In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Grizzly Man: Werner Herzog’s Anthropological Machine1
  • Dominic Pettman (bio)

A World From Our Sponsors

“Wherever life thrives, trouble soon follows.”

-BBC’s Planet Earth

Where better to rediscover our sense of species-being than on the Discovery Channel? This staple of basic cable television in the US has recently become a cultural magnet for self-conscious explorations of what it means to be a human, at a time when new technologies are making such a sovereign category seem increasingly arbitrary and precarious. Two television “events” in particular stand-out as worthy of our attention, for they betray a general anxiety about not only our role in an increasingly automated and algorithmic world, but our very existential mandate. For while the historical transition from sacred to secular left the Homo sapien on top of the great chain of sublunary beings, those new machines meshing with our thoughts, bodies and habits are forcing us to see the world less as a Darwinian pecking order, and more as a cybernetic web of distributed dependencies.

The first symptomatic event to consider is the US debut of the celebrated BBC series Planet Earth in 2007. This program is indeed a quantum leap in our visual experience of “nature” in all its complex, fragile, and ingenious glory. Filmed over several years with an army of high definition cameras, Planet Earth is both beautiful and melancholy: like the portrait a family commissions when it knows that one of its members has a terminal illness. In this case, however, the whole family is facing extinction, due to the reckless behavior of its formerly most promising child. Much of the popular fascination with this show, no doubt, was a genuine interest in the “otherness” embodied by the exotic creatures which we simply do not encounter in 21st century urban existence: sharks, jellyfish, condors, chimps, giraffes, etc. However, two different ad campaigns, aired during the breaks, suggest that something else was also at play: namely, the “narcissus trance” that Marshall McLuhan believed accompanies the introduction of all new technologies (16).

These campaigns were authorized by Dow chemicals and Cisco systems, valorizing “The Human Element” and “The Human Network” respectively. Both employ the kind of visual rhetoric associated with what we could call the “corporate sublime”: slow motion vignettes, weaving the micro and the macro in such a way as to suggest profound global connections between people of all colors and creeds.2 In the case of Dow, the human element is inserted into the same periodic table which has been so profitable for them. Indeed, the grammatically-challenged copy on its website notes: “The Human Element advertising creative was developed featuring real people rather than professional actors and includes dramatic environmental and human imagery (a blacksmith in Mexico, children at an orphanage in Namibia, an artist at his studio in Prague) gathered on location on four continents.” For Dow’s vice president of global communications and reputation, “This is more than an ad campaign to our company. It is a statement to the world and, more importantly, to ourselves about the future direction of our business. It will be our calling card to people around the world who care about the future relationship between businesses, society and the environment. It reflects our intention as a company to prioritize the things we do to advance innovation and focus the people and resources of Dow on solving human problems.”3

For its part, Cisco systems highlights its own networking technologies as civilization’s neo-nervous system, encouraging citizen-consumers to feel connected and empowered through its fiber optic infrastructure.4 “If Descartes lived today,” notes the official Cisco blog, “and wrote about Mobility and the Human network, he might say: ‘I am there, connected, even when I move, therefore I am.’”5 The young voice-over for one of these spots welcomes the viewer “to a place where we subscribe to people, not magazines.”6 As with the Dow commercials, the corporate sublime is deployed in order to suggest that “we” can create a new, successful Babel, along the lines of McLuhan’s global village. Of course, cultural difference is reduced to stereotypes and clichés, lacquered over by...

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