As the massive snowstorm “Jonas” rocked parts of the East Coast of the United States, claiming at least 25 lives, Washington D.C. was forced into a “snow emergency” shutting down Government, schools and its transportation system. Some in Washington saw opportunity within this storm though, namely the National Zoo who turned a short video of one of its Panda Bears Tian Tian playing in the snow into a viral marketing event. Their original tweet has over 180,000 retweets and favourites within 48 hours, inspiring many other memes and becoming a major news story to rival coverage of the storm itself.
The storm grounded over 3,200 flights and has left an estimated 130,000 people without power. The Union of Concerned Scientists have released a statement about the storm placing the extreme weather event within the context of modern climate change, a necessity as the political climate in the United States somehow still leaves room for the idea that climate change and global warming either do not exist, or do not exist as a result of human activity.
With the rhetoric of doom which preceded the storm, it is not surprising that people would rally around a video of a panda bear playing in snow. Still, the speed at which it spread and the consensus around an unthinking and viral consumption of the video was something to behold. The video inspired lots of news stories and social media traffic, but all of it remained surface material – there was no room to question how seemingly normal it was to congregate around a Panda Bear in Washington, D.C. during an extreme weather event. Neither Panda’s in the United States, or weather events like Jonas, are normal.
Tian Tian, the Panda in the video, was born in China in August 1997 at the “China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda” and later transferred to the National Zoo. Tian, now considered the “Dad” Panda at the National Zoo, is part of the “Panda Diplomacy” legacy that was kicked off between China and the US following normalization of relations after the visit by US President Nixon in 1972. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the first generation of Panda’s sent by the Chinese Government to the National Zoo, were immediate celebrities – seeing over 1 million visitors in their first year there. The move was such a hit that the Chinese followed it by gifting two Panda’s to the British in 1974 and developing their “Panda Diplomacy” efforts right up to the current day where Chinese Pandas are sprinkled around zoos across the globe.
The Panda deals have changed over time, China now only “loans” the Pandas, hold rights to any offspring, and charge host countries a fee (around $1 million/year) for the right to display their Pandas. A World Wildlife Fund lawsuit in 1998 forced the Chinese Government to use some of those fees on conservation efforts, with the WWF taking direct issue with the utter lack of Conservation efforts in the Country. Controversy has surrounded many of these deals, typically they hinge on trade relations and on the hosting country keeping its mouth shut about human rights abuses in China. Others still point out that other endangered animals lack basic protections in China, and that this version of Giant Panda bares little resemblance to the dwindling wild Giant Panda population. Tian Tian, like most captive Pandas, can’t select mates and can’t figure out how to successfully procreate. Tian is a father, but by artificial insemination only.
Trying to think out how this viral news story could develop without this context I couldn’t help but be drawn back to Marx’s analysis of the commodity fetish – the ability of capitalism to “turn commodities into nothing more than objects in the marketplace” (Cluley, Dunne). Tian Tian, a Giant Panda from China who cannot procreate enjoying an extreme weather event in Washington, D.C. is reduced to object – Panda in the Snow. We know that Panda’s are not native to this continent and that snow does not fall like this regularly in Washington – but we normalize the uniqueness of the event by turning Tian Tian into an object. Tian Tian’s history, life, the history of Panda Diplomacy and animal conservation or human rights in China becomes irrelevant, “Commodity fetishists do not concern themselves with the journey a commodity takes to a marketplace.” In this case, a captive Giant Panda to your laptop or cell phone.
The viral nature of the event, and its connection to a sign that our climate is rapidly changing and experiencing extremes, points to a new critique of commodity fetishism advanced by Robert Cluley (University of Nottingham) and Stephen Dunne (University of Liecester) of commodity narcissism – the drive to knowingly consume in order to harm, to elevate ourselves over others. Cluley and Dunne do a great job of applying this to consumption, including claims of ethical consumption, in order to answer the question of how we continue to consume products, or commodities, even after we become aware of the environmental or social damage they cause. For Cluley and Dunne, the act of this consumption allows us to act out aggression we otherwise have to repress,
…the knowledge of the reality of production, its exploitative nature and damaging environmental consequences, which we would rather deny at the moment of consumption, is actually part of what compels us to consume in the first place. When we consume, and thereby perpetuate the suffering of others, what we give expression to is a side of us that we may want to deny – a side of us that continues to exist precisely because we so actively try to repress it. The knowledge of other people’s suffering that our consumption perpetuates is precisely what satisfies our destructive and narcissistic desires, in this sense. This sadistic pleasure, according to Freud, is precisely what affords the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better of others.
Dunne and Cluley didn’t have Tian Tian in mind with their analysis, but commodity narcissism offers a way to grapple with this viral response, however dark. In the middle of an extreme weather event, one brought on by the environmentally destructive practices of humans, we congregated around laughing at a “cute” and “fun” video of a captive Giant Panda in the US. Were we seeking “narcissistic satisfaction,” or did the video just provide it? In finding solace in this video we repeat the same self defeating cycle though – we respond to unease over our lack of control of the natural world by laughing at our near domination of another species.
Dunne and Cluley claim that this kind of analysis will at least provide a better understanding of human motivations, something at least capable at getting at the rotten root of “ethical consumerism” and maybe even something capable of understanding the consumption of viral meme culture. A process which happens at such a rapid pace that Tian Tian will be a forgotten story by the end of this week. That void will be filled by other narcissistic memes, some victim in need of rescuing by “white feminism” some KONY 2012 campaign to appeal to our narcissistic saviourism, or maybe some viral meme of another “cute” degraded animal to shore up any feelings of human inadequacy that can likewise be celebrated as conservationism.
Tian Tian, a popular name that another gifted Chinese Giant Panda in the UK shares as well, means “More, More.” An acknowledgement of the near endless appetite of Giant Pandas. As the Chinese Economy unravels, and the US struggles with extreme weather events that shut down a handful of Cities, we should take the time to investigate our response to this seemingly innocuous viral video. Or as Cluley and Dunne say, “…we can only understand our relationships with our possessions and our consumption habits by recognizing that here, as in many other cases, we express something that is cruel, destructive and narcissistic even while we believe altruism and benevolence to have been set in motion by our actions.”
— National Zoo (@NationalZoo) January 23, 2016