Ecological Sensitivity. Media Techno-Aesthetics of Environmental Crisis
The theme of environmental crisis has been present in the public debate for several decades, and forcefully resurfaced in 2015 when the 2030 Agenda containing the goals of sustainable development was launched, including the preservation of all forms of life, the struggle against global warming and the production of clean and renewable energy. In the same year, the publication of the papal encyclical Laudato si’ on “integral ecology” and the conclusion of the Paris agreements on climate change also prompted debate on this theme. Throughout the years, environmental issues have progressively permeated the realm of scientific research as well. This has been supported both by institutional funding (allocated, for example, by European Projects such as Horizon or Next Generation EU, etc.) and, more generally, by the awareness of their cultural relevance and social impact.
The original perspective of “media ecology”, which proposed to conceive and study media as living environments (Postman 1979) now takes on a more literal value in virtue of the progressive mediatisation of social dynamics. The media are no more simply an element of the anthropic system, but they become structures so ingrained in the processes and practices of everyday life that they can be considered as environmental intra-structures (Barad 2019). In this sense, the relationship between human societies and environments is decisively and constitutively modulated by media technologies and can only be investigated through a systemic approach. In view of this intertwining of media technologies, collective subjectivities, living ecosystems and the current epoch of ecological crisis – often referred to as the “Anthropocene” – must be conceived and interrogated through the mediating regimes that plot them and their technical and political assumptions (Guattari 1989), as well as through their “geological” ones (Parikka 2015).
Since the 1990s, the focus of media studies on environmental issues has gone through several phases, nurtured by the ecocritical approach. This point of view originated from literature, but has also been applied to cinema studies (Rust, Monani & Cubitt 2012) and media studies (Cubitt 2005; Rust, Monani & Cubitt 2015) and falls into the intersection of environmental studies and posthumanism. Ecomedia studies have focused either on the thematic representation of environmental issues (in order to raise awareness), or on the environmental impact of media production (in order to make it more sustainable). To widen this prospective, we propose to reflect not exclusively on the ways in which media present the issue of environmental ecology, but rather on the various ways in which environmental ecology is rooted in technological mediation (and thus in social mediatisation). This will imply collective updates of paradigms of perception, of attention (Citton 2014) and of forms of knowledge. In particular, we intend to investigate the conditions of sensitivity implicated in the society-technology-environment nexus, strained by the questions posed by the contemporary ecological issues.
The topic of technical sensitivity (as production and becoming “sensitisation”) and more generally of the medial constitution of living environments in the Anthropocene, overlaps and crosses a variety of fields and disciplines: from aesthetics to biology, from anthropology to neurology. In the field of aesthetics, the human specificity of the extension of sensitivity through inorganic artefacts has been claimed as a constitutive element of imagination and creativity (Montani 2007; 2014). Other perspectives, bound to the philosophy of technology, aim to overcome the anthropocentrism and underline that human action takes place in a network inhabited also by “non-human actors” (Latour 2005). Indeed, the media constitute aesthetic environments or “associated environments” (Simondon 1964) in which sensitivity, technology and nature interpenetrate each other. In the field of cognitive sciences too, the “embodied” turn has given rise to an “enactive” perspective, which emphasises precisely how cognition emerges from the sensorimotor interaction between agent and environment (Maturana & Varela 1980; Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991). When applied to media studies, this paradigm gives technologies a central role in contemporary social ecosystems. Their evolution responds to the incessant reconfigurations of the relationship between human being and the biological, psychological, social and cultural environment, with feedback effects whereby human becoming is constitutively determined by the influence of technological apparatuses (McLuhan 1964).
Despite the diversity of conceptual genealogies and theoretical fields of reference, these contributions – among the many possible – converge in opting for an ecological conception of experience and offer a useful basis for a reflection on the relationship between media ecology and environmental ecology. Interesting problematisations have appeared on this specific front, such as the concept of “hyperobject” (Morton 2018) developed within the framework of a post-anthropocentric object-oriented ontology (Harman 2018). Since these are entities of such extensive and complex spatial or temporal dimensions that they cannot be perceived directly, hyperobjects – such as global warming or a pandemic – are entities so proximate and pervasive that they tend to be invisible and unnoticeable. It is precisely the elusive perceptibility of such phenomena that complicates (and even makes inconvenient) any attempt to fully understanding them and reacting directly. Sometimes this gives rise to negationism or even to conspiracy theories (Wu Ming 1 2021). What we are not aware of – or what we repress through denial – cannot immediately frighten us (at least until it appears threateningly over our heads, like the comet in Adam McKay’s recent film Don’t Look Up...). At the same time, a vast and sophisticated range of technical systems of detection, calculation and representation fabricate daily scientific and media perceptions of such stealthy, diffuse and potentially dangerous environmental realities. It is at this level – that of sensors, computers, data processing and rendering (Gabrys 2016) – that the sensory delegation and replacement of human perception by technological media takes place, in a deployment of totally non-human capture and projection equipment oriented towards equally more-than-human environmental processes (Bratton 2019). The result of these processes is a modelling and a data design that algorithmically elaborates and translates the insensitive into a variety of informational outputs. These aim, with the best of intentions – but often without real efficacy – at restoring sensitivity in order to raise public awareness.
How do media provoke, solicit and modulate sensitivity to environmental issues? Does their action risk producing ineffective or counterproductive proposals (desensitisation and loss of agency, for instance)? For example, the enhancement of the sense of presence perceived using virtual reality as a form of sensitization through an immersive and direct experience, may help to achieve a greater awareness of environmental issues. This gain, however, does not automatically lead to individual or social actions that actually succeed in combating climate change. To what extent do visual forms of modelling and communication of environmental information act on the perception of ecological problems? Are they able to promote an affective condition capable of avoiding the threat of “collapse” (Citton & Rasmi 2020) by transforming behaviours harmful for the planet?
This issue of Elephant & Castle. Laboratorio dell'immaginario invites scholars to propose original contributions that focus on the problematic tensions between immediacy and reflexivity, between empathy and rationality, between human and technical agency that arise in the broad field of contemporary visual culture with respect to environmental ecology. We invite to do this with particular reference to the questions and forms by which the media modulate the relationship between living organisms and the environment.
Below is a (non exhaustive) list of topics that may be addressed:
- Analysis of social and natural environments innervated and modulated by media (or techniques of perception and representation)
- Artistic operations that question and graft onto the technical environments we inhabit and onto their relation to ecological issues
- Contradictory desensitisation effects produced by media exposure of environmental issues
- Ecological affects and awareness provoked or inhibited by aesthetic mediations
- Relationships between media ecosystems and ecological denialism/conspiracy
- Representation and modelling of immediately imperceptible environmental phenomena (or “hyperobjects”) between design, art and hard sciences
- Articulation and interaction between media environments and other environments (social, technical, natural...) in the light of the ecological crisis
- Anthropologies of technology and mediated sensitivity in an ecological key
- Ecological and political regimes of social awareness
- Creative and scientific strategies of mapping and schematising environmental and hyper-objectual phenomena
- Exploration and critique of the environmental becoming of media devices
- Science fiction imaginaries of ecological techno-aesthetics
Proposals are to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com by March 20, 2022 at the latest, and must contain an abstract of the contribution (max. 5 000 characters, spaces included), a provisional title, five keywords, a reference bibliography, and a short biographical note of the author (max. 700 characters).
The communication of the selected proposals will take place by the end of April 8, 2022. The submitted article may be in Italian, English, or French, and must contain a maximum of 30,000-40,000 characters, including notes and spaces. The contributions, accompanied by images and conforming to the editorial standards of the journal, are expected by August 31, 2022. Each article will be submitted to a double-blind peer review and the publication of the issue is planned for December 2022.
Barad Karen (2019), Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham, Duke University Press.
Bratton Benjamin (2019), Terraformation 2019, Mosca, Strelka.
Citton Yves (2014), Pour une écologie de l’attention, Paris, Seuil.
Citton Yves & Jacopo Rasmi (2020), Générations Collapsonautes. Naviguer par temps d’effondrements, Paris, Seuil.
Cubitt Sean (2005), Eco Media, Amsterdam-New York, Rodopi.
Gabrys Jennifer (2016), Program Earth. Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet, Minneapolis, Minnesota University Press.
Guattari Felix (1989), Les trois écologies, Paris, Galilée.
Harman Graham (2018), Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything, London, Penguin Books Limited.
Latour Bruno (2005), Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Maturana Humberto & Francisco J. Varela (1980), Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Dordrecht-Boston-London, D. Reidel.
McLuhan Marshall (1964), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, New York, McGraw-Hill.
Montani Pietro (2007), Bioestetica. Senso comune, tecnica e arte nell’età della globalizzazione, Roma, Carocci.
Montani Pietro (2014), Tecnologie della sensibilità. Estetica e immaginazione interattiva, Milano, Raffaello Cortina.
Morton Timoty (2018), Hyperobjets. Philosophie et écologie après la fin du monde, Saint Étienne, Cité du design.
Parikka Jussi (2015), A Geology of Media, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Postman Neil (1979), Teaching as a Conservative Activity, New York, Delacorte Press.
Rust Stephen, Salma Monani & Sean Cubitt (eds.) (2012), Ecocinema Theory and Practice, London, Routledge.
Rust Stephen, Salma Monani & Sean Cubitt (eds.) (2015), Ecomedia: Key Issues, London, Routledge.
Simondon Gilbert (1964), L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.
Varela Francisco J., Evan Thompson & Eleanor Rosch (1991), The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, Cambridge (MA), The MIT Press.
Wu Ming 1 (2021), La Q di Qomplotto. Come le fantasie di complotto difendono il sistema, Roma, Alegre.