Tag Archive: ecopsychology

field of dreams


I just watched Amy Hardie’s recent film The Edge of Dreaming, a documentary about a year in her life during which this science documentarian and self-proclaimed skeptic becomes haunted by a series of dreams that appear to foretell her own death before the year is over. The film becomes an exploration of neuroscience, the meaning and function of dreams and of death (she interviews neurologists and dream researchers Irving Weissman, Adam Zeman, Mark Solms, and others), and the relations that connect and give our lives meaning.

The film treads carefully over the question of what dreams are, leaving open various interpretations: that they are the mind’s meaningless narrative elaborations of random electrochemical brain activity, the efforts of the mind to consolidate new experiences with memories, the uncensored emotional and intuitive currents of our lives turned into neural/narrative pathways, etc.

I watched it knowing almost nothing about where it will go, or even if the filmmaker survives, and I think the film is best seen that way. But it’s worth mentioning that it takes an unexpected, though (thankfully) understated, ecopsychological twist toward the end: it suggests connections between Hardie’s awareness of the damage done by coal mining to the otherwise beautiful Scottish borderlands where she lives, and the extended field of uncensored intuitive currents that dreams allow access to. The latter is a variation of interpretation #3 above, which the film ultimately favors (structurally), and which echoes ecopsychology’s central thesis — that we intuitively/unconsciously sense what’s wrong with the ecological relations making up the world around us.

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Palestinian activists go Na’vi

(Note: After a query from an editor friend, who is unfamiliar with recent research on affect, I’ve decided I should preface this post by saying that no, I don’t mean “effects” with an “e,” but “affects,” accent on the “a.”)

It’s been fascinating to watch the unfolding public conversation about Avatar (much of which, come to think of it, my early review had anticipated): environmentalist celebrations of how it portrays the Earth rising up against the megamachine of capitalism and patriarchy; critiques of how the film perpetuates the stereotyping of indigenous people and reiterates tropes of their salvation by white male messiah figures; the Vatican’s and religious right’s denunciations of its pantheism; the film’s advance of technological wizardry into the domain of a virtual hyperreality, like The Matrix but replacing that film’s gnosticism with a pantheistic new age science of networks and neural systems; and debates over the balance struck in the film between good spectacle (the high-tech stuff) and bad narrative (poor writing, flat characterization, stereotypes all over), or between bad spectacle (Spielbergian gee-whiz stuff) and good narrative (such as the film’s allegorization of global capitalism’s destruction of indigenous communities). Film Studies for Free has usefully summarized the various allegorical readings of the film proposed so far, many of which get articulated in conversations and comments by viewers in various blogs, op-ed commentaries, and social networking sites.

The religious debate has been interesting in part because of the negative reactions that have greeted some of the conservative commentators like Ross Douthat and others who lament the film’s pantheistic nature spirituality and its associated “anti-Americansim” and “anti-humanism”. In his New York Times op-ed, Douthat wrote that “the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.” About 90% of his 146 commenters disagree, sometimes vehemently, with his assessment, generally by sympathizing with the film’s pantheism and seeing in it either something deeply American (in Transcendentalism’s line of descent), much more broadly religious (such as “panentheism” or some mixture of animism and stewardship), or just eco-pragmatically commen-sensical. And while some of the Christian movie sites that typically like to bash Hollywood liberalism do trash Avatar, others (reviewers and commenters alike) are surprisingly positive about the film. Defenders can also be found among more sophisticated conservatives, like the localist Front Porch Republic, and even the libertarian Cato Institute has defended it as an argument on behalf of property rights, the very foundation of capitalism.

What’s more surprising and interesting about the film, however, is how it’s not only breaking box office records around the world, but also may be setting off waves of emotional contagion in its wake — from spurring the launch of numerous fan groups and blogs to providing encouragement and fuel for environmental and indigenous activists as widely dispersed as South America, South and East Asia, and Palestine (portrayed above), to creating something that’s been called “post-Avatar depression.” But let’s start with the politics.

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John Clark’s recent article in Capitalism Nature Socialism, “On being none with nature: Nagarjuna and the ecology of emptiness,” has gotten my neurons firing in a productive way. Clark is a political philosopher whose book The Anarchist Moment had long ago excited me about the prospect of melding together a Daoist-flavored, but Murray Bookchin-inspired eco-anarchism with a Foucauldian critique of power. Clark abandoned his Bookchinian social ecology years ago, finding Bookchin’s project too limiting (though he still sees the need to periodically inveigh against it). But it’s good to see that he is still working on a socio-ecological project that continues to synthesize, deeply and thoroughly, from eastern as well as western traditions.

This particular piece is among the best attempts I’ve seen to apply Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka (Madhyamika) philosophy to environmental ethics, and it raises issues of relevance to ecophilosophy, the relational/objectological debate that featured here a little while ago, and eco-social liberatory practice. Since the article is only available through a personal or institutional subscription to the journal, I’m cutting and pasting some favorite passages into this post, interspersed with comments recontextualizing Clark’s argument within the philosophical currents I’ve been exploring here — specifically, Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan/Zizek, and others. What follows isn’t an in-depth philosophical analysis, and there remain many issues one could try to work out in the relationship between these different thinkers and traditions. I just wish to point out some of the resonances here. (And, sympathizing with Tim Morton’s — that Deleuzian anti-Deleuzian’s ;-) — recent lament about Derrida’s burial beneath mountains of Deleuze, I’ll briefly touch on their compatibility here, at least in a cursory way. They are both, after all, “philosophers of difference” — as one might argue Nagarjuna is, too — but I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there remain large differences, no pun intended, between their philosophical projects.)


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Where the Wild Things Are


I loved Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, so I’ve compiled a list of some useful online resources about the film, book, and author (mostly for my own sake, so I can easily access them if and when I might get around to writing more about it). Just to summarize what I like most about the book and the film:

- Its existential realism: play, fun, mischief, friendship, love, loss, fear, loneliness, change, beginnings and endings… all there, in a kind of holistic mix that brings them all into reflective perspective.

- Its extended-family cameraderie/communalism: Max’s “wild things” are a social network of flawed but hearty characters, kinda like reality. And they like to pile on top of each other.

- Its valorizing of the imagination as a place to play (and work) things out, to figure out one’s emotions & responses to things, a place for practice (in the sense of preparing for reality, but also in the Buddhist sense of practice being everything).

- That they eat their kings (at least up until Max comes along). Kings need to know their place!

- Max’s performance is great.

- Finally, there’s the East European Jewishness of the characters (or call it their Italianness, their Slavicity, whatever) — I mean that quality of being emotionally and bodily there, present, expressive, close to the surface but resonant in the depths, which can be a troubling thing for those not used to it, but which can be lovely. In the film, this is in the the facial, bodily, and emotional expressivity of the acting (if animatronically enhanced puppet/costume/creatures can be said to act). There’s a soulfulness to these characters that stays with you long after Max leaves the island.

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