There is a guy sitting in front of me crying. He looks like the kind of person I’d be friends with—I don’t know why, it’s just a look. I later find out his name is Dan, he’s a schoolteacher, and just a year ago he met the woman sitting next to him, with her hand on his shoulder, at a half-marathon race. She was vegan at the time, active in animal rights; he was vegetarian, sometimes. (Over the next year Dan turned vegan, dropped ten pounds, took ten minutes off his half-marathon time. He speaks of quickened muscle recovery and ‘living aligned’. They both think that each of them has lucked-out in finding the other. He tells me all this the next morning as we run together. Near the end of the run he stops, waits for his girlfriend, and I go on alone.) There is a fresh and loving intimacy between them, as she cares for this man crying in her arms, that I crave. It is perhaps a little of why I’m crying too, because what I’m watching is hurting, and I need support.

It’s the scene in the fur farm. It’s Jo-Anne McArthur’s still pictures, used so affectively as they are woven into the urgency of having to break in to the farm facility, take her pictures, and then leave without being discovered, and without saving a single one of these scared creatures. It is what McArthur says in the foreword to her book We Animals: for all those I could not save. It is why I am crying now (watching the film; writing these words). For every good thing we do, we don’t save these individuals in front of us. They are already dead. The use of the stilled images makes this point strongly, sadly.

Still life. It makes me think of when my grandmother died. I was in Australia on a gap year, travelling. My family told me not to come back, to continue on my journey. My grandmother was ill, cantankerous, gave up on life early, except her sherry and her cigs. The only affection she ever really showed late in life was not towards us, but towards Scruffy and Tigger, their cats. So I did not go back. I send instead to my grandfather a condolence card with the image of a bowl of fruit on the front. On the back, it’s title: Still life. But she was dead. I don’t think my grandfather ever forgave me for not returning, for doing everything I could to get there. This is strangely the same feeling the film leads me to: please, let me go back to this farm, save them, do more. This is perhaps why Dan, I, others, so many others, are crying here as we watch The Ghosts in the People Barn at Farm Sanctuary. Have we done everything we can? For these foxes in the fur farm, death is not still life. Who will forgive us for not doing more?

The Ghosts in Our Machine is an elegy. A plaintive poem, a funeral song and lament for the dead. And because it is this, it knows it needs to hold its nerve. To stay in this tone of the elegiac, edited to perfection in the film, never missing a melancholic beat. To break this tone will be to lessen the story’s power. Even when animal protection workers know that a single story is more powerful than the facts and figures (85 billion animals each year, one cow every 12 seconds…) or a combination of both, they cannot seem to resist drawing us back to the incomprehensible, the overwhelming. I don’t know why this is. It’s like that episode of Friends where Monica wants to make everyone cry at her parents’ wedding anniversary. Perhaps the animal rights campaigners and communicators secretly want to not only stir emotions in others, but overwhelm us, be the one who has the power to do that. Secretly, they all want to be Ross (his first word has everyone crying; Monica flounces off). Ok! I admit it—I want to be like Ross, to write with impact. Comically, Ross has ‘it’. The Ghosts has ‘it’ too, but with a markedly different soul. What makes The Ghosts exquisite is that it holds its nerve all the way through, beyond the credits. The tone never wavers. And so, pure, it will linger on in ways that is, most of all, respectful to the lives lost, of all the lives lost.

Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands has written eloquently and persuasively about melancholy as a powerful and affective tool in the ecological warrior’s fight against global climate change, environmental destruction and personal feelings of being overwhelmed. In classic psychoanalytic terms, melancholia is the refusal to let go of the lost object, and leads to neurosis; its ‘healthy’ form is mourning, where the lost object is let go of, and the person (the ego) can move forward. And yet, as Mortimer-Sandilands argues, isn’t this what capitalism wants of us? To let go of what is lost (the rainforest, the biodiversity,  peace, our communities) and to simply attach our egos to another, shinier object? Isn’t then melancholic protest a positive and political act? Say it: No. I will not let go of these animals, or their right to live. So neither will I let go of my budding yearning to know this woman in the film, or the film’s director, or the warriors they work with; nor these animals, and of what I can do for these animals, even if, for these individuals, it is only lament them, and say sorry, tell them in the unquiet of my mind that they were loved.

The Ghosts says: No. I will not forget. And it gives us strength to say No: I will not let go. It is a melancholic, not a mournful film, and actively enters the field of the political even though it is subtle enough never to seem as if it is doing so.

This morning, it gave me strength to go write. This morning I was journaling. I do this often when I’m a bit sad, miserable, ungrateful. The small, unimportant burdens of pedantic life that need to be unloaded. I was absorbed by the miniscule intricacies and predictable chagrins of a “restructure” at work. So I told myself: No. Change this energy. What is more important? I began to do one of those exercises they give you in classes to make you happier. Change the thought, and you change the feeling. So I asked myself, what am I grateful for? (Lots, it turns out: my income, the love of friends, the chance to get to know a new someone, the freedom to write.)

But still. Unfulfilling work enervates a soul. In Every Twelve Seconds, his book about working undercover in a slaughterhouse, Timothy Pachirat tells the anecdote of how he and his colleague Ramon win a small victory over some of their colleagues in terms of who will clean the liver carts (his job is as a ‘liver packer’, impaling over a hundred thousand cows’ livers on hooks in his two and a half months on this job). Such small concerns, says Pachirat, “become in this context essential to both psychological and physical survival”. He goes on:

Pranks, jokes, random screams, whistles, and shouts, deliberate sabotage and surly insubordination, speeding one’s work up frantically or slowing down to a pace that threatens to undermine everything, ongoing feuds over trifles invested with an emotional and intellectual energy beyond proportion: what are these if they are not monuments in a vast horizontal flatness? […] the reality that the work of the slaughterhouse centres around killing evaporates into a routinized, almost hallucinatory, blur […] This, too, becomes killing at a distance […] and the sight of liver after liver descending against a dull white wall, hour after hour, day after day, week after week until it constitutes an endless, infinite landscape in which the slaughtered cow has no place and against which every act of disruption, no matter how miniscule, becomes an expression of being, of knowing that you are still there.

This is the “routinized rut” that Lauren Berlant identifies in her book Cruel Optimism. That the chances of labour and a pay packet in an ever more precarious world (in Pachirat’s book, dozens of low-skilled, non-resident immigrants line up every morning for the chance of punishing 12-hour days in slaughter or fabrication), and the absolute mechanised and routinized methods of capitalist production, deaden our ability to live. To consider the material we are fabricating once lived, too. Forget living, thriving, flourishing: mere survival is the achievement today. The slaughtered cow has no place here, and nor does your hope. It evaporates.

And here was I succumbing to what capitalism wants of me. To be so concerned with my own comfort and survival as the bureaucrats take over my workplace that I forget for what I can use my energy. Forget my relatively elite professional position and secure salary. No, please, forget it. It’s not important. Because one more thing that The Ghosts does, for me at least, and for which I am most grateful this morning, is provide an amazing portrait of meaningful work. As the film follows the footfalls of Jo-Anne McArthur as she photographs animals and works to gather together those images into a book, published by Martin Rowe at Lantern Books, what we see in the film is not only a story about the animal ghosts in our machine but also a critique of the routinizing machine through the lens of meaningful labour. (For Steve Kaufman in his review for Critical Animal Studies to say there is no story line in this film makes me question whether or not he has actually seen this film. I mean, as in seen it.)

McArthur’s work as a photojournalist is not free from the systemic pressures of neoliberal capitalist constraints: she has to pay her bills, and she has to avoid doing this type of work in the U.S., she told us at the film screening, because of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) and certain States’ “ag-gag” bills. But what I see in The Ghosts is the opposite of what Pachirat identifies as the physical and psychological constraints of capitalism-at-work. What I see is meaning-making. What I see, in McArthur’s work and in the work of Liz Marshall, the director, is works-of/as-art. Art, as Elizabeth Grosz argues, is the affective energy where “properties and qualities take on the task of representing the future, of preceding and summoning up sensations to come, a people to come, worlds or universes to come.” This is where The Ghosts, for me, succeeds as art, by holding its nerve as art. At the same time as showing us the horrors done unto animals, it also shows us the way towards “a people to come” of compassionate, meaning-making humans and non-humans; persons together. McArthur has paid a high price for leading us to this future: she suffers from PTSD for the horrors she has seen, which is why the film is caring and careful to show her at her “happy place” at Farm Sanctuary, in Watkins Glen, NY. But she is a leader, an “envoy” as Liz Marshall calls her.

What I see in The Ghosts is the model for what Berlant calls, in hope, a “holding environment for love”. The film’s mission, as Berlant might say, “remains to witness the flaws in the national symbolic as it saturates the everyday; to feel the impact of imperial violence; and, tacitly, to convert the outrage to the senses into collective critique.” That symbolic is the idea that we are somehow superior to other species, as if that were something other than a mere arbitrary decision. That imperialism is the source of all violence, an “othering” of those different to us. The outrage is dripping to the floor, running down my cheeks, down Dan’s cheeks, in our tears. So we come together. We go for a run. We identify ourselves as having work to do, meaningful work. And for just a few hours, we sit down, and we watch this film.

Image (c) Jo-Anne McArthur

3 comments to “The Ghosts in Our Machine”

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  1. Megan Jones - August 28 Reply

    Wow Alex!! Beautifully written straight from your soul! So happy I got to meet you at EARTH this summer!! Can’t wIt for your novel!

  2. Anuradha Vittachi - November 5 Reply

    Ah, not to be cut off,
    not through the slightest partition
    shut out from the law of the stars.
    The inner—what is it?
    if not intensified sky,
    hurled through with birds and deep
    with the winds of homecoming.

    — Rainer Maria Rilke

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