Watching That? Read This!

A young woman in a black and white polka dot dress stands in the woods. She holds a small television in front of her face. The featured image for a post on environmental themes in pop culture.

Heading to the movies? Ready to marathon-watch a new show? Why not take a book along, too? Pop culture has been asking important questions about how humans live in, work in, and understand human and more-than-human worlds. What is a “good place”? Why are there so many British murder mysteries in remote villages? How do we understand the beautiful horror of plant sentience, and is there really a zombie fungus?  What do environmental and labor injustice look like from inside a sleek Silicon Valley office? What are the ethics of space colonization? Work by environmental humanities scholars can offer historical and political context, real-world parallels, and new frameworks for watching.

Four graduate students from the Center for Culture, History, and Environment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison pair their pop culture favorites with the environmental humanities books that make an afternoon at the movies or an evening spent on the couch streaming just one more episode even better.

Sorry to Bother You

Struggling to make rent? Bummed out about gentrification and the backward slide of the proletariat? Boots Riley’s hit film, Sorry to Bother You (2018), is the Afrosurrealist condemnation of late-stage capitalism you need. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a depressive worker at a telemarketing company in Oakland, discovers a talent for sales when using his “white voice,” dubbed hilariously by David Crossthe personification of white privilege, ease, and confidence.

As he rises through the company Cash faces a serious choice: use his skill to please the company and achieve the life of his dreams or join his peers in their strike to improve working conditions at the company. The stakes rise beyond anything you could imagine, and take some surprising turns along the way.

The film explores tensions at the heart of the tech boom. The slick surfaces and lavish environments enjoyed by the “Power Callers” are contrasted with the poverty and degradation of Oakland, as the film skillfully weaves together the glib promises of the tech industry with the racial, economic, and environmental injustices they feed off and engender.

David N. Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park’s exploration of how Silicon Valley affects local communities of color, The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy (NYU Press, 2002), offers context for Riley’s Afrosurrealist vision.

For an almost equally surreal glimpse at the real tech industry, pair Sorry to Bother You with a chapter or two from Corey Pein’s journalistic exploration of the Bay Area venture capital ecosystem, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley (Metropolitan Books, 2018). Pein’s work deftly captures the toxic environment of tech startups and starkly depicts the serious social and environmental consequences stemming from this dysfunctional system.

— Miranda Alksnis

Annihilation The Last of Us

Nature, as a non-human force we cannot control, has been a source of fear in our narratives perhaps as long as humans have been spinning stories. However, the rise of the genre of eco-horror can be cited as a more recent development. Dr. Bernice M. Murphy, professor of Popular Literature at Trinity College Dublin, positions Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a watershed moment in the creation of eco-horror. Arguably the central text of the 1960s environmental movement, Silent Spring famously opens with a nightmare story of a dead world gone wrong because of human action on the environment. This is frequently cited as the core tenant of eco-horror. Eco-horror is more than a big spider, rabid Cujo, or extra-terrestrial threat. It is our own environment attacking us, usually because of what we’ve done.

Eco-horror as a genre of literature, film, television, and video games has been responsive to the environmental concerns present in public thought. While Silent Spring focuses on pesticide overuse, 21st-century eco-horror has turned its focus to climate change anxieties. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) is frequently cited as the iconic film of the genre, displaying the struggle for human survival among sudden extreme weather events. Other stories project these anxieties onto plants and animals themselves becoming more-than-natural, as in The Last of Us (2013) and Annihilation (2018).

Close up of an ant perched on a branch, with a fungus growing from its back and head.

Ant infected with ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a real-world version of the zombie fungus in The Last of Us. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Last of Us, a single-player survival horror video game, is a cinematic trip through a world turned upside down by a rampant fungus. Drawing on classic zombie horror tropes, the game explores an apocalyptic New England haunted by people driven into primal violence by the Cordyceps fungi. Human acts of malice and grace play out in an urban landscape being reclaimed by nature, where zombies themselves are a part of this nature.

The extra-natural will subsume human existence, and it is both beautiful and horrifying.

Annihilation, first a book series and then a movie, plays with similar visuals in a military base overwhelmed by vegetal growth. Unlike The Last of Us, the extra-natural vehicle is unruly plants and wild animals themselves. Animal species merge to form uncanny chimeras and mimic human voices. Plants grow in beautiful profusion and become deadly, growing in human skin and merging with our bodies. The extra-natural will overwhelm and subsume human existence, and it is both beautiful and horrifying.

To better understand how this genre works and see other examples, Jenna Stoeber has boiled the core points of eco-horror theory down in her easily accessible video series, FiendZone: Horror, Explained. Her episode “How Global Warming Is Changing Horror” is a quick and compelling way to get even your non-academic friends keyed in before starting the movie or game. Once you’re hooked, check out the new journal Gothic Nature: New Directions in Ecohorror and the Ecogothic.

Liz Anna Kozik

The Good Place

Set to release its third season at the end of September, The Good Place is a comedy that explores questions such as: How does one become “good”? Where do we go when we die? What does it mean to be human? Is frozen yogurt delicious? As we explore The Good Place with Eleanor, the landscape and architecture of the afterlife become a fascinating mirror of our own desires and our own understanding of what makes a “good” place.

In The Good Place, your home is perfectly set to fit you, and the architecture of the town and the “natural” world around the community also indicate the economic and socio-political leanings and expectations of what is good and worth living in. As time goes on and we begin to see what the Bad Place looks like, it is again a reflection—this time of what we fear in a landscape.

The Good Place pairs well with: ethnographic works such as Envisioning Eden (Berghahn Books, 2010) by Noel Salazar, which looks at how we think about and idealize locations; Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty (Duke University Press, 2006) by Michelle Murphy, on the terror of the indoors and office culture; and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (Norton, 2005) by Mary Roach, an incredibly fun and well-researched look at the many ways people imagine what happens after we die.

–Juniper Lewis

Shetland, Hinterland, & British Detective Series

You know the genre: a laconic detective with a troubled past relocates to a remote part of the British Empire where he (usually it’s a he) is drawn into a series of murders. Assisted by at least one knowledgeable local investigator, the out-of-town detective slowly unravels the secrets of a tight-knit community bound by deep ties to place, complicated property ownership maps, and generations of personal feuds. Conflicts in this genre often hinge on debates over what direction the local economy should take. With the decline of fishing in the Shetlands, for instance, locals in Shetland clash over the creation of an off-shore oil refinery or the expansion of tourism. To put the fictions into real-world context, viewers can read up on fishing in the North Sea, the politics of logging in Wales, or some of the intricacies of British property law.

High rocks jut into the dark blue ocean. A mist hangs above the furthest cliffs. Sparse green grass glrows in the foreground.

The sublime landscape of the Shetland Isles: the perfect place for a murder. Photograph by Graham Hobster, 2017.

Whether it’s the gorges and forests of Wales featured in Hinterland (2013), or the cliffs and rocky shores of Shetland (2013), sublime places seem to draw in murderers, who tend to dispatch their victims in scenic locations the local tourism board would like you to visit. Before watching any of these shows, it might help to brush up on the aesthetics of pastoral, picturesque, and sublime landscapes. This will offer a good starting point for comparisons within the broader genre of British crime fiction, because the setting often acts as a kind of spoiler for the types of conclusions or plots the series will encompass. As Les Roberts argues, in the many post-Nordic British crime series that have been flooding the airwaves, “landscape and location are themselves presented as central characters.”

Murderers in this genre tend to dispatch their victims in scenic locations the local tourism board would like you to visit.

For instance, darkly comedic crime series like The Midsomer Murders (1997) set in bucolic English landscapes tend to play off their pastoral surroundings and adopt a lighter tone, feature detectives with little existential angst, and offer more opportunities for redemption for criminals and the community alike. Shows like Hinterland and Shetland, occupy the picturesque, where murders occur in the sublime landscapes of oceans, mountains, cliffs, and gorges, but our angsty detectives typically retreat to the safety of quaint cottages or ancient pubs for a cup of tea, stilted chats with the locals, and the reassurance that once the crime is solved, things might just return to normal. Meanwhile, a series like Top of the Lake (2013), set in in the the forested mountains of New Zealand and focusing on the trauma of colonization and the violence of capitalism, offer a bleaker view of humanity where the path to redemption (and solving the case) requires a searing confrontation with the truth (and the landscape).

Watching these series, viewers might find it difficult to overlook the fact that certain episodes resemble extended car commercials. Searching for clues as well as personal redemption, our anti-heroic detectives ford streams and bounce along the spines of mountains in shiny new mid-priced cars, prompting careful viewers to ask—along with Jennifer Price in Flight Maps (Basic Books, 2000)“can a Volvo Cross Country save your soul if it takes you to a stunning mountain range?” Watch, and find out.

– Kate Wersan

 Firefly, The Expanse Star Trek

The fantasy of setting out into the great black void of space to find a new home among the stars has long been a standard of science fiction stories, made explicit in the iconic words “Space: the final frontier.” Star Trek and its genre heirs position space exploration as a continuation of the American frontier, Gene Roddenberry’s “wagon train to the stars.” The USS Enterprise may have been more advanced than a convoy of covered wagons, but it carries the same baggage.

These themes have been explored in texts such as John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2008) and Patricia Kerslake’s Science Fiction and Empire (Liverpool University Press, 2010), but this subject entered the public sphere with a bang this past July. The Association for Library Service to Children formally removed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from an award, prompting vehement backlash from Captain Kirk himself. In a series of tweets, William Shatner bemoaned what he saw as an effort to “obliterate the past” with “2018 standards applied to 1867 viewpoints.” The following stream of Twitter arguments and op-eds reflect how easily discussions of Wilder’s casual racism and colonialism blur into discussions of Star Trek. White supremacy, assumed land rights, paternalism, and exotification of the other run rampant in both series.

A white moon half in shadow sits in a black sky casting light on a shadowy landscape of rocky outcroppings and a foggy floodplain.

Both in the real world and on screen, the open frontier of outer space inspires American imaginations. In this artistic rendering, the moon Charon rises above Pluto’s frozen southern pole. Image from NASA.

These subjects were addressed from different angles by scholars across the academic Twitterverse. Dr. Debbie Reese, publisher of the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature and prominent Twitter Native scholar, wrote a widely distributed thread relating Star Trek and Little House on the Prairie and an accompanying Guardian op-ed. Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, professor of children and young adult literature, broke down racism in both children’s literature and the original Star Trek series in another thread, prompting Shatner to call for the University of Pennsylvania to “check out their professor who cannot seem to stay in her lane.”

The ghosts of colonialism live on in the media we consume.

It would be a mistake to reduce this encounter to a celebrity having a tantrum. Both Star Trek and Little House on the Prairie have cherished places in American pop culture. Their stories, and the baggage they carry, continue to replay in our contemporary pop culture. Firefly (2002), the television cult favorite space western, plays out an even more literal “wagon train to the stars.” Dressed in cowboy duds and carrying revolvers, crews of good-hearted misfits bounce across frontier colony planets, interacting with settlers but never natives. Amazon’s show The Expanse (2015) explores our human galaxy of colonial politics, limited resources, social inequalities, and looming war through a variety of perspectives. The new Star Trek: Discovery (2017) attempts to critique Star Trek’s past with a story just before Captain Kirk’s own story, twisting familiar serial tropes into one surprisingly nuanced narrative of interspecies conflict and justice.

All three of these series are entertaining, fun, and to some degree thought provoking. Before enjoying these exploits around the galaxy, however, we science fiction viewers must pause and reflect on how the ghosts of colonialism live on in the media we consume.

– Liz Anna Kozik

Featured image: “TV Head.” Photograph by Corrine Klug, 2014.

Miranda Alksnis is a first-year graduate student in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Contact.

Juniper Lewis is a graduate student in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Their work focuses on Christian camping trips in the United States and the production of ecotheological knowledge, but queer studies is a prominent side interest of theirs. In their free time, Juniper is a musician, pizzaiolo, and podcast enthusiast. Their most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “Queer Camping, Then and Now” (June 2018). Twitter. Contact.

Liz Anna Kozik shares stories of Midwestern landscapes through art, especially comics. Combining environmental history and contemporary ecology through visually engaging comics, she hopes to inspire public interest and stewardship in these complex landscapes. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “Knowing Prairies: An Essay in Comic Form” (June 2017). Find her on Tumblr and Twitter to see more of her work. Website. Contact.

Kate Wersan is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of WisconsinMadison, where she specializes in the environmental and cultural history of the United States. Her research examines the environmental history of American timekeeping practices from 1660 to 1920. She is a member of the Edge Effects editorial board and the managing editor for Wisconsin 101: Our History in Objects. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “When We Repealed Daylight Savings Time” (November 2017). Website. TwitterContact.

3 Responses

  1. joe heumann says:

    For Eco Horror try: Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen (U of Nebraska, 2016).