Our multimedia systems are at their limits. From climate change to Covid, the most pressing phenomena of our time cannot be captured by the flat media paradigm we have constructed. The “slow violence” of climate change, as Rob Nixon warns us, is artfully hard to see, taking place on such a temporal and spatial scale that it might not be considered violence at all. Although we may have a picture of a flood here or a fire there, we still fail to represent the thing itself, which exists on a scale that not only challenges our perceptual abilities, but even our traditional ideas of what constitutes an object. These crises are by turns too big, small, distributed, or non-human to fit neatly into our ready-made genres and mediums.
Take, for example, nature documentaries as the perennial favorite Earth or the new series told by Obama Our major national parks. Critics have noted that rather than engaging us in a new understanding of the various ecological phenomena that make up the natural world (and our planet at large), these shows tend to opt for a familiar mode that perpetuates the status quo. Stunning images of untouched nature exaggerate the Eden-esque dimension of the rapidly shrinking green world and contribute to our complacency, anthropocentric narratives are projected about animals naturalizing heteronormative nuclear family units, and the lack of humans to the screen supports a naïve vision of a binary human being/nature that entrenches our alienation from it. As Chanelle Adams writes for The driftby presenting a “manageable slice of an otherwise out-of-control and chaotic global system,” these shows turn the vast, nuanced phenomena we are entangled in into low-calorie entertainment, a simple moral tale about conservation.
Time and time again, the media mode we currently have – narrow, gender-limited, ocular and anthropocentric – has proven too flat to grasp the vast complexity of its subjects. It is at the same time too visual to see the invisible, too abstract to motivate any action, too rooted in the human to help us take care of the inhuman Other. Moreover, our notion of “media” as a man-made device to convey meaning (whether in the form of vinyl, film, or silicon chip) constrains us to an overly anthropogenic and technological view. of what counts as media. . If we are to engage with the crises we face, we will need to rethink our fundamental assumptions about our media and interrogate not only the conventions that come with them, but also our ideas of what constitutes media in the first place.
Although our media trajectory throughout the past century may resemble a series of expansions, each new development was a site of contestation. The history of the media is, in many ways, a showdown between those who wanted to expand and those who sought to constrain. Writers like Hugo Münsterberg in the early 20th century, for example, resisted the incorporation of synchronized sound into film, arguing that sound “interfered with the possibility for moving images to develop their original nature”. Decades later, the introduction of color met with similar friction from the artistic establishment, who found it crude, which relegated color photography to the fringes of artistic practice until photographers like Saul Leiter or Joel Meyerowitz begin to change popular opinion in the middle of the century. . Even looking to recent developments, we find this tension between expansion and reduction at play; despite the ubiquity of digital media, the shift from film cell to computer code has had its share of skeptics who have argued that the loss of filmic indexicality could put us in a position of “total cynicism” with regard to the ‘image.
Moreover, these developments have not occurred in a vacuum, but have constantly responded to broader shifts in economic and technological architectures. For example, our eye-centric epistemology—by which visuals become tied to the cultural reality of events—may be closely tied to the rise of television over radio as a de facto mass medium. More recently, the rise of social media platforms has helped flatten media further by filtering it through an underlying logic of limited attention and “thumb rate”, weeding out content that is not relatively short, digestible, emotionally charged and visually spectacular. Forming around these attributes, this flat medium sacrifices complexity for convention, nuance and density for immediacy and ease of viewing.
Chimerical media, as opposed to the flat media we have now, introduces depth into this paradigm. Like the fabulous chimera that gave it its name, this medium will be heterogeneous, mixing the human with the non-human, the particular with the monumental, shaking up traditional categories and creating new formations that will allow us to see differently. Historically, we can see it as the successor to avant-garde movements like the French New Wave and Dada, which challenged not only the forms and conventions of our media, but also the limits of what can be considered art or media. We begin by deconstructing the two pillars that constitute the core of current media culture: a belief in discrete meanings (which underpins the oculocentrism of our media) and a view of media as carrying a distinctly human meaning (which underpins its anthropocentrism).