Curtin, Michael and Kevin Sanson, eds. Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor. University of California Press, 2016.
Reviewed by Aju Basil James
Precarity is a condition that marks most human life in the age of neo-liberalism. Contemporary news, for instance, gives people a sense of impending doom and an image of an extremely fragile world at its weakest. Half the world burns in drought while the other half is submerged under floods; people are mired in endless war where no one knows whom they are fighting and who is on their side; political and financial systems seem to have been taken hostage and in the U.S. Black people continue to be shot by the police on the streets; communities around the world are losing their environments and ways of life, and academic adjuncts are on food stamps. Further, there is very little hope that the precarity of existence will be alleviated in the near future. Instead, people are engulfed in the pessimism that things will probably only get worse.
Labor conditions in entertainment industries across the world display the precarity characteristic of the current era. Working conditions for both above- and below-the-line workers have been shaped by larger flows of capital and labor across the world. Precarious Creativity is an anthology of critical essays on these conditions, which create particular labor formations and lead to various responses to this environment. The book situates the contemporary reality for workers in entertainment industries as specific to today, while also maintaining a continuity with patterns in industries from previous times.
As Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson point out in their introduction, the essays “converge around the issue of precarity,” even as they point out the “enduring and profound differences” that exist between labor formations in different nations (5). The essays are brought together by a shared understanding of precarity as a function of relations of production and the concerns that surround it, including the characteristics and nature of social dynamics that shape workers. Precarity for the media worker is perhaps manifested most markedly in the unmoored nature of the profession today, caught in successive waves of change in the modes of production, reception, and distribution. In this way, the precarity in which current creative workers exist is yet another manifestation of the neo-liberal world order, and it is indicative of labor conditions across various industries.
Curtin and Sanson note that even though film and television workers are often seen as “highly trained industrial elites,” they share concerns, shaped by deregulation, privatization, and the growth of transnational capital, with workers in other industries (6). As the subtitle of the book, “Global Media, Local Labor,” indicates, the fluid ease with which capital circulates around national boundaries pits its global dimension against local labor. The precarity faced by film and television workers is thus also a result of the changing nature of the nation-state and the transformations globalization creates in the constitution of the citizen. Curtin and Sanson see this process as being mutually constituted – as national borders become more porous, media companies conglomerate into mega-corporations such as Hollywood’s Time Warner or Bollywood’s Reliance Media, which then contribute to the further weakening of national boundaries by wooing investors and searching for transnational investment opportunities.
The precariousness in which local labor finds itself is constituted by the seemingly contradictory tendencies of (a) capital flight and the outsourcing of jobs from bigger centers such as Hollywood and (b) the emergence of opportunities for screen media workers in smaller centers, sometimes on the periphery in cases such as Eastern Europe, African countries like Nigeria, and a range of centers across Asia. The tension between these two aspects of the contemporary labor environment manifests itself in regionally specific ways that shape the dynamics of labor-capital relationships. Chapters that examine these tensions in specific regional locations, and in specific film and television industries, enable the book to present a diversity of viewpoints on how relations of production shape cultures of production around the world. Precarious Creativity is thus framed by a global perspective, which makes it a valuable contribution to studies of labor conditions in the entertainment industry. The diversity in perspectives does not pertain only to the regional locations surveyed, but also to the theoretical approaches through which these concerns are studied. Curtis and Sanson note that the dominant approaches, such as political economy, sociology of work, and production studies pioneered by John Caldwell among others, are sometimes pitted against each other, whereas these approaches can and should be integrated to gain a better understanding of the “relentless and pervasive class warfare being waged against creative workers” in different parts of the world (9).
The chapters by Toby Miller and John Caldwell challenge what they see as a tendency to disregard, or even erase, labor relations as a structuring element of the media industry. Miller examines digital media’s claims to disruption, transformation, and transcendence; he argues that the supposed allure of democratization of media has in effect resulted in the elevation of the individual fantasies of the consumer at the expense of structural relationships between capital and labor. Caldwell raises similar arguments to understand the rise of “spec work” in television labor, contending that the dismantling of employment structures of a previous era has led to increased uncertainty and uncompensated work in the industry.
Changing conceptions of what it means to perform labor are central to the investigations of Shanti Kumar and Vicki Mayer. The former looks at the rise of the “film city” as an economic development oriented plan in various cities in India. These initiatives frame various kinds of film labor as a matter of a city’s prestige, thus altering the ways in which the relationship between creative labor and capital is understood. In Mayer’s study of HBO’s Treme filmed in New Orleans in the second decade of this century, she identifies a moral economy that connects television labor with the need to work to rebuild and restore a post-Katrina New Orleans. An army of extras and volunteer laborers were recruited through a call to help tell the story of New Orleans and its people in the post-Katrina years, thus combining an attempt to give voice to everyday people with a reformulation of labor relations. The ostensive labors of love observed by Kumar and Mayer thrive in the precarious locations of places ravaged by neo-liberal economics.
Petr Szczepanik’s essay on screen media labor in post-socialist Prague highlights the importance of contextualizing the frameworks of media studies. Szczepanik notes that studies of creative labor has been dominated by the New International Division of Cultural Labor (NICL) approach, which puts the agency of Hollywood at the center and understands media labor in the rest of the world in relation to the effects Hollywood actions have on American workers. Szczepanik instead writes about screen media labor in Prague by understanding how local workers negotiate with global capital, often using it as an opportunities to learn American-style practices, while also struggling against glass ceilings imposed by American funded studios. In other chapters, Matt Sienkiewicz analyzes global-local tensions in the midst of the rise of Afghanistan’s first cadre of female screen workers, Tejaswini Ganti shows how the English language has become a marker of sophistication and status among Bollywood elite at a time of massive transnational funding, and Juan Pinon look at how transnational capital negotiates between national media monopolies and local independent productions in Latin America. All of these essays illustrate ways that local labor conducts transactions with global and national capital. Like other chapters in the volume, these essays give credence to the editors’ claim that the book welcomes a “range of agendas and perspectives” that are united by engaging with processes of “untangling the nuances of precarious creativity” in different sites across the world (10).
The specific characteristics of precarity in contemporary screen-media labor does not detract from a focus on its historical nature, which is manifested in the importance the contributors give to the structural reasons for instability in the media workplace. Many of the essays in Precarious Creativity highlight a pervasive “race to the bottom” that constantly sacrifices worker welfare for corporate profit. The immediate factors driving this phenomenon can be found in the constant expansion of global competition as well as in the rapidly changing modes of media distribution and consumption. American and local labor in foreign locations constantly apprehend the specter of the flight of capital, motivated by tax concessions offered by competing locations. The movement of capital is aided by an almost global consensus to invest in the “creative economy,” seeing it as an alternative, or sometimes even an upgrade, to industrial growth. The precariousness in which screen-media labor finds itself today is thus indicative of global trends towards de-industrialization, the financialization of the economy, and the rise of what is broadly called the knowledge economy.
Kristen Warner’s chapter on “postracial” labor practices in Hollywood similarly locates precarity within a historical framework. Warner argues that precarity is commonplace for workers of color because it is embedded in the hiring practices in Hollywood and the discourses of representations and skill that surrounds it. The criteria and structures of hiring purport to be color-blind, and therefore being oblivious to existing biases of who “fits” certain work roles or who has the requisite skill sets and sensibility to perform certain tasks. The uncertainty that comes with screen-media jobs means that men and women of color have to at least tacitly assimilate into the normative ideologies of Hollywood. Precarious labor conditions thus restrict access to workers of color and limit their ability to meaningfully affect racial diversity in the industry.
Precarious Creativity attempts to make a multifaceted intervention in the field of screen-media labor studies, and the essays live up to this ideal in both topics and theoretical approaches. Specifically, the essays build upon previous work in this field, such as the anthology Global Hollywood (2001, eds. Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurria, and Richard Maxwell) and Andrew Ross’s Nice Work If You Can Get It (2009), by examining on-the-ground practices and what Curtin and Sanson call “middle dynamics” (8). The diversity of contributors and their topic areas bring an international perspective to the book. Precarious Creativity thus also takes steps towards creating a larger framework for media studies that accommodates regionally specific approaches in the age of globalization.
Rust, Stephen, Salma Monani, and Sean Cubitt, eds. Ecomedia: Key Issues. London & New York: Routledge, 2016.
Reviewed by Trinidad Linares
Ecomedia: Key Issues, edited by Stephen Rust, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt, does more than examine environmental messages circulated through multiple medium. Along with an analysis of the agenda behind those messages, authors in this volume examine audience response and scrutinize the ways that media impacts environmental stability and ecological systems all over the globe. This volume also provides a model and basis for bringing explorations of ecomedia into college curriculums, by combining real world examples with various forms of theoretical frameworks. Scholars involved in media, film, and cultural studies will likely view the book’s key terms and discussion boxes as useful guides, and they should help undergraduate students better understand the concepts used throughout the book. This anthology should prove valuable as a reference, even if it is not the primary text in a course.
Rust et al. approach the field of ecomedia in three ways: frames, flow, and convergence. Rust provides an introduction for each section to establish an understanding of the ecocritical issues that will be covered. In frames, Ecomedia highlights ways that the media has socialized audiences to view the environment within certain frameworks. For instance, H. Lewis Ulman discusses how Terry Evans’s photography counters highly manufactured images of nature. Ulman employs the ecocriticism term “technê” used in Sean Cubitt’s Ecomedia (2005); the term refers to “a coherent set of principles for making or producing something” and Ulman uses the term to illustrate the artifice and staging that has become standard in nature photography (27). Ulman is interested in analyzing how the practice of creating media, like photography, can be a way to explore our relationship with the environment. He differentiates between the landscape photography of Evans and ecoporn, which is highly idealized nature photos meant only to deliver aesthetic pleasure. While ecoporn exists simply to be visually appealing, Evans’s work is meant to “engage our sense of history, of place, and of our ecological relationship to the prairie and the nonhuman species with which we share the landscape” (33). Evans’s photography uses both the understanding of the “prairie ecosystem” and “complex, chaotic, cyclical, and spiral patterns” to provide an image that engages and transforms people’s conventional perception of nature (34). Ulman sees Evans’s exhibit at the Field Museum as an extension of her vision in her prairie work. As opposed to bringing the scientific eye to the landscape, Evans works to showcase the beauty in museum specimens that have been separated from their natural environment. She strips the clinical aspect of the animals in her images to make them as aesthetically approachable as the plants in her prairie work, again reconnecting humans to their environment. Using Evan’s photography as an example, Ulman encourages use of an ecocritical approach to images that is aware of the artifice in presenting nature and also how exhibits can harken back to the natural world. Ulman’s ecocritical insight into nature images can be applied to film and other media as well as photography.
Another article in the section, “Eco-Nostalgia in Popular Turkish Cinema” by Ekin Gündüz Özdemirci and Salma Monani deals with the representation of ecological concerns in the film Şellale. As a result of the growth of Turkish environmentalism, ecocinematic concerns have been expressed in the New Turkish Cinema. Özdemirci and Monani argue that eco-nostalgia in Şellale is less about yearning for a nonexistent idyllic past and instead more about apprehension regarding unintended consequences from modernization. They refer to realistic views of the pastoral past as “complex pastoral” (52). By focusing on the film’s protagonist and his family, the repercussions of environmental damage are examined on a personal level in Şellale. The family’s misfortune displays the human cost of unmitigated industrialization. Özdemirci and Monani use the theory of encoding and decoding, as well semiotics, to point out how ecological concerns are embedded into a film that combines Greek myth, Turkish history, and a family drama.
The book’s second section on flow demonstrates ways that environmental issues are funneled through different medium. Articles explore topics such as subversion in pirate radio, reality television’s postcolonial narratives, and ground-level analysis of Google Earth’s domain. A chapter by Sarina Pearson examines how nature has been separated from environmentalism and commodified for television consumption in “New Zealand Reality Television: Hostile or Hospitable?” Just as Ulman establishes that photographic depictions of nature are unconsciously viewed as genuine, here Pearson challenges scholars to scrutinize the hegemonic scripting in reality television programs. Pearson applies a postcolonial lens and the globalization theories of Arjun Appadurai to discuss the impact of settler colonialism on the understanding of who belongs in the New Zealand environment. She focuses on reality television representations that favor Pakeha, settler colonizers, as authentic residents over the Māori, who are indigenous, and East Asian and Polynesian immigrants. For example, Good Life is real estate show that evokes the claims of colonialism, by stressing European settlers’ rights to the landscape and resources. Meanwhile, Border Patrol exerts a narrative of surveillance against the threat of pollution by East Asian and South Asian immigrants. Under the guise of protecting nature, the colonial gaze is employed against non-European immigrants. Border Patrol implies that New Zealand’s safety relies on the rejection of people of color who are depicted as sources of infestation rather than as human beings. Although Border Patrol emphasizes biosecurity against contamination by what the new immigrants are bringing, the reality is that the invasive plants and animals are already creating havoc in New Zealand’s ecosystem. In addition, the program Topp Country, which has two Pakeha sisters dealing with food tourism, legitimizes the Pakeha as owners of the land and downplays the tensions between them and the Māori. Regardless of whether these reality shows are adaptations from Western countries or developed in New Zealand, the settler colonizer is naturalized as the steward of the environment at the exclusion of everyone else.
The book’s third section on convergence highlights instances in which anthropology and cultural studies can provide a way to evaluate developing forms of communication and media. Audience expansion and evolving forms of narrative and interaction reinforce the need for ecocritical video game studies. In “Where the Wild Games Are: Ecologies in Latin American Video Games,” Lauren Woolbright and Thaiane Oliveira analyze connections between the digital world and the natural one. Video game designers are making “gamespace,” the worlds of video games, more realistic in how they depict natural environments (197). Yet, the value assigned to preserving these environments in the game is still negligible, so players are not motivated to think about their impact on nature in real life. However, some games, like Papa & Yo, are creating awareness about environmental realities. Papa & Yo tells the story of Quico who lives in the favelas (slums) of Brazil. Özdemirci and Monani’s ecocritical perspective of the film Şellale relates here to ways that Quico’s oppressive landscape affects him. In the case of Papga & Yo, video games players do not just listen to the narrative, but instead take on the role as well and so develop a deeper understanding of the environment through their affinity with the character.
Woolbright and Oliveira also touch upon how the marketing of a video game led to a concerted environmental protest. Promotions about the video game Zone Incerta conveyed a storyline about an industrial threat to the Amazon so persuasive that people spoke out against the fictional company causing the threat. The public’s response to this fictional endangerment galvanized them to protest George W. Bush’s interest in acquiring Brazillian ethanol. Woolbright and Oliveira thus show how consumers can think in ecocritical ways as a result of video games and their accompanying marketing.
Although the anthology’s various chapters focus on different issues and global contexts, the theme of Ecomedia is coherent. The volume makes the case that while media is an optimal way to disseminate information about environmental concerns, biases complicate interpretations of media messages, and most importantly the wide use of media has environmental costs that people must realize. Therefore, as the volume persuasively shows, ecomedia’s critical lens is imperative in contemporary scholarship.
Ivakhiv, Adrian J. Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013.
Reviewed by Rebekah Sinewe
Adrian J. Ivakhiv’s Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature provides a highly inclusive, detailed exploration of how films enact change on people’s relationship to the world. Analyzing an extensive range of films, Ivakhiv uses a process-relational method that recognizes new socio-ecological meanings can be created. Although Ivakhiv is a professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, his interdisciplinary research encompasses work in ecology, social sciences, media, philosophy, and the creative arts. The interdisciplinary perspective in Ecologies of the Moving Image builds on Ivakhiv’s ability to synthesize multiple research areas, as seen in his first book Claiming Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Politics at Glastonbury and Sedona. Ivakhiv’s knowledge in various fields makes Ecologies of the Moving Image a contribution to film ecocriticism.
Moving beyond film analysis and eco-critical theory, Ivakhiv shows how the moving images of film derive and create meaning from the human experience and change the world in which people live. Through an exploration of the relationship between cinema, affect, and nature, Ecologies of the Moving Image encourages an eco-philosophy of cinema by drawing on the work of Charles Saunders Peirce, Alfred North Whitehead, and other theorists. The book opens with a theoretical introduction and first chapter, which together establish a foundation for the more specific discussions that follow. In the next four chapters, Ivakhiv examines geo-morphism, anthropomorphism, bio-morphism, and the challenging moments created for viewers when these ideas interact with a film. The book concludes with an afterword that points to the digital future and an appendix that charts his argument. Throughout, Ivakhiv discusses an impressive collection of films ranging from documentaries, wildlife films, and eco-disaster films to Western genre films, European art films, and a variety of films in the areas of anthropology, eco-critical film studies, and geography.
True to the title, one of Ivakhiv’s central themes is the moving, active nature of cinema. He notes the point by film/media scholar Fatimah Tobing Rony that “all cinema is by its nature taxidermic: it renders alive something that is essentially not alive, not because it lacks movement (which it does not) but because it is only light and sound, lacking the capacity to initiate change once the cinematic elements are drawn together into an edited and assembled product” (153). Yet Ivakhiv argues for film’s ability to do something, to come alive when a viewer forms an active relationship with the film, and to enact change on the world. Ecologies of the Moving Image is framed by the ideas that “the world has become a world of the motion picture” and that “cinema may bring us closest to the dynamism of the world outside cinema even while it adds dynamism to it” (25). The synthetic nature of cinema allows for controlled aesthetic representation while also creating an engagement with human experience.
Throughout Ecologies of the Moving Image, Ivakhiv continually returns to his central concerns: a focus on the ability of cinema to reflect, reshape, and understand the world, and the interconnectivity of cinema, affect, and nature. Ivakhiv breathes life into theory through his own enthusiasm, knowledge on the subject, a thoroughly argued line of reasoning, and numerous, diverse examples of films. Moving images illuminate the intersection of imagined and real spaces and demonstrate how these images can alter people’s relationships to lived ecologies, which are identified as material, social, and perceptual.
Charles Whitehead and Alfred Peirce’s theories are used to condense and combine the theory involved in Ivakhiv’s eco-philosophical ideas of cinema as a moving, dynamic influence on the world. By drawing on these two theorists, Ivakhiv develops a framework for an ontology in which Whitehead’s process and Peirce’s semiotics converge to create a process-relational approach to cinema. While process-relational thought is not unique to Ivakhiv, his application to cinema is refreshing and supports his focus “on the dynamism by which things are perpetually moving forward, interacting, and creating new conditions in the world” (43).
Using both Whitehead and Peirce, Ivakhiv breaks down binaries, such as the nature-culture binary, to argue for a more comprehensive triad that allows him to explore perceptual ecologies of film. Echoing Peirce’s triad, which goes beyond a static binary to suggest that one element of the triad is always at play, fluctuating, and evolving, Ivakhiv highlights the emergent, ever-changing nature of reality, as meaning is made through relational moments of experience. For Ivakhiv, the triad consists of what he calls “firstness,” “secondness,” and “thirdness.” “Firstness” and “secondness” refer to a grounded reality in which the film itself is “firstness,” and the physical experience of viewing a film is “secondness.” As a logical progression of semiotic thought, “thirdness” is the resulting meaning from a film viewing experience and is contingent on numerous variables including prior knowledge, predispositions, and cultural influences. This scheme underlies Ivakhiv’s central idea that cinema moves; the triad accounts for the infinite meanings that can occur through film viewing and interpretation.
After outlining the theoretical framework, Ivakhiv uses the remaining chapters to explore the ecologies that constitute the worlds within or created by film. Ivakhiv identifies geomorphic, biomorphic, and anthropomorphic as the three main components of the film world. The geomorphic component is the landscape, territory, background, or general space in a film, while biomorphic aspects address the relational processes with non-human animals, often wildlife. Finally, anthropomorphic elements ask complex and broad questions about human interactions, agency, culture, power structures, and identities. Like the triad built on Peirce’s work, Ivakhiv sees these elements of the film world as being in constant flux, changing with the viewer’s prior knowledge and experiences.
Although the material Ecologies of the Moving Image is intended for an audience with a knowledge of ecocriticism, film studies, or environmental studies, the content is well structured, and thus provides a streamlined and focused discussion of a rather dense body of theory. Ivakhiv’s interest in teaching is visible in his writing, particularly in his formation of an argument that can be broken down into digestible sections. In the appendix, a chart, followed by an outline of ideas, summarizes the progression of the elements of the film world to the film experience to the ecologies considered within the film world. In addition to the appendix, the table of contents is another tool that facilitates navigation of the dense material. Each chapter has section headings or key ideas that guide the specific ideas and arguments. These clarifiers can serve as reference points to reflect upon after reading. Throughout the chapters, Ivakhiv defines his use of terminology and summarizes his application of a specific theorist’s work without drifting from the connection between theory and examples in film. Still, the density of the numerous theories included in the book is at times overwhelming, and it seems as though more detailed examinations are forfeited in an effort to be inclusive and far-reaching. This critique can also be considered a strength because Ivakhiv maintains a high level of focus on the presented argument, which lends itself to clarity and a flowing structure throughout the book’s entirety.
Ecologies of the Moving Image presents a highly theoretical analysis of cinema, through which a process-relational account provides a framework to discuss lived ecologies. Ivakhiv’s exploration of the moving image demonstrates the ever-present ability of humanity to make meaning from the moving images of film. As Ivakhiv examines the historical relationships of cinema, affect, and nature, he is able to establish the longstanding nature of these relationships.