Category Archives: animals

Rodeo YouTube YouTube Rodeo (on a paper in progress…)


Here’s the outline of a talk Rosemary and I gave at the excellent ‘Decolonizing Cascadia’ conference held recently at UBC Geography (November 16-17, 2012). The words below mostly consists of our attempt to construct the theoretical edifice of the project — e.g. trying to figure out how the online and performance rodeo spaces link up (which we are convinved they do). So, work in progress, with comprehension probable, encouraged, and admired– but not guaranteed!

None of you need to exercise your imaginations much to envision watching a YouTube clip. While the data loads the screen is filled with sponsored ads, suggested viewings, comments, search options, and so on. It starts — an amateur video filmed with a handheld device. A bull bursts out of a chute with a man on its back, hurling through the air, heaving and twisting until the man is thrown into the dirt. Its a video of a rodeo. You move onto another.

Maybe there is an announcer this time, and he knows the riders name, cheers him on, groans when he falls over. The next one is more interesting. It has a bronco bucking a rider in slow-motion, you get to see its leg muscles expand and contract. The clip ends and the space on the screen fills with half a dozen thumbnails of related clips. More bucking clips over here and over there. A broken leg special in that one. Your finger hovers over the track pad… where to go next?

This project wasn’t supposed to be about YouTube. We started out primarily interested in rodeo space and animals’ material and discursive roles in these spaces. We wanted to understand their lives and their histories. But the challenges of the research — unreturned phone calls, unreplied emails and generalized site restrictions — kept bringing us back to the screen. From the beginning we struggled with YouTube as a generative dimension of a rodeo project – and the degree to which it would shape our research. But we decided to create a profile – “parasightful” — to track our YouTube Rodeo viewing, allowing us to make comments on videos. In addition to our early questions — where rodeo animals came from, what they experience, where they are going — we were prompted to consider the analytic of our YouTune lens. Could we use YouTube to construct a narrative and history of animal oppression? Did YouTube change the possibilities of our rodeo narrative? Did this combination of things even make sense?

These combinations were not as divergent or strange as we first thought. Numerous theorists have turned their critical communications, post-Marxist, and cultural studies lenses onto YouTube as a way of engaging with material worlds – Matteo Pasquinelli and Jody Berland. Meanwhile, scholars like Nicole Shukin and James Lorimer have rerouted animal-concerns back to questions of digital representation.

Watching rodeo on Youtube, we were struck by how a vast array of subject identities — cowboy, queer, Western, convict – were all pursuing a particular “human” subjectivity – free, dominant, masterful – by enacting a basic desubjectivization of the animal. No matter how different the human politics were, the debates on the comments pages, or even the adverts the site was offering us, the same patterns of violence and humiliation appeared across cases. The same projection of human subjectivity reflecting back from the body of the abused animal.

Patterns and mirrors were our first clue into the idea that these two spaces — rodeo and YouTube had more in common that might first seem. Armed with work from the fields of critical communications studies and posthuman animal studies, and with dozens of clips in our wake and dozens upon dozens a mouse click away, we are aiming to contribute a methodological approach for research at the burgeoning intersection of these fields. What we’re training this methodology on is the phenomenon of YouTube rodeo. Before we go on, though, let’s take a minute to consider our two principle spaces here: rodeo and YouTube.

The common story told about rodeo is that “ever since humans domesticated animals there’ve been rodeos etc etc etc”. But in fact preliminary research on the history of rodeo makes obvious rodeo’s close ties with colonialism and slavery. In post-civil war Texas, feral cattle needed herders and so cattlemen hired former soldiers, ex-slaves, unemployed drifters, and Mexicans to gather up herds, brand them, and move them north. Cowboys. These cowboys would run informal sports contests for their own amusement. In the later 1800s these informal contests mixed potently with an American outdoor entertainment institution, the Wild West Show. Rodeos – from the Spanish rodear, meaning surrounding or mustering – quickly became a more profitable enterprise than popular “wild west shows”, because spectators paid to watch and competitors paid to compete.

While the institution of rodeo has skyrocketed in popularity, with thousands of rodeos now held worldwide, it has been relatively static over time and space, with most rodeos featuring the same events – calf roping, steer wrestling, and of course bucking events – in a similar arena space featuring grandstands, animal chutes, and dirt floored rings. It is an extremely male-dominated space, with most events prohibiting women’s participation. Audiences are an integral aspect of the rodeo spectacle and performance, and many viewers join in the spectacle vocally and with gestures. Of course, with the advent of YouTube, another layer of viewership is added to the spectacle.

YouTube is probably the hegemonic form of video viewership today. The site has produced new habits of viewership; new means for the dissemination of images, and new opportunities for the formation of community. By 2008, three years after its arrival on the scene, it would have over 140 million videos uploaded to its site. Lev Manovich could have been talking about YouTube when he remarked, in 2002, that “we no longer watch films or TV; we watch databases.” To Manovich and other media theorists, this difference is monumental. The logic of the database is of a collection of heterogenous elements, connected not by progress or development, but simply by co-existence and links. User selection is foregrounded more than ever before: “YouTube implies not only a continually selecting subject,” Jens Schroter writes “but also a subject which should freely express him or herself” in that process.

But unsurprisingly, free selection is not so free. Since its purchase by Google in 2007, YouTube would be fundamentally re-shaped to facilitate its monetization: new ads as portals for consumer spending, recommended videos to extend your attention, shorter clips to keep things in circulation. Not that the site was ideologically innocent before: YouTube has always been supported by algorithms that prioritize certain functions over others. Lo-fi, free circulating videos are created for exchange, not reflection. Most content originates from corportate media. User content largely consists of mimetic play: re-framings, derivations, mashups. User manipulation is valorized at the expense of narrative consistency.

But what does all of this mean for the study of YouTube rodeo?

In 1996, at the dawn of the digital culture act, art critic Hal Foster pondered the implications of this new engagement for the human subject. Website images behave like subjects, he noted, asking for user reactions and actions. In the process, subjects are turned into images, commodified for sale. You are the image and the image is you. Foster recognized in this logic a powerful rheotic device, writing that the “digital archive traces a chiasmus of subject and image.”

We need like to linger over this word chiasmus for a second. A chiasmus is a rhetorical device with origins in Greek Classical writing. MacBeth’s statement “fair is foul and foul is fair” is an example of a chiastic statement. A chiasmus is a dynamically reflective system, whose two sides operate in symmetrical inversion of one another. Note the pattern and mirror qualities here.

…………………………Subject ….. Image

……………………………………… +

…………………………..Image….. Subject

Foster’s concern with chiasmus is with a structure that determines, from behind the scenes, the form and content of human database engagements, engagements which increasingly define human worldly engagements. The fetishism Foster finds in the digital archive — in sites like YouTube — is not only that it obscures productive relations and material conditions, but that it internalizes those confusions increasingly within the subject itself. What Foster calls a “fetishistic anthropomorphism” describes the human subject increasingly locked into chiastic communion with images, images in chiastic communion with the human subject. The digital archive represents the intensification of an anthropocentric myth of divorce from nature — a society of immaterial labour, a society fixated on software and digital communication — on communities of code, and so on.

But the loop for human subjectification is not so easily limited to digital/material space. As spaces like the rodeo attest in their own specular fashion, other lives also constitute the human subject. Like the digital space of Youtube, the rodeo is, we argue, a glaring example of Agamben’s “anthropological machine”: “an optical machine constructed of a series of mirrors in which man, looking at himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features of an ape.” These “mirrors” are built from material-semiotic mechanisms of science and philosophy that strategically create a break between humans and animals – as Haraway says, we “polish an animal mirror to look at ourselves.” Importantly, this break is not “flat” but profoundly hierarchical.

Like the anthropological machine’s optical functioning, forever constructing the human out of the deformed mirrored image of an ape, the rodeo is obsessed with the calibration of the animal body, of momentarily “becoming animal” (as rodeo participants emphasize repeatedly), but through the deployment of physical discipline and control both in the moment and in the wider political-economy within which rodeo animals circulate. The “becoming animal” is simultaneously, then, a performance of “becoming human” by virtue of the animal’s subjugation. In other words, the human subject is produced via the expulsion or exclusion of the abject animal, the nonsubject.

Elizabeth Lawrence’s 1984 recognition that rodeo animals – as living creatures with distinct characteristics – influence the human-animal relationship at the rodeo, and are far from being mere static and passive representations, thus informs our analysis. But we develop her point in a novel direction. Considering rodeo’s emergence in a contemporary (digital, videographic) space – YouTube – we ask: Does YouTube change rodeo or rodeo YouTube? Critically we find that technologies of de/subjectification at work at the rodeo – mirrors and repetition – are also at work in YouTube and its subjectification of the viewer. We focus, then, on the rodeo animal and the YouTube viewer as non-subjects and subjects in formation.

The central contradiction we find in Rodeo YouTube — the reason why it suggests itself as a worthy site for staging our larger questions — is provoked by the images themselves. The mass proliferation of animal rodeo abuses documented on YouTube simultaneously contributes to their visibility as politically oppressed subjects and to their abstraction as digitally-recombinant images. A political space newly opened simultaneously threatens foreclosure. Just as YouTube pushes those images of animal violence “into so much circulating content,” so too do the animals seem to evaporate from our conceptual grasp.

To provoke this contradiction, we again have recourse to this idea of chiasmus.

In particular, attending to the chiastic structure of Rodeo and Youtube, YouTube and rodeo — which is to say, their co-constitution within a larger totality, allows us to take a limitation and make it an opening.

…………………… [chiasmus in narrative form]

In The German Ideology, Karl Marx reveals how chiasmus can serve as a powerful form of dialectical writing. “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura,” Marx writes, “this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.”

Here, chiasmic imagery becomes a privileged figure for the fusing of opposites characteristic of Marx’s thought. For us, chiastic inversion also becomes a dialectical tool. It allows us to expose the anthropological fetishisms of YouTube by showing how that chiastic loop is connected to other material realities. How the subjectifications of human-animal and subject-image are structurally related. Not only can a chiastic structure allow us to enfold YouTube and Rodeo into a conjoined narrative of subjectification, it also allows us to the think about the subjectifications exerted upon us as researchers. To explore how the content of critical thought depends upon its form. This is especially pertinent in our study of YouTube, where to think and write in narrative is a response to the assimilative logic of the database.

To demonstrate this methodology in action, we’re going to show a clip of a bucking rodeo horses and then discuss its implications.

We’ve chosen to explore the buck because its one of the archetypal activities of the rodeo. Many rodeo horses buck because they have been bred up through several generations of horse lines to behave that way. Of the 60 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association stock contractors in the US, 40 operate some type of livestock breeding program. To encourage the animal to buck as hard and effectively as possible, handlers sometimes use a specially designed device known as the flank strap. The horse will buck until the strap is released. Riders in both the saddle bronc and bareback riding can use spurs while riding as well.

As the YouTube clip reveals, the buck showcases the skill of the rider. The buck allows the rider to dominate the animal. Tact, grace and poise work against brute and irrational gesticulation. In truly successful bucking performances, the animal’s ability to shed the human body is temporarily suspended, the human body mimics the animals and masters it simultaneously.

As viewers of this clip wherein animals’ abjection is produced, we too are being produced as subject. Watching this image cascade, a standardization emerges. Each only as grotesque as the last, reduces in effect. The repetition dulls the differences. This disciplining process evident over and over again in this clip exerts tangible effects on the animal itself: pain, brokenness, death.

In a similar vein as the repetitiveness of the clip, the same animals are required to perform the same events over and over again, until death or injury that usually leads to euthanization. Animal humane societies are generally unable to track the injuries and deaths of “practice animals”, but injuries and deaths at live events are frequent. At the Calgary Stampede alone in 2010, six horses died from injury and euthanization, heart attack, and unknown causes. It is our contention that rodeo is a site of animals’ ongoing production as abject, as nonsubjects, as killable.

Conclusion [sketchy here]


As we have tried to show in this outline of our project, thinking beyond the anthropogenic fetishisms of database means questioning the anthropos itself. This suggests a powerful reason for bringing these seemingly distant spaces of Rodeo and YouTube together.

Emphasizing chiastic thought, meanwhile, suggests that the rodeo space is not the same thing after its mediation by YouTube. Its suggests that mirroring is not innocent, but that repetition always occurs with a difference, one felt not only on the human subject internalizing the fetish of the screen, but on the life of the animal borne to repeated acts of violences as well.


… some photos from the water-world of my summer internship: Cetacea Lab. The North King Lodge boat is from James. Enjoy!

Panoptic Boredom/Suffering Science

Last week, I found myself sitting in front of Cetacea Lab’s spectacular observation window staring at absolutely nothing for several days straight. A heavy front had rolled in and settled across Taylor Bight; even the island less than half a kilometer away was cloaked. One never knows with cetaceans, so we were doing whale scans nevertheless: left to right; front to middle; middle to back. Creatures to locate, identify and mark down on a sheet. As the hours passed one shift, my thoughts drifted from the chair where my body sat. Somewhere out in the fog, I had repositioned myself to face the observer, his tireless red eye gazing from the Tower of Taylor Bight. As the vision-cone came sweeping by, I lowered my dorsal fin and quietly sank into the bubbles.

One of the hardest things about doing science, as I’ve come to know it, is in confronting that strange dialectic between boredom and curiosity. How to pair the scanning, counting, and data crunching that confines our thought with the mental openness necessary to cultivate liberatory interspecies relationships? I’ve coined a term for the condition I sometimes find myself in with the scan work: panoptic boredom. It emerges in that flattening state of specular repetition – a psychic and bodily indigestion which is also a hunger for more visuals to gnaw away at. I’d like to advance the idea that panoptic boredom operates as an extreme foreshadowing of Facebook. Both produce boredom effects by a similar set of imperatives structuring the relation between observer and observed: Looking rates that make possible the surveilling of multiple identities instead of individuals; looking-rules that train the eye to gravitate towards known-in-advance information coordinates; embodied looking-roles that mediate the observer’s position with an interface – a window or a screen.

To feel boredom of any sort presupposes many sorts of privileges. To occupy the panoptic position suggests power. I’m not trying to bemoan the drudgeries of information work or disavow its responsibilities. But as a critical geographer doing whale science, I am beginning to rethink the politics of discipline – all too easily a shock word for me and many of my colleagues. Dedicated scientists who ‘look out’ for animals must pass through panoptic boredom and all its condition forms of neglect, distraction, and imaginative fancy. We need disciplining strategies to perform the identifications necessary to provide space for our companion species, and that means strategies that respect their dramatic ‘nonidentity’ as well – Theodore Adorno’s word for the preponderant ‘thing’ which necessary overcomes its own conceptualization. In their panoptic spatial disciplining, I wonder if critical scientists aren’t in fact performing a kind of suffering – foregoing the depth of their interspecies encounter so that others may find fullness. As scientific activity, panoptic boredom is a like a sigh marking the absence of that feature we should never lose sight of: scientific curiosity.

Economies of Exchange: Fish vs. Gold

Thank you for the Artemia blog welcome. In previous posts topics have included whale music, flesh-eating beetles, the animal rendering facility in east Vancouver, aliens, tattoos, commodities, etc.  Sticking with the animal theme, this post is about fish.  Southwest of Williams Lake in British Columbia’s interior Teztan Biny or Fish Lake has received important media coverage over the last few years because of the (re)proposed Prosperity gold-copper mine.  The Tsilhqot’in Nation has expressed continued concern with the proposed mine, including opposition associated with the initial, rejected environmental impact assessment.

This initial rejected proposal included a plan to drain Fish Lake, which involved the mining company’s congruent plan to relocate the fish from the Lake.  Though in 2010 the federal environmental review did not deem the mine environmentally sound, the company continues to pursue the project and has submitted a ‘new’ environmental impact assessment.  The Tsilhqot’in Nation expresses continued concerns over the proposed mine, including inadequate consultation efforts.

Getting back to the blog themes, Artemia is in some ways about the economies of life, like the lives of the fish in Fish Lake that managed to avoid relocation through the initial federal environmental review process.  Artemia’s theme of the economies of life, however, seems equally about the economies of death.  Not to be morbid here, but previous blog references to the movie Alien and flesh eating beetles could be read as the economies of a lack of existence/life as opposed to the economies of life/existence.  In other words, one of the Artemia’s themes (the economies of life) extends beyond ‘life’ and is also about threats to life.  To the economies of life, encounters that question the life/death, existence/non-existence dichotomy are central.  Are the economies of life as much about lives avoiding death? Like the relocation of fish, and the threat to aqua livelihoods in Fish Lake?

In relation to the proposed gold-copper mine, the fish in Fish Lake have avoided relocation, but have not avoided being referred to as a moveable living subject directly related to the economies of gold exchange.  This proposed exchange was based on the insignificance of the fish in Fish Lake relative to the potential ‘prosperity’ that could be attained through gold-copper extraction.  These moments and economies of exchange could be read as the economies of life, economies of avoiding death or perhaps the very economies of existence.

The Misanthrope’s Guide to Wildlife Rehabilitation

Misanthropes like fieldtrips too. But beautiful paintings and concert piano will only upset the misanthrope. And the only exhibit at Science World of interest to the misanthrope is Body Worlds.* Maybe.

Go fish

Good news! The misanthrope will feel immediately at home at the wildlife rehabilitation centre. Not only will the wildlife centre offer respite from the city’s overwhelming anthropocentrism, but also its ethos will appeal greatly to the misanthrope. Deep satisfaction will be derived from wildlife rehab’s guiding policy regarding the inversely proportional relationship between animal contact with humans and animal survival: to maximize the chance of animal survival, the misanthrope will be delighted to know, the animal must minimize encounters with human beings.

Sarah the Barn Owl, O.W.L Rehabilitation Centre, Ladner, BC

For this reason, the misanthrope will only have access to the portion of the rehab centre that is open to visitors, which includes those animals deemed “non-releasable” (beyond repair) and therefore confined to captivity until death. Off limits to the misanthrope will be the cages of animals being rehabilitated for eventual return to the wild. Many animals are brought to the centre injured or ill, and are nursed back to health. Other animals have become “habituated” to humans (as pets) and their anthropomorphisms need to be undone lest they be released and wander straight into the arms of another human, which is to say, according to rehab ethos, back into captivity or even to death.

Undoing “humanization” can take years and usually involves instilling in animals fear and dislike of humans. This is accomplished by deploying misanthropic technologies, like shooting fireworks near the animals, exposing them to electric fences, or spraying them with water if they come too close to a human, for example giving a volunteer caretaker a wedgie.

Stevie, a juvenile spider monkey at ARCAS Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (Guatemala), just sprayed for giving a volunteer a wedgie


The misanthrope may also have the opportunity to conduct an educational tour of the centre, where s/he may encounter pleasing signs and exhibits confirming the misanthrope’s deep distrust and dislike of humankind.It is recommended that the misanthrope bring along a camera to capture the effect of the most gratifying of these signs: a mirror image of the misanthrope reflected beside a sign declaring who is responsible for the extinction of animals, or who is the most foolish and destructive species. The misanthrope will revel in such unrestrained declarations of humankind’s barbarism.

A misanthrope at ZOOMAT, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico

The misanthrope will leave the wildlife rehabilitation centre refreshed and rejuvenated, reassured of his/her disdain for the human species, and maybe enjoying an unfamiliar sensation of affinity with other beings, these solitary, captive creatures. For what good misanthrope would not believe Aristotle, who said that a misanthrope is not a human at all but must be a beast (or a god, but we won’t open that can of humans…).

*Body Worlds: another necro-economy for sure! Its creator, German “celebrity anatomist” (a rare achievement, I’m sure!) Gunther von Hagens, and exhibitors have been accused of being “body snatchers” who deprive the medical community of organs for donation with their “dead body porn“. Harsh. Sounds like the makings for another ARTEMIA post… Foreshadowing!

Life m/eats death in a flesh-eating beetle colony

While visiting the University of Wisconsin – Madison, two days ago

UW’s Zoological Museum curator handed me a large box and disappeared behind a hobbit-like door leading into the side of a grassy hill leading up to one of the campus’s buildings. I peered into the box: a mangle of delicate swan bones covered in dried pinky-red flesh. I might have dropped it if it wasn’t so feather-light. We – a group of grad students, artists, poets, and professors gathered for the Taking Animals Apart conference – had just spent an hour checking out the museum’s collection of specimens: articulated and disarticulated skeletons, shelves lined with jars of preserved animals, and taxidermied mounts and full animal bodies. Noteworthy specimens: a giant beaver skull (like below) found just a few miles from the university campus in a peat bog, and a drawer full of stuffed passenger pigeons lying tidily side by side on a large pillow.

How long do you think before Harper makes this "old" beaver Canada's new amped up national symbol?


When the curator returned we followed her into the dimly lit, narrow, low ceilinged corridor. The air became increasingly steamy and hot, the walls dripping with condensation, as we snaked out way underground. With a flourish the curator opened a second door and we entered a small cavern thick with steam: the university’s private dermestid beetle colony. Or, flesh-eating beetles.

Cutaway view of the "Old Met Lab" from 1877 – home to the flesh eating beetle colony since 1950

Spotting two hefty scurrying bugs I exclaimed: “they’ve escaped!” Thankfully only the nearest person to me heard, and corrected me: “uh, those are cockroaches”. Oops (thanks, rural upbringing!). The beetles are much smaller than cockroaches, and filled several raised stainless steel tanks the size of large trunks. Lifting the lid, the curator placed the swan bones in one container and misted the container with water. Within a few days, she explained, the bones would be picked spotlessly clean by the beetles so that only minor prep is needed before the bones can be catalogued into the museum’s research collections.

Ring-tailed lemur being prepared at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna

Dermestid colonies are still used extensively by museum like the UW’s (and by taxidermists). It was hard to reconcile the clinical, sterile, and meticulously organized collection of unblemished, labeled organisms in the museum’s collection with the dank, feral world of the underground flesh-eating beetle colony. A lot of work goes into maintaining the beetles as a living colony that transforms messy remains of death into bones stripped clean and ready to be placed into taxonomically categorized drawers. Both of these worlds – the underground beetle colony and the floors of cabinets full of specimens – gave whole new meaning to Roland Barthes’s comment that “all classifications are oppressive.” I was reminded also of how “taking animals apart” often occurs in a largely hidden space using messy practices, like butchering meat or milking dairy cows. The end product is clean, largely divested of the blood, feces, sweat and bugs that formed it. Our general collective ignorance of these processes is in some ways a classic form of commodity fetishism, wherein the commodity is treated like “it has a life of its own” (as Marx famously remarked) rather than as a social product created through multiple  (and usually highly unequal) relations and processes. But animals that are taken apart do or did have lives of their own, bringing a whole new set of ethical and political questions to the fore, and reminding us that life, too, can be doubly erased by the end product of taking animals apart.


Give the Whale Some?

What sort of songwriting credit did the whale get? It’s a legit question for a good hundred or so albums released in the 1970s. Ceta-voices feature centrally in the classical composer Alan Hovhaness’ “And God Created Great Whales” (1970); they duet in Paul Horn’s smooth jazz classic Paul Horn and Haida (1974); they playfully intersperse throughout Fifth Beatle George Martin’s nature rich Icarus (1972). Ceta-sounds describe a whole sampling blitzkrieg for pop singers (Joan Collins), hard rockers (Jethro Tull); classical composers (Toru Takamitsu), and jazzmen (Paul Winter).  The Seventies was the decade of ceta-song, and its motherlode was Songs of the Humpback Whale (1970) the instructively titled album of recordings that got nominated for a Grammy 1970 and remains the highest selling nature album ever made. Spectrographic analysis had led the recording team of Roger Payne and Scott McVay to conclude that the patterns of squeaks and mumbles had a songlike structure.  While some reviewers were clearly confused by the deep groans and plaintive squeaks —  “music that might have come from the throat of a 40 ton canary to the rumble of a stupendous Model T with a crack muffler” said one — good ol’ Rolling Stone got it nailed: “This is a good record, dig?… Its especially good for late at night and peaceful, together moments. It stretches your mind to encompass alien art forms.”

The motherlode: "Songs of the Humpback Whale" (1970)

As Jon Carroll’s words suggest, much of this whale-sampled music is best understood under the trope of New Age, as part of a ferment that included Joan Ocean’s Dolphins into the Future, with its Hawaiian ‘pod’ sociology and its theory of “sound holography” (cetacean communication); Joan McIntyre’s anthology Mind in the Waters, with its voluptuous descriptions of interspecies encounters; and John Lilly’s The Mind of the Dolphin, which sought to develop the insights of dolphin research for extra-terrestrial communication. I’ve been going through the music archive as part of a larger research project about whales and the BC coast. Not such much the big name stuff, but the cottage industry that followed it: the cassettes and blank CDRs that still fill meditation room closets. Subliminal messages, echoes, trance chords, synths, voices from the deep – its all in the grammar of New Age whale music.

Vibe man Dane Spotts released "Ultra Mediation IV: Cetacean Mind Link" in 1984.

My early conclusion from listening? Truly, its about the vibes. Grasping the “vibe” is almost like doing everything but listen for the signal. Grasping the “vibe” is about becoming conscious of the conditioning exchanges between self and environment given through the vibratory media. “Vibes” collapse subject-object distinctions, they render consciousness infrastructural to an entire social sensorium.  This is what makes them great for socializing behaviors: ceta-sounds enable your Downward Dog to happen, they let those minutes fly off the waiting room clock and get you to let go and enjoy that rub. Sometimes the whale calls are just too wild, too interesting — they make you pay attention–  but most of the time the drones and the compressed synths just get you easy. My current favorite is Dane Spott’s 1984 tape Ultra Mediation IV- Cetacean Mind Link. “Words can hardly describe the experience, it was like taking a two-week vacation in 28 minutes!” Words from Dane Spotts himself, a man who clearly got the vibe he was transmitting.

Yes! From the music video "Don't Kill the Whales" (1978)

New Age whale music was more than a few bottled mating calls, it was a whole freaky style. The painful lyrics of the terrible Yes! music video are worth the price of admission alone, but substitute the splashy slo-mo breach of a humpback’s fluke with a pair of boobs and the “cetaesthetic” suddenly describes another cultural logic.  A sizable chunk of New Age suggests close cousinhood with the equally-ocean obsessed “bikini-core” industry that flourished on the West Coast in the early 80s.  In both cases, good feelings, energy, and the mythos of the body grace drive hedonistic, cosmetic, and objectifying impulses to feel real goodRebecca Solnit has found parallel logics in the waterfalls of great American landscape photographers and the centerfolds of Playboy magazines. The ‘whale porn’ stretch isn’t a hard one to make… “There goes a narwhal Here comes a bikini whale!” sang the B-52s in 1979.

New Age’s DIY capitalism would be subsumed within the mainstream music industry by the late 1980s, but the pre-botox, post-modern sounds of its Seventies heyday are still very much alive. Meditation products combining whale song and mantras are easily found online.  “Children’s whale music” promising better behavior and quicker to-bed times get reviewed in Science Journals. Meanwhile, as Simon Reynolds notes in his 2011 book, Retromania, a whole ‘New New Age’ of experimental musicians have begun to champion the cosmic loops and melodies of the 80s-processesed whale voices. James Ferraro, White Rainbow, Onenhetrix Point Never, Stellar Om Source, Emeralds, Ossining, and Grouper are just a few of the more prominent names. No doubt in parallel reaction to the digitization of the musical commodity, this movement covets the informal exchange of mix tapes, with their warm analogue hiss and decay; the earnest mantras about mindfulness. The semi-undergroundedness of the scene is easily observed online, in the rich blogger culture that combines the new stuff with the ‘Old New Age’ iconography of rainbows, dream vessels, mandalas, and cetaceans.

Perhaps the most pertinent theme the recent stuff makes clear (if only cynically)  is how much New Age really encourages its instrumentalities to shine through: the very spirit of the genre, Douglas McGowan has observed, lies in entrepreneurialism. Alongside their sounds, many of the early New Age practitioners were selling a whole spiritual home-brew: personal messages, suggested postures, breathing programs, massage products etc. A big problem with the employment animal-sounds and all their supposed renderings of Gaia-conscious guilt, then, is how eagerly they exploit a general economy of stress.  New Age sounds and whale-song tapes sooth the city-dweller with a dose of ersatz tranquility. Meanwhile, the rise in boat traffic brought upon increasingly cute-ified, discovery tour-watched, hydrophone mic’ed ocean mammals has introduced a new problematic of ambient noise into their already precarious environments. The resultant stress has become a big problem.

Some of the early recorders clearly had loftier ambitions in mind when they advocated that ‘society’ take seriously the song of the whales. “We have learned,” Roger Payne said upon the release of Songs of the Humpback Whales, “that all men are created equal, but the whales remind us that all species are created equal—that every organism on earth, whether large or small, has an inalienable right to life.” But the welfare of the animal singers is totally unquestioned throughout the vast majority of the New Age hullabaloo (old or new). Sure, there’s environmentalized-concern, there’s good vibes, but what about “Who was that I was listening to? Are they still in captivity today?” “Did they benefit in the slightest from this sharing of their voice?” Not so much.  The US Marine Mammal Protection Act (1973) and Greenpeace (1975) may have slowed the whaling, but the sonic thievery has continued unabated.

Thoreau: “Can he who has discovered only the values of the whale bone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale?” Fortunately for Thoreau’s unoiled skin and brittle bones, it would be another 100 years before they got going on spiritual massage.

“Rendering is recycling”

As the weather warms I’m reminded of one of the defining olfactory features of parts of summertime Vancouver. My first whiff of it was after moving into an apartment in Hastings-Sunrise, on a new bus route. It was July, in the thick of a stretch of unusually hot summer weather that descended on Vancouver like a heavy thermal blanket. The first couple rank bus rides I assumed garbage had been left out, eaten by a raccoon, and then rejected onto the pavement half-digested to rot in the sun. Visually, my new bus route showcased some of Vancouver’s busiest industrial zones, strung along the Burrard inlet, but around Commercial Drive and Powell Street bus riders’ faces disappeared behind sleeves, or in t-shirts. The smell was unbearable.

Google knew what it was: boiled animal by-products.

West Coast Reduction is one of North America’s largest animal rendering facilities.

I had moved in 100 meters from one of North America’s largest animal rendering facilities. Across Canada, renderers recycle approximately two hundred and fifty thousand tonnes of animal by-products each year. Each week, West Coast Reduction renders more than 10,000 tonnes of beef, pork, poultry and fish by-products, the volume of which is enough to fill 1,000 trucks each week. Their protein meals are shipped worldwide. Fats and oils produced at West Coast Reduction’s other plants arrive via insulated rail tankers at its bulk storage terminal in Vancouver, where they are pumped through underground lines to designated storage tanks before loading and shipping. West Coast Reduction also operates a commercial tank farm with a storage capacity of over 83,000 metric tonnes.

I don’t know what a protein meal is but it sure sounds delicious.

On the very bus rides through air laden with rogue particles of boiled animal remains, I was reading a book called Animal Capital, in which Nicole Shukin mobilises the double-entendre of ‘rendering’: to copy, mimic, or create a representation; and to boil down animal remains. She finds that rendering’s two meanings are an apt lens through which to approach historical and contemporary complicity between what she calls “the arts” and “industry”, the literal and the figurative, meaning and matter, culture and economy, and discourses and technology, in the realm of animal capital. The economic and the symbolic capital of animals, she writes, can no longer be approached as distinct. Even more critically, the material violence of rendering – both meme and matter – is born most heavily by animal lives.

I stayed a year in the apartment. When the wind was just right, the warm, rendered air would waft in through the patio doors and open windows and fill the apartment with its sweet necro-economic stench. Kick back with a beer, put another protein meal on the stove, and you’ve got yourself a pretty nice little Friday evening.