Friday, April 24, 2015

Week 4: Thinking outside the course

"A Lovely Polar Bear Afternoon"

This week’s post is one that you are welcome to come back to over the quarter. Have there been any readings, screenings, or projects from other courses this quarter, that have “popped” because of material you have been exposed to in Animals & Literature? 

In this post, cut and paste an excerpt from something you’re reading or read from another concurrent course or University activity that connects to, crosses over,  or is in conversation with any material from Lit 80E.

The length of your post is your choice.

I offer a too-long example from an essay[1] written by Columbia Law School Professor Patricia J Williams. In her 24-page essay, she begins by sharing the earliest known history of her mother’s family. It is the story of her great-great-grandmother who was purchased as an eleven-year-old by a white lawyer named Austin Miller who immediately impregnated her. When Williams goes off to law school, she writes, “I do remember that just before my first day of class my mother said, in a voice full of secretive reassurance, ‘The Millers were lawyers, so you have it in your blood.’ ”

The essay is a beautiful experiment in lyric and a legal storytelling that circles around the issues of female embodiment, race, origins and property law. Of the many anecdotes and metaphors she uses, there are the polar bears. Her aunt tells her a story about polar bears. “The clouds took their shape from polar bears, trees were designed to give shelter and shade to polar bears, and humans were ideally designed to provide polar bears with meat” (16).

When she finally gets around to telling her own the polar bear story[2], it is in the section titled “Them”.

“In the law, rights are islands of empowerment. To be un-righted is to be disempowered, and the line between rights and no rights is most often the line between dominators and oppressors. Rights contain images of power, and manipulating those images, either visually or linguistically, is central in the making and maintenance of rights. In principle, therefore, the more dizzyingly diverse the images that are propagated, the more empowered we will be as a society.

In reality, it was a lovely polar bear afternoon. The gentle force of the earth. A wide wilderness of islands. A conspiracy of polar bears lost in timeless forgetting. A gentleness of polar bears, a fruitfulness of polar bears, a silent black-eyed interest of polar bears, a bristled expectancy of polar bears. With the wisdom of innocence, a child threw stones at the polar bears. Hungry, they rose from their nests, inquisitive, dark-souled, patient with foreboding, fearful in tremendous awakening. The instinctual ferocity of the hunter reflected upon the hunted. Then, proud teeth and warrior claws took innocence for wilderness and raging insubstantiality for tender rabbit breath.” (Williams 23)


“In the newspapers the next day, it was reported that two polar bears in the Brooklyn Zoo mauled to death an eleven-year-old boy who had entered their cage to swim in the moat. The police were called and the bears were killed.

In the public debate that ensued, many levels of meaning emerged. The rhetoric firmly established that the bears were innocent, naturally territorial, unfairly imprisoned, and guilty. The dead child (born into the urban jungle of a black, welfare mother and a Hispanic alcoholic father who had died literally in the gutter only six weeks before) was held to a similarly stern standard. The police were captured, in a widely disseminated photograph, shooting helplessly, desperately, into the cage, through three levels of bars, at a pieta of bears; since this image, conveying much pathos, came nevertheless not in time to save the child, it was generally felt that the bears had died in vain.

In the egalitarianism of exile, pluralists rose up as of one body, with a call to buy more bears, control juvenile delinquency, eliminate all zoos, and confine future police.” (Williams 23)

Now, it would be naïve to take Williams’s discussion of race and rights and make some quick n dirty link to racial whiteness as evinced by the polar bears' white fur or snowy white (natural) habitat. In my reading, Williams’s strategy for making explicit a racial identity is to make it ambiguous and ambivalent. She uses contradictory words like “gentleness” and “conspiracy” to gesture at ways of looking. To see and be seen are always at odds.

FURTHER, to this point…

“At the funeral of the child, the presiding priest pronounced the death of Juan Perez not in vain, since he was saved from growing into "a lifetime of crime." Juan's Hispanic-welfare-black-widow-of- an-alcoholic mother decided then and there to sue.” (Williams 24)

FINALLY, she reflects on an experience when she had to scream, "Don't I exist for you?! See Me! And deflect, godammit!” to a group of Dartmouth Summer Basketball Camp youths who, “about a hundred of these adolescents, fresh from the courts, wet, lanky, big-footed, with fuzzy yellow crew cut” had pushed her off the sidewalk.

“I pursued my way, manumitted back into silence. I put distance between them and me, gave myself over to polar bear musings. I allowed myself to be watched over by bear spirits. Clean white wind and strong bear smells. The shadowed amnesia; the absence  of being; the presence of polar bears…. A complexity of messages implied in our being.” (Williams 24)

The essay is wonderful because I have no idea what the polar bears mean other than being polar bears. But theorizing them connects to our readings of Berger, Sax, origin stories, and Adams even Seth. In particular, I see Seth's idea of “wild” being set-up by the anthropomorphized bears and the zoomorphized 11-year old.

This is the 3rd time I've been assigned to read this article in my grad school career. It appeared most recently for Professor Bettina Aptheker's FMST 260 seminar, Black Feminist Reconstruction, Spring 2015. Now-ish.

In this post, cut and paste an excerpt from something you’re reading or read from another concurrent course or University activity that connects to, crosses over, or is in conversation with any material from Lit 80E. 

You may return to this post any time, and more than once, this quarter.

Please “comment” in this thread.

[1] Williams, Patricia J. “On the Object of Being Property” Signs Vol. 14, No. 1 (Autumn, 1988)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Week 3: Anthropomorphism and Zoomorphism

Week 3: Anthropomorphism and Zoomorphism

Let's think about the arguments presented in this week's reading around human and animal relationships and our conversation around what's at stake in zoomorphic and anthropomorphic models. Think about animals as companions, totems, traditions, and symbols. For this week's post answer:

1- What is your Chinese astrological sign? With the risk of romanticizing your human-animal relationship, do you "feel connected" to this reading, to this animal?  Why, why not?

2- Next, answer A or B:

A: Find a part (cite) in the Sax, Adams and/or Berger that speaks to your own relationship to a pet, the zoo, or a childhood animal figure (i.e., cartoon). Talk about that relationship and include a citiation from the Animal Reader.


B. Find a part (cite) in the Sax, Adams and/or Berger that speaks to your own relationship to meat, food preparation, or food production Talk about that relationship and include a citation from the Animal Reader.  You may also draw from the "Supersizers Go..." videos I showed in class today. I include the link to the episode on Ancient Roman diet. The episodes on Restoration, the Fifties and the Seventies speak to Carol Adams's arguments about meat being an index of class, race and gender.

Ancient Rome


PLEASE "comment" under this thread. Length of post is 150-200 words

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Week 2: Origins

"He was made lush with head hair, like a woman/ The locks of his hair grew thick as a grain field/ He knew neither people nor inhabited land,/ He dressed as animals do/ he fed on grass with gazelles..."
(The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 1)

Questions for discussion, choose any one as an entry:

  1. Reading these three tablets, one can see how Enkidu hum-animal qualities enlarges the discussion around his relationship to Gilgamesh. How does Enkidu's and Gilgamesh's origins bond them? 

"Disguised as a woman, I forget what I want as a crane." (The Crane Wife)

2.  Can you offer a line from any of the primary texts we read ("The Crane Wife", The Epic of Gilgamesh, Genesis, "Animal Bride", "Creation Myth", "Everything was Created") that speak to how human culture's interrelationship to animal presence, or how humans encounter animals, "both entail the physical and psychological manipulation of animals" ("Animals as Domesticates" 115)?

The Epic of Gilgamesh isn't unlike other epics in which the hero's confidant, foil, and foe are animalized or depicted as non-human. For example, in The Odyssey (800 BCE), Odysseus has to contend with Circe, Calypso, and the Cyclops while his faithful dog Argos awaits his return home in Ithaca. There are other epics like Beowulf (700 AD) and Mahabharata (400 BCE) where we see the zoomorphic and bestial qualities of humans. I am also pressed to think about Staples/Vaughn's Saga and the relationship between The Will and Lying Cat...but let's postpone that conversation until we get to Week 9: Work, Trauma, Planetarity.
Please comment in the conversation thread. Length of post is 150-200 words.