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Charismatic Megafauna, Race, and the Liability of Sentimental Affect

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Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 1200 characters including spaces)

This paper considers the liability of sentimental affect in theological postures toward nonhuman animals. Using the phenomenon of charismatic megafauna as an ecological and theological point of entry, this paper engages the viral event of Cecil the Lion to build on Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s interrogation of sentimental affect in anthropocentric critique. Following Saidiya Hartman, Jackson identifies sentimental affect’s role in racial regimes constructing certain notions of the human, nonhuman, and humane. Variously comprising empathetic identification, sentimental ethics, and sentimentality rhetoric, sentimental affect works to enshrine hierarchy, rather than destabilize it. Using these insights, this paper questions theological reliance on the rhetoric of charismatic animals, a key conservation strategy—employed by zoos, the media, and consumer entities—seeking to cultivate sentiment to secure salvation. By analyzing the viral 2015 killing of Cecil the Lion alongside contemporary theological literature (Wallace 2018) proposing a “biophilic” posture toward nonhuman creation, this paper shows how rather than secure nonhuman and nonwhite lives, sentimental affect keeps them at risk.

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