Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Graig Uhlin reviews Anecdotal Evidence

Sean CubittAnecdotal Evidence: Ecocritique from Hollywood to the Mass Image. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 305 pp.

Review by Graig Uhlin

9 September 2020

Anecdote masquerading as argument is generally suspect. Anecdotes lack the rigor of data, as their evidentiary value rests in the singular instance rather than the statistical aggregate. In Anecdotal Evidence: Ecocritique from Hollywood to the Mass Image, Sean Cubitt lodges a defense of anecdotes, “maligned as vehicles for truth” (p. 13), as the basis for what he calls “ecocritique.” Ecocritique places little faith in environmentalism’s efforts to restore ecological balance but seizes on moments of crisis or instability as occasions for the renewal of ethical and sustainable forms of living. What it puts in crisis is the division of the human from the environment. As Cubitt indicated in his previous book Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies (2016) and extends in this one, human-centered communication separates itself from the primal mediation of the environment, and anecdote’s attachment to the nongeneralizable event, to “problems of the particular” (p. 19), makes it possible to override the subject-object binary in an ecological consciousness.

Anecdotes reward close reading. The second section of Cubitt’s book offers interpretations mostly of popular American films released in the years just before and following the 2008 financial crisis––films such as Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2011), Déjà Vu (dir. Tony Scott, 2006), Iron Man 2 (dir. Jon Favreau, 2010), and Oblivion (dir. Joseph Kosinski, 2013). These films generally lack explicit environmentalist themes. But ecocritique applies not only to ecological themes; it is a way of seeing. Chronology matters here less than the emergence of consistent thematic centers, with debt especially prominent. For instance, in Déjà Vu, a time-travel narrative about preventing a domestic terrorist attack, the technical glitch (dismissed as noise) registers what the film’s digitally rendered reality excludes and becomes the site of historical agency. In Iron Man 2, the process of becoming human confronts the administered space of the superhero’s heads-up display that mediates his relation to the world and makes him “a prisoner of his data,” a “cyber-proletarian whose labour is reduced to the manipulation of symbols” (p. 103). Cubitt’s readings are provocative, and as in The Practice of Light, his thematic interpretations are grounded in the materials of digital filmmaking. The book also harks back to Cubitt’s analogy in The Cinema Effect of film’s incipient motion to the non-identity of zero, which is then vectorized and ultimately disciplined by classical film techniques. For Cubitt, representational and ethical questions converge around a resistance to enclosure––environmental, capitalist-managerial, and formal-textual. As such, his readings are dedicated to “the question of whether a technologized and highly capitalized medium can transcend its conditions of production and provide pathways to other forms of living” (p. 245). Can a new commons be produced out of the commodity’s extractive logic?

This question takes on particular urgency in the final section of Cubitt’s book on social media, streaming services, and databases, or the digital enclosures enacted by what he calls the “mass image.” Database aggregation negates the specificity of the individual image, which anecdotal method aims to recover, and its fantasy of universal connectivity covers over social disconnection. What is needed, he argues, is an “evolution of the database beyond propriety, profit-based enclosure” (p. 247) through a marshalling of “an oppositional agency” (p. 249) from within it. Cubitt offers Italo Calvino’s encyclopedic model as an alternative form to the database because its aggregation remains open and incomplete rather than totalizing. As one of ecomedia’s long-standing leading scholars, Cubitt’s Anecdotal Evidence challenges its readers to break from our entrenched and unsustainable current path dependencies. The point is not to imagine some better but endlessly deferred future but to recover what is possible in the present.