Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 1, May 1985

Nostalgia for the Primitive: Wild Life Documentaries on TV

Graeme Turner

When, in such a period of society as that in which we live, we compare our intellectual acquirements, our opinions, manners, and institutions, with those that prevail among rude tribes, it cannot fail to occur to us as an interesting question, by what gradual steps the transition has been made from the first simple effort of uncultivated nature, to a state of things so wonderfully artificial and complicated.

Adam Smith (1793/1980: 292)

Discussion of the ways in which science represents itself as value free is not new; in this paper, however, I want to examine a particular instance of this in the representation of an area of science—natural history—through wildlife documentaries on television. Such documentaries provide us a very precise version of history as well as nature, and this version of history is saturated with ideology.

In his early formulations of the relation between myth and ideology, Roland Barthes argued that the language of bourgeois ideology operates so as to make history invisible, to represent both the status quo and any achieved changes in society as natural and inevitable: the effect of nature not the acts of men and women. Similar processes are present in both Althusser's and Gramsci's accounts of the overdetermining and hegemonic functions of ideology; and although the three theorists may locate the determining structures in different ways, they all present a model of the subject in culture being persuaded by way of the most basic and apparently most innocuous mechanisms to assent to the version of existence which is provided for them, and which ideologically necessitates their acquiescence in their submission to the dominant interests of society. Barthes sees this as primarily a function of language, which accrues meaning and ideological significance simultaneously. In this paper, my starting point is language—the term 'natural history'.

The naming of an area of science 'natural history' tabs from such post-enlightenment philosophers as Hume, and refers to all living things. Barthes would no doubt be impressed by its neat conflation of the categories of history and nature, te-politicising and te-socialising man in order to survey him as a subject from the scientific-rationalist perspective of the biologist. As ideology in language it provides us with a classic example of the eighteenth-century mint and of the traditional Marxist definition of the way in which ideology works: it presents itself in the surface appearance of things, repressing any recognition of the historical conditions or events which might have produced particular sets of social relations. The act of seeing man's biological evolution as developmental, natural and inevitable easily becomes a way of seeing man's social history in the same light. Post Darwinian natural history can displace history, as it displaced theology as an explanation of man's condition, by presenting existing social relations as analogous to the existing condition of the species; our present state of development is then achieved by the working of the mechanisms of natural selection, survival of the fittest, and the pleasantly transcendent action of the genetic processes. The effect is to minimise the efficacy of the actions of man directed towards any goal other than that of the adaptation to the existing environment. At the very lease Darwin has provided raw material for handy myth supporting a number of Victorian ideological formations—imperialism and social Darwinism among them.

To oversimplify, the term 'natural history' develops in tandem with beliefs, philosophies and economic practices which it is admirably equipped to support: logical positivism, capitalism, imperialism. Such, at least, is the case in the nineteenth century. There is, however, a revival in interest in natural history which is evident in television programming at present; wildlife documentaries occupy a privileged place in the hierarchy of the received benefits of television—along with news and current affairs programmes, they belong to the respectable, educative arm of television. (Clive James [1981], for one, sees Attenborough using television as an 'instrument of revelation'.) Growing out of worthy but essentially anonymous programmes such as Survival, there is a whole new breed of 'naturalist' rising to star status on TV. Interestingly, few of them are scientists; despite the essentially scientific myths that underlie the presentation of information, the virtues of the Harry Butlers and the David Bellamys lie in their enthusiastic amateurism. Like Darwin himself, David Bellamy manages to endear himself by being more enthusiastic than scientific, and thus appears to be an amateur; he fits, with Butler, into the anomalous category of the scientist as eccentric, joining Magnus Pyke and Julius Sumner Miller. David Attenborough is less the amateur; his ordinariness of appearance, patience in explication, and customary coolness despite the most violent provocation to enthusiasm, establish him as 'scientific'. Generically, such frontmen are 'communicators' who are defined by their convincing expression


of a particular concern about nature. Their concern is what makes natural history, and wildlife documentaries in general, acceptable to programmers as 'current affairs'; in such programmes as the ABC's Our World, in which political current affairs and wildlife documentaries are randomly mixed, history and nature are conflated as if there were no difference between them. Clearly, to Our World, the destruction of the wildebeest and of Beirut are in some way related.

A common assumption is that the boom in wildlife documentaries is a direct response to, and an indication of the strength of, a growing interest in conservation. This does not, however, bear close examination. The submersion of history into nature implicitly accepts that all changes (even those we might deplore) are inevitable. Where changes, such as the extinction of a cuddly species, are depicted as being the direct result of the dominance of man over other creatures' environments, the species under threat is offered sympathy and ameliorative assistance: zoos, sanctuaries, etc. This, though, is a humanist act, like taking refugees, which is trying to avoid the political act—dealing with the source of the refugees. The threat to the species is seen as the mechanism of nature in remorseless operation, some thing for which no person can be held responsible, and something which flows from the domination of the species, not the individual. Wc are innocent. The depredations of man become natural forces like flood and fire, lipservice to conservation being essentially inoculatory: it provides just enough exposure to an oppositional ideology to immunise the viewer against absorbing any more. One is reminded of Cook's cartoon after the Franklin Dam case in the High Court, depicting a couple in front of TV approving the High Court decision by saying 'I'd rather watch a film of a river than a film of a dam.'

Rather than serving any conservationist cause by offering us a critique of industrial capitalism and the notion of progress, wildlife documentaries operate in very subtle ways in order to win our assent to existing social conditions and modes of production. In essence, they present us with two myths: in their representation of endangered species, or animals presented as being like us (the bulk of the subject matter), they present us with a model of an outdated, pre-capitalist social and economic structure in order to reveal, through the view of nature, the inadequacies of such a model if the species is to survive without help; in their representation of biological groups who thrive on adaptation by means of developing large, pseudo-industrial systems—insects are the prime example—we are offered models of adaptability, industry and self-sacrifice. The effect is to indulge the audience in the nostalgic contemplation of an alternative, romantic, individualist mode of existence, while carefully demonstrating its natural practical consequences for the individual and the species. The result of man's extraction from an historical condition and placement within nature is the production of the conviction that our historical limitations are produced by nature.

This phenomenon is not new, of course, as the reference to early Barthes suggests; nor are the texts I will shortly examine uniform ones, in which the ideology works without complication, or conspiratorially. In programmes such as Attenborough's Life on Earth ideology is revealed in metaphor or in conjunctions of shots, often setting up fundamental contradictions between the manifest content and the ideology beneath. From these implications, though, one can reconstruct something that is new, or at least recent—the ways in which these documentaries have revised their representation of nature over the last ten years in order to more accurately reproduce the social conditions which produce them.

The earliest paradigm of the TV wildlife documentary is provided by Walt Disney in Disneyland and by Marlin Perkins in Wild Kingdom. Two apparently disconnected myths underlie these programmes. The first moves from depicting wild animals as the exemplary objects which are ipso facto evidence of the comprehensiveness of our civilisation—it can incorporate such romantic novelties as tigers and lions—to the position of ruefully admitting that nature cannot sur vive without man's constant vigilance and assistance. The programmes depict continual instances of man condescending to save these creatures from 'natural' problems such as the disappearance of its prey from its immediate surroundings by removal to reservations. The romantic and sentimental commitment to the animal's wellbeing thus evidenced is aggrandising for man, and continual proof of the superiority of the man-made system over even such a wonderfully beautiful, diverse but impractical system as nature.

The second myth is perhaps definitively presented in Disneyland. Generally anthropomorphic in process, it tends to individualise an animal within a family and follows his/her progress with interest. A typical example depicts the baby animal in whom we have contracted an interest learning to deal with the unexpected problems of life, in the cutest and most comical way. Usually, in this model, humans do not come to their assistance, all training and supervision being provided by the family. The narrative organises itself around the centrality of the family unit—particularly the mother—as the mediating factor between the child and the rest of the world. The programme is narrated with the kind of jokey intimacy that makes us immediately


identify with the 'characters', while the music tends to adopt the comic mode most normally encountered in family sitcoms. It is a mirror image of the family sitcom that occupied so much television time in the fifties and sixties, and it naturalises the family structure as inevitable, natural and right. The animals are just like us—they are even given names—and their experiences are like ours too. (A contemporary example of the mode is the current Simpson commercial which depicts 'mother' duck preening ['doing the washing'], while the ducklings ['kids'] follow in a cute little crocodile. Clearly men and animals are ruled by the same needs for protection, love and discipline which we see organise nature—and a new washing ma chine or dishwasher simply facilitates the fulfilling of the natural role of mother.)

The approach in these programmes is anything but scientific. Folksy and puzzled, our narrators ask us to regard nature with wonder and to simply accept that we are all part of the scheme. Nature is seen as a complex but open system in which individuals are cared for, primarily by means of the nuclear family. Man and nature are not seen as intrinsically in opposition to each other—Disney's view of adults who don't like animals is to see them as villains (much as did Spielberg in the ultimate Disney wildlife programme, ET). Nature is not presented as particularly deterministic; rather, the individualising procedure intimates that it operates for the good, and responds to the needs, of all—rather like the efficient, burgeoning economy of the period which produced the texts. The representation of nature supports the prevailing social and economic conditions.

There is a gradual modulation of this paradigm through such programmes as Survival until we reach the current version of the wildlife documentary, in which certain differences are immediately apparent. Firstly, gone is the individualising, anthropomorphic, sentimental approach. Animals are not cute, or cuddly or simply like us. Family structures are not the primary organising system, and personal or in dividual motives are not paramount. Nature is still regarded with wonder, but 'scientific' wonder—the kind we direct at a machine rather than a miracle—and the archetypal presenter is David Attenborough, whose contemplative voice-over patiently explains the mysteries we need, he insists, to understand. The relation between man and nature in such programmes is often one of opposition—the imperatives of man conflicting with those of other parts of nature—but such a relation is always included within a larger, homogeneous view of the world which sees the system of biology, genetics, or whatever the scientific discourse happens to be, as subsuming any smaller considerations such as history, politics or individuality. As Attenborough


so carefully explains to us in Life on Earth, if the 'history' of the world was to be spread over a calendar of one year, the 'history of man' would take place between early afternoon and midnight on December 31 st. Nature is enormous, man's history is insignificant.

In such programmes, animal communities tend not to be personalised (unless by a long relationship with a scientist, such as some of the researchers into apes and gorillas) but looked at as structures, with rituals, organised practices, kinship systems, and above all a central but therefore threatened dependence on their close harmony with their physical environment. While that environment does not change, the species will thrive. It is this latter aspect which is most frequently stressed, even in the midst of conservationist rhetoric. To the viewer this is the most anachronistic aspect of the wildlife surveyed, since we know that the environment is continually changing and to survive one must adapt. If we are to find a paradigm of human life to which this refers, it will not be the nuclear family, but its predecessor, the primitive tribal group.

Interestingly, the treatment of insects—who tend not to become extinct and who adapt and thrive on the activities of man—is very different. Here the insect is admired for its industry, its prodigious strength, its survival techniques, its complex—even corporate— social structures, and we wonder at such elements as the 'class' divisions in the world of the and the bee, which so clearly mirror class divisions in our own society. They are not outmoded, they are survivors; conservation does not often interest itself in insects.

Attenborough's Life on Earth (subtitled A Natural History by David Attenborough) is probably the apotheosis of the mode, and as such I wish to present my more general case by way of an account of the 'hidden narrative', the ideological implications, of that programme. Explicitly Darwinian, it has been hailed as one of the greatest TV programmes ever made by virtually every TV critic published. Attenborough himself picked up a BAFTA award for it, accepted with the charm characteristic of a man used to facing cameras while standing knee deep in bat droppings. It was recognised by a wide section of the TV audience as the kind of thing that made TV 'worthwhile'. There are class implications here, but I want to focus on the way the programme presents a version of existence that is supportive of the dominant interests of its culture—its essential conservatism, and even implicit monetarism.

The shamelessly Darwinian approach of the programme is admit ted in its first episode; what is not admitted, nor made explicit but

rather lives in the metaphors used by the narrative, is the continual representation of evolution as something that is deliberate, considered, and essentially a problem of choice. Animals and plants are described in the first episode as 'solutions to the problems of staying alive'. Clearly, any species that failed to survive the evolutionary fitness test had also failed to find a solution—presumably by a lack of foresight, intelligence, or the will to accept the inevitable and adapt. Since their history and ours are the same, the hegemonic implications of such a position are worrying. But the assumptions of such a view of nature (history) occur everywhere in the text. Fish, for instance, 'develop' a skill, 'learn' to survive in particular ways; one 'solution' a fish discovers in answer to the problem of a lack of water is to 'learn' to breathe air. The system is seen as beautiful in that it allows for the fish to do this, and comprehensive in its accounting for individual tastes so that 'each fish has its own niche and is designed accordingly'. The system that 'designs' each fish has as its goal survival, so any kind of qualitative issue is irrelevant; one is not invited to think what life might be like for the fish in the East African mud lake who spends years suspended in anticipation of the drought ending. The salmon, whose spectacular combination of spawning and mass suicide is a commonplace amongst TV naturalist programmes, is also a delight only if we see them as examples of a natural system working completely and inexorably for its own ends. The salmon actually 'develops' this mode of exterminating itself for the good of its species, according to Attenborough, and is thus a 'paragon among fish' for its efficient and selfless survival techniques.

The system (and this metaphor occurs with numbing regularity) is not totally devoid of sentiment, however. Parenting comes in for frequent attention, and successful breeding techniques receive, in one instance, a tribute from our narrator: a pair of frogs who have presumably developed particularly careful techniques are described to us as a 'triumph of parental care'.

In these early programmes, the virtue of the system, its inherent symmetry and rightness, dominates the programme. Even so, it is hard to ignore the circularity of the logic implicit in this positivist, developmental approach; what has survived is represented as a creative adaptation, and it is this because, otherwise, it would not have survived. Imposed on top of this is the sense of the continual climb up the evolutionary ladder, so there is a narrative thread directing us through more and more sensate beings, to more and more intelligent beings, with the promise of soon reaching man.

It is in the programmes on primates that the search for the roots of


man becomes explicit. Once we encounter the monkeys, the tension builds with some degree of intensity. And it is in this programme that the ideological implications mentioned earlier become more apparent to the viewer. Firstly, we see monkeys developing a 'culture', like man; the famous Macaque monkeys in Japan who were taught to wash their food and now seem to have this behaviour genetically im printed on their cortexes are congratulated for their 'shared culture'. We move onto gorillas next, and here the notion of culture is conflated with that of the extended family, the tribal unit. Our similarity to gorillas is dramatised by the cliched staple of such programmes, the 'contact' between man and gorilla. The researcher and the gorilla apparently recognise some commonality—it is made clear that this commonality is that gorillas are early versions of us. This is not without significance; since gorillas are dying out and live in the most primitive and boring manner, it is as well for the human race that we did decide to 'evolve'.

Life on Earth labours the link with some relish—the only time such an abandonment of scientific objectivity occurs and romantic speculations are entertained. 'We're so similar,' whispers Attenborough, 'they live in the same sort of social groups' (he means families), and then proceeds to show how effortlessly he can enter their 'social groups' by joining them in a gentle form of play. Some minutes of lounging around in the jungle being groomed by a quizzical gorilla is enough to convince Attenborough, and the viewer, of the idyllic nature of this kind of existence, and indeed the presenter is moved at the beginning of the sequence to make a confession to the camera of a decidedly unscientific kind: 'if ever there was a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature's world, it must be with the gorilla.' This, despite Tarzan, seems to have the power of a fresh perception for the programme.

Nevertheless, this sentimentality is soon brushed aside as anti adaptive, and it is pointed out that the gorilla only survives with the active assistance of man. He has not adapted, unlike the chimp, who is presented as more intelligent, more adaptable, with a more complex, 'exciting' culture, and thus is a bit more like us than the gorilla. Although the chimps do have a culture, we know from Tarzan and circuses that chimps are so wonderfully adaptable they can fit into any culture. Man can take a lesson from them. The link between man and chimp is made obvious at the end of this episode—the last to deal with animals, and the penultimate of the series (the last one deals with primitive man)—when the hand movements of the chimpanzee and of men are intercut. This gives way, as the credits mass for their part, to a teeming Asian street scene. Definitively urban,


anonymous and contemporary, this is seen as the end of the evolutionary cycle, the cycle of the story. The over-crowded anonymity of urban living is 'natural' and any yearning for a simpler, more 'imaginative' life is asking to turn the clock back, indulging in a nostalgia for the primitive which Attenborough has shown us is human but regressive.

In Life on Earth history becomes nature and nature is triumphant; it is a system which is byzantine in complexity but manifestly working to our best interests as a species. Our contemporary historical situation then is something we must simply adapt to in order to continue the great natural evolutionary process. The survival of the fittest, natural selection and the evolution of 'life' emerge as heroes, part of a system in which we are privileged to play a part.

A sketch in an episode of Not the Nine O'clock News once used the famous Survival documentary on the migration of the wildebeest; in place of the narration describing the necessity for these wildebeests to 'thin' themselves out by drowning, being trampled and so on while on this great trek, the NTNON team inserted a pseudo-naturalist narration which described the same process, with one revision: the wildebeest dropping by the wayside were the unemployed. It seems the economic and social implications of the view of our lives presented by such programmes as Life on Earth have reached somebody. It seems hardly an accident that such a deterministic, social-Darwinist documentary is produced by the same culture which has accepted Thatcher's monetarism with its rhetoric of 'trimming the fat' in the industrial system, and accepting a certain degree of human misery as inevitable if Britain is to survive.

Althusser points out that the ideological state apparatus does not work by violence or by coercion, but by ideology. The wildlife documentary presents an ideologically motivated picture of nature, his tory and the place of man within nature. By providing us with ana lyses of models of primitive social structures in the animal world which present such ways of living as pleasant but doomed, or else way stations on the road of evolution, they encourage us to accept certain propositions: first, that survival in nature necessitates adaptation and the relinquishing of sentimental hopes and illusions; and, second, through the metaphoric use of wildlife as images of pre industrial social structures, that more romantic ways of living have failed because of a reliance on inadequate social organisation. The hegemonic effect of such an ideological message is conservative, acquiescent and provides an alibi for the brutality of economic measures being taken in all capitalist countries at the present time.


Within this justification of contemporary social and economic policies by their association with Darwinism, the history of our time is made invisible. The conflation of history and nature removes man from participating in his own history, and he can both indulge and console himself by watching it on television as nature.

Graeme Turner teaches at the Western Australian Institute of Technology.


Althusser, L. ( 1971) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. B. Brewster. London: Monthly Review Press. (Essays first published 1964-71.)

Barthes, R. (1973) Mythologies. Selected and trans. A. Lavers. St Albans: Paladin. (First published, 1957.)

James, C. (1981) The Crystal Bucket. London: Picador.

Life on Earth (1979). Prod. C. Parsons, BBC.

Smith, Adam (1980) Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Ed. Wrightman, W.D.D.,

Bryce, J.C., and Ross, I. Oxford: Clarendon. (Originally published, 1793.)

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