Encounters with political animals

“Tell us about your last encounter with an animal.”
A professor posed this question to me on my first day of graduate work in Animal Studies. “I guess it was some nature videos I watched last night,” I answered. “I just wanted to get away from politics for a while.” A man on the far side of the room snickered.

That snicker was the grad school equivalent of being told you're politically naïve. I certainly was. Now, after years of reading and thinking about animals' place in modernized cultures, the notion of animals as somehow apolitical has been thoroughly bred out of me. I see it as inescapable that any encounter with an animal is undergirded by relations of power. Even the silliest “funny cat video” on YouTube raises issues of domestication and ownership, animal rights, the power of spectatorship, anthropomorphism and -- as John Berger would point to -- the way in which we fetishize animal images as animals disappear from our daily lives in industrialized societies.

But the idea of animals as apolitical is still popular and potent. It's part of why the penguin has become such a powerful symbol of media obliviousness and irresponsibility during the Gezi protests. As the political crisis broke out, CNN Türk's decision to broadcast a penguin documentary resounded as not just willful ignorance of the importance of the protests, but as a deliberate erasure of politics. That penguins are utterly foreign and Chaplin-esque funny added to them being deemed an unforgivably frivolous subject for broadcast in that moment.

Penguins! quickly became the shorthand for criticizing anyone who dared to stray off topic too soon after the advent of Gezi. But there was no clear cut-off date after which it was okay for columnists to take on other subjects, and I suspect it's been a discomfiting shift for many writers. I've been in the odd position of having been commissioned to write a travel blog, only to find my own neighborhood far more interesting than my journeys abroad. Hence every planned “Go to Lake Ohrid!” post got pushed aside as another incident shook my adopted community. But in recent days, in a sort of muddled exhaustion, I decided I needed to “get away from politics” and get back to writing about travel. Thinking myself quite clever, I plotted a trip to a local tourist destination I'd never seen: the İstanbul Aquarium, a place where I could be a tourist for the day and write a nice apolitical blog post with phrases like “The spotted unicornfish is a marvel of nature. A must-see!”

As the shuttle from Taksim pulls up to the aquarium I see it's in a mall complex and have to stifle the political critique rising in my gut about how aquariums are so deeply embedded in corporate culture -- in America frequently attached to shopping malls and routinely funded by oil companies -- that they can't point fingers as they talk about environmental degradation. (Ginger Strand wrote about this in The Believer.) But walking into the İstanbul Aquarium proves an instant balm for my politics-weary mind. It's an immersive experience, designed so that the visitor's senses are immediately plunged into another world -- mostly quiet, dark and cavernous, with many creative displays leaving you feeling as if you're somehow walking through a wrecked ship or floating past a coral reef. In the Antarctic exhibit you can run your fingers down a melting iceberg sculpture and press them into the disappearing print of a polar bear's paw.

Tank after tank of curiously shaped fish greets you, the names often as evocative as the odd creatures themselves. Common pandora, comet fish, small spotted dart. Threadfin butterflyfish, ornate wrasse.
I delight in the otherworldly immersion, but as I walk through the exhibits -- Bosphorus, Aegean, Mediterranean, Red Sea and onwards -- something is not right. First it's the use of ship debris in the habitat of fish tanks, anything from a ribbed stretch of a keel to a shiny white propeller. This feels unwelcome, intrusive. Then it's the reproduced cityscape in the Bosphorus room -- two large fish tanks lined with paper dollhouse replicas of Dolmabahçe, Cağlayan, the kösks. A large collage of famous İstanbul buildings lines another wall. I walk further, into the Marmara, and am met with cultural artifacts from the busting Grand Bazaar.

The city? This was not part of my escape.

To my right now, Turkey's history is time-tabled out with cool graphics. The room called “Marmara” could be better named “Ottoman,” as it probes that subject with a fervor unreserved for the common sole moseying about the wreckage in their tank. I step into the Dardanelles, further flummoxed to find it mainly devoted to the wars. Imagine walking into the New England Aquarium and finding an exhibit devoted to the Boston Tea Party, or Paul Revere. This is mad, I think. The Aegean, where I think I might find refuge, is dominated by a large statue of Ottoman navigator Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa staring magisterially out towards the sturgeon tank.

I try to turn my focus away from history and culture and back to the fish. The orangestriped triggerfish, the laced moray, the bowmouth guitar shark. The Caesar grunt.

The garden eels with their wide-eyed, fearful existence. The turbot rippling along like a magic carpet. The lobster, astonishing in size, has turned its back on visitors, who now lean in to inspect its furred tail pads, the rich blue of an evil eye.

The evil eye. That's when I catch myself out, have to give in to the inevitability that culture and history -- and politics -- will always infuse my encounters. Will infuse my perception and will infuse my travel writing.

I try to let go of that fight and open my mind, and stepping into Antarctica I am fast rewarded. This aquarium, with its remarkable willingness to engage culture and history alongside nature, has taken on global warming in the brassiest language I've ever seen in such a display. The exhibit directly indicts fossil fuel consumption (a baseline, yes, but a taboo at many American aquariums) and describes the link between human activity and global warming as “proven.” The implication of rising water temperatures in increasingly destructive hurricanes is termed “an unavoidable conclusion.” Corporate villains aren't named, but the exhibit does spotlight specific historical and political events, encouraging the visitor to stay politically engaged. The impact of Somali piracy on the global oil trade is traced as a cheerful model penguin looks on.

I had hoped to see penguins. I wanted to come face-to-face with our new embodiment of the accusation of straying irresponsibly from politics, with an animal that had become itself infused with politics precisely because it seemed apolitical. Eventually I found them. Not in the flesh -- they were present in images, in that cheerful Antarctic model, in endless plush toys at the gift shop. “Everywhere animals disappear,” Berger said. Now these images are a “monument to their disappearance.”

And that's exactly my anxiety around the penguins, in a different way. I worry that they will disappear. That the insistence on confronting politics that they became the symbolic guardians of will weaken, slide off and the media wake-up call from Gezi will fade out as business returns to normal. It's a zeitgeist among my friends in Turkey right now, the fear of things fading.

I come home to Taksim. Tomorrow the renovated park reopens and threatens to become a monument to the disappearance of the much broader changes sought by protesters. Within a few hours my neighborhood has devolved into clashes and tear gas. Percussion bombs and frantic shouts. The retreat from politics remains a myth.


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