Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Regulating Abjection: Disgust, Tolerance, and the Politics of the Cove

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Regulating Abjection: Disgust, Tolerance, and the Politics of the Cove

Article excerpt

THIS SCENE REPRESENTS the object, climax, and narrative heart of The Cove, a 2009 academy-award-winning documentary made to expose the annual dolphin hunt and slaughter in the fishing village of Taiji, Japan. My florid language attempts to verbally translate director Louie Psihoyos's framing of the hunt as dramatic and disgusting, to raise questions about what happens when we publicly perform feelings of disgust. The Cove is a useful text through which to think about these questions: a kind of ecothriller, it includes disgusting footage of the dolphin killing, but it also narrates the desperation and daring with which its team acquired that footage and models responses to witnessing it. The filmmaker-activists' certainty that visceral images are necessary to their cause raises questions about how the provocation of certain emotions functions as a political tactic. The Cove exemplifies the use of affective politics as it seeks to convene and mobilize a global community through extralegal, emotional means. At the heart of the film's strategy is the use of disgust to prove, via viewers' bodily responses, that dolphins and viewers share a common community and that the slaughter of dolphins is therefore intolerable. In many ways, the film's use of this tactic is a problem, as it allows--perhaps even encourages--negative affects to move beyond their original objects, galvanizing racist and potentially violent extralegal responses to the hunt. However, in the years since the film's release, changed responses to the hunt within and outside of Japan suggest that the tactic may have had positive effects; the example of The Cove does not preclude the possibility that disgust can be a progressive political device.

Animal bodies have become increasingly important to considerations of affect, kinship, and ethics in the global context. As with others with whom we share little to no language, but who nevertheless provoke strong feelings, they are vehicles and signs of affective relationships. Animal bodies are frequently sites for the contestation of power, whether they represent threatening, desirable, or vulnerable populations to be managed. As they exceed national boundaries, animals are potent signifiers for circulation and redefined intimacies. At the same time, the uses to which animals are put remain markers of inclusion and exclusion: relationships with animals are part of the definitions of nationality, economic status, ethnicity, morality, and levels of civilization and civility. Analyzing The Cove shows animals to be vehicles for globalization, even as they are particularly vulnerable to its effects. Such a critique brings to light the ways in which the production of animal bodies--visually, affectively, politically, and above all viscerally--operates within a global constellation of labour, race, and economics. The global animal, as an overdetermined yet powerful figure, should be understood as one of the fundamental categories of contemporary capital and politics.

In what follows, I outline recent theories of tolerance in order to describe one of the main discursive spaces in which emotions supplement, or supplant, traditional politics. I review affect theory centred on disgust to investigate how and why that feeling so strongly influences tolerance, and, in the case of The Cove, provokes intolerance. Examining the film's strategies for turning global tolerance of Japanese cetacean fishing into intolerance, I critique the film's construction of a global civil community that includes dolphins but excludes Japanese fishermen. (1) After considering recent ethical debate about performing disgust for political ends, I look at the film's reception to think about why disgust might be acceptable or desirable despite its riskiness.

The Tolerant and the Tolerable

While contemporary Western political structures rely for validity on claims to rationality, logical public debate, and reasoned principles, we commonly consider emotions to be private, potentially irrational, and, in some sense, extralegal: the law regulates the expression of emotions but not emotions themselves. …

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