The Downward Spiral
In his column Dean Kissick writes about the second season of the BBC's Blue Planet and finds a swansong for a disappearing natural world full of bizarre beauty. As it retreats into the past and becomes material for historians, science and technology may furnish us with an imaginary and perhaps still stranger world.
Every nature show now feels like an elegy. The second series of the BBC’s Blue Planet, which has just concluded, 16 years after the first, was full of warnings of how we are destroying our oceans, and grim scenes of Wandering Albatross chicks vomiting up plastic bags, and time-lapses of the Great Coral Bleaching event of 2016. While the first series was a celebration of life, the second is a reminder that we are killing everything.
At the close of each episode, a ten-minute diary reveals how its most challenging sequence was filmed, drawing attention to the crew’s patience, determination and ingenuity, and also to the technological advances that make these shots possible. Every new series brings better machines: a diving apparatus that produces no bubbles, allowing cameramen to lurk undetected in the depths; low-light cameras to capture those small fluorescent fireworks with which animals communicate down there; suction cameras casually stuck to the sides of passing orcas. In this way, the show is both a celebration of technological advancement and a lament for the destruction that our obsession with progress wreaks; it’s a race against time to capture the natural world while it’s still there.
Just as the latest cameras offer us overwhelmingly detailed realism – a psychedelic overload of sea cucumbers, barrel-eyed fish with transparent foreheads made of jelly and gigantic siphonophore colonies that can live forever, sparkling in the darkness – the diaries take us behind the scenes in order to emphasise that what we are seeing is real. Like so many other things this year, Blue Planet shows us a reality that is stranger than our fantasies. It shows us the world as it’s supposed to be: mysterious, chaotic, preposterous, and full of pleasures and cruelties that are hard for us to imagine.
"dying in the mouth of a shark while spiralling upwards, ejaculating, in an untouched paradise under the full moon"
In his book Dark Ecology (2016), the philosopher Timothy Morton suggests that in order to save the world we have to find ways of reconnecting with nonhuman beings by sharing in their pleasures, and Blue Planet, certainly, though gloomy and heart-breaking in places, also contains some incredible passages of weird sensual joy of the kind that are rarely seen on television screens. In the opening episode, we dive off the coast of northern Japan to watch a female kobudai fish spurn the attentions of a suitor and then swim off into the reef to spend a couple months transitioning into a male, growing larger and more bulbous-headed and aggressive, before returning to chase off his ex-suitor and mate with all the females in the bay himself. Later in the series we’re brought to an undisclosed location in French Polynesia, in the heart of the South Pacific, to watch the orgiastic mass spawning of the marbled groupers, where thousands of these fish hurl themselves upwards through scores of waiting sharks to swim through clouds of fish eggs and sperm. It’s an act for which they are willing to die, and a spectacle of sex and violence like no other: dying in the mouth of a shark while spiralling upwards, ejaculating, in an untouched paradise under the full moon.
Advances in optics have brought us in closer, allowing us to see natural phenomena that no other generation has ever seen, even though they have been taking place for millions of years. We’re beginning to understand the world we’re destroying, while at the same time building new worlds of our own, and as our ability to make convincing virtual realities, artificial intelligences and robots improves, our ability to uncover more of planet Earth continues to make leaps forward in front of it. At some point these realities will switch: the natural world will retreat into the past, and the imaginary one will take on more and more persuasive guises. But they’ll also seep into one another, and we’ll soon find ourselves reconnecting with nonhuman beings in more unexpected ways.
Now, at this moment when our identity is more fluid than it has been for many hundreds of years, we’re opening ourselves to the possibility of becoming nonhuman beings: not only in the cultural phenomena of people roleplaying as furries, identifying as otherkin, or using algorithms that turn our images into panting dogs, but also in science, where pig and human embryos have been successfully spliced together to make a chimera. It will soon be possible to turn ourselves back into animals. There are also various projects to resuscitate extinct animals, such as mammoths, from their frozen DNA, as well as other hybrid forms that are coming about because climate change, such as polar bears, driven south in search of food, cross-breeding with grizzly bears on the Arctic tundra. While today’s nature documentaries will soon become relics from a drowned world, tomorrow’s might be very strange indeed, and not so natural at all, but more like epic cinematic poems filled with monsters and cyborgs and mythical beings and men in the process of becoming beasts.
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in New York. A new installment of The Downward Spiral will be published online every second Tuesday a month. Last time he wrote about writes about Sophia, the first robot to be granted citizenship by a country.