Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene

Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), ISBN 9780190696771 (Print), 9780190696818 (E-book)

In a world growing ever more damaged by irreversible climate change, Jennifer Fay considers how cinema and aesthetic projects have responded to the ‘unnaturalness of human existence’ on our planet (4). Isolating the representations of weather and human impact on our ecology, Fay explores the transformative possibilities of experiencing the ‘Anthropocene as an aesthetic practice’ through the cinematic production of ‘artificial worlds, weather, climates, and even planets’ (4-5). Fay’s ambitious book is divided into two parts, with five chapters that survey a wide range of films and genres including Buster Keaton’s comedies, American atomic test films, film noir, the art of China’s Three Gorges Dam, and films of early Antarctic exploration. Paralleling the rich histories of film and location design, Fay’s work illustrates not only the realised ambitions of Anthropogenic filmmaking, but also its consolidation with environmental cinema in a cultural retrospective that defines the Anthropocene as catalysed by the first atomic test in 1945 (17).  In doing so, her work posits a careful exploration of how ‘the Anthropocene answers a wish for a human-made and manipulated planet’, even at the expense of our world’s eventual ecological inhospitality (6).

Chapter One’s focus on the comedies of Buster Keaton pays particularly close attention to the role of weather in cinema considered pre-Anthropocenic, ultimately foregrounding how his films contribute to the ‘modern – at times tragic – modes of inhospitable world-making’ (28). Although the connection between Keaton’s films and our ecological environment may not be immediately apparent, Fay argues that the weather in Keaton’s world functions as a ‘reflexive modernist ecology’ that consequently ‘foregrounds artificiality and the technique of environmental design’ (38). Best thought of as an early iteration of experimental film production, Fay crucially highlights that while ‘manufactured weather [was] not produced with [a] consciousness of global warming’, it taps into the inner psyche’s awareness that ‘”natural” disasters [are] often attributable’ to mankind, the industry, and war, and that such nature was a product of an increasingly capitalistic and consumer-driven culture (26). Fay suggests that as Keaton finds himself with ‘ever-diminished control over his simulated world’ humanity’s ‘ecological dependency’ is revealed, a necessity of ‘twentieth century modernist aesthetics’ (40). Inverse to the logic of the Anthropocene, which Fay aligns as ‘a humanity at peace with itself and at war with its environment’, she proposes that Keaton’s films explore the early introductions of nature’s volatile capabilities into cinema (64). Through this, Fay demonstrates her work’s ability to reconfigure unexpected cinematic genre as an Anthropocenic project, a notion that permeates throughout the text.

In the second chapter, Fay turns towards America’s growth as a military superpower, its nuclear experimentation, and ‘the nation most responsible for spearheading many of the geo-engineering projects associated with the Great Acceleration’ (16). Like Keaton’s slapstick productions, Fay argues that nuclear test films serve as a location in which more ‘environments are manufactured for the sake of rehearsing war, practicing science, testing bombs, and producing films’ (17). Serving as a vital historization of our exploitative and destructive treatment of our environment, this chapter functions as a careful mediation on the inception of the Anthropocenic epoch.

However, Fay’s greatest theoretical feat is, perhaps, her ambitious chapter exploring the thematic and aesthetic values of film noir and its innate, but obscured, connections to the Anthropocene. In her introduction, Fay establishes her aim to ‘rescue the future’ and ‘to challenge any notion that our present environmental crisis is the telos of history or an unavoidable product of human nature’ (19). Proposing film noir as an elegiac genre ‘devoted to the pedagogy of death’, Fay explicitly outlines how film noir, through both its narratorial structuring and its typical mis-en-scene, highlight a future devoid of nature, and thus hope (96). The hostility of film noir’s urban architecture vividly illustrates an inhospitable world, a sentiment only exacerbated by the genre’s preoccupation with death and mortality. ‘Rather than strive to mould a future, to right all wrongs, to create or procreate, the noir hero typically gives up,’ Fay suggests, and in doing so proposes that ‘film noir thus offers us a vision of not so much a fallen but a fallow humanity’ (99). Introducing Lee Edelman’s notion of ‘reproductive futurism’, the cultural fetishization of the Child as an emblem of futurity, Fay argues that film noir is, thus, able to embrace ‘a pessimistic ecology without familial hope’ (99).

A closer look at Edelman’s work illuminates that his advocation for (queer) negativity is merely an extension of the Freudian death drive. It’s of little surprise, then, that the theorist and his conception of reproductive futurism serve as an apt theoretical framework to examine Anthropocentric cinema. But since the publication of Edelman’s polemic in 2004, his macabre outlook on futurity has been challenged and reenvisaged as a project of ecological renewal. Fay’s Inhospitable World is no exception, asking readers to consider what role might cinema play in Anthropocentric pedagogy, and ‘how might cinema teach us to die?’ (96). Yet, as Fay highlights how the ethos of ‘anti-humanist ecologies orient us to the ends of a consuming capitalist culture without the promise of renewal, redemption, or hope for regeneration’, her work also offers a semblance of hope (100).

After a chapter focusing on natural disaster situated in China and the growing instability of nature and our natural world, Fay turns to Siegfried Kracauer's film and photographic theory along with cinematic records of early Antarctic exploration. The content, which she describes as ‘utterly inhospitable’ reveals ‘an earth outside of human feeling and utility without sacrificing the particularity that gets lost in scientific abstraction’, refusing ‘to yield to human purpose’ (19). It is here that readers may best envisage an inhospitable world, and an embodiment of the potential ‘disastrous geological change of the Anthropocene’ (150). As Fay explores how Kracauer’s work depicts the ‘alien nature in the raw returns us to the glacial splendour of Antarctica’, readers are forced to consider a world beyond the scope of human interventions (181). This, Fay proposes, allows us to understand ‘an otherworldly truth and to ponder an earth apart from human meaning’ (200).

Inhospitable World ultimately offers its readers a robust commentary on a broad range of cinematic material, and indeed, a careful consideration on the ‘philosophical relationship between the histories, temporalities, and aesthetics of human-driven climate change and the politics, environmentalism, and ethics of cinema’ (5). ‘For the future life forms who excavate or penetrate the earth and encounter our traces (including our media culture in some form),’ Fay concludes, ‘we will be the nature upon which they create their worlds and rituals of hospitality’ (206). In an extended analysis of futurity in a time of ever-worsening ecological collapse, Fay’s book embraces Ararvamudan’s ideas concerning the uncertainty of our Anthropocenic futures, also offering an intervention into Edelman’s negative approach to futurity. Instead, Fay proposes that readers should embrace that uncertainty as a symptom of life’s cyclicality as we, too, were once alien to this world.

Katie Anne Tobin, Durham University