I’m currently teaching an intermediate-level undergraduate course called “Environmental Literature, Arts, and Media,” or “ELAM” for short. The class covers many styles and formats of literature, arts (including music), and media work that engage in various ways with environmentally/ecologically oriented thematics and practices. The course syllabus is here. An early version of its themes is here.
Students engage in a series of activities which, aside from readings and discussions, include a creative arts project (which can make use of any artistic medium, from literary to visual to performative to digital) and profiles of environmentally oriented artists, musicians, writers, film and media makers, and art works.
We are currently discussing whether to share some of those materials here. Stay tuned.
One of the films that gets a lengthy treatment in my book Ecologies of the Moving Image is Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, about the death of Timothy Treadwell at the hands of a brown bear in Alaska. I characterized it there as a complex and nuanced film that provides a series of somewhat contradictory — but cognitively and affectively compelling — approaches to the human-animal boundary.
What I neglected to examine in any depth was Herzog’s nod to the Alutiiq Native population to help make his own case about that boundary. I should have done that. A film about relations between humans and bears in a part of the world where such relations have existed for centuries requires delving into what Latour and Stengers would call their “cosmopolitics” — the ways in which they have been shaped and continue to affect divergent forms of “naturecultural” coexistence beyond the “modern constitution” of Euro-American modes of thought and practice.
Filmmaker (and UVM graduate student) Finn Yarbrough took up this issue in a short paper for the course I’ve just finished teaching. The paper ranges insightfully from the film’s queerish gender subtext to Alutiiq shamanism. I’m sharing that paper as a guest post below, with Finn’s permission. — A.I.
One of the themes of this chapter is the connection between films about ecological disaster — real, imagined, or potential (future disaster) — and films about other forms of cultural or historical trauma.
How can film represent traumatic events? What if the trauma is as fundamental and collective as the end of the conditions of life as we know it, which is what happens in devastating disasters? What if the events have not yet taken place, but are only imagined as a possibility on the horizon? Continue Reading →
The second week of the animality and “biomorphism” chapter (chapter 5) moved us into an exploration of human-animal interactions and human “becomings-animal.” A screening of Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” (discussed extensively in the chapter) was supplemented by bits and pieces from “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” Robinson Devor’s unusual documentary “Zoo” (which you can watch in full here), and several others.
Now we move into the home stretch of the course. Chapter 6 is intended as the culmination of the book’s several strands, so it would be useful to recap things as we move into it. The first section of the chapter does just that for the main theoretical apparatus of the book (notably, the three “morphisms” and the three moments of the film experience). Beyond that, however, are the various mappings provided in the preceding three chapters.
This week we’ve moved on to the topic of “biomorphism,” which refers to the dimension of life and sensuous interactivity in a film-world – the liveliness that’s found between the passivity of the object-world (the geomorphic) and the human activity of the subject-world (anthropomorphism).
Here is where a film depicts objects as alive, or animals as social, like us, or humans as animal-like. I’ve argued that this is where everything ultimately happens – in the action and interaction between sensorial bodies, things that can perceive and respond to other things. The geomorphic and the anthropomorphic are two ends of the continuum that stretches across the biomorphic field of possibilities.
But since we’ve already dealt with nonliving things (chapter 3) and with humans (chapter 4), we’re focusing here on living, animate things – or what film depicts as living, animate things. Nature films, wildlife documentaries, animation, horror and monster movies, and certain kinds of science-fiction are the genres that most commonly engage this biomorphic realm in the most interesting ways.
The class went on a field trip to see The Act of Killing last week, which fit our reading of Chapter 4 of Ecologies of the Moving Image better than I could have planned. (That’s the chapter that deals with “anthropomorphism,” that is, the “becomings-human” — or “becoming-subjective” — within the world of a film.)
The Act of Killing is Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling documentary about the perpetrators of the mass murders committed by the Suharto regime’s paramilitary death squads in mid-1960s Indonesia. The filmmakers interview some of the worst of the perpetrators and — controversially — invite them to re-enact the killings for the camera, filming these scenes in the style of their favorite film genres. This interplay between mass murder and Hollywood movies — gangsters, westerns, and musicals — is a focus of the film.
What Chapter 3 did with the world (and, specifically, nature), Chapter 4 does with people (and, specifically, their relation to nature). In particular, it deals with contrasts between a normative, “modern” (western, industrial) relationship to nature and a non-normative one: non-western, pre-modern, “primitive,” and all those other characterizations that carry so much baggage in the modern creation narrative.
(“We ‘moderns’ are what we are because we . . . [ascended from, descended from, evolved out of, transgressed, superseded, conquered, etc.] this more . . . [primitive, natural, better, worse, etc.] way of being.”)