Earth, World, and Cinematic Thinking / Architectures of Imagination
06./07.07.2021 | Digital workshop by the Cinepoetics group with Jennifer Fay, Eric Ritter, Marshall Brown, and Steffen Hven.
Research Focus: Fictional Worlds
An introductory statement to the workshop by Matthias Grotkopp outlined Cinepoetics' ongoing research on the topic of (fictional) world-making. Drawing on scholarly discussions from last year's digital summer term and this semester's Cinepoetics lecture series, he conceived of fictional worlds as relational. Since world-making is never a discrete act of poiesis, every world is made up of other worlds. Rather than closed-off containers, they may thus be thought of as horizons or different versions. With regard to the group's work on Hannah Arendt, thinking may be understood as moving between these worlds. Thinking-as-movement becomes a necessary poietic tool to overcome the split fictional worlds create in us – as process of communication between the experience of our world in accordance with the experience of numerous other worlds.
In the first presentation, "Earth, World, and the Anthropocene," Eric Ritter explored the connections between Hannah Arendt's concepts of Earth and World, the interplanetary mission to Mars, and the notion of the Anthropocene. In her book The Human Condition, Arendt presents three conditions for the vita activa: work, labor, and action. The earthbound situatedness of human beings in turn conditions the possibility of these spheres: For Arendt, thinking has its source in human sensory experience, making Earth a precondition for worlds. It is, as Ritter concluded, the quintessence of human existence.
However, in the modern world, the three essential conditions have collapsed into a single activity that is aimed at production. With this commodification of life, experience ceases to exist and leads to a feeling of worldlessness. Ultimately, Ritter stated, the flight from Earth and search for a new home on Mars is a consequence of our radical doubt of the world. At this point, Ritter turned to the debate on the Anthropocene and phrased its underlying issue as a central question: what kind of world do we want to belong to? However, to Ritter, this question and the making of Earth as a dwelling – while conceptualizing possible life on Mars – deflect from the obligations and demands presented by the climate crisis. Thus, the problem turns into an ontological and ethical issue: can we continue to live in a worldless world?
In her pre-recorded talk, "Seeing, Knowing, Thinking: Arendt and ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH," Jennifer Fay used Arendt's paradigm of the banality of evil to work through the philosophical implications of human responsibility for environmental evil. In the first part, Fay presented several examples of visual associations, tricks of scale, and compositional rhymes of the 2018-film, all of which aimed at reorienting our vision of and sensibilities towards images of a presumed nature. She argued that the film calls for a retraining of our vision of the world – what once was seen as wealth and progress are, in reality, catastrophical acts of violence. Rather than laying blame on individuals, the film demands consideration of one's own complicity with the images of disaster that we may not fully comprehend.
The second part of her presentation elaborated on the work of Susan Neiman. During the Age of Enlightenment, Neiman writes, and as a result of the Great Lisbon earthquake, morality was uncoupled from nature, which absolved humans of responsibility towards nature. Relating to Arendt, Fay explained that this line of thinking effected a change in the concept of evil: As personal intentions would now rarely correspond to the magnitude of evil individuals are able to cause, world-historical violence without evil intent became possible.
Thus, Fay worked out a moral crisis of the Anthropocene. Within the banality of evil, the climate emergency may be seen as an unintentional act produced without malice. As we, referring primarily to the predominantly white and wealthy populations of the Global North, don't recognize the cultural atrocities behind what we perceive as nature. Fay thus suggested to discover new idioms for assuming responsibility, centering on Arendt’s proposition of thinking as an antidote to thoughtlessness.
Matthias Grotkopp's audiovisual essay "Tipping the Scales. The Interfering Worlds of ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH" analyzed how the film audiovisually expresses the problem of scaling. While it treats the issue of the Anthropocene as a geological epoch, the film also questions the definition of the human or Anthropos. Turning to Hannah Arendt's essay on the conquest of space, Grotkopp argued that scalability is an act of world-making. Extending on Eva Horn's and Hannes Bergthaller's thoughts on the function of art in the Anthropocene, Grotkopp added that art should not only be seen as a form of knowledge but as a form of world-making (poetics).
Confronting the problem of latency first, Grotkopp suggested that images such as proposed by the film unsettle our sense of reality, thereby constituting a Kantian mode of the sublime. The shift to a distanced view on the world not only excludes the qualitative aspects of such a change of scales but also occludes the underlying structures and relations of the Anthropocene. Following Arendt, common sense is earthbound, making a position outside of the earth part of the problem of universalization and abstraction. Furthermore, Grotkopp explained how the film presents work, meaning in Arendt’s sense the making of a shared world of things, as linked to the destruction of said things.
With the conclusions left open to the spectator, the film universalizes the human and pushes non-human agencies to the background. Following Grotkopp, the film's lack of political, activistic, or scientific standpoints is also to be critiqued. The framing of the Anthropocene as an epoch may produce a new normal with the support of conventionally beautiful imagery. In his concluding remarks, Grotkopp underlined that the Anthropocene should not be seen as a technological problem in need of a solution. Instead, an effective critique should emphasize resistance and contradiction as well as highlight the impact on the individual.
During the workshop, Fay and Grotkopp gave two impulse talks complementing their presentations. Fay started by pointing out the intersections of their respective talks, concerning topics such as scale and its relationship to ethics, deep time, the relation of time and cinema, questions of responsibility, and the need for expertise when treating microscopic scales.
Grotkopp introduced his impulse talk by underlining how the film challenges our perspective on everyday environments, making the acts of creation and destruction indistinguishable. He added that unlearning our perspective on nature and culture is a crucial aspect of dealing with the Anthropocene; the separation of responsibility and intentionality is equally necessary.
The discussion that followed first turned to questions of the use of art in general and in the context of its potentially environmentally damaging production. While art might not be productive as a category for judgment, film and cinema can create a shared sensory experience and might foster a change in perception. This might be considered a mode of intervention in the age of the Anthropocene. Afterwards, the question of scalability was brought up in connection to Siegfried Kracauer's notions of representability and reproductivity of film. This point transitioned into a more general discussion of visuality and the relationship between sound and scale. It also touched on the question of framing, with the act of framing and reframing creating a concept of the experienced world as a whole.
Following up on the distinction between nature and culture, the question of overfamiliarization of the plurality of species was raised. Pointing out the danger of restricting a sense of wonder to nature itself as a complete other, Viveiro de Castro's concept of perspectivism was brought up. This ontology questions the Western split between nature and culture by proposing a multinaturalist view in which many natures or worlds exist within one culture.
The second part of this workshop, focusing on "Architectures of Imagination," can be found here.