Monthly Archives: May 2014

Final Meeting of This Year: June 2nd

Our very last meeting of this academic year will take place on 2 June. The focus of this meeting will be on human-animal interactions in performances and performance studies. We will be listening to two speakers, Susan Richardson and Mariel Jana Supka, who will talk to us about what it means to ‘become’ or ‘become with’ the animal (see the abstracts below). The meeting will be held from 6.30-8 pm in room S2.39 at King’s College London.

We hope that you can all join us for this last meeting!

Speakers:

Susan Richardson (poet) – Writing on All Fours

Abstract: My next collection of poetry, to be published in 2015, is themed around human-animal metamorphosis and it explores our dys/functional relationship with the wild. My sources of inspiration include human-animal shapeshifting tales from a number of different cultures, from Inuit to Celtic, Native American to Norse, as well as the work of visual and performance artists including Marcus Coates and Oleg Kulik, and extensive personal experience of both shamanic journeying and shamanic trance dance. For the Being Non/Human discussion group, I will intersperse an overview of the research I have undertaken over the past two years with performances of new poems that explore a range of questions: where is the borderline between humanity and animality? What are the animal possibilities of the self? Is it feasible to believe that exploring the ‘becoming animal’ theme through poetry may help to reestablish the connection with the animal parts of ourselves and with the wider natural world, where we are just one animal among many, that Western culture has lost? Can revisioning myths and fairytales help to enable this reconnection?  My performance/presentation will aim to convey, too, how the human-animal metamorphosis theme can be reflected in the form and language of the poem. Linguistic transformations will take place, mirroring the subject-matter. Language will slip and slide and shapeshift, with verbs becoming nouns and adjectives morphing into verbs. Dramatic monologues, written in the first person, will transform into third person poems, and vice versa. Tenses that may trap a stanza in the present or past will start to loosen their grip.

Mariel Jana Supka (PhD Student, University of Roehampton) –‘Improv[is]ed Dwellings: Encounters with ‘Alien’ Animals in Performance Arts’

Abstract: Non-native animals are commonly described as harmful to the environment. Government bodies and other interest groups advocate their elimination, frequently using an aggressive and criminalising language, which adopts military metaphors and builds on xenophobic sentiments. This representation develops people’s sense of cultural and geographical belonging through an emphasis on differences, and a romanticised image of an unspoiled natural countryside. Although non-native animals in many cases do constitute a serious challenge to existing ecosystems, the current discourse in both lay and scientific contexts seems to a large extent informed by philosophical and political interests that originate outside the realm of ‘care for the environment’. In my PhD research project, I seek to unpick this discourse and investigate to what extent the presence of non-native animals may also facilitate a rethinking of cultural uncertainties about the ecological changes these animals represent. My project aims to develop new strategies to engage with live non-native animals in performance arts, building on a critique of prevailing concepts of nature-culture dualism and the dominating anthropocentric engagement with non-human agents. I will propose an artistic strategy to experiment with alternative human-animal relations in dwelling practices, which seeks to interrogate common hierarchical understandings of human-animal relationships. Building on Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘becoming with’ (2007: 3), which concerns a practice of interspecies engagement, I propose an exploration of possibilities for shared constitution of living conditions, by humans and non-humans. These explorations will take place in the form of different performance arts projects, which will take place in the habitats of non-native animals such as the Chinese Mittencrab. Human and animal performers will contribute to the creation of architectural artefacts.

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Report on May Meeting

Antlers, crazy cat pictures, arresting deer and dealing with rock (or rock-like?) people: we had a somewhat mismatched but interesting pair of papers this month from John Locke on the interaction between human and deer societies in Richmond Park and Karen Graham on the actual function and metaphorical role of mirrors in Gregory Maguire’s Mirror Mirror.

John argued that we can view our treatment of the deer, and the deers’ own social structure, as akin to that of a minority group (ethnic, or perhaps otherwise?) within London. This paper raised questions such as, to what extent do we run the risk of anthropomorphising animals when studying them, or to what extent can we deviate from an anthropocentric viewpoint in our  to animals? For instance, John pointed out that in the 1980s there was a rise in biologist feminism in which a greater focus was given to the importance of female animals in animal societies (the significance of maternal care, for instance). Although no doubt valuable, doesn’t this view of the animal suggest a greater concern for how we perceive the human species – aren’t animals essentially being used as a mirror to help define or support our concept of the human?

Mirrors and mirroring proved highly significant in Maguire’s reworking of the Snow White fairytale (Mirror Mirror) and in Karen Graham’s concept of fairytale retelling. Discussing Maguire’s depiction of the dwarves and how they relate to the idea of mirroring was somewhat intriguing. These dwarves, who describe themselves as either being rock or being like rock (and who are perceived as such by the Snow White character, Bianca) originally own the titular mirror (yes indeed, that well-known ‘mirror, mirror, on the wall’). But when the mirror is taken, forcing one of the dwarves to go on a quest to retrieve it, the other dwarves are shaken – until then, they had thought of themselves ‘as one’. What does this mean? Does the loss of the mirror threaten their sense of self? It clearly causes their fragmentation. But if we view the purpose of a mirror to accurately reflect and so to cement or define one’s sense of self, then what is the true nature of the dwarves? Is the true state of the dwarves not as individuals, or even dwarves (it takes an outsider, Bianca, to look at them and label them dwarves), but some sort of collective or morphed entity?

For me (Sophia), given my recent research into stone, this got me thinking about the dwarves’ descriptions of themselves as beings made of rock (or possibly beings that are rock-like), and imagining the various possibilities of rock being animate matter (Manuel de Landa describing people as walking mineralisation; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Roger Caillois thinking about the alternate temporality and mutability of stone; Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter etc). What does it mean for an entity to be made of rock? Does rock speak in a collective voice, as the dwarves initially seem to? And how does this rocky entity relate to mirror glass?

But the process of mirroring is, to a certain extent, unconcerned with matter. It is about reflection, the bridge between truth and reality, and questioning the reliability of this bridge. Mirroring, according to Karen, always provides minor alterations – it is never a complete imitation. In the same way, retellings of fairy tales are always slightly skewed versions of their predecessors. The dwarves’ loss of the mirror fragments their collective community – the loss of the mirror, apparently, threatens to destabilise their sense of identity. But how accurately did that mirror reflect the dwarves in the first place? Maybe instead of reading the dwarves’ fragmentation (‘we used to be as one’) as undermining their identity, we should read it as revealing the nature of ‘mirroring’ or the nature of storytelling and retelling. The dwarves in Maguire’s Mirror Mirror don’t simply exist in isolation – they recall into existence previous versions of the fairytale dwarves in both literature and collective consciousness (notably, the 1937 Disney film). And what of Bianca herself? Karen argues that Bianca acts as a mirror herself through whom other characters are defined. What are we to make of a central character who acts as a mirror? I’ll leave that to you.

Our thanks to the speakers and attendees, and we hope you can make it to our last meeting of the year, coming up on Monday 2nd June – see the ‘Schedule and abstracts’ page for more details!

 


Our next meeting: May 12th

Oh no, we only have two more meetings scheduled for this academic year! The first of these will take place on Monday May 12thfrom 6.30 – 8 pm in room S2.39 at King’s College London. You are all invited to join us for two very different but hopefully equally interesting papers:

Karen Graham (PhD student, University of Aberdeen) – ‘“The eye is always caught by light, but shadows have more to say”: Reflections of the Non/Human in Gregory Maguire’s Mirror Mirror’

Abstract: There remains in popular culture a persistent appetite for adaptation, something particularly evident in the various retellings of fairy tales in literature and film. While the market is, it seems, saturated with these retellings, a change in the perspective of the original tale is evident in the most successful stories. These innovative retellings re-position the antagonist from marginalised other to the main focus of the narrative. It is a vital component of this new form of fairy tale in which the appeal is not aspiring to beautiful, demure perfection as in the Disney adaptations, but the identification of the audience with the ostracised individual who is not accepted by society. At the centre of these narratives lies the questions of what it is to be human, or what it is to be a person and how the two are not always necessarily one and the same thing. Drawing on the existing framework in fantasy, myth and fairy tale, author Gregory Maguire expands on such common tropes as talking animals to highlight the blurring of these boundaries between the human and the non-human to draw our attention to the insubstantiality of these categories. While this aspect of both Maguire’s Wicked series of novels and the Broadway musical inspired by them has been well discussed, his other works based on more traditionally canonical fairy tales have hitherto been largely overlooked in critical discourse. This paper proposes to begin to redress this imbalance by examining the non/human in Mirror Mirror, Maguire’s re-envisioning of Snow White. It will pay particular attention to the intertextual practices used by Maguire in the reforming of the familiar, both in terms of the narrative and the construction of the human within it.

John A W Lock – ‘The Dark Side of the Park: How Deer see People’

Abstract: Today Richmond Park is a National Nature Reserve and has many other environmental designations to its name. Historically it was a hunting ground and subsequently a finishing ground for fallow deer destined for the beneficiaries of the Crown’s Venison List. The deer were regarded as little more than carcasses-in-waiting, differentiated only by age and sex. This ‘establishment’ view of  the deer has only changed insofar as the animals are now regarded as a ‘resource’ to be ‘managed’ and harvested ‘scientifically’ through culling, achieved using formulaic strategies devised in Nazi Germany for the ‘final solution’. Casual visitors to the park see the deer rather differently, in terms of their cuteness (‘the Bambi factor’) while animal rights activists get very upset about the culling. I promote another view of the fallow deer in the park which sees them as a complex social network containing many de facto sophisticated social structures, essential for the successful conception, birth and rearing of young deer and for the education of the young bucks. This social order has much in common with many traditional or pre-modern human societies. I then turn my attention to how the deer see things – how they perceive themselves and the park, and in particular how they view and tolerate the people who daily invade their domain and how these views vary according to the demography of the deer. In short the piece examines the position of  the Richmond Park deer as an ethnic minority within a larger population. It looks at the resilience of an alien culture to the pressures of diaspora, integration, internment, population control and concepts of difference and race. It seeks to demonstrate that the deer in Richmond Park are as cosmopolitan as any of the other inhabitants of the metropolis.

We look forward to seeing you on May 12th!