On a surreal day in August 2019, smoke clouds rising from the burning Amazon plunged Sa?o Paulo into darkness. Pasture-clearing cattle industries in Brazil, largely responsible for these fires, soon became a matter of global concern. A different sort of crisis took hold half year later—the COVID-19 pandemic, which likely originated in a bat. These two events, though seemingly disconnected, involve consuming animal bodies in ways that have compromised planetary habitability—one through deforestation and greenhouse gases, the other through confinement and a novel coronavirus. This essay argues for the urgency of re-thinking politics from a posthumanist perspective, one that considers the impact of environmental harm caused by the uses of nonhuman animals. Democracy is shaped by such eco-political realities, as demonstrated in the multi-species authoritarianism of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's “bancadas de bi?blia, bo?i, e bala” (“senate seats filled with bibles, beef, and bullets”).
This essay focuses on Wilson Coutinho's experimental short film Cildo Meireles (1979) as well Meireles art installations that incorporate nonhuman animals. Coutinho and Meireles were prescient in their attention to the role of nonhuman animals within the histories of colonialism/neocolonialism and the immiseration of indigenous communities at the hands of such undemocratic forces as corrupt politicians and ranchers. Their work offers a multi-species analysis of global warming, biodiversity loss, racist food politics, and the incubation of zoonotic illnesses—all of which have led to a withering of democracy within Brazil's borders and beyond.
∗ I would like to thank Hal Foster for his helpful and incisive feedback on this text. I am also grateful for Adam Lehner's many valuable comments and suggestions. Thanks to Debra Riley Parr and Deirdre Madeleine Smith for reading an earlier version of this essay. A portion of this text was presented on the panel titled “‘Our Ancestor Was an Animal That Breathed Water’/Non-Human Beings and Art of the Anthropocene” at the College Art Association annual conference in 2021.