Friday, August 30, 2013

Why "Eco" now?

In the following post I hope to examine whether or not media ecology and "ecomedia" (which we seemed to understand last class as media about ecology) belong  together theoretically. As Aaron pointed out to me the other day, media about ecology (and the 'environment') is not the same as media ecology. He argued that just because both terms contain "eco" in them does not mean that the course (or maybe even media ecology as a discipline) should necessarily concern itself with nonhuman animals or "environmental" concerns. His main point is not that we should abandon this work, but that to analyze media about ecology differs from the analysis of "media ecology." Thus, my analysis of the 'mediated' nature of environmental shows such as Whale Wars on South Park was a relatively standard move that many scholars have made using different texts, rather than using the methodology we might call "media ecology." (Is it a methodology? This will be discussed later).  BlackFish, Sea World, and other media that deal with 'ecological' issues can be thought through the methodology of media ecology, but media ecology is not restricted to issues of the nonhuman animal or ecological politics.

Caroline Stone's work on e-waste, for example, is a media-ecological study because, although she discusses the film Wall-E as a representation of e-waste, the interest is not on the film per se, but the problem of e-waste and the ways in which it is circulated and eventually gathers.

But is it a coincidence that the metaphor of 'ecology' for objects of inquiry such as media or writing has become so dominant? Does it provide an original methodology for studying the ecology of writing or media that focuses on the medium regardless of its content (and indeed, would this not be to agree with Mcluhan: the medium is the message) or is it because the problem of the nonhuman animal, nonhuman AI/bots/search optimization, matter/materiality presses upon us as we confront global issues such as climate change, overpopulation, globalization, food production,  that deal with the very real fact that the earth is a finite resource? And that these problems has allowed such a methodology to emerge?

Ecocomposition and Ecomedia

In his book Postcomposition, Sid Dobrin recognizes the 'failures' of what he calls "Ecomposition."  I recognize that Dobrin's book is situated in a particular disciplinary conversation in composition studies. I further recognize that Dobrin is not saying that ecompositional work that engages with political and ecological issues should not be done. He does write, however, that at least within composition, ecocomposition has functioned as "a misnamed approach for giving students something to write about, a political content addressed as the thing that fills writing with meaning" (124). Dobrin identifies four ways in which Ecocomposition has already failed:

1.) Falls prey to the 'pedagogical imperative' of composition studies.

2.) Ecological composition has failed because of its embrace of "floating signifiers like 'nature' and 'environment'  as its primary objects of study rather than writing"

3.) Ecocomposition has always been anthropocentric, "focusing on the human agent's relationship with the environment"

4.) Ecocomposition as an idea hasn't spread and influenced further scholarly work.


Dobrin explicitly reminds us that questions about the construction of nature or the nonhuman animal should not be abandoned: they are important.  Yet, this is something he explores elsewhere.

Why do I bring this up when we aren't talking about "the phenomena of writing" or even the field of composition? Because writing  seems to occupy the place of the word we have chosen for this course: media. That is, Dobrin's  description of the phenomenon of writing-as-system as isolated from other political and theoretical issues in ecology mirrors a possible position that "media ecology" does not have a necessary relationship to larger ecological concerns. In contrast, "ecomedia" does. "Ecomedia" to implies that we think about ecology as the content of media. Another way to put it -- Media ecology designates a methodology (in the same way that one might categorize 'deconstruction' or 'actor-network-theory') and 'ecomedia' designates something media ecology might choose to study, but does not have any privileged relationship to Media ecology's methodology.

But in the academic scene, media ecology as a methodology has also emerged from the recognition of global ecological problems. Is media ecology simply a new name for an old methodology or does it offer a different different mode of inquiry? Or am I simply wrong that media ecology is a "methodology" and that we should position media ecology as a 'field' of inquiry? (And what are the differences?)

I prefer the idea that media ecology is a methodology, but a methodology that is not an empty formal method, but one which is not only influenced by the concerns of those theorists that have helped media ecology emerge, but were the conditions for the possibility of its emergence. These concerns are not the same as "content," but it does seem that media ecology contains methodological assumptions that in some ways connect it to the larger scholarly endeavor of the "nonhuman turn." I turn now to those theories.

The Nonhuman Turn of Theoretical Inquiry

In the previous post, I mentioned the Wikipedia entry on "Media Ecology." The main distinction the author(s) of the entry make between the North American Media ecology and the European is that, citing Matthew Fuller,

"The European version of media ecology rejects the North American notion that ecology means environment. Ecology in this context is used 'because it is one of the most expressive language currently has to indicate the massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter' (Fuller 2005:2).

Despite this claim, it seems that the more recent media ecology, especially Parrika (although he calls his method 'media archaeology'), look to the nonhuman animal, plant, and mineral world for models and metaphors for media, distinguishing them from the Mcluhanesque definitions offered by the Media Ecology Association (Parrika's book is called Insect Media for a reason, right?).  Indeed, as I pointed out in my last post, the MEA's definitions all seem to use environment to describe human made media and its impact on humans. The metaphors are of "information" "code" "system"  or all at once "complex communication systems as environments" (Nystrom). 

The title of Parrika's book would have one believe that instead of using the metaphor of "environment" to describe communication systems among humans, we appropriate elements from what we might call the 'environment' or nonhuman animals systems as metaphors or models for these communication systems. That is, 'media' is not restricted to its impact on humans, but rather becomes a problem/issue/interest between humans and nonhumans as well as among nonhumans themselves. Nonhumans do not only mean here the digital world, containing many algorithms that make decisions without direct human intervention, but also nonhuman animals and their environment. If we think "ecology" simply means the digital circulation of texts, images, videos on networks, we may be bracketing an entire realm which does not appear to concern the human (but really does). 

In other words, we get the sense that the North American Media Ecology Association is primarily interested in human endeavors and the complexity of our digital and textual lives rather than "ecology" as a biological discipline that has to bear on ecological crises.  

In contrast, many theorists have tried to theorize about what Quentin Meillasoux calls "the great outdoors," those parts of the world that are not directly correlated to our perceptions. An influx of nonhuman, nonanthropocentric philosophy has arrived in the forms of Speculative Realism, New Materialism and critical animal studies. The former is a general term for philosophers that attempt to revive the tradition of realism in the face of what Quentin Meillasoux calls "correlationism." 'Correlationism' is any philosophy that makes the real conform to what is given to the human being. In After Finitude, Meillasoux writes, 

"By correlationism, we mean the idea according  to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other." (AF 5). 

The main culprit briefly discussed in M.'s book is Heidegger. I'll leave the details to the reader's leisure, as it does not directly bear on the question at hand.

The critique of correlationism has been taken up by Object Oriented Philosophy (Graham Harman) and Onticology (Levi Bryant. These philosophers also reject 'correlationism' and propose a realist theory of objects (although Levi Bryant seems to have toned his OOO influence down a bit lately). As I mentioned in class, this philosophy has had a huge web presence and one could even argue that the entire intellectual movement would have been impossible or at the very least had much less of an impact on theoretical discourse today had their not been blogs (Bryant's blog, for instance). Bryant in particular, especially in the earlier days of the blog where he was developing what would become The Democracy of Objects worked tirelessly to respond to questions and criticisms, shoring up evidence and speculations for his argument that would result in a book and continued engagement with his own work. 

Object oriented ontology argues for a "flat ontology" in which even the human subject is considered 'an object' among other objects. One of the tenets of OOO is that, because of the influence of correlationism, we have mistaken ontological questions for epistemological questions. That is, instead of asking what something "is," we turn that question into "what can we know about it?"  OOO tries to construct a different ontology in which we understand objects as "withdrawn substances" (Harman). OOO, at least ontologically, does seem to make much of a distinction between nonhuman animals and plants and other material objects like tables and hammers. Both Harman and Bryant have their own specific way of getting at their ontologies, with Harman relying on Heidegger and a weird philosophy of 'substance' and Bryant on his reading of Deleuze, Lacan, and Niklas Luhmann (among others). Both, however, are trying to construct a nonanthropecentric philosophy. 

In contrast to OOO, Cary Wolfe has recently used complex systems theory of Niklas Luhmann in conjunction with Derrida's philosophy, particularly those texts explicitly thematizing the nonhuman animal (Animal that Therefore I am (following)), to show how we are dependent on nonhumans for our current ways of life under global capitalism. Unlike OOO, Wolfe is very interested in the distinction between nonhuman animals (and other things we might characterize as 'living') and other objects. For Wolfe, there is a biopolitical imperative to interrogate the difference between the who and the what -- even if the 'what' is always the condition for the possibility of the who. Wolfe is not so much in "ecology" as a metaphor because of his adherence to Luhmann's systems theory. We will return to this point when we discuss Wolfe's critique of Latour. 

'New materialism' is, in some ways, a theoretical position that mirrors OOO except that new materialist do not think that we have to build first an ontology that can only then can lead to discussions of ethics and politics. Rather, new materialism is already intimately concerned with politic.  Rather than reviving old school philosophical terms like "substance" as Harman does, Bennett and other new materialists focus on materiality and matter (Karen Barad can also be considered a new materialist). New materialism is interested in exploring the agency and the capacity/potential/energy/affect of nonhuman beings within networks. Bennet's book title? Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. 

Bennett draws on an array of sources including Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson, and especially: Bruno Latour. 
While I hesitate to put Latour in a completely separate category than these other recent theorists, I feel I must. Latour springboarded "science studies." Furthermore, Latour is an anthropologist/sociologist. He is interested in a new methodology that could allow for a "symmetrical anthropology," an ongoing project that was outlined in We have Never Been Modern ( Latour believes that we must shift from the verb "to modernize" to "ecologize." But why ecology?

First, we should understand that none of these thinkers that I mentioned has much interest in the well worn opposition of Nature/Culture. Indeed, the 'realist' philosophical project is also deeply invested in getting rid of the distinction because 'culture' leads to the postmodern impasse of cultural relativism.  Indeed, "ecology" for some of these thinkers seems to be the only way out of this dichotomy. Because of this caveat, we cannot understand "ecology" as a synonym for a vulgar environmental politics in the name of the Natural World or the Environment (as if it was separate from human intervention). 

However, doesn't  'ecology' must have something to do with what we used to call nature?

Latour defines 'ecology' as such: "Ecology is not taken in this inquiry as a focus on Nature but  as the end of the notion of nature which is presumed to be a common world of all collectives. If nature is no longer the arbiter of judgments, we now have to compose rather than modernize" (Latour, Inquiryonline text)

Ecology, then, is meant to signify not only the movement and circulation of media, but rather the imperative for a common world. A 'common world' in some sense that can be opposed to simply accepting the values of globalized capitalism.

In other words, ecology resonates with the imperative to allow 'things' and 'animals' to have a 'say' in our common future as collective beings in the world. We already know that nonhumans act upon human beings, sometimes as essential components to human ways of life.  I believe that for Latour and many other thinkers the larger context that we must take into account is the fate of our common collective under the threat of what used to be taken as 'environmental' concerns: climate change, sustainability, overpopulation. 

These are our current problems that must be addressed not only by actions but the creation of new concepts. I am referring here to Deleuze and Guattari's claim in What is Philosophy that "all concepts are connected to problems without which they would have no meaning and which can themselves only be isolated or understood as their solution emerges [. . .] concepts are only created as a function of problems which are thought to be badly understood or badly posed" (16). 

The question we should ask, then, is whether what I've called the methodology of media ecology is necessarily connected to the concept of ecology that has emerged because of the ecological problems we face today. 

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