Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ryan Bishop reviews Ecstatic Worlds

Janine Marchessault. Ecstatic Worlds: Media, Utopias, Ecologies. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2017. 368 pp.

Review by Ryan Bishop

Cinema and media studies scholar Janine Marchessault begins and ends her provocative and timely book on experiments in medial environments with one question: Do we live in one world or many? Invoking the pre-Socratic quandary of how the one becomes the many and the many become one allows Marchessault’s Ecstatic Worlds: Media, Utopias, Ecologies to range widely across theoretical and artistic media and mediators to think “the planet as an aggregate or as a web of connections independent from humans, yet integrally tied to our existence.” The projects she examines include works from artists, architects, filmmakers, ecologists, and others that “imagine and create an expanded ecological thinking, forms of ecstatic wonder, and utopian narratives” from the latter half of the twentieth century (p. 253). The sustained ecological reconsideration that emerged in the post-WWII moment becomes a site of reexamination, excavation, and recuperation for twenty-first-century thought, a kind of media and artistic archaeology of projects large and small, famous and obscure. Dividing the book into sections entitled “Earth,” “Worlds,” and “Planet,” subtitles which in essence offer a tentative answer to the question the author poses at the outset, the works of “world image projects” (p. 2) discussed include Edward Steichen’s (in)famous “Family of Man” and Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle’s undersea adventure The Silent World, for Earth; the 3D cinema event Telecinema for the 1951 Festival of Britain and the overall design and architecture of Expo ’67 (informally known as McLuhan’s Fair), for Worlds; and the Toronto-based experimental cinema group CineCycle in conversation with Agnès Varda’s 2000 film Les glaneurs et la glaneuse and the US Buckminster-Fuller-inspired architecture collective Ant Farm, for Planet.

The eclectic ambitions of these projects are matched by the equally sweeping range of theorists that help Marchessault think through debates surrounding “anthropocentrism, ontology, plurality, universality, history, sustainability, and (post/trans) humanism” (pp. 2–3) through the lens of expanded media studies, including Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard, Rosi Braidotti, Buckminster Fuller, Félix Guattari, Donna J. Haraway, Marshall McLuhan, Catherine Malabou, Maurice Merleau-Ponty,  Jean-Luc Nancy, Mary Louise Pratt, Isabelle Stengers, and many others. It is an impressive list and Marchessault does well by them, marshaling deft linkages across theoretical positions and arguments that do not necessarily sit well together. Though I would not suggest that the list needs to be longer, the absence of Gregory Bateson from an ecologically-oriented theoretical frame for envisioning potential worlds and futures during this fecund historical period is somewhat striking. That said, Marchessault’s book is intelligent, heartfelt, and more importantly, wise. It is one to inspire further historically-informed media, art, and architecture studies with an emphasis on deep time, as she ponders the memento mori we have made of the earth, or at least our collective position on it, as well as how it might be otherwise.