On two occasions now, I have unsuccessfully attempted to write on some upsetting circumstances that wholly derailed the outset of my doctoral studies program (and left me silent on this blog for that same length of time). While I wish I were better able to articulate the anger and the helplessness I am still working through in relation to those circumstances, I feel there is now too much new discursive material for me to ignore; it is time to press forward and try to reclaim my lost momentum.
To that end, one of my courses this term is “Animals and Victorian Literature”–a topical nexus immensely well suited to my doctoral interest in intersections between broader scientific awakening and literary discourse in that same era. Consequently, this will be the class I choose to write at length about on this blog, the same way I negotiated readings in Evangelical Lit this past summer.
Since animal studies are the focus of our textual engagements for the next four months, our first class involved constructing a theoretical background for future discussion. This meant reading Derrida, among others (Susan McHugh, Cary Wolfe, Jed Mayer)–and this in turn meant starting conversations that quickly became impossible to finish within our class environment over the course of a single day.
For me, three conversations in particular felt incomplete–with one conversation so incomplete that I did not even begin to broach it in class. The first conversation (if I might be excused for creating a completely irrelevant hierarchy for critical inquiry) pertained to the limitations and antiquities of language–specifically, how our word choice, our syntax, and our narrative appeals make it exceedingly difficult even to begin questioning certain binary assumptions about humanness and other-animalness.
The second conversation pertains to the possible function of animal studies as a deconstructive force when applied to other ideological discourses (Cary Wolfe touches on this when he writes that, in a certain light, “animal studies, if taken seriously, would not so much extend or refine a certain mode of cultural studies as bring it to an end” ). Simply put, the agency question involved in other discourses (of race, gender, sexuality, etc.) meets an end in animal studies that does not exist in other spheres, for there is simply no way to include non-human animals as active, empowered participants in human discussions about one and the same. We are always speaking for or of them, never to them; and we can no more go to their “table” than we can bring them to ours.
And if these summaries seem stunted, please understand that I am trying to skip through a morasse of nuanced linguistic and socio-ethical discourse to get to the third conversation–the conversation I could not have in class, and therefore would like to develop more completely here. This conversation has to do with a creeping sense of personal, authorial culpability I felt as I read the four readings for today’s seminar, and which can be summarized thusly:
Does my own construction and use of alien species, as foils for negotiating humanness in the scifi short stories “Saying the Names” and “A Plague of Zhe,” evade or exemplify the issues of representation and agency manifested in animal studies discourse?
My first thought was of knee-jerk self-affirmation (in that cute way we all want to think the very best of ourselves and our efforts). As I considered the question, I could just see a disclaimer flashing before my mind’s eye: “No real non-human species were objectified in the making of this story!” And at first, I found similar authorial comfort in Susan McHugh’s description of post-structuralist intersections with animality:
Poststructuralist aesthetic accounts of contemporary animal representation highlight the ways in which the mechanisms of representation confront the singularity or closure of meaning with forms that build in gaps, fissures, or ruptures. Contrived metaphoric breakdowns and other ostentatiously mismanaged animal representations invite critique as unequivocal formal failures, only to prompt queries about (and make efforts to respond to) the inadequacies or shortcomings built into representational processes concerning animals. (491)
Never in a million years, I bargained with myself, would I write a work of general/literary fiction that evaluated humanness in contrast to real species in such “ostentatiously mismanaged” ways; scifi is just a meta-fictional exception that more blatantly addresses the artificiality of all representational world-building… right?
Except then I remembered that I had recently written a girl-and-her-dog novelette (currently with no fixed address), which takes place on one of Jupiter’s moons but harbours clear stylistic correlates to a very selective rural nostalgia that populates a great deal of literary fiction. And I knew darn well what I was doing while writing this novelette, too; the narrator’s interactions with her dog in “Uncle Remy’s Whizz-Bang Circus” can absolutely be read as her baseline for understanding and negotiating relationships with other people in both her immediate and impending purviews.
Am I any better off when writing about species of my own imagining, though? Are the Bo and the Zhe, as curiosities constructed in part to explore the limits of evolutionary potential, any less discursively problematic than, say, made-up hunter/gatherer societies? This question troubles me deeply, as the intersections between race and science fiction form an exceptionally potent field of inquiry that spans a great many academic discourses while also directly impacting the representational outcomes for a tremendous number of marginalized (if not wholly silenced) human beings.
This field of inquiry is also one I tangled with recently when writing a short story (also currently with no fixed address; but–fingers crossed!–under consideration at present) about a post-apocalyptic ice world that sees human beings adapt to a kind of paleolithic clan culture of a solely carnivorous nature. Just as I now (very belatedly) ask myself this question of animality, I routinely asked myself while working on “Fat of the Land” if writing about future human animals evaded or exemplified contemporary discourse about racial ‘othering’ in science fiction.
However, “Fat of the Land” has at least two benefits in this regard that, say, the Morlocks and Eloi of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine do not: For one, there is no representation of contemporaneous humanity present as a character in my story; and for another, physical markers are fluid in a way I hope indicates their secondary importance to group identity at that particular juncture in human evolution. (I would still be hopelessly naive if I pretended that the reader cannot still ‘other’ the whole of my fabricated culture in a way that reaffirms problematic or fetishistic views of existent human communities–but I also know there is a limit to how much I can ever control reader perceptions of my work.)
Of my two scifi short stories directly contrasting humanness with alien other-ness, though, I can make no such restorative claims. Rather, these two stories in many ways descend from a long tradition of binary representation in science fiction writing without, I fear, complicating that tradition’s most basic assumptions anywhere near enough.
Certainly, “the-human-subject-as-something-more-alien-than-aliens-themselves” was for me a core concept when writing “Saying the Names,” while the utter dysfunction of “natural intelligences” (in contrast with the jaded narrating AI and exploited native species) in “A Plague of Zhe” was regarded as even too misanthropic for some readers’ taste.
But even just in these first four course readings on animal studies, I have stumbled into a wealth of questions about semiotic representation that elide easy resolution–or even articulation!–and in their wake, I know there will be no going back. The forms I write in, the archetypes I select, and the crises I foreground from here on out cannot help but be informed by the discussions about animality set to take place in this class.
I am thus very excited by the prospect of returning to my current work-in-progress (a scifi story that was already being told from the point-of-view of a species not easily anthropomorphized) armed with an even more diverse critical toolkit. My aim is not didacticism, of course; but how my writing instincts acclimate themselves to this new influx of critical uncertainty will be, for me, a pleasure to observe and reflect upon as this story unfolds.
That said, I most certainly do not mean to suggest that I wash my hands of all fictional animal representations come before; these existing stories simply reflect other narrative priorities, other phases of my writing life. It’s just that, so far as I’m concerned, a writer is only as good as their next work, with all the possibilities for self-improvement that exist therein.
Circumstances willing, I know I have a great many “next works” still to come.