Mourning Creation

From Moira G. Weigel at n + 1:

Knut [the polar bear] was not the Berlin Zoo’s first major star. Bobby, a gorilla born in 1928 and also raised under the care of a foster father, drew legions of visitors during the Weimar Era. A hippo named Nautschke enjoyed similar popularity in the postwar period. Still, the extent of Knut’s celebrity is staggering. Knut made 2007 the most successful in the 166-year history of the Berlin Zoo, attracting 30 percent more visitors than the previous year. By conservative estimates he has generated around ten million euros in profit to date, and has inspired numerous product tie-ins. Dresdner Bank offered Knut GoldCards. The Royal Porcelain Manufacturing Company of Dresden came out with a Knut figurine, which the former Stasi-rag Berliner Zeitung then hawked to its readers at €150 apiece. The Zoo Gift Shop still sells hundreds of T-shirts and souvenir teddy bears to tourists daily. The Federal Mint has issued 25,000 silver commemorative Knut and Dörflein coins. By my count Knut has at least 34 acting credits on IMDB. Dörflein has 10.

This proliferation of Knut products not only celebrated the triumph of an adorable orphan over tough odds; it also represented his appeal as synecdoche for a region of the planet under serious threat. Environmental Minister Gabriel’s bid to pit Knut as an international symbol against climate change had clearly succeeded by May 2007, when Vanity Fair put him on the cover of its “Green Issue.” Shot by Annie Leibovitz in Berlin, the cub was digitally edited onto a shard of ice beside a windswept and reproachfully squinting Leonardo di Caprio, who was photographed on the Jügosárlón glacier lagoon in southeast Iceland.

As Leibovitz’s photos confirmed, Knut could offer consumers a winning image of nature in all its fragility, pitched against the destructive forces of global warming. An image more marketable than, say, still-devastated New Orleans or bloated human corpses in the flooded streets of Burma. Knut, the plaything made flesh, presented a vision of Nature defanged, less “other” to us even than human beings from other parts of the planet. Isn’t it telling that the German Vanity Fair, making him a cover-bear a month before their American counterpart, posed him like a biped–or, rather, a domesticated dog obligingly standing on command?


In the minds of hopeful officials like Sigmar Gabriel, Knut’s noble role was to draw attention to the dire plight of die Kreatur at this moment in history. But in fact Knutmania exemplifies the operations of the forces that have been marginalizing and destroying creatures for centuries. Its compulsive gestures constitute an elaborate mourning ritual. The zoo itself is a kind of epitaph.

Read the rest here

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