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!



About beingnonhuman

Being Non/Human is an interdisciplinary discussion group aimed at postgraduates and early career researchers. The group was set up and is run by Sophia Wilson and Lydia Zeldenrust. Our group is funded by the English departments of King’s College London and Queen Mary, University of London. View all posts by beingnonhuman

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