Tag Archive: mortality

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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Continuing from yesterday’s post on Graham Harman… (Warning: This post is long.)

Where Tool-Being presented a Heidegger flushed clean of his anthropocentrism, Prince of Networks takes Bruno Latour for a ride on a philosophical adventure toward a world not of actors and networks but of objects, pure if not so simple. The book’s first half provides a detailed, clear, entertaining, and precise exegesis of Latour’s metaphysics through an examination of his claims in four books: Irreductions, Science in Action, We Have Never Been Modern, and Pandora’s Hope. The second, slightly longer half investigates some philosophical problems his actor-network theory opens up; explores lengthy detours through Meillassoux (on relationism and correlationism), Whitehead, Husserl (immanent objectivity), speculative realism, and other by-ways; and ends with a detailed explication of Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, which, the argument goes, is made possible by Latour’s ‘flat ontology’ and deepened through Heidegger’s tool-being (with the aid of Zubiri and others), but which is ultimately Harman’s own. In effect, this is Harman building an all-star collective, enrolling Latour (who participates vicariously) and Heidegger (who’s too dead to tell us whether he’d go along with the project or not), with assistance from others, against the revolution by which Immanuel Kant installed humans at the philosophical center of everything.

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We live in a universe of hazard, a place where asteroids strike, where car smash-ups pluck out a life like a boot squashing a centipede, where planes fall out of the sky, a heart attack takes a brother from behind in the middle of a night, a train runs over a friend’s passed out daughter, a truck runs over a fallen bicyclist girlfriend, where heartbeats blinking on a screen one day vanish by the next. (I won’t go into the personals of any of these; the asteroids, in my life at least, remain fictitious.)

When these events happen, meaning-craving beings like us seek an explanation, a story to give us some way of accounting for them. Sometimes the explanations are there — because the world is thickly networked and the connections leading from one thing to another are fairly evident (this thing led to that which then led to that), or they can be reconstructed through some pattern-observation and model-building, which is essentially what science does. But even when the hows are evident, the whys remain elusive. Most of us carry around maps of why — god-stories that make sense of anything with a little tweaking: it’s divine punishment or reward, a trial to make one stronger, some kind of karmic compensation for past misdeeds (back to the latter in a moment), a conspiracy of “them” or my own eternally recurrent failure, “that’s how it was meant to be.” These why-stories are like nests built out of twigs and branches and leaves. Some are built stronger than others. Some turn into multilayered, convoluted architectures capable of accounting for anything, as long as we focus well beyond the twigs and branches and leaves that disintegrate when we stare at them too closely.

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The tributes are starting to come in for Thomas Berry, Catholic ecotheologian (or “geologian,” as he sometimes referred to himself), scholar, and spiritual/deep ecological visionary, who passed away at age 94 yesterday. Berry is best known for books including The Dream of the Earth, The Universe Story (with physicist Brian Swimme), and The Great Work, in which he articulated the idea that the universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects. Berry wrote:

“If the dynamics of the Universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the Earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and the seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the Universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.”

A few of the more interesting tributes are from the National Catholic Reporter and Drew Dellinger, whose tribute to Thomas is shared on Gus DiZerega’s blog. But I’m sure there will be much more about him in the coming days.

Berry’s vision is completely in synch with the views I’ve described on this blog under the terms “immanentism,” “immanent naturalism,” et al. His passion and writing will continue to nourish many.



I’m very sad to hear that a friend and colleague, geographer and Africanist Glen Elder, has passed away following a heart attack. Glen was a warmhearted, passionate scholar, former chair of Geography and current Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont. He had just given a captivating performance as master of ceremonies of the Arts and Sciences graduation ceremony this past Sunday.

My deepest condolences to all affected, especially Glen’s partner Mick. Our memories of Glen will continue to be inspired by his warmth, insight, passion, expansive worldview, and dedicated teaching and leadership.

Here’s Glen’s web site and UVM Provost John Hughes’ words about Glen’s death. Also, my friend Reese Hersey has kindly shared the following reflection about Glen, originally given at Glen’s UVM Dean’s Lecture on November 4, 2005:

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As goes Motor City, so should go the world – or at least eco-activists might like to argue that. The archetypal home of American car culture, Detroit, has been decaying for years. It’s now collapsed from a city of two million to less than half of that, and in the process it has opened up dramatic possibilities for regeneration.

Photo District News has collected some glimpses of the ruins. Kevin Bauman’s Abandoned Houses , from which the above photo is taken, are akin to real estate sales photos gone wild, while Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s “Ruins of Detroit” series include some stunners, like this photo of the United Artists Theater:


These, like Timothy Fadek’s industrial ruins and Sean Hemmerle‘s Time magazine photo essay, include many that seem as if they’re right out of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Bruce Gilden’s photo-essay on Detroit Foreclosures includes a poignant soundtrack reminding us what the current economic crunch feels like to some.

The Time article that accompanies Hemmerle’s and Marchand/Meffre’s photos reports that among the ideas proposed for redevelopment of Detroit are “the reforestation of the city’s dead zones” and “the planting of large-scale networks of parks and commercial farms.” While there’s plenty of room for visionary public policy, Detroit doesn’t exactly have a long history of that kind of thing, so, if it was up to me, I would leave a lot of room for the anarchists and artists to get things going. Unfortunately, since Fifth Estate, the longest-running anglophone anarchist periodical in North America, moved out of Detroit in 2001, the local political scene seems a little less prepared for this kind of thing. Artists, however, have been busy making the urban landscape theirs.

The price for grassroots eco-regeneration is certainly right: Jennifer Lance at environmental blog Red Green & Blue reports that you can buy a foreclosed home in Detroit for $40 these days. She even volunteers to do that and to donate it to any organization that would turn it into a park, wildlife sanctuary, or urban garden. Any takers?

The kicker is that this might not even be necessary. Rather like the Chernobyl exclusion zone or the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge — formerly a toxic chemical dump — Detroit is, in places, already reverting back to nature. (Though, on Chernobyl, there has been some controversy about reports that it’s become a wildlife haven.)

Describing the city as a “Wild Kingdom,” Detroitblog.org describes whole neighborhood blocks reverting to prairie, alleys resembling hiking trails, roving packs of wild dogs, feral cats taking over entire buildings, and a resurgence of pheasants, foxes, opossums, turkeys, roosters, and raccoons, along with imported “ghetto palms” (Ailanthus altissima) spreading through the city like weeds and, by their height — sometimes reaching several stories — offering a gauge for how long particular parcels have been neglected.

More photos of Detroit reverting back to nature can be seen here and here. The Greening of Detroit is an institutional non-profit working on urban eco-regeneration, while Motor City Blog keeps tabs on interesting goings-on.

I know it’s just that they’ve touched my inner goth, but these graveyard photographs really do express something of what I find most appealing about the idea of immanence — that death is in the midst of life, the two entwined like the dying branches encircling the face of living stone in Onkel Wart’s photograph:


or Stuck in Customs’ tree overtaking a Chinese gravestone:


or E3000′s Sub Specie Aeternitatis:


or moss covering the angelic human spirit rising above its nature-laden grave in Roberto Catalano’s The City of Falling Angels:


Materiality, cyclicality, the rising and the passing away, the return of life to earth, earth covering earth covering stone covering flesh covering memory. The best of ecological art, it seems to me, reminds us of our embeddedness within cycles of emergence, submergence, and re-emergence in new forms, all causally intertwined in dependent origination converging to and from this moment in which we act, the consequences of our acts rippling outwards through eternity. (No, neither Nietzsche nor Buddha preached a closed universe of fated predetermination, as each moment opens possibilities of new connections to be made. But for both there is an ethic of responsibility to those connections, and a solidarity underpinning them.)

Individually these photos are nothing special – we probably have dozens of our own like them in our photo albums. Their impact is more cumulative, so go to the site itself to see all forty.

Thanks to Integral Options for sharing these (and Neil Gaiman for inspiring the collection).

polar bag

Ambient electroacoustic artists Stars of the Lid do a beautiful job with thisEnvironmental Defense Fund NYC subway ad campaign video.

The other ads in the series can be viewed here.