Abstracts and biographies for panellists

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Dustin Breitling (Masaryk University)

Dustin Breitling is a PhD candidate at Masaryk University. He has curated Thanatropic Regressions (2014), an installation which focused on the implications of accelerationism approached through the theoretical prism of geo-philosophy, and was co- organizer of Frontiers of Solitude project (2016), the Reinventing Horizons conference (2016), and the Wyrdpatchworkshop I-IV (2018-2019). He is co- editor of Reinventing Horizons (display, 2016) and Allegorithms (Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2017), Speculative Ecologies (Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2020).

Scaling the Mesocosm

This talk endeavors to explore how Video-Gaming has emerged as a global ubiquitous medium and critically an engine that ‘premediates’ or actively shapes future pathways. Further, it intends to explore the intersection of premediation in relation to spawning possible futures, complemented by an exploration of how gaming engenders questions in terms of ‘scaling’ with respect to complex systems. This talk aims to link up the role of gaming with Alenda Chang’s contention that gaming environments generate ‘mesocosms’ that in turn can equip us with ‘scalar understanding’. Departing from the conception of games as oversimplified abstractions, we can rather explore how they compel us to investigate into the nature of scaling and modeling. Respectively, games are vehicles that attempt to replicate natural spaces that afford the possibilities to tinker, create tractable scales, and critically play with the key properties or specific features that are mimicking the physical world. Surveying an array of ecological games, we can chart out the intimate historical relationship and understanding of ecology bound up with simulation from the works of Jay Forrester, Howard T. Odum, Buckminster Fuller, and the seminal book Gaming: the Future’s Language by Richard D. Duke (1974) that posited a simulation game or serious game could be utilized as a means for planning and decision making.

Critical questions arise concerning the nature of visualization that accompanies my investigation, particularly how worlds are rendered or modeled in their spatial representation, and the potential hindrances of the ‘complexity paradox’ as posited by Hugh Cannon. We are posed challenges that highlight how the addition of variables or diversity of game parameters that bid to further represent the complexity of systems potentially can dilute the capacity to effectively track and furnish us with the needed resources of legibility in the face of wicked problems and the multiple elements that compose complex systems. Thus, key considerations concerning how to scale up from the mesocosms of our gameworlds to face the challenges of capturing the frictions and realities of nonlinear and interconnected phenomena, the emergence as well as alternation of properties of systems that are deeply scale-dependent, becomes a decisive terrain for exploration. Moreover, it requires being attendant to the realities that video games fundamentally and thermodynamically differ in many respects from complex systems. Importantly, this becomes crucial in grasping the difference in aspects of scale between the virtual and legacy world that are also interdependent on multiple factors. These factors can be highlighted along the grounds of key concepts such as ‘irreversibility’ due to the potential to wipe away a systems’ or a games’ history, openness of a system by virtue of a video game itself incapable to interact with its surrounding environment.

Nonetheless, with the emergence of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, the speculative contours that arise to complement the focus on providing legibility and ways of reimainging scale in relation to complex systems becomes negotiable. With the increasing sophistication of Artificial intelligence that becomes fruitful grounds for expanding the possibility of rebuilding adversarial or scorched landscapes, environmental generation as well as the collection of real-time data or player experience modeling that are bound to enrich and equally further complexify the nature of gaming experience. ultimately we are thrust in a position to imagine the increased employment of Deep Zoom Technology, Generative Adversarial Networks, Natural Language Processing that will complement the role of Real-Time Data, or Player Experience Modeling as opening the space of possibilities for translating and enriching considerations concerning concepts of scale as more tangible. This final part of the talk thus will flesh out a way to complicate and problematise the nature of scale within ecological games, and yet consider how the employment of VR, AR, MR complement a possible bootstrapping of a ‘scalar environmental consciousness’. (Chang, 2020)

Works Cited:
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chang A. Playing Nature: The Ecology of Video Games, University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
Duke, R.D. Gaming: The Future’s Language. (1974).

Dr Concepción Cortés Zulueta (University of Málaga)

Concepción Cortés Zulueta is a Juan de la Cierva postdoctoral fellow at Universidad de Málaga, Spain. She received her PhD in art history from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Her research, interdisciplinary in its scope, focuses on the presence and agency of nonhuman animals in contemporary art and visual culture. She has published many articles and chapters on this topic, included several pieces on insects and contemporary artists, and a contribution in Society & Animals’ special issue The Silent Majority: Invertebrates in Human-Animal Studies, edited by Lisa Jean Moore and Rhoda Wilkie. She recently coedited, with Reyes Escalera, a special issue of Boletín de Arte on Animals and Art History (Animales e Historia del Arte). She has made temporary research stays at La Sapienza, Università di Roma; the National Art Library (Victoria & Albert Museum); the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies (University of Canterbury, Christchurch) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Looking through the myriad lenses of a fly’s eye: the persistence and transformations of an entomological scale play and a microscopic-telescopic experience

Across many cultures, and historical periods, humans have turned to tiny insects in order to reflect on huge, even planetary issues; for instance, to ant hills or, especially, to beehives. During the 18th century and the European Enlightenment, the latter were enclosed between glass walls and observed and acclaimed as the perfect society, due to their hierarchical organization (Ramírez, 2000). While the conceptual physical size of these insect colonies was enlarged so they could be compared with and act as a model for human societies and cities, at times humans were speculatively reduced, and their urban comings and goings were equated to the activities of minute ants, or busy bees.

These entomological scale plays with ants and bees are just one kind among many other, also starred by insects [1]. Actually, this kind of entomological scale plays have taken on a new light and relevance in the last decades, owing to the fact that insect populations have been in a constant and sharp decline around the globe (Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys, 2019; Wagner et al., 2021). The causes are varied: climate change, habitat loss, pesticides, pollution… But all of them point back to humans, and bring a novel dimension to entomological scale plays, in the sense that they put insects in the centre of the anxieties, uncertainties, and fears that characterise the Anthropocene. This means that tiny, minuscule, insects, are thus at the centre of the temporal and spatial entanglements of yet another scale play. From the tiny insects to the issues affecting a whole planet; from the human instants of the here and now that build up to accelerate the changes of a geological era. A circumstance that is more pressing if we take into account that millions of insects have been around for hundreds of millions of years before humans appeared.

Hence, I would like to consider a specific case associated with a very peculiar entomological scale play and experience first practiced in the 17th century, and then continued across the centuries, transformed and adapted according to the emerging technologies and media. An experience linked to the compound eyes of insects —especially flies— that, into the 20th century, became associated with certain misconceptions about the vision of insects, and about the potential menace of insects towards human beings. Because of this, and because of the likely contribution of these misconceptions to human rejection or indifference towards insects and their current plight, it is relevant to expose them and their prejudices, and to disentangle the scale plays and mediations that collapse into them.

According to the British naturalist Henry Baker (1698-1774), the Dutch merchant and scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) took the compound eye of a fly, with its multitude of faceted lenses, put it in his microscope, and used this assemblage as a telescope to look at the steeple of a church three hundred feet high and seven hundred feet away so “he could plainly see through every little lens the whole steeple, inverted, tho’ [sic] not larger than the point of a fine needle” (cited in Schickore, 2007). The first thing that stands out in this microscopic- telescopic experience is this conjunction of optical devices: a microscope (small + look), an instrument to see the infinitesimal, employed as a telescope (far + look), to watch what is far away and looks small, although it is potentially huge. A further iteration of the tiny and the huge is exemplified by the eye of the fly and its microscopic lenses, on the one hand, and the steeple of the church, almost a hundred meters high, on the other. A steeple then optically inverted through the microscopic lenses, made as tiny as a needle, and multiplied.

From this moment on, this entomological scale play and microscopic-telescopic experience persisted across the following centuries, adopting their emerging technologies and media, and adapting to them. At the beginning, these technologies and media were microscope, and printed illustrations, then came solar microscope and light projections, magic lantern slides, photography, cinema, and finally digital technologies and their pixels. Consequently, I will focus on analysing both the persistence of this particular entomological scale play and microscopic-telescopic experience, and the transformations and adaptations it has endured along the centuries, and their implications. Concerning its persistence, it is significant the pairing of the minute fly lenses with certain of the items chosen to be seen, and multiplied, through them: the steeple of a church, or Queen Victoria, huge in either spatial of symbolic terms. Regarding its transformations, I will develop how they lead into a monsterisation of insects in general and flies in particular, and their vision, through cinema and the diffusion of certain misconceptions. Monsterisation and misconceptions that it is important to dissolve, to raise awareness about the ecological relevance of insects, now that they are at the centre of antropocenic concerns.

[1] For other cases of scale plays “from the tiny to the huge” involving insects and contemporary artists see: (Cortés Zulueta, 2016 and 2019).


Sources/References:
Cortés Zulueta, Concepción. ‘Pequeñas Hormigas Mundanas, Enormes Insectos Utópicos: Las Obras Mirmecológicas de Yukinori Yanagi’. REGAC, 2016, pp. 277–315.
—. ‘Two diverging cosmologies from the tiny to the huge: Liang Shaoji and Hubert Duprat’s artistic collaborations with silkworms and caddisflies’. Animal encounters, Böhm and Ullrich (eds.), J.B. Metzler, 2019, pp. 133–45.
Ramírez, Juan Antonio. The Beehive Metaphor: From Gaudí to Le Corbusier. Reaktion Books, 2000.
Sánchez-Bayo, Francisco, and Kris A. G. Wyckhuys. ‘Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna: A Review of Its Drivers’. Biological Conservation, vol. 232, Apr. 2019, pp. 8–27.
Schickore, Jutta. ‘The Most Signal and Illustrious Instance of the Use of the Microscope: Benjamin Martin on the Insect Eye’. From Makers to Users: Microscopes, Markets and Scientific Practices in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Generali et al. (eds.), 2004.
Wagner, David L., et al. ‘Insect Decline in the Anthropocene: Death by a Thousand Cuts’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 118, no. 2, Jan. 2021, p. e2023989118.

Sasha Crawford-Holland (University of Chicago)

Sasha Crawford-Holland is a PhD candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow in Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Chicago, researching how people use nonfiction media to organize power relations. Sasha’s dissertation examines how media rescale social experience by extending and modulating thermal perception. Sasha’s writing about media politics is published in Film History, Television & New Media, Synoptique, and American Quarterly.

Oppressive Heat: Scaling Extreme Weather in Local Television

During the July 1995 heat wave that killed an estimated 739 Chicago residents, television coverage mediated the heat as a fun meteorological anomaly. For days, the event failed to register as a disaster because it lacked the scalar qualities through which media institutions and cultural imaginaries make public sense of catastrophes. It was neither sudden nor spontaneous; it exceeded the boundaries of any ground zero; and it offered no spectacular visuality. Only when the county morgue recruited refrigerated trucks to store overflowing corpses did newsrooms belatedly shift to the televisual idiom of catastrophe. The scene provided a time, place, and image of disaster that television could process through familiar conventions of coverage. However, these conventions—premised on rupture and discontinuity—obscured the longer histories of organized abandonment and slow violence that distributed differential vulnerability to the heat long before its arrival. The heat wave occurred at the conjunction of numerous processes unfolding at incommensurate scales, from individual medical history to social geography to weather systems. How did local media institutions, tasked with making imperceptible phenomena available to human sense, frame the experience and epistemology of this lethal multiscalar event?

Journalism, disaster sociology, and television theory all betray scalar biases in privileging spectacular, interruptive, localized events. However, I contend that the paradigmatic catastrophes of our times are—like heat waves—temporally indeterminate, spatially distributed, and avisual. In this presentation, I investigate how institutional forces and dispositions organize the social experience of these diffuse catastrophes by examining TV coverage of Chicago’s 1995 heat wave. I focus on local television, often overlooked in scholarship despite being Americans’ primary news source in the 1990s. When extreme heat is mediated by local news, disaster becomes ambient—no longer a pronounced rupture witnessed from afar but rather an indeterminate event inside of which viewers, reporters, producers, and infrastructures are differentially situated. Local coverage collectivizes risk perception despite its constituencies’ diverse circumstances, producing theories of the local based on demographic priorities.

News and weather coverage are complementary scaling practices that institutionalize conceptions of the local. In journalism, local stations often function as modular nodes—owned by national networks, staffed by itinerant reporters, and governed by the centripetal dictates of market research that get scaled to national broadcasts if profitable. Weather coverage is structured by similar dynamics. When the electrical telegraph made it possible for signals to travel faster than storms, it disarticulated weather knowledge from phenomenal observation. Local meteorology remains firmly within this paradigm; weathercasters lend a folksy touch to local forecasts transmitted from distant centres of calculation. What happens to the ambiguous designation “local” when it is a generic, scalable brand reticulated through centralized infrastructures?

Temperature provides a compelling vantage into these issues because it is an inherently scalar concept. Expressed numerically, it is an average—the average kinetic energy of a given grouping of particles. Every description of temperature aggregates and differentiates at a particular resolution, such as those inherited from medicine (body temperature), geography (a region’s temperature), or geology (the temperature of an epoch), effacing the thermal variations within each object. Some climate activists counter the absorptive procedure of averaging with a politics of visibility that emphasizes the local. However, the ethical demand to prioritize local precision over global generalization does not resolve the problem because temperature’s scalar contingency persists at every resolution. This is evident in the context of local news, which is as fraught with conflicts between demographic and regional constituencies as national or international news is. By detailing how news and weather coverage negotiated such conflicts during the heat wave, I demonstrate that the aesthetics of temperature are intricately entangled in the politics of population.

Temperature is a perceptual schema whose scalar frames variously foreground and obscure different political relations. As Max Liboiron underscores, scale is not just a matter of relative size but rather the question of “what relationships matter within a particular context.” [1] Like temperature, heat waves and the heat index are scalar concepts underpinned by political demarcations of what years, bodies, or regions to count and what resolutions to account for—of what relationships matter. For example, whereas climatologists working at meteorology’s synoptic scale isolate the relations between soil moisture and atmospheric humidity to determine whether a heat wave will be “oppressive,” activists identify disinvestment and housing discrimination as causes of “oppressive” heat. These disjunctive scales converged in Chicago to produce a socio-environmental disaster, yet local journalism’s own scalar commitments precluded such a multiscalar apprehension.

Taking methodological inspiration from temperature itself—from its scalar contingency, I investigate how local coverage scaled a paradigmatically diffuse, nonspectacular disaster to the frame of human experience. I find that market research consultants’ demographic averages oriented news and weather coverage toward the production of regional averages that obscured acute differences. This preference for smooth averages elided the nonlinear processes and spatial irregularities that distribute heat exposures unevenly—for example, as weathercasts disentangled the weather from the histories of segregation that make Black neighbourhoods thermometrically hotter. Journalistic and meteorological conventions naturalized this imaginary with their aesthetics of trans-scalar mobility that traverse multiple resolutions without toggling to the corresponding constraints and relations that matter differently at different scales. By contrasting this mobility with the tactics through which artists and activists have subsequently mapped the heat wave, I argue for a critical aesthetics of disjuncture that apprehends temperature as a multiscalar political relation.

[1] Max Liboiron, Pollution Is Colonialism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 84.

Dr Andrew Fisher (Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), Prague)

I am a founding editor of the journal Philosophy of Photography (2010-present) and currently Research Fellow in Photography at FAMU (Prague) working on a project entitled: Flusser, Simondon and the temporal scales of contemporary photography. Prior to this, I was principle investigator of the collaborative research project, ‘Scale, Measure and Proportion in Contemporary Visual Cultures’ (also at FAMU 2022-2021). Much of my recent research has centered on the significance of various conceptions and relationships of scale for the understanding of both historical and contemporary forms of photography. This has resulted in a series of publications including: “Three Scale Models for a Photographic World: Benjamin, constellation, image and scale” (2021), in Philosophy of Photography, Vol. 11, Nos. 1 & 2. “Living With the Excessive Scale of Contemporary Photography” (in Photography Off the Scale, (2021) Tomáš Dvořák & Jussi Parikka (eds.), Edinburgh University Press, and, “Der fotografische Maßstab” (Photographic Scale), (in Ästhetik der Skalierung, Sonderheft 18, Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft (2020), Carlos Spoerhase, Steffen Siegel & Nikolaus Wegmann (eds.), Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag).

Flusser, Simondon and the scales of contemporary photography

Recent research has established that to make, look at or use a photographic image today is to be confronted by unavoidable questions of scale. The focus has tended to be on the sheer scale of photography: its overwhelming ‘size’. This paper stems from a research project which investigates underlying processes of scaling and scalability that shape this photographic milieu but that remain under-examined. Vilém Flusser’s concept of apparatus and Gilbert Simondon’s concept of milieu are its starting points. Though rarely remarked, questions of scale are important to both of these influential thinkers. In brief, Flusser’s notion of apparatus takes photography as a matrix of scaling processes and Simondon’s use of the concept milieu is critically oriented by questions of scalability. Through a scaled reading of these concepts, the paper will outline a framework within which to investigate the contemporary photographic image as an intersection between multiple and interrelated processes of scaling that unfold in a contested milieu of scalability.

The paper sets out from the idea that contemporary photography can be understood as a multi-layered and massively extended milieu of relations that span almost every aspect of human endeavor. Some of these are obvious, for instance, the relationships that photographic images mediate between individual, group and institutional scales. Some are less so, like the modes of scaling operative within the ‘black box’ of the photographic apparatus. Some relations of scale are globally determining but difficult to envision, such as the large-scale economic and geo-political interests that use photographic means to insinuate themselves into individual lives, thus rendering them scalable. In this context, the massive and accelerating expansion of photography has restructured the individual’s relation to the many and to processes of world formation in which they might be supposed to share. The different senses of scale and processes of scaling thus placed in question collide with each other, so to speak, in and through the photographic image. Combined, these factors suggest that photography should be thought of in scaled terms, but they also foreground the need to develop a reflexive understanding of the variety of scaled problematics that face our understanding of photography today.

In response, the paper projects two intersecting micro- and macro- logical trajectories of analysis. Firstly, the processual character of the photographic apparatus might be modelled along lines suggested by Vilém Flusser, re-articulating his celebrated concept of the apparatus according to its critically neglected temporal logic as a mutable combination of scaling processes. This would promise understanding of photography from the perspective of combined small-scale processes that coalesce into large-scale photographic determinations of the visual. But this micro-logical approach would need to be tempered by parallel analyses that start out from the large-scale – the massive horizon of photography as such – and that set out to model the overdetermination of smaller-scale processes. In this vein, the second part of the paper will go on to analyze Simondon’s concept of milieu, following his suggestion that the field of technical objects is oriented by critical conditions of scalability.  Such a combined micro- and macro- logical approach promises critical purchase on the processes of scaling and conditions of scalability to which all of our photographic actions, apparatuses and images are subject.

Yazdanmehr Gordanpour (University of British Columbia)

Yazdanmehr Gordanpour is a Ph.D. student in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of British Columbia. With a background in English, he is currently working at the intersection of digital, environmental, and energy humanities. His dissertation will focus on the Petrocultures of the Okanagan as part of the SSHRC-funded project, Kelownafornia: Cultures of Nature in the Okanagan Valley (PI Greg Garrard).

Close Reading in the Age of Climate Change: Scale in Interpretative Methodologies

“If modernism was haunted by time [and] postmodernism [was] obsessed by space,” [1] then narrative in the Anthropocene is beset by scale. It has been widely agreed that the scale of climate change makes it incredibly difficult to grasp. Recent climate novels have tried – with varying degrees of success – to incorporate spectrums of scale wider than the normal/bodily/mesoscale of realist narratives. However, the methodological toolbox of literary scholars consists primarily of close reading which after all the linguistic, cultural, material, and other “turns,” still remains a cornerstone of any humanistic inquiry that involves a cultural medium. When considering the scalar incommensurability of close reading, which by and large can only make claims on a limited number of texts, with the magnitude of climate change, two closely related questions emerge: Is close reading still a justifiably indispensable pillar of hermeneutic/interpretive methodologies? And should we – or can we –  strive towards trans-scalarity in hermeneutic research? I, in my talk, would argue that the answer to the first question is no but take an agnostic stance regarding the second question through exploring several options.

The primary inadequacy of close reading lies in the fact that it operates in a “scale domain” [2] in which the act of “differentiation” [3] occurs between individual texts. Whereas the assumption of problem-centered fields like ecocriticism and environmental humanities is that the objective of the research is gleaning insights on the ecocultural circumstances of the Anthropocene in what could be described as similar to “symptomatology” [4] or explications of “structures of feeling” [5]. These insights on phenomena belonging to a global scale necessarily change the scale of study as well. Thus, transforming the object of study from texts to corpora by eliminating the mentioned unit of differentiation. Seen this way, the discourse of methodological scale can provide a new measure to distinguish the long-eroded boundary of form-specific insights on texts in literary studies and the generalizable theoretical observations that merely use texts emblematically as cultural studies.

More crucially, the hermeneutic domain complicates the notion of scaling up or down as interpretation, which is fundamentally concerned with meaning, is inherently situated within the bodily scale and arguably cannot make mediated claims on other scales as empirical (whether qualitative or quantitative) modes of inquiry can. Even if we assume such an act of scaling is possible, it is not a given that it is beneficial. Climate change is on a more-than-human scale but it is precisely its mesoscale manifestations that concern the political or ideological which are the interpretative humanities’ forte. Perhaps, the “serious” [6] novel’s failure to capture climate change then is not due to its realism but rather it is because of its character-driven plot which locks it within the mesoscale. Narratives never fully captured the notions of capital, gender, nation, or death either; they only portrayed manifestations of such concepts in limited mesoscales. One could even argue that creative/interpretive text is intrinsically unable to mediate scale the way a telescope or microscope can because, even though it might incorporate a different inferred scale, its reference is not the real world but the human cognition that constructs the storyworld and by definition is confined to the bodily scale. It is due to this reference to the imaginary that fictional storyworlds perhaps need not employ any scalar techniques because allegorical reading always can scale up the narrative.

I point out these complications not to refute the value of scale theory/critique but to argue that its aim is not necessarily a fundamental revolution towards trans-scalarity but that it can provide a discourse to probe the limited scalarity of hermeneutic inquiry while at the same time questioning the scalar assumptions that might prevent richer understanding. To this end, an overview of some scale-aware methodologies that have tried to move beyond close reading is essential. Franco Moretti’s method of distant reading quickly comes to mind. He notes that close reading engages with books – which exist on the human scale – as objects of study, but, distant reading either focuses on larger scales, like corpora, or smaller scales, like words, which cannot be experienced by humans. Another alternative to close reading has recently emerged in form of empirical ecocriticism which incorporates qualitative methods of assessing the readers’ response to texts. There have also been modifications and innovations within close reading itself. Timothy Clark has demonstrated what can be best described as multi-scale reading, although simultaneously revealing its limitations. Mark C. Long proposes a collective close reading in the classroom as a way of scaling up while Ursula Heise advocates for a global comparative approach and Wai Chee Dimock incorporates the concept of weak systems theory in order to make use of a variety of methods across scales. Just like zooming out removes differentiation, these methodologies each erase some interpretive specification native to close reading. Whether such methodological scaling weakens or strengthens hermeneutic inquiry is a question best left to the reader.


[1] Terry Eagleton, “Fictions Etched by Rain in Rock,” Times Higher Education, February 26, 1999, timeshighereducation.com/books/fictions-etched-by-rain-in-rock/158946.article.

[2] Joshua DiCaglio, Scale Theory: A Nondisciplinary Inquiry, 1st ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 23.

[3] DiCaglio, Scale Theory, 24.

[4] Fredric Jameson, “Symptoms of Theory or Symptoms for Theory?,” Critical Inquiry vol. 30, no. 2 (2004): 407

[5] Raymond Williams, “From Preface to Film (UK, 1954),” In Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology, ed. Scott MacKenzie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 607.

[6] Amitov Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, 1st ed. (London: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 9.

Dr Laurence Kent (University of Cambridge)

Laurence Kent completed a PhD at King’s College London on cinema and metaphysics in 2020, and he is currently a Teaching Associate at the Centre for Film and Screen, University of Cambridge. He has had articles published in Film-Philosophy, Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, Frames Cinema Journal, and Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image.

The Cosmic Non-Place: Intelligence and Scale in Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth

Universalism, as the desire to escape bloated particularities, is perhaps an impossible thought. It is an endeavour that many science-fiction films attempt, with varying levels of success. Such groping for universal valuation is registered by expanding the scale of reference, but it is in these vast expanses of science-fiction excess that the particular, the local and the parochial make their return. In this paper I will look to Frant Gwo’s adaptation of The Wandering Earth (2019) to examine this scaler nesting of national particularities within visions of global manoeuvres. The film offers a space to explore failures of universalism alongside surprising moments that envision egress from moribund colonial logics. It can enable and problematise global valuations of reason, and, through an analysis of the film’s situated realities alongside stated universal ambitions, this paper will explore the contradictions and potentials for the representation of intelligence on the global scale.

The Wandering Earth is a Chinese blockbuster based on a short story by acclaimed sci-fi author Liu Cixin. By presenting a scenario whereby our rocket propelled planet travels in search of a more hospitable solar system, it imagines the global agency required to literally move the earth out of cosmic existential danger and embraces the possibility of collective intelligence and communal mastery of technology. However, the film’s own geopolitical particularities also seep into the fabric of its planetary vision through its centring of China on the world stage.

It is the role of the family and its relationship to cultural imaginaries of the state that reroute a universal narrative into a specifically Chinese allegory for nationalist feeling, where the wandering earth itself is merely the wandering of youth that needs to be tamed by the father figure and state. As Chris Berry expands, “the father–son narrative is central to The Wandering Earth. Mao used to criticize Confucian values as feudal, but today Xi Jinping has reclaimed Confucianism as national heritage. In a Confucian society, the hierarchical patriarchal family is the model for all relationships.” In the film, a father’s duty to his son (he promised to return to earth to see him) and his work on saving the planet come into tension throughout but find themselves reconciled in a final sacrifice. The non-places of apocalyptic wonder, rendered in impressive CGI, are interrupted by the psychic space of nationalist sentiment and the reaffirmation of the family-state as primary.

But perhaps something more interesting is happening with the use of space in this film. Despite the domestication of the film’s scope in comparison to the book and the increased banality of its complex action-narrative weaving around a series of episodic escapades, the shear sight of earth’s escape from its Copernican perch is excessive. My paper will analyse the place of earth and the solar system, and explore what kind of “non-place” comes into being as we transport out of the solar economy. This imagery is, for Amir Khan, a counter-universal for the colonised, and by metaphorizing the earth they posit, following the famous dictum that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, that “the effort required to decolonize human minds is as gargantuan as that necessary to drive the planet to inhabit another solar system.”

It is through Marc Auge’s notion of the non-place that we can radicalize it within these planetary scales. The non-place marks the escape from place definable as a form of “supermodernity” in Auge’s terminology: an acceleration of history co-commitment with shifts in time and space. Auge claims that the non-place is either an abundance of individualism or its emptying out. Whereas the novella initiates an voiding of the individual subject in the name of a collective project of planetary survival, the film hovers on the edge of filling this space with family and state melodrama, while also spatially orienting ourselves in the vast realms of an inhospitable universe.

In their recent article on Singaporian cinema MaoHui Deng posits the whole of Singapore as a nonplace precisely to reclaim Auge’s concept, displacing supermodernity into different spaces in order to analyse the existence of “real people living in these non-places” and their attempt to “to forge a sense of identification with the non-places.” To view the wandering earth as inhabiting its own kind of non-place in its journey across the universe perhaps illuminates the stakes of the ego in this situation of existential risk, where individuality must be sacrificed, as it indeed is in Cixin Liu’s original novella, in order to bring together the project of humanity and rise to this cosmic challenge.

The spatial fragility of humanity in The Wandering Earth forces the realization of existential risk to understandings of our shared universal project of survival. The role of cinema is vital here as a popular artform able to mediate ideological and geopolitical strife, but also as a medium that can envision impossible spaces through its seemingly endless digital capacities. Whilst these representations of intelligence are certainly imperfect, such a reflection on our own capacities to think universally and rationally is vital for opening up future intelligence and realising current responsibilities to unknowable futures.

Dr Julie Momméja (Lumière Lyon 2 University)

Julie Momméja is a Doctor in American and Media Studies from the Sorbonne Nouvelle University and is currently an Assistant Professor at the Communication Institute of Lumière Lyon 2 University.

A visiting researcher at UC Berkeley from 2014 to 2017 and scholar-in-residence at the Long Now Foundation, Julie’s research focuses on pioneers and thinkers within the San Francisco Bay Area counterculture and cyberculture spheres from the 1950s until the
2010s.

The emergence of technology as a social tool on a creative territory rooted in utopian and libertarian ideologies is at the center of her PhD dissertation. She also explores bonds, connections and fusions between offline and virtual communities within a context of longterm coevolution between humans and machines favored by the specificity of the local Bay Area mindset.

Expanding Timescales: the Long Now Foundation and its Longue Durée Clock

It was during his time as a prisoner of war in Germany that Fernand Braudel elaborated his concept of longue durée. For five years, the French historian arduously worked on his PhD dissertation, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (Braudel 1949), and developed the idea of the “very long time”, one that would protect him from the tragic events he was undergoing in the “short time” and help him gain perspective on his condition by replacing those same events on a much longer timescale (Braudel 1958). With newly stratified temporalities – from short to medium to very long – Braudel succeeded in escaping the space-time he was a prisoner of, a “here” and “now” that offered no perspectives when a longer “now” would liberate him.

Four decades later, in the late 1980s, and as the new millenium was approaching, American engineer and computer scientist Danny Hillis felt that the general idea of the future was shrinking. He needed an excuse to think beyond the year 2000, on a much longer term. In an article published in Wired magazine a few years later, Hillis detailed this feeling of diminished temporal projection as the long-awaited year 2000 was about to become the present (Hillis 1995). He imagined a future in which to project himself, a new millennium that would take future generations into account, echoing the concept of longue durée braudélienne. As a way to concretize that idea, he designed a giant clock that would tick only once a year, for 10,000 years, with a century hand advancing every hundred years and a cuckoo coming out each millennium (Hillis 1995). A year later, The Long Now Foundation, a non-profit organization, was created in San Francisco to develop the project.

In a world of short-termism and rapid news cycles favored by ever-changing technologies, fostering long-term thinking and responsibility towards future generations, 1/2 not only throughout decades or centuries but millennia, may seem quite a challenge. The monumental Clock of the Long Now, currently under construction in West Texas, places humans at the center of longue durée, a present moment that can be extended 10,000 years towards the past and future while making our concept of “here’’ and “now’’ part of a much wider scale and timeline: the “big here’’ and the “long now’’ (Eno 1995, Hillis 1995, Brand 1999). Beyond its goal of communicating information regarding time and date through centuries and millennia, the Clock aspires to expand timescales towards the past and the future by placing itself at the center of this novel 20,000 year-long timeline as a way to foster long-term thinking throughout generations.

Based on three years of research, meetings and conferences attended at the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, this paper looks to shed some light on how the “long now” and its physical Clock answer Fernand Braudel’s longue durée and attempt to expand the scales of Time. It suggests ways in which collective long-term thinking can be encouraged, beyond anthropocentrism (Ialenti 2020). By reframing human endeavor on a new longer narrative and timespan, with the announced mission of being “good ancestors’’ to the generations to come (Krznaric 2020), how does the organization fulfill its ambition of reconfiguring mindsets about time? How does it tackle negative opinions that state issues situated in the here and now are more crucial to resolve rather than the construction of a techno- utopian monument? This paper explores the narrative formed around the Clock as a sociocultural myth (Barthes 1957) and as a material communicational artifact. It also discusses the need for long-term interaction and coevolution between the Clock and its future visitors-maintainers as to foster responsibility, continuity and thus longtermism by expanding timescales.

Dr Provides Ng (Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL))

Provides Ng (@provides.ism) was trained as an architect and a researcher; her work looks at the emergence of digital tools, their impacts and applications within the urban context. She is a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) B-pro programs, and the Managing Editor (ML cover) of the Bartlett Prospective Journal. She is currently pursuing her PhD at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), her Ph.D research ‘Collaborative Intelligence’ received the ‘Best Presentation Award’ by SIGraDi 2021. During the pandemic, she co-organised the Virtual Reality Round Table series ‘Decentralised Education & Phygital Exchange’ with support from UCL’s Researcher-Initiative Award.

Provides co-founded two design R+D labs: Rational Energy Architects (@R.E.Ar_), which focuses on Artificial Intelligence applications in bio-inspired solar design, and ‘Current’ (@current.cam), which experiments on volumetric cinemas with multimedia and computer graphics tools. Both practices are active in sharing knowledge, hosting international workshop series at CumInCAD conferences, Matadero MediaLab Madrid, and other educational platforms. They also exhibit worldwide at Rijksmuseum Twenthe, DeepCity EPFL, Supercollider Gallery LA, Art Machines Hong Kong, and many more. Provides was also an alumnus of the Strelka Institute Moscow and Staedelschule Architecture Class (SAC) in Frankfurt (Germany).

Universal Basic Service: Scalability of CFHT & DAO 衣食住行 • 道

Universal basic service (UBS) was an argument by Bastani in his book ‘Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism’ (FALC) [1]. UBS can mean different things in different cultural ontology. The Chinese popular proverb 衣食住行 – clothing, food, housing and transportation (CFHT) – describes and represents the basic material needs that sustain the everyday life [2]. This common saying has a deep root in the long Chinese history that can no longer be traced, but Dr. Sun Yat Sen [3] integrated this cultural ontology into his theory of ‘People’s Livelihood’ – the foundation to the new socialism thinking during China’s liberation from feudalism in the late 19th century. Land naturally becomes the core to this problem since all four of CFHT is being provided by land – land is seen as the mother in ancient Chinese thinking, the Yin in yin-yang, which can be traced back to the book of I Ching 陰爻 坤為地、為母. Sun’s theory had the aim to resolve the entanglement between land and capital at the time – harmonise land ownership 平均地權. State- owned land 土地國有 is the main objective in the proposal to enhance socio- economic structure and price discovery for all land 核定天下地價, where original land value belongs to its owner but rise in land prices should be a public asset 漲 價歸公. In its socialist spirit, if everyone can do their respective duties, then everyone will naturally get the four CFHT needs 大家都能各 盡各的義務,大家自 然可以得衣食住行的四種需要. This implies that CFHT is not only a universal basic need, but also a universal responsibility.

Within today’s urban governance, such issues are being commonly tackled with urban planning schemes, from 15-min city to transit-oriented development (TOD), urban hotspots become nodes within the larger web of cross territorial socioeconomic exchanges and trades. This forms a network of complex systems that are ‘locally central globally distributed’; in both cases, the main problem becomes scalability [4]. Especially within high- density urban cores, housing became the most acute scalability issue that pivoted the planning of the other three elements. The rise of co-housing, co-living and other sharing economies not only show changes in lifestyle, family structure, and occupational trends within metropolis life, but also how platform enterprises specifically target the gap between macro- and micro- economies, giving rise to meso-scale monopolisation. This urges public authorities to understand, incentivise, and regulate through social innovation. The planning of housing is not simply the delivery of a singular building object, but deeply entangled within the intricate fabric of urban exchanges, which requires scalar vision and interdisciplinary mapping.

With a focus on land – a heterogenous and scarce resource, this paper wishes to bring out how CFHT are deeply entangled socioeconomic and anthropological objects. By comparing housing history in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Taiwan, it wishes to reflect how ‘alike culture, different governance’ may achieve similar goals – at the core of housing as UBS is the concept of social mobility. This paper will also look at rising trends in DAO (decentralised autonomous organisation) from FALC and neoliberal perspectives, and how such concepts may be operable as centralised, decentralised, and distributed systems. In 2016, ‘The DAO’ integrated concepts of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing with voting as a consensus mechanism [5]. As ‘The DAO’ operated on blockchain, it can be seen as a simulation of accelerationism in direct and representative democracy within a simplified lab setting. The parallel understanding of CFHT and DAO may give a renewed perspective to governance, questions on participation and consensus, and the challenges and potential for scalability within complex systems that, in reality, are centralised, decentralised, and distributed simultaneously [6]. The spirit of this paper is to provide options rather than settling for a static optimal as the only means to ‘good governance’.


References:

1) Bastani, A., (2019) Fully Automated Luxury Communism. Verso Books
2) 段寶麟 (1981) 《衣食住行史話》沈從文《中國古代服飾研究.北齊張肅俗墓》:“入居中原西北方諸民族,此興彼落,前後 相繼約兩個世紀,衣食住行相互影響,極為顯著。”
3) 孫中山 (1905) 《民生主義》第三講 “當改良社會經濟組織,核定天下地價。其現有之地價仍歸原主所有,其革命後社會改 良進步之增價,則歸於國家,為國民所共享”,簡稱為“漲價歸公”。
4) West, G., (2017). Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies
5) Jentzsch, C. (2016). Decentralized autonomous organization to automate governance. White paper, November.
6) Bratton, B. H. (2021). The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World. Verso.

Dr Anushka Peres (University of Nevada, Reno)

Anushka Peres is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is a multidisciplinary rhetorical scholar and photographer, invested in the environmental and social repercussions of colonial conceptualizations of land and sites of possible intervention. She works across media and with a range of collaborators on public queer feminist projects that seek more sustainable ways to see and be with the environment and each other. Her work has been published in The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and New American Notes Online and her photographs have been shown in galleries globally. She is an award-winning educator, active in community engagement initiatives, artist/activist networks, and coalitional environmental projects.

Scale Intimacies

Learning to think about and perceive the world through the lens of ecology may contribute to improved environmental conditions. However, as Joshua DiCaglio, Kathryn M. Barlow, and Joseph S. Johnson note, ecological thinking poses two particularly daunting challenges: comprehending the multiplicities of interconnection and scale (“Rhetorical Recommendations Built on Ecological Experience: A Reassessment of the Challenge of Environmental Communication” 433). From the atom to the atmospheric, the particle to the planetary, relationships between and among beings and scales abound. Zachary Horton also considers this complication. He says, “we have failed to develop an adequate level of scale literacy” (“The Trans-Scalar Challenge of Ecology” 6). For Horton, scale literacy requires a kind of “thick ecology” that centers multiple scalar relationships and reflects on them to acknowledge the differences between and among various forces and beings (20). Horton notes that it is necessary to reflect on scale biases and their implications in order to shift perspectives. In this presentation, I will extend Horton’s notion of “scale literacy” by further attending to the ways in which relationships between and among scales are, and can be, produced visually within colonial contexts.

I argue that colonial systems—including those of visuality and their associated technologies and practices—mediate dominant understandings of scale.In addition to producing environmental harm, colonial systems and the practices that sustain their logics prioritize a singularity of focus, binary thinking, and categorized/ordered/ranked hierarchies that inhibit the production of relational ways of seeing, being, and making. For this reason, I note that a move towards a visual literacy of scale must attend to the colonial systems that reproduce the need for such interventions. I further contend that colonial critique can be a composing practice used to make visible the webs of constellated relations between and among beings and scales. While human/land separations and the singularity of colonial sightlines can block ecological thinking at the level of scale, I propose visual renderings of ecological intimacies of scale as a kind of queer relational rhetoric that has the potential to contribute to the project of scale literacies through attention to non-dominant ways of ecological seeing, being, and making.

This presentation introduces scale intimacies as a composing practice that works alongside colonial critique to contribute to the production of non-dominant visual rhetorics of scale. Scale intimacies strive to make visible these constellated relations in ecological systems. For the purposes of this presentation, I focus on the small-scale intimacies in two of my photographic series: Pynk, made with an Ollo Clip macro-lens attachment for my iPhone; and Body/Landscapes, created with a Scanning Electron Microscope. These versions of scale intimacies take as a starting point adrienne maree brown’s consideration that “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system” (Emergent Strategy 53). Made with technologies that take magnified images, these series attempt to refuse some of landscape photography’s dominant aesthetic tropes of scale and their colonial consequences by depicting distorted images of land and human bodies as relational, intimate, multi-scaled extensions of one another.

I offer these images as a kind of intimacy of scale through the lens of Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ notion that the scale of intimacy is the sustainable scale, the scale of care. For Gumbs, the scale of care, of love, is not associated with normative social scripts, rather “the actual practices that would teach us how to care for each other” (where each other refers to both human and non-human species) (Undrowned 56). Scale intimacies— as I propose with consideration of maree brown and Gumbs alongside other multidisciplinary QTBIPOC scholarship, and my own photographic work—can exist at the level of a smaller-scale interaction, perhaps, as I will share, in photographed macro-level moments of ecological relationships between multiple simultaneous scales, species, and connections. Photographic technologies differently support and hinder this larger project, offering further insight into the potentials and limitations of visual productions of scale intimacies.

Dr Patrick Brian Smith (University of Warwick)

Patrick Brian Smith is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Warwick, working on a project entitled Mediated Forensics: Documentary’s New Evidentiary Turn. He completed his PhD in Film and Moving Image Studies at Concordia University in 2020. His research interests include documentary theory and practice, spatial and political theory, forensic media, and human rights media activism. He has taught courses on visual culture, film and media histories, documentary theory, and activist media cultures. His work has been, or will be, published in journals such as JCMSDiscourseMedia, Culture & SocietyNECSUSAfterimage, and Mediapolis.

Media and Forensics: Activism Across Investigatory Scales

This paper examines how emergent forms of new media practice are redefining the fields of documentary, investigatory journalism, and human rights practice. I argue range of artists, researchers, and media collectives are developing and deploying emergent forms of media practice to transform the roles that the ethico-aesthetic and technological play in the mediation of evidence and its capacity to intervene in humanitarian and political struggle. I argue that these forms of practice are creating new ecologies of media practice and collaboration, where the question of scale—as both a methodological and conceptual frame—is of central importance. More precisely, these emergent practices are strategically operating across a variety of scalar levels; both radically breaking down and reconstituting traditional hierarchies of mediated power, surveillance, and control. These networks of media practice are also radically restructuring how we visualise, critique, and fight against instances of state and corporate violence and violations of human rights. This is an emergent and interdisciplinary field of practice that I have termed “mediated forensics.” The aims of this paper are three-fold. Firstly, it will contextualise the emergence of such a mediated forensic disposition within the wider history of documentary, journalistic, and human rights practice. Secondly, the paper will examine how questions of the scalar are of central importance within these new modes of practice. Whilst traditional forms of forensic practice operate exclusively at microphysical and granular levels, these new media practices aim to examine how both micro and macro forms of investigation can be fused together. For example, as Fuller and Weizman suggest, mediated forensic investigations “often start from a site or a specific point: a controversy, a local debate, an accident, a detail. From this point of individuation an investigation follows different threads that lead outwards along complex paths of causality. Disentangling these threads needs different forms of knowledge, experience and expertise.” [1] Finally, I aim to more concretely probe issues of the scalar through a brief engagement with a recent collaborative project between Forensic Architecture, Amnesty International, The Citizen Lab, and filmmaker Laura Poitras, entitled Digital Violence. Within this work, we find an example of a mediated forensic practice that intentionally operates across multiple scalar levels to reverse and subvert dominant forms of media control and violence.

Here, I will provide a little more detail on the background and working practice of these clusters and groups. The likes of Forensic Architecture, SITU Research, Logische Phantasie Lab, WITNESS Media Lab, VFRAME, and Mnemonic, have been developing new aesthetic practices and technologies that aim to break down, filter, and redeploy varied forms of media evidence, with the aim of enhancing their political and legal potency. Predominantly, the evidentiary materials that these groups work with emanate from forms of top-down mediated power and control: body cameras, drones, satellites, security x-rays, digital, biometric, and broader forms of visual surveillance, etc. These are forms of “operational media” that function to further secure, control, and often eviscerate human life. In sharp contradistinction to these forms of visually mediated power and control, the contemporary work of critical media forensics aims to use new forms tools and technologies (geolocation, pattern analysis, remote sensing, photogrammetry, 3D modelling, cartographic regression, machine learning, computer vision, amongst others) to subversively utilise these dominant image regimes; taking them up as archives of violent acts, and, ultimately accountability, against those very same formations of power responsible for creating them. These various power formations have—intentionally or not—created vast archives documenting their acts of violence, and the practice of counter-forensics seeks to break down, reframe, and rescale these repositories; holding those same power formations responsible for their creation to account. I argue that we can read the contemporary emergence of mediated forensics and its subversive uptake of such media regimes as constitutive of a set of “ethical plateaus.” I take this notion from the work of anthropologist Michael M. J. Fischer. For him, the ethical plateau is representative of “the strategic terrains on which multiple technologies interact, creating a complex topology for perception and decision making” and where “new technologies rework disciplinary authority structures.” [2] I want to suggest that the techniques of subversive co-optation and re-scaling deployed in these contemporary ecologies of practice create a new set of “ethical plateaus” that complicate our understandings of how we both make sense and make use of such dominant media regimes. Forms of mediated control are being rerouted and re-networked for radically different—and mostly starkly oppositional—purposes; upending the “disciplinary authority structures” that Fischer speaks of. Through such techniques and strategies, such dominant forms of mediation can no longer be understood as simply enabling forms of top down, unilateral control and suppression. Consequently, I argue that these contemporary forms of practice are creating new possibilities for media practices to respond to forms of mediated domination at a variety of scalar levels.


[1] Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman, Investigative Aesthetics: Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth (Brooklyn: Verso, 2021).

[2] Michael M. J. Fischer, “Biosciences and Biotechnologies as Deep Play and Ethical Plateaus,” ed. Margaret Lock, Alan Young, and Alberto Cambrosio, American Anthropologist 106, no. 2 (2004): 389–91.

Dr Piotr Szpunar (University at Albany, SUNY)

Piotr M. Szpunar is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University at Albany, SUNY. His research centers on conflict, media, and memory with a specific focus on political violence and mediated futures. He is the author of Homegrown: Identity and Difference in the American War on Terror (NYU Press, 2018). He is working on a monograph on lieux de futur, or futural sites, which connects the elemental turn in media studies and collective memory studies to examine the politics of building or altering physical spaces with the express purpose of bringing positive future visions into being or weathering anticipated dystopias.

Spectroscopic Pasts and Tele-scoping Futures on the Red Planet

Memory is a phenomenon of scale, temporal and spatial. We are all born inheriting a past we have not lived, but one that becomes our past only in the future. It is always-already social (Halbwachs, 1992) and mediated—externalized in and constituted by technics (Stiegler, 1998). In recent years, the study of collective memory has begun to pay attention to two phenomena anticipated in Stiegler’s insistence on the primacy of protention in retention as well as his inclusion of flint tools as mnemotechniques: the future (Bond et al., 2016; Gutman et al., 2010; Szpunar and Szpunar, 2016) and the natural environment (e.g., Garde-Hansen et al, 2016). Building on these as well as the “elemental turn” in media studies (Peters, 2015; Starosielski, 2019), this paper examines how visions of human and more-than-human futures are built atop geologic memory via the scalar access (Horton, 2020) to a non-human reality facilitated by optical media. In particular, I examine how the spectroscopic exploration of Mars at increasingly microscopic scales—and pressing further back in time—underpin a contestation over interplanetary futures against the backdrop of the climate crisis.

Today, any mention of Mars brings to mind the egomaniacal designs of billionaires. But there is a more interesting scalar history of media, Mars, and life. What follows here is an admittedly crude lineage. As a “pale red dot” in our night sky, the human eye divined the planet, with its retrograde motion, to be a deity (Hogan, 2009). With advances in the telescope, Mars became a site of intelligent life. When Italian Astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw canali on the face of Mars, the translation of his findings as “canals” rather than “channels”—the latter being natural occurring phenomena, the former suggesting constructed structures—rendered Mars a home to a people trying to survive on a dying planet (Lane, 2011; Markley, 2005). Once telescopic observation was aided by photography, Mars’s changing albedo was thought a result of vegetation, of lichen that ebbed and flowed with the seasons (as much as theories about Martians persisted). Then came Mariner 4 in 1964. Its flyby images showed a dusty, dead planet akin to the moon. Once the more advanced infrared spectrometers of the Mariner 6 and 7 missions showed the planet to be more dynamic, NASA worked hard to communicate a planet alive, at least geologically. While earthbound spectroscopic observation of Mars began in 1867 (Campbell, 1909), it was with these space-faring instruments that the question of life was refocused on the geologic, microscopic, and non- visible segments of the electromagnetic spectrum that, together, provided a window into the ancient past. From the Viking landers’ contested biology experiments in the 1970s (Barlow, 2008) to the “follow the water” doctrine of the 1990s and 2000s (NASA, 2003), the search for life gets increasingly smaller in scale and pushed further back into the past. Today, the Perseverance rover is searching for “evidence of ancient life” (Mars 2020 Mission Overview, n.d.), for what Meillassoux (2006) calls the arche-fossil, “materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality or event; one that is anterior to terrestrial life” (23). But these also serve as signposts for “habitability,” for future life.

Kittler (1999) argues that technical media capture the “real.” The gramophone inscribes onto vinyl what print cannot capture: pauses, tonal shifts, cracks, and so on. This along with its time- axis manipulation has the potential to reveal “deep memory” (Pinchevski, 2019). Spectroscopy interacts with the real on a non- or more-than-human plane. It captures the result of the interaction of matter and electromagnetic energy, that in turn reveals to us the nature of the matter in question on an elemental level that reveals much about geologic timescales beyond human sense (on the order of billions of years). This is a complex process of elemental pairings, calibration (against lab spectra), and measurement that includes digital processing and visualization—as Janet Vertesi (2015) shows, one must learn to see like a rover. But unlike Kittler’s media that allow for timeaxis manipulation (Krämer, 2006), the use of spectroscopy provides a sort of cosmic (spacetime) zoom (Horton, 2020). In short, the spectroscopic past is “tele-scoped” (Stiegler, 2008) onto the question of the future. Indeed, this work underpins in situ resource utilization research for colonization efforts built on extractive capitalism, visions that not only valorize colonizers of old, but seek to redeem them—this time the problem of “the native” is moot. But there are counter visions of ethical futures beyond the simplistic scale of “the overview effect,” efforts that consider not only existing environments, but also potential non-human life to-come (Tavares et al, 2020). A focus on the scalar allows for a nuanced consideration of contemporary debates over the timescale and anthropomorphic quality of futures as well as the complex non-linear, inter-scalar imbrications of media, memory, and futures.

Barlow, N. (2008). Mars: An introduction to its interior, surface, and atmosphere. Cambridge University Press.
Bond, L., Craps, S. and Vermeulen, P. (2016). Memory unbound: Tracing the dynamics of memory studies. Berghahn Books.
Campbell, W.W. (1909). A Review of Spectroscopic Observations of Mars. Lic Observatory Bulletin, 5: 156-164.
Garde-Hansen, J., McEwen, L., Holmes, A., and Jones, O. (2016). Sustainable flood memory: Rembering as resilience. Memory Studies 10(4): 384-405.
Gutman, Y., Brown, A.D. and Sodaro, A. (2010). Memory and the future: Transnational politics, ethics and society. Palgrave Macmillan.
Halbwachs, M. (1992). On collective memory. University of Chicago Press.
Hogan, T. (2009). Mars wars: The rise and fall of the space exploration initiative. Washington, DC: NASA.
Horton, Z. (2020). The cosmic zoom: Scale, knowledge, and mediation. University of Chicago Press.
Kittler, F. (1999). Gramophone, film, typewriter. Stanford University Press.
Krämer, S. (2006). The Cultural Techniques of Time Axis Manipulation: On Friedrich Kittler’s Conception of Media. Theory, Culture & Society, 23(7-8): 93-109.
Lane, K.M.D. (2010). Geographies of Mars: Seeing and knowing the Red Planet. University of Chicago Press.
Markley, R. (2005). Dying planet: Mars in science and the imagination. Duke University Press.
Mars 2020 Mission Overview (n.d.). Available at https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/overview/
Meillassoux, Q. (2006). After finitude: An essay on the necessity of contingency. London: Bloomsbury.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2003). Mars Exploration Rover Launches: Press Kit. Available at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/press_kits/merlaunch.pdf
Peters, J.D. (2015). The marvelous clouds: Toward a philosophy of elemental media. University of Chicago Press.
Pinchevski, A. (2019). Transmitted wounds. Oxford University Press.
Starosielski, N. (2019). The elements of media studies. Media + Environment 1(1).
Stiegler, B. (1998). Technics and time, vol. 1. Stanford University Press.
Stiegler, B. (2008). Technics and time, vol. 2. Stanford University Press.
Szpunar, P.M. & Szpunar, K.K. (2016). Collective future thought: Concept, function, and implications of collective memory studies. Memory Studies 9(4), 376-389.
Tavares, F. et al. (2020). Ethical Exploration and the Role of Planetary Protection in Disrupting Colonial Practices. (Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032 white paper e-id. 461). Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 53(4).
Vertesi, J. (2015). Seeing like a rover: How robots, teams, and images craft knowledge of Mars. University of Chicago Press.

Professor Sara Upstone (Kingston University) and Dr Kristian Shaw (University of Lincoln)

Sara Upstone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Faculty Director of Postgraduate Research at Kingston School of Art, Kingston University. Her publications include Rethinking Race and Identity in Contemporary British Fiction (Routledge, 2017), British Asian Fiction: Twenty-first-century Voices (Manchester University Press, 2011) and Spatial Politics in the Postcolonial Novel (Ashgate, 2010). She is the co-editor of Postmodern Literature and Race (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Researching and Representing Mobilities: Transdisciplinary Encounters. (Palgrave, 2014), Postcolonial Spaces: the Politics of Place in Contemporary Culture (Palgrave, 2011) and the forthcoming (with Kristian Shaw) Twenty-First-Century Fiction: Hari Kunzru (Manchester University Press, 2022) and (with Peter Ely) From Blair to Brexit: Community in Contemporary British Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2022).

Kristian Shaw is Senior Lecturer and MA Programme Leader in English Literature at the University of Lincoln. He released his first monograph, Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction (Palgrave), in 2017. His research project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Shaw’s second monograph is entitled Brexlit: British Literature and the European Project (Bloomsbury 2021) – a term he coined in 2016 to describe cultural responses to Brexit. He is co-editor of three collections: Kazuo Ishiguro (with Peter Sloane, MUP 2021), Hari Kunzru (with Sara Upstone, MUP 2021), and The Bloomsbury Guide to Twenty-First Century British Literature (with Katy Shaw, Bloomsbury 2023). He serves as a reader for the journal C21 Literature and sits on the executive committee of BACLS (British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies). 

Simultaneity of Scale: Contemporary Transglossic Literature

Within the field of literary studies, there is widespread suggestion that existing terminology is no longer suitable to define the features of contemporary. The continued reference to past literary epochs – evoked by various post-postmodernisms such as metamodernism, hypermodernism, and altermodernism – limits literary criticism by drawing it into a self-referential relationship with the past at the moment at which contemporary crises such as racism, environmental destruction, and the pandemic demand a distinctive turn toward the future.

In the first half of this paper, we outline a terminology for an alternative framing of contemporary literature to address this urgent need, a theoretical framing we call ‘transglossic’. Literally a ‘speaking across’, transglossic literature is defined by the tendency of contemporary writings to combine perspectives, constructing intersectional dialogues which manifest as both authorial responsibility and a commitment to a productive authenticity in the service of social and political change. At the centre of this operation is a ‘deep simultaneity’: defined as a strategic inhabitancy of multiplicity at both structural and thematic levels. Such simultaneity is in stark contrast to the theories of oscillation proposed by theorists of the post-postmodern.

Transglossic simultaneity manifests itself through a distinctive spatio-temporality – it evokes in these terms what Homi Bhabha refers to in The Location of Culture as the ‘time-lag’, the folding into each other of distinct temporalities that is always also ‘a spatial movement of cultural representation’ (1992: 59). In transglossic fiction, spaces are nestled within each other, acting synecdochically or metonymically in order to materially realise their ‘speaking across’ multiple perspectives and subject positions. Implicit in this operation, we suggest, is an identifiable engagement with scale, as a term which itself evokes both spatial and temporal operation, the play which exists between the concept of ‘time scales’ and scale as a measure of spatial proximity. In particular, what emerges is a tendency toward the conterminous inhabitancy of large-scale and small-scale narrative, a simultaneity that operates in part through scale as representative of the fluid movement between measures of space and time.

In order to explore this distinct feature, we present in the second half of this paper two case studies from contemporary American fiction: Richard Powers’s Bewilderment (2021) and Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise (2022). On first reading these two novels could not appear more different: Bewilderment is a novel of less than 300 pages which focuses its narrative on the intensely intimate relationship between a father and his young son; To Paradise is a sprawling fiction of more than 700 pages which takes readers through three different narratives, separated by two centuries. Yet in both cases the narratives are based around a simultaneous operation of the small and the large scale. In Bewilderment, the small-scale narrative of father and son is interwoven with the father’s ritualistic storytelling which creates alternative planets and universes; the novel is structured so that these stories are interspersed into the ‘real-world’ narrative. Introduced without exploration, they come to emerge as conterminous realities. Equally, To Paradise combines its large-scale temporality with a small-scale spatiality; the novel is made up of three sections, set consecutively in 1893, 1993, and 2093; yet these periods are pulled together by the repetition in each section of a single house on Washington Square which serves as an atemporal meeting space for recurring themes and voices.

Such simultaneity of scale, we suggest, is essential to the operation of these fictions as transglossic works. The small-scale allows these fictions to utilize the intimacy of personal spaces and relationships. In this small-scale, prose becomes emotional and sensational, inculcating the reader into a reading experience that is deeply connective and personalized. Yet in combining this with the large-scale, readers are asked to transfer their deep feelings of connectivity towards wider social and political issues. In Bewilderment, this involves in particular questions of planetary justice, asking readers to question what kind of human relationships are needed to build a sustainable ecosystem both on Earth and beyond. In To Paradise, such simultaneity functions to expose overarching issues of racial justice, class difference and ableism. In both cases, questions of ethical responsibility and the human capacity for change develop with striking effect. At once realistic and a form of contemporary fairy-tale, what emerges ultimately, therefore, in these works is a new attitude to literary form with a unique potential to speak to the complexities of the contemporary moment.