Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Cassandra Xin Guan

Modern Culture and Media


My dissertation, “Maladaptive Media: Life and Other Political Emergencies, 1917-1939,” interrogates aesthetics of “liveliness” in interwar-era film cultures. The concept of maladaptation alludes to the state of disequilibrium that Sigmund Freud, drawing upon Psycho-Lamarckian theories of evolution, called the “need of life” (die Not des Lebens). Revising Tom Gunning’s seminal analysis of “film attraction,” my evaluation of interwar cinemas and media theory highlights the cultural (re)production of need—a condition of dependency and suffering driving living organisms to transform their mode of existence. This critical approach intersects with the 2020 Screen dossier I co-edited with Adam O’Brien, titled “Natural Aesthetics,” which appraises environmental perspectives in contemporary screen theory. There, I argue that cinematic media conjoin the bio-logical with the techno-logical, creating psycho-somatic interfaces subject to conflict and mediation. My current research contributes to the growing awareness of the environmental dimensions of media. But rather than envision the environment as a holistic container of life, the thesis of “maladaptive media” proceeds from the critical assumption that life fails to become one with its milieu and is historicized by its failures.