Adrian Ivakhiv’s "Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature" is a book that pushes beyond conventional reflections on film and environmental thought. It is, significantly, a book where ‘the conceptual’ and ‘the material’ enter into co-productive relationships in and through Ivakhiv’s examination of cinema and the worlds it creates. Indeed, a central point of Ecologies of the Moving Image is that films do things. That is, they are capable of becoming ‘affectively generative’ in their capacity to ‘elicit a heightened perceptions of our orientation to the socio-ecological’ (page 300), with their ‘moving images [enticing] us toward a kind of movement across the surface of the earth’ (page 115).

In marshaling a sophisticated framework that draws heavily on the process-relational philosophies of Peirce and Whitehead – in addition to geographical, anthropological, and animal studies scholarships – Ecologies of the Moving Image draws our attention not only to the world-making capacities of film, but also to the intricate relations amongst humans, the earth, and the universe. Its scale and scope exceeds the purview of the humanities and offers far-reaching conceptual and methodological insights of interest to anyone attempting to make sense of our contemporary environmental condition. In early October, I sat down with Adrian to talk about Ecologies of the Moving Image, philosophy, and, of course, film.

—Harlan Morehouse, University of Minnesota

Harlan Morehouse: Thank you for sitting down to talk about your new book, Ecologies of the Moving Image. I enjoyed the book quite a bit, not only for its thought provoking content, but also and just as important, it put me back into the habit of watching films with greater frequency. So you might say your book performed its task of bringing me into the realm where ecological thought and film intersect.

Adrian Ivakhiv: That was its function for me, too – to allow me to go back to watching films [Laughs]. And also to bring ecological thought into that as fully as I’ve wanted to for a long time.

HM: Ecologies of the Moving Image clearly emerges within the context of the contemporary environmental condition, wherein representations of what Nature was, is or is becoming are a matter of considerable debate. The same goes for representations of the Human. Can you speak about how Ecologies of the Moving Image falls into this shifting terrain where categories like Nature, Human, and Nonhuman and the conventional perspectives that aim to classify them appear increasingly untenable?

AI: Each of those categories has been put to various kinds of tests and critiqued and deconstructed in various ways. I’ve been very influenced by the deconstructions of the binaries, like nature-culture, but what’s been put in their place has generally been more suggestive than comprehensive: cyborgs, rhizomes, actor-networks, assemblages, ‘social natures’, and so on. My approach to this problematic has been to look for an alternative framework for building up a viable ontology, and over the years I’ve come to see Whiteheadian process philosophy and Peircean semiotics as providing strong foundations for such a framework. I think there’s a broader shift in the direction of these two thinkers as well. But any such effort is fraught with risks.

Somewhere I think Whitehead says something about how even if the universe is ceaseless flux, you can’t set everything into motion at once – you have to have one term that’s left unmoved, otherwise you’re left with no vantage point from which to get a perspective on anything. So how do you do this? For me, a triadic framework – which I take from Peirce primarily, although Guattari and others have their own variations of that – is the only way that one can approach nature, culture, and everything else because it avoids the tendency of any binary to become purely about negotiating the space between two pre-given terms.

HM: So, what is the ‘unmoved’ term for you?

AI: I think it’s variable. It depends on what I’m thinking about, what I’m analyzing. In Ecologies of the Moving Image, I offer a series of triads. Peirce’s categorical triadism includes a space for reality, which Saussurean semiotics does not. Two spaces, in effect: there is what Peirce calls ‘firstness’ – the reality that is not directly representable, but that is nevertheless there as a kind of qualitative potency, a virtuality; and a reality of causal relations, or ‘secondness’. But there is also space for infinite variability in the interpretations and meanings – or the ‘thirdness’ – that semiotic entities produce from the causal interactions that make up the universe. A triadic framework forces us to reckon with change, process, evolution, as always being in flux, but also always being somewhere between stability and flux, between a givenness and an indeterminacy.

The triad that becomes the organizing principle for much of book – the one that makes up what I call ‘cosmomorphism’, the becoming of a ‘world’ – is the Geomorphic, the Biomorphic, and the Anthropomorphic. Each of these terms is obviously fluid, and the point is that what happens between them is what’s real. The result – a sense of there being a world that’s given (the Geomorphic, the becoming-background of the object-world), and an ‘us’ or other agents who act against that background world (the ‘Anthropomorphic’) – this result is always contingent, always in the midst of being reproduced, but also being challenged, negotiated, and reconfigured. That means that each of these terms has to be continually deconstructed. Take ‘anthropomorphism’: why focus on the ‘anthropos’? Because that’s what we are; that’s what we become. Even if we don’t know what we’re becoming, so that a thousand years from now “we” may be something very different from what we think we are now, if there even will be a common ‘we’. It’s an open-ended process. But nevertheless there’s some kind of generic agreement that despite our similarities to other species, humans are humans. We are the ones who narrate our worlds through writing books and making films, and so on. And in this sense every film is about the becoming of the Anthropos – in Deleuze’s and Spinoza’s sense, of what a body, or a bodymind, can do.

HM: This discussion of geomorphism, biomorphism, and anthropomorphism brings up topic that deals with critical geographical scholarship. If there’s one thing geographers have long understood, it’s that nature and society are held in complex co-evolutionary and co-productive relationships with the result that neither ‘Nature’ nor ‘Society’ offer themselves as pure categories with clear boundaries. I couldn’t help but notice a similar framework involving nature, society, and their messy entanglement crops up in Ecologies of the Moving Image. So, I have a two-part question. First, there seems a close kinship between your work and critical geographical scholarship, and I’m curious as to how geographical discourses inform your work. And second, as we’ve discussed, you propose an overarching triadic structure containing the following concepts: Geomorphism, Biomorphism, and Anthropomorphism – terms that are familiar to geographical thought. Can you walk us through how this triadic structure maps onto nature-society relations, and what role film plays within these relations?

AI: Sure. With regard to your first question: Yes, there’s obvious kinship with critical geographic thought. I think it’s less visible in this book than in some of my other writings where I deal explicitly with geographic issues – such as my first book (Claiming Sacred Ground [2001]) on the politics of landscape and nature. Still, in Ecologies of the Moving Image, there are a series of intersections with critical geographic scholarship. For instance, the chapter on geomorphism and the ways in which Nature and the natural have been represented in film. There’s a whole body of literature with people like Denis Cosgrove and others who write of the representation of landscape, which I incorporate into my analysis of how nature and landscape have been represented, and how these representations are not just mere representations. Rather they are interactive co-productions, productive relationships with a world that provides ‘affordances’, to use Gibson’s term, for relating in particular ways. Taking photographs and painting landscapes are just some of these ways. The chapter on animals and animamorphism, or biomorphism, draws on other kinds of scholarship, from animal studies and so on. The same applies to the chapter on anthropomorphism, which draws a lot from anthropological literature.

The whole nature-culture problematic is very central to the book. Thus, it might be worth situating my book in terms of ‘the ontological turn’, in terms of ‘the new materialism’ as it’s sometimes called. Or, the ‘non-representational turn’ in geography, and ‘social nature’, film as a means of ‘spatializing’, ‘critical affect theory’, and so on. Or ‘speculative realism’ and all these other things that have been cropping up over the last decade. So, while I’ve certainly engaged with the scholarship you mention, I’m also producing a particular response to those issues, which draws primarily on Whitehead and Peirce, and with Deleuze and Guattari, Heidegger, Bergson, Latour, and others lurking in the background. And film theorists like Sean Cubitt, Zizek, Shaviro, E. Ann Kaplan, Vivian Sobchack, and others.

The second part of your question about the triadic framework…maybe I can answer that by way of a detour. One of the first points that I articulate in my film course, which is primarily taken by environmental studies students, is that the environmental movement and the conservation movement in the 19th century – these movements would not have been possible were it not for artistic media such photography and landscape, and later film and television. These movements would have not taken off as they did without them. The moving-image had been central to making it possible for people to think a certain way about the so-called ‘environment’ or about ecology.

HM: Because of the visual referent they provided?

AI: Absolutely. So, part of the task of Ecologies of the Moving Image is to think that through. And other people have written about various pieces of this picture. Whether it’s environmental documentaries or images of the whole earth. Or, the Hollywood Western as a way of creating a sense of the American landscape; of how Americans settled and created their country, with the Western as the mythical place where that happens. This is something that happens in every nation-building enterprise in some way. So, I propose this equation that is a quick and dirty way of thinking about it: Territory + Narrative + Media = Nation. Territory is what’s given, the affordances of the landscape and the ways they are shaped and arranged. Narrative is how they’re strung together with historical events and personages, and given a certain momentum to events moving forward and backward across time. And media refers to the ways that print and visual cultures, in particular, have enabled both an imaginary and a technical apparatus for disseminating that imaginary. Together those three have produced Nation as a whole system of symbols, affects, and identifications, in the sense of ‘America and the Hollywood Western’, for instance.

Screenshot. John Ford, The Searchers (1956)

HM: Right. So, if we take the idea of Manifest Destiny, that westward push of European cultures across the territory of North America that is said to have ended in the 1860s. Film comes to play a crucial role – and here I’m thinking of John Ford films and the use of Monument Valley – that allows for the ‘spirit’ of Manifest Destiny to live on far beyond the middle of the 19th century in and through filmic representations of Nature and the West.

AI: It perpetuates it. But it also turns it into something else – in the same way that, say, Cooper and Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) took elements of their own quasi-ethnographic films of the 1920s and turned these into mass media Hollywood spectacle. Similarly, the Hollywood Western turns that mythological activity into a kind of spectacle that is then exported to the world to perform a lot of work, to situate America – the frontier country, but also the cutting edge of consumer capitalism and the entertainment industries – at the center of the world in the post-WWII period.

HM: Returning once more to the contemporary environmental condition… An increasingly influential way of encapsulating this condition is through the idea of the Anthropocene, a term that announces a post-Holocene reality in which human beings have taken on a ‘geological’ agency capable of affecting planetary systems massively distributed in space and time. Yet, the Anthropocene also names a conjuncture that calls for what might be phrased an ‘ecology of experimental practices’ adequate to understanding pervasive environmental uncertainties. In recent years, the arts, humanities, and social-sciences have responded to this call by way of a ‘geological turn’ that attempts to suture disciplinary discourses with the planet’s own material processes. Could you share your thoughts on what the humanities offers to pressing debates around the subject of a new geological epoch? That is, what do you make of the emergence of the ‘eco-humanities’, and how might it lend insight into issues that have conventionally fallen under the purview of the physical sciences?

AI: I’ve been watching this term ‘eco-humanities’, or ‘environmental humanities’, grow over the last decade with interest and fascination, because it encompasses the kind of work I’ve been doing since well before the term came along. So, it’s nice to see that there’s a growing recognition that the humanities have to be central to any kind of response to the ecological crisis. At the same time, it’s clearly connected to academic processes and the political economy of academe, where the humanities are under threat anytime there’s a funding crisis. And, so, they have to defend themselves, and some people, I think, astutely recognize that the eco-humanities are one way to rally together across the different disciplines and make a case to environmental scientists and other people who are also having to band together around the environmental science of ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’. These are generally useful developments, but not ones we should be uncritical of, in the same way that the term ‘sustainability’ requires that one be aware of the critical history of that term, even though one might use it in certain circumstances to make a public case for environmental action, social justice, and so on.

But, by ‘the geological turn’, I’m not sure if you’re referring to something longer standing, like the turn towards space and geography in some of the humanities and other social sciences, or do you mean more recent work by people like Eugene Thacker, Reza Negarestani, Ben Woodard, the object-oriented ontologists, and some of the post-Deleuzians?

HM: I have more in mind the latter, and perhaps more explicitly in line with Timothy Morton’s notion of hyperobjects. One gets the sense that social scientists and humanities scholars are increasingly taking into account very long-term processes and folding geological timescales into their own social, political, or environmental analyses.

AI: Right. So, ‘Anthropocene’ is another one of those terms that is very useful, and it’s good to see how it’s taken off. But it also has its limitations. It tends to get us into a similar dilemma as the environmental philosophy debates about anthropocentrism did a few decades ago. To say that anthropocentrism is responsible for ecological devastation is trite; it doesn’t tell us much at all about who’s doing what and why certain processes develop historically. It just spreads the blame out equally. Now as a naming of a geological epoch, I think what’s valuable about the term Anthropocene is that it does suggest that geology and the long-term history studied both by historians and by geologists and other environmental scientists are fundamentally connected to culture, and therefore studying one in isolation from the other doesn’t make sense. But what exactly does it mean to say that humanity – as a global phenomenon– has come to define an epoch of nature?

HM: Right. There are those problematic universalizing tendencies that one finds in some discourses of the Anthropocene, in spite of the critical work that’s be done over the past few decades to chip away at a notion of humanity as a singular subject – a subject which is marshaled in a particularly strategic way. At the same time, a key point of the Anthropocene is that there is no separation between society and nature, between human history and natural history. These things are implicated in each other in very complex ways.

AI: One of the pressing issues of our particular theoretical moment is how to conceptualize the relationship between materiality and culture. I think we’re in this space where we haven’t quite arrived at a good working consensus. We’re on the cusp of something, but not quite sure what it is yet. There are different people working on different approaches – the Deleuzians, the post-humanists, the post-ANT ontological politics people (Latour, Stengers, John Law and Annemarie Mol), the complexity theorists, the biosemioticians, autopoieticists and ‘4E’ cognitivists, the critical realists, the political ecologists, Spinozist and post-Marxist neo-materialists, speculative realists, neo-vitalists and immanent naturalists (as William Connolly calls them), ‘Big History’ folks (like David Christian), and all sorts of others. I tend to gravitate towards the Deleuzians and the others I see as ‘process-relational’ – Whitehead and the processualists, Peirce and the global semioticists – who really do try to get at the simultaneous materiality, affectivity, and discursivity of the world. But, how to make a case for that that would transform the physical sciences, transform the life sciences, and transform the humanities and social sciences? We’re far from that.

HM: To further develop the particularity of this ‘theoretical moment’, I want to turn to the question of Buddhist thought. In Ecologies of the Moving Image, you operationalize a process-relational ontology that stems from the work of Peirce, Whitehead, Deleuze and Guattari amongst others. Alongside this, there runs a subtle undercurrent of Buddhism in this work and other works of yours. In recent years there’s been a kind of resurgence, of sorts, of Buddhism in contemporary ecological thought – Timothy Morton’s work, in particular, comes to mind. With regard to Buddhist thought, can you speak to this stitching together of different philosophical and spiritual traditions and what it matters for your work, and what such a coupling offers to emerging eco-political discourses?

AI: I tend to resist categorizing Buddhism as a spiritual framework in opposition to other theoretical strands that would be philosophical, because Buddhism does include some pretty sophisticated and rigorous philosophical work done over the course of its two and a half millennia. Some of this I find useful and draw into my theorizing, even though it’s difficult to know quite how to do that. There aren’t a lot of precedents. But I do think that we’re living in a philosophical moment where the presumptive boundaries around the Western philosophical tradition are overflowing from within and from without. My hunch is that in fifty years or so, philosophy departments – if they’re to survive – are going to look very different. They’ll have people with expertise in Chinese philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, African and various postcolonial philosophies, and so on. And more philosophers of science and technology, too.

One of the challenges for philosophy as an enterprise – both an academic discipline and a public project – is to map things out in a new way where there isn’t this sense that Western philosophy is the sole basis for philosophy, with Plato and Aristotle as its distant founding fathers, and analytical philosophy as we know it as the main carrier of it today. In this sense I think it’s pretty important to be engaging with other philosophical traditions, both in doing comparative work and in drawing on different traditions to make sense of global issues today. Latour’s ‘modes of existence’ project, and Sloterdijk and some others, are moving in that direction – trying to put a frame around modernity so that we can put it behind ourselves, in a sense. At the same time, various anthropologists and political ecologists and other social scientists are doing on-the-ground work with groups and communities coming from very different epistemological and ontological traditions. But all of them can really only be conversants within a much larger conversation. One of the arguments I make is that the process-relational framework I’m using does draw on other traditions that are worldwide, that go back to China, India, and Greece of 2000 years ago, and Europe of 500 years ago, and the obvious more immediate sources. But it’s a rhetorical gesture; what happens in practice is what counts.

All that said, I say somewhere that the case I’m making for a process-relational approach may sound ‘mystical’, and in this sense it’s because it resonates well with Buddhism and other religious and mystical traditions. I do like what Tim Morton is doing with Buddhism. It’s different from my approach because he’s trying to capture Buddhism within an object-oriented ontological framework. That, to me, seems like a difficult task and a real stretch. It’s much more widely acknowledged that Buddhism is a processual philosophy and a relational one. This is why in environmental thought there are a lot of people over the last few decades who have drawn on Buddhist philosophy and practice to develop their ecophilosophies – mostly ‘deep ecologists’ like Joanna Macy, John Seed, Bill Devall, and Gary Snyder. It’s an interesting debate to have about which approach is more Buddhist. There is no essential Buddhism. There are things the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago. There are things his followers did. And there are things that people who came several hundred years later made of that, which they developed into rich philosophical systems that can be taken in many directions, and were. So within the study of Buddhism and ecology there’s a debate about whether Buddhism is originally a world denying philosophy, or if it’s world affirming – a philosophy of liberation that would liberate everyone from delusion and oppression – which is what it became in some places, as in the hands of Chinese Tiantai Buddhists and some of the Ch’an and Zen traditions.  But it’s really only more recently that ‘engaged Buddhists’ have come along to argue for social revolution alongside internal liberation.

HM: Does this, in part, speak to Zizek’s critique of certain Western uptakes of Buddhism, where he seems to be making the argument that these uptakes allow for the cultivation of inner worldliness, but at the same time lend themselves to denial of, or non-participation in, the world as such?

AI: Zizek takes a small piece of Buddhism and critiques it, but his knowledge of the concepts he is critiquing, and of the interpretive traditions they are part of, appears limited. Buddhism functions as a straw man for him in the argument that he’s making on behalf of his Lacano-Hegelian Marxism. Zizek is a critic of popular culture and his critique of Buddhism is fair in the sense that he’s critiquing a pop-cultural kind of ‘Western Buddhism’ – which itself is a pretty slippery and amorphous thing, very much in the process of being created, but also something a lot of Buddhist scholars themselves criticize. Buddhism, like any tradition, is being renegotiated as the world becomes more globalized and people with contemporary concerns take it up in particular ways. Sometimes that take-up fits into the consumerist ideology Zizek is critiquing, but it’s hardly a cause of it so much as it’s correlated with it. There are plenty of resources in Buddhism for critiquing and deconstructing capitalism, and there are Buddhist scholars who do exactly that.

HM: In choosing film as a key referent for your book, representation comes to the fore in a particularly pronounced way. Here, a notion of representation bears on previous comments regarding nature-society relations in the simplified sense that how we humans understand, envision, and represent nature/environment inevitably impacts how we understand our place within the world and, by extension, act in the world. Thus, with representation comes the concept of material engagement – a point you drive home with your insistence that films do things; they act in and on the world in particular ways. This relationship between aesthetic representation and material engagement strikes me as a particularly crucial link in Ecologies of the Moving Image, and I wonder if you could speak to, first, how it is that films do things; and second to the relationship between aesthetics and ‘action’.

AI: That films do things is one of my key points: films encompass material, social, and perceptual processes that change the world in material, social, and perceptual ways. Their effects don’t end when the final credits roll. The viewing experience is one part of what a film does, and it differs for every viewer. That’s the part that falls into the Peircean category of ‘secondness’. The ‘firstness’ is the film itself – its particular way of organizing sounds and images so as to produce a film-world that is entered into selectively by each and every viewer. The ‘secondness’ is the actual moment-to-moment encounter of a viewer with a film. The ‘thirdness’ is what emerges from the viewing for one viewer and for multiple audiences – the total affective-cognitive gestalt produced by an interaction between assumptions and predispositions, prior knowledge, and posterior reflections, conversations, affective uptakes, and the cultural negotiations the film-viewing enables.

But all of that is the film-as-perceived; the film’s interaction with the perceptual ecologies of the world. Then there is the film-as-materiality – the huge arcs of geological, ecological, and other kinds of impact generated by the production of a film. And there is the film-as-sociality – the ways it brings together certain social relations and assemblages and reproduces, or rearranges, the kinds of social relations that become possible in its wake.

Because of the kind of thing a film is, I spend most of my time examining its perceived dimensions and breaking them down into the further triad of the film-experience: the spectacular, the narrative, and the ‘exo-referential’. That’s primarily where I approach the relationship between aesthetics and action.  The aesthetic is the encounter with ‘firstness’ as Peirce calls it. That is, with the things themselves. Whereas ‘action’ is the realm of ‘secondness’. It’s the encounter with something that requires a response, and it’s the engagement in that sort of give and take between the two. And, of course, there’s always going to be a ‘thirdness’. Each of these, which Peirce calls the ‘normative sciences’ – ‘aesthetics’, ‘ethics’, and ‘logic’ – is a matter of how we do things. They are ways to figure out how to appreciate (in the sense of aesthetics), how to act (in the sense of ethics), and how to make sense of something (in the sense of logic). Logic is what I attempt to reframe as eco-logic – as something that’s broader than logic in the way that it has traditionally been defined. It’s the whole process of making sense. So, traditionally we’ve thought of aesthetics in terms of ‘the beautiful’, ‘the sublime’, and so on. The aesthetic moment is there in any moment when we’re engaging with anything – with an artwork, with a film, with a single second of film. It’s that immediate engagement that affects us and its particular ways of being affected.

HM: And this moment requires a perceiving subject, right? As well as an object to be perceived…

AI: Yes, the perceiving subject is there, and that subject has been formed through a history of becoming that subject. So, it’s got certain habits of perception and habits of reception. But, those are habits that can be changed. Peirce makes a big deal of how the point of habits is to manage them: to inhabit them or to rehabituate oneself to develop new habits. To cultivate ways of responding, ways of responding aesthetically – appreciating, noting, sensing, seeing; ways of responding ethically in action with other agents; and ways of making sense of actions and reactions, and with the whole world in which they occur. So, each of these becomes one of the moments that I focus on in the relationship between a viewer and a film.

HM: What about those rare films that inspire people to go out into the world and engage with it differently? Whether it’s a documentary that spurs a viewer to take up environmental activism, or whether it’s Avatar, which inspired some viewers to take up action in role-playing communities?

Movie poster. Arnold Fanck, The Holy Mountain (1926)
Movie poster. Arnold Fanck, The Holy Mountain (1926)

AI: Well, those are the rare films that are worth writing about, and those are the films I focus on in the book precisely because they do that. And this brings up a question we discussed elsewhere with regard to the Bergfilm, the mountain films of Weimar Germany. You know, I’ve read that article you mentioned by Nina Power (‘Mountain and Fog’ [2007]) and I think it’s kind of reductionist. It’s easy in hindsight to argue that a certain kind of filmmaking – because it happened in 1920s Germany, because it displays some of the features we associate with Nazism – necessarily led to Nazism. But of course those films themselves – with images of mountains and fog and whatever, as well as people engaging with them in particular ways – have a wide set of virtualities, if you will, that can be taken in different directions. The fact that Nazism emerged ten years later proves nothing about those films except that they could be taken to contribute to a certain kind of sentiment that grew in its audiences. But the left was equally impressed with those films as the right, from what I know. Marxist critic Ernst Bloch, for example, was a fan of certain kinds of filmmaking that could be critiqued in the same way that Power does, and that Kracauer does in his original critique of the mountain films. So, between the thing itself – the image of fog and the mountain – and the way that that image gets taken up by a viewer, there’s an ineradicable gap. There’s something that gets actualized from a realm of virtuality that’s much larger.

Further, there’s the way that that actualization gets interpreted and taken up by social groups. There’s no direct causal line that can be drawn between films that way except insofar as they’re stitched together with practices. That’s why environmental films have an impact. You know, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) had an impact because of the networks that it got drawn into – of media, of environmental organizations, and so on. But its impact is worth studying. It led to a spike in American willingness to believe in anthropogenic climate change. But it also led to a heightened – ferociously heightened – intensity around the issue dividing Republicans from Democrats. And so when Climategate rolled around, the end result was arguably worse for American beliefs about anthropogenic climate change, because of the political divisiveness that was generated by having that narrative tied so closely to a Democratic presidential candidate who was divisive in powerful respects.

So, these things are processes that are worth studying. And to know how a film changes the world, you have to study that step-by-step movement of how it becomes integrated into peoples’ perceptions, their practices, their ways of making sense of themselves, of shaping new identities. If the Bergfilms in the 1920s produced elements that contributed to the development of a certain hegemony or certain networks that became Nazism in the 30s, those same elements could have been used to create a different kind of alliance, a different kind of network or hegemony, in Laclau and Mouffe’s terms.

HM: This is a good point. And going back to Nina Power, she of course has the benefit of historical hindsight to be able to say, “Well, this takes place in the 20s, and we know what happens in the 30s, so there must be a connection.” Yet, she also claims that these films committed the fatal error of conflating the power of nature with the power of an individual mind. Kracauer similarly says that such representations of the sublime are rooted in a mentality kindred to Nazi spirit. In part, much of what is being argued has to do with the inclusion of young, heroic figures who dare scale the inclines of imposing mountains. But your point is well taken, that the relationship between sublime nature and young heroic figures need not necessarily lead to a fascistic impulse. Yet, in the same breath, there are compelling warnings about the romanticization of the sublime, which is not just a feature of the Bergfilms of the 1920s but is also a feature of films today. So, a follow-up question here is: How does the relationship between romanticism, the sublime, and the heroic figure still bear upon cinema today, and is it worth being concerned about its potential political ramifications?

AI: That’s a big question that makes me think of a lot of different things. On the one hand, you’ve got people like Werner Herzog, who draws on that tradition and who is in many ways kindred to it. But at the same time – this is decades after Nazism – he’s making his films with the benefit of hindsight. He doesn’t glorify the individual, he sort of debunks the human so that his universe is not an anthropo-friendly universe. Although he still loves these extreme characters, like Aguirre, who’s a madman, and like his actor Klaus Kinski. Herzog has a love-hate relationship with the ‘madness’ of extreme figures that maybe is part of the sublime as well. But what are the political implications of his films? Well, it’s hard to say. They could be used in many ways, and they have a potentially very interesting impact in terms of the ways they deconstruct things for viewers.

One of the films I screen in my class is Lessons of Darkness (1992), which was criticized for the way it aestheticized the Iraq War without providing any information about who was responsible, how it came about, and so on. It obfuscates the politics of the war completely. But viewers at the time already knew all that – we had seen Baghdad lit up ‘like a Christmas Tree’ by American missiles, on American television. Herzog’s point was to bring home the affective impact and scale of war itself, war on the environment as it were – to give us images that would move us. Whether they do that and how they do that will be different for audiences today than in 1992, or in 2052. He ties it all into a romantic sublime of apocalyptic tropes and western art music – Wagner, Arvo Part, and so on. The question to ask is: did the images stay with us, haunt us, in ways that might lead us to question a war like this when it next comes up as an option? Or are they more likely to be received as irony, or as a singular artist’s (Herzog’s) creative profundity? There’s research yet to be done on that.

But back to your question about the sublime and heroic figures today. There’s, of course, that whole series of American ‘patriotic’ films in the late 70s and early 80s, like Red Dawn (1984) and Rambo (1982), with their heroic individuals, or collectivities rising up to fight some hostile foreign power. Do we blame them for the popularity of Reaganism, in the same way that John Wayne movies (and Ronald Reagan movies) might get blamed for preparing the culture for Reagan himself? Some leftist critics argued that Steven Spielberg’s films of the late 1970s, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982), helped pave the way for Reaganism by enabling a kind of irrationalism – an escapism or ‘retreatism’ that made people more willing to succumb to image, hunch, and intuition as a means of decision-making – which Reagan was a master of – and less willing to think critically and politically. And Rambo, with its revalorization of the long-haired rebel as a figure on the countercultural Right, not the Left, certainly contributed to something ‘in the air’ around Reaganism. Movies can help prepare audiences to think about certain things, or to respond in certain ways. Ideas and connections between things get planted in people’s awareness through popular media. But I don’t really go for reductionist causal arguments about what films do, because I think they’re very open ended. And I think we have to actually examine what people do with them.

HM: Right. This is a crucial distinction: what films do and what people do with films.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818)
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818)

AI: Yes. And to bring this back to the sublime: the sublime is an interaction. An image itself – fog, mountains, whatever – is nothing until a viewer interacts with it. Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog (1818) portrays an individual against a background that’s ‘natural’, but it doesn’t mean anything until a viewer interprets it. So, if you get a sense of something overpowering, or something that’s taking you to your limits – depending on whether your sublime is Kantian, or Burkean, or some other kind – if that’s what you’re getting from a particular image, it still wouldn’t be there without you, and without some preparation from within the broader culture. Sublimity can be made to function in particular ways, but it takes more than an image. The question is how do you bring particular kinds of images together like those of the young individual and the mountain. I’ve got a lot of students who love snowboarding, and who love watching snowboarding films. Does that mean that if the next president of the United States were a snowboarder and happened to be a neofascist, or an Ayn Randian libertarian who believed the individual’s relationship with a mountain was a symbol of what individuals should do and that the welfare state should be dismantled as an obstacle to that – would all these students be open to following this president if they have some of the same cultural reference points? Well, it’s quite possible, but it takes a lot more work to create that track from A to Z than just a single stitch.

HM: To segue into a question about Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), both of which are often talked about in tandem perhaps because they represent two ends of a strange spectrum, or more to the point, two aspects of an emerging debate in environmental discourses. To simplify: on one side of this debate there is a kind of vitalistic discourse replete with overtures to Gaia and the sanctity of Life in general. Figures like McKibben and Gore represent this well, as do more critical figures like Latour, albeit in different ways. On the other side there is an idea of cosmic pessimism, represented by the works of Ray Brassier, Eugene Thacker, Ben Woodard, and aspects of Levi Bryant, for example, who differently summon a cosmos radically indifferent not only to the plights of humanity, but also to the notion of Life and its ostensible sanctity. Each side of this debate, perhaps, maps onto Tree of Life and Melancholia, respectively, and each seems to push divergent perspectives of the environment. Would you mind speaking a bit about the divergent representations of Nature in each film, and why these two films are often talked about in tandem?

AI: While I do talk about them together in my book, I don’t see them as diametrically opposed. I see them more as on a spectrum. They’re great films: they’re thought provoking and they engage viewers in thinking about the relationship between subjectivity, the earth, the future, and the cosmos. Both Malick and von Trier are romantics, especially in these two films. But in my reading, The Tree of Life presents an almost Peircean evolutionary conception of the universe that is open ended. You can call it optimism, but at the same time it’s pretty clear in recognizing the pain at the heart of things. In contrast, Melancholia is about the decimation of the whole human enterprise. You could argue it’s a kind of anti-Life portrayal to the extent that Justine, the main character, takes a certain pleasure in the fact that we will all be destroyed. Von Trier in this film, and in Anti-Christ (2009) and some of his earlier films, is playing the role of a cackling demon in the face of human conceptions about why our lives, and life itself, are so all-important. Malick is more Stoic, in the classical philosophical sense: he’s with the human, and with the universal life impulse, rather than laughing in the face of it.

Screenshot. Lars von Trier, Melancholia (2011)
Screenshot. Lars von Trier, Melancholia (2011)

That said, I’m not entirely convinced by the dichotomy of Life and anti-Life, vitalism versus an indifferent universe. It’s all a question of scale. I’m too much of a Peircean and Whiteheadian to find Life to be the central concept of things, but also too much of a Peircean and Whiteheadian to find it to be irrelevant. Everything, in a process-relational ontology, is process. Everything is open, and in that sense whether it’s biologically alive or not doesn’t matter much. It’s still lively. I guess that makes me a kind of vitalist [Laughs].

Indifference is a useful perspective to affectively inhabit, which is why I like Melancholia. It provides a way of inhabiting the idea that we live in a universe that will crush us. It’s a great image that can produce this particular affect in its audience. Herzog is another filmmaker who deals with cosmic indifference, maybe more gently than von Trier does. For example, his so-called science-fiction films like Fata Morgana (1971), The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), or that same Lessons of Darkness (1992). Or La Soufrière (1977), where the volcano is supposed to erupt and everybody leaves the island except for a handful of people. Herzog and his film crew go around interviewing them and eventually climb to the top of the volcano and poke their camera into it because it’s not erupting. There’s a sort of circulation around an ‘event’ [Moves his hand in the air to cross the word out]. There really is no event, but Herzog is interested in the preamble and the aftermath of this non-event. This is his way of puncturing the human project – to suggest that the universe is much larger than us, that it pre-existed us and will continue on afterwards, that we’ll wander around gazing uncomprehendingly at the archaeological remains. And Melancholia is a way of doing that in a more direct and severe fashion.

Screenshot. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life (2011)
Screenshot. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life (2011)

This connects up with our discussion of Buddhism. There’s the indifference of the cosmos and all our ideas of ourselves – the self-object, the objects that we credit with so much meaning – but which are ultimately not meaningful at all. They’re passing phenomena. My work with Buddhism comes partly out of the growing dialogue between Buddhist philosophy and process philosophy. That dialogue comes from the recognition that they are saying the same things ontologically in the sense that the central concept of Buddhism – if it has a central concept – Pratītyasamutpāda [conditioned arising], maintains that everything that exists arises out of its conditions, and that outside of them is nothing. It’s ‘empty’, meaning empty of self-substance. The same goes for ourselves and our concepts, like ‘the Human’, ‘Nature’, ‘the Nation’, whatever. These things are ‘empty’ in the sense that they arise out of historical, cultural, psychological, ontological conditions and the most appropriate response to that is to see them as such. But the ‘emptiness’ is better translated as ‘openness’: it’s a creative emptiness in that it’s from the emptiness that awareness, and therefore change, is possible. Process-relational philosophies say the same thing: everything is in process and the best we can do is to get a handle on what is in the midst of happening right now. With film, we watch ourselves being drawn into the process of the unfolding of a film-world, and then watch what that does to us, and then go with it if we want to, or resist or redirect it. And then we watch that unfolding in the world as others take up some of the elements that a film might provide.

HM: Object oriented ontologists often speak about the concept of withdrawal, of how the material of this world cannot be reduced to pure process, or pure relationality. There are objects – objects that withdraw from us. And here I’m thinking about our discussion of radical indifference and how it might relate to this notion of withdrawal.

AI: I think there is a relation there. I would say that withdrawal is nevertheless a process. Withdrawal makes perfect sense, unless you claim that every object withdraws somewhere to something which is its own essential self. And this is where I can’t go. I don’t follow Graham Harman with that idea, because where is that? He can’t tell us what it withdraws to, as opposed to what it withdraws away from. It withdraws from relations into other kinds of relations. But, to argue that everything withdraws to itself… That just begs the question of ‘What is that self?’ Process philosophy and Buddhism would both say, “Sure, tell us what that is, and we’ll show you how it isn’t.” We don’t have any experience of what, say, a giraffe, or a pencil, or the planet Pluto might withdraw to, but we do have experience of ourselves, and a radical empiricism of the self – such as Buddhist practice offers, and the best cognitivist studies support – convinces me that there is no place I withdraw to except for that openness that is not me, and not anyone else. It doesn’t belong to me; it’s just the gap from which action and decision can emerge. Here Buddhism and Whitehead and Deleuze and Heidegger and Zizek’s Lacanian-Hegelianism converge. It’s the Open, creative Emptiness. It’s beyond all relations, but only in that it’s the transcendence within the relational act, a purely immanent kind of transcendence. But it’s not mine, or yours, or anyone else’s. We can’t catch it because there’s nothing to catch.

HM: I’d like to re-approach the subject of catastrophe and film. On one end of the spectrum of cinematic catastrophe, we have films for which there is a Catastrophe and then nothing else. Once again Melancholia certainly fits here, as does Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011). On the other hand there are films which bring us to catastrophe and but then through it to a redemptive space wherein we are given a second chance (2012 [2009] and the re-colonization of Africa, or even Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice [1986] would fit here). Could you speak about the power of these two cinematic tropes – of catastrophic nothingness and of redemption – and how they map onto the deep uncertainties that underpin the contemporary environmental condition? But also, what do they say about desires for hope, second chances, and clean slates?

AI: This reminds me of Benjamin’s discussion of Klee’s ‘Angel of History’, who’s watching catastrophe pile up on catastrophe. But the fact is, the angel is watching it and that’s redemption right there. So, in between one catastrophe and the next, there’s some sort of process by which these catastrophes get redeemed by being witnessed as such.

HM: But Benjamin’s angel cannot face the future. This brings up an interesting aspect about the movie 2012. There’s a global catastrophe that inundates the world, but there’s a few thousand elite who have access to huge ships that allow for them to rise above the floods. They’re able, at that point, to face the future because of these ships, and also because Africa emerges from the floodwaters.

AI: I haven’t seen 2012, but this reminds me of Children of Men (2006). Some people like happy endings, and Hollywood certainly does, and some people don’t need them because they realize the film never ends and you generate redemption from even the worst catastrophe if it’s in your nature to want to do that. So, Children of Men has a somewhat pessimistic ending where they’re just floating in a boat in the fog, but even to the extent that we don’t see what happens next, there’s nevertheless always that next step.

HM: A ship named ‘Tomorrow’…

AI: Right. So, I think it’s sort of a viewer’s option to decide what they want to do, how they want a film to finish for them. That said, there are certain bleak films and there are films that try to be more optimistic, or at least tack on a happy ending. Blade Runner (1982) is a good example, where Deckard and Rachael flee to Northern California. This wasn’t Ridley Scott’s intent, but Hollywood wanted a happy ending. And, I don’t think it really added to the satisfaction of the film, because it felt tacked on and hokey. I think if you want to portray catastrophe in a film, then you’ve got to really go with that, and leave redemption for the viewer to figure out for themselves. That said, I prefer the kinds of films that wander in the muddle of a catastrophe that’s not quite shown, and that we aren’t even sure happened. Herzog, sometimes Tarr (though he can be pretty severe), and Tarkovsky in a film like Stalker (1979), which I prefer to The Sacrifice, all do that.

HM: This discussion also brings us to the ideas of refuge and escapism. It seems common, especially amongst sci-fi films, to frame the world of our making as fundamentally irredeemable – a dead or dying object brought to ruin by our own hubris and collective destructiveness. Given this, we must seek refuge in other natures capable of granting the life-support systems we have taken for granted on Earth. A common moralizing theme, however, is that though we might be able to transport our bodies to new natures, we must not bring our destructive tendencies in tow, at risk of recreating the conditions of ruin and exodus in the first place. Avatar (2009) is a prime example of this, and a movie you spend a fair amount of time analyzing. Could you offer up your perspectives on Avatar and the force/attraction of its not unproblematic moralizing tone?

AI: I think the general trope of going to another planet is just a trope. Audiences recognize such films for what they are, so not many people walk out of them with the conviction that we must find another planet. But some audiences have apparently walked out of Avatar feeling good about something that can be found on this planet, or feeling that their struggles – for instance, against mining companies in India or Peru or against Israeli occupation of the Occupied Territories — are mirrored by the Na’vi struggles against the kind of corporate Empire depicted in Avatar. With Avatar, I think it’s useful to distinguish the escapism – the VR fantasies about alternative embodiments and jacking into wild animals and finding neo-primitivist tribes to join, and so on – from the cultural critique. The film presents an obvious critique of militarism and patriarchy, if we choose to see it that way, so these would be the things for us to jettison if we were to genuinely inhabit a world like the one that the Na’vi inhabit on Pandora (which of course is Earth, or Gaia, reclaimed). Unfortunately, that cultural critique is not really thought through in the film; it turns into a good-guys versus bad-guys shoot-‘em-up flick.

In some of the sci-fi films from the 1970s, like Soylent Green (1973) or Silent Running (1972), or their best descendants, like Wall-E (2008), or a film like Blade Runner – these are devastating films in how they trace current trends to a kind of logical conclusion. Each of them is selective in the trends it takes up – overpopulation in the case of Soylent Green, corporate plutocracy in Blade Runner and Silent Running, and so on. If we were to find a way out – which Avatar poses as a possibility but the others don’t really – why wouldn’t we simply reproduce the same terrible conditions in our new place? That’s a good question. The films don’t really even start thinking about that, so that’s left to us to figure out. But if they at least raise the questions and present some images to work with in feeling and engaging those questions, then that’s a promising start.


Ivakhiv AJ (2001) Claiming Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and politics at Glastonbury and Sedona. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Ivakhiv AJ (2013) Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.


Cameron J (Dir.) 2009 Avatar (20th Century Fox)
Cooper MC and EB Schoedsack (Dirs.) 1933 King Kong (RKO Radio Pictures)
Cuarón A (Dir.) 2006 Children of Men (Universal Pictures)
Emmerich R (Dir.) 2009 2012 (Columbia Pictures)
Fleischer R (Dir.) 1973 Soylent Green (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Gore A, Guggenheim D (Dirs.) 2006 An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Classics)
Herzog W (Dir). 1971 Fata Morgana
Herzog W (Dir). 1977 La Soufrière
Herzog W (Dir). 1992 Lessons of Darkness (Hemispheric Pictures LLC)
Herzog W (Dir). 2005 The Wild Blue Yonder (518 Media)
Malick T (Dir.) 2011 The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Scott R (Dir.) 1982 Blade Runner (Warner Bros.)
Spielberg S (Dir.) 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Columbia Pictures)
Spielberg S (Dir.) 1982 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Universal Pictures)
Stanton A (Dir.) 2008 Wall-E (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Tarkovsky A (Dir.) 1979 Stalker (Mosfilm)
Tarkovsky A (Dir.) 1986 The Sacrifice (Sandrew)
Tarr B (Dir.) 2012 The Turin Horse (T. T. Filmműhely)
Trumbull D (Dir.) 1972 Silent Running (Universal Pictures)
Von Trier L (Dir.) 2011 Melancholia (Nordisk Film)