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Notes on ASLE 2011

2011 June 28
by smonani

ASLE was a busy conference at which woefully due to other duties such as chairing and responding, I was unable to attend many of the ecomedia panels. While I outline my reflections on some of the panels that I attended, Jennifer Ladino has also promised to share her conference thoughts. And I hope Andrew Hageman will provide comments on his Skype experience.

Despite losing some participants at the last minute as well as our co-leader Sid Dobrin, the preconference seminar focused on ecocinema studies proved productive and stimulating. Five major themes occupied its participants, and discussion ranged from tackling definitions such as “what is ecocinema?” and “what is its methodology?” to “realism and documentary modes” and questions such as “how can we approach cinema’s affective capacities?” and “how does one begin to utilize its ecopedagogical potentials?” While I’ve be briefly summarizing our discussion on the first two topics on the seminar’s blog, Alexa von Weik, who was a participant at our workshop, will be leading a workshop at Munich’s Rachel Carson Center for the Environment dedicated primarily to the notion of ecocinematic affect. All in all, the seminar was energizing, reminding us all of the evolving and exciting directions in which ecocinema studies is headed.
I also attended an 8:30 am session chaired by David Ingram and titled Being Animal: Ecocriticism and Film, which I found especially engaging given its two papers on Being Caribou, a film I have analyzed in a paper forthcoming in ISLE. Both papers on Being Caribou seemed to complement to my own, which examines the film’s text primarily through the lens of just sustainability. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s paper was an examination of Heuer’s book Being Caribou, which documents the same journey, and Shirley Roburn’s paper involved a reception studies approach to the film. Fitzpatrick’s interest in understanding ecological space framed an argument that Heuer’s maps serve as ways of blurring boundaries of nation as well as those between wild and human. Fitzpatrick employed Deleuze and Gauttari’s notions of stratified and smooth space as a nice theoretical grounding for this analysis. Roburn, who had worked with an environmental NGO in the Yukon at the time of Heuer and Allison’s trip, demonstrates in her paper a clearly logical next step for eco-film critics. That is, the need for more attention to reception studies. Her work is informed by scholars interested in literary reception studies (e.g., Janice Radway) as well as those in film studies (e.g., Constance Balides).
Presenting in the same panel, Chip Oscarson from Brigham Young University further developed a topic he had begun to explore at the 2009 ASLE preconference Ecological Media seminar. His discussion of two avant-garde documentaries by Swedish director, Martin Kristersson, The Kestrel’s Eye (1998) and Light Years (2008) provided a persuasive argument for cinema as attempting biocentrism in its focus on how the films shy away from musical soundtracks and narrative voiceovers in favor of diagetic sound and specific POV angles.
I was also invited to chair a panel titled New Images of the Planetary Environment, which focused not on cinema but on other types of media. Sibylle Machat’s work examines news articles, op-eds, cartoons and other print news media coverage from 1970 to examine the way the Apollo 13 accident is evoked in Earth Day rhetoric. Pat Hackbarth employs GIS to help visualize ecological changes in the literary landscapes described by famous authors such as Mark Twain, Isak Denison, and M. Scott Momaday. This creative work can be found at her website Scene Changes: The Unmaking of Place, and in my own mind raised thoughts on the capacity of digital media to represent scientifically grounded narratives of risk as her focus is on visually highlighting the physical, quantitatively measurable changes in landscapes from the time of an author’s writings to more recently. Hackbarth highlights the capacity of humans to play a role in ecological damage and sees her work as an activist tool both for caution and hope. Mary Wilkins-Jordan, a librarian at Simmons College, discussed Earthcaching as a productive way to employ digital technology in learning about nature. Each of these talks fueled thoughtful questions from the audience. For example, Sarah Wald asked about whether Machat had considered a gendered/feminist critique of space rhetoric, especially when such rhetoric evokes the notion of “Mother Earth;” Lewis Ulman inquired about Hackbarth extending her visualization from iconic literary landscapes to others that might not be as iconic but along with these landscapes can demonstrate expanded scales of ecological change; and Nina Leone was curious to know if Wilkins-Jordan had examples of Earthcaching that suggested more nuanced understandings of nature, i.e., not primarily as geologically or aesthetically unique sites for recreation but perhaps as sites of environmental justice struggle. In each case, the questions pressed on the critic’s role in engaging with the alluring aspects of “new” technologies, and rounded out the session well.
While these sessions were clearly ecomedia oriented, others I attended also engaged the concerns of ecomedia scholars. For example, I attended two panels classified in the “Ecocriticism and Theory” stream, Anthologizing Ecocriticism and Theorizing Ecocriticism: Promises and Hopes. While neither takes as its explicit foci ecomedia both highlight that literary ecocritics see visuals and non-print media as part and parcel of the texts they study and interact with. For example, in the Anthologizing Ecocriticism panel, Katrina Dodson shared her introduction to the special issue of Qui Parle (19.2, 2011), “At the Intersections of Ecocriticism.” This anthology houses Alenda Chang’s “Games as Environmental Texts,” which explores video games. Its other essays also reference ecomedia (e.g., Stephanie LeMenager’s “Petro-Melacholia: The BP Blowout and the Arts of Grief”). Cheryl Glofelty’s comment that she located 104 anthologies with ecocriticism in their title reminded me that Paula Willoquet-Marcondi’s Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film (2010) is perhaps the first anthology to overtly bring film and ecocriticism together.
Theorizing Ecocriticism: Promises and Hopes demonstrated ecomedia’s role in more overtly stylistic ways. In particular, I was struck by the use of animated images that all the speakers used to communicate their thoughts on their Powerpoints. For example, the persistent ripple movements Opperman’s frame, or the flipping pages in Estok’s background seemed strategically placed to reiterate the way new theories of ecocriticism reframe inanimate objects as animated subjects with material agency. Here the emphasis on stylistic choice served to reinforce my sense of how all the papers, (but especially Serenella Iovino’s “Material Ecocriticism”) are clearly discussing theories of keen interest to ecomedia scholars’ engagement with ecomedia’s materialities.
Finally, a note to recognize the ecomedia content of the plenaries: Una Chaudhari’s analysis of Marina Zarkuw’s Mesocosm and Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo as texts that can be analyzed at the intersections of performance studies and animal studies provides exciting understandings of such media’s ecocritical potentials, and Subhankar Banerjee’s photographs and web presence (at demonstrate the continued deployment of ecomedia in activist endeavors.
In all, I found ASLE’s sessions and plenaries embracing ecomedia in ways that will continue to fuel not only its study but also the relevance of sites such as this one and all those listed in our blogroll. Ecocritical attention to how visual and non-print media help and hinder the ways in which humans interface with the more-than-human world is vibrant and alive.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. June 28, 2011

    Salma – Thanks for this write-up, which is useful for those of us who weren’t able to attend this year. I spent part of that weekend at the AESS conference, but there isn’t much to report from there that would interest ecomedia studies folks very much. The keynote, Heidi Cullen, was a high point, and I would recommend her group web site Climate Central – – for basic info on that topic.

    A panel I chaired on the role of the humanities in environmental studies/sciences was not particularly well attended (the scheduling wasn’t very good for it) but it resulted in a very productive discussion of the issues faced by those who work in the humanities or are trying to bring in more humanities substance/context into interdisciplinary ES(S) settings: issues of translation (translating across the ‘two’ or three ‘cultures’ divides, and between activist communities and academe, etc.); of institutional location (of ESS, of interdisciplinarity – in rhetoric and in actual practice – and of the humanities); and more general issues concerning academe in the 2010s.

    There were several sessions on or incorporating the arts (visual art, film/video, sound/music, etc.), and a few related to media (mostly on coverage of particular issues). But my impression was that AESS still has some way to go before the level of discourse on these topics comes to be the kind that media and cultural scholars are comfortable with. That may happen over time, and is a direction that those of us at the humanities panel are hoping to promote, but it’s unfortunately not there yet.

  2. Steve Rust permalink*
    June 29, 2011

    Having spent the weekend moving out of student housing and preparing for my dissertation defense I really appreciate hearing about the conferences.

    It sounds like ecomedia took a big step forward at ASLE this year thanks to all the hard work. I know Pat Brereton is headed to the Munich conference and will nudge him to comment on what sounds like another promising meeting.

  3. July 22, 2011

    Salma, and others interested – I’ve posted some notes from the “Moving Environments: Affect, Emotion, and Ecocinema” workshop at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, here:

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