Tag Archive: nature

I received my copies in the mail this week of the book that arose out of the School of Advanced Research seminar on “Nature, Science, and Religion: Intersections Shaping Society and the Environment.”

It’s a handsome volume, whose contents provide a level of cross-cutting conversation that, I think, is rare among edited collections. Catherine Tucker did a fabulous job editing it.

She and I co-wrote the introductory chapter, which can be read here.

I don’t yet have an electronic version of my closing chapter, “Religious (Re)Turns in the Wake of Global Nature,” but I’d be happy to share a pre-publication version of it upon request. An excerpt of it can be found here.

Nature vs. Grace?

The latest issue of Precipitate: Journal of the New Environmental Imagination — which looks like an excellent issue — includes a review of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” that reminds me how important it is to pay attention to the dialogical and heteroglossic texture of Malick’s films, and how easy it is to lose the path when one puts too much weight on a single line of text.

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Malick’s tangled bank


It will take some time before I can say anything very intelligible about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

But here are some initial thoughts, for what they’re worth.

(1) This is the film in which Malick just lets it go, and lets it flow…

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In defiance of the idea that Nature — the thing, or the idea (capitalized or not), or both — is either dead or unnecessary, I feel like posting some favorite passages from “Nature Alive,” the second of A. N. Whitehead’s two 1933 lectures on nature, published in Modes of Thought (1938/1968), which you can read the full text of online.

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Just as the Haitian earthquake was followed by a welter of religious interpretations (fundamentalist Christians blaming sinful Haitians for it, Vodoun practitioners weighing in on the events, etc.), so the Japanese quake-tsunami-meltdown trilogy is offering evidence of humanity’s interpretive propensities.

You may have already seen the YouTube troll video satirizing right-wing Christian responses, which scandalized so many viewers that the young videomaker has apparently gone into hiding. I won’t link to it, since it doesn’t really deserve all the hits, but it’s easy enough to find. The gist of it is that “God is soooo great — we prayed for him to smite his enemies and there he did, smashing those godless Japanese to smithereens.” A lot of viewers couldn’t seem to tell the difference between satire and the real thing, which apparently follows Poe’s Law: one can’t satirize fundamentalist religion without it being taken by some as the real thing, because there are enough instances in which the real thing is as bad as that (Glenn Beck being only the tip of the iceberg).

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I enjoyed Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life when I first saw it a couple of years ago, and, having just watched it again, I’m glad to see that it bears re-viewing.

As one might expect, some segments are more lasting than others. Slavoj Zizek wearing an orange safety vest talking about ecology at a London trash heap (above) is the most brilliantly conceived segment, and one gets to hear the full (and in its own way brilliant) incoherence of his position on the topic. “The true ecological attitude is to hate the world: less love, more hatred,” as he puts it in the full interview (available in the book-of-the-film, p. 180).

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pictures of light


There are some beautiful photographs of Eyjafjallajokull accompanied by the Northern Lights here. (Thanks to Politics Theory Photography for posting on it.)

They remind me of one of my favorite films about nature, seeing, and light, Peter Mettler’s Picture of Light (with music by Jim O’Rourke).

Volcanic eruption films aren’t plentiful enough to make their own genre. Most of them fall into the disaster genre or the straight documentary video. Werner Herzog’s 1977 film La Soufrière, about the anticipated eruption in 1976 of an active volcano on the island of Guadeloupe, is different. Like his quasi-science-fictional films — Fata Morgana, Lessons of Darkness, Wild Blue Yonder — the film has a tone of tender and lyrical, apocalyptic beauty, a resignation in the face of what appears to be humanity’s passing. Like Aguirre, Heart of Glass, Grizzly Man, and several of his other films, it is also about the human encounter with an indifferent but powerful (capital-n) Nature.

The same elements that later appear in Lessons of Darkness (about the burning oil fields of Iraq), and in different permutations in several of his other films — moving vehicle and helicopter shots of a landscape emptied of humans, classical music including the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal, and the feeling of a waiting, as if something momentous is about to occur, or has already occurred, or both — is already present here, though without the cinematographic intensity of Lessons of Darkness. At times the film is like an archaeological dig through an abandoned city, or a devastated one (the town of Saint-Pierre in Martinique). At others it is about sheer contact — between the camera and the world — and about its embarrassed failure, the “inevitable catastrophe that did not take place.” This is the failure that, Herzog seems to be suggesting, haunts the cinema verité desire to be there when It, whatever It may be, happens.

Like most of Herzog’s films, La Soufrière blurs several sets of lines: between documentary and fiction (a line that Herzog prides himself on dissolving, though here he hews closer to the first pole than he usually does), between observation and performative enactment (meaning that his own persona is ever-present, which in this case includes taking his crew up to the caldera to poke their camera inside the steaming volcano, as if to dare nature to scald them with some smoke and ash), and between the hilarious and the deadly serious. The film highlights the barbed existential irony that when, in 1902, the inhabitants of neighboring Martinique were preparing to leave before an anticipated volcanic eruption, their governor persuaded them to stay; 30,000 died. Now, seventy-five years later, the inhabitants left (except for the few that Herzog’s crew finds and interviews, and of course, Herzog himself, attracted to the volcano like a moth to the flame). And the volcano… balked.

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the horror…


I went to see Lars von Trier’s Antichrist a few days ago. Of the reviews I’ve read, Brent Plate’s captures the way in which the film’s images persist in haunting one’s consciousness. Plate, aptly I think, compares the film to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the film that Adolf Hitler called “an incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement”:

“Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a beautiful film. Ultra slow-motion flashbacks and intercuts reminiscent of a Bill Viola video; high-contrast, black-and-white lovemaking; textured, hypnotic, surrealistic scenes of humans intertwined with nature; and extreme close-ups of human eyes, bamboo in a glass vase, and unkempt hair (the camera sporadically zooms in on the backs of heads a la Hitchcock’s Vertigo) all make for a film that is impossible to get out of one’s sensual body. Antichrist’s images and sounds have infiltrated my dreamscape for the two weeks now since I saw it at the New York Film Festival, along with about 700 other attendees. I wish I had their phone numbers; even the disgusted dozens who walked out halfway through. I’d like to call them at 3:00 a.m. and ask what they are thinking about, what they are dreaming, if indeed they are sleeping. I need some therapy. This is one messed-up film.”

I don’t need therapy from seeing the film, but I am convinced that von Trier needs it. It’s a beautiful film, cinematically masterful at times, but it goes off the rails. Whether it’s misogynist (probably, though one could legitimately debate that), misanthropic (no doubt), just troubled (it certainly is that), or merely pranksterish and provocateurial (and self-promoting to the max), von Trier plays, enchantingly, with the power of images in a way that only those who don’t believe in the power of images can fail to be perturbed by. Where Coppolla’s/Conrad’s/Colonel Kurtz’s “The horror, the horror…” was motivated by something tangible (the Vietnam War, the Belgian Congo, war itself, the murky depths humans sometimes descend to), von Trier’s war is a war at the heart of nature, humanity, everything, and it is a war we lost a long time ago.

Slyly dedicating the film to Andrei Tarkovsky, von Trier is Tarkovsky’s demon brother, his evil genius twin. Where Tarkovsky believes in hope against hope, salvation in a universe that sometimes seems stacked against it (though it’s really us who stack it, and in which ultimately time, nature, and beauty redeem us), von Trier’s is a hopeless beauty, a laugh in the face of cruel darkness, which happens to be a cruel darkness he imagines into existence for us and lets us wander around in at our own risk. He’s too good a filmmaker for us to watch as he drives off a cliff; someone ought to rein him in.


The Biology Blog’s post on shadow biospheres intrigued me in part because I’ve been reading Charles Sanders Peirce, for whom semiosis is writ large (and small) throughout all things. Musing philosophically about the search for life on other planets, the author, cyoungbull, writes, “Unless we know how to interpret the signs of such life, we may not be able to distinguish it from the natural background.” For Peirce, signs of life are everywhere. Indeed, signs are everywhere, as are meanings, at least for those equipped to bear them. Just as for Whitehead it’s experience all the way down, for Peirce it’s semiosis all the way down. (There are other parallels between Whitehead and Peirce; more on those in a future post.) Whether we can read them or not is the question — a question made all the more poignant when they destroy homes and topple buildings, as in Haiti recently or Chile this morning.

The Bioblog piece links to an Astrobiology article on the signatures of shadow biospheres and to an old Nature article by chaophilic scientists and SF writers Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, which includes the following (entertaining) list of “canonical answers” to Enrico Fermi’s 1950 question “if intelligent aliens exist, why aren’t they here?”:

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