Affective Activism in the Empire State: Racing Against Extinction in the Holocene Epoch
By, Jack Dionne, MA Candidate of Communication at Syracuse University
On September 20, 2014, the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) screened a multi-sensory film on the exterior walls of the United Nations Headquarters (UNH). Billed as illUmiNations: Protecting Our Planet (Illuminations), the film sought to cultivate an ecologically conscious constituency primed to demand climate action from world leaders attending the U. N. Climate Summit. Rather than simply telling audiences about the impacts of industrial society on environments and animals1, the OPS used optical and auditory persuasion to communicate its message. For three hours, the OPS projected images of environmental collapse and endangered species on the walls of the UNH in conjunction with text and music. In this essay, I examine the OPS’s audiovisual rhetoric in Illuminations and demonstrate how sensory persuasion can help deconstruct the “/” between “human” and “animal” in the human/animal dualism. As an outcome of this analysis, I answer the following two questions: (1) how can the OPS’s audiovisual rhetoric help scholars further understand nonhuman animals as persuasive agents, and (2) how can the OPS’s audiovisual rhetoric help rights activists better generate an empathetic unsettlement in audiences and thus motivate action? In all, I conclude that rights organizations must not approach dignity from the point of view of humans or other animals, as in the case of human rights or animal rights. Rather, rights organizations should err in favor of humanimal rights, or the rhetorical blending of human and animal into one distinct category. Additionally, I find that an affective multi-sensory rhetoric reminds humans of their ontological animality by approaching persuasion from an internaturally shared location: the body. On the whole, the OPS’s audiovisual rhetoric helps erase the “/” between human/animal through both temporal and spacial elements. Illuminations operates as a form of audiovisual witnessing of testimony. These projections—albeit a construct of human language—force audiences to come in contact with their socially constructed position of privilege on the left side of the dualism. In an even more radical move, the OPS’s audiovisual rhetoric even further deconstructs categorization by not only flipping the civilization/nature dualism, but also introducing audiences to a new dualism: macroanimal/microanimal. The microanimal, which only can be viewed by humans through technological aid, stands in as a metaphor for sight’s authorization of truth. The OPS meets audiences with these often unrecognizable microanimals and demonstrates that human senses cannot effectively understand the world. In Illuminations, the OPS’s audiovisual rhetoric informs audiences through sight and sound, sensory functions, of the complex, chaotic, and aesthetically-rich world upon which humans cohabitate with other animals. Truly, the OPS’s audiovisual rhetoric of humanimal rights plays with sight and sound as a way to both show audiences what they might not see or hear in everyday life—species loss and CO2 emissions—while simultaneously blurring the distinction between “human” and “animal” in favor humanimality.
Jake Dionne is a graduate student in the Department of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University. Situated in internatural communication, he researches animal rhetoric with an emphasis on mediating the violent human relationship to other animals. Additionally, he often imports findings from other fields such as queer theory and trauma studies. He has delivered more than a dozen conference presentations and has a peer-reviewed publication detailing how filmmakers can better address the divide between civilization and nature. He is currently working on his thesis, which will discuss the rhetoric of extinction found at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In his free time, he enjoys running and cooking vegan meals with his partner.