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Anthropomorphism in Translation

Leigh Alexander's picture

Achieving “Ecological Intelligence” sounds like a power-up in a joystick arcade game. I guess, in a way, it can be seen as a power-up of sorts, but not for the player, for our planet.  I feel like if we understood the rules of the game more, things would play out better, but the world doesn’t come with an instruction manual, or a rule book. 

            What we truly lack is an understanding of our planet; we can’t go on seeing it as this elusive world only stared at through the grimy inch-thick glass of our game consoles. Our planet isn’t some made up world light-years away, it’s here, and now, it’s breathing underneath us, it is us.  As humans were an inherently porous creatures, and this concept transcends the simple idea of facial pores.   Humans are giant, walking sponges, in the way that “ All entities or bodies are characterized by a porosity that allows the outer world to flow through them,” (Alaimo).  In this way, as much as we are a part of our world, our world is a part of us, as we are “host[s] of other entities” that move through us (Alaimo).

            Yet, becoming aware of this fact is not enough to score points from Mother Nature. In a Bradbury-esq world where our recognition of nature is slowly being reduced to the concept of it being a green blur on the side of the highway, humans owe it to the planet to make themselves aware of our the environment which they are a part of, and in turn, begin to more greatly value all the natural wonders which surround us.

            But how can one learn to value an environment that they often forget they are a part of? The majority of people in the world live in densely populated cities, far from the forests’ reaches; how are they to remember the importance of environmental conservation?

            I think a good place to start is by addressing our view of what exactly the environment is.  While acknowledging that we are a part of it, as much as it is a part of us, is a good start, what is it, and what are we to it? Bruno Latour suggests that a way for humans to more fully respect our planet would be through anthropomorphism, meaning that, by giving our planet human-like qualities, like the quality of being able to comprehend, humans will naturally become more sympathetic to it (Latour 6). But how much will this change anything? Latour’s theory relies on the good nature and sympathy of the human populous, the same human populous that is obsessed with finding bigger, better, and faster ways to kill its fellow humans.

             In addition to Latour, science-fiction also plays with the idea of anthropomorphism.  Ursula LeGuin in her short story “Vaster than Empires, and More Slow” imagines a world where the plants are capable of both feeling the emotions of others, and projecting fear upon the people who discover them.  Here, emphasizing the ability of people and the larger environment to share emotions, LeGuin hints at the importance this has in the welfare of both the planet and the people who were exploring it.  Those who did not accept the emotions of the planet were driven mad or injured by the planet, and only the one man who accepted the planet’s feelings as his own was able to comfortably live there, suggesting that, in order for a place to truly and mutually be habitable, there has to be some sort of understanding among its occupants.

            Similarly, Jeff Vandermeer’s science-fiction novel, Annihilation also explores the idea of humans venturing into an uninhabited, suspiciously government quarantined area to try and gain a better understanding of the environment there. The narrator, known only as “The Biologist,” remarks that she “despised anthropomorphizing animals,” yet, she later makes remarks regarding the “painfully human” eye of a dolphin and the “limbs and heads and torsos” of vegetation (Vandermeer 78,97, 96).  These obscure descriptions greatly differ from Latour’s portrayal of Earth as the gentle and Comprehending Gaia. Instead, Vandermeer’s descriptions hold an eerie sense of the sublime; the dolphin is “painfully human” and the vegetation is “misshapen” (Vandermeer 97, 96).  The negative connotation of these adjectives along with the eerie, human-less atmosphere of the book suggests that The Biologist’s observations are not pleasant ones. In this case, anthropomorphism lead to the Biologist’s confusion, not greater understanding, and also to her discomfort.

Another danger in humanizing non-human, natural organisms is that, by anthropomorphizing them, in addition to giving them human sentience, we give them human needs.  By assuming that non-human organisms have human needs when their needs may actually be beyond our comprehension, we are actually cutting off the environment from its needs more than we already had been when we neglected their thoughts entirely.  In this way, anthropomorphism becomes a poor translation, of the needs of different organisms.

            Yet, a poor translation is better than none at all. Although the concept of anthropomorphism as a vehicle of dialogue between planet and people may not be ideal, it seems, at least to be a good place to start, despite general awkwardness and inaccuracies. Maybe the eeriness and imperfections will fade away. Or maybe it will be ineffectual, but in a cooperation of any sort, understanding between the respective parties is a necessary ingredient, so why should it be neglected in our cooperative environment? 

Works Cited

Latour, Bruno.  "Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene." New Literary History 45, 1 (Winter 2014): 1-18.

LeGuin, Ursula. "Vaster than Empires, and More Slow." The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Short Stories.  New York: Harper and Row, 1975. 148-178.

Vandermeer, Jeff. Annihilation. New York: FSG, 2014. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

Some reading notes on this paper:

* nice, catchy opening: “a power-up in a joystick arcade game”—you are writing for the internet!
* you presume the value of empathy; cf. Emily’s critique of its usefulness
* interesting cf. w/ Annihilation, where (it seems) recognizing the human qualities of other life forms is not a comforting experience…
* you speak of “giving” other organisms human-like qualities, sentience, needs; perhaps its more just acknowledging that they have them already? Or is this anthropomorphizing? Poorly translating?
* esp. caught by your celebration of even “poor” forms of the art of translation, I invite you to consider its limits, as in the work of Elizabeth Ellsworth, Doris Sommers, Judith Butler—all of whom insist that we keep “permanently open” the question  of "Who are you?" If there is no possibility of "capturing" that other, then questioning becomes a mode of relationship: stepping back, asking, reorienting our conversation…We are in relationship not because we know-or-understand one another, these theorists claim, but! because! we! do! not!!

Some talking notes, from our final writing conference:
* you feel as though your writing really fluctuated this semester: the first few papers "weren't sure of their style"
* posting on a blog felt foreign; you weren't sure what sort of voice that required
* as the class progressed, expectations seemed clearer, you could begin to play with them, and things started to click
* the revisions were satisfying--and seemed more solid, with "a good string of thought going through them"
* you continue to feel that "something is missing" in each of your papers; there is always a moment of satisfaction in writing, but never time to polish it...
* we agreed that, for your final revision, you will select a paper that you like enough to do this sort of "polishing'--probably paper #5, "Having a hand in Freakdom"