evolving ecological media culture(s)


Both the Media Ecologies course and the book Ecologies of the Moving Image (henceforth, EMI) use a variety of terms from different subject areas. (The book invents several of its own as well.) The following is a glossary of some of these terms. It is partial, and more terms will be added.

Anthropomorphism – literally, “taking the form of the human.” In regular usage, this refers to the depiction or characterization of something nonhuman as if it were human; for instance, in the film Bambi the deer that is its main character, in being shown speaking and generally behaving like a human child, is anthropomorphized. In EMI, this term is used differently: it refers to the way in which human-like agents – and human-like agency – are produced or “given life” in a film; so this refers to the way in which an idea of “humanity” is defined and delimited.

Anthropocentrism – the belief or ideology that assumes that humanity is more valuable than other organisms or species; the view that humanity is at the center of the ‘moral universe.’

Biocentrism – the view that all living things deserve equal moral recognition.

Biomorphism – literally, “taking the form of life (or the alive).” In EMI, this term refers to the way in which a lifelike, dynamic and relational liveliness is produced by a film, such that the things shown to be lively in this way are not clearly human agents nor physical objects, but something in between, something that “eludes capture” by the human/natural binary.

Brechtian ‘distanciation’ or ‘alienation’ techniques – Bertold Brecht was a playwright and dramatist who influenced certain filmmakers. The techniques he developed were intended to make people stop and think and remember that they’re watching a play (or a film). For instance, if you’re watching a normal film and then suddenly the film camera moves into the picture, or the actor looks directly at the camera and says “What about you? What have you done about [x]?” That breaks up the narrative flow – the intent is to stop both the ‘spectacle’ and the ‘narrative’ and to make you think ‘exo-referentially.’ But if this technique is used a lot, it doesn’t do that – it just becomes a stylistic gesture by the filmmaker and we recognize it as “the kind of thing that X (e.g., Michael Moore, Quentin Tarantino, Jean-Luc Godard) would do.”

Discourse – a structured system of linguistic meanings and codes, governed by rules and conventions. E.g., the ‘discourse of terrorism’ defines a particular phenomenon (‘terrorism’), specifies what is and what is not part of it, provides value judgments (‘evil’) and responses toward it (‘stamp it out’), etc. An alternative discourse applied to the same phenomenon might be that of ‘liberation struggle’ or ‘freedom fighters.’

Ecocentrism – the view that living communities (ecosystems, et al.) deserve primary moral recognition.

Epistemology – the study of how we know things; an account of what constitutes real knowledge and what does not, in a given situation.

Exoreferentiality – reference to things outside the boundaries of the film-world. I use this to refer to the different forms of filmic ‘thirdness,’ i.e., the ways in which meanings are generated when a viewer’s previous knowledge, memories, and experiences are connected to what that viewer is seeing.

Gaze – term used to refer to various ways of looking encompassed within the visual arts, such as the spectatorial gaze (audience members’ gaze, uninvolved, outsider’s gaze), intra-diegetic (gaze within the portrayed scene) and extra-diegetic gaze (gaze out of the portrayed scene, as when a character in a film looks toward the camera), direct and indirect gaze, and others. Various critiques have been developed to describe the effects of certain ‘ways of looking’; for instance, the imperial or colonial gaze is said to encompass certain ways of displaying (for the gaze) objects that are thereby subjected to colonial or imperial control by one who has power over those objects.

Geomorphism – literally, “taking the form of the physical, material, or earthly.” In EMI, this term refers to the way in which a physical, material, and basically nonliving or non-agential “background world” is produced as part of the world depicted in the film.

Hegemony – ‘A conflictual process of everyday, lived practices that constitute, renew, and alter a culture’s shared reality, its common sense.’ A ‘moving equilibrium’ of generally accepted understandings (about politics, economics, social relations, the relationship between humans and nature, etc.), shaped in and through processes of articulation (the putting forward of meanings, embodied in images, narratives, discourses) by different social groups. Hegemony ‘implies a willing agreement by people to be governed by principles, rules, and laws they believe operate in their best interests, though in actual practice they may not.’

Heteroglossia – many-voicedness; containing a multiplicity of voices or perspectives (adj: heteroglossic); opposite of monologism or univocity.

Interpellation – the process by which a particular kind of ‘subject position’ (e.g., ‘concerned citizen,’ ‘responsible parent,’ et al.) is constituted through a text or discourse; i.e., the text is directed to or ‘hails’ a reader or subject, providing a certain position into which that reader can insert him or herself.

Interpretive community – a subset of society that shares a particular way of interpreting and understanding something.

Metaphor – use of one thing to denote another because of some resemblance between them; e.g., ‘He is a fox’ (meaning: he is sly).

Metonomy – use of one thing to refer to another because the first is significantly associated with the second; e.g. when the word ‘crown’ is used to mean ‘the king.’

Ontology – the study of what there is; an account of what is real in the universe (and what is not real, and why they are real or unreal).

Phenomenology – the study of the way things appear to us; an account of the experience of phenomena as they appear to us. The phenomenological movement in philosophy included Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and many others. C. S. Peirce referred to his brand of phenomenology as “phaneroscopy,” meaning the study of the “phaneron,” or of the appearance of things. (No one else uses that word.) 

Polysemy – openness to multiple meanings or interpretations (adjective: polysemic)

Profilmic – preceding the filming; the world (e.g., a place or setting) before it was shot by camera and turned into film footage.

S­ign – anything that represents something else; something that carries a meaning.

Signification – the process by which things (e.g., words) mean.

Signified – that which is meant by a sign (see signifier). E.g., the three-letter word ‘cat’ is a signifier; a particular kind of furry, four-legged critter is its signified.

Signifier – the sign that means something. See signified.

Synecdoche – use of a part or element of something to stand for the whole thing (e.g., when the New York City skyline or the World Trade Centre stands for the whole city of New York), or vice versa, use of the whole to stand for the part.

Umwelt (German “surrounding world” or “perceptual world”, a term popularized by biologist Jakob von Uexkull) – the “bubble of meanings” in which an organism lives. For instance, a frog only perceives certain things: rapid changes of light/darkness, rapid movements of large or small objects in its field of vision, rapid changes of temperature, etc. These things make up its perceptual world or its “Umwelt.” Other things “aren’t there” for it. The Umwelt is the collection of meanings (signs from the world that mean things) that an organism dwells in.

Univocity – carrying only one voice; meaning only one thing (adj: univocal)

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