The Panesthetic River

August 22nd, 2019

This project identifies rivers as crucial for investigating representations of the Anthropocene, via the medium of experimental documentary film.

Through The Panesthetic River, Isabelle Carbonell combines two core ideas. First, the project identifies the site of the river as crucial for investigating representations of the Anthropocene’s impact. Second, it proposes experimental documentary film as  an embodied, sensorial approach for capturing the human and nonhuman practices of world-making cataloged by rivers such as the Mississippi. Through a range of shooting methods, the project attempts to (re)visualize the histories—and environmental violence—the river harbors.

As meandering givers of life and arteries of the earth, rivers bridge land and water, and are crucial for life to flourish. Yet so many rivers have become wretched waters: sites of extensive mining waste, hydroextraction, oil refineries, pulp mills, radiation poisoning, and other irreversible environmental disasters.

This applies not just to the great Mississippi, but to all rivers. Once poison courses through an artery it spreads exponentially, uncontainable and unknowable. Rivers are a fractal connector, tying together entire continents, civilizations past and present, human with nonhuman, sediment with atoms. Rivers represent a different type of world-making practice, where the assemblage of a lotic ecosystem “generates not a singular knowledge of the world but a world multiple.” Rivers are thus a prime site to investigate representations of what Rob Nixon has termed “slow violence” in the so-called Anthropocene.

In asking how slow violence has been visualized, sonified, and personified, what kinds of tropes arise, and how might media methods engage more fully with a different type of representation? Ecocinema is capable of addressing complex systems and lifeworlds that contain historical junctures and multiple entanglements between humans and nonhumans. How can we think critically through a type of embodied sensorial practice that takes seriously encounters between humans and nonhumans? In doing so, what possibilities emerge for taking on complex space-time assemblages in the Mississippi that connect history, colonialism, slavery, waterscapes, chemical legacies, invisible harm, and other long-lasting effects of various disasters?

The Panesthetic River, affirms that filmmaking allows a non-linguistic attunement to the world that opens new speculative possibilities of creating multiple future worlds in the time of deep ecological crisis. Against the backdrop of the Mississippi: An Anthropocene River project, my work challenges anthropocentric representations of the Mississippi through several speculative nonfiction film methods in an attempt to seek different ways of making visible and audible the slow violence of the anthropocene and open new worlds beyond the long-now of “savage capitalism,” as suggested by Sven Beckert.

These methods all encompass an approach I call “panesthesia,” which I define as a layering and accounting of all the senses at once. It is inspired in part by Donna Haraway’s situated knowledge, Anna Tsing’s arts of noticing, and Karen Barad’s agential realism. I may tie myself, through a wireless lavalier microphone, to a person for the duration of the day, performing a type of expanded interview and attuning myself to a new rhythm. I may listen to the river through a hydrophone. I may use various camera mounts to be either inside, on top of, or below the river or other living beings. I may use time-lapse as a durational tool to see processes happening on a different timescale. I may use endoscopes to follow a snail’s path along an embankment. I may use electromagnetic microphones to pick up on electromagnetic frequencies from towers, windmills, and industrial plants. Each of these methods attempts to enter another world without pretending to understand, while within the limits of our cinematic and sensorial realms.

This layering of different embodied, sensorial approaches stretches the meaning of interviewing, listening, and seeing in an attempt to refocus our attention on the slower crisis of attritional environmental violence. In thinking through decentering the human and taking seriously more-than-human realities in the “anthropo”cene, what role can experimental documentary film play?