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Cold Storage: A Media History of the Glacier

  • Author(s): Bush, Alexandra Hudgins
  • Advisor(s): Kaes, Anton
  • et al.

This dissertation consists of five chapters in two parts. In the first part, I argue that in the early 20th century (1910-32), moving images and communications technologies like the radio and telegraph functioned to bring glacial environments into historical thought, breaking with a popular understanding of nature as eternal or cyclical. In order to do so, I draw on four case studies: two documentaries of early Antarctic exploration in Chapter One (The Great White Silence (1924) and With Byrd at the South Pole (1930)), and two exemplars of the interwar German Bergfilm in Chapter Two (Avalanche (1930) and SOS Iceberg (1933)). In each chapter, the films are read in conversation with archival sources found through original research. Taking up theories of modernity from cinema studies, I contend that like film itself, glacial temporality is characterized by radical contingency, as well as a tension between stillness and motion, the animate and the inanimate. Even as media technologies helped to reframe notions of cryospheric time, they were also encouraging an important shift in the spatial terms in which glacial regions were understood. Rather than geographically isolated, icebergs and ice caps appear in films & journalism of this period as part of an interconnected global environment. They must thus be understood not as distinct from, but as part of, broader developments in notions of space and time in the early twentieth century.

In the dissertation’s second part, which focuses on twenty-first century cinema and digital media, I analyze the glacier itself as an archive of climate history. I begin my discussions of the archive with an analysis of Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which I read as a media archive that poses important questions about the methodological distinctions and overlaps between history and science. I then turn to questions of automated vision and temporal manipulation in Chasing Ice (2012), which makes dramatic use of time-lapse videos of glacial recession to provide visual evidence of global warming. Whereas the ice is often seen as a tool for preservation, guaranteeing the long life of that which it encases, Chasing Ice dramatizes its vulnerability to epochal change, thus invoking anxiety over historical loss that informs discourses of environmental crisis. In my last chapter, taking up various modes of data visualization that draw on information extracted from ice cores to access the deep past, I draw out this tension between the preservational and precarious in the nature of ice. I argue that the glacier both resembles other archival media in its capacity to preserve and index records of bygone events, and differs in its status as both a representation and a presentation of climate conditions, one whose loss threatens not only environmental but also informational devastation. The glacier thus operates as a medium in at least two senses: as an archive of the deep climatic past, but also as a visible index of presently changing conditions (and thereby an augury of the future). Ultimately, I argue that the competing logics of glacial temporality and indexicality—its dual status as an accumulation of records and a record of depletion—puts historical thought into an impossible bind, forcing us to contemplate the devastating internal contradictions of a historicist epistemology.

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