Media, mud and the life of matter

I am feeling a bit deflated. So I decided to write something. This is the result. It owes much to David H. Fleming, with whom I am working on some of these ideas for the purposes of academic publishing to be developed in the (un)foreseeable future. And aspects of it were inspired by papers by Robert Burgoyne, Agnieszka Piotrowska and Eileen Rositzka at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Conference in Montreal in 2015. They very kindly asked me to act as a respondent to their panel on drones – and to their bewilderment, I responded by talking about shoes.

At the beginning of Gadjo dilo/The Crazy Stranger (Tony Gatlif, Romania/France, 1997), Stéphane (Romain Duris) is walking along a snow- and ice-covered road somewhere in Transylvania. He is lost, and he stops to survey the landscape, stamping his feet and blowing the warm air of his lungs on to his hands. The sequence always make me think about cold feet: Stéphane’s feet must be freezing.

This in turn typically makes me think about shoes. What are shoes?

Barefoot, humans can walk across many but not all terrains. Some will be too hot for bare feet (desert sands), while others will be too cold (Transylvania in winter; the French chaussure keeps the foot hot), while others still might feature rocks too jagged for walking (as anyone who has danced “ooh ah” across a shingle beach will know).

The shoe, then, is a medium that allows humans to cover different terrains, thereby modifying the way in which the human interacts with the Earth, giving to humanity the means by which they can expand their presence both across and into new worlds.

But shoe also separates humans from the world, depriving them of direct contact, even if, as per Stéphane’s freezing feet in Gadjo dilo, the shoe is not a perfect tool for keeping nature out.

After the shoe expanded the possibilities for humans to travel came various other technologies that function as a medium between humans and Earth.

A history of these media might chart how, by and large, humanity’s ability to travel further and faster across Earth has involved ever greater amounts of separation of man from Earth: the shoe raises humanity an inch or so higher, the wheel several inches/a few feet, propellers and jet engines thousands of feet, the space shuttle out of Earth’s orbit.

In some senses, then, the spread of humanity and their ability to see more of this and other planets/moons is linked to an ever-greater distance between man and Earth.

This distance is not just spatial (inches/feet/extra-orbital), but it can also be temporal. Systems of representation such as painting, photography and film, for example, can create a temporal distance (I see records of older times).

What is more, with television, there is minimal temporal distance, but an almost absolute conquest of spatial distance: I am in London, but I can see what is happening in Sydney in effect right now.

Media allow for a renewed understanding of the world (they make for a new world), while at the same time distancing us from a direct relationship with that world.

That new world of humans and their technology/media is an integral part of what we might call the anthropocene – the period in the planet’s history during which humans have had the greatest influence in shaping the world (in refashioning it anew).

For, media like shoes do not only help us to walk over a greater variety of the Earth’s surface-types, but humans also refashion the surface of the Earth with things like concrete in order to make that world more cross-able. The road and the pavement are in some senses the making-shoe of the planet.

And if the planet is, as I am suggesting, ‘made shoe,’ then in some senses the medium – something that was created at a specific point in history – is naturalised, or made to seem timeless. By this I mean to say that we begin not to see that the road and the pavement are human creations, but simply part of the Earth that we live with.

Why did a human create shoes? Clearly, we cannot know a (pun intended) concrete answer to this.

(The intention of the pun is to reveal that we use metaphorical terms like ‘concrete’ – which we know to be a substance that is man-made and, in my argument, part of the shoe-ification of the planet – in order to define whether an answer is good or not, with goodness now being measured by the man-made as opposed to by the natural; we conversely define muddy answers as bad ones. The point being that we use the language of the man-made [concrete] to justify human thoughts and actions, and we use the language of nature [muddy] to delegitimise nature – and in this sense we create not natural but self-reinforcing and quite abstract logics regarding how we understand the world/what we perceive the world to be. In short, concrete/man-made = good; muddy/natural = bad.)

To return. Even if we do not know its precise origins, it is quite possible (I should say that it is quite probable) that the shoe was invented because humans did not simply want to travel, but because they had to. They were either under threat from an outside force or from each other, did not have enough resources in their location at the time, or indeed found that their environment was changing without them even moving, such that they had to invent the shoe in order to better their chances of survival.

Now, I am here linking the shoe to human survival, which would mean that in a basic sense the shoe is a ‘good thing.’ But I also wish to suggest that this story of the shoe and the separation from Earth that it entails (even if the French also term a shoe a soulier, or an ‘under-link‘) sparks, via that very separation, a sense in which the Earth is not just a space with which we exist, but a space that is a malleable plaything that we can mould. Not only do we wears shoes, but via concrete we can turn the whole planet into a shoe. This is not just survival of a planet, therefore, but it is also subjugation thereof.

The subjugation of the planet to humanity leads to a logic that whenever the planet is unruly and does not obey our desires then it is being bad, which in turn makes us believe that the planet is evil, or nasty, or cruel – thus reinforcing our sense of separation from it, since it is in opposition to us, as opposed to something with which we live (and die).

The subjugation of the planet to humanity – the use of the planet not as a space with which we live but as a space that we mould (‘make shoe’) for our own purposes – is what I would call the birth of exploitation (we do not co-exist with the world, we exploit it), and thus the birth of what I would call capitalism, in that capitalism is the institution and then the naturalisation of exploitation, such that exploitation seems right, good and what humans should do, and when nature goes against human wishes, it is bad, evil and cruel.

If the subjugation of nature is good, and if nature’s lack of conformity to subjugation is bad, then we can see here how our understanding of nature has been denatured, and how processes of exploitation/subjugation have become naturalised (exploitation is what we understand to be natural, as opposed to nature itself).

If the logic of exploitation for human benefit is allowed to stand as my definition of capitalism, then capitalism is the institution and the naturalisation of media – of things that separate us from the world, such that we ‘better’ can exploit the world.

In effect, I am suggesting that capitalism entails a logic of separation, and that this separation is legitimised because of a perceived improvement of life (we survive longer), which in turn comes to justify an improvement of life at the expense of the planet.

We know that if we destroy the planet, then there can be no life, be that life good or bad. And yet we persist in our pursuit of ‘improving’ life, even though really it sews the seeds of the end of (our) life.

If capitalism and media are, by this reckoning, coterminous (even though it is in the interests of both, since they are predicated on a logic of separation, for humans to believe that they are not/that they are separate), then the multiplication of media is also the proliferation of capital.

How to make money? Set up a wall in space, thus creating two spaces, and then charge people to walk through the gate that in principle connects them, but which in reality is separating them. Or better still, get them working for as little as possible under the false promise that with enough work, they’ll get from the one space to the other, but then in fact ensure that they can never get from one space to the other, thereby ensuring that they continue working.

(The Church is a self-proclaimed medium between man and God [whatever that is], charging humans in both spiritual and economic terms in order to regulate a relationship that, if I may put it in an oblique way, is in fact one [there is no god; or there is God but our relationship with Him {sic.} is direct; God is already here, but the Church cows us into believing that God is there.)

Now, I am going in some respects to flip all that precedes in this blog post, for which apologies in advance if this is irritating (I doubt you’ll have read this far if it is, though).

It is not that shoes and walls are not real; they are real enough, especially because those who tell us that they exist convince many people not only that they do exist, but also that they must exist (because nature is cruel; because other men are cruel; the shoe and the wall thus are naturalised, replacing a nature that sure enough has ‘barriers’ – I cannot walk barefoot on ice or desert sands for very long, and I certainly cannot walk on water – but these ‘barriers’ in nature are barriers for the human and not necessarily barriers at all from nature’s own perspective; nature sees itself as one – and a human in tune with, as opposed to seeking to exploit, nature thus perhaps also can ‘walk on water’).

However, if from nature’s perspective the first and the second space are not separated, but in fact part of a single space (desert and glacier roll into each other), then the wall that keeps spaces separate is in some respects illusory – it is a human invention. That is, where capital and media separate, nature itself is interlinked, one, or entangled.

(‘But walls keep out the cold. We’d have all died without walls.’ This I imagine to be a normal response here. To which I might reply: yes. And shoes and clothes and cardboard boxes also keep humans warm, especially in climates where it is not naturally warm enough for humans to exist as is. Technology keeps humans alive, in some respects. It is not that technology is bad for humans; I am interested in thinking through what technology does in addition to helping humans, and in working out what that might mean, or how we can think about it.)

If nature is one, and if humans are natural, then we can extrapolate that nature and humanity, including those aspects of humanity that separate, are one. In effect, capitalism is in some respects an illusion, in that the world is not simply a backdrop for but it also plays an active role in our existence. But if humans are not separate from nature, then even in our claims that humans are separate from nature, nature must still be at work.

The aim here is not to say that capitalism, media and so on are natural in the sense that it is fine, or even good, to exploit the planet. Perhaps one of the reasons why humans will exploit the planet until their own deaths is because the planet and humans realise that this is the best/only entangled way for the planet to rid itself of humans in such a way that their belief in separation is not legitimised but exposed precisely as erroneous.

That is, if humans are killing the planet and thus themselves, humans persist in this process in spite of knowing that they are doing it because they are indeed not separate from nature, but with nature. In effect there is no escaping nature: either humans survive by working with as opposed to against nature; or humans die out because they cannot get around the fact that they are with nature, even if they think that they are not. Nature is inescapable.

But, and here we go a bit crazy, if humans and their technology continually do try to escape nature, but if that escape is impossible, then nature is playing as great a role in what humans do as humans themselves are (contrary to the human belief that they themselves are responsible for everything that they do).

If nature is playing as great a role in the creation of the shoe as humans, then in some respects we might read the creation of the shoe as the will of nature to become shoe.

Again, the point here is not to say that it’s great and ‘correct’ for humans have ‘shoeified’ the world/made the world shoe. Rather, it is to say the matter that is the shoe has organised itself as much as humans have organised it.

That is, rather than the human being wholly responsible for making the shoe, matter has in fact partially used humans in order to become shoe. It is not that humans are uniquely exploiting nature; nature is in some respects also exploiting them.

All technologies or media, I wish to suggest, pursue their own propagation much the same way that humans do. In this way, media – matter as a whole, even mud – is ‘alive,’ thinking about ways symbiotically of working with humans.

Just as humans come from water and mud, so, too, is the wall an expression of mud’s own will to become organised. And as mountains rise and fall depending on the shuffles of the planet’s tectonic plates, so, too, do walls and buildings rise up and fall, as matter wills itself via its human partners into various shapes, changing, shifting, matter perpetuating itself into new forms in a kind of breathing of the planet.

And as humans come to encase themselves in their technology – hiding behind four walls, wrapped up in blankets and clothes, cocooned away from that supposedly cruel nature – what we can really see is matter itself taking the form that is necessary in order to reach around and into the human in order to bring the human back down into the mud from which it originally sprang.

That is the thought that I had today and the expression of which – itself an expression of my own impending death as technology reaches into me and slowly turns me back into mud – is a consolation (that which I got wrong today/yesterday is simply the will of the universe, and this mini-essay is simply the expression of the power of the universe and my inevitable death. That’s a bit of an oblique ending, but I shall leave it at that.)

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
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