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Media Ecology and Ecomedia

2010 October 7
by Shared by Steve Rust

I’m preparing my abstract for ASLE and wondered if anyone has reading suggestions. As media ecocriticism has developed it has not yet directly confronted its relationship with the field of media ecology – which was developed by Marshal McLuhan, Neal Postman, and Walter Ong and dedicated to the study of the ‘ecological’ relationships between different types of media. The field started by borrowing metaphors of ecology to describe the material relationships between various media (for example the evolution of film into television, or the rhizomatic nature of the internet).

One of the leading figures today in media ecology, Robert Logan, has recently argued that “media are emergent phenomena and may be regarded in a certain sense like organisms that interact with each other like living biotic agents in an ecological system.” Logan argues this in a recent essay he calls “The Biological Foundation of Media Ecology.” Logan is making one of his field’s first attempts to move past a metaphoric use of ecology toward a ‘biologically’ based theory. My hesitation with this kind of ‘media ecology’ argument is that in tends to mask the material,ecological aspects of media production and consumption and the representation of environmental ideologies and actions. Essentially I want to argue that media ecology should join the bigger tent of ecomedia (aka environmental media) criticism if we really want to engage the full breadth of media ‘ecology’.

So my question is: are there key readings in literary ecotheory that might help me approach Logan’s basic claim (pro or con) that we should study media (or literary texts for that matter) as ‘organisms’?

Logan’s approach is rooted in the “medium is the message” mentality that eschews content based approaches. His work connects to literary criticism because it is based off the work of a guy named Christiansen, who has argued: “Language exists only because humans can learn, produce, and process, them. Without humans there would be no language. It therefore makes sense to construe languages as organisms that have had to adapt themselves through natural selection to fit a particular ecological niche: the human brain.”

I realize I’m opening a giant can on worms here but if you have any suggested starting places in terms of two or three key works in ecocritical theory that would help me get at this issue further I’d really appreciate it.

This ASLE paper will form the last section of my third chapter on animated animals so my frame for getting into this is through Haraway’s breakdown of the machine/animal dichotomy in her “Cyborg Manifesto” which I’m tying to a reading of of “rubbish” and the digital in Wall-E and Slumdog Millionaire – suggesting that a reading of the ‘content’ in the films can inspire shifts in perception about media and ecology that “media ecology” overlooks. I should have this chapter drafted by the end of the month.

I hate that we’ve approached a built in ‘rhetorical’ problem to contend with, but ‘media ecology’ is already an established field with their own journal.


One Response leave one →
  1. srust permalink*
    October 8, 2010

    Here’s one helpful comment I received via email:

    That is indeed a can of worms. First there’s the huge question of whether human cultural productions can be seen in biological terms. Richard Dawkins, as you may remember, argued that they can, that culture has “memes” that parallel genes. You can imagine the argument. Not finding that very interesting myself, I’ve never closely examined Dawkin’s work on the subject.

    On the other hand, I have just been writing about how Merleau-Ponty saw “protocultures” in the behaviors of other organisms ( Nature ), and you could extrapolate a theory from that about ecological relationships among human cultural elements, e.g. media.

    But the really central place these ideas are being discussed is in biosemiotics. It’s a relatively new but big and complicated field. I recommend Jesper Hoffmeyer’s Signs of Meaning in the Universe and “Some Semiotic Aspects of the Psycho-Physical Relation: The Endo-
    Semiotic Boundary,” in Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web 1991. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1992. Pp. 101-123 And maybe Greenspan and Shanker’s The First Idea (Cambridge 2004). The latter offers an evolutionary account of the development of culture. And Kull, Kalevi. “Semiotic Ecology: Different Natures in the Semiosphere.” Sign Systems Studies 26: 344-371. These give you at least a place to start, and their bibliographies can lead you onward.

    Your position seems right to me. If people want to make biological arguments or tie culture to biology, then they’d better know their biology and ecology. Dana Phillips is strong on this ( The Truth of Ecology ), and correct. Glen Love makes similar points ( Practical Ecocriticism ), though in a more general way. The material world must be seen as the ground of everything, and conditions of production are critical, as are sociopolitical conditions. Do people think politics is disembodied? Media are not virtual, as you are well aware, though it sounds as though media ecology thinks it all happens in some Platonic realm that just happens to parallel the biological one. Or maybe they think it’s just a convenient trope.

    Hope this is a little help. You’ve got a big challenge but a worthy one.

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