This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Moral Road Maps to Invisible Territories

Chapter Seven: "Animal Rights Films, Organized Violence, and the Politics of Sight'" Anat Pick
Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy 

By Sarah Rosemary Snell

It's hard to open our eyes to a reality that is less than uplifting – to content that may challenge the status quo, or bring pain and shame. Yet, by making invisible the facts we do not know how to face, how can we hold ourselves accountable to knowing what we do not see? How do we uphold, or even create, a moral framework through which to navigate the difficult realities and the images we are shown that we may not want to face, but must?

In The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics chapter titled ‘Animal Rights Films, Organized Violence, and the Politics of Sight,' author Anat Pick explores the efficacy of using the politics of sight in animal rights activism as an agent of change. She explores new and traditional forms of media and touches on the complications of the politics of sight about dialogues that currently surround animal rights activism. Although offering a solid foundation to a complex discussion, Pick fails to actually flesh out the complex nature of the elements involved in this relationship before proposing a solution, rendering the text irrelevant to the audience, who cannot collect a genuine understanding of the topic and judgment of the proposal.

This essay will first explore Pick’s well-rounded argument in which she offers a basic introduction to the discourse surrounding the politics of sight, animal rights activism and animal rights films. It will then examine sections of the argument where the author fails to delve deeper into subject matter that lays essential to understanding both the topic at hand and the proposed solution.

A Well-Rounded Introductory Analysis

This chapter uses the term, ‘politics of sight’ coined by Timothy Pachirat in his text 
titled ‘Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight.' He uses the term to describe “organized, concerted attempts to make visible what is hidden and to breach, literally or figuratively, zones of confinement to bring about social and political transformation” (Pachirat, 2004 pg 236). Pick uses a selection of animal rights documentaries from new and traditional media to explore the application of the politics of sight as a catalyst for change in this field. She specifies early on that for expediency sake, she would only explore the “most explicit and widely seen animal advocacy films” of the documentary style (Pick, 2016 pg 91). 

Primarily exploring Slaughter House 1930-1939, undercover footage from a North Carolina Butterball hatchery released by Mercy for Animals (2014), The Animals Film (1981) and Ghosts in Our Machine (2013), Pick examines ‘the complexity of making visible as a means of political strategy’ (Pick, 2014 pg 93) as visible evidence of a subject matter such as this, can either clarify or further normalize the content from public understanding. This is what we discover early on in Pick’s and Pachirat’s texts. It is especially prone to happen in cases like animal advocacy documentaries where the content covers a topic where “the realities of mass dominance of animals are unframed so as to become imperceptible” (Pick, 2016 pg 96), making it difficult for us to form a societal moral framework with which to navigate.

Slaughter House 1930 – 1939 is a silent film that attempts to promote a more humane method of killing animals with the use of a bolt gun. In this film, the camera takes the position of the first-person observer and compares various kinds of animals being killed first in the more common form and secondly, with the use of the bolt gun. Pick highlights this film as an example of the complicated oppressive relationship we have with animals. As we cannot understand how animals feel or think, interestingly the two methods of killing would appear “virtually indistinguishable” (Pick, 2016 pg 92) without the precluding title cards that define how to interpret what is being seen and distinguish between the animals’ pain or spontaneous nervous reactions.

For Pick, this begins a discussion about the missing moral framework surrounding animal advocacy that would allow us to distinguish between the humane and inhumane treatment of animals. She further explores this in the case of the undercover footage released by Mercy for Animals of the treatment of chicks at a North Carolina Butterball Hatchery (Mercy for Animals, 2014). The media, consumers, animal activists and companies watched as footage exposing “visible cruelty, was redefined as standard practice” (Pick, 2016 pg 94) when Butterball took advantage of the loose framework that defines humane and inhumane treatment to reframe it as a situational incident of regulation procedures.

Pick then sets out to solve this issue by providing a context or ‘field of perception’ (Pick, 2016 pg 95) when utilizing the politics of sight because “how we see, or what we know, is not simply a matter of the availability of visible evidence” (Pick, 2016 pg 94), putting emphasis on the notion that it is not about what we see, but “how we see” (Pick, 2016 pg 95). The author uses a selection of texts and films to suggest that visual evidence of the inhumane treatment of animals would most effectively be portrayed in “frame of war” (Pick, 2016 pg 95). This “frame of war,” Pick claims, would offer value to the lives of the animals that is otherwise omitted from visual evidence, making it easier for the viewers to interpret what is being seen as humane or inhumane. The author then goes on to discuss The Ghosts in Our Machine (2013) as an excellent example of how we must value the lives of animals as deserving equal freedoms and rights as humans – a change that can be achieved through animal rights documentaries when they “articulate conditions and mechanism of humans’ crushing power over non-human animals” (Pick, 2016 pg 98).

Failing to Delve Deeper

The author managed to cover the key points that surround this topic; she included different types of animal advocacy documentaries from various time frames and in different settings, she touched on the inherently paradoxical nature of the politics of sight and was able to provide a personal perspective on a potential solution to creating a ‘field of perception’ and to the future of mankind’s relationship with non-human animals. However, there are some key elements that were omitted, making this argument about what we know about what we cannot see nearly an ironic.

Pick’s failure to examine the epistemological level of this discussion and lack of exploration into the theory of ‘politics of sight’ ultimately renders her argument irrelevant by leaving out dialogues that are essential to navigating the topic at hand. Although a certain required ‘efficiency’ (Pick, 2016 pg 91) was mentioned early on in the chapter, the integrality these narratives to this discourse does not merit their omission from this text.

Pick presents a solid argument that ties together the three key elements of this chapter: the politics of sight, animal rights activism and film. But the weakest part of her argument is the focus of the politics of sight solely within the realm of animal rights activism. How could a potential solution be drawn without reaching into other applications of the politics of sight as a means for a change?

One’s understanding of the use of the politics of sight in a film would indeed shift if Pick had discussed further what other relevant texts, unrelated to animal rights activism host. For example, a text that explores graphic artist Adriane Tomine’s Optic Nerve and the politics of recognition emphasizes the era of “ocularcentrism” in which we live (Oh 2007, pg 132) and the added importance of the artists removal of race from his works as a means to sidestep our inherent obsession with assigning a priori value. Exploring other interactions with the variations on the ‘politics of sight’ as a means for political change may have shifted the chapters focus on asking whether Pachirat’s method of blending vision and politics is even best suited.

Building further on our increasingly visual-driven world, there is also much to be said about the politics of sight in a post-humanism context where we aim to replace ourselves in all facets of our lives and must face the realities we do not know or do not want to know (Letts and Sandlin, 2013). And finally, maybe most specifically linked to Pick’s argument, there is no discussion of our desensitization to war. Pick suggested that we frame these documentaries in perspective of war – a war we are waging against non-human animals – yet, as our society grow increasingly desensitized to violence of all forms (Mrug et al., 2015) and as animal advocacy terrorism becomes increasingly ingrained in the debate of labeling moral and non-moral terrorism and guilty or innocent victims (Cooke, 2013) – omitting this from the discussion completely changes the real- world application of Pick’s proposed approach.

Pick argues that war is the best lens to offer audiences when observing the inhumane human treatment of animals as it puts them in a position to hold “grievable” lives (Pick, 2016 pg 96). This may be a valid conclusion to offer; however, this claim is made without exploring sources that lie outside the field of animal rights films. All sources that Pick drew from to draw her conclusions related solely to analyses of animal rights films – leaving us to wonder how the actual application of these theories would playout.

Anat Pick offers an introductory analysis of the main topics in this chapter that is to the point and straight forward. However, it is her lack of extensive exploration of the issues that leave her proposed solutions without authority. How do we find a means to build a moral framework when we do not have the ability to understand what we do not know or 
cannot perceive? Unfortunately, Pick’s text fails to explore these questions that lie inherent to understanding the inner workings of the application of the politics of sight as a catalyst for change in animal rights activism.

Letts, W., & Sandlin, J. (June 2013) Editor’s introduction: glass walls, cages and paws. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 10 (1). Retrieved from: igwcaeappos.xml
Oh, S. (September 2007). Sight Unseen: Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve and the politics of recognition. MELUS, 32 (3). Retrieved from: _suatonatpor.xml
Cooke, S. (2013) Animal rights and environemental terrorism. Journal of Terrorism Research, 4 (2). Retrieved from:
Mrug, S. et al. (February 2015). Emotional desensitization to violence contributes to adolescents’ violent behaviour. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 44 (1). Retrieved from: doi:10.1007/s10802-015-9986-x
Pick, A. (2016). Animal Rights Films, Organized Violence, And The Politics of Sight. In Tzioumakis, Y. & Molly, C. (Eds.). Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics (91- 102). New York, NY: Routledge
Pachirat, T. (2004) Every twelve seconds: industrialized slaughter and the politics of sight. Contemporary Political Theory, 13 (2). Retrieved from: origsite=summon 

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