Our media systems are at their limits. From climate change to Covid, the most pressing phenomena of our times cannot be captured by the flat media paradigm we’ve built up. The “slow violence” of climate change, as Rob Nixon warns us, is cunningly hard to see, playing out at such a temporal and spatial scale that it might not be seen as violence at all. Though we may get a photo of a flood here or a fire there, we always fall short of representing the thing itself, which exists at a scale that not only defies our perceptual capacities, but even our traditional ideas of what constitutes an object. These crises are in turns too large, small, distributed, or nonhuman to fit neatly into our ready-made genres and mediums.
Take, for example, nature documentaries like the perennial favorite Planet Earth or the newer Obama-narrated series Our Great National Parks. Critics have noted that rather than delivering us to a new understanding of the diverse ecological phenomena that compose the natural world (and our planet at large), these shows tend to opt for a familiar mode that perpetuates the status quo. Stunning images of unspoiled nature overemphasize the Eden-esque dimension of the rapidly shrinking green world and contribute to our complacency, anthropocentric narratives are projected onto animals that naturalize heteronormative nuclear family units, and the lack of humans onscreen sustains a naive vision of a human/nature binary that entrenches our alienation from it. As Chanelle Adams writes for The Drift, by presenting a “manageable slice of an otherwise uncontrollable and chaotic world system,” these shows transform the vast, nuanced phenomena in which we’re enmeshed into low-calorie entertainment, a simple morality tale about conservation.
Time and time again, the media mode we have at present— narrow, bound by genre, ocularcentric, and anthropocentric— has proven too flat to capture the vast complexity of its subjects. It is at once too visual to see the invisible, too abstract to motivate any sort of action, too rooted in the human to help us care for the inhuman Other. Furthermore, our notion of a “medium” as a human-made apparatus for conveying meaning (whether that takes the form of vinyl, film, or silicon-chip) constrains us to an overly anthropic, technological view of what gets to count as media. If we are to discourse with the crises we face, we will need to rethink our fundamental assumptions about our media and interrogate not only the conventions that attend it, but also our ideas about what constitutes a medium in the first place.
Though our media’s trajectory throughout the past century may seem like a series of expansions, each new development was a site of contestation. The history of media is, in many ways, a tug-of-war between those who have wanted to expand and those who have sought to constrain. Writers like Hugo Münsterberg in the early 20th century, for instance, resisted the incorporation of synchronized sound into film by arguing that sound “interfered with the chance of the moving pictures to develop their original nature.” Decades later, the introduction of color was met with similar friction from the artistic establishment, who thought it crass, causing color photography to remain relegated to the margins of artistic practice until photographers like Saul Leiter or Joel Meyerowitz began to change popular opinion in the midcentury. Even looking toward recent developments we find this tension between expansion and reduction at play; despite the ubiquity of digital media, the transition from the film cell to computer code had its fair share of skeptics who argued that the loss of filmic indexicality might put us in a position of “total cynicism” with regard to the image.
Moreover, these evolutions didn’t occur in a vacuum, but were constantly responding to broader shifts in the economic and technological architectures. For example, our ocularcentric epistemology—whereby visuals become tied to the cultural reality of events—can be closely linked to the rise of TV over radio as our de facto mass media channel. More recently, the ascent of social media platforms has helped further flatten media by filtering it through an underlying logic of limited attention and “thumbstop rates,” sifting out content that isn’t relatively short, digestible, affectively loaded, and spectacularly visual. In forming itself around these attributes, this flat media sacrifices complexity for convention, nuance and density for immediacy and ease of viewing.
Chimeric media, as opposed to the flat media we have now, introduces depth into this paradigm. Like the fabled chimera after which it’s named, this media will be heterogeneous, mixing the human with the nonhuman, the particular with the monumental, disrupting traditional categories and creating new formations that will allow us to see in a new way. Historically, we can see it as the successor to avant-garde movements like the French New Wave and Dada, which challenged not only the forms and conventions of our media but also the limits of what gets to be considered art or media at all. We begin by deconstructing the two pillars that constitute the heart of current media culture: a belief in the discrete senses (which supports our media’s ocularcentrism), and a view of media as a carrier of distinctly human meaning (which supports its anthropocentrism).
While a view of media as sense-extenders (e.g. photography extending sight, radio extending hearing) seems true enough at first glance, complications begin to arise when we turn our attention to the senses themselves. In De Anima, Aristotle demarcated five senses that supposedly compose our perceptual field: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It’s a view that has remained surprisingly sticky. To this day we’re taught that we have five senses, that each sense correlates to a different organ and operates on relatively independent registers, and that among the senses, sight is the primary modality by which we apprehend the world—the sense that all others can be positioned in reference to. Barry Smith, from the Centre for the Study of the Senses at University of London, homes in on the intellectual origins of this last point when he tells the Irish Times that the “great thinkers of the past” would often create their theories of perception by beginning with a visual example and building around that, leading to the persistent conflation between visual perception and perception as a whole. From this hierarchized, discrete view of the senses, it becomes a mere hop, skip, and jump to arrive at our ocularcentric, “pics or it didn’t happen” media culture with all its attendant problems.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
In reality, the picture is far more complex than we had ever imagined. At a different point in his conversation, Barry Smith notes that “there could be anything between 22 and 33” human senses, many of which aren’t associated straightforwardly with a body part— experiments, for example, have indicated that humans may have a form of magnetoreception (or the ability to sense magnetic fields), which notably lacks any corollary organ. Not only are our senses more diverse than we initially thought, they’re also more intertwined, always in the process of “talking behind our back,” as one article by Brendan Cole in this magazine phrased it. Rather than being essentially modal and discrete, our experience is fundamentally synesthetic, reflecting the late phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty’s view that the basic level of perception is a comprehensive field, or gestalt. It becomes challenging to articulate what might even qualify as a sense like “sight” when one considers those who use auditory echolocation—which activates areas of the “visual brain”—to navigate space. Our brain simply “isn’t wired to process each sensory input on its own, because no one sense tells it enough to accurately construct the world,” Cole continues. In an important way, the whole precedes the parts when it comes to perception.
Incorporating these insights into our media paradigm yields a new set of possibilities. The assumed primacy of sight becomes destabilized, and our entire bodies become a receptive field for media. This is, notably, something that many sense theorists have long been attuned to—often women or people of color, who lacked the luxury of ignoring their bodies. Laura Marks articulates the concept of “haptic visuality” in her seminal text The Skin of the Film to describe how film can impact our full sensorium. For her, as it is with us, the stakes are political, as this opens up media to new ways of working on its audiences and communicating experiences previously marginalized by the classical mode. Similarly, in her collection of essays Carnal Thoughts, Vivian Sobchack dissects how our “carnal senses” are constantly at work, whether we are “watching a film, moving about in our daily lives … or even thinking abstractly.” To deny the presence of the body would be to deny the foundational structure of our experience. Media’s power lies not in simply letting us see, but in letting us feel, with our whole corporeal selves, those realities that lie before us. This revelation is perhaps one reason that we’ve seen such a renewed interest in haptics, a recognition that we must recenter our embodiedness in our media experience. Yet to truly contend with the crisis we face, we must go beyond the human body and mind altogether.
In her brilliant essay Tentacular Thinking, Donna Haraway articulates the need for us to create a tradition that is “made up of ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake.” In these “times that remain at stake,” we need a media capable of telling not only our stories, but the stories of bacteria and fauna and beast—of helping us cultivate a “loving eye” toward the nonhuman world and tuning us into the “lyrics of the lichen” and the “volcanic poetry of the rocks,” as Ursula K. Le Guin hoped. Only when we have a media that deprivileges the Anthropos will we be able to use it to cultivate the radical relationships and care necessary to save the environment. Yet as Haraway indicates throughout her writings, this requires more than a simple shift in subject matter; rather, this media must strive to preserve the alienness that lies at the heart of nonhuman life—communicating “across irreducible difference” and relating “under the sign of significant otherness”—to avoid replicating the anthropocentric stance that so often leads to the exploitation of the green world. It is no easy task to transcend the optical, anthropic culture we have developed, but artists across a variety of disciplines are beginning to do just that.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
The film Dawn of Ape by the Japanese animator Mirai Mizue is, according to a title card that precedes the short, “the world’s first animation made to be watched by chimpanzees.” It is a violent cacophony of shapes and sounds that stretch its four-minute runtime into what seems like an almost unbearable eternity, a chimpanzee’s screech distilled into audiovisual form; at most points it is simply too much, the body tenses, your eyes struggle to keep up. Eschewing the conventional visual forms we’ve come to expect from animation—there’s no story, no discernible objects that appear—the short focuses instead on cultivating an embodied affective experience completely alien to a human audience. It is a thought experiment about the alienness of chimp consciousness, a filmic experience shaped around the phenomenology of Pan troglodytes rather than Homo sapiens. A final shot showing a group of chimpanzees seemingly enraptured by the video serves as a gag that hammers home the revelation that as humans, we simply didn’t “get” it. The film decenters us and allows us to confront these animals in their Otherness. It also cues us into the central motifs that we find throughout this new media tradition: a nonhuman stance that aims to disrupt our modern anthropic subjectivities, the rupture of expected form, and the use of a synesthetic, multimodal, affective logic.
Artists participating in this new mode have expanded on these techniques to craft creative solutions to the issues plaguing the dominant paradigm. Take, for instance, the issue of scale noted earlier. Since traditional visual media (whose mimetic form unfolds in space) is unable to expand to the size necessary to capture these hyperobjects, creators have instead begun to experiment with media that stretches and elongates time to articulate an alternative experience of magnitude grounded in duration. It’s one reason that Slow Cinema—a genre that prioritizes long takes, few cuts, and sustained presence—has become so popular in this new media tradition. By divorcing itself from the rapid, frenetic flow of time experienced by modern subjects (and drama-infused shows like Planet Earth) and putting us in closer communion with climatic time, pieces like James Benning’s Ten Skies— a 100-minute film composed of 10-minute-long takes of 10 different skies—craft a new relationship between audience and environment. Through temporal immersion, the audience arrives at “astonishing perceptual revelations about scale,” as Acropolis Cinema puts it, that would have been impossible had the film adhered to the bite-size structure that dominates our digital ecosystems. For these filmmakers, it’s not that visual media must get bigger to represent ever-larger subjects—an aspiration doomed to failure— but that it should help us discover new ways of sitting with these phenomena, shed light on new ways of relating to and moving about the world.
This emphasis on co-presence and immersion also shifts the center of gravity back towards non-visual mediums, particularly sound. Ben Rudin and Brian House’s Terminal Moraine, for instance, used “auditory representations of tree growth and glacial ice recession … simulated by algorithms” to represent an ongoing climatic dialogue spanning millennia. As the delicate sounds of ice and expansive sounds of cell growth layer and respond to each other, the piece gestures toward new ways of understanding a rhythmic geometry of change that has been playing out over eons, revealing a “deep history of this place and whatever comes next,” as one artistic statement says. Similarly, NASA’s release of the haunting, symphonic sound of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87 puts listeners in touch with an object that is by definition invisible, elevating its audience to a cosmic scale.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
These pieces foster a relationship between listener and non-visible objects by leveraging the fact that sound operates at a different representational register than sight. “We are fully accustomed to hearing things that are invisible” to us, Stanley Cavell writes in his study on the ontology of film; no one bats an eye when they hear an object that’s not there, he quips, whereas seeing an object that’s not there only happens in dreams. Moreover, while visuals—by virtue of the limitations of translating a three-dimensional object into two—can only represent a particular view of their subjects, recordings can capture and deliver sounds in their entirety, making them particularly effective at grappling with scale. Sound also puts us in the same key as a vast array of animal crafts, which opens up doors for collaboration. Musicians inspired by whale songs, for example, place themselves in dialog with the animal world as participants in the “jazz experience,” that is, the ever-evolving music of cetaceans. Lest we think this is just a feel-good metaphor, we should remember that cat meows are rarely seen among feral cats, indicating that it’s a behavior they’ve adopted to communicate with their furless friends. The anthrozoologist John Bradshaw writes about the “secret code of meows” that develops over time between human and feline to help them coordinate across an array of needs and tasks. Interspecies collaboration via sound is something that we’ve been doing for centuries, and new media are bringing this practice to the fore.
At a more fundamental level, organic life also provides a means by which artists have begun to move past the technological underpinnings of media altogether, pushing the notion of “medium” to its limits. Michael Wang’s Garden of Contagion intermingles infected and uninfected tulips, which remain identical until they bloom, at which point the infected plants reveal an array of beautifully striated petals. These tulips and their streaks serve as both an artistic medium for Wang and a literal medium for a virus in this work, returning us to an ancient sense of the term that took media and environment hand-in-hand. John Durham Peters tells us how “the concept of media … was connected to nature long before it was connected to technology,” a genealogy betrayed in the etymological entanglement between “medium” and “milieu.” Though these plants might not contain semantic or symbolic content as we know it, they are certainly sites of meaning and craft, encouraging us to ask exactly what kinds of things get to count as media.
The body as a medium and virus as material is a powerful provocation in the midst of a pandemic, and contributes to a lineage of thinkers who have sought to extract a media history from our own bodies. The French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, for example, famously argued that the development of bipedal locomotion was a sort of ur-technics that freed our hands and thus paved the way for all others. He gestures toward the fact that our biological and technical histories are irrevocably bound; not only does our bipedal, manually dexterous physiology enable our tool use, but our technics of fire manipulation and food preparation in turn paved the way for physical features like short jaws and large brain cases. As John Durham Peters tells us, “our bodily infrastructures—skulls, teeth, and feet—are historical, cultural, and technical in shape and function.” Deep wells of meaning are etched into our bones and DNA. Wang’s piece acknowledges this and forces us to think beyond the technological mode altogether, confronting the possibilities of media that are fleshy, organic, evolving. Though this requires us to discard the pretense of total control that accompanies a more technological, human-made conception of media, we are rewarded with a media that is alive, changing, full of surprises, and capable of affecting us just as we affect it. What truths might be revealed, Wang seems to ask, if every living thing were a medium and had a message that we might be able to read?
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
If the examples that I have given seem broad and varied, that is intentionally so. The phenomena that reveal the limitations of our current media are too complex to be approached through a single, prescriptive manner and our expanded paradigm shouldn’t replicate the failures of its predecessor. Having challenged the dominance of sight and Anthropos and revealed the false assumptions on which our media rests, we’ve reopened avenues that have long been cordoned off. There is no singular path forward for this many-headed chimeric media, but a series of simultaneous possibilities.
Flat media will continue to exist, and this new media may face difficulties gaining traction within a digital distribution system that prefers low-fidelity, digestible, mobile content. But our media have been undergoing an evolution pitting expansion against containment for as long as we’ve had media to contest, and our need for a paradigm that is truer to the world—as varied and multifaceted and colorful—is only growing. Just as we came to accept color, synchronized sound, or digitality as dimensions of our media, we might come to accept leafy plants and fungi alongside celluloid and code. Though the media to come may not look or feel like any that have come before, it will be all the better for it.