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To say that Billie Eilish’s “Your Power” video is intended to get under your skin (as many online commenters have suggested) is understating things.

First, there the topic of the song itself (which I won’t comment on). Then there’s the interspecies intimacy (which I also won’t comment on, except to say, I can’t imagine doing this myself).

Then there’s the video itself, but here I’ll issue a spoiler alert and just say: watch the video, from start to finish. Watch it full-screen. Pretend you are the camera. What are you feeling? What are you doing?

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Two new publications — one in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the other in The Atlantic — help make a point that critics of the “Anthropocene” (the name, not the geological designation) have been making for years: that it’s not humanity that is somehow at fault for the ecological crisis, since many human societies over millennia have learned how to live more or less sustainably within their environments, and that those who have deserve more recognition for it, recognition that could and probably should include some measure of land repatriation. I’m referring, of course, to indigenous societies.

The PNAS article, co-authored by Erle Ellis and 17 other environmental and Earth systems scientists, anthropologists, and archaeologists, demonstrates, as its title puts it, that “People have shaped most of terrestrial nature for at least 12,000 years.” This long history of “shaping” “nature” suggests a much more blurred continuum between “nature” and “culture” than was taken for granted until recently. The authors speak freely of “cultural natures,” the “global history of anthropogenic nature,” and of “anthromes” (or anthropogenic biomes) in a way that recalls the “nature wars” of the 1990s, when environmental humanists like Bill Cronon were chided by ecologists for disrespecting the boundary between culture and wilderness — except that now it’s scientists in PNAS who are doing that with hard scientific facts (rather than deconstructionist arguments) at their disposal.

The authors write:

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On the fifty-first Earth Day (this past Thursday), two of my classes premiered a virtual exhibition of environmentally themed art. Called “Intimations: Eco-Artistic Glimpses Through the Fog of an Unwinding Pandemic,” the exhibition features several dozen works in a multitude of media including paintings and drawings, digital images, collages, narrative poetry and haiku, 3-D works (displayed in 2-D, but sometimes creatively), and audio and video pieces. (I recommend giving the videos their full viewing time, with the sound turned up.)

The exhibition is co-hosted by the undergraduate “Environmental Literature, Arts, and Media” class, the undergraduate/graduate “Advanced Environmental Humanities” class, and EcoCultureLab. (Note that with one or two exceptions, the students are not studio art students; almost all are Environmental Studies majors. Some are being challenged to “make art” for the first time in their university career.)

You can view the walk-through exhibition here or start from the launch page, then return to it after viewing the exhibition so that you can vote for your favorite artworks and provide any other comments you may have. The exhibition will be up for at least a few weeks. We plan to announce the “People’s Choice” awards on May 1, so vote before then.

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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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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