Panel 5: Speculation & Science

ECOMEDIA IN THE ANTHROPOCENE (THE 2018 ASLE SYMPOSIUM)

A NEARLY CARBON-NEUTRAL CONFERENCE

Panel 5: Speculation & Science

“The Extinction-haunted Setting of The Monster that Challenged the World (1957)”

Bridgitte Barclay (Associate Professor of English, Aurora University)

Silent Running and the Metaphor of Spaceship Earth”

Matthew Thompson (Ph.D. candidate in cinema studies, University of Toronto)

“Christianity, Climate Change, and Cinema”

Everett Hamner (Associate Professor of English, Western Illinois University)

“The Future Is Wild: Speculative Evolution and the Post-Anthropocene”

Anne Schmalstig (Ph.D. candidate, University of Miami)

Q & A

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28 replies
  1. bbarclay says:

    Great videos, Matthew, Everett, and Anne. I really like how our presentations work together. A couple of questions and connections in particular occurred to me.

    For Everett and Matthew: Everett, I liked the questions you posed at the end of your presentation. I’m wondering specifically about your question focusing on ecological and gendered violence and the film’s structure. I always find the “mother nature” representation highly problematic in terms of gender (and perhaps especially with the traditional Christian view of a “male” god). And Matthew, women in Silent Running are equally as representational, it seems (as you note, there is the photo of the white girl, for example as an impetus for a reason to not jettison the ecosystems). I’m wondering what connections and problems you two and others see between gender in Silent Spring (absence of women but a “do it for the girl” argument) and in Mother! (seemingly an idolization of “mother nature”). And maybe more problematically both clearly have the “future generations” argument, which can be used to essentialize female (re)production (The Handmaid’s Tale book and series, for instance), which is a different problematizing and control of “nature.”

    Anne: I’m fascinated by your discussion of extinction sublime and was thinking of Ursula K. Heise’s term “declensionist” narratives that I refer to in my presentation, narratives which can seemingly be hopeful, as in frontier narratives, but are also “intimately linked to a foreboding sense of […] looming destruction.” I’m wondering if you see her term as similar to the extinction sublime.

    I also just love your points about the dismissal of women and people of color in the scientific narrative and in the idea of slow violence in the future and find the fictional future gragen fascinating in its similarities to the supposedly prehistoric kraken in The Creature that Challenged the World in my video.

    Also, to others who view these, the two beautifully shot documentaries I discuss that are well worth the 5-10 minutes each are Frank Tabouring’s Useless Sea: https://youtu.be/dwTEix9Mcgw and Ransom Riggs’ The Accidental Sea: https://youtu.be/otIU6Py4K_A

  2. joeheumann says:

    Thanks for that great creature feature update by connecting it to the present dilemma of the “Salton Sea.” More importantly, where did you get the super cool T Shirt?

  3. bbarclay says:

    Hi All. This is Bridgitte Barclay. It took me a bit of looking through other panels today to think of how to post an initial comment here about my presentation.

    Just some notes and questions on mine… I’m fascinated with the trajectory of nineteenth-century western frontier to turn-of-the-century museum and species frontiers to mid-century space frontiers in American history. All of those are very much tied in with American identity. I find the number of sf-horror films in the mid-century era that resurrect/discover remaining pockets of prehistoric creatures are telling in terms of extinction fears. The Creature that Challenged the World is a part of that and so is Creature from the Black Lagoon and others I mention in the talk. I love these creature features so much and find them fascinating in terms of cultural artifacts that have new meaning today.

    Some questions I still have: What other films fit into this sf-horror sub-genre? How does re-reading these from an ecocritical perspective change their messages? How can they be used in the environmental humanities classroom? Why do some of us in environmental and gender studies find them so wonderful (what chord are they striking)? How is camp related here?

    • ehamner says:

      Hi Bridgitte. Very much enjoyed that, perhaps especially your juxtaposition of the film’s “saccharine” ending and the ongoing monster problems of both the Salton Sea locale and our global ecology.

      I’ll start with your first question. The first parallel sf-horror film I thought of is probably blatently obvious, and I’ve only watched your presentation once so far, so please forgive me if you mentioned it, but: Forbidden Planet (1956). Definitely plenty campy too, yet also frying larger fish
      than its only semi-visible monster. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049223/

      Eventually, we may want to ponder the gap(s) between your film and mine more fully, but another that came to mind even before you asked about comparisons is the relatively unknown (for some good reasons) 2010 sf-horror thriller Monsters. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1470827/ I had previously thought about it mainly for its thin-but-still effective immigration allegory, but your talk makes me wonder if/how it might also be concerned with ecological vulnerability and exploitation.

      Which suggests this subquestion: what occasions do these films offer to think about the relationship between ecological damage and consequences of other forms of injustice (racism, sexism, …)? What patterns do we see in how creators, monsters, victims, & rescuers are cinematically rendered, and to what extent are there meaningful shifts between, say, the 1950s and the 2010s?

      • Bridgitte Barclay, Aurora University says:

        Forbidden Planet! Yes!

        I haven’t watched Monsters but will now. It looks beautiful. Thanks for that recommendation and the Forbidden Planet reminder.

        And good subquestion. I think those connections among the various types of injustices should be inherent in ecocritical analyses, and often are. Coming to these films from a material ecocritical perspective and taking into account racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc. means that we at least analyze those texts in terms of interconnections. Not that the films necessarily address those issues explicitly or deliberately. But our readings might highlight them and point to divergent messages or to where resistance to dominant narratives opens up spaces for new readings or to where environmental and gender injustice is handled well but racial injustice isn’t. So, in my view, there may be sexism in a film that promotes a form of environmentalism, and something like a camp viewing can make the film subversive in a way. I get a lot of joy out of watching films that may be – as Carter points out – unintentional camp but that become resistant through a camp viewing, by camping them. I’m really interested in all of that right now…where we can laugh to disrupt. I’m interested, too, in your question about what patterns we see shifting over the decades. Certainly some of the 70s ecohorror explicitly sides with the “monster”/animal (as Christy has pointed out happens in 1972’s Frogs, for instance). I don’t think that happens in The Monster that Challenged the World, and it might be a stretch to read it that way. I’m really interested in what others see as the pattern, too.

    • csoles says:

      I have a couple questions for Bridgitte, though I first want to note that I love your concept that analyzing creature features ecocritically “re-horrors the horror film.” That is a great idea, especially applied to a subgenre that, as you note, tends to end in “saccharine” and ideologically conservative ways. (It may also be a necessary operation for a subgenre and period that tend to viewed nowadays as unintentional camp.)

      I have been researching creature features myself and am often struck by how science and scientists are presented in these films — they often provide the solutions for monster invasions yet the implication is almost always that human “mad science” (you call it “scientific hubris or scientific ignorance”) is what creates / awakens these monsters in the first place. Can you speak to the depiction of scientists in these films in this light? Do these films suggest that scientists need the military around to bring them to heel? Are there “good scientists” and (often offscreen / implied) “bad scientists”?

      That is, who do these films really suggest can save us from these horrors?

      (I also love your question about the role of camp in our reception of these films, I am chewing that over but don’t have anything substantial to say yet.)

      • joeheumann says:

        We write about The Nest in Monstrous Nature. Check out the female scientist in it. She’s quite the proud mama when the cockroach creations start to chew off her hand. Very very unusual moment.

      • bbarclay says:

        Carter, thank you for the comments and questions. You’re exploring some of the same ideas that I’m exploring lately — creature features, camp, depictions of science. I’ve been thinking about the scientists in The Monster that Challenged the World and The Creature from the Black Lagoon Lately. They certainly aren’t as “mad” as the scientists from Wasp Woman and Mesa of Lost Women, or aren’t “mad” to the same degree. In Monster, specifically, the scientist is represented as pretty level headed. I’m not sure Dr. Rogers (I think I’m remembering his name right) is meant to be clearly seen as suffering from hubris. He mostly offers rationale for the premise. Rereading the unintentional camp (naive camp, I think Feil calls it) emphasizes the hubris.

        In Creature from the Black Lagoon that’s a bit different, right? There are scientists we are meant to read as good and rational and those we are meant to read as bad and irrational. From an ecocritical look, they are all problematic and suffer from hubris.

        So who can save us from the horrors? Great question. For me right now, it’s often the creatures (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Wasp Woman, and the womanimals in Mesa of Lost Women (those last two are the ones I write about for the gender and environment in sf text Christy, you, and me are working on right now)). But, in The Monster that Challenged the World, it’s not the monster. It’s the viewer seeing the horror, maybe?

  4. ehamner says:

    Hi everyone. I ended my talk with a slide featuring some of the additional questions I’ve been pondering, and I’d welcome versions of those or most any other question.

    But here are a couple more curiosities I’ll add that may be better to start with:

    (1) Had you seen mother! before viewing my opening clip? If so, what were your initial reactions to the film, and have they shifted at all since then? If not, does this scene attract, repel, bore, overwhelm you?

    (2) What have been your experiences of Christian or other religious responses to climate change?

    • bbarclay says:

      Hi Everett. You pose great questions for your talk. I have a question about one of yours above in the first comment, and to answer your questions here… 1) I have been avoiding mother! because of the “mother nature” and the scene you open with (had heard tell and read about it). You sort of ripped the bandaid off for me. It repelled and overwhelmed me. Good words. I also find myself kind of angry in part b/c of the gendered issues. I understand the goal, but I’m grappling with the graphic and disturbing approach used by a man in telling this. And I’m imagining the impact of a similar approach by any other dominant group telling a story of a different marginalized community in such a graphic way. Real violence is committed against women, and children daily, hourly, by the minute, so it’s less symbolic to those communities. I had a visceral, physical negative reaction to it while also understanding the goal and message. But I generally don’t watch contemporary horror, either. So, there’s that. I’d be interested in Christy Tidwell’s response since she writes more about contemporary ecohorror.

      2) This is a big question. Like many of us, I teach a number of students who associate environmentalism with liberalism and pit that against their own conservatism and their association of it with Christianity.

      Great questions and I’m really interested in the conversation here and your take on the gendered issues.

      • ehamner says:

        I can certainly empathize with that “visceral, physical negative reaction,” even if I would emphasize that it comes from a privileged position as a white middle-class cis male (basically if there’s an identity category, I check the boring box). But I’ve watched the film a number of times now, and it has definitely not lost that effect for me, either … which is part of why I’ve come to care so much about it. I felt similarly decades ago when I first read “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

        I think the question of whether the film is worth what it costs us as viewers — and in this case, as feminist viewers (though I certainly do not wish to speak for you or any other woman) — depends very, very heavily on whether we understand the whole as *content* with gendering nature as female (and implicitly the female as the materialized, acted-upon receptor of male, spiritualized, abstracted violence) or as an intense critique of the very sexism (and ecological exploitation) it figures. Or it may be that for some viewers, it is *both*: that it contradicts its endgame (if the latter critique is granted at some level) with its methodology.

        My reading is that this film is not only holding up a mirror to its audience, but to its creator (to the extent that auteur theory allows us to call it one man’s work of art, which of course is partially true and partially false). But I do not see Aronofsky as at all exempt from the film’s intensive critique of patriarchal and ecological violence; on the contrary, I think the work is profoundly aware and interested in making us aware that Bardem’s divine poet character epitomizes mansplaining, self-absorption, condescension–in short, the worst tendencies of a supposedly liberal male’s narcissism–long before the climactic violence to which it subjects us. This film is going far beyond confronting MAGA Trumpism; it is pointing fingers at its viewers and its creators, saying we are all complicit in a culture that systematically exploits both human marginalized communities and other species.

        And that is to say little yet of how much this character is a direct indictment of a pervasive vision of the Christian God. But I’ll pause here with gratitude for the opportunity to articulate this much. I’ll definitely be thinking about it more, especially the real possibility that the film’s means may for some counteract or otherwise obscure (my view of) its end. If you do decide to watch it sooner or later, I will be very curious about how the more gradual buildup to this horrific scene shapes your response. And I look forward to Christy’s thoughts, too! There definitely should be some cross-panel conversation here, e.g. with panel 1 ….

        • bbarclay says:

          Everett, thank you for such a thoughtful response. You make some great points. I like your comparison to Flannery O’Connor. And your questions about whether the film is worth what it costs us and if the portrayals are meant as critique of those associations or are more complicated — if it “contradicts its endgame […] with its methodology,” as you say. And, it sounds like it might be worth me watching it fully at least once. Like The Handmaid’s Tale series, I know a lot of women who just can’t watch that or Mother! in our current culture. The anticipation/terror might be worse than the horror of it, though. Thank you for such great insights and openness.

        • Christy Tidwell, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology says:

          I wish I had more thoughts to provide here! I enjoyed your talk, Everett, and found your connections between this film, religion, and climate change fascinating. However, I haven’t seen the film in its entirety, so I’m not sure how my reaction to the brief clip you began with might fit into the rest of the experience. This addresses your first question in your initial comment – having not seen the movie before and also having avoided knowing much about it *because* I hadn’t seen it yet, I had no idea what to expect. This was not as bad as I’d expected from the hype, although I did find it hard to watch. I suspect it would be even harder to watch in its larger context, with some absorption into the film and engagement with the characters. Coming to this as someone who watches more contemporary horror, though, this doesn’t seem any worse than what I’ve seen elsewhere recently, honestly, either in terms of its violence or in terms of its gendered assumptions.

          If I have time to watch the film before the conference ends, I’ll revisit your talk and hope to come back with more thoughtful responses.

        • Bridgitte Barclay, Aurora University says:

          I just watched Alexa Weik von Mossner plenary talk, and her approach to horror (bystander) and terror (fear for ourselves) is interesting in terms of this discussion.

    • joeheumann says:

      Robin and I have seen Mother and reviewed it in this year’s edition of JumpCut.
      As to your second question, we found that WALL-E produced really positive responses from “Christian film critics,” and cite them in our work on that film.

  5. csoles says:

    For Matthew: I enjoyed your presentation (including the outdoor setting!) and I very much like your notion of the “spaceship Earth” concept as an iteration of the cyborg metaphor. I wonder of you have connected this in any way to the idea of the simulacrum, of simulations of nature, such as those described by Robin Murray and Joe Heumann in their analysis of Soylent Green in Chapter 5 of Ecology and Popular Film or theorized by N. Katherine Hayles in her “Simulated Nature” essay in Uncommon Grounds (Ed. William Cronon, Norton 1995)? My apologies if this is tangential to your work but this is what I was thinking about as you were describing the “inverted metaphor” of the geodesic dome on the Valley Forge at about the seven-minute mark of your talk.

    Regarding cyborgs specifically, I love your discussion of the drones in Silent Running and your comments about how the non-human world is used to bolster imperialist (white, male) narratives. Yet can you elaborate upon the racial dimensions of the figure of the cyborg in this film? I am really interested in questions of race and ethnicity in science fiction and have found Leilani Nishime’s article “The Mulatto Cyborg” (Cinema Journal 44.2, Winter 2005, pp. 34-49) to be invaluable. Her essay is well-known in film studies circles (so you may already know it) but maybe less well appreciated in ecocritical circles at present. My recollection is that Silent Running features only white men aboard the Valley Forge, yes? How is the (inherently paradoxical) “spaceship Earth” metaphor raced in this film and other related media? Are the drones seen as non-whites?

    Along this line, I think there are productive connections to be made between your presentation and Michelle Yates’ analysis of Interstellar in Panel 6.

    Thanks again for a great talk — I never knew the bit about Dow Chemical’s product placement deal.

  6. dreadfulbard says:

    Hi Everett, this is Anthony Lioi. Thanks for your provocative analysis of mother!, which I still have not seen. You showed us enough for me to form this question, though: Can the grotesque as an aesthetic really be used to Franciscan ends? I found the cannibalism scene trenchant as a representation of the consumption of the future of today’s children, but it’s just a parody of cosmic sacramentality in the Franciscan tradition. But I feel like I shouldn’t make that judgment without seeing the rest of the film. So my question, in other words, is: How does the film aesthetically advance the kind of religion represented by Solnit’s prayer? Or is it a warning that we need to revise religious practices as she does, lest we arrive at an O’Connor story that has swallowed the whole planet? I’m really interested in the way we get from aesthetics to ethics here.

  7. rlmurray50 says:

    Hi Bridgitte, Thank you for your intriguing presentation. Like Carter, I appreciated your assertion that analyzing creature features ecocritically “re-horrors the horror film.” I was especially pleased to hear *The Monster That Challenged the World* was written by female screenwriter Pat Fielder. We’re most familiar with her Westerns (film and television) and appreciated your recognizing her work on “The Monster…” You connect the film well with McKibbin’s assertions about the 6th extinction. Thank you for your links to *The Accidental Sea* and “The Useless Sea*. They brought to mind Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s *Homo sapiens* (2016) and parts of Agnes Varda and JR’s *Faces Places*. The film leaves me wondering if E.O. Wilson’s “Half-Earth” hypothesis might be a good idea. On another note, you highlighted your affinity for frontier studies and wondered if you had seen the cannibal horror films *Ravenous* and *Trouble Every Day*, which explicitly address consequences of Colonization and species exploitation. Nice work.

  8. rlmurray50 says:

    Hi Matt, Thank you for your exploration of the metaphor of spaceship earth. *Silent Running* offers apt examples for you. We (Joe and I) watched a rather odd (French, Belgian, and Canadian) animated film with a last tree preserved in a dome museum, *April and the Extraordinary World* (2015). BTW, even the Chai Jing documentary *Under the Dome* draws on this metaphor–a moving one, for sure.

  9. rlmurray50 says:

    Hi Everett, Your reading of Mother! as a Biblical Adaptation for the Anthropocene reminded me of B.J. Gudmundsson’s Christians for the Mountains’ documentaries attacking Mountaintop Removal Mining (MTR). See, for example, *Mountain Mourning*, “Look What They’ve Done,” “Keeper of the Mountains,” and *Rise Up, West Virginia!* Her documentaries are available through Patchwork Films and demonstrate the distribution struggles Independent filmmakers battle, while also offering a view from the “inside” that draws locals to the issue. Are their Christian Climate Change documentaries or fictional films you see effectively moving even small audiences to action?

  10. rlmurray50 says:

    Hi Anne, Thank you for introducing us to *The Future is Wild*, *The World Without Us*, *Learning to Die in the Anthropocene* and *The Mushroom at the End of the World. Unfortunately, I could not hear your talk. I’ll try to read some of the captions to get a feel for your argument about “The Future of Wild.” The idea of “speculative evolution” sounds intriguing.

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