evolving ecological media culture(s)

Eco-trauma & the eco-image


These are further notes on Chapter 6 of EMI

1. Trauma and the eco-image

One of the themes of this chapter is the connection between films about ecological disaster — real, imagined, or potential (future disaster) — and films about other forms of cultural or historical trauma.

How can film represent traumatic events? What if the trauma is as fundamental and collective as the end of the conditions of life as we know it, which is what happens in devastating disasters? What if the events have not yet taken place, but are only imagined as a possibility on the horizon? And what if the eco-trauma is not central to a film, but peripheral — hovering out on the margins (as in Short Cuts and other films about “strange weather”)?

The chapter draws on the literature in trauma studies, which it connects to the literature on encounters with sublime nature — and with the sublime in general, which refers to encounters with those things that are somehow vastly greater than us: monumental, awe inspiring, terrifying, or impossible to make sense rationally. Images of the sublime are wild images, images that are difficult, if not impossible, to “domesticate.” In this sense, one could argue that some of the best “eco-images” are the ones that are most sublime.

Following up on the idea (introduced in Chapter 2) of an “ecology of images,” the chapter suggests that there is something like a spectrum of “eco-images,” which range from the powerfully attractive, idyllic, and utopian (or positively charged) to the repulsive, despairing, and dystopian (negatively charged).

The book’s main argument, however, is that images move: they move because they don’t stand still — which is obvious in the case of cinematic, i.e., moving, images — and they move us, emotionally and cognitively, because of the journeys they take us on. Where they move us is not necessarily predictable, however, and it will be different for different viewers. So it is important to study audience responses to films in order to find out how audiences move with them. That’s what some of the case studies in the book — such as that of Avatar, Grizzly Man, and some others — attempt, at least in a limited way.


2. The good, the true, the beautiful

The conceptual/theoretical climax of the book is found in the last part of this chapter, beginning with “Toward a Peircian Synthesis” (p. 294) and continuing to the end of the chapter. There are two main components to this climax. One of these concerns what constitutes a good film; the other concerns what constitutes good film viewership.

I begin with the second of these: the good viewer. This involves a return to Peirce’s three categories — firstness, secondness, and thirdness — in the triad that most closely relates to human action: the triad of what Peirce called the “normative sciences.” This term refers to the science and study that has to do with deciding what to do, how to live, and what “norms” to abide by.

This triad, for Peirce, equates to the triad of philosophical transcendent categories — the Beautiful (aesthetics), the Good (ethics), and the True (logic) — that goes back all the way to the ancient Greeks (Plato, in particular) as a recurrent theme in Western philosophy. Applied to film experience, this triad concerns how we watch films: what is the aesthetic, the ethic, and the logic (or eco-logic) that we ought to cultivate as film viewers?  All of this is discussed in detail on pp. 296-299. For such a large question, this discussion, however, may well be all too brief, so it’s something we might discuss further in class.


3. The “good film”

The second key piece of the book’s theoretical climax — on what constitutes a good film — picks up on the indications I had given earlier (in chapters 1 and 2) of what such a film would be. In this book’s framework, a good film was said to be one that “expands viewers’ perceptions of ecological ontology”; it expands “viewers’ socio-ecological perceptions and understandings.”

I break this down into two distinct criteria: (1) an “instrumental” one, whereby films  produce certain effects, and good films produce those socio-ecological understandings referred to above; and (2) a “democratic,” “pluralistic,” or “ontological” criterion, whereby films that are more interpretively open-ended, more “dialogical” rather than “monological,” and less preordained in their meanings (i.e. in the “thirdnesses” that they generate), are better films.

These two criteria don’t necessarily align with each other, and evaluating a film through the use of these criteria requires taking into account what kind of film it is: for instance, whether it’s a documentary of one kind or another, an experimental or art film, a big-budget blockbuster, a small scale “community film,” and so on. I draw on the field of “neurocinematics” to get at how different kinds of films aim for, and achieve, different levels of “control” over audience reactions. Again, this discussion is probably all too short, but it builds on what has come before. It — the section called “Toward a ‘Good Film'” — arguably makes up the most important sub-section of this chapter, so please read it carefully, so that we can discuss it in class.

The next section, “Ecology, Time, and the Image,” builds on this understanding, but a little less systematically. The final section, on “Ecophilosophical Cinema,” discusses images of the whole earth (those we watched in class) and the films “Tree of Life” and “Melancholia” (the last of which we watched the ending of). It’s useful especially as a way of making sense of those images and films.

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The “Afterword,” which we’ll read next week (but feel free to read it this week; it’s short), brings the whole book up to date with recent developments in digital cinema, and with the debate over whether cinema is ending, has ended (to be replaced by something else), or is just undergoing a shift toward new tools and techniques (digital ones) and (probably) new aesthetic styles.

We’ll read that section in conjunction with thinking about short films, particularly the kinds of films one finds on YouTube and other video-sharing sites online.

Finally, I’d like to very strongly recommend that you read Patricia Yaeger’s article, “Beasts of the Southern Wild and Dirty Ecology.” I’d like to talk about this article next week, as the theme of “dirty ecology” relates to the themes of recycled cinema that we’ll be exploring next week.

And please remember the assignment: to write a proposal for a curated short film screening, which would be shown as part of our Student-Curated Short Films Festival in our final class.


(Note: Yes, the photo above is the shot from the final scenes of Melancholia.)


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