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  • Cinema's Natural History
  • James Leo Cahill (bio)

In the name of recycling, this contribution attends to old film theories and films that are strangely attuned to a longue durée conceptualization of the Anthropocene, or the geological epoch in which humans have become a determinant factor in climatological and ecological change on a global scale.1 Selmin Kara has written insightfully on "anthropocenema" in reference to a cycle of contemporary films that allegorize the environmental degradation and accelerating extinction of the extreme present and even more extreme future.2 In developing natural history as an anthropocenematic genre, I expand its film historical scope and shift emphasis from a taxonomic categorization of shared textual properties to the conceptualization of genre as a mode of historical interpretation and perception applicable across a range of cinematic sources, from nature documentaries to studio-produced fictional narratives. The generic work of natural history enables us to rethink film and media at the level of text, medium, and industrial practices of expenditure and conservation along historio-graphical axes that often disturb and reconfigure our experiences of and implication in pasts, presents, and possible futures.

Natural history commonly refers to the study of living organisms and their environments, but in the 1920s and early 1930s key surrealists [End Page 152] and critical theorists, including Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer (who all followed surrealism with considerable, if ambivalent, interest), developed parallel practices of natural history as a mode of looking at and interpreting the world's signs.3 Max Ernst, according to Salvador Dalí, demonstrated that "the history of dreams, miracles, surrealist history, is above all and in every sense a natural history."4 Ernst's surrealist history as natural history was precisely concerned with the traces and signs of extinction and catastrophe of the past as well as their enigmatic address to the present, which his work brought into visibility. In 1926 the artist published his folio of frottages (rubbings), Histoire naturelle, which art historian Ralph Ubl conceptualizes as a "ruin writing of nature and nature's afterlife."5 Simultaneously documents and interpretations, Ernst's frottages discover lost traces of nature intermixed with uncanny cultural signifiers, such as his reworkings of material from illustrated prehistoric fauna primers and advertisements. His art gives form to a historicized vision of nature that also puts human history into geological temporalities through his attention to catastrophic events that rupture the cyclical temporalities of nature (notably The Sea and the Rain from Histoire naturelle and his 1933 painting of an inundated continent, Europe after the Rain). Louis Aragon's Paysan de Paris, also from 1926, similarly developed an optic for critically examining twentieth-century commodity culture through the estranged gaze of a natural historian. Aragon studied the "human aquariums," "the cult of the ephemeral," and "the feeling for nature" inspired by the living ruins of the Passage de l'Opéra and landscapes of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.6 Ernst's and Aragon's shared fascination with big and small processes of extinction, through their attention to depopulated landscapes, outmoded objects, and the afterlives of things, presented surrealism as a pioneering practice of natural history for the twentieth century.

Benjamin developed a complementary concept of natural history in The Origin of the German Tragic Drama (1928).7 Beatrice Hanssen explains that Benjamin used "natural history" to designate "another kind of history; one no longer purely anthropocentric in nature or anchored only in the concerns of human subjects," and one that challenged the systems of exclusions operating in humanist modes of history.8 Benjamin's multifaceted natural history countered the notion of nature as eternal and history as rational human progress, by emphasizing forces of transience, decay, and entropy exemplified by ruins, in which the products of human endeavor, nonhuman life, and [End Page 153] built and organic milieus converge.9 Like Ernst and Aragon, his conception of natural history privileged contingency, chance, and attention to outmoded objects and residual presences, as well as unexpected returns.

Adorno, in his 1932 lecture "The Idea of Natural History," posited natural history as a materialist alternative to German idealism and the contemporary phenomenology of Heidegger that was, as Nicholas Baer writes...


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pp. 152-157
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