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Manifestos are back in style (if this one, this one, and this one are any indication). Here’s my latest crack at a fairly simple statement of principle.

The lesson of the field of environmental studies, to which I’ve dedicated more than three decades of my life, is that there’s a civilizational task ahead of us.

(When I say “us,” I mean to invoke humanity, fully aware that it’s a category that’s far from unified and settled. What “humanity” might be remains an open question. And when I say “civilizational,” I mean to indicate the immense complexity of ideas and practices that hold together much of the human side of the world as we know it.)

The task is that of instituting two radical and simultaneous shifts, one “external” and one “internal.”

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How best to characterize the past decade in books? This list focuses on three themes: attempts to grapple with the nature of the climate and extinction crises, the “ontological” and “decolonial” “turns” in cultural and environmental theory, and efforts to map out the “multispecies entanglements” that characterize our world and the acute challenges we face.

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Fans of Mark Rothko’s color field paintings frequently comment on the spaciousness, immersiveness, and liminality of those works: the way you can stand in front of them and feel as if you are being bathed in some transcendent force that is irreducible to anything else. Great art is (supposed to be) like that: it simply is what it is, and it takes you somewhere else, different from where you start.

This is what I meant by the Zone in my book Ecologies of the Moving Image, except that with Rothko and his kin (Hilma af Klint comes to mind), the Zone itself is stable — it is simply there in its presence and its vibrant materiality — even while its effect is destabilizing. In the open alterity of its static image, a Rothko painting (or one of the more geometically pure af Klint works) beckons the viewer into itself, where it stands without deviation. Any motion in the image is something that happens in the relation between image and viewer; it occurs at the level of vibration, not of narration. You stand there, and you begin to vibrate with it. It opens you.

In perilous times — times, for instance, of a destabilizing pandemic (with intimations of worse things to come; more on those things below) — artistic works and/or spaces that provide that kind of “transcendent stability” can be reassuring and comforting. The best such works do not simply reassure us in the status quo; they take us out to a place different, from which we can get a different glimpse at the present. The pandemic is like that: if we think we will simply go back to “normal,” we’ve missed what it brought us.

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The following distills the essence of my responses to questions from a vaccine (and Covid) skeptical friend. I share it in case it’s useful for others (and because it updates a few things I’ve written before on the topic). I’m not an epidemiologist and the comments on the science of the pandemic are those of an informed lay person. The comments on media, politics, and the culture of science are more directly connected to my research areas.

Why such a draconian response to this virus? Aren’t mortality rates from Covid-19 much lower (less than 3%) than for so many other infectious diseases?

It’s true that Covid-19 mortality rates are much lower than some epidemics have had, but there are many factors that play into mortality rates, including treatment, societal responses, general hygiene and immunity levels, and the like. There have been many viral pandemics in the past, some of them killing millions of people. Covid is out of the ordinary mostly in its rapid spread and highly contagious nature, and in the lack of a vaccine against it. Given the conditions for the emergence of zoonotic viruses — the last pockets of wild animal refuges being decimated around the world, climate change setting off more movements of refugee human and animal populations — we can expect more viruses like it to emerge, so whatever we learn from this encounter will be valuable moving forward. The only large-scale protections we have against the worst of these virueses are (1) living healthy, immuno-protective lives (which we should all be trying to do) and (2) developing vaccines (which modern science does better than any traditional medicine did).

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Happy to share that I’ll be participating in a panel/conversation at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF), in a celebration of open-access journal Media+Environment, today from 5:00 to 6:30 pm Eastern Daylight Time (21:00-22:30 GMT). FLEFF, which is now in its 24th year, is one of the signature environmental film festivals around the world. This year’s festival is fully virtual and open to all registrants.

Tonight’s event will feature the journal’s three co-editors (Janet Walker, Alenda Chang, and myself) plus contributor Christina Vagt and coordinating editor Stephen Borunda speaking on the role of open-access journals like M+E in mediating and expanding the intersections between media production and environmental action. The 90 minute panel discussion and conversation will be moderated by FLEFF’s co-director Patricia Zimmermann.

Here’s the registration link:

https://www.ithaca.edu/finger-lakes-environmental-film-festival/week-three-events/friday-april-9-500-630-pm

Theory has a mobile army of metaphors that account for its own importance. The vanguardist notion of a “cutting edge” has long served as a paradigmatic metaphor for theoretical innovation, and it’s one I take issue with in my article “Is the Post- in Posthuman the Post- in Postmodern? Or What Can the Human Be?,” which has just come out in a special issue devoted to posthumanism of the Shanghai Academy-based, bilingual Chinese journal Critical Theory. (The issue, which is focused on posthumanism, features a significant new piece by N. Katherine Hayles, alongside work by several Chinese scholars.)

A more helpful metaphor for theoretical novelty is Jacques Rancière’s “redistribution of the sensible,” which can also be applied to the literature on the “post-human” and on posthumanism. By the “distribution of the sensible,” or portage du sensible, Rancière means

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Here are a few thoughts coming out of the five weeks of readings in decolonial theory that I’m doing with my Advanced Environmental Humanities class (which has been online and open to the interested public). The course is centrally concerned with the present “global moment,” and the following can be considered a short take on how this moment might best be theorized.

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Equinoxx

Equinoxes and solstices are geometrical phenomena. They mark the passage of time in ways that are easy to understand and more or less universal. I understand people’s desire to watch for them, to mark them out, and to even reclaim them as somehow more primordial than other kinds of temporal passage points.

But changing seasons involve much more of a multi-layered confluence and conflagration of elements. And they are specific. This place has its seasons. They vary in their timings and specificities, and their variations provide for talking points because of the background of consistency those variations revolve around. When the consistency reasserts itself, we are satisfied.

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Reading Nigel Clark and Bron Szerszynski’s just published Planetary Social Thought: The Anthropocene Challenge to the Social Sciences is helping me think through what I see as perhaps the key philosophical debate of the current time. That debate is over the “ontological politics” of the difference between science in its theory and practice — including the sciences of climate change, of ecological systems, of viruses, evolution, geology, and more — and colonial/capitalist modernity’s most direct victims: the knowledges and lifeways of indigenous and place-based cultures.

This debate has a more general antecedent, which is the debate over the proper relationship between science and religion. Science tells us certain things, religion(s) tell(s) us very different kinds of things, so how do we make sense of those differences?

The debate I have in mind is more specific than that, for several reasons: because indigenous religion is not just any kind of religion; because it isn’t just about “religion,” but about reality (though in some sense the science-religion debate has always been about reality); because the science we’re concerned with is more specific (and more specifically institutionalized) today; and because this debate comes with an understanding of the political economy/ecology of the last five centuries that the broader debate has generally lacked.

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I had been avoiding the Whitehead Research Project‘s monthly reading groups because of conflicts with other scheduled activities, but today I joined. The reading was a short, unpublished manuscript somewhat misleadingly titled “Freedom and Order,” as it’s mostly about humor, wit, and imagination.

Now I understand why I’ve always been put off by, and a little suspicious of, people who are too witty. Whitehead counterposes wit against humor:

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Local election call

I don’t usually write about local politics on this blog. But why not? Here’s my prediction for next Tuesday’s Burlington,* Vermont, mayoral election. Let this be a test of how good, or bad, I’ve gotten at observing my city’s politics.

(For outsiders: this is the city where Bernie Sanders cut his political chops as mayor for most of the 1980s. Since then, it’s been largely contested between two parties—Democrats and the further-left Progressives, with a diminishing group of Republicans and occasional independents to spice things up. At this point, it’s become something of a two-party system, just not the usual two. The city has little opinion polling to speak of, which is part of why I’ve pushed myself to write this. And while I’ve lived here almost 18 years, I’ve only been a citizen and voter for the last two. I’m also no expert at this, so take what follows with a grain of salt.)

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In my writing about media, I’ve been using the words “ecology” and “ecosystem” fairly liberally (for instance, here). In a new piece called “The Limitations of the ‘News Ecosystem’ Metaphor,” The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Harris argues that this metaphor is misguided. She interviews media scholar Anthony Nadler, who has claimed that the metaphor “naturaliz[es] current trends in the diffusion and development of news practices.” Its use “suggests ‘spontaneous, self-ordering principles’ in the news market obscuring all the social, political, and economic decisions that undergird the status quo.”

I want to respond to that argument here.

The argument is not a new one; some version of it has plagued the field of “media ecology” for as long as that field has existed (which it has, as a kind of interdisciplinary interloper into media studies scholarship since the early 1970s). Debates over the aptness of the metaphor have only intensified as an ecologically oriented media scholarship has grown.

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My book Ecologies of the Moving Image takes Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zone, so richly depicted in his celebrated 1979 film Stalker, as a kind of master metaphor for how cinema works and, by implication, how art in general works: it beckons its receiver into following it into a zone where, at best, anything can happen.

The journey into the Zone produces a world whose resonances work on multiple levels including the human or “anthropomorphic” (recreating an understanding of what it means to be human), the animate and biological (which I call the “biomorphic”), and the geographic and terrestrial (“geomorphic”). While most films aren’t particularly creative on any of these levels, the best films, especially those that have reshaped audiences’ understandings of the socio-ecological make-up of the world, do this on all three. They are cinema at its “morphogenetically” most creative.

Readers of my later writing, including Shadowing the Anthropocene, will understanding that this creative, “world-building” conception of art is of a piece with the broader process-relational philosophy I espouse, which resonates with the relationalism of a series of contemporary philosophical trends but more carefully delineates exactly what that means. The world, in a process-relational perspective, is a continual forward movement into “the Zone.” Its significance and value are found in this movement to the extent that the openness of the movement becomes greater and more generative of aesthetic, ethical, and (eco-)logical value and significance.

The Zone, then, is a good metaphor for thinking about life, meaning, and value, especially at times when we feel we may be collectively stepping into a place whose coordinates are difficult to map out and potentially treacherous to navigate. Here I want to argue that the reverse is true as well: that metaphor itself is among the best metaphors for thinking about the Zone.

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