The original version of the list below has been expanded (on December 21) from 30 to 45 based on crowd-sourced suggestions of what was missing and belated reckonings that I had missed some key works. It is not meant to be exhaustive; it is more of a mapping of relevant areas represented by selected titles.

Ten years ago, I posted an article on this blog with the exact same title as this one. It was enjoyable, at the time, to create a list of ten books I found both most personally influential and most significant in the intersectional study of ecology and culture. The list resonated fairly widely, attracting one of the highest number of visits on the blog to that point. (The blog looked different back then; you can see that in a screen shot here.)

Reviewing that list today, I can reaffirm the significance of each of its “top ten,” even if my ordering might be different in retrospect. Arturo Escobar’s Territories of Difference (second on that list) strikes me as the most forward-looking in terms of how it anticipated the most important stream of ecocultural thinking over the past ten years (the decolonial, though that term covers a great deal of complexity, which I will touch on below). Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway (#4) is, of the ten, the book that has appeared on the greatest number of reading lists and graduate theses since then, in the areas that I read and advise in. And while the book I listed in first place, William Connolly’s Neuropolitics, has perhaps not aged as well as some of Connolly’s other books (so much has been written about “neuropolitics” since then), its intervention at the time of its writing was substantial and the author’s ongoing productivity merits great respect.

It’s not as easy to write a similar list today, in part because of the dynamics of the “present moment”: this year, in particular, with its global pandemic, its racial-justice convulsions, and its political insanity (here in the United States) has left me with a certain abyssal feeling of the loss of bearings. Can anyone today feel confident that they know what’s going on and what the future holds? (Other than that things will get much worse before they get any better.)

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What better way to understand ecological perception than by applying it to a study of the music of Radiohead, right?

Okay, I’ll explain. “Ecological perception” is not what you might think. (And it isn’t what I, in my writing, call “perceptual ecology.“) It is a psychological theory that studies the perception of an organism (such as a human) in terms of how it responds to the perceived “affordances” presented by that organism’s environment. Perception takes place not in the head or the brain, but in the (nervous system mediated) correspondence between organism and environment. Based in James J. Gibson’s studies of visual perception and applied to music by Eric Clarke, Alan Moore, and others, ecological perception in music looks for commonalities and differences in people’s interpretation of music and traces these to cross-cultural invariants and cultural variations and “specifications” in how listeners respond to musical affordances.

What does all of this have to do with ecology? And with Radiohead? For the most part, it doesn’t have much to do with the first, at least as ecology is commonly conceived, but I want to point out how it does or how it can. As for Radiohead, they are as good an example of “process-relationally interesting” music as any. (One of their albums made my “top 10 albums” list a few years ago, though really it’s their later work that cashes out on the promise of that album.)

The main reason to connect the two, however, is because that’s what Brad Osborn does in his book Everything in its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead (Oxford University Press, 2017). What I want to do here is to extend his argument to the sort of thing I mean when I talk about perceptual ecology.

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French philosopher and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, in his The Three Ecologies, was the first to articulate the threefold nature of ecology, but he failed to provide a clear articulation of why there should be three and only three ecologies — not two, not one, not four or more. What is the ontological justification for this threefoldness?

In my work I provide that justification in terms of a process-relational ontology, but it generally takes me a fair number of pages to build the case for it (e.g., here or part 1 of this). Here I want to present a clear and concise statement of why we should think of ecology in three different ways. And I want to make clear how it constitutes a theory of ecomedia, or ecomediality.

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There’s a fairly straightforward narrative about media and cultural hegemony in the United States that most scholarly observers have come to largely agree on (with the usual spectrum of variations in emphasis), but that more of the public ought to be aware of. It accounts for how we got here, into this situation where media is recognized to be a key causal factor shaping the deep polarization of a country experiencing a state of civil crisis — not quite civil war (yet), but something that has edged perilously close to it.

The narrative runs something like this.

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Two points of social media use call for more attention as we make sense of this week’s events at the U. S. Capitol.

1) Videos and selfies from Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rallies are circulating online and making it easier to identify those who participated in the attempted coup at the Capitol. Images created and shared voluntarily and eagerly are used against those who create and share them. This is part of what I will call the voluntary mass self-surveillance of society enabled by social media.

2) Donald Trump’s permanent removal from Twitter felt, to many, like a more significant act than his potential second impeachment. Certainly to him, with his 88 million Twitter followers, it was more significant; he was, after all, as much a product of Twitter as it has been a product of him. To top it off, his temporary suspension from Facebook and Instagram, Google’s and Apple’s announcements limiting the alternative, conservative dominated Parler platform, and discussions among his followers about where to go, both to follow Trump and to organize further actions, have been among the biggest news of the last 24 hours. This relates more generally to the social mediatization of politics.

While these two trends are being considered critically by media and cultural theorists, there is a socio-ecological, or ecocultural, or even ecotopian dimension I’d like to add to that critique here.

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No surprises

I am an academic who researches, writes, and teaches about the human relationship with the ecological environment within which we live and on which we depend. I recognize that that relationship is deeply troubled, and I want to be working on untroubling it.

Politics — the shaping and implementation of policy to steer collective and institutional action — is one of the ways, and an essential way, to do that. (Others include the arts, the sciences, technological innovation, and philosophy/spirituality.) But politics is complicated and nowadays gets in the way of that “untroubling” more often than it facilitates it.

Yesterday’s Trumpist insurrection at the U. S. Capitol is perhaps symbolic of how politics has “gotten in the way.” But nothing that happened yesterday surprised me.

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Conspiracy movements like QAnon are a kind of cultural virus that spreads rapidly and widely in the new global media environment. Like invasive species, they spread into diverse cultural ecosystems, colonizing them even as they take on new forms that mimic each environment’s original inhabitants.

To understand how they do this, we need to understand the global media ecology, which is itself so new and rapidly evolving that few understand it well, even if we all participate in it in different ways and to different degrees. And we need to understand conspiracy theory as practice and not only as theory. This post will focus on the role of a specific practice, called “research,” within the spread of the “cultural virus” of the QAnon movement, and on the ways that the “virus” spreads tentacularly, that is, along multiple lines of infection into multiple host bodies. In the process, I will address the question of what QAnon is (referring to its relationship to science, to art, and to religion) and how it fits into the larger “ecology” or “economy” of knowledge, trust, and meaning that some describe as the “post-truth condition.”

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A day in the life…

I’m working on a lengthyish post about conspiracy theory (specifically, QAnon) and the “post-truth condition,” but in the meantime I want to post a few tidbits from something I’ve been enjoying reading related to that topic. A Reddit conversation with QAnon researcher Marc-André Argentino includes some smart observations about QAnon, but also useful insights into the life of a young, underemployed scholar that are worth sharing (grad students, take note!).

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As a humanistic scholar within an interdisciplinary school, I’m often put in a position to distinguish how the humanities differ from the social and natural sciences. There is a long tradition of distinguishing between these “two cultures,” with the most frequent point of focus, for humanists, being that they concern themselves with human meaning and interpretation, not with causal explanation.

Here’s my most recent attempt to articulate this difference into a simple distillation. Comments welcome. (This post is timely, with the humanities being somewhat under attack at my own institution; see note [1] below for more on that. If the difference articulated here isn’t enough to make the case for the importance of the humanities, what is?)

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Harold Budd’s passing yesterday (from coronavirus complications) has inspired me to create a multichannel chamber of his music, which you can enter into and wander around in by clicking on the tabs below. Try them all at once, or mix channels at your leisure.

His music, perhaps more than anyone’s, lends itself to this kind of multi-mirrored, kaleidoscopic simultaneity. If I could set up 32 speakers around a large hall to play 16 different pieces of his at the same time (rather like John Cage did with his Roaratorio, or Yannis Xenakis with his cavernous electronic compositions), I would. The result, in Budd’s case, would be a kind of soft, velvet-textured, yet massive kaleidoscope of ambient spaciousness. A soundscape suitable for a long wander, which is how I imagine his current (postpartum) voyage to be. RIP.

Click on the links below at your mixing-board leisure.

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On (not) being human

The New York Times has published an article on AI-generated faces which strikes me as an informal litmus test of our humanity, or at least of neurotypical emotional response. Here’s how to work it.

  1. Scroll through the mega-composite image at the top of the article — do it slowly, then quickly, then varying your speed — while listening to some emotionally triggering music, like, say, Max Richter’s Written on the Sky or On the Nature of Daylight. (Note: You have to be on the Times page to do that. But first click below to start the music. Or your own soundtrack selection.)
  2. Watch what is happening in your emotional body. (That’s the body that diagrams like this one and research articles like this one attempt to map out.) If that body isn’t triggered — butterflies in your chest, throat tightening, eyes and facial muscles responding, mirror neurons alighting, spine tingling — then you may not be human.
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Trump’s parting electoral tantrum puts the exclamation mark on the fundamental flaw of democracy that his presidency has revealed: that a poorly informed electorate can willingly choose its own demise (even as it recites platitudes to the contrary).

Two institutions are most implicated in this flaw: public education and the mass media. In well functioning democracies, both of those institutions are supported, at least in part, by the state, which is in turn supported by people according to their abilities (through taxation).

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