Blog 1, Digital Animalities:
Media Representations of NonHuman Life in the Age of Risk

On January 11, 2017, Canadians sat riveted to their computer screens watching the rescue of a Clydesdale mare who had fallen through the ice in a lake in Alberta. A small group of people alerted by a young snowmobiler surrounded the hole in the ice and used ropes and brute strength to rescue the 1000-pound horse from the freezing water. Captured on a Go-Pro camera, the action was aired on national news and quickly went viral on social media. Viewers watched an excerpt from the scene replay online with the same fascination as if the crisis were happening in front of them. Yet the suspense was itself suspended by the media process that dramatized the event.  We knew the horse would survive; by the time the image went viral, she was already safe. 

In his remarkable 2007 film, My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin depicts the following story. Horses running from a barn fire in 1926 froze to death in the city’s Red River, and their heads, rising above the ice like frozen taxidermy, became a popular spectacle for young Winnipegers strolling alongside them. Since nothing could be done to save them, the lovers turned to other outlets for their emotions, leading to a small baby boom in the city nine months later.  

The enchanting danger of the ice and the way it captured and framed the horses’ heads in these two scenes might have produced different responses, but they both created a sense of mixed intimacy and dread that helped to cement special bonds among the people who viewed them. Both stories evoke the fear of witnessing a desperate struggle for life, and the pleasure of witnessing man and horse working together as companion species, like kin, as Donna Haraway would put it[1], in one case to avert a horse’s death, and in the other, to view the horses when it was too late, and then to do something with the emotions, to turn death into life.  

What gives these images their uncanny visual power is the way the horses’ heads appears without their bodies, a twist on the normal but unspoken rule for displaying animal faces and bodies in most visual contexts. Whether they appear in news stories, photographs, zoos, or social media, we usually see animals apart from their habitats.  Their status as animal is bifurcated for viewers by their separation from symbiosis: they are autonomous subjects free from natural predators or other dangers, and subjects of human framing or incarceration.  In these two spectacles, the process of fetishization simply went one step further, disconnecting the horses not just from their habitats but from their bodies as well.

If the ice that betrayed the rescued Clydesdale was susceptible to fracture because of climate change, no one mentioned this in the news. Contrast this dramatic scenario with another image that appeared on my screen that same day, a polar bear standing on a fragment of ice, looking desperate. In this case, the insecurity of the ice and what this means for the animal’s future is the story. This photograph, produced and circulated by Greenpeace, reminds us that polar bears thrive on ice the way that fish need water, that beavers need rivers, that honey and flowers cannot exist without bees, and vice versa, and that without them, we are sunk. The assemblage of camera, airplane, and environmentalism that produced this image restores the animal-habitat symbiosis to our gaze as the habitat itself re-recedes as fast as a melting, tumbling block of ice. Just as we learn to see the symbiosis of living things, it becomes unobtainable. The photograph speaks the rhetoric of tragedy at multiple levels.

A group of strong, compassionate Canadians can pull a horse out of a hole in the ice with the adept use of ropes.  But what can we do about glaciers melting and the iconic polar bear reduced to pathos? Many people share my response to this image: pity and horror, anger, a sinking stomach, a desire to look away. There is a sense of a pitiless force at work that is beyond human ability to change. The heartbreak and repulsion we feel looking at this image seems ironic when you consider it in relation to the centuries of colonial violence that forcibly murdered or separated wild animals from their surroundings by various means.  That was power.  This is something like its opposite, but more complicated.

The paralysis I feel in the face of this image resembles and yet challenges the regularized condition of crisis that Wendy Hui Kyong Chun describes in her analysis of the commodification of social media. She writes: “Crisis is new media’s critical difference: its norm and exception.”[2] Crisis!  Update. Crisis; update.   And yet the image of a stunned polar bear perched on melting ice does not document a news event as commonly defined, the way the horse rescue does, or a forest fire, or a flood, all common symptoms of climate change distress. We see a singular bear, but not a singular event.  We do not control this story with ropes and cameras. It is not an accident, and there is no spontaneous rescue on the horizon.

The wound we feel when we see photographs like this one evokes a new inflection on loss, not simply the loss that is implied by any photograph, according to Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes, but a newer one, perhaps the loss of our presumptive ability to control or even live with the natural world whether through violence or love. The photograph shows a bear losing its habitat. There is an implicit morality here; animals belong somewhere, and this belonging is a metonymic figure for nature as a whole if we think of it having a somewhere.  Putting aside problems we might have with the idea of the natural world as being out there, the point is that ecological community appears here at the moment of its putative disappearance. This makes the loss both poignant and unresolvable. If the ice is melting, we will drown. We are in it, but we are not in it, because we are in charge of it. But it’s not our fault that the ice is melting; it’s taken hundreds of years of progress to bring this about. Is this something “we” should even try to stop, or does it follow its remorseless posthuman ecological pathway to the end, the way a polar bear crushes the head of its prey? But who is this “we”? The photograph of a dying bear plays upon the intensity and ambivalence of these emotions, but also, for those of us engaged in research on these mediated processes, difficult questions about what those feelings are doing.[3]  The portal to empathy hints at a possibility for a renewed humanity that is shadowed by a sense of the hypocrisy and arrogant uselessness of this same sentiment. Being human sucks.  It’s our fault; it’s too late. Crisis: update. This is the logic of the Anthropocene.  

Claire Colebrook writes that “It is only possible to think of climate change in the meteorological sense – with humans now bound to volatile ecologies that they are at once harming and ignoring -– if some adjustment is made to the way we think about the relations among time, space, and species.”[4] She isn’t talking about nonhuman species, but we are.  Like primates and whales, bears are charismatic, and their powers seem to challenge the default centrality of human interests in the natural world.[5]  The image of white on white pinned to melting ice has become the instantly recognizable icon of a process that is visibly destructive but cannot be called accidental, that endangers all species, that may be irreversible. The drama of this process is not unique, not instant, and definitely not over. The Anthropocene confronts us through these images and moves us towards a different experience of time itself, the ways we live in it, imagine it, understand its direction, are implicated by it. By witnessing the bear pinned to an ice that eludes it, frozen we might say by the headlights of progress, we are being unmade by the “unfamiliar ethical-political quandaries and affective intensities” that are posed by climate change.[6] 

The quandary might be unfamiliar, but the polar bear is not. The polar bears moved to the forefront of the conservationist movement through the combined effort of American big game hunters, anti-hunting conservationists, and cameras.   To undertake an archaeology of the polar bear/Anthropocene discourse requires that we attend to how we have been co-constructed by animal imagery without fetishizing the media that are the putative subject of this investigation.  The camera and the man holding it to chronicle the kill needed the polar bear more than the polar bear needed the camera; the ship that exchanged a giraffe for a bear needed the giraffe as much as the giraffe needed the ship. It is not the camera that is mediating our gaze, it is the bear that is mediating our relationship with the world around us. That is why we need to understand animals as important media of the Anthropocene.

Let’s examine more closely what it means to say that an animal acts as a medium. If an animal is a medium, and not just the content of a medium (and not just the body of an animal), what is it mediating? This reframing of mediation is a task for media archaeology, an enterprise in the technical-hermeneutic rewriting of human history that has not yet accommodated the non-human animal. Researchers have taken up the material effects of nonhuman agents like metals and waste in contemporary media, but the presence of nonhuman species also expresses and alters the grammar and ecology of humans intertwined with either media or animals.[7] This absence in media studies finds its corollary in the rapidly growing literature on the representation of animals, which has not adequately complicated the relationship between animals and media beyond a critique of representation as an ideological slant upon justice or the real.  A core challenge for ecological media theory then is to explore not only how media technologies mediate our co-presence with nonhuman species, but also, how nonhuman species mediate our co-presence with our technologies and with each other. This altered house of mirrors might change the way we think of ourselves in the prolonged crisis-not-crisis of climate change. 

Taking up the insight that “the medium is the message” means acknowledging, as Jon Durham Peters does in his book The Marvelous Clouds (2015), the degree to which thinking about animals in the context of mediation can expand our understandings of mediation itself, whether these animals occupy aqueous, digital, or philosophical environments.  Peters’ book revisits McLuhan’s now fifty-year-old book Understanding Media, which demonstrates “that media are not only carriers of symbolic freight but also crafters of existence” (Peters 2015: 15). This is not to say that animals are always media; as Peters notes, “Because media are in the middle, their definition is a matter of position, such that the status of something as a medium can fade once its position shifts” (29).  Showing that the shape or meaning of something changes in interaction with other things is common sense ecology. Darwin applied the concept to relations among species, and McLuhan to relations among communication media.  It makes sense to apply it to bears or giraffes that appear in the middle of things, visibly intertwining the ecology of species and the ecology of media until we hardly know which is which.

Once animals like bears and giraffes had been put to work to mediate new relations between emperors, they became metonyms for exotic new lands.  For this to happen, the rulers needed new mediators between colonizer and animal such as agents and trappers, and set into motion a series of cascading mediations just as before we had waves. Because of this desire for the animal, the colonized African or northern Indigenous subject was constituted as a dual figure: both the inhabitant of a rich land capable of supplying wealth in the form of animal bodies, whole or in parts, and, a sacrificial figure represented metonymically by the animal it has forfeited. Over time the giraffe came to represent Africa in the way that the polar bear and the beaver represent Canada (which, according to Margaret Atwood, “was built on dead beavers”[8]) without any evidence of the colonial traders and Indigenous trappers who made their trade possible.  

These events brought different meanings for the animal into the world. The desire to see a particular animal body animates the becoming of an icon that in a truly Goffman-esque process we make available as spectacle by excising its background. It is in part the animal’s separation from its surroundings that makes its image so powerful. The same process is evident in the history of software branding and of sound recording techniques with birds, which present us with traces of animals from which crucial aspects of animality have been removed.   The aesthetic convention arising from this history involves the fetishization of the animal’s face, voice or body, and encourages people to make, admire and exchange their images without reference to habitats or other “back stage” aspects of habitat erosion, climate change, or slaughter.  This history has helped to constitute our limited ability to recognize the nonhuman animal as a subject.

There are many ways to be captured by animal images, and quite a few examples of this online experience appeared on my computer screen during this same January week. Popular among my social media friends was a graphic of a group of cats inside the box of a piano, their bodies captured as extensions (or recipients) of the wooden hammers that comprise the noise-making capacity of an acoustic piano. These cats are not visually linked to natural habitats or prey, but surrealistically deposited as sound-making device in a human machine. The juxtaposition of feminine piano-playing hands and wailing cats ( both instances of “caterwauling”) creates a weird visual twist on gender norms; pianos and cats are associated with women and domesticity, but not ordinarily with violence. The image simultaneously evokes and dismisses the violence of piano hammers hitting cat bodies. In this amphibious register the image tonally registers famous cat-qualities such as ambiguity, evasiveness and nine-liveliness, allowing us to be caught for a moment as amused viewers, smiling, allowing ourselves a little queer moment of pleasure in what should not cause pleasure, and then catching ourselves, momentarily complicit in the 9 millionth imagined form of violence against the bodies of cats and the musicianship of women.[10]

Another post displayed the artistic creation of a very different kind of connection between animals, environments, and human frames. In a series of works Columbian ecological artist Diana Beltran Herrer attached tiny hand-made bird bodies to national stamps designed with flowering plant images to promote the country’s natural beauty. Her visual addition of a bird sculpture to the stamp surface symbolically evokes, if it cannot restore, the vulnerable symbiosis between the uninhabited plant habitat decorating the stamp and the birds that live in it. Just as there is no polar bear without ice, so there is no flowering without birds. The imaginary power to intervene in this landscape is forefronted and circumscribed by the modest paper from which the bird body is made. 

I also saw a photograph of two exquisite lions accompanying a story about killing lions for the harvesting of organs to be used for witchcraft.  Felines, cruelty, witchcraft, scapegoating … This story seems to have no ending. I don’t want to show it. We are meant to imagine these beautiful lions murdered by savages (presumably not dentists), although the record of Europeans slaughtering lions, elephants and bears is far, far worse. 

I saw a photograph of cows decorated with flowers and bells strolling complacently down a street. The image accompanied a humorous news story about a woman who had been denied a Swiss passport for the second time on the grounds that she was an annoying vegan who tried to suppress the use of cowbells.  Vegans are annoying, the article conveys, committing its own light-handed denial of the fact that the vegan probably likes these sweet cows more than the author does.[11]

I witnessed an iconic elephant image illustrating an appeal to support a tracking program equipped with algorithms that were especially designed to monitor and save African elephants.

And of course because I am a human being interacting with social media, I saw countless stories and pictures of cats.  Send more!

 The arts are something to be lived, not merely viewed from the audience. Here, a comrade practices interpretive dance at home -- not only as beneficial physical exercise, but also as a creative outlet -- dramatizing class struggle.

The arts are something to be lived, not merely viewed from the audience. Here, a comrade practices interpretive dance at home -- not only as beneficial physical exercise, but also as a creative outlet -- dramatizing class struggle.

These virtual figurations of fun, ritual, enchantment and horror have become part of our everyday landscapes. Why are there so many animals on our screens, and what is happening when we post or look at them?  What do they have in common with one another? Why do so many people mediate their human interactions with images of animals? Are people posting animal figures different from neighbours talking about their pets, or farmers talking about their cows, or pre-industrial people trading their goats, or Indigenous peoples planning their hunts? Is this technical mediation drawing us further away from our kinship with the world of animals, or enhancing the bonds between us?  Are we awakening to the kinship we share with the vulnerable and endangered natural world, or entertaining ourselves to death? Are we “just looking,” or changing the world?

The ease of accessing these images seems to reaffirm and celebrate human power over the natural and mediated world. But it also suggests -- following Foucault’s idea that a proliferation of discourse means something in the very fact of its proliferation[12] -- a different explanation. Their images are haunting us. Looking at animals offers a welcome interruption of the banal flow of time, especially the time that is not-time spent online, but this pleasure carries an undertow of anxiety and even bad conscience.  They inveigle us to do something for them, to act on our anxiety, and yet, perhaps because we have already taken the time to look at them, allow us to postpone that resolution.  Or perhaps it is not the image of the animal that allows us to postpone, but some other force, some other kind of labour, not theirs, for which neither images nor viewers nor mediating technology can be held accountable. But when we look at them, those bears and cows, somehow we are held, contained, accountable.  

Sharing the ambivalence and anxiety conveyed by these pictures has become  part of the everyday fabric of risk culture and the way it shapes our “structures of feelings.”[13] Williams’ term encourages us to piece personal experiences and the creative ideas tied to them together in relation to (but not wholly determined by) social institutions and structures: together they form the particular qualities of subjectivity that make one time and place different from another.  Looking at us looking at polar bears suggests that what we fear and what we use to manage that fear might be difficult to distinguish. We fear what is happening to the nonhuman animals whose pictures parade before us like a ghostly menagerie. We are afraid we are animals whose predatory hunger far surpasses that of the most aggressive bear -- we rarely share pictures of cows, although their literally uncountable proliferation as “terminal animals” for the purpose of making hamburgers accounts for a substantial portion of the climate change eradicating other species.  We have learned an aptitude for conscienceless hunger that makes us more vulnerable, not less, to the eruptions of an unsympathetic nature. We are afraid that we are driving charismatic animals towards extinction, and look at empathetic pictures of them to confirm our connection with them.  We identify with them as amphibious martyrs to greed and cruelty but as modern white European humans we suppress or ironize that sense of identification with them.[14] Yet we are also romantics who want to believe that nature cannot be destroyed and so we evoke the spirits of wild animals as vital, mysterious life forms even as they fall before us and even as we accept their loss. Animals compensate, they symbolize, they give us ways to feel, they give us ways to manage our feelings, they give us ways to manage one another. 

If we are going to combat denial in relation to climate change, we have to confront the ethical and physical crimes that stalk our interspecies relationships whether they are visible or not. Representations of animals are prominent hinges or mediators in shifting relations between human and animal, pleasure and risk, empathy and exploitation, nature and politics.  These “meanings” reverberate in the animal-media ecology we share with polar bears and other animals today.  We will never know exactly how bears or cows experience the world, but our relationship with animal is not purely a cognitive one.  It is arguably memory, and how memory forms living traces in our senses and interactions, rather than cognition or rationality or goodness, that makes us human. Perhaps it is the memory of humans that do not yet exist that will permit us to share creatively in the constitution of a different kind of ecological community. We don’t like to lose animals or ice any more than we like to lose our homes or favourite urban haunts as they are consigned to the dustbins of capital redevelopment. We can see that these relations are being unmade. What it means to “remake” those relations – that is the question.

[1] Donna Haraway, Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chtulucene.  Duke University Press: 
[2] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis.” The Non Human Turn, ed. Richard Grusin, University of Minnesota Press 2016, p. 140.
[3] Cf. Carolyn Pedwell, Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy. Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstone and NY, 2014.
[4]  Claire Colebrook, Death of the Posthuman: Essays on Extinction. Open Humanities Press, 2014, 10.
[5] Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species. University of Chicago Press 2016, 135.
[6] Nigel Clark, Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. Sage: 2011, xix, xxi.
[7] See e.g. Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001; Randy Malamud, An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009; Claire Molloy, Popular Media and Animals. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
[8] Berland, “The Work of the Beaver,” Material Cultures in Canada. ed. Thomas Allan and Jennifer Blair, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014.
[9]  "Front stage" and "back stage" are concepts developed by sociologist Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Anchor Books, 1956).  He uses these dramaturgical terms to explain that social behaviour and interactions differ depending on whether we are “front stage” showing our public personas, or “back stage,” where we might prefer to keep certain behaviours or feelings private. Showing something “front stage” which we ordinarily hide “back stage” could lead to confusion, embarrassment or disempowerment.  So much of the world is kept “backstage” when we show animals or images of animals.
[10]  On the gender dynamics of piano practicing (“caterwauling”) and automation, see J. Berland, “The Musicking Machine”, North of Empire: Essays on the Cultural Technologies of Space (Duke University Press 2009).
[11] Nicely described by Bee Wilson in “How Much Meat is Too Much?” London Review of Books, Vol. 36 No 6, 20 March 2014, 35-38.  https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n06/bee-wilson/how-much-meat-is-too-much
[12] Cf. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1.  Vintage Books, 1990.
[13] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature.  Oxford University Press, 1977.
[14]  J Berland, “The Work of the Beaver.”