Bare Necessities

Published in Tiny Spoon Issue 5: Ecology in 2020.

If you act like that bee acts, uh uh. You’re working too hard. – “Bare Necessities,” The Jungle Book

I. BIRD

Birds screamed like they knew something we didn’t—maybe some of us knew, and liked to pretend we didn’t. 

I would be annoyed with us humans too; I would shit on someone every time I flew. 

No wonder the cassowaries want to claw us alive. A bird clawing a human alive? you ask incredulously. Cassowaries are five feet tall—that’s how tall I am. Be careful you don’t run into a protective mother somewhere out in the jungle. 

They must be related to Australia’s other huge bird: the emu, the world’s second-tallest bird, after the ostrich. Emus grow to be six feet tall. In 1932, the government of Australia declared war on the emus, The Great Emu War. 

The emus won.

II. MONKEY

We went to Bali for spring break. It was a short 4-hour plane trip away. We were excited, especially because the country is really cheap to visit. 

One day we included the Monkey Forest in our schedule. Our other friends wouldn’t go because monkeys are creepy.

In the Monkey Forest, you have to put all your belongings away. They steal sunglasses, glasses, hats—really anything they can grab and run with. 

I saw a few playing with a water bottle, as if it were the world’s greatest treasure.

*

Monkeys in Costa Rica howl, staying true to their name: howler monkey. These ones didn’t steal from us. They posed for pictures in tree branches. 

My brother caught a photo through a telescope of this one tiny monkey.

I swear in those eyes, I saw the knowledge of deforestation. That monkey was thinking of homes stolen, turned into power lines.

III. TURTLE

Maybe the sea doesn’t count as the jungle. But whenever I’ve been in a rainforest, a beach has always been close by. 

In Bali, we visited a sea turtle sanctuary and held a hatchling in our hands. I posted a photo of a hatchling in my hand with the caption: Welcome to this terrible, beautiful world. 

I thought my words were poetic.

We bought hatchlings to release into the ocean. On the way from the sanctuary to the sea, I rode on the back of my cute friend’s moped, no helmet on. We passed cows, gazing at them as we zoomed by. 

One of our tiny turtles wouldn’t stop turning around and swimming back to shore. As if the turtle was thinking, I’m not ready. 

Did that baby sea turtle know that swimming away from the shore would be swimming into a terrifying future? Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood. 

Sea turtles are endangered. Maybe because of all the plastic they’re choking on. Or all the boats that cut their bodies in half. Or the fact that they all have herpes and don’t want to reproduce because of the pain. 

I can’t stop wondering if that baby sea turtle instinctively knew that it would be better to stay on shore than to swim out to sea.

IV. CROCODILE

Once we rode on a boat in a crocodile farm to see the salties up close. 

Salties are the last animal I would ever want to run into in my entire life. They immediately send your body into their signature move: the death roll. It should be called the spin of death. The worst part is, they only eat your arm, leaving the rest of your body to rot. 

One day my friends went to a beach, and the next day we saw on the news that a huge saltie was spotted swimming at the same beach they were swimming at. 

One time on the news we saw the title: Tourist Killed By Crocodile. They only found her clothes torn up at the shore, the rest of her body was gone entirely.

Up close, we could see how huge they were. How hard their jaws snapped when they were hungry. 

Seeing them so close validated my intense fear of them. But it also made me see them as beautiful. They are dinosaurs that can survive anything this Earth goes through. 

I hope at least the crocodiles make it, when if anything really bad ever happens to the rest of us.

V. REEF

How many miles does the Great Barrier Reef stretch across? I guess that’s a complicated question. Do we include only the part that’s alive now, or the parts that were alive in the past? 

Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef is dead. And that fraction grows by the day. 

I know the Reef is large enough to be seen from outer space. It’s the largest living organism on the planet. 

Google says the Reef is 1,600 miles long. I’m bad at math or else I would write how many miles two-thirds of that number is. Knowing the exact number would up the drama factor and the shock level. 

But all you need to know is that our seas are too acidic, too warm, too salty, and they don’t have enough oxygen. The ocean soaks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it’s killing the life that lives below the waves. 

I went snorkeling; I was so excited swimming out, but when I looked in my goggles, all I saw was white. The Reef was colorless. 

Six months later, my mom and I went to a healthy part of the Reef. We had to travel on a huge boat to get there, ironically.

I put on sunscreen even though I knew it kills the Reef—the ozone hole above Australia made me burn easily, and I burn bad, and I’m afraid of skin cancer—I felt guilty the entire time.

VI. ELEPHANT

Elephants aren’t in all jungles. They’re not in Australia because of the megafaunal extinction that killed or dwarfed all large mammals on the entire continent.

Luckily, there are elephants in Bali. While we were there, we went to an elephant sanctuary. I think they call them sanctuaries just to attract tourists by fooling us into thinking the facility is beneficial to the animals. 

We researched the sanctuary and it seemed pretty reputable. Hell, even The Crocodile Hunter recommended tourists go there because it is ethical. 

At the sanctuary, the elephants danced like they were happy. They hugged the workers with their trunks, balanced on beams, painted, did math, shot basketballs into hoops, and even more that I can’t remember—or maybe I just don’t want to remember. 

I thought it was cool at the time; I even took videos and posted them on social media. 

Later that night, my friend told me, You know they abuse the elephants to get them to perform those humiliating tasks, right?

I didn’t know. I didn’t read about it. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t consider why that one elephant was chained to the ground by the foot. 

VII. SNAKE

I don’t mind snakes that much. Australia has 8 of the top 10 most poisonous snakes in the world, yet I still chose to study there. I never really saw snakes when I was in the jungle, but I was often tricked by twisted branches. 

I’m not that scared of snakes. I know they don’t want to hurt people unless people want to hurt them. They mostly leave us alone entirely, only looking for small prey they can eat—I learned that in class. I also learned that the most dangerous snakes in Australia are the ones that are an unsuspecting color, like brown or black. The bright, neon-colored snakes are the ones that are harmless.

When my friend brought a python into our apartment, I found that in real life, I am very much afraid of snakes. My roommates and I yelled at Wyatt to get the python out of our apartment.

Holding the snake around his neck, Wyatt insisted, But look, it’s so cool! 

When I slowed down, I realized it did look peaceful. Instead of squeezing desperately to suffocate Wyatt like I once watched on Animal Planet, the snake looked relaxed. Comfortable. Happy. 

VIII. BEE

I never saw many bees in the jungle—except in Costa Rica, where they hovered over our beers and piña colidas—but that’s precisely the problem: they aren’t around much anymore. 

That Black Mirror episode where the government creates electronic bees to pollinate the plants because all the bees went extinct is looking closer to reality as the days fly by. 

African honey bees adapt and evolve very quickly, and they’re essentially taking over many other continents. In ecology, invasive species are seen as a huge negative, but in this case, it’s a positive. 

African honey bees are surviving even in the face of pesticides, climate change, loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, parasites, and pathogens. The bees really have a lot going against them. 

I took a pollination class in college, and we learned 90% of bees worldwide are dead. The African honey bees, in my mind, are a sign God might exist. 

When we sing “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book into microphones at karaoke—which happens often—I always think of the accuracy of that lyric Baloo sings: If you act like that bee acts, uh uh. You’re working too hard. Bees really do work hard. 

They bring us the bare necessities. The bare necessities of life will come to you. Only if the bees exist. 

They bring us all our fruits and vegetables, adding flavor and nutrition into our lives. They make all the other animals and plants on Earth function; they are the soul of the ecosystem. 

We all rest on the shoulders of tiny, hardworking bees. 

Next time you see a bee, think of all the times they filled your belly with food. Think of what life would be like without them—think of how lifeless this place would be.

Climate Anxiety to Climate Denial

Published in Honey & Lime Issue 6: where do we go from here? in 2020.
You can view this publication online here.

I try hard not to imagine too far into the future. At this point it feels inevitable, and I try to push away the worry and hold onto the parts of the world that bring me joy, the ones that are still here, for the moment at least. 

Katie Palmer’s essay explicitly speaks of the acute anxiety that comes with learning about climate change, the difficulty of writing about a subject that clearly spells out our doom.

 The future of our planet is terrifying to think about. I do not yet know what our lives will look like twenty years into the future, especially for those who are already disenfranchised today: what resources we may have to give up, what creatures may one day go extinct. But as I put together this issue, the beautiful and evocative work of our contributors reminded me of something important. Perhaps the actions of one person may be ineffective on a global scale, but if all of us join our efforts together, and continue to act, speak up, and demand change, then maybe it will be enough to make a difference. This is all I can hope for.

– Excerpts from “Letter from the Editor” by Wanda Deglane in honey & lime

I can’t write poems about climate change. I tried once, in advanced poetry. During workshop, my professor asked one of my classmates what she thought of my poem, since she had been silent during the entire discussion.

“Honestly, I’m just not interested in this topic,” my classmate answered, her voice flat. 

What luxury—to not be interested, to not care, to not know. I wish I had looked at the environmental studies major at my school and thought, “That’s not for me. Next.” 

In reality, I picked my university specifically for the combined environmental studies and English major. When I was a freshman, my English professor tried to convince me to switch to being solely an English major, dropping the environmental half. 

“That’s not an option,” I told him. “I’m going to be an environmental lawyer.” 

But sometimes, I wish I had listened to him. 

In college, I loved taking environmental classes, but as I kept studying, I wasn’t so sure about environmental law anymore. I was still thinking I would move to Washington, D.C. and work on environmental policy. Or become an environmental journalist. Or an environmental textbook writer. 

I didn’t start to regret the environmental half of my major until my senior year. My first semester, I finally got into a class I had been dying to get into: climate change policy and advocacy. 

On the first day, my professor asked, “What do you think is the scariest news in climate change today?”

My classmates looked puzzled, but I raised my hand confidently. “The permafrost melting,” I said, as if the answer were obvious, like the know-it-all I was. “My climate science professor told us last year that it wouldn’t start melting for 50 years. There’s methane in it, which is way more potent than carbon dioxide. The melting permafrost will accelerate climate change, and it will be irreversible.” 

“I agree. Nice job.” My professor looked impressed. In Australia, I had taken a class explaining all the intricate details of the Earth’s climate, so I knew I would ace this class.

Except I didn’t. Not even close. 

I was only a few points away from failing my midterm, and only because my professor went back and added 0.5 points on a few answers. I saw my original failing score crossed out, replaced by another score. I passed only because my professor took pity on me.

I felt like a failure, but every time I tried to study for that test, I would spiral into a panic attack. Tears would fall uncontrollably down my face. I couldn’t catch my breath. My heart would race and my skin would sweat as if I had just finished a marathon. I felt like my chest was going to explode. I couldn’t swallow; my throat felt like it was sealed shut. I would vomit, which made me never want to eat. Sometimes, all my limbs would even go completely numb. Most terrifying of all, I felt like I was going to die right then. 

I was in a really dark place. That semester, I cried to the same professor that tried to tell me to switch to being an English major. 

“You can’t control climate change,” he told me. “You can’t stress what you can’t control.” He mirrored almost the exact same words my therapist had told me. 

As the year went on, I felt like I was getting so much better. I passed the class, barely, but I was still on track to graduate on time. I took less stressful, more enjoyable classes second semester. 

Best of all, therapy was working. I went from having multiple panic attacks daily first semester, to having almost none for the entirety of my second semester. 

But I guess climate change will always be a trigger for me. 

After graduation, I was at my Papa’s camp, nestled deep in the woods. This is the place that fostered my connection to the environment as a child, inspiring me to study it when I grew up. We all sat around the campfire, sipping plastic cups filled with mixed drinks.

Somehow, I found myself discussing climate change with three people, all biased in their own ways: someone who works in the fossil fuel industry, a dairy farmer, and a Trump supporter. 

I knew they were biased, but they thought I was too. How could I be biased, when I had nothing to sell or gain from my perspective? Didn’t they know how much I wished climate change weren’t true? 

No matter my degree, no matter what I learned, or what I said, they would have never listened to me. Ever. 

After they kept arguing with me for way too long, I started crying frustrated tears. “You’re old,” I said. “You got to get old, but you stole that from my generation. We will never get old.” 

Truth is, I don’t know what will happen to us. A huge part of me hopes the climate change deniers win. I imagine myself, 90-years-old, laughing, “You guys were right all along. I was so worried for nothing!” 

The other part of me, the one who knows all the science, can’t handle the depression and anxiety that comes with the knowledge. That’s why I have become a sort of climate change denier myself. I avoid the news. I focus on the pretty scenery nature provides. I fill my car with gas and drive to work. I forget to unplug my chargers. I don’t apply to any environmental jobs. 

Maybe one day I will be mentally strong enough to go for that law degree, or to make a difference in some other way. Maybe one day I’ll be able to at least write one decent poem about it.

Sources to look at if you suffer from climate anxiety:

Climate Anxiety Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Life

‘Eco-Anxiety’: How to Spot it and What to do About it

With Climate Change Comes Loss and “Ecological Grief”

Black Mirror and Posthumanism: What is Humanity?

Published as the leading piece in Underground Journal in 2019.

The journal opens with Katherine Palmer’s work “Black Mirror and Posthumanism: What is Humanity?”, which explores the question of what is truly human in an era filled with technology by analyzing how a popular television show portrays humanity.

– “Letter from the Editor” by Josephine Brown ’19 in Underground Journal

Netflix’s original Black Mirror is a British show directed by John Hillcoat in which each episode is a standalone, but each episode is linked to a common thread: the fear of the negative consequences on humanity due to technological advancement. But what is humanity? The show Black Mirror blends aspects of the genres of horror, cyberpunk, science fiction, and dystopia to make the viewer wonder what it means to be human, offering us viewers a posthumanist perspective. Through its portrayal of posthumanism, Black Mirror encourages viewers to rethink the way we perceive humanity and the world around us. 

Posthumanism

Posthumanism is a direct and contradictory response to the philosophical school of thought stemming from the Enlightenment: humanism. Humanism and posthumanism are Western thoughts, so these ideas might not apply to other societies around the world. According to Schmeink in “Dystopia, Science Fiction, Posthumanism, and Liquid Modernity,” humanism is the belief that “there is a unique and absolute difference that sets humans apart” from the rest of the natural world (30). The Enlightenment and the spark of humanism is when John Locke’s ideas of natural, inalienable human rights started to become accepted. 

This conversation about human rights led to the consideration of what defines humanity. In “Posthumanism: A Critical History,” Miah explains, “an initial attempt to define what is uniquely valuable about being human is found in discussions about dignity and rights, which in turn gives rise to discussions about humanness and personhood” (14). Miah explains that posthumanism involves “coming to terms with how the Enlightenment centering of humanity has been revealed as inadequate” (2). Posthumanists realize that the concept of humanity has been constructed by humanity itself, which has led to extreme environmental degradation.

Environmental Degradation

Rethinking this centering of humanity and considering the interconnectedness of the nature and humanity could be the answer to our environmental issues, as Hamilton points out in writing about climate change. In “Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change,” Hamilton writes, “We came to believe we could keep Nature at arms-length, but have now discovered, through the exertions of climate science, that Nature is always too close for comfort” (15). Hamilton explains how climate denial is a “last-ditch attempt to re-impose the Enlightenment’s allocation of humans and Nature to two distinct realms” (15). Therefore, Black Mirror’s posthumanist perspective may be just what the world needs to face the reality of environmental degradation.

A central aspect to posthumanism is questioning what will be to come of the world after humans; hence the name, “post” humanity. Schmeink writes that since human history can be erased, there will be a time after humans (29). Themes of overpowering or intrusive technology often coincide with questions concerning environmental degradation, which could cause the end of humanity. 

An example of this is Season 3, Episode 6: “Hated in the Nation.” In this episode, the extinction of bees—a real and urgent threat today—leads to society replacing the bees with electronic bees that pollinate the plants. This episode is dystopian: with no bees to pollinate the plants, humans would die. In the episode, a hacker gets control of the electronic bees, so the bees start targeting humans. The hacker encourages people on social media to vote on whom the bees should target and kill that day. This episode is posthumanist in several ways: it portrays a degraded environment which technology has failed to save, suggesting a time after humans, and it challenges our perception of nature and what is real. 

Genre Analysis

The episode “Hated in the Nation” illustrates many examples of how Black Mirror threads aspects of horror, cyberpunk, science fiction, and dystopia. For example, in “Hated in the Nation,” the society portrayed is very similar to our own, all except for the electronic bees. Similarly, the bees look and sound almost exactly like normal bees. By portraying society and the bees in “Hated in the Nation” as different, but horrifyingly recognizable, Black Mirror is employing the device of the uncanny, a central aspect in the genre of horror. 

Picture source.

According to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, “what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar” (76). Freud continues, “the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (76). According to Creed in The Monstrous Feminine, cyborg bodies fall into the category of the uncanny (59). In “Hated in the Nation,” the cyborg bodies are the bees. In Culture & Technology, Murphie and Potts explain that the cyborg represents the boundary between nature and culture breaking down (116).  This is another way in which Black Mirror practices aspects of traditional horror: by constantly blurring or crossing boundaries. 

This is related to the Kristeva’s theory of abjecton; Creed explains, “that which crosses or threatens to cross the ‘border’ is abject” (11). Cyborg bodies are therefore abject, but Black Mirror also portrays abjection in “Hated in the Nation” because the bees dive into their victims’ ears, crossing the ultimate boundary between self and other, the skin. 

What is Human?

Schmeink explains the historical context behind society’s fascination with cyborgs: “Robotics and computer science had progressed immensely and the cyborg became the central metaphor to understand social and cultural reality as a construction of multiple identities, a metaphor truly made for the late twentieth century imagination” (21). Cyborgs represent an “other” from humanity, which in turn helps us define humanity. 

In Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis, Herbretcher explains, “Our understanding of technology forces us to ask the question ‘What is man?’ at a metaphysical-ontological level-a level that even the negation or the apparent surpassing of the question is unable to achieve” (15). Similarly, Miah explains, “These stories of automata, cyborgs, and robots all pose the same question: how do humans differ from non-humans, or more simply, what does it mean to be human?” (12). Black Mirror consistently uses technologies including cyborgs to make the audience question what a human is.

Ethics and Morals

Cyborgs are important in the realm of posthumanism. By questioning humanity through technology and by often portraying technology negatively, Black Mirror is reflecting the tendency in science fictions to assume “an increasingly influential cultural position, due to its long-standing ethical probing of the social consequences of new technologies” (Murphie 95). Furthermore, Murphie and Potts explain in Culture & Technology, “the cyborg operates as an ambiguous metaphor for our increasing dependence on technology” (110). Therefore, by portraying cyborg bodies in many episodes, Black Mirror is simultaneously making us rethink humanity and nature while also critiquing society’s reliance on technology. 

Cyborgs

There are many examples of Black Mirror questioning humanity through the use of cyborg bodies. An example of an episode that portrays cyborg bodies to question humanity is “The Entire History of You,” which threatens viewers’ senses of self. This relates to posthumanism, because by making viewers question what it means to be human, Black Mirror is essentially challenging our perception of reality: in this case, our perception of humanity. 

The rejection of the cultural construct of humanity is very posthumanist; Schmeink explains that posthumanists believe “the human as a category is a fleeting and historically specific concept” (29). Posthumanists recognize that humanity has defined itself, and posthumanists have learned to reject the notion that humans have created, which is that humans are unique and special just because they are human. In Culture and Technology, Murphie and Potts explain that similarly to humanity as a societal construct, the sense of self is a “cultural construct, historically determined and susceptible to changing social conditions” (160). By questioning our senses of self in “The Entire History of You” through the portrayal cyborg bodies, Black Mirror illustrates a posthumanist perspective.

“The Entire History of You” directly threatens the characters’ bodies, minds, and their senses of self. This episode exemplifies a dystopian society in which almost every character has a cyborg body, due to the “grains,” which are technological devices in their brains. The grains allow the characters to record everything they see and hear, and the characters can replay memories in their individual eye or they can play it on a projector for everyone to see. 

“The Entire History of You” directly threatens our sense of self; Colleen says, “Half the organic memories you have are junk. Just not trustworthy” (13:44). Memories are directly related to our senses of self, because we would not be who we are without our memories. This quote from Colleen suggests that our senses of self are not reliable and constructed from false memories.

Black Mirror criticizes our sense of self in today’s society that is greatly intertwined with technology: as Murphie and Potts explain, “artificial memories,” or memories of technology such as movies, saturate our memories (159). Possibly due to the number of selves presented on television, “individuals increasingly feel ‘lost’ in an advanced technological society” (160). Furthermore, in The Monstrous Feminine, Creed explains that identity is a constructed illusion, “always in danger of regression” (29). “The Entire History of You” is posthumanist because it questions and threatens the viewer’s constructed identity. 

“The Entire History of You” crosses boundaries because a piece of technology lives in the characters’ brains, making them cyborgs, crossing the machine and human boundary. This is similar to Season 2, Episode 1: “Be Right Back.” In this episode, Martha’s husband, Ash, dies in a car crash. As Martha grieves, her friend suggests to her a service that would use all of Ash’s social media accounts to formulate his personality. The episode begins with Martha simply messaging the fake Ash, but then she sends the service videos of him to formulate his voice, and they start talking on the phone. The fake Ash then suggests taking it all a step further by ordering him a technological body that will feel real and look just like the real Ash. 

However, while it does look exactly like Ash, Martha is repeatedly uneasy by how obvious it is that Ash is not a human: he does not breathe, eat, use the bathroom, and he can turn his penis on and off with just a thought. In Ash’s body we see the lack of boundaries that usually excrete the abject as well as the lack of boundary between human and machine. The fake Ash is nothing like the real Ash: he is much better at having sex, he can look up anything on the web at any moment in his mind, and he does not know anything that Ash did not put on social media. 

Eventually, Martha does not even enjoy having sex with him, and she encourages Ash to not look up anything in his brain ever. She does not enjoy these differences from the real Ash, but most of all, Martha is frustrated when the fake Ash’s personality is not enough like the real Ash’s. She exclaims, “You’re just a performance of stuff that he performed without thinking” (45:20). Clearly, this episode portrays Black Mirror’s longing for the body and the critique on the thought that a soul could exist without a body. The cyborg Ash ends up being locked up in Martha’s attic, since he is not a suitable replacement for the real Ash.

Picture source.

Other Black Mirror episodes that portray cyborg bodies to question humanity are Season 3, Episode 2: “Playtest” and Season 4, Episode 2: “Arkangel.” In these episodes, technology is inserted into every character’s brain, and it turns out the technology can never be removed, making them cyborg bodies forever.

In “Playtest,” a game is created that takes the player’s biggest fears and causes hallucinations that they are facing those fears, but the characters in the game cannot tell what is a hallucination and what is real. This episode represents the idea of the “hyperreal,” which is a postmodernist thought theorized by Baudrillard.

The hyperreal is “more real than real: something fake and artificial comes to be more definitive of the real than reality itself” (University of Houston). The hyperreal can be as simple as what is viewed on television. By simulating the hyperreal, Black Mirror is portraying posthumanism by questioning our sense of reality and our perspective of the world through the portrayal of a cyborg body. 

“Arkangel” also portrays a cyborg body. In this episode, Marie has the Arkangel implanted in her daughter Sara’s brain. The Arkangel allows Marie to sensor over every aspect of Sara’s life, giving her the ability to see and hear what Sara sees and hears, and it also blurs out anything that causes Sara stress, making her unable to see or hear certain things, such as the dog that scares her when she walks to school. This episode represents the boundary being broken between human and machine, but also mother and daughter. 

Psychoanalysis 

“Arkangel” is very Freudian, because Freud theorized that central to a male’s maturation, he must distance himself from his mother. Contrastingly, in “The Mother-Daughter Relationship and its Devastation Effects,” Sauza explains that Freud theorized that women cannot distance themselves completely from their mother (2041). Sauza writes, “Freud states that the result of the relationship between mother and daughter is catastrophic, which Lacan later called devastation” (2041). This episode shows the result of the daughter being unable to separate herself from her monstrous mother, and the devastating consequences of the inseparable two. By illustrating the Freudian theory of daughter and mother as lacking boundaries, Black Mirror perpetuates problematic patriarchal narratives.

Boundaries & Genres

In all of these episodes, many boundaries are being crossed, but the common border repeatedly crossed is between human and machine. In The Monstrous Feminine, Creed writes, “the concept of the border is central to the construction of the monstrous in the horror film” (11). This can be said of cyberpunk, science fiction, and dystopia, all genres in which Black Mirror embodies. In “The Persistence of Hope in Science Fiction,” Baccolini explains that the genres of science fiction, dystopia, and cyberpunk make people uncomfortable because they are deviant in blurring the borders and binaries between culturally constructed genres (519).

Baccolini explains, “Genres are then culturally constructed and rest on the binary between what is normal and what is deviant” (519). Similarly, the genres themselves are obsessed with borders and boundaries. Schmeink considers the heart of cyberpunk “the radical breaking up of dichotomies and the destabilizing of boundaries: machine/human, nature/culture, male/female, high culture/low culture, body/mind” (21). Works in these genres defy societal constructions in both the genre they embody as well as in the content they hold.

This idea of crossing boundaries is also posthumanist; Miah explains, posthumanism reflects a “transgression of boundaries and the position of humanity in relation to these concepts” (2). Therefore, Black Mirror’s constant crossing of boundaries is what makes it horror, cyberpunk, science fiction, dystopia, and posthumanist. Baccolini writes, “The notion of an impure genre, one with permeable borders that allow contamination from other genres, represents resistance to a hegemonic ideology and renovates the resisting nature of science fiction” (520). Therefore, Black Mirror pushes against what is normal and accepted in society by crossing boundaries, making viewers rethink their own perspectives of the world.

This crossing of boundaries is found often in posthumanist Black Mirror episodes through the portrayal of a blurred “machine/human” distinction. Black Mirror questions humanity: is a soul unique to humanity, or could a computer or technology encompass a soul? Black Mirror constantly blurs the line between humanity and technology, forcing us to question what it means to be human, and what impact technology will have on humanity.

Digital Clones

Aside from cyborg bodies, Black Mirror questions humanness by putting a soul into technology; for example, Season 2, Episode 4: “White Christmas.” In the episode, an affluent woman, Greta, has paid to undergo an operation to create a “cookie” of herself: a digital clone. Greta’s cookie cannot believe she is not the “real” Greta, and that she now lives in a piece of technology. With absolutely nothing to do in her little technological universe, even unable to sleep, Greta’s cookie is forced to be a slave to the Greta, making her toast, confirming her appointments, and ordering groceries; basically, just micromanaging Greta’s life.

Picture source.

Although Greta paid for this service, her cookie has been forced into living this life without her consent. Miah explains, “contemporary visions of posthumanism are informed by conversations on cyborgs or automata, which have often involved a reflective stance on humanity’s distinct and special place in the world” (2). Miah continues, “removing the body from subjectivity gives way to futuristic ideas about the legitimacy of such prospects of downloading brains and imagining a world where the moral concern of humanity extends to automata” (9). By the end of the episode, viewers sympathize more with Greta’s cookie than the actual human, a common theme in science fictions (Murphie 101). This episode is an example of how Black Mirror questions the premise of a soul: does it exist? Can it be placed into technology? Should technology have human rights? And finally, what does it mean to be human? Is the soul in the technology human, and if not, what is it?

This episode reflects the anti-body aspect of artificial intelligence that Ullman describes in “Programming the Posthuman,” which is a “suspicion of the flesh” and a “quest for a disembodied intelligence” (66). Black Mirror critiques this idea, arguing that our bodies are a critical aspect of our souls. For example, in “White Christmas,” Greta’s cookie is especially upset when she finds she no longer lives in a body. Matt, the person who has been paid to put her soul into a technology, explains that he will give her a body, because having a body makes the transition easier for the cookies.

Similarly, in Season 4, Episode 1, “USS Callister,” Robert designs an online game which he has turned into an alternate digital reality for his own personal recreation, in which he uses DNA to create digital clones of his coworkers. In this alternate reality, Robert is able to exert complete control over his coworkers. The digital clones especially describe how much they miss the simple pleasures of having a real body, such as pooping, which is societally seen as an act that is gross. Similarly, the digital clones miss their genitals, which have been replaced with just “mounds of flesh.” Sex is also societally perceived as dirty and wrong. These bodily functions that the digital clones wish to have back are the exact bodily functions that Ullman describes as “polluting the discussion of intelligence” (66). This illustrates the rejection of the natural, primal aspects of the human body that characterizes many portrayals of posthumanism.

By making us uncomfortable with the lack of bodily functions of the characters, Black Mirror’s commentary is that our bodies are an essential aspect of being human. No viewer is supposed to want to live in an alternate reality where they cannot even go to the bathroom or have sex. This episode also portrays the lack of boundaries: for example, the digital clones have no genitals and no anus, and at one point in the episode, Robert removes Nannette’s mouth, making her unable to breathe and forcing her into submission to him. The removal of her mouth exemplifies the removal of a boundary. 

Picture source.

Gender Analysis

This episode is also a critique on the patriarchy. Robert is portrayed as having complete control in the alternate reality, but in real life, he is not powerful, therefore illustrating the idea of insecure masculinity. According to an article by Porter in International Peacekeeping, not meeting local idealizations of masculinity can cause “feelings of shame, humiliation, frustration, inadequacy and loss of dignity” (488). Porter illustrates how men feeling of insecure their masculinity often leads to them perpetuating cycles of violence and aggression (488). Although aggression is often seen as a feature of masculinity, Porter makes it clear than men are not inherently violent (489). It is the patriarchy that makes men feel like they have to be aggressive to “prove” their masculinity. Porter describes that fragile masculinity can stem from the fact that manhood is not a “given,” but rather that “manhood must be achieved” (488). This is portrayed in the character of Robert: since he is not powerful in real life, he has to turn to technology in order to feel masculine. Similarly, he forces the digital clones to celebrate him, and forces the women to kiss him. This episode of Black Mirror forces us to ask, should the digital clones have the same rights and respect as real humans?

Another episode that critiques the idea of souls living in technology is Season 4, Episode 6: “Black Museum.” This episode plays repeatedly with the premise of putting a soul into technology, but the main attraction of the museum is a hologram of Clayton, a man of color who is a convicted murderer. Clayton was put on death row and was coaxed by Haynes, the owner of the museum, into signing over the rights to his post-death consciousness. Haynes set up Clayton on display and viewers could pull a lever to make Clayton experience the agony of the electric chair repeatedly. Visitors could leave with a souvenir containing a copy of Clayton eternally in agony.

Nish, the main character of the episode, reveals herself as Clayton’s daughter, and to get revenge on Haynes, she poisoned him and after he dies, she transfers Haynes’ consciousness into Clayton’s hologram, simultaneously torturing Haynes and putting Clayton to rest. In the end, Nish gets revenge for her innocent father, but that still does not justify or make up for the horrible treatment his consciousness suffered for years, as well as the fact that Nish’s mother committed suicide. Also, her small victory does not get to the core root of the issue: people of color are often blamed and punished for crimes they did not commit.

Race Analysis

The fact that Clayton was sentenced such a harsh punishment, the death sentence, reflects that fact that people of color suffer the most from the justice system. According to the Center for American Progress, people of color serve longer sentences for the same crimes, and they are put in prison far more often than their white counterparts, even though they are not committing more of the crimes (Kerby). This episode suggests that by putting souls into technology, humans could potentially be subject to being repeatedly tortured. That would disproportionally affect members of our society who are already treated unfairly by the justice system. Black Mirror asks viewers: should souls in technology have the same rights as real human beings do? Are those souls that are put into the technology truly human?

Hopeful Posthumanism

Black Mirror’s only hopeful portrayal of posthumanism is Season 3, Episode 4: “San Junipero.” This episode is essentially about the idea of heaven, enacted through technology. This episode follows two aging, dying women, but in San Junipero—a paradise within technology—Yorkie and Kelly are young, healthy, and carefree. Rather than being critical of posthumanism, this episode seems to possibly embrace the potentially positive outcomes of putting souls into technology. As Murphie and Potts explain, “Science fiction has often oscillated between hope and despair, between celebration and warning” (95). This episode is perhaps the only one in which Black Mirror portrays posthumanism through technology as potentially positive; Yorkie and Kelly end up happy together in San Junipero, living a life in technology in young, beautiful bodies, not plagued by the physical realities of aging. Black Mirror seems to ask, could posthumanism mean a technological heaven for souls who are sick or have passed away?

Then again, would you really want your soul to live for eternity? As Colatrella explains, “We treasure the celebratory and fearsome aspects of science and technology in acknowledging that even the most progressive innovations might have hidden psychological or moral costs uncomfortable to bear” (554). While this episode might seem to portray posthumanism in a positive light, viewers could still interpret “San Junipero” as a critique on putting souls into technology: shouldn’t people’s souls die when their bodies die?

Conclusion

Black Mirror promotes a posthumanist worldview by portraying multiple episodes with cyborg bodies, as well as episodes in which souls are put into technology. These questions make viewers wonder what is special about humanity, as well as our perception of reality. What is real? Through portraying a posthumanist society, Black Mirror can then expand its critique on humanity to critique social oppression. Herbretcher explains, “Posthuman and posthumanist therefore also means this: to acknowledge all those ghosts, all those human others that have been repressed during the process of humanization: animals, gods, demons, monsters of all kinds” (9). Therefore, in critiquing humanity, Black Mirror critiques the societal devaluation of other humans. 

Black Mirror’s posthuman perspective could be extremely valuable as we try to rethink our place in the world, in turn helping us to de-center humanity while also helping us remember that we are interconnected with nature. Black Mirror’s posthumanism, through cyborg bodies and putting souls into technology, reminds us that we are animals, we are natural, and it is better that way. It also reminds us that we are interconnected and reliant on nature, and to save the world and prevent the end of humanity, the post-human, we need to save the planet. 

How to Cite this Publication in MLA

  • Palmer, Katherine. “Black Mirror and Posthumanism: What is Humanity?” Underground Journal, 2019. pp. 1-7.

Works Cited

  • Baccolini, Raffaella. “The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction.” PMLA, vol. 119, no. 3, 2004, pp. 518–521. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25486067.
  • Benard, Akeia A. F. “Colonizing Black Female Bodies Within Patriarchal Capitalism: Feminist and Human Rights Perspectives.” Sexualization, Media, & Society, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1177/2374623816680622.
  • Colatrella, Carol. “Science Fiction in the Information Age.” American Literary History, vol. 11, no. 3, 1999, pp. 554–565. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/490134.
  • Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine. Routledge, 2007.
  • Herbrechter, Stefan. Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis. Bloomsbury, 2013.
  • Hamilton, Clive. “Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change.” Museum of Natural Sciences, 2010.
  • Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” In Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader, by David Sandner. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
  • McNelly, Willis E. “Science Fiction and the American Dream.” CEA Critic, vol. 35, no. 2, 1973, pp. 10–13. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44375793.
  • Miah, Andy. “Posthumanism: A Critical History.” Medical Enhancements and Posthumanity. New York: Routledge. 2007.
  • Murphie, Andrew and John Potts. Culture & Technology. PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2003.
  • Porter, Antonia. “‘What Is Constructed Can Be Transformed’: Masculinities in Post-Conflict Societies in Africa.” International Peacekeeping (13533312), vol. 20, no. 4, Aug. 2013, pp. 486-506. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/13533312.2013.846137.
  • Schmeink, Lars. “Dystopia, Science Fiction, Posthumanism, and Liquid Modernity.” Biopunk Dystopias: Genetic Engineering, Society and Science
  • Ullman, Ellen. “Programming the Post-Human.” Harper’s Magazine, Oct. 2002, pp. 60-70.
  • Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1991, pp. 2-13. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1212758.

Solar Envy

Published in Laurentian Magazine in 2019.

I took Introduction to Poetry when I was a junior at St. Lawrence. Poetry was the last class I ever would have picked, but it was the only credit I could find to work towards my creative writing requirements. I tried desperately to get into fiction, but the class was full. I was feeling stressed about graduating on time because I was a junior, so I settled for poetry.

Despite my preconceptions about poetry, I found I loved my teacher, Sarah. She made every class super fun and interesting. I ended up taking Advanced Poetry senior year with her, and it didn’t even count towards anything in my degree. I took it because I loved poetry by that point.

This poem, my only poem published (so far), was the very first poem I ever wrote. In Introduction to Poetry, Sarah gave us an “object prompt,” and every one of us had to pick an object from her box and write a poem about it. Whoever raised their hand first got the object. When she pulled out eclipse glasses, I tried to raise my hand first, but Liam raised his hand faster.

Luckily, later something else popped up that Liam wanted more. “You can have the eclipse glasses, Katie,” Liam offered. My eyes lit up, because I knew exactly what I was going to write about: I was mad because I was in Australia when a solar eclipse happened at home.

Personifying the eclipse glasses in the beginning of the poem was an idea of mine sparked by Sarah; she told us in class, “I love writing poems through the lens of an object. I imagine what the object is thinking.”

The entire poem is about how I wish I was across the world watching the solar eclipse. I’ve never seen one; when I came back to the U.S., an awesome eclipse happened in Australia. Go figure.

Much of the poem, including the last stanza, describes the physical appearance of the eclipse glasses.

Let’s raise an iced coffee to the best genre out there: poetry.

Ecocentric and Anthropocentric Environmentalism: Atwood’s Critique of Specialization

Published in St. Lawrence Review 2019. Pages 62-74.

Margaret Atwood’s novel, Oryx and Crake, has often been described as an eco-dystopian novel, meaning that the novel critiques the way in which society approaches environmental issues by portraying a dystopian vision of a deteriorated planet. However, while many critics realize that Atwood is advocating for a better approach to caring for the environment, it is often overlooked that Oryx and Crake also critiques both the branches of traditional environmentalist thought: ecocentrism and anthropocentrism. By critiquing both ecocentrism and anthropocentrism through the characters of Crake and Jimmy, Atwood is essentially critiquing specialization, even within the realm of environmental studies.

It has been proved that anthropocentrism promotes pro-environmental behaviors just as effectively as ecocentrism.

Ecocentrism and anthropocentrism are two conflicting and heavily debated theories within the field of environmental studies. While both ecocentric and anthropocentric theories have the goal of preserving the environment, the philosophies behind the two differ greatly. According to the Devall and Sessions’ Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, ecocentrism is “in sharp contrast with the dominant world-view of the technocratic-industrial societies which regard humans as isolated and fundamentally different from the rest of nature” (65). In contrast, as Devall and Sessions explain, anthropocentrism is the belief that humans are superior to and in charge of the natural world (65). The definitions given here illustrate the common occurrence of ecocentrics depicting anthropocentrism in a negative light; however, it has been proved that anthropocentrism promotes pro-environmental behaviors just as effectively as ecocentrism, it just differs in that it encourages environmentalism for the sake of sustaining human life (Naoko and Kaida 1225). To summarize the difference between these two contrasting environmental thoughts, ecocentrics believe “nature has intrinsic value independent of its direct value to human beings” and an anthropocentric perspective believes that the nonhuman environment should be used as a commodity to sustain the wellbeing of humans (Cocks and Simpson 220). Although neither branch of environmentalism is necessarily better or right, these two contrasting ways of perceiving the natural world are the root of many philosophical debates in the field of environmental studies.

Most modern environmentalists ascribe to ecocentrism, because anthropocentrism is usually interpreted as selfish. However, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake gives us a very different perspective by portraying an eerily ecocentric world in which the boundaries between animals and humans blur. However, before the ecocentric, apocalyptic future, Atwood presents us with a dystopian capitalist society in which anthropocentrism reigns. Atwood critiques anthropocentrism by showing a society in which capitalism fails to recognize or respect the boundary between humans and nature. In an article published in the Journal of Ecocriticism, Dunlap describes Atwood’s method of blurring the human and nature divide through the portrayal of capitalism; Dunlap writes, “human and non-human animal lives are bundled into a single category—all lives are objects whose purpose is to entertain” (5). An example of this is when Crake describes the “Student Services,” where students can essentially order a prostitute; Crake explains, “You can get any color, any age—well, almost. Any body type. They provide everything” (208). This is a particularly good example of the commodification of humans because as Crake says, “female students have equal access, of course” (208). By erasing the often-sexist capitalist practices, Atwood is exemplifying the fact that all human bodies can be commodified for human use, similarly to the way that anthropocentrics believe animals and nature should be. However, through her portrayal of capitalism, Atwood shows readers that the boundary between humans and animals is arbitrary. 

Atwood levels the hierarchy of humans and animals in the novel, making a distinction between the two completely arbitrary.

Similarly, Atwood also critiques anthropocentrism by portraying the lack of distinction between humans and animals in science. According to Dunlap, the “leveling of hierarchical distinctions between animals and humans is even more evident within the scientific world, where all life forms are objects are study and experiment” (5). While an anthropocentric environmentalist might argue that it is ethical to use animals to experiment in order to improve human life, Atwood takes this idea further by portraying a society in which humans experiment on other humans. For example, Atwood describes the “NooSkins for Olds,” which is a scientific project attempting to create ageless skin (55). The experiments on these humans fail, showing the repercussions of perceiving human life, as well as animals and nature, as subjects to be tested on. Another example of Atwood’s depiction of diminished human-animal hierarchies is when Crake is describing his invention, the “BlyssPluss Pill,” and Jimmy asks, “Where do you get the subjects?” (296). Crake responds, “From the poorer countries. Pay them a few dollars, they don’t even know what they’re taking” (296). The society portrayed in Oryx and Crake uses humans as test subjects, similarly to the way in which our society today uses animals to experiment on. By commodifying and experimenting on humans as well as animals, Atwood levels the hierarchy of humans and animals in the novel, making a distinction between the two completely arbitrary.

By portraying a society in which humans and animals are equal in the hierarchy of life in both commodification as well as science experiments, Atwood is critiquing anthropocentric environmental thought. Atwood’s critique of anthropocentrism forces the reader to ask: if we use animals and the natural world to improve human lives, what is to stop us from using human lives in the same way? Also, what qualifies as improvement in human life? Where do we draw the line in our use of the natural environment to improve human life quality? Clearly, in Atwood’s perspective, an anthropocentric environmental perspective is not sustainable.

While Atwood critiques anthropocentrism, she also critiques ecocentrism throughout Oryx and Crake. One way in which Atwood critiques an ecocentric perspective is that she questions the practicality of such a worldview. In a society in which the rich exploit the poor and the men exploit the women, how can humans recognize the intrinsic value of life to animals and plants if they cannot even do so for their fellow human beings? Crake, a character with the goal of enacting his ecocentric vision, decides that the only viable way to make ecocentrism a reality is to execute a mass genocide. Dunlap describes Atwood’s portrayal of the practicality of ecocentrism through the character of Crake:

However, in order to fulfill his ectopian vision—one in which the human reproductive habits responsible for psychological suffering and human-drive power struggles are eliminated and in which human-over-nature hierarchies are collapsed—Crake must first destroy humanity (3).

This is because according to Crake, what defines humanity is its continuous need to dominate. For example, the domination of people due to issues such as race, class, and gender, the consumption of animals, and the territoriality of land (Atwood 305). By getting rid of these “destructive features,” Crake creates a species of humans in which “Hierarchy could not exist among them, because they lacked the neural complexes that would have created it” (Atwood 305). Because Crake wants to destroy the tendency of humans to think in hierarchical terms, even extending to animals; Crake’s genetically modified humans, the “Crakers,” are forbidden to eat meat. Therefore, by leveling humans and animals in the hierarchy of life, Crake is inherently an ecocentric environmentalist. However, the Crakers, who Crake engineered to not have the “faults” of humans, still show the aspects of humanity that Crake sought to get rid of. In the end, the Crakers start becoming more and more human, showing the genocide Crake executed was for nothing. Oryx and Crake shows that while Crake wanted to get rid of the faults of humanity, these aspects of life are portrayed as intrinsically related to the beautiful aspects of human life: religion, art, curiosity, and love. While Atwood’s Oryx and Crake critiques the practicality of ecocentrism, it also criticizes the ethics behind it: readers are not supposed to be okay with Crake’s decision to murder the entire human race, and living in a world with no personal expression or feeling is clearly not the answer.

Crake’s ecocentric philosophy, as well as Atwood’s critique of ecocentrism, can also be seen in the ways in which Crake describes animals and humans in mechanical terms. Often criticized by ecocentrics, a key feature of anthropocentrism is the literary device of anthropomorphism, which is “attributing or recognizing human characteristics in animals” (Warkentin 86). Anthropomorphism is an aspect of anthropocentrism in which ecocentrics strongly reject. Edward Abbey, a famously recognized ecocentric environmentalist, describes his rejection of anthropomorphism:

The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself…I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities (6).

Abbey’s quote illustrates the fact that ecocentrics reject anthropomorphism because they believe it is selfish to ascribe human qualities to nature because it is done for the benefit of humans, not nature. Anthropocentrism is also seen as problematic because it is anthropocentric to believe that nature has human feelings, as well as the fact that humans only seem to care about nature if it is described in human terms. In Atwood’s novel, the character of Crake in Atwood’s novel rejects anthropomorphism, showing his ecocentric perspective, while the character of Jimmy continuously anthropomorphizes animals, revealing his anthropocentric worldview.

Atwood is exemplifying the fact that while ecocentrism is often seen as being a philosophy that elevates animals and plants to humans on the hierarchy of life, it can also be the opposite, which is the devaluation of all life.

The ecocentric Crake goes beyond simply rejecting the anthropomorphism to the point where he continuously illustrates “mechanomorphism.” Mechanomorphism is a phrase coined by Warkentin in the article “Dis/Integrating Animals: Ethical Dimensions of the Genetic Engineering of Animals for Human Consumption.” Warkentin defines mechanomorphism as “labeling animal bodies, and describing behavior, in mechanical terms” (86). Interestingly enough, an ecocentric character, Crake, often describes animals through mechanical terms, yet this method of mechanomorphizing animals often displayed by people who support very non-ecocentric practices, such as genetically engineering animals for human consumption, as exemplified through Warkentin’s article. By portraying the ecocentric Crake as caring less about and demeaning the lives of other animals, Atwood is exemplifying the fact that while ecocentrism is often seen as being a philosophy that elevates animals and plants to humans on the hierarchy of life, it can also be the opposite, which is the devaluation of all life.

Mechanomorphism is a term used to describe an author’s description of animals, but Atwood takes mechanomorphism a step further: Crake mechanomorphizes humans. This can be seen in the way in which Crake attributes every aspect of humanity to biology. Describing heartbreak, Crake asks: “how much needless despair has been caused by a series of biological mismatches, a misalignment of the hormones and pheromones?” (166). Similarly, Crake describes love mechanically: “Falling in love, although it resulted in altered body chemistry and was therefore real, was a hormonally induced delusional state” (193). Crake also describes the creation of art in mechanical terms by claiming that it serves a “biological purpose,” because by making art, a man is amplifying himself, which is “a stab at getting laid” (168). When Jimmy asks about female artists, Crake says that they are “biologically confused” (168). Crake’s continuous method of describing humanity in mechanical terms is supposed to leave the reader feeling uneasy, therefore Atwood’s critique of ecocentrism is clear.

Atwood is showing that although ecocentrism is problematic in ways, there are also positives associated with viewing the world in such a way.

Atwood also critiques ecocentrism by showing how unsettling an ecocentrism is through her portrayal of Crake’s creation of a world in which humans are like animals and animals are like humans. For example, the Crakers challenge the constructions of the human versus the animal (Dunlap 9). Dunlap describes this animal-like human species in Oryx and Crake: “like cats, the Crakers purr; like the rabbits of this world, they glow with the green from a jellyfish gene; like ‘the canids and mustelids,’ they mark their territory; and like various hares and rabbits, the Crakers eat leaves and grass” (9). The Crakers also are similar to animals in the way that they have sex solely to reproduce: “Crake had worked out the numbers, and had decreed that once every three years per female was more than enough” (164). However, while the absence of love is meant to unnerve the reader, Jimmy reflects on the effect of Crake’s creation of humans reproduce like animals: “No more prostitution, no sexual abuse of children, no haggling over the price, no pimps, no sex slaves. No more rape” (165). Clearly, Atwood is showing that although ecocentrism is problematic in ways, there are also positives associated with viewing the world in such a way.

Similarly to the animal-like humans, Atwood also portrays human-like animals, such as the pigoons, a genetically modified pig. Atwood describes, “A brainy and omnivorous animal, the pigoon. Some of them may even have human neocortex tissue growing in their crafty, wicked heads” (235). Similarly, Atwood writes of pigoons, “if they’d had fingers they’d have ruled the world” (267). Atwood explicitly conveys this absence of a distinction between human and non-human in her post-apocalyptic world through Jimmy’s decision to name himself after the Abominable Snowman, the “apelike man or manlike ape” (8). Through Atwood’s depiction of a world in which the human and the non-human are more alike than different, her critique of ecocentrism is clear in that these aspects of the novel are meant to unnerve the reader.

Atwood is exemplifying the fact that sometimes perceiving the world in the way that characterizes anthropocentrism can help humans care more about the natural world.

While Crake is the epitome of an ecocentric environmentalist, the character of Jimmy is Atwood’s representation of anthropocentrism. A quote that illustrates this relationship between these two characters is when Crake tells Jimmy, “Don’t be so fucking sentimental” (344). The character of Jimmy often anthropomorphizes the animals throughout the novel, for example, Atwood writes of Jimmy’s interpretation of the pigoons, “They glanced up at him as if they saw him, really saw him, and might have plans for him later” (26). When Jimmy’s dad tells him the pigoons might eat him, Jimmy says: “No they won’t,” and he thinks, “Because I’m their friend” (26). Another example of Jimmy anthropomorphizing animals is when Crake and his coworker describe the “ChickieNobs,” which are essentially pieces of chicken meat, genetically engineered to have a brain with no function besides “digestion, assimilation, and brain growth” (203). Jimmy’s anthropomorphism of even animals that have been degraded to pieces of meat is clear when he asks, “But what’s it thinking?” (202). Through the character of Jimmy, Atwood is exemplifying the fact that sometimes perceiving the world in the way that characterizes anthropocentrism can help humans care more about the natural world.

Similarly to his anthropomorphism of animals, Jimmy also thinks of humans in a much more humanistic sense, as opposed to Crake’s mechanic way of perceiving humans. Atwood exemplifies this when Jimmy tells Crake, “In your plan we’d just be a bunch of hormone robots” (166). Crake responds, “we’re hormone robots anyways, just faulty ones” (166). We see Crake’s theory that humans are “hormone robots” disproven even through his own creation of the species of the Crakers: they kill fish for Jimmy even when they were told it is morally wrong to do so, they create art, they are curious and ask Jimmy many questions, leaders emerge in their species, and they idolize of Oryx and Crake in a religious way, which are all aspects of humanity that Crake attempted to destroy.

By critiquing both ecocentric and anthropocentric branches of environmental thought through the characters of Crake and Jimmy, Atwood is critiquing specialization.

Although readers are supposed to be weary of the ecocentric thought process that drove Crake to perform a mass genocide, Atwood also conveys that anthropocentrism can also be problematic at times. Jimmy’s character, the most anthropocentric character in the novel, has his own issues, even within his yearning for the continuation of humanity in an ecocentric world. For example, Jimmy looks at the Craker women and realizes that they don’t arouse him in “even the faintest stirrings of lust” (100). Atwood continues, “It was the thumbprint of human imperfection that used to move him” (100). However, while these might seem romantic at first, Atwood changes the reader’s perception Jimmy when she continues, “he’d preferred sad women, delicate and breakable, women who’d been messed up and needed him” (100). This is because Jimmy perceives a “payoff” in making sad women happier: “A grateful women would go the extra mile” (100). It’s clear that the “extra mile” is means that Jimmy would receive sexual favors from pretending he cared about these sad women. Similarly, Jimmy also shows his selfish use of women when he reflects on the fact that he’s told too many women he loves them: “he shouldn’t have used it up so much earlier in his life, he shouldn’t have treated it like a tool, a wedge, a key to open women” (114). Using women for sex is an extension of anthropocentrism, and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake critiques this branch of environmental thought by begging the reader to question the use of other lives for satisfaction, even if the character of Jimmy does seem more empathetic and personable than Crake.

By critiquing both ecocentric and anthropocentric branches of environmental thought through the characters of Crake and Jimmy, Atwood is critiquing specialization, another common critique of the world in environmental studies. Specialization is when a person is an expert in one field of study but fails to perceive the world in general terms. Even Crake, a very specialized character in the field of science, explains to Jimmy:

These people are specialists…They wouldn’t have the empathy to deal with the Paradice models, they wouldn’t be any good at it, they’d get impatient. Even I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t begin to get onto their wavelength. But you’re more of a generalist (321).

Atwood is explicitly illustrating her critique of specialization throughout this quote, but specialization can go even further than only being in one field of study; for example, an environmentalist can be specialized in either ecocentrism or anthropocentrism. By portraying both the ecocentric Crake and the anthropocentric Jimmy as problematic characters, Atwood is critiquing specialization within the branch of environmental studies. Although this novel is often recognized for criticizing the way in which our society degrades the environment, environmentalists who pride themselves on being in the minority who care about the natural world would never suspect that they too are being criticized in Oryx and Crake. Atwood’s novel reminds us that no one has all the answers, and that we should all question our own beliefs and keep an open mind when it comes to attempting to understand the world.

How to Cite this Publication in MLA

Palmer, Katherine. “Ecocentrism and Anthropocentrism: Atwood Critiques Specialization.” St.

            Lawrence Review, 2019. pp 62-74.  

Works Cited

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. 1st ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990. Print.

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor Books, 2003. Print.

Cocks, Samuel and Steven Simpson. “Anthropocentric and Ecocentric.” Journal of

            Experiential Education, vol. 38, no. 3, Sept. 2015, pp. 216-227. EBSCOhost,

            doi:10.1177/1053825915571750.

Devall, Bill and George Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Salt Lake

            City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985, pp. 65-71.

Dunlap, Allison. “Eco-Dystopia: Reproduction and Destruction in Margaret Atwood’s

            Oryx and Crake.” Journal of Ecocriticism,vol. 5, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 1-15.

Kaida, Naoko and Kosuke Kaida. “Facilitating Pro-Environmental Behavior: The Role of

            Pessimism and Anthropocentric Environmental Values.” Social Indicators

            Research, vol. 126, no. 3, Apr. 2016, pp. 1243-1260. EBSCOhost,

            doi:10.1007/s11205-015-0943-4.

Warkentin, Traci. “Dis/Integrating Animals: Ethical Dimensions of the Genetic

            Engineering of Animals for Human Consumption.” AI & Society, vol. 20, no. 1,

            Jan. 2006, pp. 82-102. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s00146-005-0009-2.

Music & Climate Change

Published in University News in 2018.

St. Lawrence University’s Department of Music will host Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna, who will perform their third album, “The Coral Suite,” at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 11, in Peterson-Kermani Performance Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

The duo’s audiovisual performance explores environmental fragility through rich Irish melodies, with Lyn on the fiddle and Sanna on the guitar, combined with animated projections featuring Lyn’s artwork. “The Coral Suite” is an evocative sequence of Irish tunes that mirrors the life cycles and natural processes that occur within coral reef ecosystems. Their audiovisual poem pays tribute to the coral’s biodiversity while calling attention to the urgent need for its conservation.

According to the performers, the album is relevant and important because two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef has died due to climate change. Changing temperatures and ocean acidification causes bleaching of our corals, which means that the corals lose their vibrant color as they die, fading to a deathly white. While this problem might be happening far away from Canton, New York, Lyn and Sanna are known to traverse geographical boundaries through their music by connecting their experience as composers and improvisers in New York City’s musical community with their deep admiration for traditional Irish music.

Lyn and Sanna have been hailed as “ground-breaking” by folklorist and NEA-Award recipient Mick Moloney and “bursting with creativity” by renowned fiddler Kevil Burke. Visit their website at http://danalynkylesanna.com/.

Planting the Seeds of Connection Across Generations

Published in St. Lawrence University Magazine in 2019.
You can view this publication online here.

“Our concept of now is clouding how we think about the future,” says Rachael Jones, visiting assistant professor of ceramics and drawing. “We need to think about our impact on future generations.”

It is this philosophy that informs the merger of Jones’ artistic practice with the environmental consciousness she brings to the classroom at St. Lawrence. Along with fostering a respect for the materials and resources in the ceramics studio, students are learning about the overlap of art and environmentalism through their participation in The Seed Bank Project, a multidimensional and multigenerational environmental art effort founded by Jones in 2017. 

“A seed bank is a storage container (often made of clay) that is specially designed to create a controlled, interior climate so as to maximize the seed’s potential viability,” says Jones. She explains that although every seed’s ability to germinate is different depending on its DNA, one can encourage the maximum amount of time that a seed can genetically stay viable by storing it within a dark, dry, and cool place.

“There is a symbiotic sense of value to burying the seed banks, both to the local and global communities through the sharing of vital plant species information and the relationship they have with local cultures,” says Jones. “We begin to think about taking responsibility for the future of our food production locally and spark a dialogue of human stewardship towards the Earth and future generations of all species while learning about our local ecology.”

The first thing that Ceramics 1 students make in Jones’ course are little seed vessels based off of the ones made by the Pueblo and Hopi tribes of the Southwestern United States. “It’s a great introduction to the deep history between our species evolution and the use of clay,” says Jones. They then fired the vessel in a pit kiln in the ground.  

In collaboration with an environmental studies course taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Katherine Cleary, Jones buried a seed bank at St. Lawrence’s Living Lab (formerly the Ecological Sustainability Landscape). Students from the course interviewed local farmers and collected seeds acclimated to the North Country’s growing season to put into the bank. There is a marker on the trail where the bank of seeds is buried.

“​Although it is hard to have expectations with a project that could potentially exist beyond our generation,” says Jones, “the planting of the seed bank is an important aspect. The act is meant to focus on the local environments in the midst of an increasingly global outlook.” Even if a seed is found beyond its span of viability, Jones believes it can still provide important information about the location in which it was found. In addition to the students’ seed banks buried in Canton, the project has planted vessels on four continents, in seven countries, and in 25 states. 

The learning outcomes that Jones hopes her students walk away with range widely from strictly academic to more personal. “Clay has taught me a lot about myself,” she says. “The material can and will teach patience and a deeper understanding of motivations. These are soft skills that can apply to more areas of their lives than just making artwork.

“Clay can be a recalcitrant material,” she continues, “and failure is eminent when working with it. I expect my students to fail, as long as they are failing forward. I hope that they can continue to cultivate a positive association with failure.”

As for more conceptually environmental explorations, Jones says, “I don’t put ideas in their heads, and I am open to whatever they are passionate about.” However, Jones is not surprised that many of her students use her course to explore environmental issues further: global warming, the plight of bee colonies, black market trading, and poaching for ivory. “The list goes on,” she says. “It is exciting to see them exploring these issues sculpturally.”

Deborah Dudley contributed to this article.

Medical Philanthropy: A St. Lawrence Alumnus

Published in St. Lawrence University Magazine in 2019.
You can view this publication online here.

Surgeon Edward “Ted” Higgins ’71 creates a growing partnership with Haiti one visit at a time.

“St. Lawrence is my history. It’s who I am,” says Edward “Ted” Higgins ’71 about the place where he came in 1967 to explore his interests without being bound to a certain career path. Although Higgins was a history and government major at St. Lawrence, he went on to become a fourth-generation surgeon.

As a student at St. Lawrence, Higgins was very active as a member of the football and tennis teams. He worked as a dorm counselor at Sykes Residence for two years, participated in student government, and was a member of the SAE fraternity. “I did just about everything but study,” he says, but comments that he feels his time still prepared him for building self-confidence and relationships after college.

“I had a wanderlust about me,” explains Higgins. He bicycled around Ireland with classmate Terry Slaven ’71 and worked on a farm for four months. He returned to complete pre-med courses at Syracuse University and subsequently completed medical school at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. 

During his fourth year of general surgery residency at Yale in 1981, Higgins and his wife Kim spent a three-month rotation at Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti, his first introduction to the island nation.

By the early 1990s, Higgins began taking annual trips organized by his church in Kansas City to the Dominican Republic, where medical volunteers provided healthcare to sugarcane cutters and their families in the bateys, settlements that grew up around sugar mills in the Caribbean. This effort evolved into training local Dominican surgeons in vascular and general surgical techniques over the years.

In 2010, Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake which resulted in nearly 300,000 deaths and another 300,000 displaced or injured. His daughter, now training as a fifth-generation surgeon, had been in Haiti during the earthquake, and she reported a lack of operating rooms when Higgins wanted to assist in the aftermath. Later that year, he and a surgical team from Kansas City traveled to Haitian Christian Mission in Fond Parisien, Haiti, where they operated on the underserved people who were unable to receive surgical care. The small delivery room used by his team to perform large-scale surgeries was not sufficient, which inspired the idea of building new operating rooms. This idea led to the creation of Higgins Brothers Surgicenter for Hope, named in honor of his father and uncle, both surgeons who had practiced together in Upstate New York for 38 years.

The goal of the surgicenter, Higgins explains, is not only to care for the people of Haiti who have no surgical options without the surgicenter, but also to train surgical residents from the General Hospital, the government-run hospital in Port-au-Prince. Over the last year, several of the former surgical residents and medical students who worked with him and his colleagues are now full-time employees of the surgicenter.

“It’s been worth it,” Higgins says about investing in the Surgicenter. “I have a terrific respect for the work our Haitian team is doing with very few supplies and equipment. Their dedication to the underserved of Haiti is remarkable—no complaints when the power fails or late evenings operating. The Surgicenter has become a destination for many all over Haiti.”

Today, the center provides 24-hour emergency service, obstetric and general surgical emergencies, elective general and vascular surgeries, and OB-GYN cases as well as functions as a teaching and training hub for future Haitian medical professionals, with plans to expand services. The Haitian staff of 25 includes surgeons, anesthesiologists, emergency room physicians, nurses, nurse-midwives, custodians, administrators, and a medical director. In 2018, more than 600 procedures were performed and 500 deliveries, including quadruplets born in August 2018.

Although his commitment to Haiti is unwavering, Higgins also recognizes that there are needs closer to home in Kansas City where he volunteers at the Kansas City CARE Clinic. Higgins continuously asks himself, “Where can I help people?” However, he remains humble. 

“I mean, this is basic stuff,” he says when describing what motivates him. “I’m just another guy trying to help. I’ve got my health, and I’m grateful to be of service.”

This drive to be of service is what Higgins is looking to share with the next generation of students at St. Lawrence. “St. Lawrence has been good to me,” he says. “It’s an experience I wouldn’t change for the world.” He adds, “Maybe a St. Lawrence student would want to come see what we do and help out as well.” 

Deborah Dudley contributed to this article.

Descriptive Bibliography: Canoes in the Adirondacks

Published in ODY Special Collections in 2018. The Tanner Fellow Award supported this creative fellowship.

Introduction

What you’re about to read is descriptive bibliography is based on books written about canoes. Writing this bibliography, I got to flip through all kinds of old pages: some were fictional books that were falling apart, some were interesting manuals on how to build or paddle a canoe, some told you the necessities for camping, and some were yearbooks of rowing teams. Every book is about canoeing.

Another thing many of the books in this bibliography have in common is that they were written about the Adirondacks. The Adirondack Mountains are located in northern New York, a drive away from St. Lawrence University. The mountains have an interesting history regarding the formation of the Park, and I loved learning about the park in environmental studies classes. I also enjoyed hiking the various mountains, but before working on this bibliography this summer, I had never really considered canoeing along the clear waters of the Adirondacks.

My first experience canoeing was at Keuka Lake, with my friend and my brother. My brother sat in the middle and weighed us down, making it almost impossible to get anywhere with our paddles. When it started pouring rain while we were out there, my friend and I swam back, dragging the canoe with my lazy brother in it. He was yelling at us to hurry up the entire way.

Luckily, my family had a trip planned to come to the Adirondacks this summer. The day we arrived, I took out the canoe, and ever since, I’ve found myself yearning to go out every chance I get.

There’s something about floating in a canoe as the water bugs dance around you, forming patterns on the still water. The mountains never let you forget their presence, and every time you look up you’re reminded why this place has been the muse of so many artists. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll see a turtle as you drift slowly by the shore.

My cousin Rob and I got really lucky this afternoon on our trip. Rob noticed a bird and since he was sitting in the back of the canoe, he easily steered us in the direction of the animal. I happily paddled away in the front, busy looking at all the lily pads to see the bird in front of us.

“What is it?” my mom called from across the lake. Her voice was surprisingly clear.

“Think it’s a duck,” Rob replied from behind me. His voice was low, but our family members on the shore heard us effortlessly.

My mom quickly realized that the bird that was letting us paddle so close to it was a loon. We had seen it the day before when we were paddling and we startled the loon, because he flew away quickly and sloppily. This time the loon stayed in place, and as we got closer, I noticed his pure black head made him devilishly handsome, and he was a very large bird. He seemed to know he was beautiful, just like the mountains that are his home.

When we paddled just a bit too close to the loon, he showed off his talent when he dove beneath the water and held his breath for minutes with no trace as to where he was, not even a bubble on the surface of the water. Finally he would pop up somewhere across the lake, staring at us from his new location. He would tauntingly pace in the water, showing us his ability to easily duck under the water at any given moment. He knew it was all a game.

One time, we hesitated in our canoe, unable to keep up with the loon. He dove under and popped up, floating on the water even closer to us. We tried to paddle after him a few more times, but the distances were too far, and our arms were too tired and sore. I hope that when we leave, he finds some new paddlers to play with.

Reading this bibliography, you are the paddler. You can only get so far, you can only see so much. If you want to be the loon, you’ll have to read, or better yet see, the books in person.

Why Are Descriptive Bibliographies Important?

Descriptive bibliographies are important because they give us notes about the physical condition of the book that can provide relevant insights into past cultures. Think of books as cultural artifacts, and descriptive bibliographers document the information.

Furthermore, it showcases the unique collection a certain library holds—in this case, St. Lawrence University’s Special Collections in Owen D. Young Library. Special Collections is a room in the library that holds the most valuable or vulnerable books. You’re not supposed to have food or water near the books, and visitors have to be monitored in the room if they want to use the books. You can’t even go back yourself into the shelves of books unless you had special access. I felt cool being able to go back there.

The old book binders were often so beautifully decorated, and their displays were so interesting and unique. Sometimes the books were falling apart. The books had clearly been loved. They also provided valuable cultural information that might have otherwise been lost or overlooked.

Sample Bibliographic Entry

Paul Doty, my wonderful mentor in ODY Special Collections, and I couldn’t decide if yearbooks should be included in my bibliography. This special note made us believe there was no way we could exclude yearbooks. It also deepened my understanding of books as valuable artifacts in history.

1921

Text. New York Canoe Club 50thAnniversary Yearbook.

Author. Timberman, O.J.

ODY Library Call Number. RBR/GV/781/.N49/1921

Title Page. 1871 Year Book 1921/New York Canoe Club/Issued in commemoration of our Fiftieth Anniversary and/containing a brief history of the Club from the date/of organization/also a copy of the Constitution,/By-Laws, and Club Roster./[N.Y.C.C. Burgee sy]/Incorporated 1893/CLUB HOUSE AND ANCHORAGE/Little Bay, Ft. Totten, Long Island, N.Y.

Collation/Contents. 11.5 x 17 cm; 38 leaves; P. 1: blank; P. 2: [front side] photograph, [back side] blank; P. 3: [front side] title page, [back side] photograph of club house and anchorage in Little Bay; P. 4-9: memoirs by W.P. Stephens; P. 10-11: photographs and summaries; P. 12-13: articles of incorporation; P. 14-19: club constitution and by-laws; P. 20-23: photographs and summaries; P. 24: entries for canoe regatta to be held in N.Y. bay; P. 25: international challenge cup; P. 26: international challenge cup rules; P. 27-28: photographs; P. 29: house rules; P. 30: boat house rules; P. 31: information for members; P. 32-36: list of members, officers, and committees; P. 37: [front side] photograph, [back side] explanation of symbols; p. 38: blank.

Paper. Made of plates.

Binding. Sewn signatures; calico-texture cloth, not embossed; gray-blue; [in gold near top of cover] New York Canoe Club/1871-1921.

Notes. Loose page in between cover and P.1 that describes an open regatta held by New York Canoe Club in 1881; note on P.1 written in ink that says “To LittleEvelyn—1929, whose mama was the first of her sex that ever spent a night in the old club house at Bensonhurst fronting the lower bay of New York—mama was then between ten and twelve years of age + she was adored of all the club members.” The note has leaked over to the inside cover and onto the back of P. 1; on P. 1 written in pencil “Paulene Bigelow”; on P. 1 written in red colored pencil “p. 38 + 42 + 63”; on P. 1 written in pencil “TRC Comstock”; on P. 3 the ODY Library Code is written in pencil; on P. 20 pink highlighter underlines “Captain John MacGregor”, “Mr. Poultney Bigelow”, and “years, the New York Canoe Club now”; on P. 22 pink highlighter underlines “Poultney Bigelow” and “Honorary Member Emeritus N.Y.C.C.”; binding is held together strongly; stains on back cover.

How Did This Fellowship Help Me?

Creating a descriptive bibliography was interesting and different from any writing I had ever done before. I always follow a formula for different types of writing, but in this case, the information that had to be included was so specific.

Also, the format has to be extremely consistent. I had the freedom to pick how I wanted to write the information, but after I made the initial decision, I had to stick to it for every entry. It increased my attention to detail exponentially. I made the decision on how to display my descriptive bibliography by reading tutorials, as well as other descriptive bibliographies. There’s no one right way to do it, but it is a very specific type of writing. You need to decide what conventions you want to follow, and which you want to break.

I had freedom and creativity in deciding which books and magazines I wanted to include in the bibliography. We decided to include every book relating to paddling, however we excluded all magazines. When it came to regional canoe yearbooks, instruction manuals, and textbooks, we decided to include them.

Not only did this fellowship greatly expand my writing skills, it also exposed me to more environmental knowledge. As half of my major, I was really interested in applying what I had learned from my previous environmental courses to further understand and learn from the books.

In learning about paddling in the Adirondacks, I learned about many legal issues regarding public property versus private land. A lot of the waterways in the Adirondacks are privatized, and paddlers have been sued for paddling on private water. Personally, I believe in protection of the commons: we all should have access to parks and beautiful land.

I also learned expanded my knowledge about environmental philosophy by reading books that were included in my fellowship. Overall, this fellowship contributed to my development as a writer, but also my knowledge and perspective as an environmentalist.

Thoreau’s Political Activism: The Construction of Unconventional Masculinity

Published in St. Lawrence Review in 2017. Pages 66-75.

In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau asks his audience: “How many men are there to a square thousand miles in this country? Hardly one” (70). This question forces us to ask in turn, what type of masculinity does Thoreau consider to be ideal? Since gender is a societal construct, people have equated different traits with “femininity” and “masculinity” depending on the time and place in which they lived. Since no characteristics are inherently feminine or masculine, Thoreau was able to construct his own unique unconventional ideal of masculinity throughout Walden and his political essays.

Thoreau’s constructed masculine ideal favors the politically active, independent, and virtuous man, which can be seen by analyzing Thoreau’s critique of conventionally masculine men and his idealization of John Brown. However, although Thoreau constructs this new ideal of masculinity in order to aid society in abolishing slavery, his texts reflect and perpetuate the racial biases that were held by society during his time.

Essentially, Thoreau’s constructed ideal of an unconventional masculinity is an ideal of “white masculinity.”

This is precisely why Thoreau constantly finds inspiration of his ideal of manliness in John Brown, yet he never finds examples of manhood in the slaves he so fiercely defends in his abolitionist essays or the Native Americans he admires throughout Walden. This exemplifies how within his construction of a new ideal of masculinity, Thoreau unintentionally excludes all of his non-white audience members. Thoreau’s constructed ideal of manhood was unattainable for non-white men, since they did not have the societal ability to conform to it. Essentially, Thoreau’s constructed ideal of an unconventional masculinity is an ideal of “white masculinity.”

Feminist analysis is often not the first critical methodology that comes to mind when analyzing Thoreau, simply due to the utter lack of female characters in throughout his texts. However, according to Hall in Literary and Cultural Theory, feminist analysis can also be applied by observing the ways in which gender is preformed throughout the text (199). In the case of Thoreau, although there are very few female characters throughout his writings, we can apply the feminist analysis in order to analyze the ways in which he constructs a new unconventional ideal of masculinity throughout Walden and his political essays. 

In order to avoid perpetuating the inherent racial blind spots within gender studies, it is important to apply the race and ethnicity analysis in combination with the feminist analysis while analyzing Thoreau’s texts.

However, feminist analysis should not be the sole critical methodology that is applied to a text. According to Hall, one of the major critiques of feminist analysis is the “inherent blind spots” in regards to racial oppression (200). Since implicit racial biases characterize the feminist analysis, Hall continues on to warn us that “social constructs of race and gender should not be analyzed in isolation from each other” (201). This is due to the concept of intersectionality: different people are oppressed to different extremes based on the intersection of their gender, race, class, and sexuality. In order to avoid perpetuating the inherent racial blind spots within gender studies, it is important to apply the race and ethnicity analysis in combination with the feminist analysis while analyzing Thoreau’s texts.

The race and ethnicity analysis is similar to the feminist analysis in that most critics often overlook this perspective when analyzing Thoreau’s texts. This is due to the fact that Thoreau was an avid abolitionist reformer who fiercely fought for the rights of the slaves, making him extremely politically progressive for his time. However, it is important to realize that racism and ethnocentrism have been “entrenched in language, literature art, and social institutions” (Hall 265). This means that although Thoreau was politically progressive and wrote numerous essays in defense of the slaves, his texts still hold the same implicit racial biases that were held by the rest of society at his time.

Rather than calling Thoreau a racist or a sexist, it is more useful to instead analyze the ways in which his texts both reflect and perpetuate the oppression of people based on race and gender.

According to the article “Implicit Bias: Scientific Foundations,” implicit biases are stereotypes or beliefs that people “do not always have conscious, intentional control over” (946). In contrast to the belief that people always make explicit decisions, the science behind implicit cognition suggests that people do not have control over their “social perception, impression formation, and judgment” (946). Therefore, the implicit racial biases throughout Thoreau’s texts tell us more about his social context, rather than his character. In other words, Thoreau was probably not even aware of the racial and gender biases he held. Rather than calling Thoreau a racist or a sexist, it is more useful to instead analyze the ways in which his texts both reflect and perpetuate the oppression of people based on race and gender.

Unfortunately, there is little scholarship analyzing Thoreau through the feminist analysis or the race and ethnicity lens, and the scholarship that does exist is often misguided. For example, through the feminist analysis, many scholars attempt to analyze Thoreau’s performance of gender. These articles debate over whether Thoreau is the epitome of a conventionally masculine man or if he is a gender-bending, feminist icon.

Shamir attempts to weigh in on this argument with the claim that Thoreau continuously “traverses the gender boundaries instituted by his own culture” (182). In a critique of the other scholars who argue Thoreau was solely masculine or feminine, Shamir argues, “Such critics admire the untamed Thoreau…and forget about the Thoreau who dreamed of owning a home” (182). However, to argue that Thoreau was feminine simply because he wanted to take care of his home is lacking in that the argument only takes into account the societal constructions of gender. This argument simultaneously completely ignores his unique construction of an unconventional masculinity. Shamir’s argument is also flawed because it is not reasonable to argue that Thoreau was a feminist icon, since he never once fought for the right for women to vote, and he scarcely mentions females at all throughout his texts. 

It is more useful to instead analyze Thoreau’s attempt at creating a new ideal of masculinity that did not conform to, and at times directly contrasted with, the societal ideal of manliness.

Similarly, Walls also develops a flawed argument based on the conventional constructed ideals of gender in society. Walls argues that Thoreau’s philosophy throughout Walden “turns the basis for gender conventions into rubble” and that he was a gender-bending character (523). However, Walls fails to note that although Thoreau might have displayed conventionally masculine and feminine qualities, he was not thinking about gender in the same way that the rest of society does.

The debates over Thoreau’s performance of gender are flawed in that they are thinking about femininity and masculinity strictly within the societal conventions of gender. Rather than looking at the ways in which Thoreau is “feminine” or “masculine” by societal standards, it is more useful to instead analyze Thoreau’s attempt at creating a new ideal of masculinity that did not conform to, and at times directly contrasted with, the societal ideal of manliness.

Similarly to the feminist analysis, there is not much scholarship analyzing Thoreau’s abolitionist essays through the race and ethnicity analysis. Previous scholarship analyzing his abolitionist essays are often inherently flawed and carry the same racial biases that Thoreau himself held. For example, Nichols argued that while Thoreau’s new basis for society was “optimistic,” it was also “clear cut and practical” (20). What he failed to realize is that Thoreau’s vision for an ideal society was only practical for a certain group of people: white men.

Although on the surface Thoreau may seem politically progressive in relation to the abolitionist movement, he unintentionally perpetuates the oppression of non-white men throughout his political reform essays.

Likewise, most of the scholarship analyzing Thoreau’s texts through the race and ethnicity lens is also flawed as well. For example, Walls analyzes Thoreau’s racism against the Irish, since he holds cruel opinions of them. Walls argues that Thoreau’s immense disappointment with the Irish throughout Walden was not due to racism, but rather due to his tendency to identify with them. However, she does not take into account his construction of white masculinity, and the fact that his disappointment with the Irish resonates around the fact that although they have the societal ability to conform to his ideal, they choose to remain laborers instead of politically active men.

This explains why he is never disappointed with the Native Americans or the slaves; how could he be disappointed with them for not conforming to his ideal if they did not have the societal ability to? Therefore, it is important to analyze Thoreau’s abolitionist essays through a race and ethnicity lens. Although on the surface Thoreau may seem politically progressive in relation to the abolitionist movement, he unintentionally perpetuates the oppression of non-white men throughout his political reform essays.

In the article “Thoreau, Manhood, and Race,” Nelson summarizes my argument particularly elegantly. It is one of the only articles in which Thoreau’s texts are analyzed through a combination of a feminist analysis and race and ethnicity lens. In the article, Nelson argues, “Analyzing the institution of slavery helped Thoreau make arguments about reforming manhood. But talking about black people never seemed to provide Thoreau with useful examples of manhood” (78). This demonstrates how although Thoreau was creating a new ideal of masculinity in order to aid society in abolishing slavery, Thoreau unintentionally perpetuates inherent racial biases throughout his abolitionist essays. This argument is intelligent and convincing in that Nelson acknowledges the fact that Thoreau was constructing his own ideal of masculinity, rather than conforming to or rebelling against the societal ideal, and analyzes the ways in which Thoreau demonstrates his racial biases within his construction of masculinity. 

To argue that Thoreau conforms to the conventional masculine ideal would be to completely ignore his critique of the “manly” working men, as well as the significance of his critique in regards to the historical context of gender constructs in his time.

Not only did Thoreau’s ideal of masculinity simply challenge the conventional societal ideal, it also directly contrasts with it. When Andrew Jackson became the President of the United States, the most masculine man was considered to be the common, working man (Nelson 74). In contrast with this Jacksonian ideal of masculinity, Thoreau critiques the laboring men. In Walden, he writes that laboring men “cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men” (7). Thoreau could not be more explicit in his emasculation of the laboring men, which clearly exemplifies how Thoreau was thinking about manliness outside of the societal gender constructs. Thoreau continues to emasculate the working men when he tells us that “men have become tools of their tools” (29). Similarly, Thoreau writes that when a man is too busy working, “he has no time to be anything but a machine” (7). By comparing the working men to tools and machines, Thoreau is emasculating them to the point of dehumanizing them, therefore shattering the conventional masculine ideal of the working man. To argue that Thoreau conforms to the conventional masculine ideal would be to completely ignore his critique of the “manly” working men, as well as the significance of his critique in regards to the historical context of gender constructs in his time.

Another way in which Thoreau’s ideal of masculinity contrasts with the conventional ideal is in his critique of soldiers. By conventional standards, masculine ideals often correlate with physical strength and aggressiveness, which means that many consider soldiers to be extremely masculine. However, Thoreau strongly disagrees. In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he writes of marines, “They are just as much tools and as little men” (103). His issue with the soldiers lies in the fact that they do not serve the government as “men,” but rather as “machines, with their bodies” (“Civil” 66). Thoreau’s emasculation of the soldiers is similar to his critique of the laboring men in that he compares both to tools and machines. His critique of the laboring men and the soldiers is based on the fact that these men are using their bodies only to perpetuate labor and war, yet they are not independently thinking against the system. In contrast with the conventional ideal of masculinity, Thoreau does not believe that strength alone is enough to be considered masculine by his standards. 

However, although Thoreau critiques the mindless, machine-like work that the laboring men and soldiers perform, Thoreau does not consider the intellectual to be masculine either. In Walden,Thoreau states, “The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly” (13). This is because the scholars are not contributing much to society by solving problems “theoretically” but not “practically” (13). In his essay, “The Last Days of John Brown,” Thoreau asks his audience, “What avail all your scholarly accomplishments and learning, compared with wisdom and manhood?” (150). Again, Thoreau could not be more explicit in his critique of the intellectuals’ manliness. However, in contrast with the laboring men and soldiers who do not think enough, Thoreau is critiquing the intellectuals for thinking too much. The intellectuals are thinking independently, but they are not transforming these independent thoughts into practical political action. By critiquing the laboring men, soldiers, and intellectuals, Thoreau is constructing a masculine ideal in which a man is both thoughtful and active. According to Thoreau, the masculine man will think independently against the government and will implement action in order to fight for what he believes in.

Unlike the laboring men, soldiers, and intellectuals, John Brown combined action and thought in a rebellious act against slavery, making him the manifestation of Thoreau’s constructed unconventional ideal of manliness.

John Brown, the subject of many of Thoreau’s political essays, was the manifestation of Thoreau’s ideal of masculinity. Brown is famous for attempting to lead a violent slave revolt in an effort to advance the abolitionist movement. W.E.B Du Bois, a famous abolitionist who worked alongside Thoreau, considered John Brown to be “bloody, relentless, and cruel” (Petrulionis 199). Although many believe Thoreau was against violence altogether, Thoreau considers Brown to be a “man of great common sense,” a “firmer and higher principled man,” and a “hero” (“A Plea” 112-119). This forces us to question, what makes Brown different from the other soldiers?

In “A Plea For Captain John Brown,” Thoreau tells us the answer himself: “a man of ideas and principles…that was what distinguished him” (115). In a direct comparison to the laboring men and the soldiers, Thoreau tells us of Brown, “an intelligent and conscientious man is superior to a machine” (119). Thoreau considered John Brown’s violence to be masculine because Brown was fighting a “war for liberty” (112). Brown committed a violent act, but his was for a moral war “against the condemnation and vengeance of mankind” that characterized slavery in the United States (125). Brown’s violence was characterized by his independent thought against the government, in contrast to the soldiers, who blindly followed the government’s orders. Unlike the laboring men, soldiers, and intellectuals, John Brown combined action and thought in a rebellious act against slavery, making him the manifestation of Thoreau’s constructed unconventional ideal of manliness.

Thoreau’s ideal of manliness closely aligns with political citizenship.

Thoreau’s critique of conventionally masculine men, alongside his idealization of John Brown, gives us a better understanding of his constructed ideal of masculinity. In “Civil Disobedience,” it is clear that Thoreau’s construction of masculinity is characterized by “wisdom,” “honesty,” and “self-reliance” (70-71). He believes that Americans should be “men first” and “subjects afterwards” (65). Throughout the entire essay, Thoreau was constructing this ideal of masculinity by urging his listeners to think independently, question the government, and act out of principles and morality.

Therefore, Thoreau’s ideal of manliness closely aligns with political citizenship. The laborers were not masculine because they were too busy working to question the government; the soldiers were not masculine because they were “tools” of the government and they never questioned their actions; and the intellectuals were not masculine because they were thinking too much, therefore not performing any action at all. Many critics try to argue that Thoreau supports only the principle or thought behind Brown’s violence, but Thoreau tells us that Brown’s “behavior and words” were “heroic and noble” (“The Last Days” 147). Clearly, Thoreau considers Brown to be masculine because he was thinking against society and transforming his thought into political action, regardless of the violence that ensued because of it.

Even though Thoreau is politically progressive for his time, he unintentionally perpetuates the oppression of non-white men.

Since Thoreau’s constructed ideal of masculinity equates with political activism, only white men had the societal ability to conform to his ideal. This is why Thoreau could only find a manifestation of his ideal in John Brown: Brown had the privilege in society to be politically active and independent, in contrast to the non-white men, who were constrained by society and were therefore unable to attain to Thoreau’s masculine ideal. Ironically, although Thoreau uses John Brown as an icon for the abolitionist movement, his construction of an unconventional ideal of masculinity excludes the slaves he was defending. Although he fiercely fights for the rights of the slaves and admires the Native American way of life throughout his texts, he unintentionally reflects the strong implicit racial biases that were held by society at his time. Therefore, Thoreau’s constructed ideal of manliness essentially correlates with an ideal of “white masculinity.” Even though Thoreau is politically progressive for his time, he unintentionally perpetuates the oppression of non-white men.

Another irony in Thoreau’s ideal of politically active manliness is that although he refers to the State of Massachusetts as “her,” women could not even vote at the time, let alone be responsible for the institution of slavery. In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau famously says, “My thoughts are murder to the states, and involuntarily go plotting against her” (108). Throughout the entire essay, the only feminine pronoun Thoreau uses is in reference to the State. He writes on the issue of slavery, “every moment she now hesitates to atone for her crime, she is convicted” (96). Throughout the entire essay, the “masculine active self” is in contrast with “the feminine and acted-upon other,” the State (Walls 521). For example, according to Thoreau, “it is men who have to make the law free,” meaning men have to fight against the State, “her” (“Slavery” 98). This is ironic, because men are the ones who created the law in the first place, not women. He continues to write, “Let each inhabitant of the State dissolve his union with her, as long as she delays her duty” (104). Clearly, Thoreau was attempting to create the “masculine active self” in juxtaposition to the female State, but in doing so he takes the blame off of the men in society for creating the institution of slavery. His gendered female State also perpetuates the oppression of women, since it creates the allusion that females were even partly responsible for the institution slavery. This is in complete disregard to the fact that they did not even have the right to vote at the time, let alone have the societal ability to control the State.

Rather than glamorizing the politically progressive Thoreau, we should instead analyze the ways in which his texts both reflect and perpetuate the oppression of people based on race and gender.

This gendered female State is widely ignored by previous critics while analyzing Thoreau. In “Walden as a Feminist Manifesto,” Walls argued that although Thoreau uses conventionally masculine gendered pronouns primarily, he is not misogynistic. Her evidence is from an entry in his journal, “I love Nature partly because she’s not a man” (524). However, Walls never acknowledges that Thoreau genders the State as feminine in a similar way to his gendering of the feminine Nature. After examining the ways in which Thoreau refers to the State, it is clear that he does not love the State in the same way that he loves Nature, meaning that her evidence from his journal is essentially insubstantial. Thoreau’s gendered female State illustrates his attempt at creating a divide between the institution of slavery and the politically active man, yet Thoreau fails to recognize that solely men were in charge of the State. Rather than blaming the men who were at fault, Thoreau writes that “the State was half-witted” and that “it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons” (“Civil” 80). A reader must wonder why the worst insult Thoreau had the ability to come up with was comparing the State to a “lone woman.” Gendering the State of Massachusetts contributes to Thoreau’s construction of an active, independent masculine ideal and contributes to his argument to free the slaves, but it also perpetuates the oppression of women in society. 

In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau wrote, “They persist in being the servants to the worst of men, and not the servants of humanity” (103). But couldn’t we argue that Thoreau himself was a servant to the worst of men through his perpetuation of the oppression of people based on race and gender? Ironically, although he was attempting to aid in abolishing slavery, his political essays perpetuate racism by excluding non-white men. Similarly, although he was glamorizing the politically active John Brown, he never once mentions his mother or his sisters, who founded the Concord Antislavery Society (Petrulionis 19). How could he overlook the participation of his own mother and sister in the abolitionist movement, yet never fight for their rights at all? So, rather than glamorizing the politically progressive Thoreau, we should instead analyze the ways in which his texts both reflect and perpetuate the oppression of people based on race and gender.

How to Cite this Publication in MLA

Palmer, Katherine. “Thoreau’s Political Activism: The Construction of Unconventional  

            Masculinity.” St. Lawrence Review, 2017. pp 66-75.  

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