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)


  1. (other half of comment)This is one of first parallels drawn between animals and humans.The woman’s body becomes an object removed from the human, just as an animal’s body must be removed from the living creature in order to be consumed, objectified and exploited. Carol Adams calls this the “absent referent” where meat is an absent referent for animal and rape is for women. Thus ignoring the feelings and experiences of the woman or animal and “patriarchal values become institutionalized." This distancing creates systems of oppression as it denies that being rights in favor of economic or social gains. This designation of women’s bodies as consumable can be seen in the narrator’s interactions and sexual fantasies about Honore as she employs the “absent referent” to describe her own body. Honore comes in for a kiss, but instead “bite[s] [her] savagely in the bacon,” bacon being her own flesh. Her body is again described as consumable in her actions with customers as they “nibbl[ed] the flowers at [her] cleavage so that they could sink their teeth into [her] neck." The imagery produced by her descriptions referencing meat and the act of eating it, makes her body into something acceptable to violate and consume.
    Actions taken by the narrator to make her body more sexually appealing bring up images of meat production. When she’s shaving her legs in the bathroom attempting to rid her body of the hair now growing in a “repulsive” manner all over her body, she nicks herself and the blood makes her “unable to forget those images of slaughter” of a throat being slit. The act of preparing her body for sexual encounters and the bodies of animals being prepared to be consumed is linked in this scene. The consumption of animals denies them their right to existence based off a consumer’s appetite, and the consumption of a female body for sex denies the woman a possibility of pleasure in the experience; instead she becomes simply an object for the other to take pleasure in. Adams references this when she writes about the ways sexual violence often uses metaphors of animal slaughter, because “cultural images of sexual violence... often rely on our knowledge of how animals are butchered and eaten." Slaughter of animals is so prevalent that it becomes a referent for other forms of oppression.
    Towards the end of the novel this parallel becomes solidified as her transformation into a pig is complete and she is taken to be slaughtered by her own mother and the director. She is able to empathize fully with the pigs and feel the “panic that seizes [their] vitals." The description of her mother as a “murderer” coming to “kill a pig that doesn’t belong to her,” is a very important image, as we don’t often look at the factory workers as “murderers” for committing a socially sanctioned act of killing.The choice of the word “belong” is also important because it’s used in claiming possession of female bodies and animal bodies. The idea someone can own anyone else is morally flawed and denies that being its freedom based off the idea that the consumer’s desires are more important.
    The narrator takes comfort in other pigs and as she gets to know them on a personal level she is able to empathize with them. She comes to see them as “rather nice” and their bodies become “reassuring” and “a part of the heart of [her]." She finds more comfort in the pigs than any other characters within the book. The oppression they both face is an equalizer as her position as a woman, now a pig, denies her a voice in this society, just as animals have no voices in society. She begins to refer to them as “companions” and all of the qualities of pig nature, their smell, hooves, and body shape that she battled throughout the book are no longer an issue. Oppression and exploitation of bodies is seen as the same, whether that is animal or human.
    This book came up often in my reading during this course as it explores the nature of the relationship between women and animal, and by extension the relationship between humans and non-human species.

    1. This post definitely will count as 2 posts!

  2. (first half of comment)
    In the novel “Pig Tales,” the portrayal of a female sex worker slowly transforming into a pig draws clear parallels between the commodification of animal bodies and that of female bodies. The patriarchal society inherent in the novel and ultimate control over reproduction and sexuality of both women and animals raises questions about the consequences of appropriating bodies as commodities and what it means to deny a group rights based off economic and social constructions.
    The patriarchal society that dominates throughout the book is set up within the first pages when the objectification of the female narrator as a sexual object, and her compliance with that objectification, earns her a job at Perfumes Plus (a massage parlor). Her interview consists of the director feeling her up; he “sat me on his lap and pawed at my right breast” which she does not question in the slightest, instead commenting on how her figure has become more and more sexually appealing for men. The image of the director holding her “right breast in one hand” and “the job contract in the other” quite clearly shows the patriarchal power inherent in this world. The narrator’s economic security and value is measured against her ability to be a sexual object.
    The narrator has a very passive take on the whole situation,she has internalized gender-based oppression to the point where the exploitation of her body seems normal to her. After she has begun transforming into a pig, her husband, Honore, takes her out to dinner at “Aqualand” (a bar/swimming area) and presents her with a low cut bathing suit, undressing her in the bathroom and expecting her to follow his wishes and put it on then and there. When the suit rips (due to the weight gain from transformation) this makes him furious and he forces her from the bathroom, embarrassing her and pushing her into the pool; “Honore left without looking back probably dying of shame." Honore is disappointed consistently by her inability to fulfill his idea of a sexual object, whether that is through appearance or through action. He seems to believe that she is supposed to meet his expectations and behave in a way he believes is proper, and when she fails to do so he punishes her.

    It would by simplistic and reductive to not recognize the parallels between the patriarchal society within the novel and our current society. The objectification and exploitation of women’s bodies is everywhere from advertisements, to social media and mainstream media. The career of the female narrator as a sex worker is also key and ever present in our own society, where women’s bodies literally become commodities. The exchange of monetary means, and by extension financial security for those selling their bodies, reinforces the idea that the body is something consumable and separates the human being from the object that is the body.

  3. Brilliant insight. I remember you mentioning this book when Sophia was your TA. This story is resonant of another story called "Girl Who was Plugged In." Thanks for this!

    1. We also read the "Girl who was plugged in"! Lots of the stories we read in Sophia's section could probably connect.

  4. This is the article I mentioned in class from the New York Times. This section in particular: "My first time grocery shopping after going vegan last summer, I walked down the meat aisle past sausages, ground beef and chicken cutlets, aware that my rediscovered beliefs were, to a large extent, intellectual. It took an imaginary leap for me to recognize the blood pooling in the corner of some Saran Wrap as that which had once carried nourishment to the organs of another being, so I conjured up videos I’d seen of slaughterhouses, battery cages and nursing sows. I reminded myself of all I’d read recently, how disgusted I’d felt just days beforehand. Reaching the end of the aisle, I still felt disconnected. Then I saw the chicken feet.

    They’d always been there next to the cow tongues but I’d never seen that they were so humanlike. They were bled white and plump. Their four digits bent innocently at the knuckles like children’s. Skin was torn where it was handled too roughly, and snapped tendons showed from the ends of wrists beneath ragged skin where the feet had been chopped. Fingernails came to elegant points. I got close and stared. What had been theoretical just seconds before had suddenly become disturbingly, gloriously real to me."

  5. This weeks post indirectly connects with the material of my Literature 1 class this quarter. Though we are not reading about animals, we are reading novels such as "Frogs" by Aristophanes. This novel discusses the role of poetry in society. Two poets argue about their beliefs as to what poetry should do for audiences. One poet argues that poetry should only exemplify the good in people, as he does not believe that people can think critically. In other words, he does not believe people know right from wrong. The other poet obviously argues the opposite. He talks about the need for poetry to represent reality, even if it holds the negative aspects of the world. Further, he thinks that people must see the bad in order to know not to repeat it.
    These concepts are those that still prevail in the world today. People do not want to know the bad in the world. Instead they would rather go about their lives focusing on only the good. I connect these ideas to this classes material. Personally, this class has opened my eyes to horrible and negative ideals that our world holds today. Though I may not like to see the reality of how humans interact and connect with other species, I find it necessary to know of it. I believe that if more people were informed, they would have the ability to think critically and know how to do their part in making changes for society.
    This is a summary of the play since I do not have any direct link to pages:

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. As a Computer Science major, I rarely encounter anything regarding animals in my courses. However, when I think of animals+other classes, the first thing that comes to mind is a topic from Discrete Math.

    It's called "The Pigeonhole Principle". It states: If there are a certain number of pigeons, and a certain number of pigeonholes (where the number of pigeons is greater than the number of pigeonholes). There must be a pigeonhole that contains more than one pigeon.

    For example. If I had 3 pigeons, and 2 pigeonholes, then one of those pigeonholes has to have 2 of the pigeons.

    There isn't anything in particular from LIT80E that relates to this, but its a good example of how animals can be used as an analogy to help learn a concept.

  8. This quarter I am also taking Bio20B. The first half of the class is all about animal physiology and the second half covers plant physiology. What is interesting to me, is that when the textbook or the professor talks about animal physiology, they are including humans into their definition of animal. In the class we go over all different types of body systems and how they work in both humans and other animals. This makes me happy because I feel like science gets it. Science knows that humans are just a different species of animal and that we came about similarly to all the other species on the planet. This is why I'm a science major, because science gets it!

    1. This was from Annie Susco, section B.

  9. As a marine bio major, Animals and Literature has raised a number of philosophical, and ethical questions about humans' interactions with animals that are not usually addressed in regular biology classes. Taking scientific scuba diving this quarter, there have been a number of instances when our discussions in Lit80E about an animal's rationalizations of its surroundings have arisen during scientific scuba exercises.

    Much of what we do in scientific scuba diving is quantifying certain species in a given area and there relative abundance. With this data we can extrapolate the relative health of an area. However as we have discussed in class there is very little attention paid to the "emotional" health of animals, and what they are experiencing. For instance we cannot quantify the way in which, say, a fish, experiences their environment in comparison to us. One of the data collection techniques taught in scientific scuba diving is how to do fish census along a transect. As we swim, we are noting the presence of certain species and their abundance. While we do this we are observing the same environment the fish are, but what we are experiencing are two drastically different things. What is the fish thinking? How is it seeing and rationalizing the same world that I am seeing and rationalizing? These are just a few questions that are beyond the scope of our current understandings of ocean health, yet are seemingly integral questions to ask when trying to gauge the health and vitality of an area that is made up of so many, living, cognizant individuals.

  10. A couple months ago I was reading volume 1 of Rick Remender's "Black Science" and in the first book of the series, the protagonist Grant McKay is searching for fresh water in a dimension where anthropomorphic frog and fish-people are at war with each other. I am personally quite repulsed, physically, by these two animals in particular, so it really affected my sensibilities to see a group of dumpy frog-men lusting over a naked "fish-woman" with large assets, held as a slave and forced to dance for them as they "gurgle on the blood and flesh of her people." I was also pretty affected by how the protagonist was assessing the situation. He comments that "fish-lady is someone's daughter," remembering his own daughter who is waiting for him at home, and sympathizing with her being tortured and degraded. This stuck out to me, because outside of the context of a fictional comic universe, I don't think I could conceive of someone describing a fish as being "degraded." Following his reflection was this little bit of profundity that I feel connects to the rhetoric of this class -- Grant thinks, as he rescues the fish-lady and escapes the frogs' lair with her: "Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious." This is a fitting assertion In the context of the Black Science universe, but what about in the real world? Can readers who feel moved by this phrase say that they share the same view in a world where animals are not anthropomorphic? If they could not draw a parallel between their plight and human plight? I mean, would you save a fish if it was in turmoil and doing so would be nice but kind of out of your way, and it had no boobs?
    The first time I read the comic, I thought, females, even in another dimension, even as fish, are of course consumed sexually. Perversion and depravity is a constant theme, what's new? After some time in LITE 80 though, I am also thinking this: The protagonist connects to the frogs and fish because they are capable of operating in a manner remniscent of human society -- they orchestrate wars, abide by hierarchy. They lust, hunger, hate. But if they, and all animals, weren't so immediately similar to humans, would they still have mattered in the eyes of McKay and readers?

  11. All three of my classes this quarter involves animals and the marine environment. In my marine mammals class we have been studying recent mammals of the ocean that have gone extinct. We recently learned about the vaquita, the most endangered & and smallest cetacean, in our lectures.
    Here is a part of the article as follows:

    The tiny vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) is found only in the shallow waters of the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the most endangered of the 128 marine mammals alive in the world today. The Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita), an international team of scientists established by the government of Mexico and known by its Spanish acronym CIRVA, estimated about 200 vaquitas remaining in 2012. Since then, CIRVA believes that about half of them have been killed in gillnets, leaving fewer than 100 individuals today. Of these, fewer than 25 are likely to be reproductively mature females.

    1. For those interested this is the rest of the article!

  12. I recently listened to a Ted Talk by Melanie Joy on "Beyond Carnism" that was quite interesting and applies to this course.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I don't have any specific article or piece to share, but in my African Art and Visual Culture class we've come across (briefly) animal sacrifice. This class (Animals in Literature) has really helped me to be aware of animals in ALL different situations now. Before, I'd never really think of animals being used as sacrifices in rituals. As much as I respect the beliefs and cultures and religions of others, I don't think going out, grabbing an animal and killing it for your beliefs is okay. At all. It's not. Again, it's us, such destructive humans, killing life for something that we are so sure is right. Well, you know, I'm pretty sure if you asked that cat if it would rather have had it's head chopped off or continue living, it would say the latter. But we don't care. We act as if all of Earth's resources and beings are to be used at our disposal. We take and take without ever thinking of giving back. You, human, want to volunteer yourself as a sacrifice? Okay, fine. That is YOUR choice, but I'm damn 100% sure that the animals you snatch up (And it's NOT just African Culture OF COURSE, there are others as well) had the CHOICE to be or not be used as a sacrifice, they'd opt out.

  15. I'm a bioengineering major, so most of curriculum can be applied to life and often specifically to animals. However, most of what I learn in my other courses is on a cellular or molecular level. For example, in my current bio class, we reviewed the concept of sex determination in different types of animals. For example, in mammals, sex is determined by the presence or absence of a Y chromosome. Even a person with a XXY chromosome combination will develop as a male. In contrast, there is no such thing as a Y chromosome for insects. Rather, sex is determined by the number of X chromosomes. Females have two X, while males have only one and nothing else. Another example is sex determination of birds. For these animals, the X and Y chromosomes are switched. So females have XY and males have YY. There are two other sex determining systems for animals if you guys want to google them.

  16. I love Gene Baur's recent Ted Talk on "Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food"

    He was also on the late show with Jon Stewart and it's a great interview!

  17. Last quarter I took Bio of Aids and learned about a theory on how HIV was contracted called the hunters theory.
    This stood out to me in this class because the theory states that man would hunt chimps and eat their brains while they were still alive. This caused us to obtain the HIV virus that they contained and it manipulated and adapted into our human form. Regardless of how it was contracted, man eating a chimps brain for the theory of more knowledge just screams the fact that our society might not be as superior as we assume. If we can be threatened by an animal such as a chimp, then why do we compare them to lower class society when it's obvious that they are smarter then us.

  18. As a MCD Biology major, I am required to take a lot of courses relating to animals: the physiology, the development, the ecology and the evolution of animals, but never considering animals in a literary perspective. (One of the reasons I took this course) So I'm going to share something I learned from my Bio20c class, which deals with animal ecology and evolution. (I do not have a article or hard copy reading of this information, just something we've learned).

    At the beginning of the quarter, we were asked to provide our definition of what we think constitutes an animal. The first thing that comes to mind is that animals are living, breathing beings capable of movement, digestion and other bodily processes. However, we never really consider if animals are capable of thought (personally I like to think so) like humans are, even though human beings are still considered "animals".
    Here is something I learned in my Biology class to support my belief that animals are in fact capable of thought. So there is this thing called Altruism. Altruism is a selfless behavior that is beneficial to the recipient, but not to the donor. Typically, altruistic behavior exists between related individuals, but that's not always the case. Altruism between unrelated individuals is referred to as reciprocal altruism. You can think of this form of altruism like "you scratch my back now, and I will scratch yours later". Anyways, an example of this exists between vampire bats. The bats that have fed well will regurgitate blood for those who haven't fed in hopes that they would do the same thing for them (if needed). This form of reciprocal altruism exists between the bats because the cheaters (those receive blood meals, but never donate any themselves) are shunned! So more to the point, the bats have to think about who they share their blood with, so they don't get cheated! Might be way of course here, but still interesting to share.