Momentary Affects Archive

An Animal Diary, Animals, Momentary Affects

Grieving for Magpies

He is on a train to London when he reads, as part of his research, about four magpies who gather around a fifth who has been hit and killed by a car:

One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose at the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass, and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then, all four magpies stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one they flew off. (Beckoff 2009: 82)

He looks out of the carriage window. His eyes are pointing down to the right, remembering something he has never experienced and has no memory of but is, nevertheless, connected to, and feels. His larynx and chest cavity collapse… a little. He can still breathe, but it forces out a long, slow sigh; a a sigh without a mouthing.

magpieThe cognitive appraisals and reappraisals that form one component loop of the affect-appraisal-emotion-action nexus have already begun. He rationalises what the feeling might be. A love and respect for the natural world, and a resignation that the world we have does not share his feelings? Yes. But he knows these are not the momentary affect, the inconsolable loss of sentience at the heart of the image. That downward look, that sigh without mouthing, is a phylogenetic sadness, a epochal loss.

It is not only an image. It happened. The author, Marc Bekoff, witnessed this moment while out on a cycle with a friend. But he, sitting on his train to London, doesn’t need to have witnessed this specific event. In his essay on roadkill, David Lulka draws on a range of statistics to emphasise that, if he hasn’t already seen roadkill in his travels, he will:

A conservative estimate indicated that 500,000 deer are killed annually in the United States (Romin and Bissonette 1996). Caletrio et al. (1996) gauged that 10 million vertebrates are killed annually in Spain. Ehman and Cogger (1985) calculated that 5.5 million reptiles and amphibians are killed each year in Australia. Lalo (1987) referenced a study which found that one million vertebrates are killed daily on roads in the United States. (Lulka 2008: 39)

He has, of course. That owl he hit driving the minibus between Birmingham and Plymouth on December 25th 1995, with Andy in the passenger seat. The impact. A low glass thump in the gut. He has not forgotten it, but he cannot recall the affect exactly… It may have been more Michael’s “mixture of excitement and sadness” (2004) than the ‘Unnamable’ exhaustion that Lulka finds at the heart of, for example, Beckett’s writing on experience and survival.

He reads that Beckoff writes “I like to think of our emotions as gifts from other animals” (82). Certainly, he agrees, of our animal ancestors. But also of the animals we co-habit and exist with (see Haraway 2008) and of ‘wild’ animals—all animals. How does he, then, go forward? How does he survive this magpie loss? This is what Beckoff, co-author of Wild Justice, an ethologist and researcher with many decades experiences, suggests to him:

 Daily, we silence sentience in innumerable animals in a wide variety of venues. However, we also know that we’re not the only sentient creatures with feelings, and with the knowledge that what hurts us hurts them comes the enormous responsibility and obligation to treat other beings with respect, appreciation, compassion, and love. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it’s their emotions that should inform our discussions and our actions on their behalf. (Beckoff 2009: 85)

He thinks of the birds he has fed over the winter. The crows and other Corvids that craw in the small park he runs through. The turkey he ate at Christmas not to inconvenience his host family. The blackbirds that dropped out of the sky in Arizona over New Year. But there is something numbing about his individual loss. Something obstructs the grief from outpouring as a “bestiary of affects” (Ngai 2005: 3). He thinks it is capitalism, or that he still owns a car, but he also knows it could be his poor sleep. It is, either way, an “obstructed agency… with a remarkable capacity for duration” (Ngai 2005: 3). Capitalism and insomnia both, then, and the pounding through air of the accelerating train.

Beckoff, M. (2009) ‘Animal emotions, wild justice and why they matter: Grieving magpies, a pissy baboon, and empathic elephants.’ In Emotion, Space and Society, 2(1), 82-85

Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lulka, D. (2008) ‘The intimate hybridity of roadkill: A Beckettian view of dismay and persistance’. In Emotion, Space and Society, 1(1), 38-47

Michael, M. (2004) ‘Roadkill: between humans, non-human animals, and technologies’. In Society and Animals, 12, 277-298.

Ngai, S. (2005). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Image (c) Chuck Roberts

Activism, Green Feeling Archive, Momentary Affects, Writing


The local Cinema Politica group put on a showing of Rob Stewart’s film Sharkwater. It’s a big audience for an environmental documentary—perhaps fifty or so people on a cool Thursday night in the North East of England.

The film is Stewart’s love letter to sharks, and his attempt to redress both the myths we hold about sharks and to do something about their impending mass extinction at the hands of humans. Shark populations have fallen by anything between 90%-98% and there are no international regulations limiting or banning shark fishing. It is, according to many of the sources in the film, the greatest global biodiversity catastrophe waiting to happen. Sharks have been around for 400m years, and have shaped the entire ecosystem. Their removal will also shape it.

The film is in places graphic and hard to watch. It shows fins being cut from sharks, and those sharks, mostly dead, but sometimes still alive, being cast back into the water. It shows the billion pound shark industry that spans the globe for a tasteless soup that is a sign of privilege in Asian societies, and for herbal medicines that do not work. It shows the corruption of governments and the desperation of poor people who have little, except this unbounded resource at the edge of the shore as a way to lift themselves out of poverty. It shows the self-importance of stupid humans who are utterly unable to recognise the importance of sentient animal life.

I see C wipe away a tear at one point. I sit as monumentally as I can, thinking of Caravaggio’s sketch of St Matthew as he turns away from the man-made gospel he has just written, thinking: what have we done? Not to be overwhelmed. Why I try so hard is not clear to me.

The first comment, from one of the Cinema Politica organisers, is that although the subject matter is obviously serious and tragic, she felt its treatment was at sometimes ‘crude’ in its manipulations of the emotive nature of the story. From the other side of the room, a small voice confers: ‘agree’.

Two experts from the universities Marine Science Department are invited up to help begin a debate. Both manage the debate excellently. Fair, polite, knowledgeable, and pragmatic, they also negotiate through to the core of what’s being discussed: the emotive nature of what we’ve just witnessed. Without taking sides, they re-emphasise the facts, contribute additional information, bear witness to the contribution that people can make if, as Paul Watson, of Sea Shepherd, in the film suggests, we choose to devote our lives to solving these problems.

I dig myself out of the frustration I’m feeling at those two first comments to try and model the experts: how they are handling this, even though I want to ask those first two contributors why they think the sanctity of their emotional freedom is the important thing to be discussed here. Why first comment on the mechanisms of film-making? Didn’t they just see what I saw? Why do they have to detach themselves from the content because they are uncomfortable with the form? Why can’t they just feel, and act?

A reasonable debate gets going. I think it is the same girl who said ‘agree’ who later asks the experts if they think Sea Shepherd’s tactics might turn people against conservation? Expert N is polite and considered in his response. It’s a tough question. But is it? In a world of seven billion people, there is one ship, with perhaps 50-200 people within his organisation, patrolling two thirds of the world’s surface, against the illegal activities taking place, where obvious government and organisational complicity and corruption obstruct them at every turn (Both experts agreed the corruption in the film was credible; from my own time as ELDIS/ editor on global issues, including illegal fishing, I know this is the case).

What is wrong with this person that she cannot take a step back and do the maths? One ship, perhaps 200 people in the Sea Shepherd organisation. Is it really even worth asking that question? Did she not listen when Paul said his organisation was not a campaigning organisation? Does she know the history of direct action and indirect action? Did she not believe the figures of shark loss, which Expert S has just confirmed, and actually said are often worse?

The last comment of the night: a woman in the row in front, who carefully, softly, expresses what we were, I think, both feeling; a need to respond to those first commenters who felt the film ‘crude’ and ‘too emotive’ – that she didn’t mind that it was emotive; that due to the seriousness of the situation, it needed to be blunt, a slap in the face. I’m glad it was her who said it and not me. I would have been much more antagonistic. All I could think about were the words of Thich Nhat Hahn I’d read earlier in the Ecologist magazine, that perhaps humans would be extinct in 100 years, and that we should begin with those first couple of people who made comments tonight.

I go home. I sign up to the United Conservationists’ email list. I order Brendan Brazier’s book Thrive, on how to combine a vegan and sports lifestyle. I talk to C later about uncertainties and about designations. We don’t talk about the film. The next morning I think about why I fought so hard against being moved. I think about if there is any real difference between my end of the spectrum (the self-dissolving end) and the other end (the self-centred end) where I immediately, ‘crudely’, judged those two girls to sit. It’s differences along that axis that are were the central division between myself and C, but if it just comes round and meets at the two ends anyway…?

This isn’t a long-thought out argument. I’m sure there are holes in it. I’m just fed up with humanity. It’s not that our emotions are manipulated by such films as Sharkwater that are the problem. It is that they usually have to be. Modernity has privileged the self. Self-awareness, self-actualisation, the great Romantic project, has found its self-centred apogee in the industrialised deracination of the planet via the mechanisms of capital production, particularly inequality and poverty. In other words, we’re selfish, and we fuck things up—for other humans as well as animals and plants. And that’s the corrupt governments, the greedy businessmen, and the self-indulgent graduate student whose emotions have been affronted. And I shamefully include myself in that categorisation.

What is ‘crude’ is that our emotions have become more important realities to us than the lives of hundreds of millions of intelligent and beautiful sharks. Instead, in Rob Stewart, and Paul Watson, and those who act, we have models to follow where emotions are in the service of the world, not above it.

Momentary Affects, Writing

Seeing Red

A group of four sit down in the corner with their porridge and orange juices. I looked up from what I was writing, and saw the one with green hair take off her coat. She looked like an old girlfriend of mine, when I lived in Brighton. Except this girl had bright green hair. But it looked like her. I kept looking. We caught a glance every now and then, but there was no recognition. If it was her, she had changed a little but still looked young, full of beans (she used to call me ‘bean’, it was a positive association), but what made me think it was her more than anything was that she was clearly the centre of a loving and calm and sweet group of people.

It was her. I was sure. Not quite. But then my body knew before I did. A brick wall went up. Although I wasn’t sure it was her, I also couldn’t imagine that she didn’t recognise me. I had changed less—she had green hair. But I recognised her in going off to brush her teeth, and then passing on that toothbrush and paste to a friend, and in the small dance she did on returning from the bathroom. A sudden engulfing of the cafe, slowly, not dramatically, but an isolation from the other coordinates. The music, my work. I was in my mood—my body. Something between shock and regret. I realised I was writing about a character who has a sudden paralysis. It felt like that. The location was at the Eiffel Tower (in my book), a scene from another relationship, where L fell faint in the lift on the way down. It felt like that. Not claustrophobic, but focused, tight, too tight.

I googled. A Riot Grrrl event in Newcastle today. So yes, it was her. A surging pulse, like hitting a wave, or being hit by a wave, and coming up for air, and then being hit by the next one, although the wave hadn’t stopped. More shock, more regret.

It was because I couldn’t remember how we’d left it, although it hadn’t been good. We’d seen each other for six months, moved in together, but it never worked well. She was queer—this was how she identified herself—and it made me angry. We both held responsibility for getting into something that wasn’t right for either of us. But her way out was to slink away, to always be doing, shifting, moving, acting. Positively. To do little proactive harm on the way to the exit. That left me as the one being left. At the end a friend of hers was staying over most nights on the sofa. Not just a friend, I guessed. Now it comes to remember, I can’t even recall how it ended. Just a few righteous emails after, from both of us, setting the record straight at a disintermediated remove.

It was also because it was an obvious statement on where I am now. Not wanting to hurt K any more by… well. K has given me another chance. We are close, close friends. I am not going to risk that. In the past I’ve made so many poor, irritated, broken decisions that have meant the investment in a relationship, friendships as well as intimacies, have all ended without contact. I don’t want to keep doing that.

[UPDATE: I emailed her instead. It wasn’t her. Just a doppelganger. What does it say about me, anything more than what I’ve written above, that I created this situation—now, six years ago, and since—and needed to feel those things, that shock, that regret, almost as if this were a parable or lesson for how to act; what to do next? It was a scene from the future.]

Momentary Affects, Writing

Letters from the past

Working through way through an email spring clean, an old friend printed and posted to me a dozen poems I had sent her in 2000 and 2001. She had moved to Central Europe and we kept in touch by setting each other a monthly poetry challenge.

I don’t write poetry regularly. I thought once a year, perhaps bi-annually. These poems came back to me as a long lost memory. Perhaps even repressed. They were not part of my model of self today.

My model of self today is a writer in a third year of a part-time PhD in the long century slog of the second draft of a novel. A novel I’m sick of the sight of; a novel I began five years ago and want over; a novel I do not particularly like and cannot think about with any perspective.

So these emails – poetry, one short story, and the mundane of the communication – were destabilising. Not quite a shock but a moment that changed my present. It was also a progression of moments; a procession of different reactions.

I went from pleasure at seeing the emails, to nostalgia, to a sickness of seeing a past me I did not recognise and did not remember; and one who was much more free with my feelings. The order of thought when like this:

  1. What, I used to write for fun? Off the cuff?
  2. We used to be so much closer… I shared my feelings so much more easily
  3. Then life picks you up and shifts you on and you wonder why it did that and how and oh I did that?
  4. Am I still saying those same things (“when I get my money worries sorted I’ll find more time to write.” Etc.)?
  5. Why didn’t I keep on writing?
  6. Things are different now; and that reminds me it can be again.

The writing was pretty terrible. But it was free. I didn’t care if it was good. It was for no purpose but to keep contact with a friend. It was not for publication and not to pass a course. Not for recognition—at least not from a world and public purview, but only from a friend. Recognition was part of the relationship. It had an energy and a focus on detail that I don’t associate with my writing now.

Beyond the writing—that last point was the most important. I am struggling with the novel right now. And how much of a commitment it takes in your life. That’s not to say I’m not committed to it. But enjoying it? Fun? Lively and light in all of my other activities? Well…

It’s funny to have one’s past printed up in that way. To see a self that I had forgotten.

But good too. Positive. A moment that changed something.