Bridging Superfund sites and video games, Alenda Chang’s essay revisits media- and computation-centered definitions of remediation to extend media and mediation past the pale of digital visual technology. Through a parallel consideration of what’s known as environmental remediation—cleaning up or cordoning off polluted sites, using technological or biotechnological methods—Chang argues that human and nonhuman bodies and ecosystems are equally enmeshed in practices of communication and transformation.
In modern large-scale societies, every form of communication involves the physical disposition of bodies and, for lack of a more elegant way to put it, the physical disposition of stuff. If you can call something a medium, then it has a physical infrastructure.
Jonathan Sterne, "Out With the Trash"
On the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund web portal, Gallup's Quarry is described as an abandoned, 29-acre gravel pit in Plainfield, Connecticut, not far from the state's eastern border with Rhode Island. The site may bear the name of a celebrated town forefather (the Honorable David Gallup, who served in state office throughout the late 1800s),1The name suggested to me by Allen B. Lincoln's A Modern History of Windham County, Connecticut: A Windham County Treasure Book. but its presence on the EPA watch list stems from a much less appealing history—namely, the uncontrolled dumping of chemical waste in the 1970s, including a range of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and heavy metals. Although most of the offending material was hauled away in 1978, the EPA continues to monitor the location because contaminants tend to linger on in soil and groundwater. In a strange but fitting twist, the site now houses the Plainfield Renewable Energy project, a biomass-incineration facility that converts unused waste wood products from construction, demolition, and other sources into "clean" energy for the state of Connecticut.
I stumbled on Gallup's Quarry while indulging a morbid curiosity about my most recent state of residence. Having lately moved to Connecticut from California, I was having difficulty reconciling my preconceived notions of New England—church steeples, picturesque woodlands, quiet coastlines—with the region's longstanding relationship to manufacturing. In Connecticut, the myriad thread mills and shipyards that once supported booming textile and submarine industries have left toxic, yet often concealed legacies, frequently tied to the state's waterways. No obvious traces mark Gallup's Quarry as a Superfund site. On my visit there last fall, this former gravel quarry turned renewable energy plant stood discreetly among residences and back roads, less than a mile from Plainfield's modest commercial downtown and only a few hundred feet from a tributary of the Quinebaug River.
Figure 1. Plainfield Renewable Energy, on the former Gallup’s Quarry Superfund site (currently owned and operated by Leidos Inc. but slated for sale to Greenleaf Power later this year). Author photo.
But such toxic legacies can be made visible online. The EPA's New England regional search lets me find hundreds of short-term clean-ups, corrective actions, and brownfield rehabilitation projects across the state. More to the point, the EPA's simultaneously ominous and welcoming web resource titled "Superfund Sites Where You Live" is what informed me that Gallup's Quarry is one of four Superfund sites in my current home county. It is in government parlance a long-term site, a case bad enough to be placed on the official National Priorities List (NPL) mandated by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which established the Superfund program in 1980. Gallup's Quarry was first proposed for addition to the NPL in 1988, and today over 25 years later it exists primarily in these online public records.
As a scholar of environmental media, what interests me is not just how the EPA's online tools and documents work to make visible governmental scrupulousness in addressing hazardous waste, but rather how they demonstrate that media are contiguous with, not distinct from, geographic space. Many have noted the notorious flexibility of the terms "medium" and "media," one which has resulted in an exciting but also confusing amount of latitude in fields as diverse as film and media studies, science and technology studies, and art history. Part of the difficulty is, of course, that a medium can describe equally well the oil paints that an artist uses, the nutrient broths and agar substrates used to grow microorganisms, the storage for digital data, like a hard disk, or perhaps most commonly, a means for communication, usually at a distance, as we speak of the mass media.2For a sense of these different usages, see for instance Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan's New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader; Lev Manovich's <em; Eugene Thacker's Biomedia; and Hannah Landecker's Tissue Culture. To my surprise, however, little to nothing has yet been said about remediation in both its ecological and techno-aesthetic formulations. In new media theory, remediation has become synonymous with recursive processes of media reformation as well as creative appropriation, remix, and re-use on the part of artists, designers, and tech-savvy consumers. But the escalating need for what's known as environmental remediation—cleaning up or cordoning off polluted sites, often using technological or biotechnological methods—cautions us that human and nonhuman bodies and ecosystems are equally enmeshed in practices of communication and transformation. A more inclusive approach to remediation might begin with a faintly Derridean recognition that remediation always signals both a problem and its resolution, a paradox also evident in words like "remedy" or "remedial," all of which come to us from Latin roots denoting efforts to heal or cure. My central proposal, however, is twofold: environmental remediation reminds us that environments are also media, able to transmit, conceal, and come between other entities in significant ways; so too, our usual media are environments, which inevitably frame our understanding of the natural world and thus have the capacity to remediate beyond their representational margins.
For between two absolutely different spheres such as subject and object, there can be no expression, but at most an aesthetic stance, I mean an allusive transference, a stammering translation into a completely foreign medium. For this, however, in any case a freely fictionalizing and freely inventive middle sphere and middle faculty is necessary. (252)
Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-moral Sense"
Outside of legal and environmental circles, the word remediation has little to do with the natural world, though its medical and ecological senses of removing harmful contaminants from the body, soil, water, and air predate its now popular aesthetic sense by years, if not decades. (Now uncommon, medical uses of the term remediation date to the mid-nineteenth century, while modern ecological usage begins in the late 1980s, with a sharp uptick in the early '90s and particularly since 2004, as determined by a brief electronic search of scholarly journals and dictionaries). In fact, most writing about “new” media in the wake of groundbreaking works like Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's Remediation has tended to leave the unfortunate impression that media and mediation are things and processes found only within the pale of digital visual technology. Manovich's five principles of new media call attention to the revolutionary “computerization” (47) of culture and media while privileging formal antecedents in film history. In Bolter and Grusin's well-known articulation of remediation, new media offer themselves “as refashioned and improved versions of other media” (15); thus cinema could be said to remediate photography, as well as the theater, vaudeville, and magic lantern show, while photography in turn remediates landscape and portrait painting, and so forth. Although Bolter and Grusin stress that remediation is not a progressive teleology—older media can and do refashion themselves in the style of the new—they nevertheless concern themselves primarily with digital visual media: CD-ROMs, the World Wide Web, and virtual realities. As capacious as their definition of media proves, taking into account objects as diverse as medieval illuminated manuscripts, cathedrals, and computer games, the idea that media may come in natural and built forms is left largely unexplored.
My point, however, is not to unfairly subject these seminal works of new media theory to an alternate set of priorities, but to build connections between their early formalist concerns and contemporary interests in the materiality of media. To be fair, Bolter and Grusin do in passing mention remediation's use in environmental contexts. More importantly, several of their operative assumptions about media contain oblique ramifications for a theory of environmental remediation. First, Bolter and Grusin emphasize that all mediation is real, not just in the sense that media are cultural artifacts but also in the more radical sense that nothing precedes mediation. Referencing Bruno Latour and actor-network-theory, they acknowledge that media come into being as products of social, political, and economic networks of affiliation and meaning-making. Second, they note that remediation generally cleaves to the rhetoric and logic of immediacy—improving or reforming prior media by allowing even better or more direct access to the real (though they also state that as any medium matures, the opportunities for hypermediacy, or a reflexive celebration of form, multiply).
Applied to environmental remediation, these two principles—of what we could call the reality and immediacy of media—run aground in interesting ways. While one might hope that the reality of contaminated and remediated environments would be undeniable, it is precisely the hazards and boundaries of such places that are regularly subject to contest. Many pollutants leave no visible or tangible trace, but are harmful nonetheless, among them the nitrous oxide emissions and airborne "fine" and "coarse" particulate matter (2.5 and 10 micrometers in size) produced by motor vehicle use or agricultural application of synthetic fertilizers. It can be surprisingly difficult to demonstrate that an ecosystem is hurt, or dying, or that a cancer cluster has been caused by environmental negligence. Even human poisoning and death are susceptible to the laws of statistical significance and burden of proof.3See Sandra Steingraber's Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment. In other words, property owners, polluters, residents, and federal and state regulators, among others, are likely to occupy very different positions vis-à-vis the existence of contamination. Likewise, environmental remediation only appears to cleave to the logic of immediacy in its imperative to restore unhealthy places to states unencumbered by negative attribution, theoretically permitting them to be places that simply are rather than places that are diseased, dangerous, or inaccessible. Instead, the proliferation of reports following federal designation of a Superfund site creates a hypermediated sedimentation of documents tracing the site's diagnosis, course of treatment, and follow-up determinations. A literal and metaphorical paper trail of bureaucratic governance gives these often little-known or forgotten places a permanence and complexity that they did not have prior to contamination.
As fashionable as it has been to decry the abstractions of simulation, the practice of environmental remediation upsets any casual assumptions about the immediacy of natural places and events. Locations like Gallup's Quarry and disasters like the 2010 floods in Pakistan may take on a greater reality once they have been refracted through sites like the EPA's MyEnvironment portal or programmer Andy Lintner's ifitweremyhome.com, particularly for those geographically separated from them. The EPA portal is somewhat glibly divided into nine sections (MyMaps, MyAir, MyWater, MyEnergy, MyHealth, MyLand, MyCommunity, MyEnvironmental Reports, and Social Networking) but supposedly “provides immediate access to a cross-section of environmental data for any geographical location in the U.S.” The simple yet effective visualization tools provided by ifitweremyhome.com allow you to juxtapose your region or nation of residence alongside other parts of the world, as well as large-scale natural and manmade disasters, using Google Maps and data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. You can, for instance, superimpose the two-dimensional extent of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill over your hometown or state to more fully appreciate the scale of the debacle.
Figure 2. Superimposing the disastrous 2010 floods in Pakistan over New England on ifitweremyhome.com. Author screenshot.
Again, for Bolter and Grusin, despite talk of Latourian hybrids, media are first and foremost aesthetic constructs. While "cyberspace refashions and extends earlier media, which are themselves embedded in material and social environments" (183) this remedial progression apparently comes at a price: gradual removal from the world itself. Worth noting here is an equal though opposed disposition present in actor-network-theory (ANT), first espoused by Latour and others in the early '90s. In ANT, humans, animals, and objects are actants that clash and conglomerate in ways seldom captured well by the mass media, except perhaps inadvertently—recall that Latour begins We Have Never Been Modern by desultorily scanning his daily newspaper for evidence of the radical interconnection of things. Thus we can certainly celebrate Bolter and Grusin's recognition that "cyberspace" is not immaterial, and the refusal to buy into the posthuman/Extropian rhetoric of those who see the online world as a space of pure data or information, a way to surpass the constraints of "meatspace" or embodied materiality. But we might balk at their ensuing provocation that "cyberspace is bidding to replace nature as the largest interpretive context" for human action and intent (nature having itself ousted religion, as demonstrated by shifts in Western painting). Surrounded as we are by nature-themed digital media, from wilderness scenes for computer desktops to lush virtual game environments and applications of the Google Earth and Google Ocean variety,4See Melody Jue's Animation essay on Google Ocean and the ATLAS in silico project, "Proteus and the Digital: Scalar Transformations of Seawater’s Materiality in Ocean Animations." it seems altogether peculiar to treat cyberspace and nature as mutually exclusive paradigms. Bolter and Grusin might concede that these paradigms are less progressive than concurrent, but the fact remains that they align new media with high technology and futurist claims, and that for them, virtual reality is at its essence a device for exploration of the self's relationship to the world, an extension of perspectival drawing and painting. Their characteristic art-historical approach to digital visual culture ordains a secondary role for natural environments, where nature is always either pre-interpretive context or post-interpretive construct.
Grusin would later write extensively about the mediation of natural places in his 2004 book on America's national parks and subsequent essay on Frederick Law Olmsted's 1865 Yosemite report (unlike noted documentarian Ken Burns, Grusin is less inclined to believe that the national parks are America's “best idea”). Despite calls in the latter for “a truly ecological criticism” (334) and a historicist attention to the interplay of human and natural agency in mid-nineteenth century scientific, technical, and cultural discourses, Grusin stops short of positing a more subversive equivalency of matter and media. Like Olmsted himself, whose “interest is not in the environment or the ecosystem or the biotic community but in a structure of aesthetic agency in which natural objects are simultaneously themselves and the media through which scenic landscapes are represented” (346), Grusin demonstrates why retrospective identification of Olmsted as a proto-environmentalist is anachronistic, but leaves to the side Yosemite as a non-unified, biodiverse, and multicultural place, characterized by multiple and distinct ecological zones, where native peoples lived prior to Congressional designation.
Eugene Thacker's Biomedia can help us to expand the now aging arguments about transcoding and remediation to account for the body as both medium and mediator. Refusing to prioritize the biological over the digital or vice versa, Thacker defines biomedia as a kind of cross-platform compatibility between the biological and the technological that exists in constant tension between abstraction and materialization, translatability and transformation. What remains equivalent across the "wet" and "dry" labs, DNA and computer code, are patterns of relationships, certain "bio-logics" like base-pair complementarity in gene sequences. Thacker reminds us, too, that mediation is never a pure or complete translation. By definition, mediation must not only enable the porting of certain information, but also militate against certain selections or changes.
But while bodies matter, matter matters, too—what might we gain by stretching the definitions of media and mediation even further? And do media convey only the things we desire? What happens when our bodies and our environments become unwilling media for the waste of others?
The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics offers the following no-frills definition of environmental remediation on its "green jobs" portal: "the removal of pollution or contaminants from water (both ground water and surface water) and soil." Notably, "These waste products are removed for the protection of human health, as well as to restore the environment." Here, "environmental media" are things like soil, sediment, groundwater, and surface water, and a wide array of methods can be used, of physical, chemical, thermal, or biological origin, including dredging, pumping and treating, excavating, soil vapor extraction or air sparging, oxidation or reduction, and phytoremediation (using plants) and bioremediation (using organisms). Environmental remediation can also be classified as either in-situ or ex-situ, meaning the contamination is either treated on-site or removed for off-site cleaning.
In all of these various methods, directed technological and human actions mingle with indirect but equally potent environmental processes, in what may seem like a textbook example of actant agency and actor-network-theory. People and earthmovers are suddenly on par with poplar trees and oil-eating bacteria. There are enticing parallels within a more formally inclined media theory, as well—while William Henry Fox Talbot poetically ascribed his calotype photographic process to "the pencil of nature," new photocatalytic remediation processes rely on the action of sunlight to spur degradation of polluted substances. And yet sometimes, the optimal solution is to do nothing. When sites are extremely polluted, as many of the congressionally designated Superfund sites are, environmental remediation can consist of simply fencing off or otherwise isolating the area, in what's known in industry jargon as monitored natural attenuation (MNA).
This may seem like premature concession of defeat, but the authors of "A Citizen's Guide to Monitored Natural Attenuation" point to the variety of biological and chemical processes at work in the environment's own remediation of human toxic byproducts. In biodegradation, for example, microbes actually consume some contaminants and thereby render them less harmful. With sorption, soil particles adhere to contaminants and take them out of circulation, on occasion neutralizing them. Phase change and mobilization are also at play in the processes of evaporation and dilution, though the value of the attenuation achieved may be questionable since it occurs through displacement. So while there may be little happening at the level of human intervention, specialists are counting on myriad natural processes of weathering and dissipation to reduce dangerous levels of contaminants by redistributing them or breaking them down. In an ecological version of the old adage that time heals all wounds, environmental remediation becomes as much a temporal as a spatial phenomenon.
In the case of Gallup's Quarry, environmental remediation has indeed followed the path of watchful nonintervention. State and federal officials initially posted warning signs, established fencing around the area, and sent notifications to community stakeholders, presumably the estimated 1000-1500 people living near the site whose wellwater or groundwater was contaminated. For those affected, the site functions as a reminder that our landscapes, waterways, and bodies are all subject to Brownian motion. They are channels across which information and contamination diffuse with equal alacrity, unwitting vessels for toxins and filters for nanoparticles. As anyone who has read ecologist Sandra Steingraber's chilling chronicle of her battle with bladder cancer and its probable environmental causes, it seems all too clear that humans are not somehow exempt from mediatization, that our bodies are also environments through which some things pass, while others linger.5See also Mel Y. Chen's Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect.
In the sometimes rarefied air of new media theory, fungibility is typically celebrated as the basis for digital versatility. Patrik Svensson, the director of HUMlab at Umeå University, points to digital-humanities scholars like Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Michael Shanks, who often "discuss 'fungibility' — the gathering of many types of content (moving image, text, music, 3D-design, database, graphical detail, virtual walk-through etc.) into a single environment — as the core of digital mediation." Yet Sterne's refrain of the "physical" with which I began this essay admonishes us that, despite the recent rhetoric surrounding "cloud" storage and big-data analytics, our media are material and vice versa, not just in terms of the computer hardware, fiber-optic cables,6For more on our continuing reliance on transoceanic communications cables, see Nicole Starosielski's The Undersea Network. and cellphone trees that increasingly form part of our landscapes, but the inevitable exchange between bodies and environments, and bodies and other bodies. By definition, media intervene, or come between, not just in the passive sense of existing spatially and temporally between things, but also in the sense of causing obstruction or delay. Author Elizabeth Kolbert has described drastic human-wrought environmental change in just such a manner: "One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it's changing in ways that create barriers—roads, clear-cuts, cities—that prevent them from doing so" (189). Humanity, it seems, has become both signal and noise.
Environmental history as remediation
Environmental proficiency being a neglected art among the American bourgeoisie, I am all in favor of turning the resources of literature to its remediation whenever possible. (97)
Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination
Relocating remediation to an environmental framework ultimately raises useful questions about both media design and environmental welfare. In new media discourse, remediation is the province of white-collar creatives, free-spirited, mouse-wielding artists who breathe stylish new life into older forms. Environmental remediation, on the other hand, is institutionally driven, ex post facto, hedged about with laws, policies, and market forces. Unlike aesthetic remediation, environmental remediation is also from the get-go on the defensive. Its best-case scenario is still a worst-case scenario. Describing biomedia, Thacker traces a biotechnological spiral from the body to the lab and computer, and from there back to the body. Environmental remediation proceeds through a similar circulatory motion between field site and impacted bodies, and lab and office; sites like Gallup's Quarry may stay on the NPL for decades, as the EPA conducts repeated follow-up assessments. However, if the aim of gene therapies and pharmacogenomics is to put informatic DNA back into the body, to thereby improve it in a preventive way against disease, environmental remediation aims to remove without return. The desired goal is an absence, rather than a presence—contaminants gone from soil and water, radiation and toxins from the body, and so on.
Although remediation implies recuperative action, we may find ourselves resisting the ameliorative rhetoric of both aesthetic and environmental treatment. Bolter and Grusin, and Thacker, concede that the instrumentalist, progressive tone of new technology and research requires caution. But does environmental remediation restore an ailing landscape to its former health, or to a different state? That is to say, can environmental remediation move in two directions at once, both forward and backward in time? In theory at least, aesthetic remediation propels us into a better future, while environmental remediation returns us to a less degraded past. Yet this is clearly just another way of phrasing a perennial question in environmental history, namely whether or not there are such things as "pristine" environments and whether or not it makes sense to use terms like "preserve" or "wilderness" in relation to treasured, scenic places and lands that have long been occupied and managed by pre-colonial native populations, as in the case of the American subcontinent. Legislation and conservation efforts that set aside untrammeled lands often implicitly deny that change over time is natural, and that, by many accounts, even human-wrought change is natural. Take, for instance, the story of the Cathedral Pines in northwestern Connecticut, as related by environmental journalist and food activist Michael Pollan. After tornadoes demolished much of the old-growth forest in 1989, Cornwall residents and the Nature Conservancy became embroiled in a heated debate over whether the fallen trees should be left where they lay, or cleared or harvested and replanted to approximate as closely as possible the "original" landscape.
From the perspective of environmental history, environmental remediation thus helpfully drives home a point that many have tried to make before—that nature, or wilderness, is too often a static ideal, one that is both impractical and exclusionary. After all, environmental remediation deals with fallen places—the precise antithesis to the national parks and wilderness preserves upheld in the highest echelons of environmental activism—and is therefore on the side of environmental justice activists and the ecologically dispossessed, who hail disproportionately from the inner cities, the working class, and the global south. This should not, however, tempt us to romanticize or even excuse environmental damage, as is occasionally insinuated by that especially tricky subspecies of environmental remediation that deals with reducing radiation exposure. Given the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, we might look askance at a recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that claims that "Environmental remediation is usually not an urgent task," and that "Returning a contaminated site to its original state is often neither necessary nor possible. While environmental remediation aims to reduce radiation exposure to protect people, remediated sites can still be used for various purposes, for example, industrial operations and even housing." It may be easier, but not always better, to ask forgiveness rather than permission.
The Journey we are taking
Let me conclude, then, by saying that as I understand the whole point of media ecology, it exists to further our insights into how we stand as human beings, how we are doing morally in the journey we are taking.
Neil Postman, at the first Media Ecology Association Convention
Although media ecology in its earliest historical manifestations explicitly borrowed biological concepts and has since stimulated a welcome materialist attention to the origins and organization of media systems, like remediation and so-called new media, media ecology obeys only the spirit, not the letter, of ecological law—this despite Postman's own evaluation of the term's felicity:
[. . .] from our point of view, we had chosen the right phrase, since we wanted to make people more conscious of the fact that human beings live in two different kinds of environments. One is the natural environment and consists of things like air, trees, rivers, and caterpillars. The other is the media environment, which consists of language, numbers, images, holograms, and all of the other symbols, techniques, and machinery that make us what we are.
Ideally, the linguistic sleight-of-hand performed by the compound noun "media ecology" would have the effect of placing nature and culture in a nonhierarchical, or at least ambiguous, relation rather than in attributive tandem. When ecology instead smacks of rhetorical or metaphorical treatment, the world of caterpillars and trees recedes and becomes representational fodder for what really matters, media (all of the technocultural stuff "that make us what we are").
As someone who nevertheless writes at length about video games and their capacity for environmental mediation, I confess that my love for digital visual media regularly grates against my equal antipathy for consumerism and ecological exploitation. Consequently, this reflection on environmental remediation should not be taken as an attack on techno-aesthetic remediation, but rather as an attempt to balance the undeniable attractions of the latter formulation with one that more fully accounts for the world we live in. Having already considered at length the fallacy of inert nature, one belied by the remediative and significative capacities of actual environments, I turn now to media environments, in particular those immersive virtual worlds that engender environmental consciousness through interaction, experience, and perspective switching.
Contemporary media arguably ensure a tenuous baseline of environmental literacy in their constant rehashing of a recent, but undeniably powerful, master narrative—that of impending, human-wrought ecological disaster. But while we have become accustomed to films, novels, scientific journals, and newscasts incorporating gloomy pronouncements on species, habitats, and climates in crisis, we might be surprised to find that even computer and video games are increasingly grappling with similar anxieties and fears. We could, for instance, consider The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (2000), in which a falling moon threatens to extinguish all life on a home planet, or Braid (2008), an Impressionistic platformer that has been interpreted as an anti-nuclear parable. I will focus here, however, on thatgamecompany's latest title for Sony's PlayStation, Journey (2012), the third and final game in a trilogy of sorts that began with the games fl0w and Flower.
Elsewhere I have suggested that we repurpose the game walkthrough to think through games' environmental content. In the context of environmental remediation, game environments may be the sites of a complex interplay of processes; just as a Superfund site becomes host to intentional human triage as well as the nonhuman agency of biological, chemical, and physical factors, a game invites intervention and experimentation even as it emerges as the product of algorithms and data structures hidden from view. As players, we act, but we are also acted upon. Game environments can encourage us to think of ourselves not only as human agents with world-changing impact but as susceptible, even trivial components of those environments.
In Journey, players begin alone in a desert littered with ruins and grave markers. In the distance, a mountain beckons. What follows is an eight-stage quest toward the mysteriously lit peak, during which the player may uncover ancient murals and experience meditative visions that hint at the reasons for the land's unpopulated barrenness.
Figure 3. With a companion on the long Journey. © thatgamecompany 2012
Readings of Journey abound. Officially, thatgamecompany describes the game as "an interactive parable, an anonymous online adventure to experience a person's life passage and their intersections with other's [sic]," and many do see the game as a profound deliberation on the nature and meaning of life. Spiritual pilgrimage or no, I concur with those that see the wall glyphs and end-of-level cutscenes as signaling that players have come along well after the destruction of an earlier civilization. Glyphs that seem to depict a harmonious agricultural way of life replaced by energy-intensive industrialization and internecine war suggest a powerful society annihilated by overreliance on technology.
Known for experimental, artistically stunning games that foreground natural environments and invite atypical modes of player experience, game designer Jenova Chen intended Journey to invert many of the canonical tenets of "good" game design—convenience, legibility, and mastery prominent among them. Instead, Journey, as its title suggests, celebrates duration, distance, and insignificance, promoting precisely those qualities of a desertified world that minimize player agency while provoking feelings of wonder and humility. The mountain, while the obvious goal, may signify less than we think—it barely draws closer even after many minutes spent slogging in its direction, and even after we have reached its icy slopes, we apparently perish, at least physically, in the ascent. In fact, players who complete the game are rewarded by a speedy return journey. Deposited once more at the start, they may simply begin the journey again.
How might we understand a player's experience in a game environment like Journey's, one so heavily imbued with hints of ruin and salvation, in which nonhuman landscapes function as human aspirations and follies writ large? For me, the most interesting interpretation of Journey prioritizes its manipulation of the player's experience of time and distance. Rather than the physicist's formula, distance = rate x time, or the min-maxing gamer's investment in efficiency and speed, Journey treats both distance and time as subjective indications. While human players are constrained by their humanness to experience the game as humans, the game's sprawling landscapes, narrative, and varied cast of non-player characters seem to invite complex considerations beyond the present moments of play: the player becomes the scalar figure by which human and nonhuman longevity, mortality, history, and archaeology are measured. What are the territories and lifespans of a humanoid, as compared to those of a god, or a comet, or a piece of reanimated cloth?
While not all games feature natural environments and only a few engage openly with environmental themes, all games frame experiences of time, space, and contingency. In Journey, those experiences are likely to oscillate between frustration and exhilaration, as you travel through landscapes that often slow but sometimes speed your progress. Although other elements certainly merit discussion,7For example, see Irene Chien's forthcoming essay "Journey into the Techno-Primitive" in Identity Matters: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Game Studies, edited by Jennifer Malkowski and TreaAndrea Russworm. in my view Journey's gameplay foregrounds passage through a world that alternately yields and impedes, a terrain of concealment punctuated by short, revelatory bursts. To indulge a potentially helpful comparison, we might consider the lands traversed in Journey as kin to compromised sites like Gallup's Quarry, since they each bear tantalizing traces of a history of contestation and contamination. In both cases, surface-level examination produces only limited insight, and the dearth of visible evidence challenges you to deduce the relationship between the existing world and its predecessors.
In closing, my hope is that juxtaposing remediation in its techno-aesthetic and ecological contexts will prompt us to resituate technology use and theory in a world shared, happily or no, by Superfund sites and PlayStation 4s. Fortunately, the movements currently afoot in studies of media infrastructure, ecomedia, and forensic media or media archaeology appear to be related intellectual enterprises, joined toward unraveling the seams of definitional boundaries between media and world. Like the sea-floor vents present at continental margins, these ruptures in the concepts of media and environment still indicate both proximity and distance, but also offer zones of surprising productivity in what might otherwise seem remote and lifeless places.
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Chang, Alenda Y. “Games as Environmental Texts.” Qui Parle 19.2 (2011): 57-84. Print.
Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Print.
Chien, Irene. “Journey into the Techno-Primitive.” Identity Matters: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Game Studies. Ed. Jennifer Malkowski and TreaAndrea Russworm. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming.
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