Rethinking Eco-Film Studies
Abstract and Keywords
This article analyzes the theoretical and methodological assumptions which influenced ecocritical writings on film. It evaluates the most pragmatically useful theoretical framework for eco-film criticism and examines the strengths and weaknesses of the different theories and methods that have been employed by ecocritics working in film studies. It considers eco-film criticism and ideological analysis within the psycho-semiotic paradigm and the cognitivist film theory. This article also discusses some potential future developments in eco-film criticism.
Over the last decade, ecocritics have insightfully addressed the representation of ecological issues in film and have also begun a vital environmentalist critique of the political economy of the audio-visual media by assessing the ecological effects of their production. The field now has its own Ecomedia Wiki and an extensive bibliography, and is sufficiently developed to garner retrospective scrutiny. Adrian Ivakhiv’s 2008 essay in ISLE, “Green Film Criticism and Its Future,” is an excellent assessment of the state of what he calls “eco-cinecriticism” at the end of its first ten years. What have not always been explicitly addressed in such works are questions of film theory and methodology. This essay is therefore concerned with the theoretical and methodological assumptions which inevitably shape all ecocritical writings on film, and seeks to identify possible future directions for research in the subject.
As Steven Cohan shows in his case study of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the meaning of a film changes according to the different interpretive frameworks applied to it. “This is not to suggest that a film can mean just about anything,” he observes, “but that its meanings are determined through interaction with a critical theory” (Cohan 2000: 53). Important questions for ecocriticism are whether one theoretical framework is better than another, and what criteria, philosophical, political or aesthetic, should be used to judge this. Is one theory more valid, or more pragmatically useful, for eco-film criticism, than another? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the various theories and methods that have been employed by ecocritics working in film studies?
The rise of contemporary film theory in the late 1960s was part of the wider political turn in the humanities out of which ecocriticism itself eventually emerged from literary studies two decades later. In the early 1970s, “psycho-semiotic” or “screen” theory, derived from Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, became the main critical orthodoxy, under the general approach of so-called “Continental” philosophy. This paradigm continues today in a revised form in the work of Slavoj Žižek and Todd McGowan, who has recently applied it to an ecocritical study of film, as we shall see in this essay.
(p. 460) A major challenge to the psycho-semiotic paradigm came in the 1990s from advocates of analytical philosophy and cognitive psychology such as David Bordwell and Noël Carroll and now Torben Grodal has added evolutionary psychology to this new paradigm. Bordwell and Carroll’s Post-Theory (1996) made a significant break in film studies by calling for the subject to concentrate on small, low-level theories of film (or “historical poetics”) to replace the search for a single grand, unified Theory (with a capital ‘T’). However, although Bordwell and Carroll view cognitivism as a combination of low-level theories, rather than a grand theory in its own right, Grodal plausibly argues that the new psychological approaches do effectively constitute a new grand theory of film, which he calls “evolutionary bioculturalism” (Grodal 2009: 4).
Although these different film theories sometimes use shared terms and explore the same problematics, they work from different philosophical assumptions. Many of these concern questions central to ecocriticism, such as the epistemological status of science and rationality, the relationship between conscious and unconscious motivations in human subjectivity and the relative philosophical merits of social constructionism and biological naturalism. As we shall see, overlaps also exist between the different theories, so it is misleading to view them as entirely polarized and incompatible. This essay concentrates on how the two main competing paradigms, the psychological and the psychoanalytic, have shaped the conceptualisation of ideological analysis in eco-film criticism.
Looking back over fifty years of “screen theory” in 2009, Annette Kuhn maintained that “theorizing” itself, as “an activity that is open and continuing rather than closed off and static,” remains “essential” to screen studies. Nevertheless, she argued that the era of “militant theory” is over, and that screen studies today “seems increasingly to comprise a concatenation of subdisciplines, in which a focus on the historical, the local and the specific flourishes and any ambitions to create a totalizing theory are eschewed” (Kuhn 2009: 4–5). Ecocriticism, on the other hand, remains attracted to metanarratives, or overarching theories, as it necessarily moves beyond the humanities into the natural sciences, especially ecology and biology. What are the theoretical bases of this move towards interdisciplinarity in ecocriticism?
Successful interdisciplinary research in ecocriticism depends on an understanding of the methodological differences between the humanities and the natural sciences. As a humanities subject, film studies is, like literary criticism, a non-foundational discipline, so that, as philosopher Richard W. Miller puts it, “a situation in which different explanatory frameworks are in the field, attributing contrary explanations to the phenomena, is no crisis. For accepting a theory, approach, or explanation only requires belief in its adequacy to cope with the phenomena” (Miller 1987: 501). Film studies is in this way more theoretically and methodologically permissive than a scientific discipline. Judgments of artworks, Joseph Margolis writes, are not subject to criteria of truth and falsity, but of “critical plausibility—which entail (a) compatibility with the describable features of given artworks and (b) conformability with relativized canons of interpretation that themselves fall within the tolerance of an historically continuous tradition of interpretation” (Margolis 1980: 163).
(p. 461) Scientific disciplines, in contrast, are foundational, in the sense that, as Miller puts it, “investigators should require the true description of underlying causes” (503). In the sciences, therefore, the incompatibility of different theories is a crucial issue, in that “when frameworks for explanation posit incompatible causes of observable phenomena, this is taken as a crisis demanding resolution, not a healthy diversity of models” (499). In geology, for example, rival theories as to whether the Earth’s continents drift or are static cannot both be correct, and require testing against empirical evidence. However, the interdisciplinary nature of both film studies and ecocriticism means that when film theorists draw on psychoanalysis or cognitive and evolutionary psychology for their explanation of texts, and ecocritics draw on scientific ecology and biology, such philosophical and empirical questions come into consideration after all.
The “philosophical turn” in film studies which opens up this investigation of foundational principles has been heavily contested. However, the methods of analytical philosophy provide for film studies an effective means of discriminating between different theories and methodologies at this meta-theoretical level. Richard Allen and Murray Smith describe analytical philosophy as a “style or approach, rather than a doctrine or body of knowledge,” which aims to encourage open-minded inquiry through a self-reflexive and rigorous questioning of fundamental methodological assumptions (Allen and Smith 1997: 4). Analytical modes of inquiry in film studies include conceptual analysis, by means of which the critic, as Carroll puts it, “tries to clarify the concepts that make activities within the relevant domains possible” (Carroll 1999: 4).
Allen and Smith make a convincing case for the superiority of analytical philosophy over Continental philosophy, which they argue is based on two dubious assumptions: “First, the primary purpose of philosophy is taken to be the critique of epistemology; the task of philosophy is to demonstrate that the apparent justification of our beliefs have no objective grounding. Second, the critique of epistemology is identified with the ethical critique of modernity, conceived as a capitalist, scientific culture that apparently enhances, but in fact devalues and degrades, human existence” (Allen and Smith 1997: 10). Continental philosophy is central to the approach of several ecocritics, such as Patrick Curry and Verena Conley, among others (Curry 2003; Conley 1997).
For Allen and Smith, Continental philosophy takes an “opportunistic” or “on-again, off-again adherence to the standards of careful argument” (Allen and Smith 1997: 6, 9). Bordwell also criticizes the assumption made by film critics influenced by Continental philosophy that merely “applying” theories is seen as a justification for them, even in the absence of “confirmatory evidence” (Bordwell and Carroll 1996: 24). Theoretical authority for this approach is often found in Gilles Deleuze, for whom, following Friedrich Nietzsche, philosophy “does not consist in knowing and is not inspired by truth. Rather, it is categories like Interesting, Remarkable, or Important that determine success or failure” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 82).
Advocates of Continental philosophy in film studies, such as Robert Sinnerbrink, argue that the analytical approach is too “exclusionary” of other approaches, such as psychoanalysis (Sinnerbrink 2010: 182). However, what analytical philosophy is really (p. 462) trying to exclude is an uncritical pluralism which fails to provide justification for why one critical reading might be preferred to any other, and therefore risks authoritarianism by placing interpretation beyond critical scrutiny. Allen and Smith thus endorse analytical philosophy because it “strives to avoid the pitfalls of both dogmatism (the subordination of argumentative rigour and consistency to the defence of a particular doctrine) and uncritical pluralism (the acceptance of a range of positions with little interest in argument about their relative and particular merits, or attention to inconsistencies among them)” (2).
“Continental philosophy” is a broad area, and is not necessarily always in opposition to analytical philosophy. However, beyond the straw man arguments into which both sides can descend, the issue is important because philosophical choices at this level of abstraction inform everyday practices of eco-film criticism, as we shall see in the following pages.
Eco-film Criticism and the Implied Audience
Every piece of film criticism includes implicit assumptions about audience reception which can be framed by the different theoretical paradigms outlined above. Such assumptions have also informed the various ways in which ecocritics have practiced the ideological analysis of individual films. For example, in her analysis of monster movies, Stacy Alaimo writes that “representations have material consequences” and “shape contemporary responses to environmentalism” (Alaimo 2001: 279). Monster movies “vilify nature, justifying the slaughter of creatures we construct as repulsive” (280). However, Alaimo provides no evidence for a direct causal link between horror movies and the unwarranted killing of egrets in Carrollton, Texas, the real-life case of the mistreatment of wildlife that she mentions. In her essay on Happy Feet (2006) and Over the Hedge (2006), Sarah McFarland similarly makes assumptions about the audience reception of children’s animal movies with no evidence to back them up, and no theoretical claims to account for them. The way films represent animals, she asserts, “have real consequences for the actual living and breathing beings” (McFarland 2009: 90).
In such ecocritical writings, assumptions about audience reception are often conflated with ones about narrative form. In her textual analysis of popular animal movies, McFarland asserts that their happy endings discourage the development of environmental agency or activism in the audience. She writes that the “movie industry’s desire for ‘happy endings’ precludes the kind of ending that a genuinely environmental film would have—one that makes us rise and leave the theatre with a sense of urgency, a clearly defined action plan, and a desire to make a difference” (103). The aesthetic and ethical assumptions implied here, that films should be agitation-propaganda for a political cause, move beyond the scope of this essay, except in the way that they imply (p. 463) a particular notion of reception that accords the end of a movie decisive ideological significance.
In contrast to McFarland, Pat Brereton draws on the aesthetics of humanist Marxist Ernst Bloch to propose that happy endings in eco-films are a utopian prefiguration of a more benign relationship between human beings and the rest of the natural world (Brereton 2005: 11). What unites Brereton and McFarland is the idea that the ending of a film plays the key role in creating meaning for its viewers. Alaimo, on the other hand, proposes an alternative mode of reception, according to which the endings of monster movies may not be ultimately determinate of their meaning. As her essay demonstrates, many monster movies end by containing the symbolic threat that the monster had made to the ontological boundaries between human beings and animals earlier in the narrative. However, Alaimo suggests that the viewer can nevertheless interpret these films in a way that transcends these predictably conservative endings. The most memorable images, she proposes, may be the more pro-ecological ones in the middle of the narrative. “As these creatures run, rampage, and scheme,” she writes, “they dramatize nature as an active, purposeful force—neither a being-landscape for quiet contemplation nor a passive, empty resource for human consumption” (Alaimo 2001: 293).
Let us test these modes of interpretation against The Simpsons Movie (2007). At the end of the film, Lisa Simpson gives up being an environmental activist, preferring instead to go for an ice cream with her new boyfriend, an ending that may be deemed politically conservative since it undermines the environmental protest politics she displayed earlier in the story. For Sarah McFarland, such an anti-environmentalist ending would presumably defuse any activist energies roused in the audience by Lisa’s actions earlier in the film. However, another interpretation is possible, in which Homer’s comments on his silo of pig shit early in the film—“it’s not leaking, it’s overflowing!”—is the most memorable pro-environmentalist moment in the film (it was quoted by at least two speakers at the ASLE conference at the University of Bath in 2010 in this regard). The silo disposal sequence would then carry a warning about environmental risks that is not contained by the film’s happy ending. As Kim Newman wrote in his review of the film, Homer Simpson is “always more convincing as the 21st century ugly American, so concerned with his immediate trivial comforts that he is literally willing to drown the rest of the world in his own shit, than he is as the reformed man of the fade-out” (Newman 2007: 71).
A parallel case for this mode of interpretation are the endings of 1940s film noir movies, which appear tame from a feminist point-of-view, but nevertheless fail to stifle the rebellious energies performed by actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford in their starring roles. Janey Place wrote of female protagonists in film noir that it is “not their inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous, and above all, exciting sexuality […] The final ‘lesson’ of the myth often fades into the background and we retain the image of the erotic, strong, unrepressed (if destructive) woman” (Place 1998: 36). The general point here, as Janet Staiger notes, is that the critical assumption that textuality wholly determines audience reception is dubious (Staiger 2000: 29). Interpretation for her depends more on the social and cultural context than on the text (p. 464) itself. Yet the relative weighting between text and context is debatable. As Jim Collins argues, the production of textual meaning is a dialectical process: “A given text will inevitably be met with different reactions, but it does not necessarily follow that variation of reception means the text does not try somehow to control its eventual reception” (Collins 1989: 85). Film-makers will thus cue their films to create intended responses in their audience, but this does not guarantee that such intentions are always clear to the audience. Audiences are relatively free to interpret film texts against the intentions of their creators, and, as we have seen, ecocritics sometimes make over-deterministic and speculative assumptions about textual effects based on a notion of an “ideal spectator” which does not actually exist in reality (Staiger 2000: 39). The hunches about media effects made by the ecocritics quoted above may be correct, but in the absence of empirical or ethnographic audience studies, they remain hunches. Yet such research poses practical problems for film theorists working in humanities’ departments who are untrained in the relevant methods; nor are quantified or empirical methods necessarily neutral or value-free (Hall 1999: 252–3). Nevertheless, Thomas Austin’s study of television wildlife documentaries, for the way it combines empirical, theoretical and textual analysis, provides an exemplary way ahead for eco-film studies in this regard (Austin 2007: 122–77).
Eco-film Criticism and Ideological Analysis: the Psycho-semiotic Paradigm
Alaimo quotes Cary Wolfe and Jonathan Elmer on horror films as the source of her theory of audience reception: “What horror suggests for ideological critique, then, is that the ideological ‘point’ of fictions may lie not so exclusively with the reimposition of ideological norms in the fiction’s ending but rather with its complicated and contradictory middle, where identificatory energies are released and invested” (Alaimo 2001: 293). As we shall see, by identifying ideological fissures within the text, and arguing that narratives contain an “excess” which undermines their own ideology, Wolfe and Elmer apply a revised version of subject positioning theory to the film they are discussing (Maltby 1995: 395–99).
The psycho-semiotic theory of subject positioning extrapolates Louis Althusser’s Marxist concept of “interpellation” to the cinema. For Althusserian film theory, so-called dominant cinema is an Ideological State Apparatus which tends to reinforce capitalist ideology. The theory draws on Lacanian psychoanalysis for its notion that the subject’s delusory misrecognition of itself as a unitary and autonomous ego gives support to the capitalist status quo. According to the theory, the formal structures of a film are inherently ideological: the techniques of continuity editing used in “classical” Hollywood cinema, such as reverse angles, analytical cutting and point-of-view shots, “suture” the viewer to capitalist subjectivity (Heath 1981: 101–7).
(p. 465) Subject positioning theory can be crudely deterministic in its account of how films actually work on their audiences. By the late 1970s, the theory had been revised to make interpellation by cinema a less deterministic process. The control that media institutions exercise over the means of production, wrote Jim Collins in 1989, “does not entail control over the creation of meaning or the mode of consumption” (Collins 1989: 40). He added that the “larger and more sophisticated culture industries become, the more diversified they are in regard to institutions, discourses, and audiences, and the less they tend to produce homogeneous modes of textuality and unified forms of subjectivity” (42). According to the revised theory, film “texts” are thus polysemous and contradictory at the level of both production and reception. “Reading against the grain” can therefore reveal fissures in the overt ideological position of a film, which become possible points of ideological resistance for the viewer. It is this theoretical position that is implied in Alaimo’s analysis of monster movies, quoted above.
Even though the earlier crude model of cinema spectatorship as a form of brainwashing has been replaced by a more nuanced version, subject positioning theory still tends to be simplistic and over-generalizing when applied to real cinema audiences. The conceptual gap between an abstract notion of a film viewer as “subject” and as a real, complex “person” remains a problem. Moreover, in Mystifying Movies, Carroll carefully refuted the claim that elements of mainstream cinema such as “the cinematic image, narrative construction, film editing, sound, and so forth” have been used “to facilitate subject construction, or, more specifically, the construction of the kinds of subjects with attributes congenial to the continuation of capitalism” (Carroll 1988: 59). His pragmatist view of film frees the theorist from such an over-deterministic and overly prescriptive approach to cinema.
Althusserian-Lacanian theoretical models are nevertheless still active in film criticism. Indeed, Todd McGowan’s 2010 essay “Maternity Divided: Avatar and the enjoyment of nature” applies the revised paradigm to ecocriticism. His main claim is that James Cameron’s films partly question the dominant patriarchal ideology on which capitalism is based. However, in line with Lacanian theory and the Continental philosophy that underpins it, McGowan conflates these political assertions about gender inequality with philosophical questions about the relationship between language and reality. “Modernity as an epoch calls into question the ground of the social order and thus the paternal side of ideology,” he writes. “The linguistic turn in philosophy completes this revolution as it locates meaning and truth in language, unmoored from any ultimate ground” (McGowan 2010: 2).
McGowan here repeats the linguistic determinism of Lacan’s use of Saussurean structural linguistics, which he extrapolated into large metaphysical and epistemological assumptions about the nature of language and reality. According to Lacan, patients under psychoanalysis resist symbolizing the trauma that is the cause of their neurosis or psychosis. Lacan expanded this notion from clinical practice to all attempts to know reality through language. As Žižek puts it, there is an “irreducible gap separating the real from the modes of its symbolization” (Žižek 1992a: 36).
(p. 466) Lacan became the dominant theorist for literary and cultural critics in the 1980s in part because of his interest in Saussurean structural linguistics. However, this theory of language is limited because of its lack of interest in the empirical status of the referent. As Carroll points out, “for language to begin and for it to be taught requires some fixed relations between some words and their referents. Thus, the Saussurean theory under Lacan’s dispensation fails to explain such basic facts about language as language learning” (Carroll 1988: 70). Critical realist philosopher Christopher Norris writes that Saussurean linguistics is “inadequate to account for certain strictly ineliminable features of language, among them its referential capacity and its expressive (that is to say, its motivated) aspect as a bearer of speaker’s intentions” (Norris 1997: 9).
McGowan’s argument reflects the extreme cultural relativism of some post-structuralist and radical feminist theories of epistemology, which have been effectively critiqued by feminists such as Janet Radcliffe Richards and others (Richards 1997: 385–412). “It is true,” writes Kate Soper, “that we can make no distinction between the ‘reality’ of nature and its cultural representation that is not itself conceptual, but that does not justify the conclusion that there is no ontological distinction between the ideas we have of nature and that which the ideas are about” (Soper 1995: 151). For critical realists such as Soper, the epistemological issue of language’s referential capacity is determined by neither modernity nor gender difference.
Biosemiotics provides an alternative theory of semiotics, based on Charles Peirce’s tripartite model of the sign, that is more promising for both film studies and ecocriticism than the Saussurean model. This new field is both better at accounting for the referential capacity of language and more compatible with empirical scientific inquiry than Saussurean linguistics (Solomon 1988: 205). Peircean semiotics is beginning to make headway in film theory, and is an area which deserves to be explored more in the future (Ehrat 2005).
The ecocritical aspects of McGowan’s essay on Avatar include a provocative critique of deep ecology. For McGowan, “the most intransigent illusion of contemporary ideology” is “maternal or natural plenitude.” Eywa, the planetary goddess or Gaia figure in Avatar, questions this conservative ideological position by being “divided” and “incomplete.” The myth that “our world is complete and balanced” is thus effectively challenged (McGowan 2010: 10). McGowan’s critique of deep ecology and Gaian mysticism has two implicit contexts: Lacan’s critique of ego psychology and Žižek’s critique of “New Age obscurantism.” Žižek has questioned the commonplace assumption about the supposed “balance of nature.” “The very notion of man as an ‘excess’ with respect to nature’s balance circuit,” he writes, “has finally to be abandoned. The image of nature as a balanced circuit is nothing but a retroactive projection of man” (Žižek 1992: 38). Accordingly, we should come to terms with our alienation from nature, rather than harbour impossible fantasies about going back there.
Significantly, Žižek cites scientific sources (James Gleick and Ian Stewart) for this rejection of the concept of natural balance. Unlike earlier claims based on Saussurean linguistics, then, the plausibility of this interpretation is helped by its grounding in fallibilistic science. Nevertheless, Žižek’s attitude to science remains ambiguous. While (p. 467) he rightly distances himself from the extreme epistemological relativism he attributes to Cultural Studies, he is unclear and inconsistent over the issue of scientific realism. Lacan, he writes, believed that modern science “is resolutely not one of the ‘narratives’ comparable in principle to other modes of ‘cognitive mapping.’ Modern science touches the Real in a way totally absent in premodern discourses” (Žižek 2005: 94). Žižek goes on to endorse Thomas Kuhn’s argument in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that “the shift in a scientific paradigm is more than a mere shift in our (external) perspective of reality, but nonetheless less than our effectively ‘creating’ another new reality” (95). Yet Žižek’s use of brackets in this sentence is particularly obscure. Critical realism shows more clearly that a scientific paradigm shift is precisely a shift in our perspective of an external reality, no more or less. Moreover, its emphasis on fallibilist knowledge of an extra-discursive reality is a more defensible notion, and therefore more useful for ecocriticism, than Žižek’s prevarication (Soper 1996).
The general methodological problem here is that psychoanalytic critics like McGowan and Žižek tend to ignore both the logical flaws and the absence of empirical testability of their theories. From the approach of analytical method discussed earlier, Lacanian psychoanalysis is methodologically weak. Lacanians do not supply clear grounds and warrants for their arguments, nor do they properly take on possible rebuttals and counter-arguments. Instead, they tend to argue by verbal association, homology and fiat (O’Neill 2001).
Before addressing the overall issue of methodology in film studies at the conclusion of this essay, cognitivism, the main competing theoretical paradigm to psycho-semiotics, needs to be explored in detail, as it can produce a very different way of doing eco-film criticism.
Eco-film Criticism and Ideological Analysis: Cognitivist Film Theory
From an ecocritical perspective, Althusserian Marxism is anthropocentric and perpetuates pre-environmentalist assumptions about the benefits of unlimited economic growth (Eckersley 1992). Moreover, as Bordwell notes, psycho-semiotic theory is “very reluctant to grant the existence of a priori factors, particularly those which might be biologically innate, since some positions of this sort have led to theories of biological determinism and to repressive political programs” (Bordwell 1989: 6). In contrast, cognitivists reject such extreme cultural relativism which denies the relevance of universal, bodily determinants on film viewing. When the concept of “nature” has been discussed in film studies at all, it has tended to be mostly in terms of “naturalization”; that is, the cultural processes according to which values and ideas that are socially and historically constructed, and therefore potentially changeable, are passed off as “natural” and therefore inevitable and uncontestable. This issue is of great importance to ecocriticism, as (p. 468) can be seen in Cynthia Chris’ analysis of wildlife television (Chris 2006: xix). However, exclusive concentration on the concept of naturalization has tended to draw attention away from a discussion of what Bordwell calls “good naturalization,” which is the focus of cognitivism (Bordwell 1989: 2).
Cognitivist film theory provides a more empirical theory of audience reception, and therefore has different implications for ecocriticism, than subject positioning theory. Noël Carroll has rehabilitated the “images of women” approach of the 1970s, which proposed that films that reinforce stereotypical views of women can contribute to the perpetuation of social domination in real-life situations, for example when women attend job interviews. Drawing on cognitive psychology, Carroll thus proposes that films can shape the mental maps within which people frame reality. “When confronted with situations,” he writes, “we will often grasp for whatever heuristics—such as commonplace generalizations—are available to us for the purpose of rendering the situation intelligible. That a film reinforces one of these heuristics with respect to some fictional behavior may then have some spill-over effect in the sense that when searching for a heuristic to apply to real circumstances, the heuristic in question is one whose availability is attractive because it has succeeded in the past in rendering some stretch of phenomena, albeit fictional, intelligible” (Carroll 1996: 285).
Carroll here develops cognitive psychology into a theory of ideology that recalls the Marxist notion of “false consciousness.” “To show that a proposition with its corresponding belief is ideological,” he writes, “one must show that it is epistemically defective and that its continued invocation plays a role in practices of social domination” (279). He gives two examples. The statement “2 + 2 = 1492” is not ideological, because even though it is epistemically defective (i.e., false), it is not linked to social domination. “The unemployed are lazy,” on the other hand, is ideological, because it is both epistemically “defective” and can be deployed within a context of social domination.
Philosophically, Carroll’s theory of ideology is based on two realist assumptions which tend to be rejected by post-structuralist or Continental philosophies of film: that it is possible to distinguish epistemologically between true and false claims about the world, and that films can represent a knowable extra-filmic reality. This approach may be attractive to ecocritics aware of the importance of making truth-claims about how ecosystems actually function in the real world. It presupposes a fallibilist, critical realist epistemology that is able to distinguish in principle between facts and value judgments. Consequently, Carroll’s theory of ideology works best when there is a scientific issue involved in the film in question. In such cases, it can be applied convincingly to ecocriticism.
Let us take Jaws: The Revenge (1987) for example. The movie was promoted with the tag line, “This time it’s personal”: a shark follows the Brody family to the Bahamas, seeking revenge for the killing of its mate. Applying Carroll’s cognitivist model to the film, the idea that sharks behave according to motives of personal revenge can be tested against current knowledge in marine biology, in line with a fallibilist conception of science. If, according to the current state of scientific expertise, the film thereby presents ideas about shark behaviour that are inaccurate, then the film is epistemically defective, and fulfils the first of Carroll’s criteria for ideology. If these ideas have potential consequences for real sharks, then the movie’s representation of sharks is ideological in (p. 469) Carroll’s sense: it is false and could be used in social domination (if we ethically extend our notion of the “social” to include animals). Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence of a rise in shark hunting after the release of Jaws, though this claim has been disputed, including by the book’s author Peter Benchley (Alaimo 2001: 279).
A major strength of Carroll’s cognitivist theory of ideology is that it is not overly deterministic, in that it seeks, as he puts it, to “explain how films dispose audiences toward various ideological stances, while also admitting that viewers do not always succumb to them” (289). It therefore avoids the simplistic determinism of Althusserian subject positioning theory, according to which, as we have seen, films are assumed to have a conditioning effect on their spectators which is built into their very formal structure.
Nevertheless, there are possible objections to Carroll’s cognitivist theory of ideology. Its main weakness is that not all epistemological cases present the clear choice between truth and falsity that the theory requires. Many real-life social and environmental issues appear to be closer to matters of opinion than to facts, and are therefore fuzzy, vague or contested. Indeed, Carroll’s chosen example, “the unemployed are lazy,” is a different kind of truth claim from a mathematical formula, and is not self-evidently false in the same way that 2 + 2 = 5 is. Testing cognitivist film theory against a harder case than Jaws: The Revenge may thus be fruitful. Returning to The Simpsons Movie, the narrative represents the Environmental Protection Agency as a ruthless, totalitarian organisation. After Homer Simpson has caused an environmental catastrophe in Springfield by polluting the lake with sewage, Russ Cargill, head of the EPA, proposes to detonate a nuclear bomb to eradicate the city. Taking comic exaggeration into consideration, does the idea that the EPA is a government bureaucracy working against the interests of the American people make the film ideological in Carroll’s sense? One may object that the film constructs Russ Cargill as a fictional trope, rather than as a proposition about the EPA. Tropes are matters of opinion, and therefore not necessarily epistemically defective. Nevertheless, the idea that the EPA is villainous could still become a psychological “heuristic” in Carroll’s cognitivist sense. Such an interpretation of The Simpsons Movie, like those of the monster and animal movies discussed earlier in this essay, assumes its own ideal viewer and particular kind of audience reception. Yet the empirical side of cognitive psychology allows for the testing of this ideal type or hypothetical viewer against evidence about whether real people actually do act and think in such a way. Even though the empirical side of cognitivism is open to critical scrutiny, such an approach adds an important dimension to audience reception studies that subject positioning theory tends to rule out in advance.
Conclusion: Some Future Developments in Eco-Film Criticism
Can a “both-and” approach, which reconciles psycho-semiotic theory and cognitivism, be justified? Considering the Jaws cycle again, psychoanalytic criticism has been more interested in the symbolic role of the shark than in actual sharks. When Stephen Heath (p. 470) wrote of Jaws (1975) that “the evil is something else … call it a shark,” the shark was for him merely an arbitrary sign in a narrative which for the psychoanalytic critic is really about threats to patriarchal control (Ingram 2000: 72). Similarly, when Žižek discusses Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the film is about the fantasies of the film spectator, rather than birds attacking a coastal town (Žižek 1992: 236–37). Yet an ecocritical reading could bring psychoanalysis and cognitivism together, by investigating the role played by sharks or birds in both our fantasies and in the real ecosystems of which we are a part, and how the two interrelate.
Yet a “both-and” approach should be aware of points of conceptual incompatibility between the two theories. In some respects the two paradigms are not completely polarized. Like Carroll, Žižek’s psychoanalytical approach rejects the crude “top-down” thesis of ideological manipulation favoured by subject positioning theory. However, his theories imply a radically different conception of subjectivity and ideology. For Žižek, ideology is not a false consciousness that can simply be unmasked to reveal an objective reality underneath. “The function of ideology,” he writes, “is not to offer us a point of escape from our reality but to offer us the social reality itself as an escape from some traumatic, real kernel” (Žižek 1989: 45).
Žižek’s notion of ideology thus questions the search for empirical truth in Carroll’s version of cognitivism. However, notions of ideology as false consciousness, as proposed by cognitivist film theory, cannot easily be dismissed as simplistic. Ideology, writes Terry Eagleton, “does not consist primarily in a set of propositions about the world; and many of the propositions it does advance are actually true. None of this, however, need be denied by those who hold that ideology often or typically involves falsity, distortion, and mystification. Even if ideology is largely a matter of ‘lived relations,’ those relations, at least in certain conditions, would often seem to involve claims or beliefs which are untrue” (Eagleton 1991: 26).
That cognitivism and psycho-semiotics assume such radically differing conceptions of the self makes a “both-and” approach difficult to conceive. The Lacanian notion of ideology assumes the divided self of psychoanalysis, rather than the more unitary self on which cognitive psychology is based. These differences have profound implications for eco-film theory. For Žižek, popular attitudes to ecology and the environment are characterized by disavowal: “I know very well (that things are deadly serious, that what is at stake is our very survival), but just the same…(I don’t really believe it, I’m not really prepared to integrate it into my symbolic universe, and that is why I continue to act as if ecology is of no lasting consequence for my everyday life)” (Žižek 1992a: 35). Yet Žižek’s assumption that people “know very well” the seriousness of ecological issues is merely an assertion that derives from the application of fundamental Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalytical principles, rather than a claim backed up with evidence. Indeed, the social sciences provide much evidence to the contrary, suggesting that people’s perceptions of environmental risk, such as that of anthropogenic climate change, are complex and varied. As environmental scientist Mike Hulme puts it, risk perceptions are “socially constructed, with different groups prone to take notice of, fear and amplify some risks, while ignoring, discounting or attenuating others” (Hulme 2009: 199). Environmental (p. 471) psychology may be beginning to account for such popular attitudes to the environment in a more empirical way than a dogmatic, over-generalizing application of Lacanianism (Bonnes et al. 2003).
It is for such reasons that Carroll rejects a “both-and” approach, arguing that the onus of proof should be on psychoanalytic critics to show that their theories are necessary to explain behaviour that cannot be explained by cognitive assumptions alone. He takes this position because psychoanalysis lacks an empirical basis, and consequently is open to neither verification nor falsification. It thereby fails to construct arguments that pass analytical tests of rigour and coherence (Carroll 1996: 260–72).
It may be that Carroll’s cognitivist approach does not itself adequately account for audience reception either. His essay on the pleasures of reading “junk” fiction, for example, concentrates on the formal techniques of such fiction, but does not adequately explain why people are attracted to the seemingly unpleasant or disturbing content of some of the stories he mentions (Carroll 2001: 335–47). Torben Grodal’s biocultural model of evolutionary psychology, on the other hand, expands on cognitivism to provide an alternative explanation to psychoanalytic criticism of the deep or hidden motivations in a viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of cinema (Grodal 2009). As Cynthia Chris observes, evolutionary psychology risks being reductive in its application of neo-Darwinist models to culture, and can also itself lack a firm grounding in empirical evidence (Chris 2006: 137). Nevertheless, cognitivist and evolutionary psychology are developing in a self-reflexive and intellectually sophisticated way that has great potential for the future development of eco-film studies.
A more radical methodology for film studies than a “both/and” approach has been proposed by Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland. Influenced by Deleuze’s concept of the “fold” (Deleuze 2010), they explore a method that does not view “theories and the methods derived from them as incompatibly juxtaposed.” In their analysis of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), they write that the theories they deploy construct “conflicting viewing positions” which have “been resolved not by adopting an either/or, or both…and stance, but by a kind of theoretical layering, appealing to a reconceptualization at another level, which allowed us to see this particular film […] presenting us with different worlds, and several ways of conceiving their protagonists’ and antagonists’ identities” (Elsaesser and Buckland 2002: 282).
The problem with this model of non-linear multiplicity and multiple “worlds,” however, is that it risks being the sort of uncritical pluralism addressed at the start of this essay. Analytical methods, as practiced by Bordwell and Carroll, have the advantage of being both more rigorous and more comprehensible. What exactly is a stance that is neither “either-or” nor “both-and”? To be convincing, such a difficult concept at least requires more clarification and justification than that presented by Elsaesser and Buckland.
Analytical eco-film studies will avoid both uncritical pluralism and dogmatism. In this regard, the biocultural paradigm may be preferable to psycho-semiotics, and cognitivism preferable to psychoanalysis. However, there are several psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious which have yet to be fully explored in both film studies and (p. 472) ecocriticism, and may constitute important counter-arguments to cognitivism. Jung and Winnicott, for example, have occasionally been applied to film analysis without becoming favoured authorities like Lacan or Žižek. John Bowlby, as a psychoanalyist interested in evolutionary psychology, has recently been adopted for film criticism by Grodal, and is a promising possibility for future research. Within ecocriticism, ecopsychology is another growing field that promises a productive overlap with eco-film studies. Lacan dismissed American ego psychology as a conservative ideology that merely affirmed the capitalist status quo, or, as he put it, made “good employees” (Lacan 2008: 19). Yet its revision as ecopsychology, whatever its philosophical flaws, at least shows how notions of personal and social health can be based on a notion of unified subjectivity and still be socially radical, and not merely a reinforcement of liberal capitalist subjectivity, as in the straw-man version criticized by Lacan. Such research into the nature of subjectivity remains open and unresolved. Indeed, the object of research in eco-film studies as a whole should be opened up further, as the search for better theories, and even a grand unifying theory of film, goes on.
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