Finding Nemo was a boon for plumbers in ’03. Clownfish clogged many a septic system as children tragically tried to set them free. At various intervals between 1990 and now, the illegal trade of half-shell reptiles has crested—in 2014, a smuggler was apprehended crossing into Canada with fifty-one strapped to his body. In ’96, the breeding and sale of white and black-spotted canines surged some 300%—euthanasia rates followed suit. The year before that, pork consumption ostensibly dipped as pet pigs became popular; the following year, bacon intake rebounded nicely. In the early-aughts, (non-magical) white owl populations were ravaged. In the recent past, macaws have been yanked into inhospitable environments, whale captivity has been de rigueur, and the number of homes with a monkey occupant has swelled. This year, exotic fennec foxes have been all the rage in China. Soon, that wave’ll be superseded by royal blue tang, the next species up on the cataclysm docket.
It’s a strange translation: See a film, covet something tangible as a reminder, seek an object to fetishize, reenact with this totem and circumscribe memories on it. Typically, this fixation cycle results in a toy—a figurine, a doll, an action figure, what have you. By shifting this to living, breathing animals, some dissonant, irreconcilable, deadly hybridization occurs between sentient creature and ‘thing.’ Indeed, late capitalism is an apocalyptic force for the animal world—climates are snuffed out to support industry, various populations are harvested in line with demand (the rarer they are the higher the price they’ll fetch). As demand grows, corners are cut to meet the spike right as it peaks.
Animals become objects and vice versa, and this occurs precisely at the moment of gushing affection and empathy—a wellspring elicited by a carefully crafted and marketed media source, overwhelming emotion and desire ignited by the filmic experience. It has to be hastily grafted onto something before it dissipates. Then it all falls apart: Our emotions and compassions fade, endorphin rushes that dominate in the wake prove fickle; time erodes our more enlightened inclinations, displaced, in the end, by shallow collection and consumption. The underbelly of the industry is exposed but not consciously so—the uneasy interdependence of art and commerce tips in favor of the latter.
Peddled with stunning bright colors; big, soft, expressive eyes; nonplussed demeanors; weepy, dramatic faux-brows; anthropomorphic emotions; and lively voices—“increasingly abstract concepts of humanness”—dissociative states of comprehension and ethics are cultivated/reinforced, then left twisting in the wind. Perspectives on the living world are situated comfortably, filtered through speciesism, if you will—chimeric representatives of the concrete natural transfigured through human systems of value. To what end? To humanize animals? To put a cutesy spin on an unforgiving world? As a shield from horror? The whole of the world is indeed teeming with life, as depicted, but we’re primed to envision it from a familiar, easy vantage—that is, our natural one, untested.
Animals nicely spun this on its head: limited/reduced animation, mumblecore, absurdist humor, biological faux pas, sex and death ever-present (i.e. a world that could accommodate incestuous sequential hermaphrodite clownfish). Feel-good, ironically self-aware, but also alien and unpleasant, it offered some light-hearted inconsequence, frailty, and self-destruction to grapple with all the usual vessels—stories of acceptance and tolerance, hero’s journeys, and morality plays. Our collective negligent homicide precipitated by animation romps tears open the short-falls of the modern brain: Trapped in the realm of myth/fable/legend—the world of imagination and the symbolic—identification short-circuits when thrust into the ‘desert of the real.’ Ecstatic conceptions of symbiosis and buddy comedies collide—procreation, violence, and the like are abstracted, coded, and repressed in the transaction. In the postmodern monstrosities, the human/animal divide blurs until it’s irretrievable—sublimation packaged within sublimation.
Rehearsing this non-human/human logic through cinema, we construct this strange ‘humanness continuum.’ Welfare efforts, empathy, and investment are relative terms, falling somewhere on the spectrum, dictated by ephemeral factors like market domination, engagement, and aesthetics. Our real world, real time, real space perception of the beasts is directly proportional to how successfully human-like and entertaining they are made to be. In some cases, our primal nature is allayed—instinctual revulsion redirected for insects and rats and such. This ultimately fades and our baser selves win the day in the form of neglect and disinterest. It’s a powerful struggle, and often a noble one, that eventually peters out. It sets up dueling narratives—heart-warming, saccharine kids fare clashing against inchoate cognitive frameworks (i.e. latent Herzogian indifference at the ready); humane vs. nonconcrete inhumane; interspecies cooperation vs. interspecies decimation; surface motivation vs. deep reserves of ingrained behavioral patterns. Humans, not limited by their biology or drives, are able to act against their own interests, and we do so with vigor.
The glimmer of hope is the pseudo-post-human element: animal narratives with humans sidelined, marginalized, functioning only as obstacles in the gauntlet, accidental gods in the machine. Are we predators? Domesticated animals under the thumb of an inconceivable ecosystem? Or, some profane combination? Obliterate the boundary between ‘real existence’ and ‘representation.’ Just cut out the middle man and embrace the brutality of the world and the grand narrative: the continuous, epic, byzantine quest for sex and food. How many species could be saved if, instead, we sat our children down for requisite screenings of Grizzly Man during their formative years? Until the Earth melts, that is.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.