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The Wound of What Has Not Happened Yet: Cine-Semiotics of Eco-Trauma
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The Wound of What Has Not Happened Yet: Cine-Semiotics of Eco-Trauma

Umělec magazine 2011/2

01.02.2011

Adrian Ivakhiv | film | en cs de

In a series of writings in the 1990s, Mark Seltzer traced the development of a “pathological public sphere” characterized by the collective gathering of the public around scenes of violence, trauma, wounding, and pathology. This “fascination with the shock of contact between bodies and technologies,” Seltzer noted, “encodes, in turn, a breakdown in the distinction between the individual and the mass,” between private and public, between inside and outside.2 If anything, the events of September 11, 2001, edged American culture even further into an obsession with trauma, woundedness, and victimhood. Periodically, however, the culture of trauma takes on inflections that resemble not the obsession with a national, externally inflicted wound, nor that of an individual pathology, but a wound whose depth reaches from the social world at its surface to something seemingly at the heart of nature itself, or at least at the heart of our relationship to nature. The visuality of trauma culture ranges far and wide, from the iconography of the 9-11 and Abu Ghraib to films like David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Paul Haggis’s Academy Award winning Crash (2004). The socio-natural trauma I am referring to also has its visual correlates, from cinematic displays of environmental collapse like The Day After Tomorrow (2004) to allegorical depictions of a kind of psycho-cosmic collapse, as in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009).
This article brings the semiotic philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce to the task of thinking “eco-trauma” in recent cinema. One of Peirce’s signal contributions, increasingly recognized across a range of fields including semiotics and cultural studies, is his elucidation of logical-phenomenological categories by which the world can be parsed into its constituent elements. Contrary to the better known model developed by Ferdinand de Saussure, in which cultural representations and signs are understood to be connected to material reality only through arbitrary convention, Peircian semiotics explicitly allocate a place for a real materiality that exists outside the sign, but that is also incorporated into the sign in one way or another. For Peirce, the “entire universe” is “perfused with signs” through and through.3 These signs signify insofar as they consist of a “sign vehicle” that both points back to an object and is connected forward to an “interpretant,” or meaning. The interpretant begets further interpretants such that, as Wendy Wheeler observes, semiosis is “both endlessly open at one end (signs beget more signs) and constrained, at the other end, by the finite resources of the real earth from which, with living things, semiosis emerges. You can build castles in the air out of smoke, but earthly finitude will catch up with you in the last instance.”4 This tethering of images to material reality is what Stanley Cavell refers to when he writes of objects “participat[ing] in the photographic presence of themselves” and in their “re-creation of themselves on film.” The presence of objects onscreen “reflects” upon their physical origin, referring back “to their absence, their location in another place.”5 There is, in other words, a displacement, a movement from one time and place to another, that is central to the semiotic process: each cinematic presence is indicative of this move from an original point, a profilmic reality, even if that profilmic reality is itself always a result of relational, semiotic processes. The particular kinds of displacements found in film are what give it both its meanings and its elusive liveliness; they are what give the best cinematic art its ability to continue generating meaning.
Film, as a Peircian would see it, is neither a mirror of reality nor a transparent window onto reality – but nor is it merely something else altogether. It is reality, but a reality always in the process of being differed and deferred, even as each difference points to a precedent “firstness,” a potentiality giving rise to the “secondness” of actualization and the “thirdness” of meaning.6 Meaning, for Peirce (in Floyd Merrell’s elucidation), is not in “the signs, the things, or the head; it is in the processual rush of semiosis; it is always already on the go toward somewhere and somewhen.”7 Peirce was convinced that dyads tend to be misleading and that the dynamism of the world required thinking in terms of threes, and in his understanding of phenomena, he distinguishes between three types depending on the number of relata they involve. Firsts are the raw immediate things (such as the color red or a sensation of piercing pain) which present themselves to us in and of themselves; seconds are dyadic in that they incorporate a causal or existential connection between one thing and another (such as the redness visible on a human face, or the pain felt on that face, immediately following a vigorous slap from another person’s hand); and thirds incorporate a third, mediating element that makes sense of a dyad, rendering it meaningful for someone or something (such as the recognition that I’ve transgressed a mutual understanding and that the slap was my punishment for it). Firstness refers to the indivisible “thisness” or haecceity of a thing, its thereness, its quality of feeling, “the immediate as it is in its immediacy,” “the present in its direct positive presentness.”8 It is the purely possible, the undetermined, the virtual. Secondness names the “brute action” of one substance on another. It is actualization, individuation, energetic determination; it is dyadic, involving a pre-semiotic relationship between two elements, typically an action and a reaction arising from the action, with effort met by resistance. Thirdness is the dimension of mediation and signification. It is the meaning that is beheld, the “I” and the “other” as having become through a process of encounter, a taking of each other into account so as to create a third. It the basis for recognition of habit, pattern, and lawful regularity.

The Skid, the Reflex, and the Wound
Traumatic moments are as close as our experience gets us to the shock of pure firstness. When the car I am driving begins to skid off an icy road, I have little time to think what to do; instead I experience the sensations we associate with the emotion called fear, as my body kicks into high gear, adrenaline rushing through it, increasing my heart rate and blood flow and heightening my perception of the relevant sensory stimuli. My foot may initially press hard upon the brake, at least until a kind of narrative secondness kicks in, which allows me to think: the car is skidding, and I must turn the wheel in the direction of the skid. This secondary, “rational circuit of fear,” as neuropsychologist Joseph LeDoux calls it, is slower to arise than the “primitive circuit of fear,” but it is more helpful in situations – like driving fast cars – that our bodies have not been prepared for over the course of biological evolution.9 At this point in my response I am still caught in the flow of the moment: the shock of the skid, the rush of adrenaline, the immediate cognitive response that I have learned, through practice, of steering into the skid. As the car safely steers back onto the road, I can relax my muscles, note the altered state of my body, and begin to think more freely, more laterally and self-reflexively – more in line with Peirce’s thirdness – and I begin to appreciate what has happened and how fortunate I am to have survived a near brush with death.
This sequence of firstness-secondness-thirdness is not quite as pat in real life as the above description of a near-accident makes it sound. It could happen that in the midst of skidding, I am flooded with a bodily memory of a previous experience, for instance, of falling to the ground while playing hockey as a child. This memory doesn’t come to me as meaning (thirdness) so much as it is a sensation in the body that is mixed into the firstness of my initial response to the skid. But it indicates how the meaning of previous experiences is already sedimented into the pre-reflexive immediate response to a particular stimulus – in this case, the loss of control of my car. And if I do not successfully steer out of the skid, then my body will feel the impact of collision less as a pain than as a convulsive shock that floods my entire awareness. The pain comes second, as I realize that I have been in an accident and am now “in pain.” Thus while pain is a bodily response, it is not necessarily mere firstness. It may be that as well, but it could be largely caused by the recognition that this is pain that I am feeling, and that it is I who am in pain.
It is the aftershocks of a violently disruptive event and the ways they continue to register for a survivor or observer that are the focus of most work in contemporary trauma studies. The paradigm case in trauma studies is the Jewish Holocaust, the Shoah, which Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub consider “an event without witness,” not only because the perpetrators destroyed much of the evidence of what they did, but because the victims had no appropriate frame of reference to account for it at the time.10 Roger Luckhurst defines trauma as “the piercing or breach of a border that puts inside and outside into a strange communication,” “violently opens passageways between systems that were once discrete, making unforeseen connections that distress or confound.” Trauma is “worryingly transmissible” through verbal or visual testimony that moves others to overwhelming sympathy and through a more directly affective transfer of bodily symptoms.11 Being neither assimilable into memory nor forgettable, trauma haunts, arising in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, hallucinations, and phobias. If it brings us close to pure firstness, as I asserted a moment ago, it never gets us there, because in the interpretation of something as traumatic there is always an oscillation between firstness (the shock of some remembered encounter), secondness (the encounter itself, with its indexical marks and traces), and thirdness, which is the field within which the oscillation continues for those trying to make sense of it.
Observers have noted the emergence of a “traumatological aesthetic” in contemporary literature and of a more generalized “culture of trauma,” especially in post-9/11 America, with discussion of all manner of traumas saturating the hum of talk radio, celebrity media, popular bestsellers, grassroots pressure groups, and even working its way up into government inquiries and medical task forces.12 Janet Walker notes the growth of “trauma cinema” since the 1980s and 1990s – films ranging from Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), JFK (1991), Thunderheart (1992), and Before the Rain (1994) to Errol Morris’s documentaries The Thin Blue Line (1987) and Mr. Death (1999) and women’s experimental autobiographical docs like Daughter Rite (1980), First Person Plural (1990), and History and Memory (1991). She characterizes this cinema as stylistically nonrealist and typified by “non-linearity, fragmentation, nonsynchronous sound, repetition, rapid editing and strange angles,” “approaching the past through an unusual admixture of emotional affect, metonymic symbolism and cinematic flashbacks.”13
But if paradigmatic Holocaust films like Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah (1985) are about the “witnessing of a catastrophe,”14 a catastrophe that is understood to have happened and left a gaping wound in the world, films of ecological trauma are about the witnessing of a catastrophe that has not yet occurred. Or it has occurred in isolated instances – Bhopal, Chernobyl, Katrina, Fukushima – of a much broader, slower, and more cataclysmic unfolding that may or may not ever transpire in its full form. Ecological catastrophe is a trauma whose perpetrators and victims are ill defined. It is usually the kind of trauma that E. Ann Kaplan classifies as “mediatized,” spread via images rather than from direct experience and face-to-face accounts.15 It even contains elements of what we might consider to be “postmodern” trauma – narrated events like alien abductions and “satanic ritual abuse,” memories of which emerge and fester in an epistemological wilderness where the reality of the cause is not only uncertain and fraught with contradiction but is, in many respects, hyper-real in its having occurred countless times already, not in life but in media (tabloid newspapers, books, movies).16 The cinematic prefiguration of trauma was in part what elicited such controversy in the aftermath of 9/11, when critics like Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Žižek argued that we were already more familiar with the events from their cinematic antecedents than from any contact we might have with the “real thing” that happened on that September morning.


The Wound of What Has Not Yet Happened
Awareness of the traumatic possibility of ecological collapse – the potential falling away of the conditions that make our collective lives possible and bearable on this earth – does not normally hit anyone with the impact of a car accident or an airplane crash. Such awareness, for those who carry it, gathers slowly, accumulating evidence like clouds rolling in the background of our awareness, until something tips us over the edge, taking us out of the familiar phase-space of our everyday awareness of the world into a less familiar one, one that recognizes its utter insecurity and vulnerability. Sometimes, however, such tipping-point events can be direct and vicious. The sensation, for instance, of an earthquake suddenly shifting the ground beneath one’s feet contains trauma in its firstness: this is the trauma of the immediate sensation that unsettles, disturbs, or throttles us, eliciting a panic reaction or a fight-or-flight response in our bodies. Once we recognize that this sensation of shock, horror, bewilderment, numbness, or fear, is traceable to the sudden movement of the ground beneath our feet, we experience the secondness – the causal connectedness – of the traumatic moment. It is only later, when we have conceptualized the trauma into a particular representation, a hook onto which we can seal our response – “this is the Big One,” “I remember the devastating earthquake that shook our country,” or, in other cases, the mark of some other remembered event such as Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Chernobyl, or Fukushima, the simple name of which triggers a set of associated responses – it is only then that we have trauma in its thirdness. This may be trauma tamed and contained, but it is also trauma retained and kept vibrating, an open wound that never quite heals.
Watching such events unfold on a screen primes our response to disaster when it occurs in life, but it also risks the overexposure that leads to “psychic numbing” and passivity in the face of real disaster. If trauma narratives and cultures, as some critics contend, are in part produced by the very media that mediate them, then it makes it all the more important to know what the effects of such productions are. Allen Meek argues that trauma “has been enlisted in the quest for authentic experience and historical anchorage in an age of spatio-temporal dislocation,” and that it is a result of “a compulsive repetition of the image” that cannot be located and secured – because of the very nature of the image as groundless, placeless, and decontextualized.17 To the extent that images of eco-trauma are mediatized and vicarious forms of experience, eco-theorists would want to know whether they result in anything more than what Kaplan calls “empty empathy” – empathy “that does not result in pro-social behavior.” As Kaplan puts it, catastrophe images focusing on the pain of others who are strange to us and with whom we share no socio-political context in which we might effectively respond, have the tendency to fragment our response-ability. “Each catastrophe image cancels out or interferes with the impact of the prior image.”18
How, then, to think about the history of ecological disaster in cinema? Disaster has been a prominent leitmotif in film for a long time, though its history has its ebbs and flows. The 1970s were a particularly productive time for disaster films (including eco-disaster films, such as Soylent Green (1973) and Silent Running (1972)), and the 1990s and 2000s have, to some degree, followed suit.19 Disaster can be addressed directly, as in fictional disaster films or in sensationalist or eco-advocacy documentaries; or it can hover as a possibility in the background. And some direct images can be more direct than others. The Day After Tomorrow (2004), for instance, offers a direct image of what a sudden cooling of the Earth might feel like; it is iconic (in Peirce’s sense), providing pictures, photographs, and sounds of disaster. Titanic (1997), on the other hand, while also iconic, providing a direct image of a historical shipping disaster, also carries an indirect image of disaster in general – the hubris of modern technological pride, which the Titanic story has become symbolic of. The post-apocalyptic genre of films, such as the Australian Mad Max series, Waterworld (1995), 28 Days Later (2002), Time of the Wolf (2003), I Am Legend (2007), and The Road (2009), provide images of the post-disaster, images that have an indexical relationship, a relationship of secondness, to the disaster presumed to have occurred. Films that include footage of actual disasters (documentaries or otherwise) bear an indexical relationship to those disasters as well.
Beyond the explicitly ecological, there are films that are not centrally about a disaster, yet which contain the whiff of disaster or some collective trauma in their background. Interpreting what is going on in the background of a film is not that different from interpreting what goes on in the background of one’s mind, which is what psychoanalysis has been trying to do for over a century. But films are collective products, and it makes sense to study their popularity and resonance with an eye for what it says about the collective and social. Fredric Jameson, in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, proposes the term “geopolitical unconscious” to designate the thesis that “all thinking today is also, whatever else it is, an attempt to think the world system as such.”20 Cultural texts, in his account, are forms of “political fantasy which in contradictory fashion articulate[…] both the actual and potential social relations which constitute individuals within a specific political economy.”21 Culture, for Jameson, “conflates ontology with geography and endlessly processes images of the unmappable system” of advanced industrial capitalism.22 Accordingly, the historical evolution of capitalism, marked by discontinuous bursts in its power to penetrate and colonize heretofore uncommodified spaces, generates its own social spaces and artistic responses, which have, at a highly generalized level, included realism, modernism, and now postmodernism. The originality of Jameson’s postmodernism thesis lies in his reading of various products of culture as heralding, reflecting, and responding to the latest stage in the development of capitalism – the shift since the 1960s to a post-Fordist, media-saturated and transnational form of it, in which the modernization process has made its way around the globe and commodification has been extended, albeit unevenly, to all levels of social and biological life.23
From a socio-ecological perspective, however, Jameson’s premise needs some thickening, since the world system is not only a political-economic one, in which social relations and psychic realities are predominantly shaped by the uneven economics of global capitalism, but also a political-ecological one. It is one in which the warp and woof of uneven development and global inequality are directly related to the ways advanced industrial capitalism both commodifies and thoroughly transforms the natural world and our relationship with it. Jameson’s postmodernism thesis can itself be taken as an instance of an idea that caught on because it resonated with broader political-ecological shifts. In his Postmodernism book, Jameson called postmodernism what we have “when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.”24 Just a year earlier, journalist Bill McKibben had written a book entitled The End of Nature, in which he lamented that with the appearance of the “ozone hole,” evidence of an impending global extinction crisis, and especially the possibility of catastrophic global climate change caused by human activities, nature, at least as we used to know it, has “ended.”25
Jameson’s and McKibben’s proclamations about nature’s demise, both dating from the beginning of the 1990s and both becoming bestsellers within their genres, provide an apt historical conjuncture for us to grapple with the political contexts of the eco-imaginary.


Strange Weather
Expanding on Jameson’s idea, we could say that the contemporary world system can hardly be thought without reference to the larger – and until recently unthinkable – totality of the ecological system which both sustains and interpenetrates with the political-economic system.26 A recognition of large-scale human impact on the environment registered widely as far back as the 1960s with the publication of such books as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle, and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, but the idea that humans are reshaping and altering the very foundations of something called “the global ecology” did not really come to widespread popular attention until the late 1980s. In particular, it was the idea of global warming that brought a certain shock to public thinking about the environment. On a swelteringly hot day in late June, 1988, James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified before a U.S. Congressional committee that he could state “with 99% confidence” that a long-term climate warming trend was occurring, and added that he was virtually certain that the “greenhouse effect” was its cause. While Hansen’s statements were not always accurately reported, their front-page newspaper and radio and television talk show coverage was unprecedented. Later that year, Time Magazine named the Earth “Planet of the Year” in place of its customary “Man of the Year.” Planetary nature, it seems, had emerged as an actor on the global stage at the same time as Jameson and McKibben were writing its epitaph.
The late 1980s and beginning of the 1990s saw the creation of the Intercontinental Panel on Climate Change, the release of the Brundtland Commission Report Our Common Future, the popularization of the term “sustainable development,” and the high-profile international mega-event in Rio de Janeiro which came to be known as the Earth Summit. These were followed, in 1993, with the election of a U.S. president whose running mate had written an environmentalist manifesto, Earth in the Balance, the title of which was meant to suggest how precariously poised we were on the cusp of dramatic, if not catastrophic, change. Coming at the end of the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney era, and competing with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the impending rush of globalization, this topicality of global ecology was itself somewhat remarkable. And yet, by the middle of the decade, it was all but eclipsed by the economic rush of post-Cold War Clinton-era globalization. A question that has not been answered decisively enough is why and how this disappearance came about.
It is in the midst of this disappearance, however, in the mid to late 1990s, that we find a spate of films about social relations that include portents of ecological disaster in their backgrounds – films in which nature, in an unruly and threatening guise, returns to disrupt the everyday texture of human social life. These are not films about anything particularly environmental; in fact, they are focused almost entirely on the social world. And yet that almost is the operative word; it is what allows for these films to be taken as a barometer for the “strange weather,” as Andrew Ross has called it, that lurks in their backgrounds.27 Robert Altman’s loose cinematic adaptation of Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts (1993) opens with images of helicopters, looking like giant bugs against the night skies, spraying entire Los Angeles neighborhoods with insecticide against medflies and their larvae, the terror of the California fruit industry. Over the course of the film’s first fourteen minutes, as we are introduced to the eight or nine overlapping narratives that make up the film’s polyphonic patchwork quilt, the helicopters continue to do their thing, with a television commentator editorializing about the spraying, comparing it to other “wars” being fought in recent memory – against Iraq, against terrorists, against drugs, and so on. But the war on the medfly is simply a war against something that is just there, an intrusion of nature disrupting the wheels of industry and the workings of the social fabric. Some two hours and a handful of deaths, suicides, and marital breakups later, the film comes to a close, as incongruously as it began, with a 7.4-magnitude earthquake rumbling across the Greater Los Angeles area. As the tremor begins, one of the characters explodes in a mindless rage and murders a cyclist with a rock blow to the head, while rocks begin to fall from a cliff behind them; the local news reports the girl’s death as the earthquake’s single fatality, while a weather expert muses aloud about how wonderful it is to live in LA. These allusions to nature’s disruptive force frame the panoramic set of stories that make up the film’s loosely connected, nonlinear narrative.
With its swirling juxtaposition of interpersonal and emotional predicaments, Short Cuts served as a model for Paul Thomas Anderson’s equally epic and decentered 1999 film Magnolia. Like Altman, Anderson weaves in an undercurrent of weather references – weather reports punctuate the film, a lot of rain falls, and at least three characters are heard to say, at different points in the film, “it’s raining cats and dogs” – and that’s before the climax, where Anderson ups the ante a notch higher than Altman had: where an earthquake would have been too obvious and derivative (for a film in and about Southern California), Magnolia concludes with a biblically-proportioned rain of frogs pounding on windshields, splattering onto wet roads, and plopping into spot-lit San Fernando Valley swimming pools. The film makes explicit what other films leave more implicit, but, in the course of its three-hour length, it remains the social landscape that is the central actor. As for the frogs, Anderson explains that “as far back as the Romans, people have been able to judge the health of a society by the health of its frogs: the health of a frog, the vibe of a frog, the texture of the frog, its looks, how much wetness is on it, everything. The frogs,” he continues, “are a barometer for who we are as a people. We’re polluting ourselves, we’re killing ourselves, and the frogs are telling us so, because they’re all getting sick and deformed.28
In both of these films, acts of real or Hollywood nature interrupt the narrative, acting as a kind of Freudian uncanny or Lacanian Real, an excessive remainder that invades the representational frame, jarring and dislocating the social worlds portrayed, but remaining outside those relations and in some way fundamentally inassimilable by them. These are events that simply happen, out of nowhere. Their effect on the lives of the characters is one that, for the most part, cannot be resisted. (The exception is the medfly infestation, though here it is the spraying of the insecticide that is more invasive and irresistible.) More than anything else that happens in these films, these acts of unruly nature unify the otherwise disparate stories in both films by putting the characters “in the same boat” in relation to them.29 What I would like to suggest (and have developed at greater length elsewhere) is that these uncanny visitations of nature displace, threaten, and solidify a certain post-Cold War but pre-9-11 reimagination of community, setting off strange rumblings at levels ranging from that of the family unit to that of the global human ecumene.
Unruly visitations of a vaguely threatening ecology appear not only in films that take place in and around Los Angeles.30 The 1990s were a particularly fruitful decade for what we might call the “post-nuclear” genre of filmmaking – post-nuclear in the double sense by which the nucleus that had been decentered (if not exploded) was in part that of the bomb, the technological threat which held together the bipolar geopolitics of the Cold War world, but also that of the patriarchal family and the traditionally ordered set of social relations for which it served as the formative, cellular kernel. With the disappearance of the West’s nuclear adversary (and preceding the appearance of the global terrorist threat), these films took place mostly in a safely middle-class North American world, one in which global reference points are obscured or nonexistent, and in which family and interpersonal relations are central. Films like Short Cuts, Magnolia, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999) work out the tensions inherent in the nuclear family by portraying the underbelly of a certain mainly suburban idyll, its fabric torn asunder by the centrifugal forces underlying its smooth but emotionally paralyzed exterior. And almost without exception in these films, natural disasters, or accidents caused by “nature,” act as the framing signifiers within which their postcatastrophic aftermaths unfold. Set against the parallel currents of family turbulence and the droning white noise of media culture, these appearances of disorderly, uncanny nature – or, in Mendes’s film even the barest cypher of nature, the invisible wind allusively gestured to by the performance of an inanimate piece of trash (and some dead animals) videotaped by one of the film’s teenaged protagonists – invoke an alternative, unhuman order, whose very incommensurability sets up a jarring moral counter-oscillation to the social realities portrayed. And yet, like the “airborne toxic event” in Don DeLillo’s paradigmatically postmodern novel White Noise, these unnatural appearances of nature seem more like allusions to a scrambling of the boundaries presumed to exist between nature and humanity, a scrambling in which we ourselves are implicated. Like the threat of global warming, they hover, with a reptilian stare, on the horizon of collective awareness.


The Sublime and the Real
Reading these appearances of nature as signifiers of some out-of-kilter global eco-social system, or of a psychic guilt that “we” (humanity) feel for our treatment of nature, risks both essentializing the human and making too much out of cinematic details that could be explained more parsimoniously otherwise. Ice storms, unstoppable rains an floods, and other acts of nature punctuating a film narrative are forms of what literary critics used to call “pathetic fallacy,” the creative misattribution of human characteristics to natural objects, or the use of nature to express human psychological states. In traditional readings, an earthquake or ice storm is not about the earthquake or ice storm at all. To this charge, an ecocritic would respond by saying that a river may be just a river, a textual ice storm may in fact be about ice as well, not just a comment on human miscommunication – in other words, the signifier could in fact also be pointing back at a natural signified, not only at a human one.
In any case, Short Cuts and Magnolia are arguably about California more than anything (with California itself being a signifier of the promise and future of America and the West), Ang Lee’s Ice Storm is about the 1970s, and all these films are about social or familial relations more than they are about political or ecological systems. But Jameson’s model of wide-angle, big-picture interpretation nudges us to read such things for their resonance at deeper and more disparate levels. His geopolitical unconscious is unconscious, after all, and for a species that has become the world’s dominant, it seems reasonable that the unconscious might be thought of as global or, at least, becoming-global. Magnolia’s rain of frogs and Short Cuts’ medflies and earthquake can be references to Biblical pestilences and apocalypses, but they are also about those things that happen of their own accord, those weird, freaky acts of nature that Californians, as much as anyone, live with a persistent, low-level and generally unacknowledged fear of. There is an indication, a kind of promise, in these films of there being something beyond the state of incessant motion, the frenzied desires and clashing emotions, insecurities, miscommunications and roiling chaos of these characters’ personal and interpersonal lives – a something around which, or in relation to which, the vortex of everyday life turns without ever being able to face squarely, something unrepresentable except as it breaks through in such spurious, random acts of (violent) nature. In a Lacanian reading, they represent the Real – the excessive, excluded, and incommensurate remainder of reality, which resists symbolic capture and always threatens to return and intrude, revealing the essential fragility of the nuclear bonds that make up the social. They constitute tears in the fabric of social meanings – the fabric into which we are incorporated as we become social and linguistic beings – which point to the gap at the center of human identity, the inassimilable outside, yet which simultaneously offer what Slavoj Zizek calls an “undergrowth of enjoyment.”31 To an ecocritic, this phrase of Zizek’s suggests more than even he may have intended: the verticality being ascribed here to desire evokes the genital “bush” and the “lower” animal realms, which subsist beneath the civilized veneer of the self, providing an obscure enjoyment even as they provoke anxiety and elicit repression, denial, or sublimation into other, presumably “higher” forms of expression.32
The discourse of the sublime is frequently invoked in discussions of the visual depiction of nature, and it is one that has been resurrected within a torrent of writing on postmodern culture. As figured by Kant, Burke, and others, the sublime was thought of as that which confronts us with the limitations of our representations, but also of our ability to control the world.33 In advanced industrial capitalism, where nature has been effectively tamed and eclipsed, the sublime has taken other forms: the technological sublime, the apocalyptic sublime, the nuclear sublime, and the ineffable alterity of the postmodern sublime (of Lacan, Derrida, Lyotard, Jameson, and others).34 For Jameson, it is technology that serves as a source of the sublime now: it mesmerizes and fascinates, holding out the promise of a representational shorthand for grasping the global network of power and control. But the repressed, for Jameson, is not a capital-n Nature forgotten or ravaged by technology, but historicity, the ability to make narrative sense of the whole system. The information-saturated postmodern media universe, with its ubiquitous eye in the sky of satellite surveillance, confers a paranoid modality to postmodern life, and Jameson reads the high-tech paranoia of the cyberpunk and conspiracy genres more generally as “degraded” attempts “to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system.”35 His readings of conspiracy films in The Geopolitical Aesthetic show a prescient sense for the decade of the X-Files, a television series which only first appeared a year after that book was published. X-Files is perhaps the best example of the argument I have been making: as a political fantasy about the labyrinthine workings of an unmappable and highly secretive system of global domination, it makes a tight fit with Jameson’s argument; but the role of nature throughout the series – as unexplainable goo coming from the ground, uncanny biological hybrid, mysterious residue or side effect of creepy shadow-government experiments, as both alien and very deep inside us, in our brains and bodies – is a telling indicator of how ecology at every level had gotten woven into the paranoid fantasies of power and powerlessness in pre-millennial America. The show could also be read as a serial compendium of the kinds of “monstrous natures” noted by feminist ecocritic Stacy Alaimo, who argues that while some of these entail a form of “border work” which attempts to elevate humanity onto a transcendent perch above and superior to the natural world, others provide a space for reimagining our corporeal identification with the animal, the organic, and the messily and monstrously hybrid.36
In the libidinal and imaginal economy of emergent globality – the globalization that constituted the main sign of the world system throughout the 1990s – these viral and monstrous excrescences could be taken as reminders that sociality, however orderly or unruly, is always contaminated by an unencompassable foreign element. But the repressed other is not historicity, as Jameson argues, but something more like the recognition of our complicity with and responsibility for the ecological crisis – arguably the hidden collective trauma of postmodernity – and of the colonial (ontological and epistemological) incursions with which this crisis is historically bound. Where the Cartesian modernist project had repressed the entire network of biological interdependencies and corporeal confraternities that shape and structure our material existence, it is these that erupt fitfully at a time when collective responsibility for eco-social collapse beckons at our consciousness. It is not that such sentiments haven’t erupted fitfully throughout the modern era – in Gothic tales and horror stories from Mary Shelley to Kafka to the films of David Cronenberg – but that their eruption has taken particular forms associated with technological experimentation and political conspiracy during the millennial 1990s. At the same time, in the body politic of North American culture, they can be taken as indicators of a liberal guilt driven inward, onto the socially conservative terrain of the late Clinton years: of moral character as against moral ambiguity, of chastity and its desecration, and so on. Recall that these filmmakers (Altman, Anderson, Anderson, Lee, et al.) are upfront or implicit social liberals; but in the temporal bubble of the Clinton 1990s, they somehow felt compelled to examine the moral sloppiness of the middle (and upper) class America that surrounded them on all sides.

The Eco-Imaginary
But let me return to my main thesis here, which is that representations of connectedness (or lack of it), communication and miscommunication, the threads that tie together the most elemental, cellular level of social life (the family), can be read as saying something about the most global level, that which we are calling “political ecology” – at least when they are framed by disruptive acts of nature, which, like a flash of lightning, throw those social facts into stark visibility. This thesis has something to do with the embryonic field of ecopsychology, particularly Theodore Roszak’s underdeveloped but evocative conception of an “ecological unconscious.” Roszak calls this unconscious “the core of the mind,” representing the “record of cosmic evolution.” The goal of ecopsychology, as he puts it, “is to awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within” that unconscious.37 Roszak’s notion assumes a quasi-Jungian essentialism about the mind which we need not swallow;38 it is enough to make the historical argument that global ecology and a skewed relationship between humanity and the Earth had become thinkable ideas, socio-psychological facts, by the late 1980s, and that by the mid-1990s these facts had undergone a kind of repression, with opinion polls showing the environment had fallen off the public radar, displaced by the economy or by moral and cultural politics.
These cinematic moments can be read, in Andrew Ross’s phrase, as “images of ecology,” with the difference that the images examined here are not quite conscious or intended as such; they require a kind of psychoanalytic retrieval for their ecological significance to be articulated.39 They are similar to the genre of horror film which portrays monstrous natures in the guise of threatening biological phenomena or of human-natural hybrids (a genre that dates back at least to Shelley’s Frankenstein). But while the latter have been richly explored for their articulations of gender, race, class, and nature,40 these more recent and “latent” or “decentered” appearances of uncanny nature have not been much analyzed by critics. They provide a contrast to the consciously environmental messages of The Day After Tomorrow and its eco-dystopian predecessors such as Silent Running, Soylent Green, the Mad Max series, or the big-budget Kevin Costner flop Waterworld (1995). Disaster, coming – as in the case of The Day After Tomorrow – in the form of rapid global warming precipitating a shutdown of the Trans-Atlantic gulfstream current and resulting in the almost immediate onset of an ice age, is what these films are about, so the characters are poorly developed and the storylines predictable. By making such films explicitly about ecocatastrophe and environmental hubris, they become easier to refute and critique, and easier to tame into the already divided discourse of left-right politics, so that even if The Day After Tomorrow might have gained a few converts, they would likely have been those teetering on the edge of voting Democratic already (in the United States), and such teetering can work both ways. What audiences ultimately hold in their hands is a disaster (if not disastrous) movie, 1970s-style kitsch plus the latest digital effects.
The unconscious eruptions, storms, quakes and freezes examined above may have the virtue that they are not so easily tamed. They remain inassimilable, hovering uneasily at the edges of our awareness. At least that is the promise: the art of such films, Zizek suggests, lies in “the paradox of anamorphosis: if you look at the thing too directly, the oppressive social dimension” – in the case he is describing, which is the 2006 film Children of Men – “you don’t see it. You can see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background.”41 A Jamesonian-Zizekian ecocriticism might lead us to ask: How is it that such irruptions appear, and where and when do they cluster in popular culture and media? How do they resonate with, supplement, or disrupt the social worlds portrayed? Is there a way we can retrieve the wild, untamed core, the “kernel” or “undergrowth of enjoyment” in these representations to keep a certain wildness in play through times in which the ecological or eco-geopolitical unconscious seems especially unconscious?
If the 1990s were the decade of neoliberal globalization and a certain disappearance of nature into the psychic undergrowth, the 2000s have brought both nature and global conflict into stark, expressive relief. Films of the last ten years have documented the global political ecology in myriad ways: from the documentary appeals of Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth (2006) to food and energy docs like Food, Inc. (2008), Super Size Me (2004), Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006), The End of Suburbia (2004), and Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), to fiction-nonfiction hybrids like Fast Food Nation (2001) and The Age of Stupid (2009), resource-capitalist-paranoia narratives like Syriana (2005) and There Will Be Blood (2007), and ecopocalyptic hyperreal fantasies like Children of Men (2006, and more real than hyper), The Day After Tomorrow (2004, and more hyper than real), and Avatar (2009, and even more hyper). Ecocritical readings no longer need to strain to seek out muted themes in the underbrush of interpersonal “network narratives”; the global-ecological thematic is everywhere.
But in a mediatized universe the popularity of anything can be expected to rise and fall, and trauma that overexcites the imagination ultimately wears itself out even in Hollywood. A geopoliticized ecocriticism, or an ecologized cultural-political criticism – one that examines ecopolitics not only in its explicit forms but in its latent and indirect manifestations – can nevertheless provide a useful means for thinking through the relations between culture and ecology in a time of uncertain and turbulent globalities. Such a geopoliticized ecocriticism would abandon any notion that “nature” is harmonious and that we have “fallen” out of Gaia’s embrace. But it would also dispense with the idea that nature is merely a “social construction.” A Peircian extension of semiotics to the biological and ecological42 makes of the world something that is significatory and communicative “all the way down” – with that way reaching well into the “undergrowth of enjoyment” that Zizek, Mikhail Bakhtin before him,43 and others have directed our attention to. In that undergrowth may lurk clues that could serve as reminders of our own interdependence and inter-engagement with a larger world of relata that our political and economic systems and practices are affecting and being affected by. The signs and signals reaching us from that turbulent undergrowth can be thought of as semiotic indices of a wilder, more untamed set of relations that are political (because they are power-laden), ecological (because they concern material-bodily metabolisms and extra-human relationalities), and communicative through and through. And as those relations are strained and twisted in all manner of directions, the trauma of their potential disintegration in some distant (or near) future continues to give off signals back to the past, which is the present that we live in.


1 This article includes material to be published in Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature (forthcoming from Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada). Portions have also previously appeared in “Stirring the Geopolitical Unconscious: Towards a Jamesonian Ecocriticism?” New Formations 64: 98-109.
2 Mark Seltzer, “Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere,” October 80 (1997): 3-26, p. 3. See also Seltzer, “Serial Killers (2): The Pathological Public Sphere,” Critical Inquiry 22.1 (1995): 122-49.; Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (New York: Routledge, 1998).
3 Charles Sanders Peirce, “The basis of pragmaticism,” Peirce on Signs, ed. J. Hoopes (London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991, p. 253-9), p. 258.
4 Wendy Wheeler, p. 144, “Postscript on biosemiotics: Reading beyond words – and ecocriticism,” New Formations 64, 2008, 137-154. There is debate among Peirce scholars over whether or not semiosis is supposed to encompass everything, or what, if anything, eludes it; in other words, are there objects that do not enter into semiosis, and how would we know about them?
5 Cavell, The World Viewed, p. xvi.
6 While Peirce’s distinction between three sign-object relations – icon, index, and symbol – have come to play an important role in film and media studies (icons are related to what they stand for through resemblance to it, indexes through a causal, existential relationship, and symbols through Saussurian-like convention) – I am more interested in the more primitive set of phenomenological-ontological categories in which these are grounded.
7 Floyd Merrell, Peirce, Signs, and Meaning (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), p. xi.
8 Collected Papers 5.44, quoted in Elliot, Mediating Nature, p. 248. Haecceity is a term Peirce took from medieval philosopher Duns Scotus, which has more recently been popularized by Deleuze and Guattari.
9 LeDoux J (1996). The emotional brain. The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
10 Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. xvii.
11 Roger Luckhurst, “The Trauma Knot,” p. 192; and see R. Luckhurst, The Trauma Question (London: Routledge, 2008).
12 On the “traumatological aesthetic,” see Philip Tew, The contemporary British Novel. On the culture “saturated with trauma,” see Luckhurst, The Trauma Question (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 2.
13 Janet Walker, “Trauma Cinema: False memories and true experience,” Screen 42.2 (2001), 211-216; p. 214.
14 Shoshana Felman, “In an Era of Testimony: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah,” Yale French Studies, No. 97, 50 Years of Yale French Studies: A Commemorative Anthology. Part 2: 1980-1998. (2000), pp. 103-150; p. 104.
15 E. Ann Kaplan, “Global trauma and public feelings: Viewing images of catastrophe,” Consumption Markets & Culture 11.1 (2008), 3-24.
16 Jodi Dean’s Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outer Space to Cyberspace (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998) and Elaine Showalter’s Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997) provide divergent but insightful analyses of these sorts of phenomena.
17 Allen Meek, Trauma and Media, p. 10.
18 Kaplan, “Global trauma,” p. 9.
19 John Sanders, Studying Disaster Movies, Leighton Buzzard, U.K.: Auteur, 2009.
20 Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1992. See also Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, London, Routledge, 1981. The quote comes from Jameson, Postmodernism, p4; emphasis in original.
21 Colin McCabe, ‘Preface’ in Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic, p. XI.
22 Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic, p. 4.
23 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1991, p. ix.
24 Jameson, Postmodernism, p. ix.
25 Bill McKibben, The End of Nature, New York, Anchor/Doubleday, 1990.
26 Immanuel Wallerstein, the founder of world-systems theory (on which Jameson draws alongside other neo-Marxist historians and sociologists), has argued that the ecological crisis is a consequence of the process of capital-accumulation that is inherent to the modern world-system (‘Ecology and Capitalist Costs of Production: No Exit,’ in The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-first Century, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 76-86). See Jason W. Moore, ‘The Modern World System as environmental history? Ecology and the rise of capitalism,’ Theory and Society 32 (2003), pp307-377, for an insightful elaboration of an ecologized world-systems theory. Others writing in a Marxist vein, such as James O’Connor and various contributors to the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, have developed analogous arguments about the ‘second,’ i.e. ecological, ‘contradiction’ of capitalism.
27 Andrew Ross, ‘The drought this time,’ Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits, New York, Verso, 1991, pp193-249.
28 Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia: The Shooting Script, New York, Newmarket. 2000, p207. A relevant question for an ecocritic is whether any frogs were harmed during the production; the answer, apparently, is no: over 7900 rubber frogs were made for the film, the rest were created by computer graphics.
29 Jonathan Romney, ‘In the time of earthquakes,’ Sight and Sound, March 1994, p. 9.
30 That LA leads the pack in the imagination of natural catastrophe is demonstrated in Mike Davis, The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, New York, Vintage/Random House, 1998.
31 Slavoj Zizek, ‘The undergrowth of enjoyment,’ New Frontiers 9.7 (1989), p. 29.
32 I am indebted to Wendy Wheeler for pointing out these resonances undergirding Zizek’s phrase.
33 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. A. Phillips, new ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998; Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. L. W. Beck, New York, Macmillan, 1993; Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
34 E.g., David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1996; Rob Wilson, American Sublime: The Genealogy of a Poetic Genre, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991; Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘The sublime and the avant-garde,’ Paragraph 6 (1985), pp1-18; Lyotard, Of the Sublime: Presence in Question, trans. J. Librett, Albany, SUNY Press, 1993; Nicoletta Pireddu, ‘Beyond figuration, below the threshold: some observations on postmodernism and the sublime,’ Negations 1 (1996), http://www.datawranglers.com/ negations/issues/96w/96w_pireddu.html.
35 Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 38; cf. Flieger, ‘The listening eye’ and ‘Postmodern perspective.’
36 Stacy Alaimo, ‘Discomforting creatures: Monstrous natures in recent films,’ in Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, ed. K. Armbruster and K. R. Wallace, Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, p. 201.
37 Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, Phanes Press, 2001, p320.
38 This is not to suggest that the mind is a blank slate, but rather that whatever propensities humans are born with vary from individual to individual and co-evolve with their environments from the first moments of embryonic development to the final breaths of mature adulthood. They do not represent a unified and clearly demarcated ‘species being,’ whether it be that of Jung’s archetypal unconscious or the genetic templates proposed by sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists. I also do not intend to imply that Jungian notions are irredeemably “essentialist.” In the hands of James Hillman and others, as I will argue below, they are profoundly useful for understanding our relationship to symbols and images. On the utter intertwining of nature and culture, see, e.g., Susan Oyama’s brilliant The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution, 2nd rev. and exp. ed., Duke University Press, 2000.
39 Andrew Ross, The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society, London, Verso, 1994, p. 171.
40 E.g., Alaimo, op.cit.; Fatimah Tobing Rony, ‘King Kong and the Monster in Ethnographic Cinema,’ in The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle, Durham, Duke University Press, 1997, pp157-191.
41 Slavoj Zizek, “Children of Men: Comments by Slavoj Zizek,”
www.childrenofmen.net
42 See Thomas A. Sebeok, Global Semiotics, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2001; Alf Hornborg, ‘Vital signs: An ecosemiotic perspective on the human ecology of Amazonia,’ Sign Systems Studies 29.1 (2001), pp 121-152; Wendy Wheeler, ‘Figures in a landscape: Biosemiotics and the ecological evolution of cultural creativity,’ L’Esprit createur 46. 2 (2006), pp100-110; Wheeler, The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics, and the Evolution of Culture, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006; Sean Cubitt, EcoMedia, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2005.
43 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984.





01.02.2011

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