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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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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Shoshana Zuboff’s analysis of “The Coup We Are Not Talking About,” published in today’s Sunday New York Times, is an essential follow-up to her book Surveillance Capitalism, applying that book’s analysis to the situation we are living through.

This other coup is the “epistemic coup” which, she writes, “proceeds in four stages”:

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I will be making parts of my “Advanced Environmental Humanities” course open to the EcoCultureLab community and a limited broader public. Technical details remain to be worked out, but I’d like to make our readings and discussions open, so as to include interested participants from outside the university community.

The course is a graduate and upper level undergraduate seminar premised on the understanding that the current “global moment” is deeply challenging, confusing, and dispiriting, but at the same time potentially “pregnant with possibility,” and that the interdisciplinary field of Environmental Humanities has much to offer it. The class will be meeting online using MS Teams software on Thursdays, beginning February 4 and running until May 6, 1:15-4:15 pm Eastern (New York City) time.

Here is a brief description. Anyone interested in joining the class for some of the readings and discussions can write me about it. If we’re lucky, we may occasionally get an author or two to join us.

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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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