Opening Talks




“How We Feel about (Not) Eating Animals: Ecomedia, Emotion, and Vegan Studies”

Alexa Weik von Mossner (Associate Professor of American Studies, University of Klagenfurt in Austria)

“The Anthropos in the Anthropocene”

Sean Cubitt (Professor of Film and Television at Goldsmiths, University of London and Honorary Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne)


Q & A

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50 replies
  1. fornsbro says:

    Excellent food for thought!
    Nevertheless, I think we need to pay attention to that zone that is not so clearly marked by oppression or exploitation. One question from a book about our productive procrastination in the creative world (Soon by Andrew Santella, 2018) may be a good start to talk about this gray zone:
    Are we ethically required to make the most of the time allotted to us? How do we reconcile our individual autonomy without obligations to others and to the relentless demands of a never-ending workday?

  2. seancubitt says:

    thanks fornsbro, and apologies for not being online sooner. I will look out for Andrew Santella’s book: I’m guessing creative-productive procrastination involves withdrawal of free creative labour from social media industrial exploitation? In which case the first question you ask -about making the most of the time allotted to us – is a political-economy question first, before it is ethical. But you might mean the lifespan allotted us as mammals: then yes, we want to live full lives, but can we do that as “autonomous” beings? Is it ecologically possible to be autonomous, or indeed socially? Whatever autonomy “we” might have would always be social – the autonomy of a class or a movement. Of course I can drop out of the exploitative commodity form of labour. It would be – perversely – far harder to drop out of the real subsumption of consumption under capital.

  3. fornsbro says:

    Thanks, Sean. I was trying to think about paradoxes that we live through. In that sense, all your comments are suggestive and they don’t push away my suspicion about irreductible realities or simplification dangers: guilt/pleasure, footprint/joy, life/death, faith/reason, individual/collective, consciousness/irresponsibility, thought/ideology, machine/emotion; well, all these dichotomies might be artificial, speculative thinking, but each reason has its own cloud or alienated place of being. This might invite us to the realm of unlimited possibilities instead concrete or polished solutions or resolutions. But again, how we can conciliate our tendency to make out a reason. Are we like any translator, a traitor of a original tongue? Aren’t we friends?

    • seancubitt says:

      Hi fornsbro
      Well, some things are paradoxes (I like wine but it doesn’t like me) and some things are contradictions: we are irreducibly implicated in our environments but live and act as if we were not. And some things appear as paradox or contradiction but are mistakenly posed. So guilt and pleasure are not opposed to one another: guilt belongs to the law and legal discourse, which pleasure doesn’t. Life and death are part of the same cycle, rather than oppositions. There are versions of most of the major religions which are rationalist. And so on. A paradox is a logical category (Russell’s paradox, for example) so in that sense is indeed ‘artificial’; but certain contradictions , like certain alienations, are far more. This is the case with the contradiction between nature (in quotes) and society (in quotes): society can exist without nature and yet acts as if it could. This is an example of ‘real abstraction’: an artifice that comes to have the power of reality. For my money, the distinction between individuals and collectives is one such. Individuality is a social construct (which is a contradiction) and yet individuality has been a vastly important category of experience, legality and religious belief with real effects in the world. Certainly any work of understanding the world and our place in it is limited and constrained. Artistic movements like surrealism and free jazz have tried to break down rationalism in language, sound and visual culture, and expanded immensely the a-rational; much the same might be said of post-Cantor mathematics or quantum science. Yet these too are translations. What a great translation does, however, is to treat the thing it translates as if it was a smashed archaeological find: it assembles the shards, tries to see what each shard has to say about its genesis, and attempts to build a new amphora not from the thing itself but from the same set of affective/material sources. Translation, that is toi say, is a work of friendship – and like friendship interminable.

  4. Kristen Angierski, Cornell University says:

    Professor Alexa Weik von Mossner,

    I very much enjoyed your talk, as a vegan and as a (graduate student 🙂 ) scholar of affect. In my work, I tend to focus on revulsion and appetite loss as biological-affective routes to the empathetic consideration of animals. In my talk for this conference, I think about on-screen cannibalism as a form of “indistinction”: showing us what it looks like (and feels like) when human flesh is reduced to, made indistinguishable from, “meat.” Following scholars of moral psychology, I argue that feelings like revulsion can make moral sense sometimes– so we are very much on the same page!

    Your talk was a helpful and scientifically-informed reminder that vegan activism should take many routes, beyond and within horror and revulsion. Although revulsion may initially make one lose one’s appetite for flesh, maybe things like vegan food porn give “the switch” some staying power. And this is no small thing in the Anthropocene! Thanks so much for your talk and for your work. I found it inspirational.

    • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Kristen!

      I very much enjoyed your paper as well, which raises some very interesting questions around biological and moral disgust (or revulsion) in relation to Raw, which aims to trigger those emotions in a different way — it seems to me — than, for example, Earthlings does, and appartenly also with a different purpose. I appreciate your critical stance regarding the director’s insistence on rejecting animal rights or vegetarian interpretations of the film and am interested in your conceptualization of on-screen cannibalism as a form of indistinction. A few years ago, I wrote a piece that compared the on-screen use of cannibalism in two postapocalyptic films. The much better known of the two is John Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s novel The Road, but I think that the second, less well-known film — Tim Fehlbaum’s Hell — might be of even more interest for your research. The Swiss-German film is set in an eco-horrific future where the sun has scorched the earth and, as a consequence, people have started eating each other. The storyline bears some striking similiarities to The Road, but what makes the film so interesting is that in this case, humans are slaughtered by a “friendly” family of farmers in exactly the same way and with exactly the same casual and callous attitude they used to slaughter animals. It seems to me that, in an entirely different way than Raw, this film evokes horror and revulsion through a lack of distinction between humans and animals as sources of meat. The protagonists, in this case, are the ones who are at risk of ending up in the family’s hearty stew.

      I’m glad you agree that vegan activism should not focus solely on evoking horror and revulsion, as effective as these emotions seem to be in spoiling people’s appetites. As Joe Heumann has pointed out in one of his comments to your paper, it is quite remarkable how quickly even the effects of even the most shocking films can dissipate, and so it seems very important to have that other approach, too, that aims to create community and an appetite for plant-based food. It may indeed be particularly important in helping people who have made “the switch” to develop new habits and a wide range of positive emotions around their “new” way of eating rather then experiencing it as lack and abstinence.

      • Kristen Angierski, Cornell University says:

        Thanks very much for the suggestions and ideas! I will be reading your work and watching Hell shortly, which seems to be, from your artful description, a kind of “anti-pastoral ecohorror” that potentially plays with that self-obliterating phrase “humane slaughter.” It might be interesting to put the film in dialogue with The Vegetarian, which centers an antipastoral and ecohorrific dream (Yeong-hye, the protagonist, enters a “barn-like building” and experiences a life-altering, uncanny connection with farmed animals before making the transition to vegetarian-> vegan-> a strangely ecological version of anorexia nervosa wherein she stops eating because she thinks she is becoming a plant.) Yeong-hye’s eating disorder is a kind of self-consumption: a perversely ecologically sound, self-destructive cannibalism. All of this is to say, I like thinking about cannibalism as self-destruction, too, especially given the ecological disaster of factory farming. By eating animals, aren’t we also just “eating” ourselves, spelling out “our” own doom (though the marginalized will always be hit first and hit hardest)?

        I love what you said about re-framing vegan eating as innovation instead of deprivation.

        A less academic thought/question: I wonder if you, someone who works on the emotions and eating animals, ever experience a kind of dismissal? (I have at least one horror story from a conference, but I won’t share that here.) In other words, does the general (and sometimes aggressive) resistance to “vegans”– since it is usually phrased that way, centering the people and not the ethics– impact how your work has been received? As I prepare for the job market, I worry about such things. (This is a selfish question, so do not feel obligated to respond right away, or at all!) Thanks again for the ideas and for your time!

        • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

          I think “anti-pastoral ecohorror” is a pretty good label for Hell. I’d be interested to learn what you think of the film (btw. its title has a double meaning. In German, “hell” simply means “bright,” like the sun in this case, and so that’s the superficial meaning of the title. But of course the filmmakers are very aware of the fact that most people (even in the German-speaking realm) will first think of the English meaning of the word (which in German would be “Hölle”).

          Regarding your question, it’s probably too early for me to give you an answer, since I have only very recently embarked on this new research topic. I do engage with it some in chapter 4 of my Affective Ecologies book, but it is really only in this talk, and in a related forthcoming essay in Laura Wright’s edited volume _Doing Vegan Studies_, that I am making the explicit connection to food and to vegan studies. I understand that you worry, but my hope is that vegan studies — and related research on emotions and eating animals — will be recognized as an exciting new subfield that speaks to some of the most pressing issues of the Anthropocene. The thematic cluster of essays (also edited by Laura Wright, one of the true pioneers of the field) in the fall 2017 issue of ISLE will hopefully give it an additional push.

          • Kristen Angierski, Cornell University says:

            That’s very interesting! The notion of “bright/hell on earth” makes me think of all the religious rhetoric and imagery vegan activists use (the name of the documentary Dominion, for instance). It also has me thinking of the absence of welfare laws protecting animals in transport to slaughterhouses. Animals can be left water-less and essentially burning in transport trucks for something like 28 hours with no legal ramifications. Hell indeed.

            I am glad you think the field is on the upswing. I am excited for all the forthcoming, important work on animal ethics (and I will take courage- and hope- from that).

            • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

              I know, it is absolutely horrifying. Carol Adams is spot on with her thoughts on traumatic knowledge in relation to animal exploitation. It’s an incredibily insightful piece that can help us think through our own responses and feelings.

              And of course dealing with it all as an academic can feel pretty daunting at times, but I do hope that you will take courage and would love to hear more about your interesting work in the future, so let’s keep in touch!

              • Kristen Angierski, Cornell University says:

                Thanks very much and I would love to keep in touch! My dissertation will benefit from this dialogue. 🙂

                • Inez says:

                  Dear Alexa and Kristen,

                  I like your discussions on vegan studies so I’ll just reply under this thread.

                  Alexa, thank you for your illuminating talk from the much needed cognitive and affective approaches. I also take interests in both of them, as well as the study of disgust (though my main theme at this moment is waste studies — you may see the strong connection). I have already got Affective Ecologies and look forward to reading it closely!

                  For vegan studies, I would like to introduce to you, if you haven’t come across it yet, the Vegan Studies at UC Santa Barbara initiated by professor Renan Larue:
                  Here we have successful undergrad GE class on Vegan Literature/Studies for three years and are currently developing it into a more officially recognized interdisciplinary study across campus (such as an undergrad minor). As a person on campus who’s been engaged with this study and became a vegan myself along the way, I wouldn’t say that I know all the stories, but from my observation, it has been a very positive thing when students and faculty became more exposed to the topics at stake in veganism. It has engaged scholars across disciplines and influenced both critical discourses and dining options on campus. So Kristen, I think the potential of presenting one’s interests in vegan studies in academia is much larger than the risk. Many people with a good judgment just haven’t yet been exposed to the environmental and ethical questions enough. I also believe that vegan studies is a promising academic field that engages so many disciplines and critical questions that would only become more and more urgent in the future. Hope we can work on this all together!

                  Inez Zhou, recent PhD in Comparative Literature, UC Santa Barbara

                  • Kristen Angierski, Cornell University says:

                    Hi Inez! I am very interested in your thoughts on the intersection of waste studies and vegan studies. I can see, for example, how one might think about the literal waste of CAFOs (the term “waste lagoons”) and the more metaphorical waste of potential, metabolizable energy (feeding humans grain directly instead of feeding grains to animals that are then eaten by humans). You also have me thinking about a terrible, disgusting description I just read of the eye-stinging ammonia emanating from battery-caged chicken urine.

                    Thank you for the inspirational description of vegan studies’ potential and value. I have a feeling “vegan studies” might be resisted at Cornell because of its history as an agricultural school, but I could be wrong! I am glad you are having what sounds like immense success with the program at UC Santa Barbara.

                    It seems absolutely true that the concerns of vegan studies– environmental devastation especially– will only grow more urgent with time. I think my worry stems in part from a really unfortunate conference experience wherein a scholar aggressively questioned the validity of reading texts through a vegan lens, but clearly there are other, less suspicious folks interested in the exciting interdisciplinary doors (agriculture scholars and lit scholars, psychology scholars and nutrition scholars) vegan studies seems to open. Also– always happy to meet other vegans in academia! Thanks again, Inez.

                    • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

                      Hi Inez, thanks so much for your comment and for making me aware of Renan Larue’s Vegan Studies initative at UC Santa Barbara! The course description sounds great and I am glad to hear that it is such a success with undergraduate students! I have noticed that our students at the University of Klagenfurt are also very interested in the topic and will therefore include a segment on vegan studies in my upcoming class on American Food Cultures .

                      Like Kristen, I am also intrigued by your work on disgust at the intersection of waste studies and vegan studies. Are you interested in food wastes, specifically, or in waste more generally?

  5. Bridgitte Barclay, Aurora University says:

    Thank you for your talks. Both are so interesting and especially so together.

    Sean, I’m really struck by this statement of yours: “The corporate cyborg is composed of materials, skills, and knowledge taken from the physical and human environment and forced to labor in the service of a ruling class that is in the process of sacrificing its own humanity along with the planet.” That also works well with Alexa’s discussion of the factory farming, a cyborg that exploits humans and animals.

    Alexa, your discussion of horror as a bystander emotion and terror as a form of fear for ourselves is really interesting in thinking through ecohorror and current political situations.

    And speaking of current states of the world, I wonder how you two see connections, overlap, or distinctions in melancholy (especially as tied to nostalgia for the past, as you describe it Sean) and empathy. Are the two related? How so? Are they related to horror and terror? How are all of these useful in various ways in ecomedia? Many of us here think through these daily as we work to balance our own horror/terror/melancholy with empathy and resistance (and horror/terror/melancholy can certainly be magnified by empathy and lend to less resistance, as well).

    • seancubitt says:

      what a great question Bridgette.
      I’d like to keep a distinction between melancholy and empathy, but they share something. In Levinas, the face-to-face encounter creates an obligation to the Other. (He excludes representations and non-humans but we can expand on his ‘ethics as first philosophy’). But it does not include empathy: it is the otherness of the other that creates the ethical obligation. On the opposite side, Lacan’s mirror stage imagines the child mis-recognising its reflection as better (more coherent, more coordinated etc) than it feels itself to be, yet at the same time as a version of itself, thus the first inkling of identification, and so the possibility of empathy. The tense of empathy is the present tense, and it teeters between recognition and the strangeness of encounter. Ecologically, the complex relation between immersion in the world and responding to it as something beyond ‘me’.

      Melancholy is also usefully distinguishable from nostalgia. Nostalgia imagines a past situation as whole and wonderful. Melancholy looks back on the past as the site of loss and pain. Populist movements are nostalgic when they raise the idea of going back to an imaginary perfect time (before immigration etc). The kind of melancholy politics I’m imagining comes out of W. Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’ (also translated as Theses on the philosophy of history in Illuminations): “The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.” The genocides and ecocides of historical and contemporary colonialism cannot be healed through empathy: we cannot say we have the capability to speak on behalf of the victims; yet their enforced silence demands our raised voices, because we are the posterity that they looked to, the ones who would justify their suffering. Melancholia then as a way of asserting that we cannot be reconciled to the accumulated disasters of the past (which of course constitute our own imminent catastrophes too – the history of forest clearance, the accumulated heat of 200 years of fossil capital etc). Because we cannot be reconciled to suffering, we must act.

      Horror is a complicated thing. As emotional state, it constructs a particular kind of subject, or very probably more than one, quite possibly simultaneously or in fast-flickering alternations. More interesting than terror, which merely terrifies, turns to stone. Perhaps horror is (at least in part) a mode of empathy (if you watch people watching horror movies, they mostly identify/empathise with the victim).

      Melancholy – as I failed to say – is not mournful, not a mood: it is a rift in the composition of the self, a trauma that (unlike mourning) is unhealed, an open wound, and in Freud’s eyes still a mental illness; but for ecopolitics, I think, a recognition that ‘I’ and ‘we’ cannot be healed unless the world is, which implies healing not only the living but the dead

      sorry to ramble: it’s such a brilliant, challenging question!

      (I owe a major debt to Mladek, Klaus and George Edmondson ‘A Politics of Melancholia’. Clausten Strathausen (ed) (2009). A Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 208-234.)

      • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

        Thanks Bridgitte, for your question, and thanks Sean, for your thought-provoking talk and for your thoughts on the relationship between empathy, terror, horror, nostalgia and melancholia.

        I agree that we need to keep a distinction between empathy and melancholia and would add that we probably need to keep a distinction between empathy and all of the mentioned feelings, emotions, and affects. Empathy itself is not really an emotion, but the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing or feeling (which may then lead to a range of empathetic emotions). Sean writes that “perhaps horror is (at least in part) a mode of empathy” and I think he makes a good point there. Horror has been defined in a number of ways, as an emotion that we experience only after the exposure to a threatening situation (in which we feel terror), but also as an emotion that we experience when we watch others being threatened or suffering (as we would in a horror film). I wouldn’t necessarily say that horror is a mode of empathy but that empathy is necessary for certain forms of horror.

        When we think about horror and terror in relation to an emotion such as nostalgia and our current situation in the Anthropocene, I think it is helpful to also expand the idea of nostalgia into the future as Jennifer Ladino has done with her concept of “anticipatory nostalgia” (Scott Slovic has also written abou such forms of future-oriented nostaliga). We can certainly look back to a moment in the past with a sense of horror, but we probably wouldn’t feel nostalgic about that moment. Anticipated nostalgia, on the other hand, springs from an imaginative projection of ourselves into a dark (and potentially eco-horrific) future in which we anticipate being nostalgic for our current way of life, which will have become impossible by then. In this context, Glenn Albrecht’s concept of solastalgia is also very helpful, since it describes a feeling that results from the “recognition that the place where one [currently] resides and that one loves is under immediate assault” (2005, 45). Solastalgia too, I think, can bare traces of both horror and terror, and it might spring in part from an empathic connection to the assaulted world around us, both human and nonhuman.

  6. Joseph Heumann, Eastern Illinois University says:

    Thanks Alexa. Robin and I have tried to deal with these food issues, especially in Film and Everyday Eco-disasters. Your positive cognitive approach provides a good pathway for people to examine. The most interesting “problem” we have seen recently has been the outrage experienced by American Winter Olympians upon discovering Koreans ate dogs. American meat eaters were incensed by this and raised thousands of dollars to go to that country to save these animals. When questioned why they weren’t prepared to save little veal calves from the same fate, the answer was dead silence. Empathy is dished out in many ways. In America we can’t eat dog or cats or horses, while happily consuming everything else as meat. The vegan project works because,as you note, it tries to empathize with all living creatures. Food shows on tv, at least in the USA, rarely focus on the vegan/vegetarian diet. They continually reinforce the activity of consuming massive amounts of red and white meat and anything that comes from the oceans. We are continually perplexed at how we can change such dominant behaviors, so your presentation at least offers a way that people can consider. As a final thought on a film like Earthlings. I have shown Franju’s Blood of the Beasts on many occasions, resulting in one or more students expressing revulsion and being forced to consider lifestyle changes. But without huge societal support, that feeling soon disappears.

    • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

      Thanks Joe! I also found the outrage over the dog eating in Korea rather baffling, given that many of the outraged people likely had pigs, cows, goats, sheep, chicken, turkeys, and rabbits for dinner — all of them animals with complex emotions and cognitive capacities just like dogs. Melanie Joy’s book really gets to the heart of these food-related forms of speciesism and the way cultural traditions lead to empathy inhibition and psychic numbing in relation to certain animal species. She has this great example in her book where a host asks his American guests whether they are enjoying the stew she cooked for them, only to then reveal that the tender meat in it is Golden Retriever. Joy then asks her readers what they feel at that moment and what they would feel at that dinner table. Probably horror and disgust? Why so? And what if the host then laughed and said it was just a joke, the stew is made of beef? Would they continue eating, relieved? Or would their appetites be spoiled at least for that evening? (this also relates to the issues Kristen Angierski raises in her paper).

      And of course I take your point about the need of societal support for a more compassionate diet. I share with vegan studies scholar Laura Wright the belief that the creation of communities is extemely important to keep the life style-changing effects (or good intentions) from disappearing and, as I pointed out in an earlier comment, it seems to me that the formation of new habits is perhaps even more crucial. Much of what we eat is the result of habits, really. Especially when it comes to our rushed breakfasts and running-people lunches, we tend to stick with what is well-tried and familiar. So that is probably crucial: forming new habits, new defaults, so to speak, and I think that’s were all those vegan food blogs and cookbooks and lifeguides and a moderated 30-day challenge such as Veganuary be extremely helpful.

      Another important factor is accessiblity, which has dramatically improved — at least in urban centers — over the past few years, and not just because of more people going vegan (though that is true, too). I just saw a really interesting tweet by Tobias Leenaert referring to a study by The NPD Group that found that “86% of People Buying Plant-Based Products are Meat-Eaters.” It’s not only vegans who buy those products, reminds us Leenaert, in fact, they are the minority, and so it is also people who want to eat less meat (or simply like plant-based alternatives) that drive a new food market, making it easier for everyone to become vegan and stay vegan. I think that is an important point, too, when we think about questions of sustainablity.

      • Joseph Heumann, Eastern Illinois University says:

        Robin and I are about 95% vegan. It’s too hard to achieve perfection, especially in this part of the world,but it’s easy to get close. There are groups of people trying to do “meatless days”, consciously trying to cut some consumption of animal products. It’s a combination of concern for personal health, the environment and a host of other reasons depending on the influence.
        When we looked at urban farming for Eco Cinema and the City(2018) we saw total focus on non meat production. Urban food production now focuses on “garden” produced foods, whether using dirt or hydroponics. The absence of meat production is the phenomenon of taking away the slaughterhouses from the major urban areas and the banning of animals for consumption that used to be raised in backyards or in the streets in the 19th century. Modern sanitation removed such production and novels like Sinclair’s The Jungle forced people to confront the industrial nightmare of slaughtering animals in the center of Chicago. Now it’s all neatly done in Nebraska and Colorado (which we looked at in Film and Everyday Eco Disasters) and no one need be bothered by the “means of production.” This has also led to the loss in quality of the product to service the ever larger group of meat consumers and has led to “boutique” farming, covered by many documentaries, where animals are raised “compassionately”, “grass fed” etc before they are butchered. But these animals are touted as “better to eat” because they have been raised without antibiotics and have led “good lives”. And their price structure is so high that only the well off meat eater can afford to eat them. There is always some new strategy to get people to eat flesh.
        You mention cookbooks and food porn and those things are spot on. Why read cookbooks? Because there is always a happy ending, as one writer said. But what do we do with Jiro Dreams of Sushi? A very interesting documentary that extolls the large scale slaughter of fish from all over the globe so people can travel from all over to taste the superior skills of a sushi chef. The late Anthony Bourdain loved that place and traveled all over the world to explore food cultures that invariably focused on meat or fish based diets. Most of the popular food shows in the USA are so heavily meat, fish and dairy based that we find it weird to even watch them. So the vegan blogs and vegan months are a great start but they face huge resistance from people who are trained to desire flesh from the get go.

        • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

          Thanks, Joe! Leenaert would say that it isn’t necessary to be 100% pure vegan to make a difference. He has written a whole book arguing that calls for perfection and purity are more harming the vegan movement than helping it. Others would disagree, of course, but I find Leenaert’s arguments worth thinking about. And of course there is a range of reasons why it makes sense to switch to a (mostly) plant-based diet, concerns for animal rights and welfare being only one of them, if an important one.

          Regardless of that, there is no question that veganism continues to face huge resistance — within the media and beyond. And global meat consumption is in fact expected to rise considerably in the coming decades. But I find it nevertheless helpful (and motivating) to also consider the progress that has been made. Not everywhere and not evenly, but there are definitely some changes noticable in some parts of the world, and if we can believe the stories that people tell, then films and books and blogs often play a crucial role in making people reconsider their eating habits. That’s an interesting fact for ecomedia scholars, I think.

          Regarding the cooking shows … I agree. Even food porn-heavy shows like Chef’s Table are (with some exceptions) full of dead animals, reflecting current (and past) trends in fine dining. Someone should suggest to creator David Gelb to do a whole season just on vegan (or at least vegetarian) chefs — that would be cool. I do believe that’s going to be an avantgarde trend in the future: how to cook at that level without animal products. There are already some people doing that and the results are rather amazing. This is very different, of course, from everyday eating habits and it’s a form of cooking that caters to a small elite, but in terms of what ecomedia texts can do to awaken curiosity and desire, it would be an interesting step.

          • Matthew Holtmeier, Ithaca College says:

            I posted some questions about the production of subjectivity via the avant-garde in another thread, which I think you provide an interesting answer to here. I was thinking of Sean’s ending note here where he posits the next goal of eco-media as reshaping the way ‘we communicate between phyla.’ It made me think of Scott MacDonald’s The Garden in the Machine and the potential of the avant-garde to act as a sort of political/ecological modernism. Until this conversation, I don’t think I thought of cooking shows as a potential site for the avant-garde, but why not? I suppose I probably just haven’t watched enough (other than Hannibal, which has its own avant-garde cooking show/eco-horror bent).

            I think that Guattari’s Three Ecologies – the intertwining of the psychological/social/environmental – provides a useful basic framework for thinking through this question of the production of subjectivity in relation to environments. Why not an avant-garde culture or community predicated upon a deep desire for vegan cooking that emerges from cooking shows? Though I do share the concern regarding this catering to a small elite. I really appreciated your points about desire/subjectivity/mirror neurons in relation to this in your talk! Thank you!

            • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

              Hi Matthew, and thanks for your comment! I think this particular cooking show — Chef’s Table — might be a potential site for the vegan cooking avantgarde because of the show’s expressed focus on chefs that are “redefining gourmet food with innovative dishes.” There is a lot of food porn in the episodes and it is nearly always suggested that what’s been done is new and/or pathbreaking. The show has already featured one vegan cook, the Zen Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan, and I would love to see more. I’m not sure whether a whole community can be predicated upon a desire that emerges from cooking shows, but they can perhaps play their part in opening peoples’ minds and palates for the pleasures of plant-based eating. One would have to do empirical research to find out.

            • seancubitt says:

              Hi Matthew
              popular culture is constantly throwing up brilliant new political and ecological trends (when much contemporary biennial art has descended into responding to markets and disappearing into art-about-art-about-art). The media arts, sitting to one side of the main stream of contemporary art, have more to say and do: if you haven’t yet, check Su Ballard’s paper on Haines and Hinterding in Panel 13.

              I rather part company with Guattari, whose understanding of media is very 1970s, not surprisingly, and even then dismissive of people’s ability to negotiate meanings and to make their own (as in fan cultures). But certainly their are formal symmetries between psych/soc/eco ecologies – and more: between them and the form of relational databases, between them and the finance markets that depend on them, and the logistical systems hooking them together. Mediation is a good name for the energies and materials that bond these mutating planes, and for the implication of human and natural processes. Amos Gitai’s lovely film Pineapple, decades back, might point to an avant-gardening cooking show: from cultivation to platter via transport systems etc: one to update for C21st conditions?

              • Suballard says:

                Hi Sean, thanks for the shout out :).
                I’m really interested in the demonic synthesis you describe: human+machine+nature (the cyborg-system). Should capital itself not be part of the synthesis? – Or is it the agent/ catalyst? Is what you are describing a becoming-capital of the cyborg-system? Horror! Or perhaps this is the past – this is what has already occurred. I can think of beautiful alliances between human+machine+nature that are not so demonic (a man, a laptop, a conference paper, and a collection of trees and birds comes to mind) and also many that don’t really require the human (anthropos) at all: thinking about the gemstones thrown into the sky by Kilauea. So given all of these more hopeful permeations I want to add the vegetable and the mineral to your alliance … machines that form from animal, mineral and vegetable. I guess that is how I would define eco-media.

                • seancubitt says:

                  Kia ora Su
                  You make me think I made a mistake in my vocabulary: it should really be “cyborg corporation” rather than ‘corporate cyborg”, to emphasise that cyborg is the adjective describing a particular kind of corporation (there can be other cyborgs and other corporations). So it isn’t a becoming-capital of cyborgs but a becoming-cyborg of capital.

                  Ontologically – which is how I think you’re thinking about eco-media – everything mediates everything else. But somewhere back in the mists of history there’s a parting of the ways. Val Plumwood sees it in the nature-society split. Because I’m a media prof, I think it emerges in the move from mediation to communication, which splits senders from receivers and both from channels. That is what divides phyla (animal, vegetable, mineral – which I tend to pile into the idea of ‘nature’ – plus social and technical).

                  The machine in the garden scenario – thanks for spotting that ;=) – is evidence that history/communication doesn’t obliterate primal ontology/mediation: their constant clash , constant rewriting of one another, is where politics comes from. We can’t go back (“we” can’t: possibly “I” might be able to re-immerse ego in the world as a spiritual experience, but not a political solution, which is what ‘we’ requires)

                  Building a new human+machine+nature cyborg is exactly the challenge of aesthetic/media eco-politics – and all politics in the C21st is media-based, thus made possible by the persistence of ontological mediation of everything by everything. I’m working right now on trying to see whether reforming profit-based databases as open encyclopaedias might be one such cyborg – open also, in ways I am only stumbling towards, to other-than-human processes.

                  Kilauea is the site of the epic struggle between Kamapuaʻa and Pele, rain and fire: Kamapuaʻa won the leeward side, Pele the dry side. The boundary remains as historically valid, and as porous and mutable, as any boundary between European categories – only we don’t admit that, at least outside eco- and other critical circles. Kamapuaʻa probably thinks he made the volcanic diamonds by freezing them in mid air . . .

  7. Lisa FitzGerald, Université Rennes 2 says:

    Thank you both for your stimulating talks!

    Sean: I’ve always thought of the cyborg as the (Haraway) figure countering the capitalist effects of homogeneity etc with its anarchistic, biocultural, ‘DIY’ body parts – our own countercultural Frankenstein as a figure that engenders empathy. Do you think that the corporate cyborg which as you say is ‘forced to Labour in the service of a ruling class’ can be viewed as maybe moving in that direction in line with other groups in service or subsumed into the western model of global expansion?

  8. seancubitt says:

    Hi Lisa; yay, interesting – and perhaps I should have been clearer. Since Haraway’s Manifesto in Socialist Register back in the 90s, the discourse about cyborgs has tended to concentrate on more-or-less human-sized organic entities with technical components inserted. I’m looking at a different scale of entity: a very large array of computers, servers, routers, programmes, data-capture services etcetera – of the scale say of Exxon or Gazprom – with humans inserted as servo-mechanisms.

    I may be soft, but I find it hard to believe that human individuals would be as cruel and as destructive as corporations are (the evidence that this is a poor judgement is mounting, starting with Rex Tillerson, but I have a generous heart ;=).

    Humans, like most organic critters, tend to try to stay alive. But as Enrique Dussel says, ‘Life is the absolute condition of capital; its destruction destroys capital. … But capital cannot limit itself. Thus comes about the utmost danger for humanity’. Terracidal capital not only destroys the planet but the conditions that allow capital to exist in the first place. That is not a human trait. Haraway’s cyborg utopianised a figure of fear, brilliantly and with great political potential. She did it by perceiving technical enhancement as a way out of masculine/feminine (and natural/social) dichotomies. The architecture of the corporate cyborg is different: it long since moved into relational topologies. But yes, in my lingo, it is still ripe with contradictions (in another terminology, capable of emergent behaviours). Maybe, possibly, the problem needs stating in a distinction between teleological, profit-based cyborg systems and others (like science) that are eschatological and encyclopaedic, so to work towards the collaborative model (inclusive of nature and technology) rather than one based on the extraction of organised data as a raw material for capital processes – the difference between geology and mining, say. Though the same word appears, the phenomena are in the first instance different, though (I hope) the utopian potential for building socially-oriented (rather than profit-oriented) large-scale cyborgs will converge with Haraway’s project of multi-gendered symbionts down the road apiece

    • Lisa FitzGerald, Université Rennes 2 says:

      Thank you Sean: a systems-based cyborg rather than the humanoid version – I wonder if more utopian ‘large-scale cyborgs’ can emerge from technologies that claim to be more egalitarian such as the open source software movement and maybe digital currencies although I hear Steve Bannon has recently got involved in cryptocurrency so that might be a bad example :).

      • seancubitt says:

        At the moment cryptocurrencies look like they either were designed for traceless trading by a hacker avant-garde who turn out to have a lot to do with the alt.right, or are simply too weak to fend off speculation (and bitcoin mining operations with amazingly intense energy/carbon footprints). No wonder Bannon got in there

        Ben Bratton mentions 1970s experiments with socialist computing, notably Stafford Beer’s work in Chile, a time when computing power wasn’t adequate to the task of planned economies, but which might have design lessons. My working hypothesis is that relational databases are remarkable but flawed representations of ecological relations that nonetheless might be retro-engineered: my project for the next little while ;=)

    • Joseph Heumann, Eastern Illinois University says:

      Hi Sean:
      The Wall Street Journal ran a column yesterday (June 18) titled The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels Far Outweigh the Costs. It’s from two big thinkers from The Heartland Institute. This is what we are up against and maybe a decent example of the “corporate cyborg.” There are nothing but benefits to burning fossil fuels. It greens the earth. It keeps people from freezing to death. It makes people richer. Everything is much more abundant. We read it as insanity, but the million plus readers with the echo effect may think something quite different. Did you know that deserts are blooming thanks to burning fossil fuels. After reading this piece I wanted to start a huge charcoal fire. Just to help the cause.

      • seancubitt says:

        As a smoker, I have to applaud the Heartland Institute’s long-time commitment to denying the scurrilous connection of smoking with lung cancer, which demonstrates their commitment to the health and well-being of the American people. This can be seen from the 2012 leak of documents showing they took donations from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, Microsoft, General Motors, Comcast, Reynolds American, Philip Morris, Amgen, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Eli Lilly, liquor companies, and an anonymous donor who had given $13 million over the past five years – specifically to fund their climate skeptic agenda, notably to prepare school curriculum materials. Get ’em young I say – just like smoking ;=)

        • Joseph Heumann, Eastern Illinois University says:

          The Merchants of Doubt have a lot of money and a lot of clout. Which planet do they intend to move to? Though my friends out in the San Francisco area say the rich silicon valley types newest hobby is “Doomsday Prepping.”Guess that covers the Microsoft money.

  9. rlmurray50 says:

    Dear Alexa and Sean. Thank you for your provocative talks. I was very interested in your responses to Bridgitte’s question about the connection between melancholy and empathy. Joe and I have most recently explored issues like these in relation to Donna Haraway’s *When Species Meet* and her work on inter-species empathy and companion species. One of her most recent works, *Staying with the Trouble*, suggests we “eschew[] referring to our current epoch as the Anthropocene, preferring to conceptualize it as what she calls the Chthulucene, as it more aptly and fully describes our epoch as one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in tentacular practices.” How might we negotiate reconciliation between these two visions of our current epoch?

    • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

      Dear Robin, many thanks for your comment! I’m not sure that we have to negotiate a reconciliation between these two visions? This is what Haraway seems to have to say about it: “The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.” I’m not sure that amounts to reconciliation.

      • seancubitt says:

        Great challenge Robin
        I wonder if reconciliation is possible in the sense that ‘a much hotter compost pile’ almost inevitably means the deaths of millions of poor humans (the rich will always emerge victorious: as Patel and Moore have it in their new book, we’re all in the same boat but some of us are in steerage). Arturo Escobar ventures the idea of the Patriarchocene. That too points in the direction of making new pasts, which seems to me essential, but is only going to happen as long as we are unreconciled with the state of affairs that exists. Yes, ontologically we are all implicated in each others’ material processes; but the real abstraction of the nature/culture divide has real historical power, and as Andreas Malm argues in The Progress of This Storm, it seems unhappy to shift responsibility for the past and for present action to microbes, beetles, rocks and tides. On the other hand, a polity that doesn’t include microbes etcetera is a polity that cannot stand. Finding a way to include the demands of environmentalised forces in the work of politics (making the good life for all) implies a complete remake of political affairs. At present we can’t even include human migrants in our political systems: we need an avant-garde to remake ecopolitics: maybe avant-gardeners?

            • Joseph Heumann, Eastern Illinois University says:

              Hi Alexa:
              Have you ever tried to do a “survey” of people in our field who are “sensitized” to the issues of environmental change regarding their culinary choices?
              Just how many people actually are: A) Vegans B)Lacto or Ovo or both Vegetarians
              C) Meat and fish eaters.
              Kind of a rudimentary baseline?

              • Kristen Angierski, Cornell University says:

                I would love to know this too! I am actually participating on a graduate student panel (at MLA in January) on “the embodied grad student in relation” and my little narrative for the panel is about being vegan in the academy and the range of reactions one receives, from condescension to anger to support to “I wish I could do that but…” etc. I would love to hear from more senior scholar-vegans about the ways in which their veganism has, or has not, influenced their work and their lives in academic communities and in academic spaces. (Not in this thread necessarily, but in general I think it would be interesting to investigate food politics within ecocritical communities.)

              • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

                Hi Joe: No, I have not. That’s not really the kind of work I do.

            • seancubitt says:

              For anyone passing through London this summer, these events might be a good place to continue the discussions:
              On selected Thursdays over the summer, artists, activists and researchers will gather with the public to consider different global foodstuffs and elements – their stories, their movements and their relationship to time, empire and landscape. Visitors will share food and reflect on empire, geological time, exchange and decolonisation, themes inspired by Escobedo’s design, which draws on the domestic architecture of her native Mexico and British materials and context, specifically the Prime Meridian line at the Royal Observatory.

              Radical Kitchen 2018 brings together questions generated through two major research strands undertaken by Serpentine Projects. The ongoing Rights to the City programme addresses housing rights, racial discrimination, privatisation of public space and the politics of care. Launching in 2018, General Ecology marks the Serpentine Galleries’ commitment to addressing questions around ecology, complexity, organisation and climate change.

              Each lunchtime session will focus on a different element or food item, tracing how ingredients such as sugar, grains and chili have shaped the globalised world, and how consumption, exchange, politics and economics determine – and are determined by – these elements. The talks will be led by international guest artists and groups including Formafantasma and Ghetto Gastro, as well as individual artists with a long-standing involvement in Serpentine Projects, including Jasleen Kaur, Zinzi Miniott and Daniella Valz Gen.

              Mazí Mas, co-hosts of the inaugural Radical Kitchen in 2017, have inspired the Serpentine’s ongoing collaboration with social enterprises that work with food and migrant communities across London. Several of these organisations will provide bread and snacks at this year’s picnic talks, while Mazí Mas will return on 13 September for the launch of the Radical Kitchen Cookbook.

  10. sanderse says:

    Thank you both so much for your very fascinating and thought-provoking talks as well as your responses to the questions that have arisen.

    Alexa, I greatly appreciate your insights on cognitive ecocriticism and was wondering what your thoughts are in regard to visual art’s ability to incite empathy, given that such works of art are taken in by its audience all at once. Do you think that the emotions we feel when we encounter a work of art that moves us operate along the lines of embodied simulation and mirror neuron systems the way they do when we feel with characters in film and literature? Also, how is this related to/does this differ from the intersubjective interplay that transpires between the artist and the observer, whose identities and experience have a significant impact on the way the work of art is read.

    Within the scope of my Ph.D. project I am currently examining textual narratives of fiction and nonfiction, documentary films and visual art—that I consider to be contemporary environmental justice narratives of the Arctic—and hope to show that these narratives convey a comprehensive understanding of the global climate crisis gone local and in doing so not only operate as potent mediums to visualize the rapidly occurring effects of the climate catastrophe but also possess a powerful potential to incite empathy and mobilize policymakers and the public into taking collective action.

    While I find your talk and your book Affective Ecologies extremely helpful in regard to the textual narratives and the films, I am not sure how embodied simulation and mirror neuron systems can be applied to work of visual art such as Tim Pitsiulak’s 2011 drawing Climate Change and hope that you can point me in the right direction.

    Also, for what it’s worth, as a vegetarian whose great love of cheddar and parmesan have kept her from going vegan, I am grateful that you have introduced me to Veganuary, which I will sign up for right away since they even give you seven days to finish off your cheese 🙂

    • Alexa Weik von Mossner, University of Klagenfurt says:

      Hi sanderse, thanks so much for your comment and your great question! I am not at specialist in visual art, unfortunately, but I what I can recommend is the very interesting work on embodied simulation that Vittorio Gallese has done together with the art historian David Freedberg and other colleagues. It is quite fascinating. Here are a couple of articles that I hope will be helpful to you:

      Freedberg, David and Vittorio Gallese. 2007. “Emotion and Empathy in Esthetic Experience.” Trends in Cognitive Science 11(5):197-203

      Battaglia, Fortunato, Sarah H. Lisanby, and David Freedberg. 2011 “Corticomotor Excitability during Observation and Imagination of a Work of Art.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 5: doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00079

      Massaro D, Savazzi F, Di Dio C, Freedberg D, Gallese V, et al. (2012) When Art Moves the Eyes: A Behavioral and Eye-Tracking Study. PLoS ONE 7(5): e37285. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037285

      You’ll find more articles on Freedberg’s website:

      Glad to hear that you are planning to sign up with Veganuary! Good luck and enjoy 🙂

  11. Senta A. Sanders, University of Augsburg says:


    Thank you so much for the recommendations–I look forward to reading the articles and checking out Freedberg’s website.

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