Towards a Theory of Representation for Animals
Originally published in the Journal of Wild Culture, April 2013
There’s a certain irony in the observation that, of all academic disciplines, it is probably media studies that gets the least favourable media coverage. In few places is this clearer than the mainstream reception of recent research by Dr Brett Mills, Senior Lecturer in Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of East Anglia. Back in 2010, something of a media storm was inadvertently whipped up, in which the Guardian, Daily Mail and others reported that Mills had claimed nature documentaries constituted an infringement of animals’ rights to privacy. Then, in February of this year, further research into television representations of animals was covered in the Independent under the attention-grabbing headline “Academic takes swipe at David Attenborough wildlife documentaries for ignoring gay animals”. In both cases there was a sizeable discrepancy between what Mills actually argued and the resulting public interpretation.
“As a media academic,” Mills tells me over a quiet Friday evening pint, “it’s fascinating seeing it happen – how particular words get picked up. You have different forms of journalism feeding off other journalism, not the press release directly or even the original journal article. So you can see the argument morph, which is fascinating, until by the end you have people in Australia sending you abusive emails!” Mills is quick to recognise that, up to a point, this is simply part of the process – different writers having different audiences and different roles to fulfill – and he distances himself from the idea that mainstream media should, as some academics seem to think, act as a mouthpiece for their research. “I don’t understand the point in working and researching in a university if it’s not connecting to the outside world in some way, but it’s unbelievably pompous to think that the role of the media is simply to disseminate our knowledge,” he laughs. “That’s our role!”
Still, it’s a significant problem when such compelling and genuinely original research into humanity’s representation of animals cannot currently reach a wider audience without being critically undermined in advance. Because the points that Mills is trying to make are much more nuanced than newspaper headlines are able to convey. The animals went in two by two, for example, first published in the European Journal of Culture Studies in 2012, points out instances of heteronormativity in television wildlife documentaries (drawing particularly on BBC series narrated by David Attenborough). The argument is that animal sexuality is as wide-ranging and diverse as that of human’s but that when the subject is broached on television, “the overriding discourse within which such representations exist is that of the family, with homosexuality and monogamy as social structures resulting from that familial imperative.” Yet, the article continues: “the family has no meaning within non-human species, and is a purely human construction.” The point then is that a particular framework of interpretation is imposed upon animal behaviour, one which has a very singular vision of what ‘normal’ human behaviour is or should be, and one that is actually justified, as Mills, writes, “via the very representation it defines”.
Likewise, Mills makes a particularly interesting point in Television wildlife documentaries and animals’ right to privacy, an article published in Continuum in 2010. In it he observes how the BBC’s approach to the idea of privacy differs according to whether the subject is human or non-human. For humans, the right to privacy is “inalienable” whereas for non-human subjects (objects?) such a right is understood teleologically, ie in terms of “discernable impact”. Whilst a BBC team will almost always ask permission before taking a camera into the private home of a human, less consideration is made for animals unless they demonstrate obvious signs of stress. This is therefore an instance of speciesism, a form of discrimination that informs much of our understanding of non-human life, even (or especially) as Mills makes clear, at the very moments when we think we are being most sensitive/scientific/non-anthropocentric.
Mills’ approach to animals and their rights is unusual because he comes at it from a media studies background. Much of his work has actually been in and around comedy, with particular focus on the sitcom, both historically and institutionally, and he is currently exploring how to improve the industry as part of the AHRC-funded Make Me Laugh project. “I’m interested in researching popular culture,” Mills explains; “the every obvious mainstream stuff that most people would think is not worth investigating or looking at. Most of us in the department at UEA are quite proudly invested in looking at what gets labelled as trash. We’re not saying that just because it’s popular it’s therefore good, but if this is part of the lives of significant numbers of people and if we’re interested in the relationship between culture and society – which we are – then this is the place we should be looking.”
Mills’ more recent interest in nature documentaries may seem unlikely, but it stems from responses shown by his students – usually proudly ‘media-savvy’ and sceptical to the truth-claims of the genre of documentary, but surprisingly willing to accept the authority of David Attenborough without much question. Mills ascribes this in part to a class issue, but also to media techniques of representation – narrative arcs, voice-overs etc. So there is a logical link between his two fields of research, however unlikely it may seem at first. As he tells me, “The animal question is, for me, a debate about television representation – how you use the authority of science to think about culture.”
This issue of television representation and the relationship between science and culture is particularly well explored in a paper entitled Fox Tots Attach Shock. Co-written with Angela Cassidy and published in Environmental Communication in 2012, the article explores media responses to the story of two nine-month old twins living in East London being rushed to hospital following a “suspected fox attack”. The article examines why this was such a big story, and argues that, among other reasons, there is something about the idea of the urban fox that “troubles the ‘‘natural-ness’’ of human / non-human boundaries: its oxymoronic name testament to its reluctance to conform to human ideas of species specificity. In blithely wandering from the countryside to the city, from the city to the street, and from the street to the home, it highlights the constructed nature of the boundaries we draw to assert human identity.”
Currently, Mills is preparing a paper provisionally entitled Towards a theory of representation for animals in which he aims to explore how much of the theoretical frameworks set up by academics in the fields of gender studies and disability studies can be transferred across to animal studies. “Weirdly,” he says, “science has colonised the discussions about animals. One of the things that the humanities needs to do is be more bolshie about saying that we have something to contribute in the debate about animals as well. A lot of what gender studies and race studies has done is to reject the findings of science because of the way the science has been constructed. At some point the humanities needs to develop a framework and a vocabulary – and this is part of what I’m trying to do – that says ‘this is how we talk about animals’.” And yet there’s the underlying irony that such efforts must be presented within framework of current academic conventions, which sometimes give the impression that all research must aspire to the condition of science.
But what is interesting here is the overlap between Mills’ attempts to rethink the idea of animal representation and those outlined by Richard Mabey in his autobiographical book, Nature Cure. Mabey – one of the seminal figures in the ‘new nature writing’ genre – sees television nature documentaries as acting out “the ‘presentation’ of nature…setting the non-human world on a plate, so to speak: fixed, packaged, knowable, consumable.” Instead, Mabey cites nineteenth century feral poet John Clare and argues not for ‘presentation’ but for ‘representation’.
This, in some ways, is exactly the battle that gender studies (alongside Marxism, queer theory, disability studies etc) has been fighting for the past few decades. Is it any wonder Nature is always characterised as female? As Mills argues: “We [humanities academics] are as capable of critiquing science and the assumptions that science makes as gender science studies people do about gender and science.” Animal studies can therefore be seen as “a logical extension of what media studies has always been interested in – what counts as ‘normal’ and which categories are excluded from that – the decision about how you police what counts as human.”
This exploration of what counts as human, and how we then respond accordingly, was to the fore in a recent Channel 4 documentary entitled Special Needs Pets, which brought together comedy and the presentation of both animals and disabilities in troubling (but hilarious) fashion. In a piece entitled Invalid Animals, submitted to a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, Mills argues that “while some aspects of the programme might be seen as encouraging audiences to find disability funny, the humour more often works to confuse readings of the programme’s content, and therefore, perhaps, opens up a space for a range of contradictory understandings of disability.” Such contradictory understandings – around nature, disability etc – perhaps stem, if we’re to follow Mabey, from the mistake of seeing nature and culture in opposition to one another. “Culture isn’t the opposite of nature,” argues Mabey. “It’s the interface between us and the non-human world, our species’ semi-permeable membrane.”
In a way, Mills is saying something not dissimilar, particularly when our conversation leads on to the understandable controversial subject of whether or not animals might have a sense of humour. Now, this might seem intrinsically daft, but the more you think about it, the more plausible it seems. How different is the idea of ‘play’ – behaviour interpreted (and not just by humans) as non-serious? One of the major arguments in humour studies, Mills tells me, is that a sense of humour must have some kind of evolutionary function – usually argued to involve group bonding as a means of aiding in the survival of the species. It’s been pointed out that human children learn to smile and laugh before they can walk or talk – thereby suggesting some evolutionary primacy. “If evolution found a sense of humour a useful way of protecting the species,” Mills wonders, “why would it not have done that in other species? Are we so different?”
Interestingly, as he goes on to explain, “the places where what could be called a comparable ‘sense of humour’ are in animals which are social, which function socially, and have to negotiate power structures.” Research has been carried out on chimps, apes and dolphins, and also on rats and squirrels, but materialist science – in its consistent neo-Darwinist denial of consciousness in any other species apart from humans – cannot bring itself to ascribe what it sees as uniquely human characteristics to non-human animals. Which is ironic, given the imposition of human social constructions that Mills has pointed out in mainstream presentations of animal behaviour. With such an ambivalent relationship to the dread sin of anthropomorphism, it’s no wonder our readings of the natural world are so rife with contradictory understandings.