Please note: a revised and extended new version of this article will be published in the EarthLines March 2014 magazine .
“Nature photographs have become something of a problem’, Joy Williams, quoted by Bart Welling in Ecoporn: on the limits of visualising the nonhuman, 2009.
“The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in spectacle but high in long term effects…In an age of degraded attention spans it becomes doubly difficult yet increasingly urgent that we focus on the toll exacted, over time, by the slow violence of ecological degradation…” Rob Nixon, Rachel Carson Professor, 2011, p.10-13. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor
In my work in proposing and characterising the ecocidal, anthropocentric (human-centered) gaze in cinema, I have long been interested as a cultural practitioner myself, in how visual representations of the natural world may in fact obscure and most worryingly, perpetuate the violence inflicted upon it. In recent ecocritical analysis of visual imagery and academic texts I have come across ideas like “ecopornography” and the “slow violence” of environmental destruction. These new ideas would appear to be important and bring much-needed attention to the politics inherent in the representations we create about the physical and living communities that surround us. In particular I am interested that how in our heavily mediated lives where we have so much access to nature imagery, that ecological destruction has in fact vastly accelerated in recent decades, where many planetary boundaries, the ‘safe operating limits’ for life on earth are now being clearly exceeded.
In thinking about how cultural works may be working in this regard, I went back to a key text in Visual Culture, John Berger‘s acclaimed 1972 book Ways of Seeing. Added to this I also remembered that considerable work has been undertaken in ecofeminism since the 1970s that has shown the strong parallels in how women and nature are similarly exploited and how such ideas are reflected in, and perpetuated by, cultural works. In Ways of Seeing, Berger
successfully unpacks the politics and power inherent in visual culture that supports dominant ideologies of violence and exploitation. In European art to present day photography, Berger drew attention to the fact that women were often portrayed in cultural works as “the surveyed”, as property; that there is a clear power relationship in how women are represented and how men treat (exploit) women (this perspective was later developed further in feminist theory as the “male gaze”). Berger writes that such works are significantly about possession. Berger concentrates on images of women and non-European peoples depicted in paintings and in contemporary photographic media and only briefly examines nature images but he does mention that the first landscapes that appeared in the Netherlands in the 17th century. These he suggests show “nature-as-a whole” and he comments that most of these early painted land-water-sky-scapes generally did not convey ideas of land ownership and possession. Yet by the mid-18th century he notes that possession and displays of land ownership are growing themes evident in English painters work’s. He describes how in Gainsborough’s painting of Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750), the wealthy and powerful husband and wife, have themselves depicted proudly in front of the large estate they own. Such images painted over the realities of most of the inhabitants on these same estates – local peoples caught hunting for food were sentenced for deportation.
Depictions of land increasingly reflect the status and power of their owners and this type of imagery develops further in later centuries with the rise and power of the dominant Western industrial societies as they colonised new lands. This is particularly apparent in the celebrated 19th century landscape paintings of the new American continent. American art historian Professor Albert Biome in his 1991 book The Magisterial Gaze convincingly shows that early to mid-19th century American landscape paintings are not solely works about a sublime and transcendent ‘virgin’ nature, but clearly articulated and helped perpetuate exploitation of the new continent.
Such cultural works, though accurate in depicting the beauty of these new lands, presented a sanitised view of the colonisers westward march — as what is missing from such paintings are the indigenous peoples, much of the wildlife and the violence of their eradication and extermination. Also common to such works are the elevated god-like perspective created for the viewer.
In compelling visual terms such works replicate and reinforces the God-given “manifest destiny” of the invading Europeans with their Christian inspired ideological narrative of human “progress”, to multiply in, civilize and “develop, this “empty” new land (Christianity itself evolved these perspectives from the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations). Ideas from the Enlightenment too, with its emphasis on humanism and the negation of sentience in other living beings, the cornerstone ideas that are even more entrenched in our current scientific and technological age, helped to further separate humanity from recognising any ethical necessity in relating to these new environments and their living communities. Berger in a later text, About Looking, writes that ‘the 19th century, in western Europe and North America, saw the beginning of a process, today being completed by 20th century corporate capitalism, by which every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken. Before this rupture, animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. Perhaps that already suggests too great a distance. They were with man at the centre of his world (Berger, 1980, p. 3).
In newer visual media of photography and cinema, these legacies of limiting ideologies and perspectives are dominant in many cultural works that represent the natural world. Now when humans have altered over 40 per cent of the Earth and exponential rates of degradation are accelerating, particularly in the decades since WWII, it appears that we are often consume or create artworks that do not match the earth’s present reality and its degradation. For example, one might argue this occurs even in the celebrated visual imagery of pristine, unpeopled wilderness scenes, as created by photographer Ansel Adams.
While aesthetically arresting nature images in this style may seem a very necessary cultural tool of the environmental movement, providing a sense of the value of untainted wild lands, many similar images when critically examined show that they simultaneously mask and abstract the violence of eradication of peoples and species by keeping unpleasant eco-social realities “out of the frame”.
Additionally, depictions of beautiful, yet empty, apparently untouched landscapes often reinforce misguided ideas of conservation management/national park schemes, that often very effectively divorce humans entirely from their supporting natural environments. If we examine the context of the lands in Adam’s photographs we find they were previously managed sustainably for millenia by natives people for instance. Additionally Berger reminds us when he cites Susan Sontag’s view ‘that a capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetise the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit the natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivise reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology (Berger, 1980, p.59). The philosopher John Gray of the London School of Economics agrees, industrial society has moved from economies of industrialied production to economies of mass visual culture that has as its aims to ‘entertain and distract populations’ (Gray, 2002, p.160).
Thinking about this increasing alienation from the natural world, ‘ecopornography’, is a concept that has been re-visited in recent ecocritical analysis of visual imagery and would appear to be both useful and bring much needed attention to the politics of contemporary nature representations.
Welling who has written in detail about “Ecoporn” (2009), would argue that conventions of nature visual culture are often pornographic as they are seductive and distracting, and grossly mask our ecocidal behaviour to the material and more-than-human world.
Welling argues that ecopornography is not simply, “just like porn but is pornographic for three reasons”; firstly it “traffics” in visual culture the same “land-as-woman tropes” that have done much “to authorize the genocidal oppression of native peoples and the colonization of their lands by European settlers and the eradication of nonhuman animals, plants etc”. Welling cites Mitman’s account of wildlife films of Africa in the 1960s that depicted an untouched paradise as paving the way for displacement of indigenous peoples for the sole benefit of wealthy overseas tourists (many images of exotic locations for tourism work on similar premises where the eco-social realities are kept well out of the frame). Secondly ecoporn places the viewer in the role of the “male surveyor”…and so “denies agency to nonhuman life forms”. Thirdly ecoporn in recent years has become more disturbing in its portrayal of explicit sexuality and violent death in TV “animal snuff documentaries” that are often branded as “educational” and acceptable for general audiences
Many of us could agree with Weller that many images of nature (‘nature’ here defined simply if erroneously as anything that is non-human; that is part of the human’s environment) are pornographic: such works do seduce, objectify and commodify their subjects, they alternate in assisting in the denial and amnesia of ecocide and display our deepest fantasies of unsullied environments that point to our future exploitative desires. When I have mentioned the term ‘ecopornography’, the response is quick, perhaps as growing awareness of the extent of biosphere degradation is increasingly visible now and so at odds with many of the nature images that surround us. Writer, radical ecophilospher, Derrick Jensen has written at length in many books on our industrial society’s ‘culture of make believe’ that denies and silences ecocide. In his writing about pornography he reminds us that pornography abstracts and denies ‘not only relationality but memory and imagination’ (Jensen, 2006, p.211). He describes, that
‘through training and habit, objectification insinuates itself into what might have otherwise been relationships, and into those encounters that we call relationships… having inured ourselves to the routine objectification of those around us, having long lost touch with the particular (any particular), when we encounter another, be it tree, woman, black man, or anything else under the sun, we too easily lose sight of that other, too easily lose hold on the slender slip of possibility of actual encounter instead little save our preconceptions, our projections already formed in a culture based on domination’ (Jensen, 2006, p.223).
Such thoughts equally apply to the workings of ecopornography and the ecocide it hides, how it obscures the relationality towards other species and many indigenous cultures, how it ultimately perpetuates our industrial culture’s great ecological forgetting. I like Jensen’s reminder too, that to ‘objectify another is to only partially exist’, to me this means that we lose something of our humanity when we ignore relations with earth’s fellow inhabitants.
However there are also strong contrasting views about not using and attaching the word ‘pornography’ to cultural works. In detailed work reviewing perspectives from leading war and natural disaster photojournalists, photographer and media theorist, David Campbell notes real difficulties when work is too quickly and easily labelled as ‘disaster porn’ or ‘war porn’. He strongly argues that the term and concept of ‘pornography’ shuts down legitimate and important in-depth discourse of larger socio-political issues that photographers are trying to raise. It seems to be a very complex area and worthy of more consideration. However, in some ways as there is so little attention in mainstream media and educational institutions in regards to cultural works of the natural world and ecocide, there maybe some merit in the considered use of the term ecopornography in this instance.
In thinking about cinematic material, media and public relations analyst Jerry Mander was an early critic several decades ago about how TV flattens and narrows our perception of the physical world. He argues that qualities of TV (this could apply to all audiovisual works) also cut and disorient our perceptions while affecting almost total passivity in its audiences. He noted too that subtle long-time changes of the natural world are not well suited to such media, that eco-social-political realities are often left out of the frame of TV and nature documentaries. These ideas are much expanded upon in Rob Nixon’s new book on Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011). Drawing on the work of Rachel Carson, Edward Said and Ramachandra Guha, Nixon argues that we need to account for a different type of violence, the ‘slow violence’ of man-made ecocide and that we also ‘need to engage the representational, narrative, and strategic challenges posed by the relative invisibility of slow violence’. ‘Slow violence, Nixon identifies as temporal and spatial forms of ecological violence, often disproportionately affecting the global, invisible poor and their environments and it is ultimately ‘under-represented in strategic planning as well as in human memory’. He reveals that slow violence is not a singular spectacular event that our mass media of today relishes to retain its over-saturated audiences, but attritional, often exponential, proliferating long-term conflicts and ongoing ecological degradation (Nixon, p. 2-3). Nixon also points out the enormous challenge too in our ‘turbo-speed’ mediated lives where ‘partial attention’ is the norm, where partial attention, generally just on our own species activities, has almost completely eclipsed the earth and the necessity of having healthy ecosystems. An important and detailed book combining perspectives outside of western discourse, Nixon gives much account detailing slow violence and then concentrates on examples of writer-activists who are attempting to engage in new cultural works to respond to these concerns. Interestingly, and he doesn’t expand on this, he does note the primacy of the visual perception in environmental discourse and asks ‘how do we both make slow violence visible yet also challenge the privileging of the visible? (p.14-15).
From my own questions and observation of how visual art practices may respond to such challenges, I see committed engagement from practitioners on the edges of contemporary cultural practice, which has built on the early work of land artists. Early Land Artists in the late 1960s took their practices and work outside of galleries, and engaged with their physical environments across a variety of visual, sculptural and textual media, concentrating on process and projects rather than singular works, often over extended time periods. While many Land Artists, Robert Smithson for example has a significant legacy in this respect, have been described as having their focus both on challenging the primacy of art institutions to present and acknowledge what constitutes art and to investigate the unexplored formal potentials of natural materials, recent theory suggests that such artists have long also being displaying a developing ethics to the Earth, as detailed in Amanda Boetzkes The Ethics of Earth Art (2010). I was fortunate recently to observe recent developments in this still but growing field at the international The Home and the World summit in the UK held in June 2012 (I have previously surveyed the many online networks that make visible the activities in this area here). To me what is quietly striking about these small but growing number of artists working now, engaging with these almost inconceivably gloomy eco-social realities, realities that still remain for the large part outside of mainstream art education and international art events, is an inherent desire to counter our ever consuming, culture-on-speed. There is a persistence by many of these arts practitioners to create long-term, deep engagements with specific places and their nonhuman and human communities. These are slow art practices, sensitive and personal, with differing mixes of the social, ecological and or political, providing layers of multifaceted cultural perspectives and responses.
Many of the writers I have mentioned previously, from Berger, to Jensen and Nixon (and there are growing numbers of others, see in particular the work of Val Plumwood and others in the field of ecofeminism and environmental literary theory), talk of the ultimate necessity of urgently and deeply engaging with our place, our land-bases, if all living communities, are to thrive and survive. Berger on the topic of visual culture and photography in particular, has written some decades ago how photographic images have ‘died’, as they have long being ‘torn from their contexts’ by the consumerism and speed of the mass media. Yet he was hopeful that photography could regain an important societal function. While he was talking about the efficacy of photography in reflecting on war, his words could be applied to thinking about cultural works that seek to incorporate responses to ecological concerns too – he writes, ‘a radial system has to be constructed around the photograph (read now as any cultural form), so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic (Berger, 1980, p.67).
Yet even with clearer, broader looking, one must reflect too that it is impossible that any cultural works can reverse the momentum of the ecocidal juggernaut that industrial civilization has unleashed. Even though still not readily acknowledged in mainstream media, the disturbing number of exceeded global earth indices already overwhelm any piecemeal political or economic developments that may attempt to reverse the situation. However if we can find a quiet space at the edge of the shallow rapids of our saturated mediated lives and go deeper, we may find lodged against the flow, small signs of creative perspectives and practices that may serve us and our ecological kin well. Slow art practices comprising of durational, diverse and multifaceted forms that run counter to our destructively limited narratives of unremitting growth and our species blind self interest. Perspectives and practices that can give sound, sights, textures, perhaps even smells of the earth and attend carefully to all the complex eco-social, political and historical aspects of the human and non-human communities that place entails. Work that can seem new but which draws on ancient wisdom that always foregrounded respectful relationality between all species needs: it is what must lie at the heart of our stories of sustainability.
Note: publications and filmed events from the 2012 The Home and The World international summit will be available on their site in coming months. I have previously surveyed the many online networks that make visible similar activities in this area in an article ‘networking the arts to save the earth’ here.
Berger, John, 1972. Ways of Seeing. BBC and Penguin Books Ltd, London.
Berger, John. 1980. About Looking. Vintage International. Random House Inc. New York.
Biome, Albert. 1991. The Magisterial Gaze. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London.
Campbell, David. 2011. The problem with regarding the photography of suffering as ‘pornography’. http://www.david-campbell.org/2011/01/21/problem-with-regarding-photography-of-suffering-as-pornography/, accessed June 4, 2012.
Gray, John 2002. Straw Dogs; thoughts on humans and other animals. Granta Books, London.
Jensen, Derrick. 2002. Culture of Make Believe. Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont.
Mander, Jerry. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978), William Morrow Paperbacks.
Welling, Bart., H. 2009. Ecoporn in Ecosee – image, rhetoric, nature. eds. Dobrin and Morey. SUNY.