With the exception of occasional trips to various book depositories to collect more research material, I do most of my thesis work in my own room, where access to my library is, well, most accessible. Bartholomew, as it happens, also spends most[i] of his working days in this same room[ii]. Consequently, the pair of us spend a bit of time together, and have developed a fondness for the same activities. This week, for example, I was marking exams with Planet Earth* on in the background, and Bartholomew, with a clear vantage point from his early modern perch, was watching with me. I like Planet Earth for its (by now) familiar shots of elusive Siberian camels and African wolf dog hunts, as well as David’s comforting British narrations. Bartholomew likes all the rapid-growth footage of cherry blossoms and arctic tundra. We both win when David utters his fabulous “From the ashes rises the phoenix: Grass.”
This line, taken from the “Great Plains” episode, is characteristic of the punning and anthropomorphising language David uses in his narrative. While this narrative gives me delight, it also gives me pause.
The BBC has gone to great lengths in Planet Earth to point out their filming ethics. In the “Planet Earth Diaries” (ten-minute “makings of” videos that follow each 50 minute feature) the film crews discuss their “non-intervention” policies: they film from helicopters and hides, they refuse to help animals that are hungry, preyed upon, or separated from their herds.[iii]
Too, the separation of the video diaries, which show the filming, from the features themselves, which include no evidence of the human film crew, reflects the production team’s mandate to show the remotest and previously unfilmed habitats as one would encounter them in nature: that is, without intervention by other humans. In cutting the film in this way, the BBC offers an exact copy of the natural world, allowing the viewer to gain familiarity with it without having to disturb the environment himself.
In other words, the BBC creates a simulacrum of these environments[iv]:
Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. […] It is genetic miniaturization that is the dimension of simulation. The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control — and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these. (2)
The above is Baudrillard’s definition of the simulacrum from his Simulacra and Simulation. In Baudrillard’s terms, the possibility of infinitely reproducing the digital film images in Planet Earth is problematic, precisely because it replaces the filmed environments themselves. The viewer takes the image for the reality. This is a problem Baudrillard identifies occurring in human (non)interaction with the caves of Lascaux*:
In the same way, with the pretext of saving the original, one forbade visitors to enter the Lascaux caves, but an exact replica was constructed five hundred meters from it, so that everyone could see them (one glances through a peephole at the authentic cave, and then one visits the reconstituted whole). It is possible that the memory of the original grottoes is itself stamped in the minds of future generations, but from now on there is no longer any difference: the duplication suffices to render both artificial. (9)
One problem that Baudrillard fails to address in his essay is why, exactly, it is important to have a relationship with the real. One might argue that in preserving fragile habitats on film we reduce the number of human visitants that erode, clutter, or otherwise destroy the natural beauty of, for example, the caves of Lascaux. More, since certain animals, like the Amur Leopard in “From Pole to Pole” are already nearing extinction (David reports there are only 40 left in the wilderness), film preserves the image and habits of an animal so that others can learn from it (and its destruction) in a future world from which it will foreseeably be absent.
Humans, however, are already a part of the environment shared by endangered (and non-endangered) plants and animals. Indeed, the Caves of Lascaux are not primarily valuable because they are ancient geological formations, but because they are a record of human origins and our interactions with our environment in the past. What is the point, then, of preserving these caves, or even the “untouched” caves of Lechuguilla [v] in Planet Earth‘s “Caves” episode, if we are never to interact with these environments again?
Baudrillard’s complaint might also be that the possession of the pervasive simulacra reduces our appreciation of the original: as long as we think the caves or leopards or rainforests are preserved on film, we no longer feel we need the real sources of the image. More, the viewer does not notice the further deterioration of the real because every time we view our own simulacrum, it appears in exactly the same state as the last time we saw it.
Baudrillard’s use of the passive voice in phrases like “one forbade” and “an exact replica was constructed,” however, perhaps [vi] suggests that his critique is not necessarily of the act of simulating itself, but of the fact that we hide that the simulated product is a simulation. This allows those who create the simulacra to remain hidden, and from their hiding place direct the individual’s beliefs and desires. We think these beliefs and desires are both tied to real objects and also completely our own, when they are non-real ideologies constructed by others.
One might counter that in including the “Diaries” at the end of each episode, the BBC draws attention to, rather than obscuring, the process of simulation behind the images. Yet the BBC’s openness with their procedures and mandates perhaps distracts the viewer from more subtle directorial methods that direct us to think and emote in a BBC-directed way. For example, the candidness with which the “Diaries” discuss filming methods, and show the arduous physical suffering of the film crews who keep up their good-humoured banter in spite of their frustration, the emotional trauma they encounter having to helplessly watch struggling animals, even the occasional breaks from non-intervention policies as with the penguin chick, constructs an image of the BBC as an empathetic, industrious institution striving for a worthy environmental cause. This image distracts us from the fact that the documentary also won prestige and financial success for that same institution; the ends of the documentary are not necessarily as altruistic as the viewer thinks. Moreover, as consumer of the documentary, we perhaps think that our financial support of the BBC’s endeavour is toward a “good” cause. It is possible that this judgement of the documentary’s social worthiness, though, stems not from any innate values the viewer possesses, but is constructed by the discourse of the film itself.
I wonder, however, if this discourse cannot be viewed more optimistically. True, Planet Earth is an artificial representation of the natural world, and true it has been cut, narrated, and scored to direct its viewers to a specific ideology and emotions.[vii] This does not mean the ideology and emotions themselves are inherently lacking value.
David’s attitude towards the grass is not the only time he uses humourous or punning language to narrate its subjects in human terms. In this same episode, for example, he claims that “fire sparks panic in the [gazelle] herd” [my emphasis] and, concerning an arctic fox trying to collect five or six goose chicks in its mouth, “sometimes, one mouth simply isn’t enough.” The music which accompanies these shots is equally as anthropomorphic. Composer George Fenton matches a hunted caribou herd with trumpets in a minor key, playing grazioso (gracefully), providing a sad majesty to their plight. The wolves which hunt them, unsurprisingly, get pulsing strings and drums, and runs of chromatic thirds, providing a sense of urgency: it becomes clear where the viewer’s sympathies should lie in this hunt. The rather adorable arctic fox in segment three, in contrast, is accompanied by a jaunty arrangements of strings and flutes as she hunts for her even more adorable cubs. Finally, the square-headed Tibetan wolf in segment four hunts mountain pika to a Mission Impossible-esque theme.
These musical interludes, one might argue, along with David’s anthropomorphic language, direct the viewer to project certain human emotions onto the animals and plants that we witness. This tactic threatens to appropriate these untouched habitats into a discourse of civilisation; it makes the non-human human, eradicating its own origins and languages in favour of our own, proving Baudrillard’s point that humans do not study historical or natural objects to learn from the other, but to reaffirm our own existence.
Don McKay, however, takes a different view on the matter. For him, anthropomorphic language provides us with
a sudden angle of perception, the phenomenal surprise which constitutes the sharpened moments of haiku and imagism. The coat-hanger asks a question; the armchair is suddenly crouched: in such defamiliarizations, often arranged by art, we encounter the momentary circumvention of the mind’s categories to glimpse some thing’s autonomy — its rawness, its duende, its alien being. (21)
For McKay anthropomorphism functions the way that all metaphors function: they claim that a thing both is and is not another thing. In the example of Planet Earth, the music and narrative bring these unfamiliar wildernesses within the human world — we understand them as possessing the same emotions that we possess, and have empathy with them: we are part of the same environment. Simultaneously, we recognise the absurdity of suggesting that grass undergoes mythic transformations, or that a wolf hunting rabbit-like animals is akin to an undercover heist. The BBC’s focus on capturing behaviours and locations previously unfilmed heightens the disparity between familiar language/emotions and organisms that are completely outside our realms of familiar encounters. Here anthropomorphoses emphasises how far separated the viewer is from the “real” world that we can only see through simulation, and perhaps encourages the viewer to seek re-engagement with that real in an ethically aware manner.[viii]
[i] most. Except when I take him out for water.
[ii] in this same room. Perhaps you think I should refer to it as “our” room. Well, Bartholomew doesn’t contribute to the local economy much, so I retain singular possession of the space, grammatically.
When Bartholomew starts contributing more to my thesis than an occasional skeptical “hmm…” and dropping Thomas Middleton collections on my head as I write, then maybe I’ll include him in the lease agreement.
[iii] separated from their herds. One exception occurs in the “Ice Worlds” episode, where the Antarctic team frees a penguin chick trapped in the ice, reuniting it with its frantic mother. Yes, this one incident is minor enough that neither the habitat or behaviour of the penguins is not going to be altered which is what non-intervention ethics are concerned with, but I wonder, does the mother penguin’s familiarity and acceptance of the team in her habitat indicate that in the very act of filming the animals’ behaviour alters. Then again, research teams of all kinds are a regular part of the Antarctic environment anyways.
[iv] a simulacrum of these environments. I owe this line of thinking to a comment Prof. D. made in lit. theory.
[v] caves of Lechuguilla. The fifth longest cave in the world, located in New Mexico (Carlsbad Caverns). it took the BBC two years of negotiations with the New Mexico government before they could access the caves for filming, and following filming the caves were closed even to research teams.
[vi] perhaps. It may be a matter of translation.
[vii] has been cut narrated and scored. The complexity of this cutting, scoring and narrating is well worth paying attention to: for example, the viewer can liken the grass in “Great Plains” to the “major theme” of the episode, as in a piece of music. The episode begins with the grass in its infancy in the Mongolian summer, and is depicted growing with the seasons across different geological locations. The subjects of the episode are the habitats that grow with the grass. This theme, in fact, is matched by a musical theme played by oboes and strings and a single violin the upper-octave, and swells and falls as the summer approaches and passes.
[viii] to seek reengagement. Not Bartholomew, though, he’s “rooted” to his ceramic pot.
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of the Simulacra.” Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Shiela Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.
McKay, Don. “Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home & Nature Poetry. Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness. Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2001. 11-33.
26 April 2008
Glossary of Terms:
Lascaux. Paleolithic cave system in the Dordogne region, discovered in 1940 and closed in 1963. The caves contain human-made wall paintings now visible online at the official site.
Planet Earth. n. nom. possibly the best nature documentary series yet made. Well, it was made with “an unprecedented production budget, using high definition photography, and revolutionary ultra-high speed cameras, five years in the making, over 2000 days in the field, using 40 cameramen across 200 locations” (Planet Earth, the complete series, 2007). I’m aware this is BBC marketing-speak here, but the high budget and quality technology is evident in the visual and aural quality, as well as the subject-matter, of the series. It’s beautiful.