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

Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) 253 pp. ISBN: 9780190696788 

In her monograph Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, Jennifer Fay enacts a perhaps unlikely juxtaposition by interrogating the deep, geological time of the Anthropocene-as-epoch alongside the micro-temporalities of cinematic moments. Her ambitious project benefits, though, from the overlapping underpinnings of the man-made worlds of cinema and the Anthropocene -- not least, the vague “we” that characterizes both the generalized masses of the film’s audience and the undifferentiated category of the anthropos as the agent of environmental disaster. While Fay intermittently remarks upon the white, Western male as the primary perpetrator of a deadly environmental epoch that has elsewhere been more aptly termed the “Capitalocene,”[1] the universalizing impulses of both the cinematic audience and the Anthropocene allow her to tease out themes that carry import for theories of the image and of the environment: affect, alienation, hospitality, and the unravelling of the Nature/Culture divide. 

Fay divides Part I, “On Location…,” into three chapters that traverse the American twentieth century, examining films that lay bare Americans’ attempts to control the environment by whatever means necessary  ̶  in the name of both cinematic spectacle and global warfare. Identifying the United States as the “most polluting nation in history” (16), Fay is interested in the means by which both filmmakers and governmental actors wrest power in order to adapt the world or adapt to it. In the first chapter, “Buster Keaton’s Climate Change,” Fay describes the expansive (and expensive) sets that Keaton built for Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), as well as the artificial weather events he contrived to destroy them. Fay examines both the technical prowess of Keaton’s work and the context from which his films arose: the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the chlorine gas warfare of the First World War. While Fay does not cite Paul Virilio’s seminal text War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (1989), she does invoke Peter Sloterdijk’s commentary on the lethal atmospheres of World War I in order to examine the affective consequences of Keaton’s slapstick, weather-based comedy for the shell-shocked interwar audience. 

Chapter 2, “Nuclear Conditioning,” transports the reader to Nevada’s Atomic Testing Site and into a decisively more sinister affective environment. Fay speculates that this scientific and aesthetic outdoor laboratory, which not only witnessed thousands of nuclear explosions but also enabled their cinematic capture between the late 1940s and early 1960s, became both the most bombed and most filmed place on earth (65). To underscore the pedagogical function of these atomic films, which were produced by the Civil Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission and which aimed to prepare both military personnel and the “general” spectator for nuclear war, Fay lingers with Walter Benjamin’s elusive philosophical remarks on the “training” effects of cinema (66). She argues that these films “intended to prove the reliability of the bomb, its targets, and the image” (68), but in so doing, enacted a rehearsal for disaster that “may have enhanced rather than mitigated nuclear anxiety” (67). This second chapter perhaps most successfully marries philosophies of the image and the social function of film with theories of the Anthropocene: citing Jan Zalasiewicz, Fay considers these first American experiments with nuclear warfare  ̶  and the attendant proliferation of toxic and “unnatural” isotopes into the atmosphere  ̶  as the introduction of indubitably anthropogenic planetary changes. In this chapter, the Anthropocene heralds, and is heralded by, a deadly spectacle, not a slow death.  

In the third chapter, “The Ecologies of Film Noir,” Fay adapts this cinematic “pedagogy for the Anthropocene” (98) to consider how American film noir “teaches viewers how to die” (100). Noting the ways in which first- and second-generation film noir banishes children and families from their pessimistic narratives  ̶  thereby eschewing the “reproductive futurism” that Lee Edelman rebukes in his polemic No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive  ̶  Fay argues that “the genre’s refusal to think forward is one of the most politically progressive features of its social ecology” (110). While Fay notes that film noir’s passivity resonated as apolitical in the postwar American climate, she insists that this genre teaches the contemporary viewer “that we do less harm and may even access greater freedom when we give up hope” (124). 

Fay transports the reader away from the United States to China and then to Antarctica in Part II, “ the End of the World,” while remaining attentive to the entanglements of anthropogenic climate change and film production with the projects of nation-building and profit accumulation. In Chapter 4, “Still Life,” Fay describes the Chinese Three Gorges Dam as a kind of “national performance art,” borrowing Rob Nixon’s term to reference the militarized grandiosity of the American nuclear tests that she examines in Chapter 2. To expose the disastrous effects of the dam  ̶  which flooded entire cities and displaced more than a million people  ̶  and the “small-scale political practice of hospitality” (150) that arises in its wake, Fay reads Jia Zhangke’s 2006 digital film Still Life (Sanxia Haoren) alongside Liu Xiaodong’s oil paintings to consider the genre of the still life as a representation of post-apocalyptic hospitality, insofar as it invites the viewer to be a “guest at the table” (143). In the second half of the chapter, Fay attends to the materiality of the analog and digital image by way of digital artist Yang Yi’s series Uprooted (2007-2008), in which Yang’s digital manipulations allow him to juxtapose quotidian, nostalgic portraits with underwater rubblescapes. Invoking Roland Barthes and the future perfect tense  ̶  the “will have been” ̶  that the photographic capture heralds, Fay writes “the particular melancholy of photography is that it allows us to view and then to embrace what is past, what is no longer, what is now or will at some point in the future be dead” (156). What will be dead is, Fay speculates, analog media, whose light-writing (photo-graphy) of a past (and passed) moment is replaced by the future-oriented digital image, whose binary code permits post-production alterations to construct imaginary dreamworlds. It is fitting, Fay notes, for these artists to eschew analog media in their depictions of post-socialist and post-flooded China; after all, “our present environmental crisis is without analogy” (153-4). 

Fay locates her final chapter, “Antarctica and Siegfried Kracauer’s Extraterrestrial Film Theory,” in the South Pole, “the most inhospitable place on Earth,” (162) a setting that represents a world without humans just as its melting ice threatens to swallow coastal cities and absent human life from the rest of the globe. Fay lingers with Kracauer’s Theory of Film, noting that in his post-World War II exile, he wrote “after the worst has already occurred” (20). Casting both Auschwitz and the Anthropocene as man-made apocalypses, Fay reads Kracauer’s Theory of Film as a mode of “thinking at the edge of extinction,” which “is a kind of ecological attunement that presumes the subject’s alien relation to the planet” (180). In her analysis of two early 20th-century exploration films  ̶  South (1919) and 90º South: With Scott to the Antarctic (1922)  ̶  that (fail to) narrativize the South Pole in the service of the British Empire, Fay identifies Antarctica as a productive affront to Eurocentric and Enlightenment tenets of universal rationality and global control. In the same vein, Kracauer’s late writing, characterized by what Gerhard Richter terms extraterritoriality (197), offers, for Fay, a means for the viewer to alienate herself and to “form non-binding attachments to hostile places we have never called home” (198). 

In the concluding remarks of her book, Fay dilates on the materiality of film; that is, the vulnerability of nitrate film to the floods and fires of the Anthropocene. In her reading of Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), a cinematic archive of semi-decomposed nitrate films buried and subsequently excavated from the Yukon Valley’s permafrost, Fay shifts her considerations from how the image represents the environment to how the environment degrades the image, and what traces of it may remain in our absence. 

Fay’s Inhospitable World offers a resolutely interdisciplinary approach to the urgent demand, occasioned by anthropogenic climate change, to reconsider the place of the human in her environment. While the thick art historical descriptions that traverse Fay’s text might appear to be digressions from her environmental concerns  ̶  and may very well put off readers situated outside literary or artistic disciplines  ̶  they serve to buttress her eco-philosophy of the hospitality of the film and the image. Students of cinema and photographic history who are interested in interrogating the technicality and place of the (moving) image in the age of its, and our, environmental destructibility will be particularly served by Fay’s insights; certainly, the book’s marriage of affect, ethics, and aesthetics marks a critical and timely intervention into the environmental humanities. 

Elizabeth Berman, Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin at Climate Action Implementation Facility, Berlin

[1] See Donna Haraway, “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene,” in Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).