Hello everyone. I’d like to thank the organiser’s here for inviting me to speak and thank you for coming too. My name is Cathy Fitzgerald and I’m undertaking a practice and theory phd at the Nat. College of Art & Design in Dublin, Ireland (where I have lived after growing up in NZ, these last 16 years). The title of this talk, The Ecocidal Eye’ is the title of my entire phd, which is perhaps a little unusual to present as a whole. Its still in its early stages so today I will be touching on quite a lot of ideas, some more formed than others. I see many of these ideas more as points for conversations still to develop; also my theory and practical film making work, develop at different speeds and I’m already aware that there are contradictions between the 2 that are yet to be resolved. And just in a sentence, to describe my background, I’m an experimental filmmaker in Visual culture, I have a 10 year background in research science and also a background in green politics and forest policy development. This talk about my Phd will be in two parts, I’ll be touching on ecocide and the characteristics of what I’m calling the ‘anthropocentric gaze’, and I will take you on a quick trip back over our last 400 generations, and introduce ideas like ecopornography and slow violence that I’m looking at through the lens of visual culture and film. In the 2nd part of the talk I look beyond an ecocidal gaze to what I am calling a more relational gaze in cinema. I will briefly discuss my relationship with my closest neighbours; the inhabitants & elements of the small forest in which I live & which I film.
The premise that I’m working from is from science - that our dominant industrial culture is affecting the biosphere to a magnitude and an accelerating, exponential rate of destructive change that is completely unprecedented but somehow this destruction is largely obscured in our culture. The pie-chart shows the recently accepted UN 9 planetary boundaries/tipping points that we are already exceeding.
As many of you will know the situation is remarkable because as in no other time in the earth’s geological history has one species caused so much global degradation. Such is the scale of devastation that geologists are currently proposing that we are living in a new geological epoch - The Anthropocene - the age of man. Some geologists are arguing this new age began with the industrial revolution, other suggest post-WWII as the recent graphic image here shows, as so many of the Earth’s systems have been exponentially affected in just the last 50yrs - this is now known as The Great Acceleration. Other geologists argue that when peoples first started to settle and farm 10, 000 yrs ago is when the effects of mankind can be established. Given the rates of accelerating and exponential rates of consumption and population growth we would be naïve to believe that technofixs or political consensus will be able to sustain living systems as they are now. Mankind will be living in a vastly changed biosphere in this century, that is unavoidable. While many still propose that sustainable development is somehow achievable I think attention also needs to be focused on how we as a culture have arrived at this point.
I tend to think the that dominant cultures of civilization have a long, long history of ecocide and in fact this relate to cultural beliefs and behaviours that began with our earliest civilizations 10k ago. ** While many currently argue, for eg. at the recent Rio Summit, that our ecological crisis are due to a failure of politics, economics, capitalism etc I would see it as a profound failure of civilized culture in a much broader and historic sense, from our earliest religions and stories that have created our dominant ideologies. In fact the key ideologies that have arisen, combined and developed in dominant, colonizing civilizations over the last 10K have created much material wealth but have ALSO successfully masked, silenced and denied the violence of ecocide. Such ideologies have created the illusion, taken as a fact by most still today, that we are both separate and above the non-human world and indigenous peoples who do not share the dominant world view. I would argue to a large extent that ecocidal ideologies, so long accepted, are now all but invisible but their destructive effect is sped up in in our hyper-speed industrial societies. What I’m calling ‘the Anthropocentric gaze’ has fostered a great ecological blindness or amnesia, a dominant ecocidal perspective that eclipses the earth; that we, as with any other species, are part of and dependent on sensitive, complex and finite ecosystems. Presently we are now in a cultural lag phase where understanding and perception of how we arrived at this predicament is only just beginning to be recognised in the mainstream.** **In respect to the biosphere, we have, as some filmmakers pointed out created the great ‘Age of Stupid’. ( define culture UN defn all the activities of a society in how we live together, arts, religions, sports, science, politics)
Perhaps I should define ecocide now as its is a term I’m often referring to in my work. It is a relatively recent term appearing in the late 1960s, arising as a consequence of the massive defoliation of Vietnam by the monsanto agent orange that affected biodiversity and human health in this region in subsequent decades. Ecocide has since received recognised legal status in wartime and was significantly debated as a crime in peacetime in the early 70s but was dropped by both the US and UK. Much work in recent years by UK environmental lawyer Polly Higgins is now aiming to have it accepted as the UN 5 international crime again peace. Polly has defined this and taken it to mock legal trials in recent years as follows: Ecocide is the to or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.’ The US Rachel Carson English professor Rob Nixon has recently detailed the ‘slow violence’ of ecocide in his recent book of the same name and its great affects on the global poor. However many of us are affected by ecocide all the time. In my case I have a particularly poignant reminder as I’m a potential victim of ecocide as my father served in Vietnam and died of melanoma. The card here entitles me to specialist cancer help if I should ever need it.
A question I have asked myself are ‘what are the cultural roots of the anthropocene and ecocide’. As a film practitioner, I am particularly interested in the characteristics of what I am calling the ecocidal eye and its anthropocentric gaze: How has it worked to both perpetuate the silence & also deny the violence to nonhuman/other indigenous communities in our history In fact it is not difficult to find even in our earliest settled civilizations cultural examples of dominant civilizations that were materially ‘successful’ but had ecocidal perspectives. I’m limiting my view here to western culture but also because western culture has now globalised the cultural imagination in how the world relates to non-human communities . If we examine the worlds first recorded history from 4500 years ago, we can see how entrenched and normalised were ecocidal tendencies. In the Surmerian epic of King Gilgamesh, whose ideas fed into the bible, we find Gilgamesh slaughters the forest guardian and then completely deforests the sacred Cedar mountain forests of ancient Iraq to increase the power of his walled city. We know from archaeology that civilizations in this era followed ecocidal patterns of exploitation, expansion and collapse and then repeating the pattern of colonization/& ecocide in new regions. And aren't such scenes familiar to most industrial societies today.
How have we achieved such vast patterns of ecocide? Very briefly I will give a few examples of ideologies that have fueled exocide (I have written an article on the Anthropocene, 10, 000 yrs of ecocide which I will mention again later) In the middle ages to the Renaaissance we find images that would have been well understood by the peoples of Gilgamesh’s time, but they are lot more developed and complex due to the evolving doctrine of Christianity: For example the idea of the ‘Great Chain of Being’, was and continues to this day to be an incredible powerful visual metaphor that could be easily presented to mass audiences. Here we see the divinely inspired hierarchy, giving man dominion over all he surveyed. Man saw himself, reflected in these cultural works, as being separate from the natural world and certainly superior to it. In his mind, nature was there to be used as he saw fit, his god appointed right. IMage Rhetoric Chirsitanan (1579 I will return to how such metaphors need to be reexamined later
Jumping to The 18 th C! Here the enlightenment saw the rise of a new humanism and widespread belief in the value of rational thought; though the type of rational that the Enlightenment championed relegated the natural world and its living communities as ‘mechanical insentient machines’ that could be dissected, studied and improved upon. For the natural world the Enlightenment was a new (dark age) , and still greatly influence our perception of the natural world today, and our sciences and technology as can be seen in my next slide Many will be familiar with the 19C image above, ‘the experiment of the gas pump on a bird’,>>>>>> few Romantic writers had much to say for or against the Enlightenment. (The term itself didn't even exist at the time.) For the most part, they ignored it. Romanticism had its roots in the Enlightenment. It was not anti-rational, but balanced rationality against the competing claims of intuition and the sense of justiceBy the middle of the 19th century, the memory of the French Revolution was fading and Romanticism had more or less run its course. In this optimistic age of science and industry, there were few critics of the Enlightenment, and few explicit defenders.Friedrich Nietzsche is a notable (and highly influential) exceptionIt was not until after World War II that 'the Enlightenment' re-emerged as a key organising concept in social and political thought and the history of ideas Ho wever, very few of the enemies of the Enlightenment have abandoned reason entirely . Some charge that the Enlightenment inflated the power and scope of reason, while others claim that it narrowed it.
which is an image from my installation in 2000 that references the enlightenment's still powerful influence on our current biotech age. To summarise, in my short and very general trip thru the ages, I’m attempting to show that many of our cultural works of the natural world both reflect and perpetuate ideas that ecocide is normal and that they rest on ancient anthropocentric ideologies & premises, that have been so long assimilated that they are now almost invisible.
What I have just talked about is most convincingly argued in Carolyn Merchant’s 1980s book, ‘the death of nature’ among others... and I would further argue that nature to a large extent, after a very violent but at the same time obscure end, has almost disappeared from our view, almost like in the movie Soylent Green. In my own work, my particular interest is in examining nature cinema (& its distribution thru the Internet). With close to 75% of the worlds population now living in urban areas I seek to understand film’s powerful role in transmitting industrial culture’s ecocidal, anthropocentric ideas and perceptions of the natural world that we have long held, as I have just discussed. I want to explore the conventions and limitations of nature cinema that appear to most often grossly hinder our perception of the non-human world and hence of relations to it.
As the study of nature is now on the edge of the humanities, the critical examination of nature cinema is vastly under-examined in film theory: The US film and literary academic, Scott MacDonald, perhaps one of the first to look in-depth at film in this regard has said in the last decade that ‘ probably no substantial dimension of film history that is so widely admired by a public audience and so frequently utilised in academic contexts has been so thoroughly ignored by film critics, historians and theorists as the nature (wildlife) film‘ I expect some of you may know that analysis of environmental cinema has only appeared sporadically in the last decade and specific ecocritical analysis of film only in the last few years. Such work has been coming from or has been supported by literary theory academics, particulary from ASLE, which is why I’m here today. Many but not all of these film books to date have analysed environmental themes in mainstream cinema & in the doc genre. However with my specific interest in ideas of ecocide I found I have harboured questions in how visual imagery and nature cinema work to negate the non-human world and to make invisible, to a large extent, the violence inflicted upon. I remembered some ideas from Visual culture and my undergrad classes.
I went back to a key text - John Berger’s highly influential book in early 70s ‘Ways of Seeing’, that unpacked the politics and power inherent in visual culture that perpetuates & supports dominant ideologies. I remembered that considerable work in ecofeminism since the 1970s has drawn strong parallels between how women & nature are silmarily exploited.
in european art Berger drew our attention to the fact that women were often portrayed in paintings as ‘the surveyed’, as property, for male pleasure and prestige, that there is a power relationship in how women are surveyed, represented and how men treat and exploit them
Berger writes that early cultural works of the western elite class are significantly about possession. He only breify mentions the first landscapes that appeared in the 17C, This changes though in later centuries and I lookoed to another visual culture academic. US art historian Prof. Albert Biome in his 1991 book ‘the magisterial gaze‘ convincingly shows that early to mid 19thC american landscape paintings are not solely works about a sublime & transcendent nature, but clearly articulated and helped perpetuate exploitation of the new continent. Such cultural works mirrored and reinforced yet also masked the colonizers westward march and their ecocidal violence against indigenous peoples and non-human species – As what is missing from such paintings are the indigenous peoples and much of the wildlife. Also common to such works are the elevated godlike surveying perspective; it was the so called ‘manifest destiny’ of the invading europeans to multiply in, civilize and develop this EMPTY new land incidentally, this is a fabulous little book, but I have been the only person since 1993 to have requested it from the library?
Prof. Biome also discusses this etching, ‘American Progress’, where the spirit of America is seen trailing telegraphs wires and trains in her wake with civ hunters & farmers, driving out the indigenous and wild animals to the west. Such images reveal the ideology of our dominant culture - ideologies of ecocidal violence that are with us, have an incredible long history and now unquestioned, normalised, in today’s globalised industrial civilization
In newer visual media, this ideology continues and ironically such images are highly valued by the environmental movement. Pristine, untouched wilderness, as in Ansel Adams sublime landscape photographic works. Similar styled works are often credited as significantly propelling the need for ‘nature conservation’ and spearheading the original national park/environmentalist movement. However such photographs and imagery, like the earlier paintings, while no doubt having value in celebrating the sublime and spiritual aspects of nature, negate both the presence of indigenous peoples and most wildlife. Such aesthetically pleasing images work successfully to simultaneously mask the violence of eradication and extermination and also reinforced the misguided ideas of conservation management schemes that effectively divorce humans entirely from natural landscapes and national parks...... While I am just beginning to look at this, in recent ecocritical analysis of visual imagery, the term ‘ecopornography’ would appear to be both useful and bring attention to the politics of contemporary nature/indigenous representations.
A number of writers, particularly Welling in 2009, would argue that conventions of nature visual culture are often pornographic as on the surface they are seductive and distracting, and grossly mask our ecocidal behaviour to the material and more-than-human world. Welling argues that Ecopornography is not simply, ‘just like porn but is pornographic for 3 reasons’ (it distracts, causes amnesia, titillates, commodifies its subjects, form of escapism) 1 it ‘traffics’ in visual culture the same ‘land-as-woman tropes’ that have done much ‘to authorize the genocidal oppression of native peoples and the colonization of their and the eracidation of nonhuman animals, plants etc’ . Welling cites Mitman’s account of wildlife films of Africa in the 1960s as an untouched paradise that paved way for displacement of indigenous peoples for the benefit of wealty overseas tourists ecoporn places the viewer in the role of the ‘male surveyor’...and so ‘denies agency to nonhuman life forms’ (this is why I wish to look at feminist theory to develop my idea of the ecocidal ‘anthropocentric gaze) 3 ecoporn in recent years has become more disturbing in its portrayal of explicit sexuality and violent death in tv ‘animal snuff documentaries’ that are often branded as ‘educational’ and acceptable for general audiences. Just in the last week though I have come across theory from leading war & disaster photojournalists who are very reticent about using the term pornography in their work - such as ‘disaster or war porn’ as they believe it too easily shuts down discourse of larger political issues. It seems to be a complex area. HOwever, in some ways as there is so little attention to how our images of nature hide the realities of ecocide there maybe some merit in its considered use. habits of amnesia, distraction, rationalization, and denial that are otherwise in place and reproduced continuously .
I still have to review in more detail the development of nature cinema; but briefly the first nature doc were about using the camera to ‘shoot’ wildlife travelogues and entertain audiences. And for all of nature cinema’s more recent technological advances and educational claims about informing and bringing wildlife & their habitats into our living rooms, such cultural works have done little to overcome our estrangement from the natural world. Today, propelled by the market forces of the multi-million entertainment industry, much of nature cinema today with its glorious high defn surfaces, when represented at all, is now presented inadvertently as the exotic ‘other’, ever more removed from our everyday lives.
However, Scott MacDonald who I previously mentioned, does believe that experimental cinema has potential in ‘retraining perception’....allowing an examination of the conventions of media-spectatorship (and production) that largely ignores the earth’ MacDonald & others argue such work is worthy of critical attention & in the evolution of cinematic language exp filmmakers work has been influential on mainstream cinema in the past; Brakhage, Godfrey Reggio- Koyannaquatsi etc ////////////////// this is the area in my own practice that I am beginning to explore ------------------------------------- however one needs to be aware too of the camera’s notable critics - Heidegger to Sontag who say the camera serves as an instrument of distancing, decontextualising, commodifying, obscuring the power/politics of things that make up the world Ikahiv 2008 . p17.... what Heidegger called the ‘enframing’ and ‘conquest of the world’, setting it as a ‘standing reserve’ to be be objectified/consumed a lot of this is unpacked further in Willoquet’s Maricondi’s 2010 book Framing the world - explorations in ecocriticism and film, but still only small section on exp film
This leads onto the 2 nd part of this talk and my still forming ideas about moving beyond the ecocidal eye to a more relational gaze in cinema. My arts practice has long been a relational one; over many years my long term art work in documenting the transformation of a conifer plantation to a permanent forest has been informed by dialogue with leading sustainable foresters & scientists in Ireland and I have long being aware of the ‘conversational drift’ approach in artists H & N Harrisons a & e work in the 1970s, and in recent years, relational aesthetics in cont art theory. I began some years ago with creating rather conventional narrated environmental documentary but I returned to more intensive study to consider the difficulty in creating works about the non-human world.
I have long known that ‘nature’ as a concept and as a real thing, is perhaps, as Raymond Williams pointed out, is the most complex word in our language. The word is at the core of western philosophy and religion & ideologies & is burdened with complex & contradictory histories. When one starts to look at nature in a creative practice one feels like one is in a hall of mirrors (well I do)
In my own practice what i find it interesting for my experimental film work, is that leading ecocritical thinkers are turning back to consider indigenous worldviews, where the word and concept of ‘ nature ’ didn’t exist - as in Prof of en Lit - Tim Morton ‘dark ecology’ He says ‘ When you realize that everything is interconnected, you can't hold on to a concept of a single, solid, present-at-hand thing “over there” called Nature.’ Morton speaks of new ecological thinking deeper than deep ecology and describes an awareness of what he calls the mesh of which all material is part of, to get over the binary of separation that we have created between humanity and the natural world. However, he recognises that we still have to know, care and even love ‘the strange, stranger’, our non-human neighbours and hyper-objects, if we are to survive.
Similarly, author and radical env philosopher D Jensen, who has done much to expose the violence against the indigenous and non-human world, reminds us over and over that indigenous people lived for millinnea in different parts of the world without destroying their landbases and that they never, ever, see the non-human world as a metaphor, the way it has become in the west in much of our cultural works, as in our great chain of being concept I mentioned previously.
Morton also suggests that artists should be aware not to create works that wish to create a sense of being immersed in a disappearing fantasy of ‘lost’ nature, more that we should move towards ‘an ecological sympathy’. ‘ Rather than taking pity on the animal world in a soft-focus version of the normal sadistic distance, ‘that’ we try to glimpse humans through nonhuman eyes.
Polly Higgins, the env lawyer who has done much in the last few years to raise awareness about legalising against corporate ecocide, has in her work with indigenous peoples also come to similar conclusions., in lawyer speak she suggests for peace and for the survival of all species that ‘ that we must urgently extend our duty of care to all life’ Perhaps we may recover our humanity this way too.
in my own art & ecology practice as I have mentioned -I am attempting to create experimental film works that reflect on a long term transformation of a conifer plantation into a permanent, non clear fell forest. In the last few years, I have been interested in the moments in my films where I stop speaking and allow space for other non-human presences??. I struggle with acknowledging that while one is holding a camera and does all the editing, that one can never escape our anthropocentric gaze. However I believe we can still aspire to a more sensitive and respecting, ecocentric perspective/perceptions.
I see my expected 40 yr+ residency in this forest - it surrounds my home - as a continuing dialogue, my relational audiovisual expts becoming a sort of diary that I share with other humans online (I am particularly interested in the social media aspects of nature cinema). I am in the very fortunate position to have close contact with leading european close to nature/continuous cover foresters too, so my forest interventions are not a conservation project but more a restoration, an active tending.
WHile I’m unsure whether my films will have any cinematic merit I already know that looking/listening with my camera and mic is certainly making me much more aware of the vast complexity of the dynamics of the living communities/my neighbours that I need to relate to, if all is to thrive and survive.
One final point is that I was fortunate enough to vist the californian redwoods earlier this year and came across an academic book on native americans who actively managed their landbases carefully over millenia. I was fascinated as the book describes their lifestyles as an active relational one; they saw all non-human entities, in their culture works and beliefs, as kin. The author describes their relations to the nonhuman world as a concept of ‘tending’ where nat. americans intervened in their natural environments to the benefit of all – ‘ Tending’ Anderson writes suggests a healthy tension, a specific application of wisdom, of culture practices that fosters active relations, a respectful dance with the nonhuman world. In fact Native americans that saw areas without humans as leading to entropy, what they would call ‘wilderness’; careful tending they believed sustained all beings and brought beauty too - that was what they saw humans role in life was.
ps I probably have gone a bit overboard with the kin idea as I have protected my forest in my will and also helped in bringing non-clearfell continuous cover forestry into national Irish forest policy a few months ago! My 2 1/2 acre site is also listed as the smallest close to nature site in Ireland on Ireland new database of permanently managed forests ;-) A tiny forest in-the-making, in rural ireland, may have something to teach us about one most important living communities on the planet on which so many of us depend, as well as teaching us a thing or two about the wisdom of employing more kincentric perspectives in our cultural activities”
I have articles on the anthropocene: 10 000 years of ecocide, ecopornography and deep sustainability: the art and politics of forests etc on my issu site. These are not academic papers but some articles from my blog on cinema and ecology. Do feel welcome to follow my and my small forest. Thank you.
the ecocidal eye Melbourne Conference 31 August 2012
the ecocidal eye:beyond the anthropocentric to arelational gaze in cinemawe understand and relate to the world bythe cultural works we createcathy fitzgerald, nz/ireland ASLEC-ANZ regarding the earth conference, melbourne, 2012
PART 1: theanthropocentric gaze The 9 planetary boundaries recently adopted by the UN 2012 How have we managed to create such global change?
‘The Great Acceleration’ (last 50 years) in “Welcome to the Anthropocene’ viral video (2012)
Term ecocide is closely associated withVietnam war
CULTURAL ROOTS / characteristics of anthropocentric gaze? ‘the hero’, KingGilgamesh’s affect 4500 years ago in ancient Iraq
The idea of the ‘Great Chainof Being’, was and continuesto be an incredible powerfuland in this example, a visualmetaphor of divinelyinspired hierarchy, givingman dominion over all hesurveyed
Joseph Wright of Derby: Experiment on a bird with a gas pumpIronically while the enlightenment saw great improvements for humanity, forthe natural world it was the dawn of new dark age
...that continues today in our biotech age Nature 2000: continuing desires: cathy fitzgerald
Nature has almost disappeared from our view, almost like in the movie ‘Soylent Green’ 1972
‘probably no substantial dimension of film history that is so widely admired by a public audienceand so frequently utilised in academic contexts has been so thoroughly ignored by film critics,historians and theorists as the nature (wildlife) film’, film theorist, Scott MacDonald 2006
Berger’s highly influential book in early 70s unpacked the politics and power inherentin visual culture that perpetuates & supports dominant ideologies 18. 18.
in european art Berger drew our attention to the fact that women were often portrayed in paintings as ‘the surveyed’, as property, for male pleasure and prestige, that there is a power relationship in how men survey women, represent them and how men treat (exploit) women.‘the surveyed, as property; there is a power relationship inhow women are surveyed, represented and how men treat(exploit) women’ - the male gaze
It was the ‘manifest destiny’ of the invadingEuropeans to grow and develop this EMPTYnew land
in recent ecocritical analysis of visual imagery the term ‘ecopornography’would appear to both be useful and bring attention to the politics ofcontemporary nature/indigenous representations. ≈
in very recent ecocritical analysis of visual imagery the term ‘ecopornography’would appear to both be useful and attract attention to the politics of contemporary nature/indigenous representations.
such cultural works have done little to overcome our estrangement from the natural world
• Scott MacDonald who coined the word ‘ecocinema’ believes • experimental cinema has potential in ‘retraining perception’....allowing an examination of the conventions of media- spectatorship (and production) that largely ignores the earth’ 18 19
IDENTIFY RESOLUTION: RELATIONALPART 2: towards a relational gaze in cinema and my arts practice
When one starts to look at ‘Nature’ in a creative practice,one feels like one is in a hall of mirrors
Leading ecocritical thinkers are turning back to consider uncivilised worldviews where theword and concept of ‘nature’ didn’t exist Tim Morton’s ‘Dark Ecology’
Jensen reminds us over and over that indigenous people from many parts of the worldnever, ever see the world as a metaphor, the way it has become in the west.
... artists should movetowards ‘an ecologicalsympathy’
... in ‘lawyer-speak’, Polly Higgins suggests for peace and for the survival of allspecies that ‘that we must urgently extend our duty of care to all life’
I have been interested in the moments in my filmswhere I stop speaking and allow space for othernon-human presences
see 40 yr+ residency in this forest as acontinuing dialogue - my relational filmsbecoming an audiovisual diary that Ishare with other humans online. ecoartfilm.com ...15 million followers :-)
looking/listening with my camera and mic iscertainly making me much more aware of the vastcomplexity of the dynamics of the livingcommunities & elements - myneighbours that I need to relate to
‘Tending’ Anderson writes suggests a healthy tension, a specific application ofwisdom, of culture practices that fosters active relations
A tiny forest in-the-making, in rural ireland, may have something to teach us aboutone most important living communities on the planet on which somany of us depend, as well as teaching us a thing or two about the wisdom ofemploying more kincentric perspectives in our cultural activities”