I’ve posted before about the coronavirus “silver lining” of the (partial) opening of access to peer-reviewed literature that some academic presses have been offering through the Covid-19 pandemic. Peer-reviewed literature is the bread and butter of scholarship, and access to it is not just a perk of being in academia, but one of the only ways it’s possible to stay on top of the thinking within any field of scholarship. The fact that only those who are in universities can regularly access these journals (and the fact that so much ill-digested information is much more readily available online) is one of the great barriers to a “knowledge society.”

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People’s identities are an object of study in a range of fields, but it’s the field of cultural studies that has most singularly, even obsessively, sought to understand how identities interact with politics in changing media environments. Cultural studies first emerged in a British milieu marked by very specific relations between socio-economic classes, media industries, and an industrial-capitalist economic system. As it has struggled to keep up with a changing and increasingly globalized world (e.g., Abbas and Erni 2004, Bachman-Medick 2014, Connery and Wilson 2007, Freeman and Proctor 2018, Szeman 2011), cultural studies has become necessarily more informed by the sociology of globalization and by the anthropology of “multiple globalizations,” with their late colonial, postcolonial, and decolonizing contexts and their various relationships with the transnational capitalist economy.

Developing theoretical frameworks that cover the entirety of global culture has been challenging, and there seems to be a shared sentiment among scholars that no single such framework can ever adequately encompass the study of cultural identities writ large across the world. The following is a framework that I have been finding useful in thinking about the cognitive (or worldview) dimensions of “global culture,” including emerging manifestations of “ecoculture” or “ecocultural identity.” It is intended to help us think about how people, as individuals and as communities, make sense of their place (and time) in the world in relation to others.

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Some people believe you’re born from nothing; you live, which is something; and then you’re gone again, back to nothing. (Here’s a poignantly compressed version of that, a life in under 6 minutes.)

Others believe you’re part of a much larger thing, which keeps recycling itself (including you). Maybe there’s progress or development over the long arc of it, from something primordial and undifferentiated to something perhaps unimaginable.

Still others believe you came here from somewhere else, and that this place is a kind of trial, a testing or proving ground, which you’ll eventually leave to go back to that someplace else. (There’s some debate over whether you get to bring anything back with you.)

Finally, there are those who believe you’re not ever alone. There are always others with you: those who came before, those who will follow, and those alongside you over the course of it. And all that you do, you do with and for them.

There. Did I miss anyone?

The “reopening” of the world’s economies, locally and nationally, piece by piece, after the sudden and massive stoppage of the entire economic system, is raising important questions about whether the system can be put back into motion selectively and into a more viable direction than it had been moving beforehand.

Some observers have suggested, optimistically, that this pandemic has already heralded the end of the neoliberal era, or that at the very least it has provided death blows to a few of its key industries (such as oil and gas). Others disagree, and fear that the only reopening on the table is to an even more vicious “business as usual.”

Arundhati Roy’s call to arms, “Our Task is to Disable the Engine,” published last week on the web page of the Progressive International (an important new space for the growing movement of left-of-center eco-justice thinking), presents one of the more provocative and poignant volleys into this debate.

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The global pandemic of Covid-19 has been accompanied by a proliferation of competing narratives of what the crisis is and means, and how it should be addressed. The UN and the World Health Organization have called this an “infodemic,” that is, an epidemic (or pandemic) of information that, in its confusing diversity, has made it more rather than less difficult to make sense of things. The infodemic has included a rapid spread of (what are being called) conspiracy theories.

In what follows, I outline an intentionally simplified theory about the Covid-19 “infodemic,” which I call a “media reliability theory,” and I provide an example to support it. I then discuss a few of its limitations and suggest the need for a more comprehensive model of the infodemic and of information in general. I call the latter an “infovirology” model, that is, one that focuses on how information spreads and the forms it takes as it does that. Like viruses, information spreads within ecosystems (information or media ecologies) and it is those ecosystems that need better understanding today. I end with some recommendations for a media regimen around the pandemic.

This is all work in progress, connected to a course I’ll be teaching this fall and to longer-standing work on media and cultural politics. Comments are welcome.

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One of the most frustrating things about losing a family member during this pandemic has been the mandatory self-quarantine — the one that’s been imposed on me for crossing a national border to get here (to the Toronto area where my father was living up until a few days ago), and on my sister who is Covid-positive and who lived with and took care of my father over his final week of life, and on everyone else, who should be doing their best to stay away from us. When you lose a father and then cannot even see your siblings, let alone spend time with them to tell stories and comfort each other, the loss leaves an unusual hole to be filled by other means.

I have been filling it by writing about it. And by visiting a place where I can extend myself into the world a little, and to breathe into that extended space — which I can’t do with other people at a time of quarantine.

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I’ve been haunted by Ed Yong’s description of science from the Atlantic article “Why Coronavirus is So Confusing,” which I shared a few days ago:

“This is how science actually works. It’s less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty. “Our understanding oscillates at first, but converges on an answer,” says Natalie Dean, a statistician at the University of Florida. “That’s the normal scientific process, but it looks jarring to people who aren’t used to it.”

The problem with this line, I now realize, is that it’s a good description of how “frontier science” becomes “consensus science” except for the fact that the oscillations sometimes settle around multiple competing perspectives (nowadays we might call them “basins of attraction,” using complex systems terminology).

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This past week has seen a firestorm of reaction among environmentalists and climate and energy scientists to the online release of the film Planet of the Humans. Written, directed, and produced by first-time director Jeff Gibbs, but — much more importantly — executive-produced and actively promoted by Michael Moore, the film is incendiary and intentionally controversial. Since it falls squarely into the confluence of interests I study and teach about (ecology, film, social critique, cultural perceptions of the future, the impact of images and image production, et al.), I decided I should see it for myself despite the criticisms and calls for it to be withdrawn. Here are some thoughts on it, still somewhat inchoate and fluid from having just watched it last night.

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One of the silver linings about the coronavirus pandemic is that it has made some people, and even institutions, more generous (at least temporarily). Among them are popular and academic journals that have removed their paywalls and offered their publications for free. (I shared one of my own articles in that category yesterday. The irony, as my colleague, UVM dean of libraries Bryn Geffert, points out, is that right-wing disinformation tanks that have long flooded the internet with their free “studies,” while legit academics get paywalled into marginalization by their profit-seeking publishers.)

Then there are popular magazines that have made their coronavirus coverage freely available. The Atlantic Monthly has had some excellent coverage, and Ed Yong’s “Why the Coronavirus is So Confusing” is especially helpful in mapping out exactly what its title asks. The epistemological issues the pandemic has raised — about how science and medicine work, whom we should trust, what sorts of interests are at play, and why this issue is different from others — make it an important and valuable case study.

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An article of mine by that title has appeared in a special issue of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture on “Popular Culture, Religion, and the Anthropocene.” The article contains the theoretical core of the book I’m currently writing on image regimes. It builds on my work in cinema and media studies, philosophy and sociology of religion, and process-relational ontology. As such it packs a lot in, and I would welcome any feedback on it (by email or comments below). As the book won’t be finished for a while, this piece is a good reflection of one of my current research directions.

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I’ve been posting short pieces all this week in connection with EcoCultureLab‘s EarthDay+50 events, which include talks and a student arts exhibition. You can read the posts here:

Recorded events will be viewable at the EcoCultureLab web site.

I dreamt that Leonard Cohen appeared by my bedside. He smiled and reassured me that things will be alright: “They will all have been beautiful in the end.” I wanted to ask him something, but wasn’t sure what. Then he was gone.

The radio (it was Radio Moskva, from back when I spent a fall in Kyïv in late Soviet days, with the radio wired directly into the communal apartments so that all you could do was turn it down or let it play) announced that the Catholic Church had recognized him as a saint, and I imagined him and Pope Francis talking in a bar together, or strolling across a golf course in heaven. Saint Leonard of Westmount, the headlines said.

They were building a temple for him outside Kyïv and pilgrims were starting to filter into the city. There was a rumor that Irving Layton was arriving by train. I tried to get to the station, but the (super-long) metro escalators were all tangled and people were reporting flooding on the tracks below. We all had to walk. The botanical gardens were in full bloom and I thought I heard the Vydubychi monastery bells ringing.

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