A Ramble on Escaping Concrete Domes in Brewster McCloud (1970)

Brewster McCloud, directed by Robert Altman, released 1970

In short, Brewster McCloud is about the titular boy’s attempt to fly like a bird. He squats in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome, studies birds with his partner in crime, Louise, and inevitably falls down onto the astroturf and perishes. And though I haven’t mentioned his huge number of serial stranglings, you can already sense that Altman’s Brewster is a little kooky.

Brewster might be the main character in the traditional sense, since it’s his journey we follow, but birds as a group are much more important than any of the people we find in this Houston-based oddity. In fact, the voiceover narration talking about birds (pronounced to us by a gradually bird-ifying René Auberjonois) makes me wonder whether we’re watching a movie about people at all. All the characters are frequently compared to birds, and our larger social structures, particularly love rituals and social hierarchy, are given bird analogues as well. The movie is profoundly strange and goofy, as are the people in it, from the turtleneck-hoarding supercop to Shelley Duvall’s race car driver/tour guide character. A flock of strange birds indeed, as my grandfather would put it.

What can we take from this little summary of bird figures in this film? I’d wager that it’s pretty simple: the human desire to simply be able to fly away and find freedom in the air is infectious and far from the only ways in which their many species exert a pull of desire on us. The Astrodome itself starts to look like a colossal concrete nest by the end of the movie, and my main intuition about the movie is that it’s about the ways in which our attempts to achieve freedom through invention and the overburdening of earth are destined to collapse. There is the Astrodome itself, a novelty when the film came out and now sitting empty and largely unused. We have airplanes, a source of freedom only for the very few who can own their own and skip the horrendous security lines. All the trappings of industrial modernism offer tempting luxuries that exact tremendous consequences. It’s a classic mad scientist story, down to the ghoulish murders. (Manages to be a very funny movie at the same time, though, which is typical of these Altman curiosities I love so well)

Unrelenting construction and technological expansion creates dreams of escaping it. The great irony, I think, is not just that Brewster makes the very foolish decision to try to fly to freedom from inside the Astrodome, but that he tried to turn himself into a bird with heavy metal wings, taking a huge toll on himself. If we are going to find some kind of meaningful freedom in our lives, we can certainly dream of flying like birds, but contrary to Louise’s words, our freedom lies somewhere closer to the ground. It would be best, indeed, if we could simply observe the free birds of the sky and live our dreams out as much as we could, content in our own selves.

Zine Release: Drown in Time––Ecco the Dolphin Meets Bloodborne

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Drown in Time v2

^^download here

Drown in Time is a means of working through a few obsessions that bled into each other. Ecco the Dolphin, Bloodborne, ecology, pollution, the feeling that the world has already ended and nothing I do can or will ever matter. Time as water, choking as it sloshes here and there.

But more honestly, this zine comes from a strange fever that overtakes me once in awhile, the need to just put art together to speak for me about thoughts and nightmares that are hard to talk about.

And no, it’s not really interactive––that just came off the top of my head as a good subtitle.

Gerald McBoing-Boing and Links between Environmental History and Animation Studies

“This is the story of Gerald McCloy and the strange thing that happened to that little boy.”

And, let me add, the story of two ways of studying those strange things that happen.

This will be a short reflection on how animation studies and environmental history can come together. As two odd meeting spaces for all kinds of disciplinary wanderers, these two subjects have quite different origins, methods, and subject matter. But! What they share, I think, is a profound commitment to two things I’ll explore through the 1950 UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing.

These two things are:

  1. The idea that the interactions between different bodies in motion (human or not, virtual and real) are incredibly significant (along with a belief in the importance of the built environment and material things) and
  2. Methodological diversity––even, dare I say, chaos harnessed productively

I’ll spend two sentences summarizing the story of the short just in case anyone reading this can’t access the video I’ve embedded above. The short, adapted from a story by Dr. Seuss and animated by the John Hubley-led studio UPA (under Columbia), concerns Gerald McCloy, who cannot speak. When he speaks, he produces Foley sounds effects instead, and while this initially makes him a social pariah, in the end he is hired by a radio station owner to do sound effects for dramas, ensuring his place in society and giving him wealth and status.

Without diving too far into the short’s technical qualities or production history, I want to make two quick points about the short and why it makes a great exemplar for why environmental history and animation studies make excellent companions. While this exercise is certainly supposed to be fun, it’s also my effort to justify some of the ways I’ve attempted to bring these two fields together to make beautiful alchemy.

  1. An obvious point: the place of nature in the milieu of the short:

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In short, both fields would take notice of the way that nonhuman living things (trees, other plants, animals, etc.) are abstracted out of the frame in UPA cartoons, focusing on the human figures. These human figures, moreover, are often left un-coloured so that they appear as transparent drawings that share the colour field of the simple backgrounds.

Animation studies might ask the question: what were the historical views of nature and of nonhuman life that may have contributed to this style? How do UPA’s characters exist juxtaposed onto these very simple backgrounds, and how does that movement compliment the stillness, the unchanging stasis, of these natural objects? Moreover, what was the environment the animators inhabited? What did they see when looking out the window? What were the physical and labour conditions that went into the production of this cartoon with its spare moodiness and plentiful negative space? Or, finally, we might ask why Gerald McBoing-Boing tries to run away from home by means of a train, or what place the consumer culture of the 1950s has in the short.

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Meanwhile, environmental history might look at this approach as a result of the ideological modernism and anti-naturalism of the animation studio. As an environmental historian, I would ask: how does this more industrial and streamlined approach to filmmaking reflect the broader cultural trends in technology, media production, and appropriation of human and nonhuman labour? Like the animation scholar, I would ask about the environment surrounding the studio, the other films the studio produced about natural topics (like Of Stars and Men more than a decade later). Perhaps, if I’m looking to use this short or UPA’s style as a microcosmic study, I would look at how it fit into the ways paper, ink, animation tables, and celluloid were produced and distributed at this time and how those material allowed and limited an artifact like Gerald McBoing-Boing to be produced.

2. Narrative Content and “Message”

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Note that, in the frame above, Gerald has been fully integrated into a society that used to reject him. Like Rudolph’s nose in the Rankin-Bass special that has become a perennial favourite this time of year, Gerald’s peculiar way of vocalizing is akin to a disability (moreso than Rudolph’s nose, which has cultural stigma attached to it but doesn’t inhibit him in most other ways) or maybe more accurately a social inhibition. But now that an older man has swooped out of nowhere to give him a place in society, his once-hostile parents are smiling down on him from a raised viewing room, and he is well-dressed and productively employed.

(Come to think of it, the stop-motion Rudolph may have just taken this story beat-for-beat or at least drawn on the same set of values––social conformity, the value of diversity as long as it’s productive, the prevalence of children and adults’ prejudices, etc.)

In environmental history, we can ask questions about how UPA’s storytelling draws on wider or more personal views of the human body and its relationship to society. The idea that people need to have bodies that produce some kind of economic value is significant, as well as the way that technology helps to “rehabilitate” Gerald into a useful role. Even the optimistic tone of the short could come under question for, perhaps, being connected to wider social optimism and postwar prosperity.

Meanwhile, in animation studies, we might be interested in the particular ways and means by which animators construct those relationships to technology and human bodies. In what way is the animated creative process simulated or reproduced here? What is the significance, for instance, of the ways that UPA show that all of their figures are produced by drawing? We could hypothesize, for instance, that this kind of self-reflexivity and attempt to find the pure graphic potential of a medium connects to painterly abstraction also en vogue at this time. Finally, we could ask about the economic aspects of the process of animating these characters and the ways that they move. What meaning can be derived from that, either about the images themselves or the ways that process impacts the economics of animation and the later hegemony of television as a transmission form for animated stories?

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To conclude, I just want to say that the fields of environmental history and animation studies have a great deal to learn in coming together. And, I think, because of recent trends in both fields towards a consideration of the way the human body figures as a kind of environment or organic mechanism, and a consideration of how nonliving and nonhuman living beings affect history or possess some “agency” of their own (however defined) there is more opportunity for collaboration and cross-disciplinary discussion than ever.

How Guy Maddin Makes a Philosophy of History Out of Frozen Horses

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My Winnipeg is an audio film before it’s a visual experience. Its skeleton is oral poetry, mythology, the voice of Guy Maddin that manifests the pictures around it. Animation is just one medium that this documentary-fantastic poetry evokes like an incantation, freely jumping from archival footage, new footage, reenactment, colour, black-and-white film, and the illusory images of the poem’s fantasies.

I want to highlight the way the poetry of the film and its visual manifestations conjure up a kind of philosophy of history. Namely: the film’s use of animation, its creation of a “critical cartography” of space (and, I’ll argue, time), demonstrates the power of history gone intimate and non-linear.

The narrator of the film describes a scene where, on a frigid night in Winnipeg, a squirrel electrocutes itself on a power line and starts a fire with its body that spreads to the stables of the nearby horse track. The horses dart into the river where their bodies are frozen, becoming grim statues that nevertheless become hot spots for perambulators and even passionate lovers who create a baby boom the following spring. These children were “born of horses.”

When inhabiting the bodies fashioned by animators, the horses move, escaping from the fire into the ice. Their journey, punctuated by jabs of huge text on the screen, carries them through the frame, which is itself covered by footage of fire. The horses plunge into the water, where their animated bodies become frozen in a way that preserves their frenzy.

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And with a fade to black, the film shows, through a recording made by a camera, the grisly aftermath of the history that happened in animation. Animation makes the past move, while the camera records stasis, even if it is an erotically charged stasis. As the narrator calmly exposits, “the horse heads are always frozen in the same transports of animal panic, an abandonment reading unambiguously to the young lovers of Winnipeg.” Animation joins with the fire from which the horses are fleeing, the energy that animates their fear, which leaves the camera, live-action, as a frozen medium, one that signals and “records” the fear and terror but only in a cold retrospect.

Ian Robinson put it this way:
“Through the muddling of the dreamed city and the archived city, My Winnipeg defers the singularity of place to a configuration of stories. In this cartography, the textuality of Winnipeg emerges as a contested ground, a site where truth emerges through a dialogic event between spectator, film and the memory, archive and idea of the city.”(1)

And, as this sequence deftly shows, that “configuration of stories” is expressly nonlinear. It takes its form from layered, haunted wholes and double images. Animation, being expressly dreamlike and artificial, makes for an apt medium for summoning up the ghosts of old racehorses and communicating their fear and panic through graphic means.

My Winnipeg’s inclusion, and the esoteric and unreal nature of most of the “live” action footage often makes me mistake this for a fully animated film, since its textures and kaleidoscopic energy are so much more important than the medium used at any particular moment. Its actual animation and its live action scenes seem cut from the same mythological and memorialized cloth.

Even where there is no footage, no “documentary evidence” that can serve as visual confirmation of the horses’ plunge, animation can supply a flexible surrogate that has perhaps an even more powerful effect. And since much of the live action footage in My Winnipeg is fabricated/reenacted or modified anyway, animation fits seamlessly in the film’s narration.

While Robinson’s argument is primarily about the way that Maddin’s use of animation, multimedia montage, and poetry relates to place, my own argument is about how it productively disrupts the linearity of conventional histories. Although the narrator’s history does address events that have dates attached to them, sticking to something like conventional chronology (though not to empirical accuracy), its timeline winds, like the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, around and through countless places. Its timeline bends around memories, traumas, personal myths, and, as mentioned, the insistent flow of Maddin’s voiceover narration.

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Nonlinear histories like those told by My Winnipeg are crucially important because they do not trend towards some final end or towards an inevitable present. Rather, they point out how the history haunts the present, and show how the past incarnates itself in the memories, bodies, and, yes, the art of people in the present. Once again quoting from Robinson, this animated segment evokes and brings to life “the event of place.”(2) The horses racing out of the fire and into the ice, freezing under the gaze of the animator and then the camera, show that history does not march evenly forward but rather surges, locks in place, winds absentmindedly, comes crashing down like Maddin’s favourite downtown buildings.

As a historian, I am inspired by this film to take history, even if not so far into the intimacy of mythology and memory as Maddin, at least to acknowledge that the histories I am writing are all, in some sense, animated. Whether through my writing, the images in my mind as I pore through archives, or in the spectres and landmarks they leave behind, history-making has always been a form of animation.

Notes:

  1. Ian Robinson, “The Critical Cinematic Cartography of My Winnipeg,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 2014), 105.
  2. Ibid, 104.

City Egg, Country Egg: Narrow Notes on Urban Wildlife Ecology

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Steven and Krista Latta’s article on the population decline of the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is less an article about the nighthawk and more about the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). Noting hte aforementioned decline in the population of the insectivore, migratory nighthawks, the authors attempt to find a causal link between this decline and predation of nighthawk eggs by crows. Since the crows’ population has recently ballooned in American urban areas, the authors believe this may be a “non-mutually exclusive” cause of the nighthawks’ decline.¹

To test this hypothesis, the authors devised a method that utilized artificial nests of egg clutches distributed on different university roofs, each with a different roofing (stone, large or small gravel, etc.). These were compared against another set of experimental egg clutches distributed in a rural area where, the authors hypothesized, crows would be less likely to eat the eggs. In order to reduce the chance that the crows would memorize the locations of the artificial nests, the researchers placed each new experimental set “on a different rooftop, and a rooftop was only revisited after a minimum 7-day interval between trials” in the urban areas, and moved the clutch locations in the rural area, a forest preserve, without repetition.² They watched each clutch through camera feeds for 72 hours before being inspected. If their eggs were missing, they were considered to be predated.

At the end of their experiment, they found that none of the rural ground clutches had lost eggs to predation, while 44.7% of the urban nests suffered plundering over a 72-hour span.³ Moreover, every act of predation caught on camera was the act of a crow. From these results, the authors draw the conclusion that crows “could limit reproductive success of nighthawks in urban environments.”⁴ These results are certainly striking, and, within the confines of the author’s experimentation, the significant difference in predation between rural and urban areas, with their differing levels of crow activity, they suggest there is some veracity to their claims. However, there are also some significant gaps and inadequacies in their method and in their structural assumptions that inhibit the usefulness of the study.

First, as the author’s admit, the use of artificial nests and surrogate quail eggs is a useful expediency but is nonetheless a sub-optimal compromise method. Because the experiment here concerned a species that lays its eggs on the ground without much nest structure, there could be less of a discrepancy between predation of quail eggs and real eggs than in other studies using similar methods. However, as the authors also admit, their artificial nests lacked any parental defence, which could skew results, especially in areas where the eggs are highly visible and exposed.⁵ This flaw is not necessarily fatal to their conclusions, however, because rural predation was far, far lower than urban predation despite the use of false eggs. The relative difference could, therefore, be considered more significant than the absolute accuracy of the predation rates they found.

Another difficulty with the study is a minor discrepancy in the authors’ presentation of their methods between the urban and rural settings. While the false nest sites for the eggs at the university are described in great detail, down to the density and size of the gravel lining the rooftops, the rural sites are simply presented as being “on the ground.”⁶ Though there is a note that the sites chosen were in accordance with an encyclopedia of American birds, the reader would benefit from a short description of what those sites might be, since they might be quite physically distinct from exposed urban rooftops. This is not so much a methodological as a presentation error, but it leads to an inadequate understanding on the part of (this) reader, which could be remedied in only a few words.

More importantly, the previous flaw points to a more structural problem with the experiment: the lack of a precise knowledge of the differences in crow behaviour in rural and urban areas. The entire premise of the article is that crows are more active and more numerous in urban centres, which is the reason they were identified as a potential cause for population declines in the first place.⁷ When the authors admit that their article is unable to resolve the question of why they saw such a discrepancy in predation between urban and rural areas, it shows the weakness of one of the core assumptions of the study. As Latta and Latta assert, “Differences in abundance of crows between urban and rural sites may also play a role in determining predation rates, though we expected at least some predation in rural areas given the common occurrence of crows there.”⁸

Without more precise knowledge of the differences in crow populations and behavioural patterns in the rural and urban areas under investigation, the authors can only speculate that the urban crow population is higher or more active than the rural. Relative abundance of other food sources and competition from other predators in urban or rural areas and the the greater ease of finding and predating eggs on rooftop nests could all be factors driving the differences the authors see. Because of this, although the results the authors obtained show a strong contrast between the two ecological zones, they do not give the reader a clear grasp of why this might be nor whether crow behaviour is directly causative of this difference.

To conclude, none of these flaws strip away the entire worth of the study, but the inadequacy of their method and some of the vagueness of their assumptions prevents them from deriving effective results from their data. Simply knowing that nighthawks face much higher predator pressure from crows in urban areas is certainly worthwhile. But there is missed potential here. On a broader level, though, this study illustrates the logistical and logical challenges of posing effective ecological questions that can be answered using a set time and budget. And as urban ecologies grow larger and larger, it pays great dividends to understand the nonhuman life-cycles and energy dynamics that pulse within the city. It also reminds us to be mindful and caring for every environment rather than only ones that we can designate as “wild,” since the wild is often happening right above our heads. Figuratively and literally.

Notes:

1. Steven C. Latta and Krista N. Latta, “Do Urban American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) Contribute to Population Declines of the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)?” The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, no. 127, vol. 3:529.

2. Ibid, 530.

3. Ibid, 531.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid, 532.

6. Ibid, 530.

7. Ibid, 529.

8. Ibid, 532.

Staying with the Trouble and Earthbound Life

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“Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth.”

–Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2.

Figure 1: Snakes

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Snakes have difficulty holding onto things. Unlike humans, they have no limbs to speak of–maybe some vestigial nubs at most. They can hold things in their digestive tracts, in their reproductive system, from the mouth on down. These slithery reptiles also shed their skin in far more dramatic fashion than humans. Often coming off in whole pieces, the snake’s transformative shedding is a stark, frequent coming of age. For those who feel like they were only born after a great shedding, after removing so much undesirable cruft from their bodies, it’s a familiar symbol. Most importantly for our purposes here, snakes are tightly bound to the Earth. While there are snakes that can take to the air in dramatic fashion, even these snakes live in trees and slither close to the ground much of the time. Their whole bodies tend to be in contact with the earth while moving. They’re very horizontal beings, in other words, a 90 degree turn from bipedal walkers.

For Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, the Earthbound, a term she borrows from Bruno Latour, are beings who “eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature.”¹ For Latour and for Haraway, becoming Earthbound (or Chthonic ones, from the Greek for earth) is a choice, a choice to align oneself with a complex, interwoven Earth or the convenient illusions of the Modern. Like the snake, the Earthbound or Chthonic one is not a skygazer or someone who takes a position above the weird and mundane world we inhabit. Instead, snakes slither through and around, and are inextricably bound to threads, are threads, of movement, consumption, creation, destruction, etc. For Haraway, becoming Earthbound is the only way for humanity to survive. Shedding the modern, authoritarian skin and walking closer to the ground, listening more closely–these are what is required of us.

Trouble invokes snakes and humans together in a section describing the Medusa as “the only mortal Gorgon,” who might “heighten our chances for dashing the twenty-first-century ships of the Heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil flesh out of dead rock.” Notably, Gorgons are “dreadful” by definition, monstrous to “astralized” and patriarchal minds.² So we have a relatively complete picture of what the Chthonic/Earthbound ones do: they live and die, they align against Heroes and Gods, they defend the complex mess from which they came, and they narrate themselves within a mass of other stories in which they are not protagonists. Importantly, the Earthbound exist with the other beings of the Earth, the snakes they resemble so well. It matters dearly what we choose to do when we live and how we die, but we should neither be cynical and say our nature dooms the world to death nor arrogant and say our moral fortitude will be its salvation.

Figure 2: Acacias

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Acacias don’t just find themselves planted in soil. They don’t wake up in the dirt one day and accept their lot in life. Instead, they collaborate to make the earth they grow in. As legumes, they collaborate with fungi and bacteria to fix nitrogen into forms that plants can use. This process is a bedrock happening in all plant-bearing ecosystems. Moreover, they provide shade, seeds, chemicals like gum arabic, and, with the bees’ assistance, a prized kind of honey.³ They also grow rapidly and often push out native species where they were introduced by colonialists.

Like the acacias, human beings have a potent power to reshape the world. Transforming chemicals, creating solid structures, collaborating with bees, feeding other beings–we do these things daily, and in a fashion far more likely to grab our own attention. So being bound to the Earth, aligning with it as we must, involves a recognition that we are, with all other beings (bacteria being the most powerful, inside and outside our bodies) creators of the worlds we inhabit. We have an orientation–horizontal, earth-centred, non-ideological–and a deeply transformative way of life. It seems obvious that we transform the world, since that’s the basis of several prominent theories of social development and a cornerstone of humanist theories about human uniqueness and stature. But when we see our activity through the figure of the acacia, using the legume-tree as a map to explore ourselves in a new way, we understand that, like the tree, our connections are not always conscious, our impacts neither uniformly negative nor positive.

It would be anthropomorphizing the tree to directly compare us to it, but we should be able to see that, as Haraway puts it, we are both “world travelers and…homebodies…their ways of living and dying have consequences for terraforming, past and present.”⁴ Every way of existing involves us in a project of changing the soil from which we spring. This means that everything is dangerous, nothing is safe, nothing is pure. Wariness, attentiveness, and a recognition of risks and our potential friends and rugged companions on this earth are the qualities we Earthbound want to cultivate. Of course, our powers here are limited, especially as individuals (even moreso when we think of ourselves as contained and restricted to our skin), but even though we inherit a world that is damaged and broken in many ways, we can align our powers towards renewal and shelter rather than destruction.

Figure 3: The Tanuki

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Pom-Poko, the 1996 film from Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli, ends with the tanuki, mythical raccoon-dog spirits, integrating into human civilization in disguise. They have period reunions in an isolated park, stripping off their clothes and practicing their old shapeshifting magic in secret. Their ways of life have been completely obliterated by the human need for housing and development. Their forests fell and burned, and their valiant defence failed. In one final cathartic moment for the film, however, they use their powerful magic to make an illusion of their old 19th century, pre-industrial life. This illusion shows their desire to live apart from and with humans in the old relative balance and harmony they once had. Antagonisms and pressures existed, but nothing like the accelerated devastation they have witnessed.

Although the relationship of Earthbound beings to those who seek the Sky and who emulate modern human nature is not quite like that of the tanuki and the humans they are imitating to survive, the fact that tanuki are shapeshifting creatures with close ties to the earth suggests a kinship. What Haraway suggests in her discussions of the Earthbound or Chthonic ones is that they are hybrids and mutable, ones who are exhausted by industrial discipline and the modern human body. In the final chapter of Staying with the Trouble, Haraway narrates a science-fiction speculation about the Communities of Compost, whose inhabitants are bonded to animals and other organisms during periods of rapid transformation and intense feeling.

“In 2025, the community felt ready to birth their first new babies to be bonded with animal symbionts…Other children in this cohort became symbionts with fish, birds, crustaceans, and amphibians…The animals themselves were not modified with human material; their roles in symbioses were to teach and to flourish in every way possible in dangerous and damaged times.”⁵

This narration, while not without its flaws and bizarre tangents,⁶ is strong in that it integrates the somewhat disparate essays that precede it and give a dreamlike glimpse into a strange world of humanity expanding and redefining itself. Beauty lies there, in the proliferation of different forms, of individuals stranger and more loving than any we could imagine before.

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And if we get animal symbionts within our time, I’ll take tigers. It’s on theme.

Notes:

1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), 41.

2. Ibid, 52-3.

3. Ibid, 123.

4. Ibid, 125.

5. Ibid, 146-7.

6. Note 18 on page 221, in particular, betrays or at least suggests an impaired view of transgender people and how they identify themselves, in particular the odd usage trans-female and trans-male and the categorization of those two as genders in and of themselves, which does not describe the feeling of most trans people I know. Nor mine.

Cyberpunk and Hope in Environmental History

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Flooded Chinatown – John Wallin Liberto

“We believe if you have a serious critique of capitalism and the state (along with the related oppressions they spawn), it might be wise to reclaim their fortresses-the cities. The cities are the home to modern capitalism and state power. They are the engines of the modern economy and the places where their devastating policies are made. We have to confront the enemy at their fortress, if we take away their fortresses they will cease to exist.

For too long, anarchists have surrendered where 3/4 of the world lives to these corrupt and corrupting powers. We believe urban anarchists must organize and create militantly radical infrastructure in the very belly of the beast, if we wish to have substantial victories. Retreating to the forests and wildernesses will not stop the dual juggernauts of capitalism and state power.”

Curious George Brigade, “Liberate, Not Exterminate”  

Cyberpunk is a fascinating genre that doesn’t seem like it has much to do with environmental history at first glance. After all, the entire genre is about the negation of nature, the creation of soulless megalopolises and the heartless domination of corporations, tyrannical states, and ganglords.

Put that another way, however, and it’s obvious that cyberpunk is far, far better when informed by an ecological and historical framework. I’ve been working on a fun side-project in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been developing a cyberpunk RPG setting alongside a group of friends and have been responsible for laying the groundwork for the setting’s geography, culture, and overall history.

The setting, Los Angeles in 2067, is besieged by rising sea levels on one hand and the intensification of heat and smog on the other. Injustices committed by corporations and mercenaries affect not only the human beings in the city, but the aquatic and terrestrial life as well. Fish and seals die off in large numbers, feral dogs roam the streets, plants and trees warp and twist under the stress of the new environmental conditions. This is cyberpunk influenced by a view of human and animal bodies, and the cities they inhabit, as natural systems. Complexity, information, and a high level of entanglement define everyday life for the (thanks Donna Haraway) Chthonic denizens of the new world.

The city itself carries an air of melancholy, especially in quarters that haven’t be renovated into walled-off, antiseptic Arks designed to insulate the wealthy, white population from masses of climate refugees and furious locals. Urban zones are full of life struggling with the weight of machines, automation, and the jackboots of mercenaries for space and air. Every urban ecosystem, though, spites and outgrows the imaginary limitations put on it by engineers and design perfectionists. Groves of trees split abandoned bunkers in two, groups of citizens cultivate crops in now-desolate suburbs, fish and other aquatic beings recolonize flooded cityscapes. Cyberpunk today should be without hope, without the optimism of a final revolutionary cleansing, but also! fundamentally about people who struggle in harsh daylight and in the shadow of the capitalist nightmare for sustenance. Cyberpunk is about people who modify their bodies for pleasure, who steal every happy minute from ruthless employers or anti-loitering robocops. Cyberpunk is stripping away the comforting and deadening dream of North American imperialist capitalism.

Recently, to diverge from the topic slightly, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) ran a miniseries about hope in environmental history. My field of environmental history is often decried for its “declensionism,” which in layperson’s terms means an obsessive focus on the declining state of ecosystems and the terrors humans have inflicted on the natural world. Many of the authors describe cases of limited environmental renewal and some ways that scholars of ecologies past can integrate hopeful narratives into their writing. For instance:

“Contemporary conceptions of hope as an expectation for an axiomatically better and brighter future are, of course, a historical construct. Hope’s progress-oriented cousins—optimism and expectation—should be seen as an outgrowth of an industrial society which assumes robust economic growth, the right to commoditize nature, and constant technological advance. This idea is embodied in E.F. Schumacher’s quip: “Just wait another minute—we shall all be rich and happy.”

Philip Wright, “Hope Beyond Progress” 

I would argue that hope, optimism, and expectation are all tied into the same idea of potential miraculous deliverance or at least spontaneous victory over adversity. In my upbringing, hope was always connected to the miracle of the Resurrection and the expectation of the Second Coming. Though many people integrated this idea into a practice that cared for the world and hoped to heal its ills in the present, many used that hope/expectation as an excuse to throw the material sphere onto the trash heap and watch, sometimes gleefully, as it burned.

So, although cyberpunk is, I would say, often condemned to be fetishistic and oddly sentimental about its technologies of control and surveillance and its aesthetics (embodied by the weird nostalgia infecting products like the Shadowrun tabletop game), environmental history also has something to learn from a no-futurism like cyberpunk. At its best, cyberpunk is not dystopian, utopian, or even overly pessimistic. Instead, cyberpunk can be a logical extension of present-day issues in a more concentrated and antagonistic setting. It is speculation that arrives at the sobering conclusion that things will probably get harder and worse, but not to the point of absurdity. It shows that our lives constitute a struggle, a campaign of attack, defence, and retreat against systems of oppression, capitalist violence, cisheteropatriarchy, settler fascism, naïve techno-messianic hopes, and so on and so on. So environmental history informed by cyberpunk and other techno-pessimist projections is one that can embrace a certain degree of positivity while noting that, in the Cthulucene and Anthropocene/Capitalocene era, there are no technical solutions and the systems that degrade the resilience and health of ecosystems are only going to be better-armed and fiercer in the future.

Cyberpunk is something like an antibody, a way of looking at fiction and at the future that insulates us, makes us cynical where we ought to, and cherish the beauty of the world. It’s a reminder that, in order for us to continue to struggle and attack, and help each other, we all need lives worth living, and that we have a long list of networked and heavily armed and well-funded oppressors who stop us from having those lives. When writing environmental history, we should not only be critically hopeful, but be critical of hope as well as sentimentalized despair. We need to acknowledge that, as academics or as activists, our words will only reach some ears, and that it’s not our job to make hope. Hope happens in communities of resistance and struggle, in the deserts, cities, forests, and beaches, scrublands and marshes. We cannot summon it from words alone.

Now We’re Thinking with Webs: Spider Cognition and Political Work

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A recent article in Quanta magazine discussed some fascinating new findings about spiders. At least part of their cognitive capacity, that is, their ability to process information, is embedded not in their brains per se but in their webs. This is sometimes called “extended cognition,” with the web acting as an external “organ” that can store information and help the spider interpret the environment. The part of the article on which I want to focus right now is this bit right here:

Whether this kind of engineered information-processing happens elsewhere in nature is likewise unclear. Laland is a high-profile advocate for the idea of niche construction, a term from evolutionary theory that encompasses burrows, beaver dams and nests of birds and termites.

Proponents argue that when animals build these artificial structures, natural selection starts to modify the structure and the animal in a reciprocal loop. For example: A beaver builds a dam, which changes the environment. The changes in the environment in turn affect which animals survive. And then the surviving animals further change the environment. Under this rubric, Japyassú thinks, this back-and-forth action makes all niche constructors at least candidates to outsource some of their problem solving to the structures they build, and thus possible practitioners of extended cognition

Even if webs don’t fit a strict definition of a cognitive organ, as some of the opponents of “extended cognition” argue, I appreciate this insight into how various nonhuman animals interact with their environments. Deleuze and Guattari, for one (or two, or many), have asserted that human beings are integrated into machines just as machines require human intervention to operate. Inorganic and organic assemble together and knowledge that was produced in brains from generations ago remains somehow embedded in the built environment for generations afterward. Just as the spider “thinks” with its webs, using its structures to “read” the environment, human beings have built up our many niches, tools, and symbolic forms of communication allow us to offload cognitive functions like memory and vision to artifacts outside ourselves.

Though the article, and the scientists, want to avoid drawing out too many philosophical conclusions from these spider studies, I think thinking about extended cognition, niches, and the natural/artificial divide can help us ask better questions about ourselves and our place in both physical and social spheres. Our cities, art, and language are all ways in which we embed ourselves in niches within the natural world–and these niches shape not only how we can work and move, but how we think and feel as well. Every city is a way of dealing with nature, of trying to make our part of the world more hospitable for human beings (and some select animal friends), just as much as other human structures attempt to order nature in certain ways. So there is feedback between how we build our niches, how we think, and how we reorder and continue to build further.

This is why we, as individuals who are always embedded in webs of cognition and activity with others and with our environments, have to remake our built environment if we are going to establish a better society. It’s not just the social relations in which we are embedded, but the physical spaces themselves that create and concentrate misery and alienation for some and opulence for a few others. For human life to flourish, we need a comprehensive approach to revolution, changing how we think, how we build, and how we think through our machines and niches.

Flourishing in an Impure World

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“The delineation of theoretical purity, purity of classification, is always imbricated with the forever-failing attempt to delineate material purity–of race, ability, sexuality, or, increasingly, illness.”

–Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, p. 4.

Health has recently been on everyone’s mind for all the wrong reasons. The dismantling of the few health protections available to American citizens is a catastrophic outcome, another heavy link in a long chain of misery that has cast a pall over my mind for some time now. Nevertheless, it’s important to maintain a wider perspective. Our situation as human beings is now urgent and complex enough that moderate and “sensible” answers are now nothing but. Climate change and other impending crises transform caution and conciliation  into forms of delirium. Meanwhile, hallucinatory and seductive visions of a new world seem more solid and attainable than ever before. If we have fallen so far, it stands to reason there are heights untold to which we can rise, or else something beautiful and precious in the depths we are now exploring.

And, unfortunately, the legacies of capitalism, racism, colonialism, and other persistent forms of oppression and exploitation are built not just into ordinances and constitutions but into bridges, roads, and tunnels. Our electricity grids, water systems, and food production systems are “dripping head to toe in blood” as Marx would have it. Consequentially, even if we could end capitalism tomorrow with no resistance, we would be coexisting with the ruins of the old world for generations. So although utopian thinking is often associated with purity or cleansing–especially but not only when that utopia implies genocidal practices–the reality of anarchism, communism, and other yearnings for a new world is that they require grappling with an awful mess. This mess overruns the global and the personal, making our planet, our towns, our food, our bodies impossible to purify.

On a material level, we have to grasp the fact that our bodies can’t be purged of chemicals and artificial substances that are omnipresent in our world. Air, water, and other people carry these substances in their bodies, and no one born today is exempt from them. People’s endocrine and immune systems might be affected in unique ways by this–and I’m quite familiar with the consequences of endocrine disruption–and our response can either be purgative or productive. One’s politics, I think, have a lot to do with how one formulates the problem and, therefore, what kind of solution it requires. For someone consumed by an obsession with material purity, the problem of pollution and low-dosage chemical intake might be to purge all those who are most obviously affected. After all, they are such a burden, they might reason, and the healthy people should not be responsible for them. This is a purgative response, common to juice cleansers and neo-Nazis alike, albeit with much different levels of ethical and political gravity.

Meanwhile, the productive response is, quite simply, to see that the world as a whole is compromised and complex and to remake that world into a better one. When we realize that our problems cannot be subtracted from the world like arithmetic, that we have to build a better world if we want to live in a better world, we can start to wrestle with the more detailed ethical and political questions that impinge on us. Coexistence and acceptance might look like a form of nihilism, and some have adopted nihilism as a name for their attempts to prefigure a better world and cope with this one. But for me, I think it implies a commitment to flourishing, a commitment to a set of norms and ethics that are qualitatively different from the negative, purgative ones we so often encounter.

And unfortunately, our own movements are often host to attitudes of self-righteousness and purging. There are healthy forms of purging–removing ourselves from blatantly unsafe situations, excising abusive people from our lives–but our constant attempts to police our own purity of thought often come at the expense of others’ flourishing and health. Recognizing ourselves as fundamentally compromised and the problems we are collectively working on as inescapably complex takes an active life. Intervening in the world, seeing it shift and give you feedback, being attentive–these are the ways we can build viable movements and worthwhile relationships with each other. Call-out culture, which is intensely purgative and purity-obsessed, can prevent us from moving past recognizing the potential for a new world. Gnosis and language become the ultimate arbiters of someone’s worth, which generates bitterness and resentment. These feelings can infect and demoralize many while actively hurting others in more serious ways.

To paraphrase Jennifer Wells, when we look at the world we increasingly see that all the things we once saw as passive are in fact part of active and dynamic systems. Every particle, bacterium, animal, building, storm, and so on push on the world in their own ways. Various other systems, then, push back. In this constant and evolving loop of actions and feedback, we can find the meaningful connections. Having done so, we can imagine new connections. These virtual worlds, these possible places where there is room and time enough for our free development, are already coming into existence. Only time can tell if they will find a permanent foothold here, or if they will remain just glimmers. But there is no escape into purity. And the sooner we act in accordance with the real complexity of our situation, the sooner we can remake our environments instead of resenting them.*

Note: I struggle with depression and anxiety and certain self-destructive habits and tendencies. I do not mean to invalidate real anger or harm, only a sense of resigned bitterness and complacency. Feeling paralyzed and broken is not bad, and indeed is also inescapable for most. My point is that we should do what we can to remake the world around us, to make it so its complexity is no longer oppressive and toxic. Everyone can do this in tiny ways even if our capacities are limited for whatever reason.