As mentioned in the news report, the woman who jumped into the bear infested waters was probably looking for "Knut", who lives at the Berlin Zoo, and is known as "the world's most famous Polar Bear."
Knut's fame is the result of his being the first Polar Bear raised successfully in captivity. His image, especially as a cub, captivated Germany. He was the subject of pop songs, appeared on the cover of German Vanity Fair, and there were postage stamps featuring his picture.
Perhaps lulled by the illusion of all these warm and cuddly images, the woman in the video thought it would be safe to try meeting Knut in person. She was said to be full of joy and laughter as she dove in to take her risky swim.
When Animals Stop Being Polite and Start Being Real
What struck me about this video was not so much its freaky as its stereotypical quality. Over the past decade or so, a new genre has developed along side of the "domesticated wild" that we see in so much television and film.
You can summarize the tale this other genre tells in a single line: "I thought it was tame, but then it bit me."
This story, no matter how often it is retold, asserts a mesmerizing power. Think of the air time devoted to the tiger attack on Roy (of Siegfried and Roy). Or the almost ghoulish obsession people had with the story of the supposedly tame chimp that disfigured Charla Nash. The genre has even produced its own masterpiece: Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.
There is an entire TV series of documentaries recording this phenomenon: Untamed and Uncut: Animal Planet. Among the videos on the website for the show right now, you'll find a person attacked by a leopard that was raised by humans; a snake handler bit by one of his cobras; and my personal favorite: "Kangaroo Goes Berserk", starring "Killer Willard", whose script begins like this:
“It’s shocking live TV – an out-of-control kangaroo turns on both of his handlers. It’s an all-out attack by a powerful animal that can kill with one kick.”Heidegger and the Kangaroo
Such videos offer a kind of "reality TV" contrast to the over-produced animal cuteness that's caught my attention for the last few posts. Wondering about the appeal of these wilder versions of Nature, I thought again of Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology."
As I touched on in the last post, in this lecture the philosopher argues that our current use of technology encourages a hyper-utilitarian way of thinking. It's as if all that matters is that which can be proven useful for some end other than itself. This not only threatens Nature, but humanity: once people have "served their purpose" they tend to be ignored or eliminated. (And if marked as "undesirable" for the "uses" of a species, an infinitely worse fate awaits them -- as in the early Heidegger's Germany.)
Yet, rather than causing us concern, this state of affairs, according to Heidegger, results in a sort of pompous over-confidence. As he puts it:
"Meanwhile, man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself and postures as lord of the earth. In this way the illusion comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct. This illusion in turn gives rise to one final delusion: it seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself." (p. 332)
I wonder if, on an aesthetic level alone, we simply get bored with what such an orientation produces. If the way we represent Nature often merely reflects back our love for ourselves -- perhaps the monotony of our imagery becomes intolerable.
These animal attack videos at least beak the narcissistic mirror for a brief moment with the "shocking truth" that there is actually something Other than ourselves out there. In keeping with this, perhaps Untamed and Uncut should revise its website tagline from "Surprisingly Human" to "Surprisingly Non-human."
The attack videos might also be read as ecological parables. In the form of the once-confident animal handlers, we see the image of people as "lords of the earth." In the sudden, almost "out-of-the-blue" animal aggression, the earth answers back -- cutting its supposed "masters" down to size. Nature almost seems to be saying: "take me for granted at your own peril."
In this light, as goofy and as exploitative as they are, perhaps these videos of "animal revolt" grip us as morality tales. Translated into an absurd, populist argot, they're likely as close as we're going to get to creating our own version of Aesop's Fables.