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Fear and Self-Loathing in an Environmental Catastrophe

Oil Soaked BIrd2010-06-06 at 11.12.03 PM

I cannot look at this photograph without being utterly and thoroughly disgusted.  I can feel the bile form and rise in my stomach, there is a stench that triggers the first hints of an urge to wretch, my gag reflex forces me to avert my gaze.  And at the same time I can’t stop looking at the image. Disgust is among the most visceral and sensuous of emotions; in point of fact, it might be thoroughly corporeal, an affect that literally defies verbalization.  Hate, anger, fear, even love to some extent, can be put into words, even rationalized.  But the very attempt to explain disgust recasts it as something like “contempt” and thus shifts the locus of judgment from a moral to an ideological register.  Put simply, disgust is beyond contempt, an intuitive, affective response to our own impurities; but, and here’s the rub, because they are our own impurities, part and parcel of our own waste and decrepitude, we can identify with them in some measure, we are attracted to them as much as we are repulsed by them.

It is for this reason, I believe, that photos such as the one above “speak” to the current environmental catastrophe in the Gulf in ways that are far more revealing—and certainly more powerful and compelling— than any study an environmental scientist can offer, any report an investigative journalist can write,  or any speech an activist or even the President can make offer (angry or not). Shot in tight close-up the photograph is devoid of all context, underscoring its universality rather than its particularity; indeed, the image incorporates many of the conventions of portrait photography with the point of focus slightly off-center and with the subject both filling the frame and yet looking askance the lens so as to put itself on display.  There is something of a regal quality to the bird’s pose, as if to acknowledge that it is on view for all to see and yet refusing to succumb to the humiliation of the muck and mire that covers and encases it. It is not a stretch to say that the bird exudes a prideful majesty—a sense of dignity—that resonates with the better part of the human spirit.

But there is more, for there is nothing in the photograph that directs our attention to the immediate cause of the bird’s plight.  The caption locates the bird on a beach in Louisiana’s East Grand Terre Island, and so we might be inclined to point our fingers at British Petroleum or perhaps the oil industry more generally.  But the photograph itself fails to provide any direct evidence to support that conclusion.  If any blame is identified in the photograph it must come from elsewhere, and as with any portrait this one urges us to look inward, to see ourselves lurking in the image somewhere.  When we do that, and if we are in any measure honest with ourselves, we have to recognize that for however much BP is culpable for the catastrophe in the Gulf—and there is no question that they own a considerable portion of the blame—the responsibility for this bird’s quandary is not theirs alone.  Everyone of us who enjoys—or more, who demands—the use of petroleum and oil byproducts must own up to our responsibility as well.  This does not mean that BP should be let off the hook when it comes time to pay for its negligence in the Deepwater Horizon accident, but it does suggest that we need to do more than simply hold the oil industry in contempt.  As a society we need to view the disgusting effects of our usage of oil on its own terms and in the context of a larger moral universe.

What we see in the photograph then is an image of ourselves.  The disgust we experience in viewing it is a measure of self-loathing animated by the implicit recognition of own impurities and decrepitude.  The question is, will we simply assume that this is part of the natural order of decay  and thus continue as if nothing is to be done (or assume that the problem can be solved by stronger regulations),  or will we recognize and act upon the need to change the way we live our lives?  It should not be seen as overly dramatic to suggest that our future hangs in the balance.

Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel/AP Photo.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Fear and Self-Loathing in an Environmental Catastrophe


7 Responses

  1. Speaking of self-loathing: while the oil was on its way to shore but before it arrived, I found myself repeating, with increasing horror, a line from Browning’s “‘Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came'”: “He must be wicked to deserve such pain.” Erase the irony from that line and you’ll find yourself reading the conservative attitude toward the environment, and the world of fallen man generally.

    I blog about it at http://jonathan-morse.blogspot.com/2010/05/he-must-be-wicked-to-deserve-such-pain.html

  2. Bryan says

    What we CAN see in these images is a picture of ourselves. But, unfortunately, gas consumption has not decreased since the spill (indeed, a few news agencies are asserted that gas consumption is actually on the rise). We might see a picture of ourselves, but whether or not we are implicated as the cause for disgust, it seems that a daunting mass of people don’t care enough. Of course, escaping gasoline and oil is virtually impossible, but it is still difficult to see any significant changes in consciousness that this disaster may have generated.

    There might be a number of ways of theorizing this phenomena, I suppose. On the one hand, we can make the oh-so-familiar argument that aestheticized politics are such that humans can take enjoyment in witnessing the destruction of its own world. In terms of disgust, it would seem that people who are unaffected by these images (at least unaffected in the sense that they are not changing any of their habits as a result to it) do not feel close enough to that which is digusting, or that which causes the disgust. They can dissociate themselves from it, distance themselves from that which is disgusting, as though they are in no way implicated in it. The abject is not be incorporated into the self, at least not to the extent that the disgusting/abject cannot reconfigure subjectivity.
    The pessimistic stuff notwithstanding, John’s post seems to suggest that the abject is serving some rhetorical function. And indeed, there are numbers of other hopeful examples: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/04/bp-oil-spill-protests-pho_n_601134.html


  3. Embarrassing typo: I meant Childe Roland, not Childe Harold. Harold was the one with a Brit Hume faith in the ocean: “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean — roll! / Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain!”

  4. phaedra says

    thank you for this eloquent post, john. i have been obsessed over this disaster and have gone through a range of emotions, but your insight that disgust is a key emotion at stake is truly insightful. disgust with bp/deepwater, disgust with government (state and federal), and disgust with our own culture–and selves. william ian miller wrote a book on disgust (that d soyini madison gifted to me once upon a time), which i need to dust off again after reading your post. it is true that these visuals are particularly disgusting–and i too wonder if it’s enough to goad us into (more) political action…or not…

  5. Stanley says

    It seems like there is finally some good news with the spill. The Houston Chronicle reports, U.S. ships were being outfitted earlier this month with four pairs of skimming booms airlifted from the Netherlands and should be deployed within days.” Finally a good sign. For all those feeling pretty gloomy about this situation, I recommend a good laugh… Here’s a funny joke, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3j7uSbccSc

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