Ecopornography and the Commodification of Extinction: The Rhetoric of Natural History Filmmaking, 1895-Present



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This dissertation builds upon the relatively young fields of visual and environmental rhetoric and analyzes the rhetoric of natural history filmmaking, focusing on the ways in which the genre illustrates the complex relationship between contemporary culture and the environment. Each text demonstrates how the constructs of ?nature? and ?wilderness? perform necessary cultural work by representing particular ideals that change to meet the public?s shifting needs. Nature performs various roles, serving as a source of knowledge, solace, wonder, mystery, anxiety, truth, identity, and affirmation. The dominance and immediacy of visual culture make the natural history film, along with advertising, one of the most significant sources of meaning regarding the natural world. These films employ familiar syntactic and semantic cues such as sentimental parent/offspring interactions, authoritative narration that limits the ability of the audience to interpret freely, and a musical score that influences the viewer?s emotional response to certain scenes. The net result of these rhetorical practices is a distancing of the viewer from the natural world that destabilizes the attempts of many eco-political programs to emphasize the interconnectedness of ecological systems and their components.

The emergent genre of big-budget nature films (BBNFs) is a distinctly modern and extremely popular take on natural history filmmaking that has more in common with summer blockbusters and wildlife theme parks than its predecessors with an unprecedented ability to influence public perception of the natural world. Even as environmental concerns become increasingly dire, the BBNF tends to commodify death and extinction, avoid political engagement, reduce engagement with nature to its most sentimental and violent moments, perpetuate the perceived separation between humans and their environment, and provide a soothing escape to a virtual environment that too often seems unaffected by climate change and habitat destruction. The BBNF has the potential to undermine environmental and conservation efforts. It also exemplifies what some ecocritics have termed ?ecopornography,? an exploitative representation that objectifies its subjects, encourages viewers to develop identifications with unrealistic images rather than their real-world analogs, and helps enable unethical behavior toward the environment and nonhuman animals. At stake in this dissertation is a deeper understanding of how natural history filmmaking affects the public?s awareness of (and role in) the environment.