Cinema and the Anthropocene: A Conversation with Jennifer Fay
For many critical theorists, it has become second nature to view science with a degree of suspicion. Complicit in the most egregious offenses of the modern era, science has been identified with everything from positivism and instrumental reason to essentialism and biopolitical control. Such skepticism came to a head in the late twentieth century, as leftist thinkers in the humanities sought to undermine a realist approach to scientific knowledge; social transformation seemed to hinge on the unsettling of epistemic certainty and the subversion of all normative, objectivist validity claims. Yet, as philosopher Bruno Latour has argued, the “science wars” now appear outdated in light of geopolitical exigencies, particularly the accelerating process of climate change.1 The language of social construction and cultural relativism must give way to an emphatic defense of scientific consensus and global, albeit inconvenient, truth.
A theoretical rapprochement with the natural sciences has been evidenced by the burgeoning literature on the Anthropocene. Popularized by the atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen, the term “Anthropocene” designates the current geological epoch, in which humans exert a central impact on the global environment.2 Dating back to the late eighteenth century, the Anthropocene is marked by an exponential increase in the human population, an overexploitation of natural resources, and rising concentrations of greenhouse gases. Registering the implications of the Anthropocene for the humanities, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has noted a key irony: the very fossil fuels that granted greater freedom to the inhabitants of modern industrial civilization have also lent these populations a geophysical agency, resulting in climate change that is rendering the planet less habitable for humankind and other species.3
Jennifer Fay’s Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene helps integrate the concept of the Anthropocene into the field of Cinema and Media Studies, probing the nexus where human-driven climate change meets film theory and aesthetics. For Fay, cinema bears a unique affinity with the Anthropocene insofar as it has likewise ensued from the Industrial Revolution and involved the uncanny defamiliarization of the world: “The Anthropocene is to natural science what cinema … has been to human culture” (3). The analogy runs even deeper, however, because film production also occasions artificial world-making, unnatural weather, and acts of destruction, whether in the studio or on location. Allowing viewers to perceive anthropogenic environments as both a design principle and an unintended consequence of human activity, cinema has served, in Fay’s words, as “the aesthetic practice of the Anthropocene” (4).
Whereas other books have focused on “cli-fi” films that envision a dystopian future, Inhospitable World embraces a highly eclectic range of works with an often oblique or unexpected relation to the subject of ecological inhospitality. Moreover, by tracing a broad trajectory of films from the silent era to the present, Fay is able to examine material shifts in cinematic production in tandem with the mid-twentieth-century onset of the Great Acceleration, which has dissolved the longstanding distinction between the earth and human world, the environment and socioeconomic order—or, in Hegelian-Marxist terms, between first and second nature. If the film studio once offered a uniquely controlled space for simulating the biophysical environment, now the planet itself is human-conditioned and yet newly unpredictable on account of anthropogenic factors.
The first chapter of Fay’s book reexamines Buster Keaton’s slapstick comedies through the lens of environmental design. While D. W. Griffith’s melodramas broke with the emerging convention of in-studio simulation by chasing actual storms, Keaton’s comedies such as Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton, 1928) fabricated calamitous weather on location, destroying outdoor sets for the sake of elaborate sight gags. Chapter 2 shifts attention from mass entertainment to films made for scientific and military purposes, analyzing the post-World War II atomic test films shot at the Nevada Testing Site where model American towns were constructed and then obliterated by nuclear detonation. As Fay notes, these test films stand in chiasmic relationship to Keaton’s comedies: in place of a carefully planned aesthetic of environmental contingency, they lend unpredictable nuclear materials a sense of standardized controllability.
Maintaining focus on midcentury America, the next chapter revisits film noir, which was similarly underpinned by existential anxiety about a toxic and antagonistic civilization. Though invariably set in a human-built urban environment, film noir evokes a harsh and unforgiving realm that is decidedly antihumanist; as Fay contends, it is “a world that negates rather than yields to the individual human imprint” (98). Featuring antiheroes and femmes fatales who eschew suburban homeownership and childrearing, film noir rejects what queer theorist Lee Edelman has called “reproductive futurism,” positing a nonregenerative conception of the present. Insofar as past crimes (however unwittingly committed) are bound to catch up to their culprits, rendering the future hopelessly foreclosed, the films’ narratives offer a pedagogy of human finitude—or, in environmental writer Roy Scranton’s words, a way of “learning to die in the Anthropocene.”4
Chapter 4 jumps forward to contemporary China, which in 2006 surpassed the United States as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Concentrating on Jia Zhangke’s digital film Still Life (2006) alongside Liu Xiaodong’s paintings and Yang Yi’s photographs, Fay considers the figuration of the Three Gorges Dam, a geo-engineering effort meant to redress the climate crisis that has led to environmental catastrophes and mass displacement. Nor is Antarctica immune to the recent effects of climate change, despite its age-old reputation as the most unalterable and unaccommodating of continents. In her book’s final chapter, Fay places the archive of early films depicting polar exploration in conversation with Siegfried Kracauer’s writings, which mobilized notions of estrangement and extraterritoriality in theorizing the relationship between photographic media and the physical world that humans inhabit.
Throughout her book, Fay treats the films she analyzes as prisms through which to address not only cinematic production design and ecological crisis, but also mass culture, aesthetic modernism, and political philosophy since the Enlightenment. In so doing, Fay suggests that the project of rethinking film history in a new media environment must occur in conjunction with an effort to reexamine modern cultural and intellectual history in the time of the Anthropocene. Presenting external reality in uncannily alienated form, cinema has long offered spectators an aesthetic site for experiencing their world as both a manufactured environment and an unpredictable, inhospitable domain. Scholars of cinema and media thus have important insights to offer at a critical moment when the relationship between natural and human history, between the natural sciences and humanities, is being radically reconceived.
Nicholas Baer: In Inhospitable World, as with your previous books, you situate American film genres in an international perspective and explore the nexus of visual culture, political theory, war, and global crisis. At the same time, this book is unique in its sheer breadth, moving across geographical and cultural-historical contexts while addressing numerous aspects of cinema and the Anthropocene. What animated this project, and how does it relate to your ongoing research and teaching?
Jennifer Fay: In some sense, Inhospitable World is a continuation of previous work, as you note. It scales up from the questions of transnational politics, the culture of military occupation, and global film culture to the planetary crisis of climate change and the problem of human occupation of and on the Earth, tout court.
I arrived at this topic by writing essays first on André Bazin and animals and then on Siegfried Kracauer’s film theory. These two “humanist” mid-century film theorists celebrate cinema’s capacity to decenter and even eliminate humans and their feelings from our view of the world. Initially I was drawn to their antihumanist humanism. Then I found myself returning to these ideas while reading about the challenges of the Anthropocene to humanist thought, Enlightenment paradigms of history, and aesthetics. It occurred to me that cinema has always provided a view of “the world without us” (to use Alan Weisman’s phrase); perhaps cinema also, in the words of Wordsworth, shows that “the world is too much with us.”
Because I needed to become immersed in a new field of environmental studies and discover a different philosophical vocabulary, I participated in a graduate philosophy seminar taught by Kelly Oliver at Vanderbilt entitled “Earth and World,” which took up the valance of these two terms in the writings of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Arendt, and Derrida (not that all of these philosophers figure into my own work). In my research on the Anthropocene, I found that “earth” and “world” as broadly conceptualized in continental philosophy have a corollary in what earth scientists refer to as the “earth systems” and “socio-economic systems.” The first system is “given” and presumed to be “natural.” The second reflects the artificial culture of humanity on earth that is overtaking and determining the course of these once-natural systems, especially starting in 1945. Cinema brings these philosophical and environmental registers of thought into productive conversation. On one hand, the dark studio and various modes of on-location production involve creating totally artificial sets and even weather events that mirror the process of human worlding. On the other hand, cinema can show the earth outside of human meaning and utility altogether.
Baer: You also address psychoanalytic concepts like the uncanny; literary devices such as the pathetic fallacy; and the modernism of Kazimir Malevich, Bertolt Brecht, Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, and others. Could you explain your methodological intervention in this regard? Is it the topic of the Anthropocene itself that inspires such a prismatic, multidisciplinary approach?
Fay: Writ large, the Anthropocene (as opposed to the more discrete epiphenomenon of global warming) encapsulates the accumulated history of humanity on the planet. And the challenge to any study of the Anthropocene is to make a case for selectivity when really all human culture tells something about this human epoch.
My method was to go smaller and to focus first on cinema (this is my training and my interest) and then to hone in on a particular dynamic in which strategies of making the planet more welcoming, productive, and safe for some people’s flourishing have turned out to be measures that have made this a less hospitable planet for all. So, I wanted to triangulate this problematic with film and media theory. I was thus drawn to films that involve or thematize the production of artificial worlds, weather, and climates in which hospitality and survival in the world are at stake. I became interested in how the film studio becomes a laboratory—an environment designed for synthesizing phenomena—and also how the laboratory (say the atomic testing range) starts to look a lot like a film studio backlot.
From the conditions of the laboratory in which entertainment and atomic tests unfold comes an experimental art form in which, in my examples at least, human subjects conduct and are subject to various forms of testing—and the planet itself becomes a laboratory for experimental science and cinema. So, my method was to follow the logic and modes of design that could link up unexpected times and places as being part of a history of the Anthropocene.
Baer: Your book is quite distinctive in its imaginative and non-literalist approach to the topic of the Anthropocene. Rather than concentrating on films that are explicitly about climate change and planetary destruction, you look to disparate genres and modes of global filmmaking (both fiction and nonfiction, entertainment and “useful cinema”) that often bear a surprising or unlikely relation to environmental disaster. What informed your selection of particular films? Which other works did you also consider, and are there ones that remain ripe for analysis?
Fay: I’m sure the films under consideration will strike some readers as odd choices for a book that claims to be about the Anthropocene and thus about the environment. But I wanted to steer clear of narratives that obviously take up climate change and planetary destruction (especially science fiction and so-called “cli-fi”) and not only because such films are an obvious choice. An Inconvenient Truth (2006), The Road (2009), Snowpiercer (2013), or the countless other films about catastrophic weather events, frozen planets, or dystopian futures threaten viewers with the disappearance of the homey planet we have known, along with all of our modern conveniences. This is the first-world, middle-class horror of climate change.
What the historians J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke tell us in their book The Great Acceleration (2014) is that, while the socio-economic trends of the postwar period cannot continue forever (there are limits to the earth’s resources that we can mine, burn, harvest, dam, etc.), “the Anthropocene, barring catastrophe, is set to continue.”5 While they do not elaborate on this wonderful formulation, I think it’s important to see the Anthropocene as a catastrophe barring catastrophe. To put it differently, the threat is not a disruption of the status quo, but its continuation and persistence.
I wanted to capture something of the everyday Anthropocene. The chapters on atmospheric nuclear testing and film noir, especially, speak to this persistence. The dread is not that the status quo will be radically disrupted, but that it will go on as it has been. While such a narrative may seem counter to the idea that the habits associated with postwar, first-world affluence cannot be sustained, I think films and warnings that the good life will abruptly end make people cling even more to that life.
I wanted to work with films through which one might think about the Anthropocene not only as an accidental effect of the good life, but also how the Anthropocene can be understood as a matter of design, if not an accomplishment—a kind of aesthetic wish-fulfillment of human worlding, however perverse. And for this reason, I am attracted to Buster Keaton’s weather comedies, in which storms are obviously manufactured and anthropogenic in origin, as well as the media arts of Three Gorges Dam, where a fictional story is set against an engineered landscape.
As for other films I might have chosen, I could have written chapters on the Great Acceleration not as it is negated by film noir so much as celebrated by such disparate odysseys as Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977), about the pleasure of burning fossil fuel; or Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990), about a big family, plane trips, and a huge suburban house cluttered with stuff; or even Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), in which there are no signs of a natural world and also no reason why, according to Tati, Parisians and tourists cannot find joy in the artificial places they have created. Maybe there is a utopian scenario, for those who can afford it, to live on an artificial planet in which all but human biological life is vanquished. Well, in Tati’s world, there would also be dogs.
Baer: Your book indeed excites the reader with the possibilities for (re)interpreting films in relation to the Anthropocene; my own mind jumped to works like The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming et al., 1939) and The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017). In bringing a variety of films into new focus, you also seem to chart an array of attitudes or affective registers, such as the comic absurdism of slapstick comedy and the dark pessimism of film noir. Would it be fair to say that your book maps a set of possible responses to climate change, each with different aesthetic and philosophical implications?
Fay: It is certainly the case that each chapter summons different feelings or affects as they align with different genres and cinematic narratives. But there is also a way that the materials, affects, and implications of one chapter may unexpectedly crop up in another chapter. For example, Buster Keaton’s slapstick comedies have his characters survive a milieu of collapsing buildings, disappearing towns, and manufactured weather. Keaton’s survival burlesque finds an unexpected corollary in Jia’s Still Life, which is suffused with tremendous pathos but also has its moments of slapstick absurdism when walls and entire buildings suddenly collapse around Han Sanming and Missy Ma. My hope is that these moments spark some recognition with the Keaton material, bringing something of that deadpan aesthetic to Fengjie. And I hope that the gravity of Fengjie’s real-world devastation retroactively shapes the Keaton material.
To take another example, I have a whole chapter devoted to nuclear test films and the many civil defense documentaries that teach viewers strategies of survival in the event of nuclear war and radioactive fallout. I discuss one of these films in the noir chapter, too. Repurposed for the feelings of noir, atomic films show us not how to survive, but how and where to die. My hope, then, is that while each chapter has its own affect, the particular examples find new contexts and thus also accrue different philosophical implications as the book unfolds.
Baer: Film noir critiques the American Dream and yet, in many scholarly accounts, also flirts with cultural-pessimist attitudes that threaten to naturalize personal struggle and instinctual dissatisfaction as endemic to the human condition. Can you elaborate on how you see these films’ emphasis on the “futility of action to change the present or improve the future” (115) as politically progressive? Isn’t continued inaction on climate change precisely a failure to make sacrifices on behalf of future generations?
Fay: This is an important question and I appreciate the opportunity to explain a bit more what I mean by invoking noir’s passivity as politically useful. The first thing to clarify is that noir is not, to my mind, indicative of the human condition. This is something I should have stated a bit more forcefully in the book. Noir is specifically about the condition of mostly hetero, mostly white, mid-century American men and women, for whom the good life underwritten by the Great Acceleration either cannot be fulfilled or fails to fulfill the promises of postwar happiness and freedom. These are the people and this is the culture that are exposed in this genre for its deadening ends. Maybe some version of white culture, some dominant mode of whiteness as it was consolidated in the 1950s, needs to give up and learn how to die.
On the issue of inactivity, it may seem I am being provocatively cruel and indifferent to future generations. But giving up and doing nothing may be a useful antidote to the militarization of climate science (about which, see Robert Marzec’s excellent book Militarizing the Environment, 2015), the bizarre strategies of super-rich survivalism (creating exclusive condos in decommissioned nuclear silos, for example), and the proposals to use geo-engineering to counter the effects of human terraforming activities on the planet. Let me provide one example. The Three Gorges Dam was built, in part, to create green energy for China’s fast-growing cities and to address the flooding of the Yangtze River (flooding that was a direct result of farming practices). But this environmental measure, meant to address the problems of climate change, led in short order to earthquakes, landslides, species extinction, water pollution, and mass displacement.
This is not to say that there should not be an ethical response to the Anthropocene. We should acknowledge and respond to the uneven effects of global warming that compound the sins of globalization. (This is why I have an investment in hospitality as an urgent philosophical and ethical question.) But giving up and doing nothing is a kind of action. To decide not to reproduce, not to build more bombs, more dams, more stores, more stuff to consume, to decide to live and then die in the present—at least where the people and culture most responsible for the planet’s anthropogenic turn are concerned—this inaction may be a gift to tomorrow’s children who are maybe not white, not first-world, and who will figure out some other way to live on a diminished planet. This is how I have come to think of the noir chapter since I wrote it. And I’m glad to have a chance to work out this thought a bit here.
Baer: Are there limits to cinema’s ability to visualize or figure the Anthropocene, despite the many affinities that your book identifies? Timothy Morton, for example, contends that global warming and nuclear materials are “hyperobjects,” entities so massive in their temporal and spatial distribution as to dissolve anthropocentric notions of history and ontology, the human and the world. Do these objects pose certain insurmountable challenges to cinematic representation, too, or exceed established aesthetic categories?
Fay: There are so many phenomena that elude cinema, even when it slows down the world or speeds up events. The nuclear test film is a good example. Film is too slow to capture the millisecond events that culminate in detonation, and it is too fast and short of duration to reveal the invisible radiation that floats far beyond the test site contaminating the planet for thousands of years to come. The trans-dimensional events and objects associated with the Anthropocene exceed the technology which is, perhaps, too attuned to human vision (but not, importantly, to human attention). Literature may be better equipped to narrate the lives of hyperobjects. But, there is so much that is visible and perceivable related to climate change and the terraforming culture of the Anthropocene that is ripe for cinematic capture.
In their articles defining the Anthropocene, Will Steffen and Jan Zalaciewicz refer to the socioeconomic trends that have affected the climate. Among the “12 indicators for the human enterprise,” as Steffen puts it, are large dam construction, transportation, telecommunications, paper consumption, and international tourism, all of which spike dramatically after World War II.6 While certainly such trends may be understood as part of geological-scale history and thus beyond human scales of experience, they are also very recent and representable phenomena. Films featuring four-lane traffic, mega-dams, and air travel are all films of the Anthropocene. Perhaps more to the point, cinema also occasions the creation of synthetic environments and hostile weather events. And, in this way, I argue, the history of this medium helps us to perceive the Anthropocene as an aesthetic operation if not a disastrous aesthetic achievement.
Baer: Your book encourages readers to consider how film-theoretical issues might be rethought in relation to the Anthropocene. Aside from the chapter devoted to Siegfried Kracauer, you integrate the ideas of Maxim Gorky, Viktor Shklovsky, Rudolf Arnheim, Walter Benjamin, André Bazin, Susan Sontag, Stanley Cavell, and Lauren Berlant, among others. Could you elaborate on the implications of the Anthropocene for the history of film theory? What other theoretical writings gain new relevance or take on a new valence in the context of Anthropocene critique?
Fay: There are many candidates! I’ve been thinking that Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) could be productively aligned with Heidegger’s analysis of the “world picture.” How might Mulvey’s psychoanalytical paradigms also speak to an Anthropocene subject position (one that is perhaps masculine, has a sense of visual mastery, and is duped by his sense of control) over and against the planet’s to-be-looked-at-ness?
Hannah Arendt makes the observation that, after World War II, the problem is not that modern humans are alienated; the problem is rather world and earth alienation (two distinct terms in Arendt’s writing). In fact, she intimates that we may not be self-alienated enough and are therefore risking—with atomic testing—the total destruction of the planet from which we regard ourselves as alienable. I think film theory and feminist film theory in particular have much to teach us about an Anthropocene subject position that cinema may both prop up and also, through a different kind of praxis, totally dissolve.
Another rich area is in black studies and black film theory, especially in its more Afro-pessimist registers. Frank B. Wilderson III’s Red, White & Black (2010), for example, considers the impossibility of the slave to count as a subject, the inseparability of black slavery from humanism, and humanism as a prop for white hegemony. American cinema, white film theory, and political theory, he argues, bear out the dichotomy of master and slave. Wilderson’s book, too, could be a platform for critiquing the whiteness of the Anthropocene and the human subjects it elevates over enslaved nonsubjects—a whiteness that also returns as violent nature. Nicholas Mirzoeff has recently written about the Anthropocene, the rising water line, and the color line. The settler-colony culture will inure itself against the ravages of climate change, he argues, while allowing those below the water line to disappear. In this respect, the Anthropocene is perhaps the most recent, planetary iteration of antiblack oppression, another version of what Carol Anderson calls “white rage” in her book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016).
Baer: For progressive-minded scholars in the humanities—particularly those who examine race and gender as socially constructed categories—science has often appeared as a tool of oppression. And yet the Anthropocene seems to initiate a degree of cross-fertilization between the humanities and natural sciences. What can the critical humanities contribute to a study of the Anthropocene, and which disciplinary resources can film and media scholars bring to the urgent subject of climate change?
Fay: Certainly, the Anthropocene brings humanities and sciences together around a new set of pressing questions. But rather than thinking of the humanities turning (or reluctantly returning) to the hard sciences, it may be that environmental science needs the humanities as never before. Departing from the periodization proposed by Paul J. Crutzen, geologist Jan Zalasiewicz has been building a case for an Anthropocene start date to coincide exactly with the detonation of the Trinity atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. The artificial radionuclides that spread all over the planet during the period of atmospheric nuclear testing are now archived in the geological record, providing a “stratigraphically optimal” and unquestionably anthropogenic trace that began with this infernal event.7 In the context of the Cold War, of course, Trinity marks humans—really, American scientists and military strategists—at their most diabolically self-destructive. From a geological standpoint, the Trinity date signals humanity at its most unnatural.
But what interests me is that nuclearism does not cause climate change (it does not figure into any of the big data sets of the Great Acceleration), nor does it square with the culture associated with the Great Acceleration, which is largely evidence of prosperity and, dare I say, peace as marked through such indicators as international trade, travel, and telecommunications. So there is an invitation for humanists to understand a relationship between cold war nuclearism (that, in its fullest elaboration, threatens to make humanity vanish from the planet) and the Anthropocene (that threatens to turn the planet into a human archive without any natural remainders). These are fascinating philosophical and cultural questions around what literary historians would characterize as the “hot chronology” of 1945 (to borrow a phrase James Chandler used for the year 1819, with a nod to Claude Lévi-Strauss). In sum, when geology aligns so exactly with human history, and when the challenges of environmental science are so pointedly political, geologists need the humanities to understand their objects of study as products of human culture.
Already climate scientists have veered away from positing a universal “humanity” as the cause of the Great Acceleration to focus on the habits and culture of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries and particular patterns of development. Geologists are collaborating with economists, sociologists, and historians, but other disciplines are essential not only to understanding our contemporary moment, but to thinking through its allure. And if there is one thing scholars in film and media studies know, it is that Hollywood cinema has helped to produce an appetite and image for the good life everywhere American cinema has screened (hence the historic collaboration between Hollywood and the State Department).
Today the challenge of climate change is not a problem of science but rather a failure of politics. And politics, so to speak, fails because the Great Acceleration has led to the good life and certainly a better life for people everywhere (however unevenly the good is distributed). Who is willing to give up the great stuff of the Great Acceleration? What would that new life look like? These are questions for film scholars and humanists more generally to unpack.
1. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004), 225–48.
2. Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (January 3, 2002), 23.
3. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Humanities in the Anthropocene: The Crisis of an Enduring Kantian Fable,” New Literary History 47, nos. 2 and 3 (Spring and Summer 2016), 377–97.
4. Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015).
5. J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 5.
6. See Will Steffen et al., “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1 (2015), 81–98.
7. Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “When Did the Anthropocene Begin? A Mid-Twentieth Century Boundary Level Is Stratigraphically Optimal,” Quaternary International 383 (2015), 196–203.
Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. $99.00 (cloth). $29.95 (paper). 270 pages.
Header Image: Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)