Presentation titles (in order of speakers)
NB: to ensure that we have ample time for discussion, participants will speak for 7-10 minutes (10 minutes will be the absolute maximum).
1. Carlos Alonso Nugent, Yale Univ.
“To Be Alone In Nature: Private Journals, Public Essays, and the Fantasy of Eco-Solitude”
Since the mid nineteenth century, American writers have fantasized about being alone in nature. While many of these writers lived and worked in isolation, they all drew on and contributed to a shared fantasy that I call eco-solitude. In the last two decades, environmental historians and social theorists have critiqued this fantasy. But if we want to understand why eco-solitude animates readers, inspires activists and influences politicians, then we need to explore how it takes shape in different media ecologies. This conference presentation focuses on the natural media that John Muir created and circulated during environmentalism’s formative period. Between 1867 and 1869, Muir withdrew into nonhuman environments and recorded his experiences in private journals. The way he wrote influenced what he wrote; since he was isolated from publics, he experimented with different approaches to time, space and identity. Once he made writing into a career, however, he represented his old experiences in new ways. After 1890, Muir’s public essays established a hierarchy between different environments, separated humans from nonhumans, and redefined being alone in nature as a transformative experience. Ultimately, these new media changed the way Americans use and understand the natural world. In order to adjust to an increasingly uninhabitable planet, therefore, we need to keep rethinking our media ecologies.
2. Jason D. Gladstone, Univ. of Colorado Boulder
“Environmental Technics: Earthworks Art (c. 1969)”
This paper concerns the environmental technics generated by the earthworks art of Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson—from Heizer’s Nine Nevada Depressions (1967) through Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). These works have long been considered as foundational works of postmodernism. However, this paper argues that earthworks art is characterized by a literalist aesthetic that brackets the subject-object axis which structures both modernism and postmodernism. Heizer’s and Smithson’s earthworks isolate the interactions of artifacts with their environments over time. These durational interactions are here identified as junctures for rendering the empirical limits of technology and questioning its conceptual coherence. Which is to say, then, that rather than elaborating a discursive critique of either the subject or nature, earthworks mounts a desubjective critique of technology. This critique is routed through the interactions of manmade things with their environments over time, and is sourced not in the experiences of subjects but in the global unavailability of techne’s conditions of possibility. Insofar as this is the case, the earthworks critique of technology fundamentally reconfigures the relationship between nature and technics that underwrites 1960s discourses of ecology, cybernetics, postwar modernism, and poststructrualism—all of which are, at base, focused on human agency and its determinants.
3. Karen Elizabeth Bishop, Rutgers Univ.
“The Kairotic Space of Memory: The Tejas Verdes Torture Center Repurposed in the Natural World”
How clandestine detention and torture centers are reintegrated into postdictatorship societies often becomes a matter of public debate playing out in the press, in calls for proposals for what to do with the sites, and in architectural competitions. For this roundtable, I look at the 2012 proposal submitted by the French-Chilean architectural group AGC Concept Architectes to repurpose the space of the former prison camp Tejas Verdes, located on the coast of Chile. AGC proposed constructing a dynamic, hybrid transitional space between the urban and the biological that would both serve the depressed local population economically and provide a space for repose and reflection on the crimes against humanity committed at the site. My reading of AGC’s proposal and architectural designs focuses on how Amphibia’s engagement with the natural world provides for a kairotic space of memory, a form of memory premised on an opportune moment of learning and recognition. Kairos allows the repurposed space and the memory of the disappeared to operate in new temporal registers that provide for a new kind of political and historical engagement bound up in the incompleteness of the natural world. This organic incompleteness is critical to how we conceive of rebuilding memory sites and collective memory.
4. Zach Horton, Univ. of Pittsburgh
“Sky Writing: Chemtrail Conspiracy Media as Toxic Cartography”
This talk will focus on one of the more peculiar intersections between media ecology and natural ecology: the Chemtrail conspiracy movement. The linchpin of this growing, global movement is the shared belief that a secret, large-scale geoengineering program is currently underway, blanketing the globe with toxic particles sprayed into the stratosphere. The chemtrail movement, however, is far more than a community of conspiracy theorists: it is also a media ecology that produces, aggregates, and endlessly remixes various forms of media. The central symbol of the movement, the persisting jet contrail—a white line across the blue sky—becomes the object of photography, textual description, and documentary footage. Chemtrail conspiracists combine this collaged media with copious toxicology reports, themselves the outcome of assiduous testing of local soil, water, and the blood in their own bodies. In numerous documentary films and web sites, these media are mixed (and remixed) together into virtual maps of contamination. I will argue that these practices constitute a form of “toxic cartography” that proceeds by treating natural ecology as medial surface: the sky as surface of inscription, water and soil as expressive substances, the human body as concentration point and thus ecological signifier. The geoengineering trope of controlling and re-ordering the productive potentials of life through the modification of its general conditions for existence on Earth is picked up and animated through this collision between natural media and the flows of digital information. The central unit in this tranductive circuit is the trans-scalar particle—the radioactive isotope, the CO2 molecule, or the “smart” nano-particle. The particle that spans scales acts as the interface between the digital, the analog local, and the analog global, linked narratives of global contamination, terraforming, and conspiracy. Geoengineering as speculative global technics and scalar outflanking maneuver is thus dependent upon a commensurate particulate imaginary. In this context, Chemtrail members have developed a new form of trans-scalar cognitive mapping. In tracing global power dynamics across scales and through the environment as a series of particulate dispersals and corporeal concentrations, this unique practice of toxic cartography is in the process of generating a new form of subjectivity. Linked to global flows of contaminants and information, the Chemtrail subject is porous and scale-aware, capable of geo-locating itself within a four-dimensional space that includes a scalar axis. Thus the Chemtrail subject emerges as a medial subject at multiple scales simultaneously, tied in to circuits that span and interconnect the domains of natural or elemental media, digitality, and the normally invisible signifiers of global power.
5. Alenda Chang, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara
“On SpeedTrees and First-Person Walkers”
“In my room,” Wallace Stevens once wrote, “the world is beyond my understanding; / But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four / hills and a cloud.” Perhaps the developers and players of “walking simulator” games like Dear Esther and Firewatch have had something similar in mind all along, although today, to label a game as such is still to lampoon its lack of clear objectives, its ungamelike insouciance. Yet the rise of first-person walkers, as they are also sometimes called, reminds us that games remain undertheorized as environmental systems. From the modeling software and plant libraries of SpeedTree (touted as “the gaming industry’s premier vegetation solution since 2002”) to the worldbuilding gestures of ElemenTerra VR, this presentation will suggest just a few of the ways that the burgeoning remit of the environmental humanities might contribute to the future of game studies.
6. Kim Knight, Univ. of Texas, Dallas
“Infection Blocked! Deterritorializing the Viral”
In this presentation I will examine the operations of the viral across and between contexts as it deterritorializes and reterritorializes between the digital and the biological in order to elucidate an eco-poetics of the viral. I begin with the work of defining the viral and connect its characteristics to Burke’s sublime to establish its anxiety-inducing effects. I then evaluate how sublime latency manifests in Sneha Solanki’s art installation The Lovers, including a reading of the anthropomorphized computers and underlying romantic hacker mythos that trouble biological-digital distinctions and expose the vulnerability of the human operating system. I finally examine antivirus software as a response to anxieties regarding the sublime latency of the viral and suggest that it deploys a logic of premediation that shapes user behavior and extends its own sociotechnical network into the future.