The Captive Citizen

The Captive Citizen

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Post-colonial theory has an extensive dialogue to consider and debate; however the question of whether and how non-human animals should be included in this dialogue is severely neglected.  Post-colonial theory considers the way that the citizen is shaped by the fallout of the colonial era and looks to give a voice to those silenced through colonization. Without a dialogue inclusive of other animals, though, this reinforces a dominant Western discourse that places other animals as an inferior dichotomous half of the human animal.  However, post-colonial theory can be modified to empower and give a voice to other animals too; this will be shown through an analysis of the documentary Blackfish (2013), which we will use to recognize the importance of place, body, and a common animality to the understanding of citizenship. This paper argues that without the inclusion of other animals in how we interpret the citizen and colonization, our understanding will be inherently filled with gaps as the intersectional components of violence, oppression, and colonization do not exist only in the human construct of social reality, but are constantly realized in the invasion, discrimination, and enslavement of non-human animals.

In 1983 off the east coast of Iceland, a wild orca whale to be named Tilikum was taken captive to be put to slave labour in the non-human animal entertainment industry.  Tilikum would arrive first at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, B.C. where he would kill one of his trainers before being shipped to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida where he would go on to kill two more people; the life of Tilikum and these events is the premise of the documentary BlackfishBlackfish exposes the psychological trauma done to Tilikum throughout his life in captivity and proposes that this led to his killing of three people; there is no documented killing of humans by orca’s in the wild.  It also exposes the industry and politics behind keeping wildlife in captivity for the purposes of entertainment, and the propaganda used by corporations such as SeaWorld to show orcas as benefitting from captivity through an extended lifespan and safety, both of which are shown in the film to be false.

Post-colonial theory uses the subjective experiences of both the colonizers and colonized, usually in the context of the expansion of Western societies into non-Western to explore the relations of power that have come to define contemporary global politics.  At a more basic level, though, post-colonial theory asks us to consider the perspective of the “other,” that may not be expressed in the dominant Western discourse.  This paper will extend the concept of “other” to those most commonly excluded within its boundaries, “other animals.” Because post-colonial theory is rooted in the texts of the colonized and colonizer, and their own language about their experience, it is necessary in this instance to adapt the framework to recognize the language of the animal body as a form of expressiveness through the medium of the documentary.  Furthermore, post-colonial theory emphasizes the manifestation of a dichotomous relationship between the two powers; the Western world which believes it is “superior” dependent upon the non-Western being represented as ‘inferior.” What will be shown is that in the case of the human/ non-human animal dichotomy this couldn’t be more true.

Colonialism can be thought of as captivity in terms of both human and other animals.  It is captivity because conquests are made and people are brought into the boundaries designed by their conquerors and given only determinate opportunities to transcend them. While we may talk of post-colonialism as an analysis of the consequences of colonialism in a bygone era, it is present and relevant to the lives of non-human animals predominantly as a continued invasion of lands, oceans, and lives that were never given up by consent or negotiation.  In Blackfish we witness the literal encapsulation of Tilikum and the transferring of him to a place where he can be contained as an involuntarily colonized citizen. Post-colonial theory allows us to understand, through the context of captivity, the gaps that have developed along with the notion of the citizen related to non-human animals through the invasion of their territory and lives

Place is pivotal to consider in the analysis of this event; non-human animals are not included in citizenship by their place of birth, because upon birth they are given an economic value, rather than intrinsic, and thus become property.  In Blackfish, Tilikum was denied attachment to place by his being globally situated without a colonizing master or boundaries, and thus given no citizenship consideration.  Yet, upon being enslaved he was given a property value, a place to exist as property for human entertainment.  As we see in Blackfish it is in a tank, relatable to the living in a bathtub for a human, that he was given in exchange for protection and citizenship; he was no longer a wild orca, but became Tilikum who was now an economic good too someone.  Legal protection also becomes a pseudo-benefit of this citizenship because as property he now became identifiable under law as something that no one else could further enslave or damage, or rescue, without permission of his owner.  There is a gap in this transition that left Tilikum, before he was named such, in a void of self-ownership and accountability.  This gap allows the imposition of citizenship upon those who seek nothing of it; as the “inferior” non-human species is brought into the fold of the “superior” human’s care to service economic and pseudo-educational institutions which have an anthropocentric higher purpose to achieve than could be rationalized by Tilikum’s freedom in the wild.

When we consider Blackfish through a post-colonial discourse it is clear how non-human animals are caught in this ambiguous state as both citizens and property.  Tilikum is in all respects a global citizen; one who recognizes no external abstract boundaries to movement and who acts in a way that is respectful of those within and outside of their immediate community.  Yet, it was without recourse that this type of citizenship was stripped of him and his family by a slave trade which did not recognize the boundaries of his territorial claim to global citizenship or his bodily claim to dignity and free expression.  In Blackfish, we meet one of Tilikum’s captors and get to hear his reflection on capturing Tilikum; he is emotionally devastated because he understands he has stripped Tilikum and his family of their relation to place and each other, and has empathy for them.  What this is intended to convey is how recognition of one another’s bodily expression is acknowledged as being significant; as giving force to a claim of independence and attachment to place, but that the rationalizing nature of colonialism and anthropocentrism deny the validity of such claims from the “other.” This is the colonizing nature of dominant Western discourse; other animals are considered inferior as a way of distinguishing humanity as being superior. Thus, they become an economic biological property.

This conceptualization of other animals is relevant to Blackfish as a documentary that questions our superiority and speciest colonial attitudes to other animals.  This is because it can make no argument for the violent, oppressive, and traumatic behaviour conducted by humans, without compromising the integrity of the story of Tilikum and denying a commonality of corporeal and emotional experience between the animality humans and orcas share.  When, in the film, we witness a baby orca being taken from its mother and hear her cry out in search of her baby it is possible to recognize the torment the same we would a human mother in a similar situation and can empathize with her.  This empathy comes before the attempt at encultured rationalization the Western discourse reiterates saying we only anthropomorphize her cries as torment, distress in her thrashing about, and despair as she sits motionless for days after her loss.  It is exactly this rationalization which is at the heart of colonization, oppression, and discrimination which has been condemned by those colonized, terrorized, and victimized by it among humanity for centuries.  Yet, with a post-colonial discourse we see that those colonized embrace the rationalization of others suffering; it is a part of their enculturation in the post-colonial fallout they are embedded in.  This is why Sealand and SeaWorld ardently deny in Blackfish that captivity is harmful or traumatic to Tilikum; the captivity of other animals has become a normalized phenomenon. Thus, colonialism carries on and is inherited in the conceptualization of citizenship as that which is given as a token for subservience.  Those circumscribed as “citizens” will utilize this internalized inferiority in power to exploit “others” without such status, thus creating a further triad with other animals being defined as inferior to the inferior colonized.

Analysing the documentary Blackfish through a post-colonial discourse is revealing of the rationalizing tendency of colonialism and its continued prevalence in our relationship with non-human animals. There are large gaps in this relationship which by nature of being undefined, such as the status of animals as sentient beings or property, leave open opportunities for continued conquest.  While place is significant in our own claim to citizenship, it is a part of the gap of citizenship for other animals that is left unfilled. Furthermore, the dichotomy of human/ non-human animal continues to shape our engagement with other animals as one of superior/inferior that colonialism uses to rationalize its position of ongoing conquest.  Because humans who are colonized themselves internalize their inferiority to their “superior” colonizers, this mode of rationalizing is inherited in the form of citizenship for the colonized, but becomes doubly exclusionary towards other animals as further inferior.  Thus, the dichotomy of superior/inferior humans contains a void with other animals being captive citizens in the gap between these ongoing superior/inferior power relations, but for both to take advantage of.  It is only through the recognition of the body as a form of language and expression for other animals that we may empathize with their position and be compelled to liberate them from this tyranny.

Jordan Reichert

The Critical Cat


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