Thursday, December 28, 2006

'Into Thin Air' & the Evolution of Wilderness Porn

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the last year or so's worth of Discovery Channel's "man vs. nature" shows: I Shouldn't Be Alive, Man vs. Wild, Survivorman, and Everest: Beyond the Limit. All four of the shows have the same basic formula - man goes into wilderness, wilderness kicks shit out of man, man somehow survives. It's a tried and true formula, of course. Minus the inclusion of pissed off gods and the supernatural, the above formula was laid down for us by Homer's Odyssey and has been used and re-used time and again in works of fiction and non-fiction, on television, in the movies, and in print. At its heart, such a formula allows for the display of the epic struggle of man to overcome ecological obstacles; on the other end it's an excuse to watch people being tortured by an uncaring world.

In attempting to come up with an umbrella label for these shows, I kept circling back to the term "nature-porn." Nothing else seemed to feel right - to say these are "adventure reality shows" is correct, but that term leaves out both the seriousness of the situations the stars/characters find themselves in, and the often mastabatory glee of the people involved in such hellish situations as being stranded in the middle of a desert, or dropped off at high altitude on some mountain, or left in a raft in the middle of the ocean. CBS' Amazing Race is an adventure reality show but the natural world isn't the focus - its a modern interpretation of Around the World in 80 Days while the Discovery Channel's shows have their literary ancestors in the works of Jack London, or work as an anti-John Muir. Nature is beautiful, absolutely, but it will also fuck you up - even if you're careful, even if you know what you're doing, even if you're prepared.

Nature-porn is a pre-existing term, of course, evolving from the earlier "eco-porn," which has its roots in a 1971 article by Chuck Worth for Mother Earth News, in which he uses the term to describe the harm a biodegradeable milk carton does to the environment; the carton breaks down, yes, but it takes such a long time that increasing our use of the carton does more harm than good. Martin Walsh argues: "Under the definition used by Worth, the reference to pornography simply functions as an emotive spotlight for the collision he sees occurring between the realms of ecological purity and obscene industrial consumerism. Implicit in Worth’s use of the term ‘porn’ is a primary concern with moral and ethical obscenity rather than sexual obscenity." Eco-porn, as desribed by Molly Ivins in 2001, is one where nature is being whored out to big business: "We’re all used to eco-porn by now; those beautiful television ads featuring some natural jewel, during which an announcer with a four-balls voice tells us how much Exxon or some other gross polluter is doing to keep our precious earth green."

Walsh takes the term and transforms it into nature-porn "since the pornographic mechanism is one that functions by design to incite desire in the viewer and, through the associative power of images of natural environments, to cause the viewer/consumer to recall favorable impressions that will influence their future choice of products, services and experiences. [...] Central to this debate are the issues of sustainability and diversity of natural systems, and our implicit responsibility to the natural environment that sustains all life. If we then start with the premise that nature-porn imagery attempts to deliver the natural environment as a commodity, in the same manner that pornography delivers the human body."

The accepted definitions of "eco-porn" and "nature-porn," then, don't sufficiently meet my own definition as applied to the Discovery programs. I have problems with Worth's moralistic component (I'm all for consenting adults to do what they want, whether that's taping themselves having sex or climbing in high altitude), with Ivins' anti-corporate image component (in eco-porn, comapnies use the environment to diminish/alter their public image, while in sexual porn companies use sex to reinforce their public image), and with Walsh's premise that nature-porn treats the natural world as sex-porn treats the body.

In all of the shows it isn't the natural world that's being commodified by itself, it's the hardship that natural world forces a human body to experience/endure. In this, it's much like London's Alaskan naturalism, where the world is both beautiful and harsh. Is Everest being commodified in Beyond the Limit? Absolutely, but so are the climbers who are enduring the climb, the climate, and each other.

I've chosen to use the term "wilderness porn," to describe a text that focuses its pleasure on the grotesque endurance of man in harsh wilderness.

Using a term like "wilderness" comes with its own set of problems, of course, with its inherent questions over how "untouched by man" a place has to be to still be wilderness. For my pruposes, all I'm concerned about with "wilderness" is simply that its an overwhelmingly natural environment that operates on its own outside the control of humanity. (I'm still working on it, but that's a start.) Put simply, however constructed, the place runs by rules of "the wild/natural" more than it does by the rules of man, and the various means of control the producers of each text attempts to exert on that "wild place" is how the "porn" is constructed. So while Everest has certainly been commodified and while the governments on both sides of the mountain have enacted certain laws, once you move above base camp its still you vs. the mountain, the altitude, and the weather.

The only reference I can find to the term "wilderness porn" comes from Tasmanian phtographer Martin Walch, who defines it as a proces where "wilderness was once portrayed as threatening, the ‘lair of the beast’, but contemporary meanings are more likely to evoke pristine, virginal or untouched qualities." While not completely parallel with my own definition, I think Walch's conceptualization of wilderness as alternately threatening and pristine works better than eco-porn and nature-porn. In my conceptualization of wilderness porn, both impluses - the threatening and the pristine - are in play.

Bear Grylls doesn't parachute into places that are easy to escape or survive, after all, on Man vs. Wild. He lands in spots where one might have to piss on his own shirt and wrap it around his head to get through the day.

The point seems to be that we'll have some form or "Eww, that's gross" reaction without actually changing the channel. Like a horror movie, viewers are enticed to witness other people experience the unpleasant. The probability is that we're not likely to ever be in that situation, but thanks to Bear we know, if we have to, we can use our own piss to keep us cool. With shows like Man vs. Wild and Survivorman (which is roughly the same show, though in typically harsher environs and without a camera guy along for support as Les Stroud films himself), we know the protagonist is going to get out, or else the episode would either not be shown or it'd be hyped as a "final" episode.

Shows like I Shouldn't Be Alive and Everest: Beyond the Limit, however, do carry with it the added "bonus" that some people might actually not make it through the entire 60 minutes. Beyond the Limit, especially, seems to continually death-tease us by raising the possibility that someone might not make it down alive from their ascent. Death is a very real possibility on Everest, of course, and the doc takes great relish in exploiting that potential outcome.

The difference in the two shows is that Alive features people who often unwittingly place themselves in great harm (say, a couple stranded in their car by a snow storm, or who wander off the marked trail into the heart of a rain forest) while everyone on Everest chooses to be on Everest. Because of this, Alive really ratchets up the melodrama. The format of the show is that the actual people tell you, confessional style, about their harrowing adventure which you then see recreated by actors in intercut scenes. There's a lot of crying and hurt, which runs counter to the almost perverse joy people take on Everest, though death is as real a possibility. The difference, again, is in choice, but both origins can be milked for the same voyeuristic results.

I want to give credit to Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air for putting this into focus for me. In Krakauer's acclaimed personal accounting of the 1996 Everest disaster we see an insider's account of what gets you on the mountain, and then off again. I don't want to dwell extensively on the text at this point (I may well do so later) but what marked Into Thin Air out for me is the continual contrast between Krakauer's own desire to ascend/descend Everest and his worsening physical and mental condition during the expedition. When Everest stops being an idea and starts being a conglomeration of rocks, snow, and ice, the dangers of that environment come to the fore.

Krakauer's been widely attacked by those who appeared in his book and the relatives of his fellow climbers, but those attacks often ring hollow to me. Krakauer, time and again, openly discusses how clouded judgment and memory become at high altitude; we, as readers, can take or leave the "truth" of his experience but what seems clear to me is that Krakauer gives us the truth of his memory of the experience. As he states in the text, he interviewed as many people as he could after the fact and when his own memory was proven wrong, he admits it in the text, including the tragic "lie" he told about his encounter with Andy Harris/Martin Adams in which neither Krakauer nor Adams has any reason to doubt their own memory of what happened until talking with one another well after the fact and noting how pieces of two different memories overlapped in key places thus throwing the totality of the veracity of both into question.

While all of these texts come at the "man vs. wilderness" formula from differing origins, all do follow the basic structure: man enters wilderness, wilderness hammers man, man (usually) survuives. The Discovery Channel shows continually reinforce the idea that you need to be prepared when entering the wilderness, yet what Krakauer (and to a lesser extent, Beyond the Limit) articulate is that preparedness only mean you are less likely to be killed, and certainly not impossible to kill.

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