you still think there’s an island? sentience and value of animals…

The notion of sentience is somewhat widely adopted by some as the definitive factor in affording consideration and/or status to individual species. This is prevalent, to varying degrees amongst both ‘mainstream’ groups and those who specifically promote the well-being of animals (in whatever form that may take). Whether this is viewed as a problematic criterion depends on whom you ask. I consider that it is and a recent ‘mainstream’ film that is completely un-related to such issues, at least explicitly, provides for an interesting analogy and potential future situation where consideration may need be given on this issue.

The film I refer to is The Island. Please do not assume that I am implying this is a good film in any way. When I first watched this I was significantly disappointed – this has little to do with not knowing any detail about the story/plot, rather that having viewed it, there was potential for this to be a good movie. Some groundwork was laid and there were some critical engagements with significant and controversial issues.

For those of you who have read older blogs, you may notice that I often refer to ‘mainstream’ films. Why, you ask? The thoughts on why that form the basis for this were recently reinforced through an ‘encounter’ I had with an artist some may know as ‘art nuko’. Myself and about six other people – some who knew him, some like me who did not, went to his studio in downtown Vancouver. I thought we were dropping by for friends to say hello and for me to be able to have a look at his gallery… it turned out we were there to chat with him and to have a somewhat structured/facilitated discussion on the state of the world, what we can do to change this, and why we (for those of us who are) driven to this – I think I will expand on this in another blog…

Carl’s (art nuko) plan is to make a film (or several) so as to reach a wide ‘mainstream’ audience based on the potential to affect change through exposure. It is a medium that has the potential to affect some change on a broad scale. This is, loosely, where my attention on such films rests. To return to the issue of sentience as a characteristic upon which we choose as a basis for affording status, the film The Island, on a number of occasions, makes critical comments on this notion. There are also two specific references to this notion, albeit as this film is not about other species, in referring to the agnate’s (also referred to as products, ‘insurance policies’ and/or clones). These are both provided by Merrick (Sean Bean):

It’s a product… in every way that matters: not human

The agnetes, their simply tools, instruments, they have no souls

in the middle/latter parts of the film. Earlier, during the initial meeting between Merrick and Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) Merrick talks to Lincoln in a manner in which (as an agnate) he is an ‘other’ which clearly parallels our reference to non-human animals as an inferior other. Descartes would be proud. If we (humans) can dictate what is ascribed value (i.e. change definitions of sentience to suit agendas), does this not indicate it is a problematic basis for ascribing status? Does providing basis for moral status/instrumental value in sentience leave this open to exploitation? Why are we deciding what is of value, or assigning this value? My take is that animals are not ours to do with as we please – a rejection of instrumentalism – and they do not need a value ascribed to them at all. Sentience is as problematic as the notion of rights (human or animal). They are both social constructs that are routinely manipulated: all men are equal, some men are more equal than others…

Clearly Michael Bay has some talent as illustrated through his direction, however a more critical engagement, and a tighter story, with many of the issues would strengthen and further what I see as the potential this film did have rather than the shallow conclusion. My biggest issue with this film is that it promotes minor reforms (even thought their is a revolution of sorts at the institute) as the means for real change. The Situationist concept of compression/decompression perhaps provides a frame of reference to reflect on keeps us comfortable with minor reforms of the system albeit no significant changes (if you have any thoughts on this, please leave some comments).

I hope that anyone watching this draws the obvious parallels between the agnates as soul-less and the consideration/status afforded non-human animals in society…

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