Charisma

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by Jamie Lorimer (University of Oxford)

Naturalists often talk about charismatic species: familiar, aesthetic organisms that inspire public affection. Elephants, tigers and pandas are global archetypes. Such animals (and occasionally plants) are the flagships of contemporary environmentalism. Their behaviour and ecology are known to science and are frequently used to raise awareness of broader issues. They are commodified to fund interventions and work as boundary objects enabling different epistemic communities to work together (often at a distance). How might we conceive of this nonhuman charisma and the work that it does in the salvatory political ecologies of conservation in the Anthropocene?

Charisma comes from the Greek χάρισμα (kharisma), meaning a “gift of grace.” For Max Weber charisma is “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities” (Weber 1947: 328). Nonhuman charisma describes the features of a particular organism that configure its perception by humans and subsequent evaluation. It is a relational property, contingent upon the perceiver and the context in which any interspecies encounter occurs. Discussions of nonhuman charisma species tend to focus rather narrowly on what I have elsewhere termed aesthetic charisma (Lorimer 2007). This describes the visual appearance of a species in print, on film or in the spectacular encounters of ecotourism. We can widen the scope of what we understand to constitute and configure charisma to encompass the material properties of an organism (ecological charisma), and the feelings engendered in proximal, multisensory encounters (corporeal charisma).

Ecological charisma describes the anatomical, geographical and temporal properties of an organism that configure its detectability by a human subject. It relates to the human umwelt: the bubble in which we make sense of the world. All humans are warm-blooded, (potentially) omnivorous mammals. Most humans are bipedal, between 1.4 and 1.9 meters tall, terrestrial and diurnal (rather than nocturnal). Unlike most terrestrial mammals that communicate with pheromones, we depend on vision and privilege visual knowledge. Human sensory organs make use of small portions of the electromagnetic, acoustic, and olfactory spectra for perception and communication. An organism’s detectability is influenced by its size, color, shape, and degree and speed of movement in relation to the human umwelt. It is also shaped by aural characteristics such as the presence or absence of a noise, call, or song and the frequency and magnitude of this sound. Taken together these constitute what some naturalists call an organism’s “jizz” (Ellis 2011).

In conservation parlance aesthetic charisma is generally seen as a positive accolade associated with organisms to which one could append the adjectives “cute” and “cuddly” (the panda) or “fierce” and “deadly” (the tiger). But aesthetic charisma does not guarantee a positive response from humans. The landscape of aesthetics can be starkly polarized in relation both to the anatomical character of popular species and the feelings they invoke in different audiences. There is a consistent vital force at work here that seems to bring some species to the forefront of popular attention, but the responses they engender are underdetermined. For example, both elephants and cockroaches are charismatic but their charisma causes strong and divergent responses: different organisms can be both awe-some and awe-full. These popular responses to the aesthetics of organisms appear to be arranged along an axis of anthropomorphism that commonly elevates (but occasionally denigrates) life in forms like us. Organisms with eyes, face or hands, that can be individuated and show reciprocity figure prominently.

Corporeal charisma refers to the feelings organisms engender in proximal, practical and sometimes enduring interactions with humans. This is a diverse form with many possible manifestations and “affective logics” (Lorimer 2010). For example, farming, hunting and pet-keeping value different organisms by virtue of their contrasting aims, desires and habituated practices – of eating, killing and caring. In the more esoteric realms of natural history, organisms gain corporeal charisma by virtue of how they afford desired affects of culture and epistemology. Spotting charismatic critters produces moments of epiphany, keeping them under surveillance involves routine, while classification produces abstraction .

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Charismatic animal portraits by Tim Flach

There is a taxonomy to this charisma that shapes the scope and the political economies of environmental concern. Charismatic species feature disproportionately in the databases and designations that perform conservation. They populate institutions of captivity as sacrificial ambassadors for the salvation of their free-ranging kin. They dominate the mediascapes that frame popular sensibilities towards wildlife. Commodified and powered up through forms of market environmentalism they span the globe—serving as “cosmopolitan” ambassadors for ascendant modes of global environmentalism (Jalais 2011). Charisma becomes political in situations of discord where the hopes and dreams of powerful animal lovers meet livelihoods in cohabitation or conflict with local wildlife. Attending to charisma helps us to attune to the lively and affective ecologies of contemporary environmentalisms.

References

Ellis, Rebecca, “Jizz and the Joy of Pattern Recognition: Virtuosity, Discipline and the Agency of Insight in UK Naturalists’ Arts of Seeing,” Social Studies of Science 41 (6):  769-790.

Jalais, Annu, Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans. 2011: Taylor & Francis Group.

Lorimer, Jamie, Nonhuman Charisma. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space, 2007. 25(5): 911-932;

Lorimer, Jamie, Moving image methodologies for more-than-human geographies. Cultural Geographies, 2010. 17(2): p. 237-258.

Lorimer, Jamie, Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature. 2015, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Weber, Max, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. 1947, New York: Free Press.

Jamie Lorimer: Oxford profile
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