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Open Access Publications from the University of California

PreOccupied Territories: Polar Landscapes in the Cinema

  • Author(s): Carpenter, Emily Catherine
  • Advisor(s): Williams, Linda
  • et al.

This dissertation argues against the tendency to elevate landscape as an aesthetic object over and against its function as setting and asks, instead, how landscape might be imagined as a representation of place - even if spectacular - that is constituted by narrative and that constitutes narrative in return. I extend W. J. T. Mitchell's definition of the landscape-as-medium to the cinema-as-medium, exploring how motion pictures render landscapes as places of convergence and mediation for humans and non-humans, natures and technologies. I look to new materialism and to phenomenology in order to describe landscape as a site of mediation that challenges the inside/outside binarisms and implicit anthro- or biocentrisms of "environmentalist" thinking. These critical strains of thought indicate how landscape functions as a field of significant materialities in which embodied human vision can be conceived in relation to non-human and technological forces and agencies.

In doing so, I argue that polar landscapes are particularly apt sites through which to articulate anxieties about the meeting of human, non-human, and technological being. The poles have functioned as rich sites at which to imagine encounters between terrestrial and extraterrestrial others and the subjective and social conflicts that they animate and signify. Accordingly, this argument offers a cinematic history of these sites and sights, from silent and early sound films that attempt to map and interpret polar landscapes in service of imperial aims to contemporary representations of lands un-appropriable and un-masterable by the human because they are always already occupied by their Others: forces and agencies that exceed and defy a merely-human understanding. My readings describe how cinema has framed polar territories as "pre-occupied": dynamic and significant sites occupied by a myriad of forces and agencies that relentlessly de-stabilize human claims to habitation. Ultimately, I argue that a phenomenologically inflected exploration of the cinematic imagination of the poles indicates how we might reconceive of landscape as more than an aesthetic category. In this way, my argument considers polar history to be a preoccupied territory in its own right. My aim is not to illustrate how cinema has screened the "real" landscapes at the poles, nor is it to produce utopian readings of "good" landscape representations. Instead, I aim to show how each text positions its audience in relation to the territory it pictures and to the forms of thing-ly and creaturely life that pre-occupy it.

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