- Animating Extinction, Performing Endurance: Feathers, Angels, and Indigenous Eco-Activism
As a material object, the feather marks an act of violence: what it cost to produce was the original wearer’s life, and what it served to dramatize was the predication of overarching symbolic systems on the material basis of waste.—Joseph Roach1
Introduction: Animating Extinction in the Anthropocene
The “Anthropocene,” first used by ecologist Eugene Stroemer and popularized by Nobel Prize–winning chemist Paul Crutzin in 2002, designates a new epoch, in which humans became a geological force affecting the character and destiny of the planet (Crutzin 23). Anthropogenic climate change is entangled with the human-centered projects of colonialization, industrialization, global neoliberalism, and with Christian notions of dominion over the natural world. As a critical project, if not a geological epoch, the Anthropocene has been productive insofar as it presses humans to rethink our relationships with the environments we live in and our place within a more-than-human world (Abrams).2 My entry into this topic is a nonhuman actor—feathers—which play an important role in many indigenous cultures and in performances ranging from the popular (burlesque) to the political (eco-activism). Taking a nonhuman object as my starting point means to displace the human as central actor and invites a consideration of how objects act on humans, a perspectival shift that climate change encourages us to make. In contemporary indigenous activism, feathers have been deliberately deployed to signal a worldview that stands in opposition to the nature/culture binary structuring Western modernity and its colonial projects. In contrast, the Climate Guardians, an Australian-based eco-protest group, invoke the Judeo-Christian iconography of angels, posing as winged symbols of hope and protection. In both scenarios, feathers animate histories still in process. Whether mobilized as a sacred object, political tool, theatrical prop, fashion accessory, or integumentary appendage, feathers carry with them far-reaching material histories and a rich catalog of symbolic associations. The prosthetic body they help compose invites a reading of the wearer as mediator between material and metaphoric, human and nonhuman.
Symbolically, feathers suggest an attraction to the nonhuman, to ideas of transformation, and to a time before humans existed. Reaching back into deep history, feathers invoke ideas of migration and flight; evolution and adaptation (birds evolved from the terepod dinosaur!); freedom and transcendence; mating and seduction; monstrous difference and voluptuous extravagance; haute couture and drag; abundance and extinction. With their promise of flight, feathers conjure fantasies of rising above the messy material world and ascending into the heavens. But as the air up there gets hotter and dirtier, feathers also bring us back down to earth to confront polluted water, deforestation, and the increasing scarcity of habitable places. Birds covered in oil and floating on contaminated water, or washed up onto a filthy shore, have become visual metonyms of global environmental damage. And so, as we face the possibility of our own extinction, feathers signify survival. As a material object, feathers also bring together histories of consumerism, colonialism, theatre, and environmentalism. [End Page 113] Displayed in the lavish headdresses of the Ziegfeld Follies and Folies-Bergère, feathers exemplified the abundance of the period and the wealth accumulated by the colonizing world; in the fashions of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Euro-American women, feathers signified social status, a trend that led to the extinction of bird species and, subsequently, the rise of the first conservation movements.3 And feathers have long played a role in many indigenous cultures as animate objects designating social status and reverence for the nonhuman world. Still prominent in spectacles ranging from Brazilian carnaval to the fashions of Gucci, Erdem, and Alexander McQueen, feathers set into motion all of the above meanings, animating the still-present histories—of capitalist abundance, ecological waste, and colonial violence against indigenous cultures—to which climate change draws our attention.
Feathers have undeniable “thing-power,” Jane Bennett’s term for describing the vibrant materiality of things. From this perspective, feathers enable a rethinking of the distribution of agency in relations between human and nonhuman. Thing-power, she writes, is “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate...