evolving ecological media culture(s)

Mappings, becomings, eco-trauma & the Real


The second week of the animality and “biomorphism” chapter (chapter 5) moved us into an exploration of human-animal interactions and human “becomings-animal.” A screening of Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” (discussed extensively in the chapter) was supplemented by bits and pieces from “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” Robinson Devor’s unusual documentary “Zoo” (which you can watch in full here), and several others.

Now we move into the home stretch of the course. Chapter 6 is intended as the culmination of the book’s several strands, so it would be useful to recap things as we move into it. The first section of the chapter does just that for the main theoretical apparatus of the book (notably, the three “morphisms” and the three moments of the film experience). Beyond that, however, are the various mappings provided in the preceding three chapters.

In Chapter 3, we mapped the relations between people and land/landscape/place/territory: land as becoming-ours, land as becoming-not-ours, land as us, land as experience/discovery, as creative free play, and so on. In Chapter 4, we mapped the relations between people and Other people, with the others distinguishable from us in their divergent relationship to (ostensible) nature. In one sense this was mapped through Gilberto Perez’s terms of “we’re okay, they may not be,” “they’re okay, we may not be,” “we’re okay, they’re okay,” and “neither we nor they are okay.” But in a deeper sense, there is the way in which a film itself proposes certain “becomings human” in and through the filming of the Other, and in and through the voice of the film itself. This was not explored in the book as fully as I would have liked, though my writing on “The Act of Killing” and “Up the Yangtze,” both of which we watched in full, and on the first-person cinema of Chris Marker and others, takes things deeper in this direction.

Chapter 5, in turn, mapped the different relations between humans and the nonhuman/inhuman/animal, at the same time as it clearly articulated the mobility of the film experience — that movement is the essence of biomorphism and the essence of cinema, and that therefore each of these mappings is not a static map of a stable territory, but is rather a movable map of a dynamic and ever-altering terrain. The mapping of “Strategies for Negotiating the Human-Unhuman Boundary” (on p. 247) was intended to capture the relationship between order and flux (system, kinesis, anti-system), and between similarity and difference, as these criss-cross each other in active play within a film (as it’s experienced by a viewer).

The relationship between these two axes can now be read back into the preceding two chapters, such that “land as becoming ours” or as “becoming not ours” becomes not just the “message” or specific strategy of a given film, but a movement to be found within a film — an option or “affordance” of a film that can be taken by a viewer, but need not be. Any film can render any set of contradictory “movement options” available to viewers; and the best films play with those contradictions decisively (or maybe we should say “decidedly indecisively”) and with conviction (or, paraphrasing Yeats, lacking in conviction but full of passionate intensity).

Laying these maps onto each other, we get something that looks like this:

Axis 1: SYSTEM (order, boundedness, “this is the way things are”) — KINESIS (movement, becoming, boundary-crossing) — ANTI-SYSTEM (disorder, unboundedness)

Axis 2: IDENTITY (similarity, “they are like us”) — DIFFERENCE (alterity, “they are unlike us”)

Axis 3: ANTHROPOMORPHISM (figure, foreground, subject-world) — BIOMORPHISM (mediation, middle-ground, life-world) — GEOMORPHISM (ground, background, object-world)

— with the life of a film consisting in movements across, between, and in counterpoint with/against these three axes.

Any film could be analyzed in the ways it enables certain movements between and across these axes and points along each of them. For instance, King Kong (1933) opts for order in the relationship between “us” and the “other” humans (anthropomorphism), with only the Fay Wray character challenging that order (kinesis) in any significant respect. But it grants Kong himself a liveliness that activates both the system-antisystem axis (though he’s shot down, so order is restored) and, more interestingly and profoundly, the identity/difference axis, with the the film genuinely contributing to producing new “pro-primate” affects in some of its viewers.

Stalker sets all three axes into motion: in the system-antisystem axis, it’s (arguably) kinesis all the way both in the relationships among the three (or four) main characters (anthropomorphism), and in the relationship between them and the Zone (and therefore both nature and animality, of a sort), with not much order being restored at the end.

And so on for other films.


Chapter 6

Following its theoretical recap, this chapter delves right into an exploration of trauma and its ecological variant, eco-trauma. I won’t say more at this point, except to remind you of something to pay attention to in our screenings this week and next, and to provide some background information on one of the names (Slavoj Žižek) and concepts (“the Real”) discussed at some length in the chapter.

Here’s what to pay particular attention to: Near the end of chapter 2, I used the term “resonant” or “hyper-signaletic moments” to describe moments that have a particularly strong impact on viewers because they combine and condense a particular set of meanings and affects (emotional tones) that become highly charged over the course of the film. Often these occur towards the end of a film, and can be thought of as the climax of a particular stream of meanings/affects.

As you watch the films these coming weeks — Darwin’s Nightmare, The Cove, and Lessons of Darkness being the three we’ll likely pay most attention to this week, with Beasts of the Southern Wild coming next week — note the particular “styles” or “streams” of “signaletic material” that the film seems to primarily consist of. See if you can identify a limited number of types of such material – particular combinations of spectacle (e.g, a particular cinematographic style, camera movement, lighting, rhythm, etc. and a particular kind of sound or music), narrative (a particular thematic thread or storyline), and exo-referential meaning. Note these down and bring your list to class for discussion. (You should be doing this all along, so this is of course just a reminder.)

Now for the other point…


The Zone and the Real

If the book’s central metaphor is The Zone, the central concept for Slavoj Žižek is The Real. I presume a knowledge in this chapter that students may not have, so here’s some basic background. (This will be long, but useful if you’re perplexed by those references in the text.)

Slavoj Žižek (pronounced “Sla-voy Zhee-zhek,” with the “zh” being like the “ge” at the end of the word “garage” or the French “je”) is one of the most prominent political and psychoanalytical theorists alive today. (He has visited and spoken at UVM a few times.) Sometimes affectionately called “the madman from Ljubljana” (which is in Slovenia, in Eastern Europe), Žižek is controversial and somewhat notorious – he’s an intellectual showman given to making provocative statements about politics, culture, apocalypse, sex, and whatever else. You’ll see some of this in the clip below from his film “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.”

A philosopher, psychoanalyst, and cultural critic, Žižek studied with the French psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller, who was a student of Jacques Lacan, one of the leading interpreters of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. In his many books and writings, Žižek applies Lacanian psychoanalytic theory (and Hegelian philosophy) to politics, ideology, film, and social theory. He has also been involved in Slovenian politics and, in 1990, ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of the newly independent Slovenian Republic.

To understand his writing, you need to at least grasp a few key points of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. According to Lacan, human subjectivity is divided or torn: we begin as infants whose experience is fully immersed in the world of our senses and feelings, but over time each of us learns to think of ourselves as an individual subject, a person with a specific name and place in society, an ‘I’ as distinct from others. According to Lacan, there is a moment for each of us – which he calls the ‘mirror phase’ – when we recognize our image in a mirror as ‘the one who others see when they say my name.’ (‘Ah, so this is Adrian!’) This recognition, according to Lacan, is a misrecognition, since it is founded on a disjunction or ‘gap’ between our experience (the fluid and fragmentary physical-emotional world of our senses and desires) and the illusory unity represented by that image in the mirror. We learn to identify with that image, but in the process become alienated from our core bodily subjectivity. The socially perceived persona – this ‘self as I imagine myself being seen by others’ – comes to substitute for our direct and immediate experience, and in turn this persona comes to be shaped by society according to the rules of social behavior (which vary from one society to another).

However, the ‘gap’ between the two always lingers within us, and this motivates us to try to ‘fill’ that gap in diverse ways – through obtaining objects (which never satisfy us the way we think they will), through pursuing ideologies and beliefs (which similarly cannot satisfy us), etc. However much we try to identify with that image of ourselves, the gap leaves us wanting more or wanting something else. The goal of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to learn to accept that at the very root of our being is a kind of ‘gap’ or emptiness (which some people experience more intensely than others, depending on our upbringing) – an emptiness which we try to fill in various ways, and that those efforts will never be able to do what we want them to.

Freud called the socially perceived persona the ‘Ego’ or ‘I’ (the subject). The unconscious feelings that stay with us – which may include infantile desires for physical union with our mother (her breast, etc.), jealousies at those who compete for her attention, and other kinds of suppressed feelings – manifest in the form of symptoms that come up now and again; Freud referred to their source as the ‘Id’ (Latin for ‘It’). The internalized voice of those who tell us how we should act (parents, teachers, et al.) make up what Freud called the ‘Super-Ego’ (or ‘Super-I’). We often experience conflict between these different parts of the self, which results in the expression of neurotic symptoms, such as unpleasant tics, physical compulsions, difficulties in expressing our emotions, and so on. When these become extreme, they become pathological (leading, for instance, to severe neurosis, psychosis, etc.). Psychoanalytic treatment is a long process that allows us to come to terms with the sources of these conflicts, which generally go back to experiences in infancy, so that we can manage and learn to live with these conflicting impulses.

For Lacan, it was crucial to recognize the role of language and ‘the symbolic’ in maintaining the relations that bind us to an illusory sense of ourselves. According to Lacan, there are three ‘orders’ making up our experience of the world:

(1) The Imaginary – this is the mode of images and appearances that emerges for us in the encounter with the image in the mirror (during the ‘mirror stage’). In time, the Imaginary comes to be ordered and organized by the Symbolic Order, such that we learn to desire the things we are supposed to desire (or supposed to not desire, since prohibition is a powerful way of getting our interest).

(2) The Symbolic – which is the order of language, discourse, and culture, which organizes the world (and our imagined subjectivity) for us, shaping us into the kind of subject the social world requires us to be.

(3) The Real – which can be thought of as the original ‘kernel’ that remains of what cannot be imagined, symbolized, represented or integrated into the Symbolic Order; we only feel it as a kind of traumatic residue. It’s not our ‘real’ or ‘authentic self’ in the sense that religious or spiritual people something talk about our ‘essence’; it is simply the gap or ‘tear’ at the very heart of our being, which we try to fill or ‘paper over,’ with varying amounts of success (but never complete success).

Lacan’s view of human subjectivity is in some ways similar to Buddhist philosophy, according to which our essence is ‘empty’ – all that there is, is a ceaseless play of desire, striving, imagination, sensation, reactivity, and so on – and only when we accept it for what it is instead of grasping at things to fill this ‘emptiness’ or ‘non-essentiality,’ only then will we be able to attain any genuine happiness. (Well, neither Lacan nor Buddhism of the historical sort particularly emphasized happiness, though contemporary renderings, or misreadings, of them do. The point is more that the acceptance of reality as it is liberates us from delusion, neurosis, and the suffering that accompanies both.)

In relation to the text, both psychoanalysis and Buddhism tend (generally) to see the self in process-relational terms: i.e., there is no permanent, unchanging and graspable ‘self.’ Rather, selfhood or subjectivity is an experiential process consisting of the relational events that make it up.

For Žižek, certain films and film imagery can serve as reminders of the Real and as teachable moments in coming to understand ourselves. In the article referred to below (and to some extent in the video clip), he argues that Stalker’s Zone represents a version of ‘the Real’, an “absolute Otherness incompatible with the rules and laws of our universe.” As such, we can easily project various fears and desires onto it. According to Žižek, filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky shies away from “confronting this radical Otherness” and instead reduces or translates it into an “‘inner journey’ towards one’s Truth” – in other words, he turns it into a spiritual or quasi-religious experience in which the main character sacrifices himself, or at least seems to want to sacrifice himself, for a higher good.

But where other films about sacrificial heroes would elevate this kind of action through pathos and ‘greatness’, Tarkovsky resists that temptation and instead uses his own cinematography to undermine his own “ideological project.” Tarkovsky, in other words, seeks a lofty, elevated kind of faith, but finds just earth/Earth. His long tracking shots celebrate the elemental forces of earth, water, air, and fire. They are full of the “heavy gravity” and “humid heaviness of earth (or stale water)”, where “civilization in decay” is always in the process of “being reclaimed … by nature in decomposition.” Žižek calls this a “cinematic materialism” in which “Nature itself miraculously starts to speak.”

Slavoj Zizek – The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) – Solaris, Stalker from Strider22 on Vimeo.

See also Zizek, “The thing from inner space

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