Sunday, September 23, 2012

elegy for an albatross

A juvenile albatross desiccate on sand, feathers cupping the fist of flotsam that starved it. As the biosphere melts down and species disappear forever, Chris Jordan documents the real appearance-forms of accumulation. On Midway Atoll (Pihemanu Kauihelani in Hawaiian), in the middle of the North Pacific, he photographed the carcasses of albatrosses killed by plastic. These are hard images, documents of barbarism in Benjamin’s sense: alarms that call us to awake.

This archive, which Jordan subtitles Message from the Gyre, is a lesson in dialectics. In a forensic sense, these images are evidence of a deadly process: capitalist modernity interacting with and transforming ‘nature’. In the commodity, capital animates and inspirits dead things with living relations: they are made to move and dance and flow on a global scale. Here, in these images, we can see in a flash the terrible, indifferent truth of this social process: accumulation, our master, grows within life like an incubus. The commodity – or its traces and refuse – acquires its life at the expense of life, a process that ends in the starvation of living things and the slow disappearance of life-forms. Modernity has launched a new mass extinction event, which now, steadily, comes into view.

The plague of plastic now reaches everywhere. Last year, off Akamas, in the northwest corner of Cyprus, a drifting gyre of plastic soup came close to shore. With a mask or goggles, you could see that the first half-meter below the sea’s surface is full of small plastic fragments, from tiny colored crumbs to finger-sized translucent shreds. Many, hanging suspended in the sunlit water, look uncannily like plankton, marine eggs or jellyfish. Having seen that, it’s no surprise to learn that fish, seabirds, turtles and marine mammals are filling their stomachs with plastic. On some parts of the shore, the sand and pebbles are filling in with pastel grains of plastic. 

Albatrosses are surface feeders. After sighting their prey – squid, cuttlefish, jellyfish, small fish and fish eggs, crustacea and offal – they land on the water and catch it while floating or swimming. Once they leave the nest, young albatrosses go to sea and must teach themselves how to do this. If they survive, they won’t touch land again for a year.

Nine hundred miles north of Honolulu, Laysan (Kauo in Hawaiian) is a tiny remote island also, like Midway, in the leeward chain. Albatrosses gather there to breed and nest. Along with real food, the parent birds are bringing plastic flotsam back to the nests and feeding it to their chicks. Carcasses of starved nestlings include bottle caps, fishing lures, cigarette lighters, even golf balls, among accumulations of smaller fragments of plastic. One study found that 97.5 % of chicks had plastic in their stomachs. Four in ten starve of it on the nest.

Contents of one Laysan albatross carcass

The indifference with which these animals suffer and starve to death is obscene, and reflects the indifference of capital accumulation, the sheer, impersonal power of social forces and dynamics. Yes, we can and should bring our own cotton bags to the grocery store or farmers market. But we know this is merely a gesture, a placebo to assuage us in the awareness of our own entanglement in a vast and global process. It is the master logic of that process itself that we need to confront, restrain, resist, transform and escape. No easy order. It begins, probably, only when we confront our own addictive enjoyments and, perhaps, our repressed sorrow for the damage and violence we unconsciously know we are involved in.

These sentences are cold commentary. In truth these images of ecocide call for warm-blooded grieving. These birds, we know, are but the visible tip of a process that mostly unfolds beyond our view or awareness. But we know, too, our shared complicity with the secret. Although we collectively killed them, these living beings died slow agonizing deaths without our respect, attention or concern. That, surely, is our ethical failing. How can we begin to take responsibility for that? How to express the wound we ourselves should feel in the face of this ongoing loss? What kind of singing or keening, in place of words such as these, would unlock the plastic blockage in our hearts? When the last albatross starves, how will we mourn it? With miming and rhyming, another poem?

The tightening plight, the endgames of art, the awful indictment of the ‘after’: the need to change what so far has been unchangeable. In a continuum of disastrous domination, the need for a ‘real state of exception’.
Helplessness is a headlock to be slipped. Practices in the wrack: lines of flight, struggles, solidarities. For the human and nonhuman alike: respect, concern, compassion. Productive mourning: to build and plant and tend, now, against the flow. To render care. Rescue, refuge, sanctuary: these are passwords of the day.


 Wandering albatrosses, South Georgia Island. Photos: Frans Lanting

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