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Fiction’s Swarm: The Creation(s) of Animals at the End(s) of Nature

  • Tomasula y Garcia, Alba
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2023
eScholarship - University of California
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My dissertation is concerned with the consequences of how literary, historical, and scientific representations of animal life tend to depict our fellow creatures through two static frameworks: as either “object” (i.e., a machine-like entity that runs purely on pre-programmed instinct) or as “person” (i.e., a being that shares all the same traits as we humans). All critique notwithstanding, these tenacious frameworks significantly shape how we interact with living beasts. In contrast to these frameworks, I propose that it is more productive to start from the assumption that it is the entangled interactions between humans, animals, ideologies, and technologies that influence not what animals “inherently” are, but what they, like us, continually become. My dissertation, then, places literature’s beasts at a critical locus within these entanglements, and is composed of four chapters, each dedicated to a different genre of animal narrative: The Hunting Genre; The Fecund Dystopia Genre; The Melancholy Conservation Genre; and the Lively Catastrophe Genre. While my primary texts are not exhaustive of these broadly defined genres, they do serve as fruitful examples of what sorts of animal narratives—and what sorts of animal realities—may emerge from a reimagining of “fiction’s swarm.” Through them, I hope to achieve two objectives: first, to closely analyze a few specific cases of how animals—in both fictional and nonfictional narratives—are used by systems of power to control, determine, and end life on individual, landscape-wide, and global scales. And secondly, to explore how even within the mass suffering and death that the control of life requires, the interactions between humans and non-humans often develop significant and surprising means through which to enact the potentialities that some narratives deny, and others celebrate.I begin my dissertation with the Hunting Genre, analyzing works that are both autobiographical and “strictly” fictional but which all focus on a consequential struggle to the death between a highly individualized human and a highly individualized animal. I begin with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and interpret it as an early, important, simultaneous critique and idealization of hunting, as it is a work defined by both its praise for hunters as well as its painful awareness of the purely economic factors driving hunts for large animals under capitalism. This is followed by two autobiographical accounts, J.H. Patterson’s The Man-eaters of Tsavo (1907) and Carl Akeley’s In Brightest Africa (1923), for these books present a startling shift in attitudes towards hunting, from a firm belief in its necessity to agony over the extinctions it begets. I next discuss the literary presentations of hunting in William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942) for its focus on the struggle between the supposed nobility of hunting in the midst of the destruction it wrecks on nature and its creatures. David Vann’s novel Goat Mountain (2013) is the final work I examine for its 21st century take on the blatant rage a contemporary hunter may feel towards themselves and towards an anthropogenic world that is rapidly losing its wildlife. I follow this chapter with an analysis of works in what I call the Fecund Dystopia genre, which are, ranging from the beginning of the 20th century to the present, primarily concerned with the violent production, reproduction, and intensive control of life. Often explicitly associated with images of and critiques about factory farms, texts in this genre present both animal and human life as coerced to exist in an undifferentiated mass, more raw material than individual beings. While this chapter continues to follow something of a chronological order, I am here primarily interested in examining the similarities between these kinds of narratives. For example, I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1904) and Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds (2011) as kindred texts in their visceral descriptions of fast-paced mechanical animal slaughter and deliberate portrayals of how human and animal flesh undergo similar agonies within the factory farm. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake (2003) and Don LePan’s Animals (2009) are brought into conversation for the similarities of their imagined futures, in which the line between humans and animals has been worn thin as a means to further capitalist enterprises. J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (1999) is also included for its applicable struggle with the strange current pseudo-existence of animals in the modern/contemporary world as omnipresent in our food and in our theory yet as less and less present alive in everyday human life. My third chapter is dedicated to what I have dubbed the Melancholy Conservation genre, which is composed of works that focus on describing human-caused animal extinctions as tragedies that are worth fighting against, even if this fight is implicitly framed as a losing battle. I found that a relatively concise picture of this genre’s uses (and abuses) could be woven from a study of narratives concerning gorillas and chimpanzees, and thus focus my analysis on works that reveal the astonishing transformations these creatures underwent in the Western mindset. I begin with Merian C. Cooper’s “monster adventure” films King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) for offering a window into how completely and rapidly the image of the gorilla—and the “natural world” it was framed as embodying—changed over the 20th century from that of a violent, destructive force to a gentle victim of humanity’s whims. Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man (1971) and Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist (1983) are next considered for offering influential examples of a (then) new hybrid of animal narrative that is safari adventure, scientific journal, and emotional, even “feminine” framing of what animal life is and how we should treat it. I end with Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) for its careful, and often heart-wrenching, depiction of the generational traumas brought about by the technologies and social systems that define our closest animal relatives as commodities, and the extinctions this framework all but assuredly ends with. To end my dissertation—and in what I hope will provide some alternative analysis/relief to the subjects of my first three chapters—I examine a number of works I categorize under the Lively Catastrophe genre, which operate with explicit recognition of the pain, violence, and loss that have already defined landscapes both on and off the page. Their narratives, however, also grant their protagonists a significant amount of autonomy and possibility in their deliberate creations of human—and more than human—relationships. I begin the chapter by comparing Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain (1903) to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). Both texts present a near religious contemplation of nonhuman existence; both also offer a vision of nature and its creatures in which the violence inherent in the natural world, and the author’s wonder and love of nature in spite of it, is paramount. Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (1968, English translation 1990) is next read as a novel whose protagonist, even in the grip of personal tragedies, daily drudgery, and debilitating physical ailments, finds means through which to form meaningful—and essential—connections with nonhuman creatures. I end this chapter with Hayao Miyazaki’s manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982-1994) for its melancholic yet fiercely and actively hopeful speculations on the tragedies and joys that may be formed through human and nonhuman interactions. In so doing, these works argue for the necessity of the terrifying, amazing potentials that define every relationship between humans and their fellow creatures. Animal narratives, embodied and embedded within animal lives and flesh, inspire consequences that are, quite literally, deadly serious for all parties. What sorts of narratives may contribute to less lethal relations between humans and other creatures is thus not only a pressing question, but one that could greatly shape life, landscape, and even the possibility of a habitable future.

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