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  • The Anthropocene's Nonindifferent Nature
  • Graig Uhlin (bio)

Writing of his arrival by ship in New York in Nonindifferent Nature, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein expresses admiration for the vertical uplift of the Manhattan skyline as it appears over the horizon. The skyscrapers seem to him "like rocket missile explosions frozen in flight," which dramatically capture the "technical and material becoming" of American industrial prowess.1 The propulsive character of the city, not to be limited to these terrestrial heights, "takes airplanes and hurls them into the sky to conquer the stratosphere," as the blue sky "trembles" before this technological encroachment. On encountering this sight of skyscrapers coming into view, Eisenstein notes that one feels "that the earth is a sphere," as the apparently linear horizon reveals its curvature.2 One might note that planetary boundaries are encountered here in overcoming them, in the liberation from being earthbound. The modern environmentalist movement utilized images of the whole earth, as seen from outer space, as visual reminders of the finiteness of the planet's resources, but in Eisenstein's anecdote, natural constraints arise only to be breached. This shift in attitude toward natural limits captures how remote the modernist celebration of mastery over nature is from the pressing concerns of our current environmental crisis. The Anthropocene has dispelled these illusions of mastery. Industrial society has accumulated debt by [End Page 157] exploiting nature essentially for free, and this debt is coming due; as Bruno Latour notes of this new epoch, "the tone is no longer triumphal."3

The Anthropocene poses a challenge to the modernist project, and in this response, I consider what relevance modernist film aesthetics—and specifically, Eisenstein's concept of "nonindifferent nature"—may have for our current environmental predicament. For Latour, the Anthropocene represents no less than "an alternative to the very notions of 'Modern' and 'modernity.'"4 Proponents of ecological modernization continue to claim that capitalism can be made environmentally sound through the development of "green" technologies and sustainable energy production, but it is not possible to liberate the continual demand for economic growth from its constraint by natural limits.5 What economists call the Jevons paradox illustrates the point: increasing the energy efficiency of a resource only accelerates the rate of its consumption, canceling out the efficiency gains as its use is scaled up.6 Despite persistent advocacy for geoengineering, an article of faith among so-called ecomodernists, there is likely no technocratic solution for our environmental crisis.7

Moreover, aesthetic modernism has not traditionally been a source for ecological thinking. The modernist arts provided cultural responses to industrialization and urbanization, often in a celebratory key, and generally did not demonstrate significant awareness of the environmental issues of their day, including threats to biodiversity, industrial pollution, and wilderness conservation. Modernist evocations of the pastoral tended to dramatize its disruption and transformation by modernizing forces, as for example Eisenstein did with the veneration of the tractor in The General Line, his 1929 film about agricultural collectivization.

Recent studies of artistic and literary modernism, however, are reconsidering their relationship to environmental histories. In literary studies, Joshua Schuster considers American modernism's ambivalent response to environmentalism, its "fail[ure] to fully understand modernization" for the stresses industrialization places on natural environments.8 Situated between romanticism and modern environmentalism, modernist writers maintained distance from nineteenth-century ideas of nature as self-regenerating plenitude, and as Schuster notes, its representations of nature tended toward irony and artifice. Even if its lack of environmentalist awareness means "modernism was never very green," Schuster argues that modernist aesthetics nonetheless registered and engaged aspects of ecological change.9 Similarly, Bonnie Kime Scott's earlier [End Page 158] study of Virginia Woolf gestures to an ecocritical reading by calling for a "greening of modernism" that would attend to the often-overlooked role of nature's presence in modernist literature.10 Informed by ecofeminist theory, Scott contrasts Woolf's holistic understanding of nature to the masculine privileging of culture found in traditional histories of modernism.

In film and media studies, emphasis has been placed on cinema's participation in modernity's technological control of nature through the production of climate-controlled environments. Brian Jacobson, for instance, traces the...


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