thing theory (2008)

anth g6085

notes on "images of nature in an ecological perspective of things"

fan kong (columbia university)


Image Group #1: video clip and film stills

Catherine Chalmers – Safari (2006): a “documentary” that surveys the animal kingdom from a cockroach’s perspective as it encounters a variety of insects, amphibians, and reptiles.


Image Group #2: aerial-perspective photographs

David Maisel documents the effects of strip-mining, deforestation, and other forms of environmental degradation throughout the United States.

Terminal Mirage 22 (2005):

Mining Project 13 (Ray, Arizona):


I want to begin with an analogy from Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction: the painter is to the magician, as the cameraman is to the surgeon. The magician heals through distance; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body. The painter is like the magician because he maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, while the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. The painter produces a total picture, while that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments that are assembled under a new law:

“Thus, for contemporary man, the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.”

I consider a different kind of question from that posed by Mitchell (What Do Images Really Want?). Using 2 image groups by Catherine Chalmers and David Maisel, I will ask instead, “What do images (of nature) afford?” And during this process, is a new or a re- orientation toward nature—or an ecological perspective of things—both possible and desirable?

For Benjamin, a new mode of perception is a new mode of existence. What does it mean to see something with a new apparatus of vision or perception? I am not concerned with getting closer to the thing in nature, but rather with that apparatus that foregrounds our persistent mediation between the viewing subject—us humans—and the thing in nature. I argue that the camera does not necessarily promote an anthropomorphizing relationship that maintains or reinforces the subject/object divide, but that that it simply affords us a type of narrative that is located apart from the human spatio-temporal scale. Of course, it would not be a great leap to then hypothesize (without going into any more specifics) that a thing in nature is that which exists on its own thing-spatial and thing-temporal scale. I will keep this operational definition for the purpose of emphasizing that an unmediated experience of nature (in part or in whole) is neither possible nor our goal.

These images of nature, by way of the possibilities provides by its apparatus of perception (the camera), posit a new relationship to reality (for lack of a better word) through a series of positional views and factors of movement. In the first image group, Chalmers has placed a tiny camera on top of a cockroach: it scurries about in its environment, encountering various animals, like the snake who contemplates the grasshopper for dinner. In our modern encounters with animals, we see either a pet or a pest. However, this classic predator/prey relationship is without morality: one animal asks of another, “Can I eat it?” or “Is it going to eat me?” The camera, as it zooms in, demarcates the space of exchange and defines a temporal segment in the “object lives” of various small animals and their niches in a forest. It is this change in perspective and perceptual position that I wish to emphasize: a certain negotiation between the imposition of the aura of nature vis-à-vis our distance from it and the audacity to dive head-first into a reality unencumbered by human judgment.

In the next image group, Maisel’s camera zooms out and compacts the space of a landscape usually too large for our everyday perceptual understanding and engagement. We see the extent of the damage done to a landscape through poorly planned land-use. However, the camera is not in a moralizing position: landscapes may go through processes of succession both quickly and slowly, but a landscape cannot possess an ideal state. Protection of the environment is motivated by a human-centric morality: a landscape may not be destroyed, though it can look dramatically different from one time to another. Even though the movements and the visual/perceptual leaps are different (a zooming-in versus a zooming-out), Maisel’s camera affords the same type of shift away from the human spatio-temporal scale as Chalmers’s camera.

A shift away from the human scale is necessarily a de-humanization, yet this is not so crude a position to take. Consider the magician who maintains a distance and preserves the aura (in our case, the aura of an unknowable and yet fragile nature); and consider now the surgeon who compromises the aura for a reality where we are but one part of an entangled web.

Isn’t a story of a certain loss re-imagined as one of democratization?

But what is the use of such a re-orientation or an ecological perspective? On the one hand, we can devise new strategies to posit new and fruitful relationships to contend with things in nature. James Gibson has offered an approach to our perceived environment with a greater sympathy toward its particular thing-spatial and thing-temporal scale. On the other hand, we can throw caution to the wind and proclaim: The hell with the human scale!

I’m going take a brief detour to ethics and borrow the work done by the coordinators of the UN Millennium Task Force for Environmental Sustainability. They have summarized their goal in one sentence: “Environmental sustainability is necessary for the accomplishment of all other UN Millennium goals.” There is of course some play with semantics here: we don’t want to alarm the anthropocentrics because we can’t suggest you must deal with environmental concerns as if they are more important than human concerns. And yet we don’t want to give the impression that nature can be opposed to human concerns because we can’t deal with the concerns of the environment separate from those of human beings. If we can possibly make that mediation felt (by negotiating between a humanism that excludes and a post-humanism that eradicates difference), then the story of objects/ materials/ humans/ nonhumans/ part- and whole- planes of nature intersecting (or quite simply, the story of environmentalism) might not be confined as a theoretical curiosity.

Why have I reserved this discussion to mere images of nature and not ecology alone? I have chosen to focus on these specific points of mediation—these not so subtle changes in our mode of perception—in order to shift away from the human realm as some kind of ethical norm. The re-framing of the relationship between humans and nonhumans is necessary to counter the strict anthropocentrism in current debates of environmentalism, activism, and public policy that sees Nature as a power that says “no.” Ours is not a story of loss (loss of a human-centric world, or even of a pre-modern vision), but one of the re-invention of self.