Seeing the Micro and Macro in Media: Tom Lamarre on Ocean Media, Contagion, and Teaching Research Creation

Tom Lamarre joined CMS faculty in Fall 2020 from previous posts at McGill University and Duke University. It is a homecoming for Lamarre: he has a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from UChicago that he received in 1992. Furthermore, he has recently returned to his dissertation, with the aim of turning it (along with a few chapters published previously) into a book called Microzoopedia. The book uses key concepts in microbiology and media theory to map out an era of contagion, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Japan. It explores the emergence of new psychology, bacterial warfare, and animal studies—in particular, how animals, humans, and microorganisms come together in different ways. Like Hugh Raffles’ Insectopedia, Microzoopedia is organized by a combination of stories and keyword-like analyses. It will have an entry on contagion, for instance, Lamarre says, “covering new regulations for animals as pigs and cows transform the economy, meat industry, and farmers’ lives, which created what we now call essential workers. Another is on face masks and tuberculosis, when no one knew who was asymptomatic. I was working on all those questions when Covid-19 hit, which confirmed my feeling that we’re still living that moment of modernity.” Lamarre emphasizes how the animal trade works to map both animals (formerly considered spirits or trickster deities) and workers as contagious and racialized in new ways. Readers may make their own connections to Covid as they consider the distance between humans, animals, and microorganisms, and as contagion begins to define all of those relations. 

“When I was a PhD student at Chicago,” Lamarre explains, “the thesis was a genre to play with everything you know and push yourself to limits in different chapters—and to produce a big baggy monster that you draw on for years. I also was actively encouraged to pursue a subfield. I got a postdoc, abandoned my dissertation, and went to Japan. I published a book, but kept thinking about the dissertation for years—it really sticks with you.” 

This fall, Lamarre taught Yōkai Media and Media Ecology (focused on oceans). The latter is a new course that derives from his publications and his realization—while teaching animal media at McGill—of the ways in which animal studies was turning towards environmental studies, necessitating a seminar related to media ecology and environmentalism. This course also stems from his first PhD in oceanology (in 1985 at the Université d’Aix Marseille II), the study of ocean physics and biology, water, and ecological cycles. “Part of my research was based on molecular approaches to ecology, such as the relationship of small and large magnitudes. When reading media studies, I noticed that people tend to think of ecology as a substrate or as an environment that it’s always there acting on us even though we are not conscious of it. But ecology is not a ground—it’s the relation of things, and the energy flux that relates them. Thinking this way, I can approach media studies to find openings for students’ research, and then read media studies back into environmentalism in a very different way.” 

In teaching Media Ecology, Lamarre asks how “we can be a bit more inventive and creative, both intellectually and environmentally. Whereas media studies focus on climate and atmospheres, oceans interest me because they are invisible and haven’t been fully explored. We can’t really impose land-based paradigms for understanding wave forms.” Lamarre began the course with more familiar territory: underwater art installations in museums and cinema on the ocean. Then, the class moved into ecological thinking via games and animation that model ecosystems, especially waves. Finally, they returned to art installations and different ways of modelling nature and history together. “We went through perception but tried to get beyond the phenomenology of lived experience,” he says. From microperception to race and empire, Lamarre stressed relation: where micro aspects interact with larger aspects in symphonic ways. “We went into and got absorbed with waves. The class definitely headed away from usual cinema. Pragmatically and monetarily, filming on the ocean and underwater is a nightmare. But gamers and animators have really picked up that niche.” From Robert Valley’s Zima Blue (2019) to a series of games released in 2019 and 2020, there has been a sudden boom of ocean media.  

This is the third time Lamarre taught Yōkai Media—at McGill, Duke, and now UChicago. Previously, he taught it as a history of anthropology and media studies, but this time everyone chose a yōkai–their media double who interacted with the class. Students wrote diaries and creative papers from the perspective of their yōkai. “There’s been a yōkai boom in Japan as of the 2000s. There are 8 or 9 anime series a year all over East Asia—it’s very transnational and intertwined with the fantasy genre. Students are natural with this stuff because they live in an era where fantasy dominates pop culture over the older sci fi. It’s Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and yōkai, which build worlds and go across games easily.” Related to this generic shift from sci fi to fantasy, Lamarre currently is writing an essay on steampunk for an edited collection on nontraditional film genres. Examining steampunk from China, Russia, Japan, and India, Lamarre says that “it’s had to go through colonialism to come out on the side of fantasy.” He takes a cue from The Birth of Energy to ask, “‘Can there be an energy genre? A genre trying to think the birth of energy as a historical and geopolitical form, with questions such as: what is oil as an economy? what does steam do?’”  

Lamarre also is writing a book called Half Life on animation and radiation, around nuclear bombs in Japan. He wondered if there was a way of thinking about Fukushima beyond the toxic aftermath that people live with—and discovered that Japanese animation bears out this question in new ways. “Barefoot Gen, a famous manga series, comes out of particular moment of thinking nuclear power and resistance, then Akira and recent stuff,” he explains. “That encouraged me to ask what animation can make us think about radiation we wouldn’t think about otherwise, and vice versa. This continues my project [from The Anime Ecology] on electromagnetism and the genealogy of TV animation and games, which asks why animation is not like cinema—it grapples with light and pulse effects in televisual media.”  

There are a few traditions from McGill that Lamarre hopes to continue at UChicago. 

“Canada and Montréal are big on research creation in media studies—ways to grapple with material beyond academic essays. For example, I teach how to do essays in a manga format. Or, we read Marx and use games to build the argument. It’s very important to give undergraduates all kinds of pathways through course syllabi, whether they make a game, write creative stories, or a screenplay adaptation—which is a great way into close reading.” Lamarre also remarked that McGill is a public outreach university, where many people who aren’t students come into screenings and classrooms. “Teaching Japanese animation, I want to bring in people who aren’t students. I love cinema and movie theaters and scholarship, but I think there are good ways to build on that tradition and to make it more of a public outreach. I’m hoping to discuss the presence of East Asian media in Black culture, such as the reception of Hong Kong films or anime—inviting and listening to fan bases is really important.” He also teaches public outreach via ethnography. In his manga classes at McGill, students went out into the city to examine the use of manga in cafes, libraries, and conventions. “As academics, we’re so used to being the ones to create value, but we need to see how other people create value. Relatedly, doing a good internet ethnography is really important, and an ethical skill. In collaboration with Michael Fisch in Anthropology at UChicago, I’d like to flesh out a virtual ethnography: there’s a need to teach grad students how to look at websites.” 

Besides bringing these traditions from McGill, Lamarre continues to work with their Moving Image Research Laboratory (or MIRL). “We have a huge online database with about 70,000 anime titles going back from early downloads in the mid-90s. I developed a searchable tag system to encourage people to teach seminars around genre and format. My codirectors Alanna Thain, Michael Cowan, and I focus on moving bodies, not images.” In an “unofficial tagging” project, Lamarre is working on anime-style danmaku (“bullet screen”), when you write comments with your phone that scroll across the screen in real time as you watch. “It is similar in inspiration to music videos where musicians write music on top of music. You have to enter the flow of the event, like being a DJ but not exactly.” MIRL has put on screenings and media installations in its black box theater, but their goal has been to create a space that isn’t so much about watching. “We invited people from Japan who did video feedback: we filled it with equipment and the whole building was vibrating,” Lamarre laughs. “It’s an experience that is hard to recreate, similar to the inability during Covid to go to art installations with friends—I miss hearing how they respond to it.” 



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