Monday, December 5, 2011

The Troll Hunter

As I investigate the possibilities of an object-oriented environmental rhetoric (see my previous two posts),  I like to work through the differences between the original 1954 Japanese film Godzilla (or Gojira) and the 2010 Norwegian film The Troll Hunter (which is do for a remake). Both can be read as films about environmentalism or the shape and health of the environment (they are or can be about other things as well, unique to their respective cultures or broadly applicable to the human condition). However, in their relationship to human and nonhuman agency they are different in one crucial regard.

Godzilla, if you'll recall, is an ancient, Jurassic beast, revived by the denotation of atomic weapons. Godzilla is, in part, about nature seeking revenge on humans for their destructive agency. Godzilla is nature's wrath, but Godzilla's proximate (or even ultimate) cause is human. Thus, he serves as the environment's check on human agency. Godzilla, like a toxic spill is, is a harmful environmental presence caused by human actions (and thus, it seems, reducible to them).

The Troll Hunter proceeds (spoiler alert) in a similar manner for sometime, before taking a different, and instructive path. This film (of the found footage variety) follows three Norwegian university students as they film a documentary about illegal bear hunting. Following someone who they believe to be responsible for a slew of poachings, the students discover that the individual is not hunting bears but hunting (or rather, managing) a population of trolls, which the government is keeping a secret. It seems the trolls are acting up and moving beyond their traditional ranges, which also entails killing German tourists and eating livestock. The troll hunter, who works for the Troll Security Service (TSS) is trying to get to the bottom of all this: to figure out what is driving the trolls so that they can be controlled. It turns out that one rogue troll is responsible for all the trouble: he has escaped his territory (defined by a circular ring of inconspicuous electric lines--an allusion perhaps to the original Godzilla film where the Japanese construct a similar ring of electrical lines around Tokyo to keep Godzilla out). This troll is both killing and infecting other trolls with an unidentified illness or virus.

After securing a blood sample (an incredible dangerous and violent job) and taking it to veterinarian, we discover that the trolls are suffering from rabies. And here is the moment when The Troll Hunter departs from the Godzilla model. Humans have been attempting to control (by measures, preserving and conserving) the troll population in Norway. For instance, the troll hunter recounts a terrible story of a time when he had to exterminate a large group of trolls (including baby trolls) as part of this government cover-up. The movie, in other words, is not at a loss to condemn human beings when it comes to our relationship to the environment and its nonhuman inhabitants (nor I am). But what the film also suggests (or can be made to suggest) is that human beings are not the whole show--we are not the end and be all of the earth (one way or the other). The trolls have rabies. They are not being driven mad by climate change (this is, full disclosure, what I guessed at, early in the film, as the cause of the trolls' troubles--this increased my surprise, and later, interest in the rabies twist) or even habitat destruction (although these are certainly part of the story). They were being driven by a cause quite apart from humans. Their relationship with humans is being shaped by their relationship with things other than humans.

My choice of The Troll Hunter might still seem odd given the obvious influence on Godzilla on the human imagination with respect to the violence and volition of nature. Godzilla in its many iterations is clearly compelling and vibrant in his/her own right. However, what most interests me in the troll is that its cause, in contrast to Godzilla, is not, strictly speaking, human. What drives the rogue troll in The Troll Hunter is not nuclear war or waste or global warming (anthropological climate change) but rabies. The Troll Hunter reveals not, to borrow from the Blue Oyster Cult that "again and again how nature points up the folly of man" but that, and perhaps quite often, man has very little to do with "it" one way or another. The Troll Hunter can thus be read as an object-oriented environmental rhetoric of the sort I am working toward.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


In a previous post I introduced my new research project on object-oriented environmental rhetoric. My original way into this project was my previous (and on-going) work on the physis/nomos split. Frequently, discussions of environment or environmentalism presume a fundamental disconnect between humans and their environments: technology and culture (on the side of nomos), for instance, alienate us from nature (on the side of physis). Thus, a concept like wilderness became interesting for me. For example, the anthropologist Tim Ingold (in his awesomely brilliant The Perception of the Environment) takes the whole concept of wilderness to task.
Scientific conservation is firmly rooted in the doctrine [...] that the world of nature is separate from, and subordinate to, the world of humanity [...] As a result, we tend to think that only environments that still exist in a genuinely natural condition are those that remain beyond the bounds of human civilisation, as in the dictionary definition of wilderness: "A tract of land or a region uncultivated or inhabited by humans beings." (67)
Ingold's take on "wilderness" very much resonates with the work of environmental historian William Cronon, who argues (in "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature") that the very idea of wilderness is problematic for environmentalism:
But the trouble with wilderness is that it quietly expresses and reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject. The flight from history that is very nearly the core of wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world. The dream of an unworked landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living...only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living form the land.
Moving along as I was in the Cronon article (and rather fresh off of reading Ingold), I became rather content with dismissing wilderness as a defunct term with entirely too much actively pernicious philosophical baggage (for another, similar angle, see Zizek's critique of ecology). But then I reached Cronon's conclusion, where, he claims, he is "forced to confront [his] own deep ambivalence about [wilderness's] meaning for modern environmentalism." On the one hand, he argues, the notion of wilderness disconnects humans from their environment and thus often produces irresponsible behavior. That is, we let ourselves off of the hook when we take ourselves out of nature.
On the other hand, I also think it no less crucial for us to recognize and honor nonhuman nature as a world we did not create, a world with its own independent, nonhuman reasons for being as it is. The autonomy of nonhuman nature seems to me an indispensable corrective to human arrogance.
I was stuck. I had no time for Cronon's ambivalence: "Doesn't he know I am trying to crank out an article!" I was troubled, however, because I was persuaded by his ambivalence. We aren't disconnected from nature (the physis/nomos split is deeply troublesome), but the many other participants in nature aren't simply the same as or reducible to us either. There is such a thing as wilderness, but it isn't a wilderness apart from us.

And this is, of course, where object-oriented ontology (OOO) and now, lately, object-oriented rhetoric (OOR) arrives on the scene. In his review essay of Graham Harman (a key figure in OOO or, also, speculative realism), Scot Barnett tightly formulates the OOO/OOR position:
For Harman, then, the project of object-oriented philosophy involves two key moves: first, the recognition of the ontology of individual objects or tool-beings and their perpetual withdrawal from other objects in the world; and second the attunement to the reality and implications of these objects coming into relation with one another and how those relations in turn produce new objects whose depths, like any other object, can never be fully known or expressed in language.
Wilderness, then, can be re-read (and rescued) in this way: individual objects, which I read broadly here to include plants, animals, and rocks, perpetually withdraw from us--they remain wild in being never fully known to or controlled by us. And those wild objects will relate with one another in ways unknown to us (as wild objects ourselves) and produce effects we cannot codified (and might very well find threatening). This, I think, suggests something very interesting (if not fully known to me at this point) to environmentalism and environmental rhetoric. Barnett writes of the
many opportunities for future researchers to extend Harman’s thinking into the development of a broader and more nuanced rhetorical consideration of the world and our (i.e. human speakers' and writers’) being with others—human and nonhuman alike—in the world.
The View from My Office. There is a garden and a tree. There are squirrels and birds and bugs in the garden and in the tree. There is an auto body shop, a play house for my son, and an alley complete with various dumpsters. I am embedded in this environment. For instance, I watch the squirrels and the birds (note the bird book). I relate to them and they, at times, to me. But the squirrels and the birds and the bugs in the garden also withdraw from me and relate to one another independent of me. I am not out of nature here, but it nevertheless is wild.
I am interested, in light of Cronon's deep ambivalence about wilderness (a term I may yet jettison) and Ingold's rather forceful (and persuasive) rejection of it, in develoing a rhetoric of, or better yet, for human and nonhuman relations (the "being with others" Barnett describes above). We can't be apart from nature, but we can never fully know and determine everything also in it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A New Project

From my Current Projects page:
"The Shape of the World to Come: Toward an Object-Oriented Environmental Rhetoric" (In progress, 3000 words).

Abstract: This article works to develop an environmental rhetoric that gives vibrant matter its due. My argument, and it is one made by others, is that much environmentalism overemphasizes human agency. Or, in other words, in giving ourselves the responsibility to save or fix the planet, we have over-invested in our own agency, enacting the self-same hubris that results in dispositions toward the environment that environmentalists themselves might very well (and rightly) condemn. I argue that this over-investment (to the exclusion of denying and/or erasing nonhuman agency) is not the proper comportment we should have with the environment. Drawing on work in speculative realism (and related theories such as new materialism) and work in the emerging area of object-oriented rhetoric, I suggest that we can neither fully understand nor determine the environment, and that we need an environmental rhetoric concerned with inventing and shaping attitudes alive to this suggestion.

Monday, October 17, 2011


As readers of this blog know (when it was active as many as a five of you), I frequently bemoan the ubiquitous use of the depth/surface distinction (and its kin: real/fake, natural/artificial) in public life. This goes back, as much does, to Plato's Socrates's distinction, for instance in the Gorgias, between true arts such as medicine and false arts such as cosmetics. In contemporary life, we have superficial changes and superficial policies and superficial responses. They don't really do anything; they just appear to.

I get it. I am often with those that make such criticisms. There is obviously a difference between adding a sign to a store's front door and changing the store policy inside. If the door says "No Shirt. No Shoes. No Service" and yet I am never removed from the store when I am barefoot and bare-chested, then it makes sense to remark that something is off here--that no real change has taken place.

However, I'd like to imagine other ways of addressing this kind of disconnect without relying on the surface/depth superficial/real distinctions. My "for instance" here would be the notion of intensity. Rather than working from the binary of the "superficial" and the "real" (in part because even a "superficial" change is a "real" change), we can describe changes, policies, responses, etc. as more or less intense. Changing the sign on the door but not the treatment of the shirtless customer inside would no longer simply by superficial but only less intense. I think intensity nicely calls attention to the qualitative rather than quantitative differences in enactment and effect. Telling some to stop, yelling at someone to stopping, and physically intercepting someone are not in different categories (superficial and real) but rather register different levels of intensity, and, depending on the context, effectiveness.

It's something I have been thinking about lately, and hope to think more about soon.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

2011 Kenneth Burke Conference Paper

My relationship with Kenneth Burke gets a little complicated:

Nathaniel Rivers Kenneth Burke Society 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

2011 CCCC Paper (Working Draft)

I am just about set for CCCC in Atlanta. Here is my working draft, which explores (in under 20 minutes) the work rhetoric does in cultivating the materiality of the human experience (cognitive, bodily, environmental).

Rivers CCCC 2011 Working Draft