Last week’s Halberstam readings in ‘Animating Sexuality: Queer Potentials’ drew from examples that counter or challenge “human exceptionalism” (Haraway 2007, in Halberstam 2010: 321), namely the representations of animals in animation, and observations of homosexuality in animals, both which problematize inclinations toward human centrality and prescriptive notions of normativity in relation to the animal world. We also had the chance to consider Halbertsam’s writings on the importance of ‘failure’ as method to escape or work to overcome boundaries in normative perceptions of value for nature. Essentially, these readings continue on from the discourse of cyborgs, which is interested in questioning what is ‘natural’ as well as the cuts made to delineate behaviour into prescriptive and reductive categories; all efforts that stem from value systems that condemn radicalism and inclusivity, and generate false oppositions.
To ground this post in Halberstam’s focus on queering the human-animal divide I elected to look back at some work in environmental theory in the 90s, namely Tony Lynch’s “Deep Ecology as an Aesthetic Movement” (1996). Lynch’s interest in arguing for an aesthetic reading of concern in environmentalism is that through its development an “aesthetic reading gives us the only viable model for a nonanthropocentric phenomenology of natural awareness” (148). Motivated by the opposition at the time to understandings of ‘deep ecology’ as a moral movement rivaling humanist ethics, Lynch instead works to position deep ecology as a “new ecological ethic to view wild nature as an aesthetic phenomenon” (147) and essentially honour the inherent value of all living beings in ways that do not measure worth on a scale of usefulness to human needs. His argument for an aesthetic rather than moral appreciation of nature (specifically wild nature) is that in gazing at nature as an object, and not carrying expectations for nature to fulfill a desire or human need, we can free our gaze from having co-optive power over nature, which is what Lynch describes as the intrusion of moralization in a relationship to the beauty of the natural world.
Taking ‘deep ecology’ to Halberstam’s work, I have a few examples of how animation can help us do what Halberstam suggests: “to think about animated animals as windows onto non-human logics of being in relation”, and “collude against (human) singularity, against uniqueness” (Halberstam 2010: 321). In two short animated films “The Henhouse” and “My Neighbourhood has been Overrun by Baboons” we see two examples of “’creative anthropomorphism’ or the willful manipulation of animal stories for both human and animal benefit” (322).
The Henhouse is animated, written and directed by Elena Pomares, who tells the story of a wild fox that wanders into the city in search of food. Happening upon a bistro, rummaging through the garbage cans in the alley, the fox finds and tries on (the first act of anthropomorphism) a bar tender’s apron. Short staffed, the bistro owner sees the fox and promptly ushers it into the restaurant, much to the shock and mute horror of the animal. The foibles of the fox as it learns how to make espresso and not to eat the muffins are accentuated by two other characters: a baby, and a fat domestic lap dog. As two equally dependent beings, the baby and the dog are repulsive to the fox, which implies what Halberstam calls “pure symbol” for the “transmission of dense ideologies” (323) in that the fox is inserted between the dependent baby/dog and the authoritative human/bistro owner – a part of neither party yet managing to survive in relation. When the fox takes out the trash and encounters one of its own, a still wild fox poking through the garbage, the confrontation takes a form not unlike the Lynch gaze seeing “wild nature as an aesthetic phenomenon”… the ironic queer twist being that that which gazes was once that which is gazed upon.
My Neighbourhood has been Overrun by Baboons is a music video animated in stop-motion Claymation, by Michael Richards and Cameron Edser, which tells the story of a man whose awareness of his own animalness is enlightened by what we at first see as a town under siege by a hoard of unruly wild baboons. Complaining, in song, that the baboons are wrecking everything in sight with their uncivilized behaviour, by the end our human hero realizes that there is no difference between the baboons and humans… that he too is a baboon. An example of what Halberstam calls the capacity of animated films to coerce/trick humans out of the human-centric perspective on nature by making characters that “project animal traits onto human forms” (324), this fun accessible film is yet complex and somewhat challenges the Lynch assertion that imposing a morality on our relationship with nature is unproductive to liberating perspectives on how to practice an ecologically deep awareness. If baboons and man and equal, as the filmmakers playfully suggest, how does one then resolve to treat the baboon animal as equal when treatment of the human animal is so regularly abhorrent?
“we polish the animal mirror to look at ourselves”
Donna Haraway (1991: in Halberstam 2010: 326)
Recognising the contradiction of overly positive expectations that call for an ethical treatment of wild and domestic animals in a world where humans still habitually brutalize other human animals is, I suggest, an example of the opportunity of failure that Halberstam outlines in the book The Queer Art of Failure. Where “failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between…winners and losers” (Halberstam 2011: 3) we are able to make the great challenge and necessity for change in models of value visible. By confronting our failure to actualize alternatives, the humanizing of value for animal life that anthropomorphizes qualifications that constitute an ideal animal existence perpetuate common and arguably misguided ecological actions… actions that impose human ethic sensibilities onto emergent animal ontologies.
In recognizing our failure to imagine alternatives to anthropomorphic value of animal life and behaviour, we can open up to the “potential queerness of all allegorical narratives of animal sociality and by advocating for ‘creative anthropomorphism’ over and against endless narratives of human exceptionalism that deploy ordinary and banal forms of anthropomorphism when much more creative versions would lead us in unexpected directions” (51). In line with this thinking, I offer this image gallery of so-called “BIZARRE ANIMAL CREATURES THAT ACTUALLY EXIST” to prove the point of the narrow human conception of what nature is. So inured as we are to our immediate surroundings, anything that seems to fall outside this conventionism is oppositional to a heternormativity, and is labelled ‘exotic’ or ‘bizarre’.
Another example: the “Sea Monster” video that went viral
This video shot by a deep sea remotely operated vehicle in the oceans off Brazil caused a stir online, which wide speculation as to the origin and identification of the creature which came to be popularly known as the “Cascade Creature”. It has since been identified as “a relative unknown prosaic, normal, Earth-bound animal: a type of jellyfish known as a Deepstaria enigmatica” (Santo, web).
All of these creatures are established species and not mutant, yet in some cases they defy common understanding of what form life “should” take. The broad spectrum and variety in nature is profound, and regularly emergent without exception. The limited ability of our imagination, and our awareness of this shortcoming, combine as one of our greatest failures as a species, and perhaps our most potent potential.
Lynch, Tony. “Deep Ecology as an Aesthetic Movement.” Environmental Values 5.2 (May 1996), White Horse Press, 147-60. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/30301493>