Post-Cinema and/as Environmental Media Theory #SCMS15

Post-Cinematic_Environment

I am very happy to announce that the panel I will be chairing at this year’s SCMS conference, “Post-Cinema and/as Speculative Media Theory,” has been chosen as one of eight panels to be officially sponsored by the Media and the Environment Special Interest Group. The group, of which I am proud to be a member, defines its mission thus:

The Media and the Environment Scholarly Interest Group (MESIG) aims to provide a forum for shared discussion of research and pedagogy at the intersections of media and environment. We believe that nearly every aspect of film and media practice and studies–from materials manufacturing and physical infrastructures, to filming locations and resources, to audiovisual aspects and themes, and beyond to marketing, preservation, obsolescence, and also scholarly discourse–touches matters of the environment and sustainability. Various approaches from an environmentalist perspective have been taken and more are still being developed to investigate how our mediated cultural practices have, do, and will position humans in relation to physical and natural worlds. How can we further film and media studies as a global–read planetary–concern, focused on dire changes and issues affecting the Earth and our natural surroundings? We believe our field has much to contribute to discussions and findings more frequently held in and attributed to science disciplines and Environmental Studies. With this Scholarly Interest Group, we seek to cultivate the study of significant matters of media and the environment within our field and through the representative collective that is SCMS.

I am honored that our panel — which includes one explicitly environmental film/media theorist (Adrian Ivakhiv) but also three others (Steven Shaviro, Patricia Pisters, and Mark Hansen) who are helping to define the subject of post-cinema in broadly ecological terms — has been chosen for sponsorship by the Media and the Environment SIG, and I am grateful for their recognition of the topic’s relevance for our ongoing attempts to rethink the relations between humans, our media technologies, and the environments that we inhabit, access, and transform with and through them.

Here, finally, is a list of all eight panels sponsored by the SIG:

A23: Ecocriticism

F8: Fossils, Films, and Sedimentation: Ecocritical Approaches to Archival Moving Images

G4: Media Waste: Technological Systems and the Environment

H22: Excess Hollywood: Economies of Waste in Media Industries

J12: Engaging Ecocinema: The Affects and Effects of Environmental Documentaries

J17: Media Environments

K7: Post-Cinema and/as Speculative Media Theory

P4: Cinema in/of the Anthropocene

Adrian Ivakhiv, “Speculative Ecologies of (Post-)Cinema” #SCMS15

nasa-environment

[UPDATE: Full video of the complete panel is now online: here.]

Here is the abstract for Adrian Ivakhiv’s paper on the panel “Post-Cinema and/as Speculative Media Theory” at the 2015 SCMS conference in Montréal:

Speculative Ecologies of (Post-)Cinema

Adrian Ivakhiv (University of Vermont)

Three sets of intellectual developments frame this paper: (1) debates over the “end of cinema” (and rise of “post-cinema”) in the wake of digital media; (2) recognition across diverse fields that global ecological change—especially, though not solely, impending climate change—is forcing a rearticulation of disciplinary goals and broad societal values; and (3) an upsurge in speculative philosophy, including film and media philosophy, that reconceptualizes sociality, materiality, and relationality in diverse and mutually imbricated ways.

This paper sets out to articulate these three developments together. The emergence of cinema as the “eye of the [twentieth] century” (Cassetti 2008) and its subsequent mutation into something different at the beginning of the twenty-first, and the emergence of ecology as a dominant way of understanding the human-Earth relationship, have not yet been brought and thought together in a sustained way. To do this, I propose a speculative model of cinema, technology, and reality—a process-relational, semiotic-machinic, and “morphogenetic” model rooted in Whitehead, Peirce, and Deleuze/Guattari—to make sense of the ways in which digital cinema reaffirms the lively, kinematic animacy of all things cinematic and extra-cinematic.

Articulating the connections between cinema, semiosis, and materiality makes it possible to conceive of cinema (including digital cinema) as a particular political-ecological articulation of carbon-based life (or biosemiosis). But life, or the semiotic (in Peirce’s terms), exceeds the living. It is machinic (in Deleuzo-Guattarian terms), networked (in Bruno Latour’s), morphogenetic and perpetually differentiating (Deleuze/DeLanda). In this light, I consider what a “post-carbon” cinematic materiality, a materiality beyond the era of petrochemicals—the Capitalocene—might look like, and how digitality, with its proliferation of new forms and its shift to technologies of “the cloud,” affects the possibilities for reclaiming a semiotic commons.

Bibliography:

Bozak, Nadia. The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

Cassetti, Francesco. Eye of the Century: Film, Experience, Modernity. Tr. E. Larkin with J Pranolo. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Ivakhiv, Adrian, Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013.

Mullarkey, John, Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Shaviro, Steven, Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zero Books, 2010.

Author Bio:

Adrian Ivakhiv is Professor of Environmental Thought and Culture at the University of Vermont. His research focuses at the intersections between ecology, culture, media, affect, and identity. His books include Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature (2013) and the forthcoming Why Objects Fly Out the Window: An Eventology Manifesto, in the Whiff of its Passing. He blogs at Immanence: EcoCulture, GeoPhilosophy, MediaPolitics.

Nonhuman Media Theories and Their Human Relevance #Flow14

Photo-Synthesizers

As I wrote here recently, I will be taking part in a roundtable discussion on media theory at this year’s FLOW Conference at the University of Texas (September 11-13, 2014). My panel — which will take place on Friday, September 12 at 1:45-3:00 pm (the full conference schedule is now online here) — consists of Drew Ayers (Northeastern University), Hunter Hargraves (Brown University), Philip Scepanski (Vassar College), Ted Friedman (Georgia State University), and myself.

In preparation for the panel, which is organized as a roundtable discussion rather than a series of paper presentations, each of us is asked to formulate a short position paper outlining our answer to an overarching discussion question. Clearly, the positions put forward in such papers are not intended to be definitive answers but provocations for further discussion. Below, I am posting my position paper, and I would be happy to receive any feedback on it that readers of the blog might care to offer.

Nonhuman Media Theories and their Human Relevance

Response to the FLOW 2014 roundtable discussion question “Theory: How Can Media Studies Make ‘The T Word’ More User-Friendly?”

Shane Denson (Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany / Duke University)

1. Theory Between the Human and the Nonhuman

Rejecting the excesses of deconstructive “high theory,” approaches like cultural studies promised to be more down-to-earth and “user-friendly.” While hardly non-theoretical, this was “theory with a human face”; against poststructuralism’s anti-humanistic tendencies, human interaction (direct or mediated) returned to the center of inquiry. Today, however, we are faced with (medial) realities that exceed or bypass human perspectives and interests: from the microtemporal scale of computation to the global scale of climate change, our world challenges us to think beyond the human and embrace the nonhuman as an irreducible element in our experience and agency. Without returning to the old high theory, it therefore behooves us to reconcile the human and the nonhuman. Actor-network theory, affect theory, media archaeology, “German media theory,” and ecological media theory all highlight the role of the nonhuman, while their political (and hence human) relevance asserts itself in the face of very palpable crises – e.g. ecological disaster, which makes our own extinction thinkable (and generates a great variety of media activity), but also the inhuman scale and scope of global surveillance apparatuses.

2. With Friends Like These…

The roundtable discussion question asks how theory can be made more “user-friendly”; but first we should ask what this term suggests for the study of media. Significantly, the term “user-friendly” itself originates in the context of media – specifically computer systems, interfaces, and software – as late as the 1970s or early 1980s. Its appearance in that context can be seen as a response to the rapidly increasing complexity of a type of media – digital computational media – that function algorithmically rather than indexically, in a register that, unlike cinema and other analogue media, is not tuned to the sense-ratios of human perception but is designed precisely to outstrip human faculties in terms of speed and efficiency. The idea of user-friendliness implies a layer of easy, ergonomic interface that would tame these burgeoning powers and put them in the user’s control, hence empowering rather than overwhelming. As consumers, we expect our media technologies to empower us thus: they should enable rather than obstruct our purposes. But should we expect this as students of media? Should we not instead question the ideology of transparency, and the disciplining of agency it involves? Hackers have long complained about the excesses of “user-obsequious” interfaces, about “menuitis” and the paradoxical disempowerment of users through the narrow bandwidth interfaces of WIMP systems (so-called because of their reliance on “windows, icons, menus/mice, pointers”). Such criticisms challenge us to rethink our role as users – both of media and of media theory – and to adopt a more experimental attitude towards media, which are capable of shaping as much as accommodating human interests.

3. Media as Mediators

The give and take between empowerment and disempowerment highlights the situational, relational, and ultimately transformational power of media. And while cultural studies countenanced such phenomena in terms of hegemony, subversion, and resistance, the very agency of the would-be “user” of media might be open to more radical destabilization – particularly against the background of media’s digital revision, which “discorrelates” media contents (images, sounds, etc.) from human perception and calls into question the validity of a stable human perspective. More generally, it makes sense to think about media in terms of agencies and affordances rather than mere channels between pre-existing subjects and objects – to see media, in Bruno Latour’s terms, not as mere “intermediaries” but as “mediators” that generate specific, historically contingent differences between subject and object, nature and culture, human and nonhuman. Recognizing this non-neutral, lively and unpredictable, dimension of media invites an experimental attitude that not only taps creative uses of contemporary media (as in media art) but also privileges a sort of hacktivist approach to media history as non-linear, non-teleological, and non-deterministic (as in media archaeology) – and that ultimately rethinks what media are.

4. Speculative Media Theory

By expanding the notion of mediation beyond the field of discrete media apparatuses, and beyond their communicative and representational functions, approaches like Latour’s actor-network theory gesture towards a nonhuman and ultimately speculative media theory concerned with an alterior realm, beyond the phenomenology of the human (as we know it). This sort of theory accords with the aims of speculative realism, a loose philosophical orientation defined primarily by its insistence on the need to break with “correlationism,” or the anthropocentric idea according to which being (or reality) is necessarily correlated with the categories of human thought, perception, and signification. Contemporary media in particular – including the machinic automatisms of facial recognition, acoustic fingerprinting, geotracking, and related systems, as well as the aesthetic deformations of what Steven Shaviro describes as “post-cinematic” moving images – similarly problematize the correlation of media with the forms (and norms) of human perception. More generally, a speculative and non-anthropocentric perspective equips us to think about the way in which media have always served not as neutral tools but, as Mark B. N. Hansen argues, as the very “environment for life” itself.

5. Media Theory for the End of the World

Perhaps most concretely, the appeal of this perspective lies in its appropriateness to an age of heightened awareness of ecological fragility. As we begin reimagining our era under the heading of the Anthropocene – as an age in which the large-scale environmental effects of human intervention are appallingly evident but in which the extinction of the human becomes thinkable as something more than a science-fiction fantasy – our media are caught up in a myriad of relations to the nonhuman world: they mediate between representational, metabolic, geological, and philosophical dimensions of an “environment for life” undergoing life-threatening climate change. Like never before, students of media are called upon to correlate content-level messages (such as representations of extinction events) with the material infrastructures of media (like their environmental situation and impact). The Anthropocene, in short, not only elicits but demands a nonhuman media theory.

Preview of Two Talks in Texas

wing-and-trees

My family and I are just about to relocate from Texas (where we’ve been based for the past couple of months) to North Carolina, where I will embark on a 2-year DAAD postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University beginning August 1. It turns out, however, that two conferences will have me returning to the Lone Star State this fall: first, the Flow Conference 2014, which will take place from September 11-13 at the University of Texas at Austin, and then the annual conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) the following month, October 9-12, hosted this year by Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

At the Flow Conference, I will be participating in a roundtable discussion on “Theory.” By way of preparation, participants are asked to prepare a short position paper, and I will post mine here in due time. For now, the ground I wish to cover is outlined in this brief answer to the discussion question “How can media studies make theory more user-friendly?”

Nonhuman Media Theories and their Human Relevance

Shane Denson

Rejecting the excesses of deconstructive “high theory,” approaches like cultural studies promised to be more down-to-earth and “user friendly.” While hardly non-theoretical, this was “theory with a human face”; against poststructuralism’s anti-humanistic tendencies, human interaction (direct or mediated) returned to the center of inquiry. Today, however, we are faced with (medial) realities that exceed or bypass human perspectives and interests: from the microtemporal scale of computation to the global scale of climate change, our world challenges us to think beyond the human and embrace the nonhuman as an irreducible element in our experience and agency. Without returning to the old high theory, it behooves us to reconcile the human and the nonhuman. Actor-network theory, affect theory, media archaeology, “German media theory,” and ecological media theory all highlight the role of the nonhuman, while their political (and hence human) relevance asserts itself in the face of very palpable crises – e.g. ecological disaster, which makes our own extinction thinkable (and generates a great variety of media activity), but also the inhuman scale and scope of global surveillance apparatuses.

Then, at SLSA, which revolves this year around the concept of “Fluid,” I’ll be returning to post-cinema, metabolism, and the films of Shane Carruth. Here’s my abstract for that one:

Metabolic Media: On the Fluid Images and Ecologies of Post-Cinema

In an age of computational image production and networked distribution channels, media “contents” and our “perspectives” on them are rendered ancillary to algorithmic functions and become enmeshed in an expanded, indiscriminately articulated plenum of images that exceed capture in the form of photographic or perceptual “objects.” That is, post-cinematic images are thoroughly processual or fluid in nature, from their digital inception and delivery to their real-time processing in computational playback apparatuses; furthermore, and more importantly, this basic processuality explodes the image’s ontological status as a discrete packaged unit, and it insinuates itself – as I will argue – into our own microtemporal processing of perceptual information, thereby unsettling the relative fixity of the perceiving human subject. Post-cinema’s cameras thus mediate a radically nonhuman ontology of the image, where these images’ discorrelation from human perceptibility signals an expansion of the field of material affect: beyond the visual or even the perceptual, the images of post-cinematic media operate and impinge upon us at what might be called a “metabolic” level, modulating the flow of lived duration itself.

Building upon Steven Shaviro’s theorization of “post-cinematic affect,” Maurizio Lazzarato’s Marxist-Bergsonist “video philosophy,” and Mark B. N. Hansen’s post-phenomenological analyses of “21st-century media,” this presentation focuses especially on the work of independent filmmaker Shane Carruth (Primer, 2004; Upstream Color, 2013) in an attempt to theorize the emerging interface forms through which contemporary moving-image media transductively generate experiences of a decidedly postnatural environment.

Metabolic Images

Upstream_Color_Metabolism

This Saturday, February 1, 2014, I’ll be taking another stab at the notion of “metabolic images,” which I’ve started developing in recent talks. My talk will take place at the University of Cologne in the context of a series of workshops titled (after Isabelle Stengers) “Ecologies of Practice: Media, Art, Literature,” organized by Reinhold Görling (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf), Marie-Luise Angerer (Kunsthochschule Medien Köln), and Hanjo Berressem (Universität zu Köln). Here is the abstract for the talk:

Metabolic Images

Shane Denson, Leibniz Universität Hannover

With the shift to a digital and more broadly post-cinematic media environment, moving images have undergone what I term their “discorrelation” from human embodied subjectivities and (phenomenological, narrative, and visual) perspectives. Clearly, we still look at – and we still perceive – images that in many ways resemble those of a properly cinematic age; yet many of these images are mediated in ways that subtly (or imperceptibly) undermine the distance of perspective, i.e. the spatial or quasi-spatial distance and relation between phenomenological subjects and the objects of their perception. At the center of these transformations are a set of strangely volatile mediators: post-cinema’s screens and cameras, above all, which serve not as mere “intermediaries” (in Latour’s terms) that would relay images neutrally between relatively fixed subjects and objects but which act instead as transformative, transductive “mediators” of the subject-object relation itself. In other words, digital and post-cinematic media technologies do not just produce a new type of image; they establish entirely new configurations and parameters of perception and agency, placing spectators in an unprecedented relation to images and the infrastructure of their mediation.

The transformation at stake here pertains to a level of being that is therefore logically prior to perception, as it concerns the establishment of a new material basis upon which images are produced and made available to perception. Accordingly, a phenomenological and post-phenomenological analysis of post-cinematic images and their mediating cameras points to a break with human perceptibility as such and to the rise of a fundamentally post-perceptual media regime. In an age of computational image production and networked distribution channels, media “contents” and our “perspectives” on them are rendered ancillary to algorithmic functions and become enmeshed in an expanded, indiscriminately articulated plenum of images that exceed capture in the form of photographic or perceptual “objects.” That is, post-cinematic images are thoroughly processual in nature, from their digital inception and delivery to their real-time processing in computational playback apparatuses; furthermore, and more importantly, this basic processuality explodes the image’s ontological status as a discrete packaged unit, and it insinuates itself – as I will argue – into our own microtemporal processing of perceptual information, thereby unsettling the relative fixity of the perceiving human subject. Post-cinema’s cameras thus mediate a radically nonhuman ontology of the image, where these images’ discorrelation from human perceptibility signals an expansion of the field of material affect: beyond the visual or even the perceptual, the images of post-cinematic media operate and impinge upon us at what might be called a “metabolic” level.