity.” It’s not clear where these “values” come from, or if values and identity have their own separate neural circuits or, if not, what exactly they are. According to Lakoff, “two competing value-based systems of frames,” and therefore two identities, are available “in our politics”: a conservative one and a progressive one. (See his Moral Politics for more on these.)
But my quibbles here are not so much with the simplification of our politics or of the “neural circuitry”; I’m content to acknowledge that a quick polemical Huffington Post article is not the place for articulating a thorough and coherent model of language, selfhood, and society. What’s more important to me, though, is that there seems little role in Lakoff’s model for affect, that is, for individual and collective emotional response, in people’s processing and use of language, concept, metaphor, and image.
Environmental pied piper Annie Leonard’s 20-minute teaching video The Story of Stuff got five minutes of frantic Fox News treatment a few days ago — which means it’s making an impact out there in the wilds of America. New York Times Education writer Leslie Kaufman, writing about it on Sunday, noted that six million people have viewed the film on the Story of Stuff web site, millions more have seen it on YouTube, over 7,000 schools, churches and others have ordered a DVD version, and Facing the Future, a sustainability and global issues curriculum developer for schools in all 50 states, is drafting lesson plans based on the video. Kaufman calls it “a sleeper hit in classrooms across the nation.” She also notes its critics, including a Montana school board that decided against showing the video “after a parent complained that its message was anticapitalist.”
Fox’s liberal media watchers apparently took the Times story as a cue to do a segment on it, so they invited Allegheny College environmental studies prof Michael Maniates and the American Enterprise Institute’s global warming skeptic Chris Horner to debate it for a full, well, not quite five minutes. (If the environmental studies field had its academic stars, Maniates would be one of them, alongside David Orr, Gus Speth, and a few others. That list alone makes me want to ask: where are ES’s Judith Butlers and Donna Haraways? But that’s a topic for another conversation.)
Horner describes the video as an “abysmal” marriage of Malthus and Marx — “community college Marxism in a ponytail” (sounds scary, doesn’t it?) — and claims that it “terrorizes children into rejecting the prosperity that will allow them to live into their 70s or likely 80s in America as opposed to their 40s if they’re lucky in Haiti or 50s in India — these poor societies that we idolize and romanticize through philosophies like this, which [...] were disproven some time ago.”
It’s that very connection between us living into our 80s here and the Haitians and Indians living only to their 50s ‘there’ that the video is so good at thematizing. Despite its oversimplification of the details, Leonard’s video captures the systemic interconnections between ecology, industrial growth, human rights and social justice, and corporate globalization in ways that’s nearly impossible in twenty minutes. It’s not a marriage of Malthus and Marx — calling it that is just Horner’s attempt to make it seem both dated and dangerous, though he may be shooting himself in the foot, since most Fox viewers aren’t likely to know much about either of them. It’s really a simplified ‘for-kids’ version of a pretty current synthesis of ecological economics (and industrial ecology) with world systems theory and political economy — or, in a word, political ecology.
One of Maniates’s points (one of the few he’s allowed to make in such a short segment) is that the video is being greeted well not only by the environmental left but also by parts of the right. You can see a bit of that on the Christianity Today blog, for instance (though I’m not sure how ‘right’ they are). Some interesting critical discussion of the video can also be found on tech-geek Andy Brain’s blog.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this real-time simulation of the Earth’s CO2 emissions and birth and death rates (by country)… But I find myself mesmerized, in particular, by the soundtrack and the way it adds rhythm, along with a sort of creepy (-crawly) beauty, to the map. It is, of course, a great time to be experimenting with different methods for visualizing climate change, and while this one doesn’t give us much insight into the ‘base of the pyramid’ (see my note on swine flu and the connection between sustainability/resilience and the political-economic pyramid), I like the way it grasps the importance of sound and of time in creating a feel for what’s being portrayed.
Thanks to Reconciliation Ecology for sharing it.