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  • Sinkholes
  • Karl Schoonover (bio)

A problem of scale plagues popular texts that try to visualize the environmental impact of humans. The harbingers of Earth's imminent ecological apocalypse occupy spaces and temporalities immeasurable within the idioms of conventional screen media. For example, the vast reach and submicroscopic effects of the dioxins resulting from trash incineration aren't easily rendered by the moving image.1 Environmental catastrophe doesn't fall into discrete parameters and thus challenges visual media with various phenomena that can't be narrativized in linear time-space trajectories. The limitless and the abyss collide in the spaces of the Anthropocene. In this context, a response to the problem of scale has opened up in the spectacle of the sinkhole. A contemporary "anthroposcenery" seems to both produce sinkholes and fixate on them as images. Sinkholes pop up (or down) everywhere and anywhere, in dense urbanity and in tranquil suburbs.

The sinkhole possesses the qualities that ecotheorist Timothy Morton assigns to "hyperobjects": viscosity, nonlocality, temporal undulation, phasing, and interobjectivity.2 Thinking of sinkholes as hyperobjects also exposes Morton's critical resistance to the sublime as a useful means of describing phenomena that, due to their scale or duration, overwhelm human perceptual capacities. The bracketing of the sublime has a political edge for Morton. Ecological catastrophe guides his inquiry, as does his commitment to disallowing depictions of disaster to play into what he calls "end of world discourse," which he feels does more to promote a nihilistic apocalypticism than it does to forward a meaningful awareness of the Anthropocene. Sinkhole footage may be helpful to this project for how it participates in Morton's aim "to establish what phenomenological 'experience' is in absence of anything meaningful like a 'world' at all."3

When sinkholes arrive to us on screens, they carry characteristic traits. A small chunk of time is often replayed on a loop in the context of an otherwise linear temporality, depicting the sinkhole swallowing and swallowing again, the image framing and holding in place an [End Page 169] endless visual abyss, a dark hole that admits no measure of duration or depth. This looping has meant that the GIF supplies one of the most prominent sites for marveling at sinkholes—that is, it is sinkhole footage's ideal venue. The GIF has brought the aesthetic regime of the sinkhole to prominence in our contemporary mediascape, in which sinkholes are popular on GIF aggregating sites, such as GIPHY and Tumblr. I argue here that the GIF's affinity for the sinkhole tells us something about what it means to represent this phenomenon. As I press on the historical specificity of this concordance, I track the structural affinities shared among GIFs on the one hand and ecological disaster as depicted in mid-twentieth-century films on the other hand. I ask why the GIF is today one of the preferred means of pursuing a sinkhole, even as GIF-ness can be found foreshadowed in the sinkhole's predigital depictions.

When the earth suddenly gives way under our streets and homes and in front of our cameras, the sinkhole opens a challenge to conventional ecological discourses and the capacity of those discourses to manage the scale of humanity's environmental footprint. How the sinkhole elicits limitlessness is key to understanding the infectious nature of its visual spectacle: the parameters of time and space as we know it dissolve before our eyes in the sinkhole's sudden ingestion of pedestrians and automobiles, in the undertow of its void. As such, the sinkhole—and its vanishing vanishing points—demands that ecopolitics rethink how to represent endgames.

Sinkholes appear on standard factual television: the National Geographic channel, PBS's Nova (1974–present), and the BBC have all produced one-hour documentaries on the subject. In popular moving-image cultures, the sinkhole appears as a portal not only to the unknown but also to unknowability, exposing instabilities of both physical and epistemological infrastructures. The factual television programs that explore the nature of the sinkhole purport to explain the phenomenon but resist deflating its mystery and horror. Sinkholes strike without warning or reason, these programs tell us. Their root causes remain unclear. The programs seem invested in...