The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Gerald McBoing-Boing and Links between Environmental History and Animation Studies

“This is the story of Gerald McCloy and the strange thing that happened to that little boy.”

And, let me add, the story of two ways of studying those strange things that happen.

This will be a short reflection on how animation studies and environmental history can come together. As two odd meeting spaces for all kinds of disciplinary wanderers, these two subjects have quite different origins, methods, and subject matter. But! What they share, I think, is a profound commitment to two things I’ll explore through the 1950 UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing.

These two things are:

  1. The idea that the interactions between different bodies in motion (human or not, virtual and real) are incredibly significant (along with a belief in the importance of the built environment and material things) and
  2. Methodological diversity––even, dare I say, chaos harnessed productively

I’ll spend two sentences summarizing the story of the short just in case anyone reading this can’t access the video I’ve embedded above. The short, adapted from a story by Dr. Seuss and animated by the John Hubley-led studio UPA (under Columbia), concerns Gerald McCloy, who cannot speak. When he speaks, he produces Foley sounds effects instead, and while this initially makes him a social pariah, in the end he is hired by a radio station owner to do sound effects for dramas, ensuring his place in society and giving him wealth and status.

Without diving too far into the short’s technical qualities or production history, I want to make two quick points about the short and why it makes a great exemplar for why environmental history and animation studies make excellent companions. While this exercise is certainly supposed to be fun, it’s also my effort to justify some of the ways I’ve attempted to bring these two fields together to make beautiful alchemy.

  1. An obvious point: the place of nature in the milieu of the short:

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In short, both fields would take notice of the way that nonhuman living things (trees, other plants, animals, etc.) are abstracted out of the frame in UPA cartoons, focusing on the human figures. These human figures, moreover, are often left un-coloured so that they appear as transparent drawings that share the colour field of the simple backgrounds.

Animation studies might ask the question: what were the historical views of nature and of nonhuman life that may have contributed to this style? How do UPA’s characters exist juxtaposed onto these very simple backgrounds, and how does that movement compliment the stillness, the unchanging stasis, of these natural objects? Moreover, what was the environment the animators inhabited? What did they see when looking out the window? What were the physical and labour conditions that went into the production of this cartoon with its spare moodiness and plentiful negative space? Or, finally, we might ask why Gerald McBoing-Boing tries to run away from home by means of a train, or what place the consumer culture of the 1950s has in the short.

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Meanwhile, environmental history might look at this approach as a result of the ideological modernism and anti-naturalism of the animation studio. As an environmental historian, I would ask: how does this more industrial and streamlined approach to filmmaking reflect the broader cultural trends in technology, media production, and appropriation of human and nonhuman labour? Like the animation scholar, I would ask about the environment surrounding the studio, the other films the studio produced about natural topics (like Of Stars and Men more than a decade later). Perhaps, if I’m looking to use this short or UPA’s style as a microcosmic study, I would look at how it fit into the ways paper, ink, animation tables, and celluloid were produced and distributed at this time and how those material allowed and limited an artifact like Gerald McBoing-Boing to be produced.

2. Narrative Content and “Message”

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Note that, in the frame above, Gerald has been fully integrated into a society that used to reject him. Like Rudolph’s nose in the Rankin-Bass special that has become a perennial favourite this time of year, Gerald’s peculiar way of vocalizing is akin to a disability (moreso than Rudolph’s nose, which has cultural stigma attached to it but doesn’t inhibit him in most other ways) or maybe more accurately a social inhibition. But now that an older man has swooped out of nowhere to give him a place in society, his once-hostile parents are smiling down on him from a raised viewing room, and he is well-dressed and productively employed.

(Come to think of it, the stop-motion Rudolph may have just taken this story beat-for-beat or at least drawn on the same set of values––social conformity, the value of diversity as long as it’s productive, the prevalence of children and adults’ prejudices, etc.)

In environmental history, we can ask questions about how UPA’s storytelling draws on wider or more personal views of the human body and its relationship to society. The idea that people need to have bodies that produce some kind of economic value is significant, as well as the way that technology helps to “rehabilitate” Gerald into a useful role. Even the optimistic tone of the short could come under question for, perhaps, being connected to wider social optimism and postwar prosperity.

Meanwhile, in animation studies, we might be interested in the particular ways and means by which animators construct those relationships to technology and human bodies. In what way is the animated creative process simulated or reproduced here? What is the significance, for instance, of the ways that UPA show that all of their figures are produced by drawing? We could hypothesize, for instance, that this kind of self-reflexivity and attempt to find the pure graphic potential of a medium connects to painterly abstraction also en vogue at this time. Finally, we could ask about the economic aspects of the process of animating these characters and the ways that they move. What meaning can be derived from that, either about the images themselves or the ways that process impacts the economics of animation and the later hegemony of television as a transmission form for animated stories?

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To conclude, I just want to say that the fields of environmental history and animation studies have a great deal to learn in coming together. And, I think, because of recent trends in both fields towards a consideration of the way the human body figures as a kind of environment or organic mechanism, and a consideration of how nonliving and nonhuman living beings affect history or possess some “agency” of their own (however defined) there is more opportunity for collaboration and cross-disciplinary discussion than ever.

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How Guy Maddin Makes a Philosophy of History Out of Frozen Horses

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My Winnipeg is an audio film before it’s a visual experience. Its skeleton is oral poetry, mythology, the voice of Guy Maddin that manifests the pictures around it. Animation is just one medium that this documentary-fantastic poetry evokes like an incantation, freely jumping from archival footage, new footage, reenactment, colour, black-and-white film, and the illusory images of the poem’s fantasies.

I want to highlight the way the poetry of the film and its visual manifestations conjure up a kind of philosophy of history. Namely: the film’s use of animation, its creation of a “critical cartography” of space (and, I’ll argue, time), demonstrates the power of history gone intimate and non-linear.

The narrator of the film describes a scene where, on a frigid night in Winnipeg, a squirrel electrocutes itself on a power line and starts a fire with its body that spreads to the stables of the nearby horse track. The horses dart into the river where their bodies are frozen, becoming grim statues that nevertheless become hot spots for perambulators and even passionate lovers who create a baby boom the following spring. These children were “born of horses.”

When inhabiting the bodies fashioned by animators, the horses move, escaping from the fire into the ice. Their journey, punctuated by jabs of huge text on the screen, carries them through the frame, which is itself covered by footage of fire. The horses plunge into the water, where their animated bodies become frozen in a way that preserves their frenzy.

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And with a fade to black, the film shows, through a recording made by a camera, the grisly aftermath of the history that happened in animation. Animation makes the past move, while the camera records stasis, even if it is an erotically charged stasis. As the narrator calmly exposits, “the horse heads are always frozen in the same transports of animal panic, an abandonment reading unambiguously to the young lovers of Winnipeg.” Animation joins with the fire from which the horses are fleeing, the energy that animates their fear, which leaves the camera, live-action, as a frozen medium, one that signals and “records” the fear and terror but only in a cold retrospect.

Ian Robinson put it this way:
“Through the muddling of the dreamed city and the archived city, My Winnipeg defers the singularity of place to a configuration of stories. In this cartography, the textuality of Winnipeg emerges as a contested ground, a site where truth emerges through a dialogic event between spectator, film and the memory, archive and idea of the city.”(1)

And, as this sequence deftly shows, that “configuration of stories” is expressly nonlinear. It takes its form from layered, haunted wholes and double images. Animation, being expressly dreamlike and artificial, makes for an apt medium for summoning up the ghosts of old racehorses and communicating their fear and panic through graphic means.

My Winnipeg’s inclusion, and the esoteric and unreal nature of most of the “live” action footage often makes me mistake this for a fully animated film, since its textures and kaleidoscopic energy are so much more important than the medium used at any particular moment. Its actual animation and its live action scenes seem cut from the same mythological and memorialized cloth.

Even where there is no footage, no “documentary evidence” that can serve as visual confirmation of the horses’ plunge, animation can supply a flexible surrogate that has perhaps an even more powerful effect. And since much of the live action footage in My Winnipeg is fabricated/reenacted or modified anyway, animation fits seamlessly in the film’s narration.

While Robinson’s argument is primarily about the way that Maddin’s use of animation, multimedia montage, and poetry relates to place, my own argument is about how it productively disrupts the linearity of conventional histories. Although the narrator’s history does address events that have dates attached to them, sticking to something like conventional chronology (though not to empirical accuracy), its timeline winds, like the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, around and through countless places. Its timeline bends around memories, traumas, personal myths, and, as mentioned, the insistent flow of Maddin’s voiceover narration.

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Nonlinear histories like those told by My Winnipeg are crucially important because they do not trend towards some final end or towards an inevitable present. Rather, they point out how the history haunts the present, and show how the past incarnates itself in the memories, bodies, and, yes, the art of people in the present. Once again quoting from Robinson, this animated segment evokes and brings to life “the event of place.”(2) The horses racing out of the fire and into the ice, freezing under the gaze of the animator and then the camera, show that history does not march evenly forward but rather surges, locks in place, winds absentmindedly, comes crashing down like Maddin’s favourite downtown buildings.

As a historian, I am inspired by this film to take history, even if not so far into the intimacy of mythology and memory as Maddin, at least to acknowledge that the histories I am writing are all, in some sense, animated. Whether through my writing, the images in my mind as I pore through archives, or in the spectres and landmarks they leave behind, history-making has always been a form of animation.

Notes:

  1. Ian Robinson, “The Critical Cinematic Cartography of My Winnipeg,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 2014), 105.
  2. Ibid, 104.

I lost six months of my life, can you help me find them?

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Goya–Incendio de un hospital (~1808)

Losing time is not quite what I expected it to be. In hindsight I should have thought it through better, should have realized to truly lose something I have to remember that I lost it. But time, time presents itself as uniquely precious. Time, whatever it is, structures the very meaning of words, the order of words, the phasing in and out of consciousness and dreams. Nevertheless, it turns out that losing six months of time is not so different from losing a pair of headphones, or the memory of your own phone number, or a line of verse.

It’s astonishing that I can remember the last six months because it is also utterly lost. Likewise for much of the year before that. I can see sunrises and hear conversations and feel the dread of nightmares I know I had during those times, but it might as well be sand sculpture. Un-grasp-able.

Even more frustratingly, I understand why I lost all this time. A misdiagnosed mental illness, a pill for depression that turned me into a marionette, a disastrous five-month labour strike at my university–they all chain together link on link. But again, unlike the vividness of many of my other recent memories predating this misty span of time, these memories are all cobwebs, fog, and stasis. I know I had those times, and I can even see them, but finding them is beyond me. I’m not even sure of what the difference between seeing those memories and finding them is, except that in the former I’m just a third-party observer, stern and spiritual as the Law.

Historical work demands a skillfulness in braiding strands of time into a discernible shape. It’s a learned craft, one that I take great pride in maintaining and advancing. Nevertheless, when it comes to my own life, none of the old trade secrets are any help. I’ve looked at the records, written and otherwise, delved for evidence, applied the necessary theoretical approaches. And? And?

Unfortunately, the result of any personal history that is still in the thick of it–distinct from an autobiography or biography that reflects back on a thing already done–the result is not a tidy paper but a human body. And bodies, whatever I might claim at dinner parties, are not part of my training. So it’s no wonder that, as I’m sifting through historical information, composing essays and chipper correspondence, I misplace a few of my bodies. That wouldn’t be such a problem except–well–once you’ve lost a few of your own bodies, once that trace of physical continuity doesn’t make sense anymore, and your personality seems to be a flitting free agent, and your legs seize up for no physical reason, it’s hard to get any perspective on the body that’s here, now, and soon.

When traumas snatch time from us–I believe time is rarely lost by accident–our work becomes like a historian’s. At some point I will probably shift my shoulders and realize that all that time I thought was missing was instead dead and pressing down on my shoulders, the remnants of all the bodies I left behind while my brain and the troubled lands were torturing me senseless.

I wish my writing could be returning on a happier note, but when I look back on the months since I last published here in November I see only a series of catastrophes. I want, so desperately, to use my writing to slow down, to find some of the fragments that are still distinguishable. I’m not hopeful. Here’s to a new me, and to finding the time I lost.

City Egg, Country Egg: Narrow Notes on Urban Wildlife Ecology

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Steven and Krista Latta’s article on the population decline of the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is less an article about the nighthawk and more about the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). Noting hte aforementioned decline in the population of the insectivore, migratory nighthawks, the authors attempt to find a causal link between this decline and predation of nighthawk eggs by crows. Since the crows’ population has recently ballooned in American urban areas, the authors believe this may be a “non-mutually exclusive” cause of the nighthawks’ decline.¹

To test this hypothesis, the authors devised a method that utilized artificial nests of egg clutches distributed on different university roofs, each with a different roofing (stone, large or small gravel, etc.). These were compared against another set of experimental egg clutches distributed in a rural area where, the authors hypothesized, crows would be less likely to eat the eggs. In order to reduce the chance that the crows would memorize the locations of the artificial nests, the researchers placed each new experimental set “on a different rooftop, and a rooftop was only revisited after a minimum 7-day interval between trials” in the urban areas, and moved the clutch locations in the rural area, a forest preserve, without repetition.² They watched each clutch through camera feeds for 72 hours before being inspected. If their eggs were missing, they were considered to be predated.

At the end of their experiment, they found that none of the rural ground clutches had lost eggs to predation, while 44.7% of the urban nests suffered plundering over a 72-hour span.³ Moreover, every act of predation caught on camera was the act of a crow. From these results, the authors draw the conclusion that crows “could limit reproductive success of nighthawks in urban environments.”⁴ These results are certainly striking, and, within the confines of the author’s experimentation, the significant difference in predation between rural and urban areas, with their differing levels of crow activity, they suggest there is some veracity to their claims. However, there are also some significant gaps and inadequacies in their method and in their structural assumptions that inhibit the usefulness of the study.

First, as the author’s admit, the use of artificial nests and surrogate quail eggs is a useful expediency but is nonetheless a sub-optimal compromise method. Because the experiment here concerned a species that lays its eggs on the ground without much nest structure, there could be less of a discrepancy between predation of quail eggs and real eggs than in other studies using similar methods. However, as the authors also admit, their artificial nests lacked any parental defence, which could skew results, especially in areas where the eggs are highly visible and exposed.⁵ This flaw is not necessarily fatal to their conclusions, however, because rural predation was far, far lower than urban predation despite the use of false eggs. The relative difference could, therefore, be considered more significant than the absolute accuracy of the predation rates they found.

Another difficulty with the study is a minor discrepancy in the authors’ presentation of their methods between the urban and rural settings. While the false nest sites for the eggs at the university are described in great detail, down to the density and size of the gravel lining the rooftops, the rural sites are simply presented as being “on the ground.”⁶ Though there is a note that the sites chosen were in accordance with an encyclopedia of American birds, the reader would benefit from a short description of what those sites might be, since they might be quite physically distinct from exposed urban rooftops. This is not so much a methodological as a presentation error, but it leads to an inadequate understanding on the part of (this) reader, which could be remedied in only a few words.

More importantly, the previous flaw points to a more structural problem with the experiment: the lack of a precise knowledge of the differences in crow behaviour in rural and urban areas. The entire premise of the article is that crows are more active and more numerous in urban centres, which is the reason they were identified as a potential cause for population declines in the first place.⁷ When the authors admit that their article is unable to resolve the question of why they saw such a discrepancy in predation between urban and rural areas, it shows the weakness of one of the core assumptions of the study. As Latta and Latta assert, “Differences in abundance of crows between urban and rural sites may also play a role in determining predation rates, though we expected at least some predation in rural areas given the common occurrence of crows there.”⁸

Without more precise knowledge of the differences in crow populations and behavioural patterns in the rural and urban areas under investigation, the authors can only speculate that the urban crow population is higher or more active than the rural. Relative abundance of other food sources and competition from other predators in urban or rural areas and the the greater ease of finding and predating eggs on rooftop nests could all be factors driving the differences the authors see. Because of this, although the results the authors obtained show a strong contrast between the two ecological zones, they do not give the reader a clear grasp of why this might be nor whether crow behaviour is directly causative of this difference.

To conclude, none of these flaws strip away the entire worth of the study, but the inadequacy of their method and some of the vagueness of their assumptions prevents them from deriving effective results from their data. Simply knowing that nighthawks face much higher predator pressure from crows in urban areas is certainly worthwhile. But there is missed potential here. On a broader level, though, this study illustrates the logistical and logical challenges of posing effective ecological questions that can be answered using a set time and budget. And as urban ecologies grow larger and larger, it pays great dividends to understand the nonhuman life-cycles and energy dynamics that pulse within the city. It also reminds us to be mindful and caring for every environment rather than only ones that we can designate as “wild,” since the wild is often happening right above our heads. Figuratively and literally.

Notes:

1. Steven C. Latta and Krista N. Latta, “Do Urban American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) Contribute to Population Declines of the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)?” The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, no. 127, vol. 3:529.

2. Ibid, 530.

3. Ibid, 531.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid, 532.

6. Ibid, 530.

7. Ibid, 529.

8. Ibid, 532.

New Series: Solarpunk and the Aesthetics of Optimism

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Solarpunk aims to develop images and narratives that inspire hope and optimism. As an aesthetic, it visualizes future human achievement. Moreover, it tries to cultivate a tinkering, democratic, and cooperative attitude towards social matters and a reverent attitude towards ecology in its audiences. Those audiences, formed online and through fiction publications, have also produced a great deal of commentary on the “movement,” its goals, and its advantages and shortcomings. Unabashedly utopian and sunny, solarpunk, in the eyes of its boosters and practitioners, professes optimism as an oppositional virtue, projecting a ray of sunlight through the dim clouds of post-apocalyptic pop media.

Not only is solarpunk supposed to inspire real activism and practical solutions to environmental and social problems, its proponents are also, at this stage, highly activist about this nascent subgenre. There is even a manifesto for it. So although it is a literary and artistic tendency first and foremost, many of the authors we’ll be encountering in this new series inject far loftier ambitions. While this seems appropriate given the defiant can-do-it attitude of solarpunk, it also generates a set of interesting questions:

1. What is the relationship between the literary work and any practical activist or infrastructural work done in the name of solarpunk?

2. Does solarpunk aspire to become more than a literary movement or does it sit content appropriating and recontextualizing works that fit the aesthetic but are not formally affiliated with it?

3. How do the creative workers and critics promoting solarpunk conceptualize their own politics–as uniquely solarpunk, or merely influenced by it?

While I can’t answer all of these questions in full, I want to look more closely at this genre because it represents a rather unique post-ironic and anti-nihilist approach to thinking about ecology and technology, society and the individual, and “the end of the world” vs. the end of the world as we know it. My other reason for investigating solarpunk and some of its many close relatives and affiliates is a profound skepticism. To be brief: I am unconvinced that this lustrous approach to “punk” can be the basis of a radical critique of the status quo, at least not at this point. While sentimental cynicism can be just as noxious as untempered idealism (in the dreamer sense, not the Marxist insult), existing critiques of futurism and visions of earthly harmony cast doubt on the project of “re-brightening” science fiction and our collective visions of the future.

In order to think through these fundamental concerns and approach an answer to the three questions I posed earlier, I will be exploring some of the genealogy of solarpunk, its current manifestations, and looking at specific critical writing and image and literary production associated with solarpunk.

My first post will look at Castle and the Sky, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke, which have all been claimed as part of the aesthetic heritage of solarpunk and even recommended as part of a “syllabus” for those getting familiar with the subgenre. I want to explore what Miyazaki’s relationship to the stated goals of solarpunk really are and look at his own evolution, since we can’t assume that every film will have the same relationship.

In the second post, I will look at Adam Flynn’s “Notes toward a manifesto” for solarpunk. By putting this document in dialogue with a few other “manifesto-type” documents related to the subgenre, we can get a sense for what sympathetic critics and academics see in solarpunk and explore some reasons why this might be the case.

Third, we’ll delve into a more explicitly political solarpunk-pusher. Specifically, we’ll look at Solarpunk Anarchist’s blog and Facebook presence and the media and audience that they have curated. This gives us a sense of at least one of the vital audiences that solarpunk has generated. Comparing it to some of the more popular solarpunk tumblr blogs, we can use Solarpunk Anarchist as a way to perceive how explicit political commitment matters as far as audience cultivation and ideology. Though solarpunk is political to its core–at least in a moment where it has not been widely commercialized or appropriated by mainstream media–it’s useful to look at a more directly political wing of the subculture to see how solarpunk’s inherent politics might be contrasted and compared to a solarpunk infused with and infusing an anarchist ideology.

Solarpunk’s defiance of nihilistic or pessimistic appraisals of the future is one of its core tenets. For the fourth post, therefore, I’ll be considering some of the nihilist and some non-nihilist critiques of futurism or of optimism more generally. There are many reasons to be suspicious about the rhetoric of hope and light that solarpunk offers, but that hopeful ethos is also its greatest point of differentiation with other -punk subgenres.

Finally, in the fifth and final post, I will conclude with a critical summary of solarpunk as it currently exists. I’ll hopefully be able to get ahold of some of the more prominent solarpunk literature and investigate how short story writers construct their worlds and characters. At the very end, there may be room for speculation about what solarpunk’s contribution to radical ecology and politics might be.

Optimist aesthetics, especially partisan ones that claim an oppositional, counterculture basis, are a rarity today. That much is certain. And through this series of pieces on solarpunk, I hope we can all acquaint ourselves better with this tendency and all of its twisted tendrils.

Mononoke, Violence Against Women, and The Partiality of Truth

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  1. The Medicine Seller as interpreter
  2. The Spacetime of Grudges
  3. Violence Against Women

Mononoke is a detective show with a definite formula. The Medicine Seller (薬売り) exorcises mononoke, monsters borne from the unresolved and secret grudges of those who have been wronged. To do so, he must know the shape, the truth, and the reason of the mononoke. Only once he has all three pieces can he draw his sword and resolve the imbalance that has been created by violence, neglect, and the resulting ill karma.

Every episode is driven forward by revelations. The mononoke makes itself known as a danger in every story, manifesting as sounds, images, and violent action. In one episode, the mononoke strangles a sword-wielding man. In another, it takes a subway train and its passengers hostage. An old grudge or unresolved tension has made itself known in the present, mundane space. Nothing functions normally in these cases–present and past are conflated, events occur over and over again, spaces redouble themselves or change dramatically. Nothing is allowed to move or to transform as usual until the suspension of the grudge is broken by the Medicine Seller. In that sense, he is one who reconciles, who acts in order to keep the mundane world free of glitches.

As I already mentioned, however, he cannot act without first listening. He listens to a pregnant woman and an innkeeper discuss their pasts, he pieces together a story of forbidden love from an incestuous priest, tying a multi-vocal story into a truth. This act of uniting various stories, of listening to every witness without judgment and finding an actionable principle that unites them is the act of interpretation. Fundamentally, the Medicine Seller is an interpreter, someone who listens to human and mononoke alike to determine what must be done to appease the supernatural grudge. In his interpretation, he brings together fragments that were once separate or incomplete, which often means bringing secret or taboo acts or desires into the light.

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Of course, this does not make him fundamentally different from any detective. In an old article on the methods used by American detectives, Captain Duncan Matheson writes:

Every crime tells a story capable of interpretation. A peace officer that cannot read the story has no value in its solution. This is where the detective comes in. He makes a survey of the premises, the scene of the crime, the neighborhood and all the intimate details connected therewith.¹

A good detective story is mechanically elegant. The detective unravels the story for us and we are privy to all the pieces of the story and are invited to make our own interpretations. Typically, the greatest pleasure of the mystery story is in being given a surprising or slightly twisted version of a story we already think we know. The pieces can fit together many ways, but ultimately only one way is true, only one way of looking at things enables the detective to make the correct judgment. So not every interpretation has equal value.

For Mononoke and the Medicine Seller, the crime is not usually something contemporary or, sometimes, even recent. These are crimes that have lain dormant, curdling into malevolence while they remain unsolved. Mononoke, whether they can speak or not, are witnesses to as well as traces of the crimes from which they emerge. They often take an agency in the solving of the case, and the Medicine Seller has to weigh their desires and needs as well as those of the human beings affected by them. Part of the pleasures of Mononoke for the viewer, then, is the discovery of something human and recognizable at the core of beings who appear completely alien and incomprehensible. By unraveling their story and their reason for being, their shape and actions become understandable. The Medicine Seller bridges us to these strange beings, acting as a medium as well as an exorcist. Because there is no placating the mononoke without listening to its peculiar voice, which is as unique as any person’s.

2. The Spacetime of Grudges

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Before thinking about violence against women in Mononoke, we can first consider the architecture. Space takes numerous forms in the show, and while many scenes are staged as flat tableaux and composed like Edo-era Japanese prints and paintings, in more dramatic moments the camera will push rapidly forward and backward through depths that were barely hinted at earlier. This sense of hurtling forward and backward accentuates the strangeness of the space, especially when apparent exits are closed, rooms multiply copies of themselves, and the world outside a fragile vessel (boat, train) becomes demonic and hellish.

When the mononoke warp space and time, it’s usually as an act of aggression against the perpetrators. They arrest the normal flows and create pockets of stasis or chaos where reality is uncertain and everyone loses their bearings. Passage is often denied, whether through rendering escape illusory or impossible or simply binding someone in place. And the show constructs space differently depending on the nature of the grudge. The shape of the mononoke is not the only thing determined by its truth and reason, but the shape of everything.

3. Violence Against Women

In the third arc of the show, a woman confesses to killing her entire family. According to the law, her fate is already sealed by her words. The Medicine Seller, however, is not satisfied, sensing a mononoke. His skepticism and questioning of the imprisoned woman leads to her realization that her violence was not actually directed at her family but, rather, at herself. She committed a virtual suicide because of being trapped in abusive status marriage. As mentioned in part 2, the spaces of the episode shift the nature of the crime or crimes. Her conflict, although it originates from outside circumstances and physical and mental abuse, becomes confined within herself. The arc therefore begins in a prison cell and finishes with her escaping through a window, running away from her abusive family once and for all.

The intimate nature of the violence committed against her contrasts with the explosive publicity of the crime to which she confesses. She says that she slaughtered her family and hung their bodies from a tree in plain sight. Her rage, so heavily internalized, at last explodes like dynamite, creating an unmistakable sign. She publicly confesses as well. Nevertheless, these confessions and signs turn out to be illusions, even falsehoods. Most of the arc takes place in the confined and intimate spaces of her memory, which has a confusing, repetitive quality. In order to lay these illusions bare, the Medicine Seller crafts his own illusion, a man in a Noh mask, in order to show the woman how her situation had robbed her of her self-worth and her humanity, causing her to seek her own destruction through execution.

Nearly every arc revolves around or involves a similar act of violence against women. These acts typically punish “improper” affections or desires or women’s attempts to enter masculine spaces. For instance, the final arc deals with the sensational murder of a woman journalist who wanted to expose corruption and collusion between the local mayor and the capitalists who wanted to build a subway in the city. In the end, not only is the murderer haunted, by various witnesses all comprehend a much more complete picture of the crime, facilitated by both the mononoke and the Medicine Seller.

Violence against women is often concealed by shame and taboo, both in the show and in the real world. The function of the Medicine Seller is to go beyond these boundaries and reveal the truth of the matter. Although we know little about the Medicine Seller and he appears as an impartial judge or actor, he in fact always taking sides in one way or another. After all, the revelation of truth never affects two people the same way. And many would rather live with the affliction of a mononoke, an undying grudge, than ever allow the truth to come to light. The Medicine Seller’s interpretation, the mosaic composed of all the little truths, shatters those who are protected by customary silence and power.

Notes:

1. Duncan Matheson, “The Technique of the American Detective,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 146 (1929): 214. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1017564.

Surgery and Sterile Futures

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Trans surgery in Canada involves years of waiting lists, consultations, and institutional scrutiny. What makes this process especially difficult is that there is currently only one clinic in the country that is able to offer official services, i.e. ones that are covered by first-payer insurance and thus accessible to the vast majority of trans people. This very short essay outlines what I would call the eerie nature of this process, the way in which bodies are rendered uncanny and disjointed by gatekeeping and forced visibility.

For me, the sheer impregnability of the system creates a sense of foreshortened future and bodily dread. Because trans people are a tiny minority of the population, our bodies are the subject of a great deal of state scrutiny, especially because our physicians do not have any direct sympathy with our situation. Despite all of our visibility as oddities or freaks, however, our bodies are not well understood and medical procedures and treatments for us are heavily restricted and, in the case of estrogen-based hormone therapy, administered with tools designed for cis people first.

So surgery for me, despite the fact that I want it and need it for my mental health, is attached to so much baggage and bizarro-world bureaucracy that it takes on a horrific aspect. The abject uncanniness of wading through so many forms, so many appointments, so many opportunities for any spiteful physician to deny me access to care, creates a warped sense of how attainable surgery even is. And because of past trauma around my body and because of depression, my sense of the future has been dramatically compressed. The future is so uncertain that, under the lens of depression and the eerie oracular and suicidal feelings that I have, I am utterly convinced that my body will be destroyed either in surgery or well before. I am tutored by despair, possessed of a sense of grim finality.

Of course, my intellect assures me that many other people have gone through the process and come through happier than they were before. Of course this does not make me change my mind about wanting surgery. This is still my choice and I still dream about it. Even though I’m aware that surgery is not necessary for all trans people and rejecting surgery would not put my lack of gender in doubt, there is a sterility and hopelessness that dogs me throughout, an eerie desert where future possibilities either lie dormant or cannot be trusted because of persistent mirages.

I suppose there is no way through the desert except through it. And with luck I will participate in abolishing the system that creates such dread and unease. For the sake of trans people now, the gates have to fall and the bureaucracy must be abolished, along with all other impediments to real bodily freedom.

Staying with the Trouble and Earthbound Life

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“Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth.”

–Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2.

Figure 1: Snakes

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Snakes have difficulty holding onto things. Unlike humans, they have no limbs to speak of–maybe some vestigial nubs at most. They can hold things in their digestive tracts, in their reproductive system, from the mouth on down. These slithery reptiles also shed their skin in far more dramatic fashion than humans. Often coming off in whole pieces, the snake’s transformative shedding is a stark, frequent coming of age. For those who feel like they were only born after a great shedding, after removing so much undesirable cruft from their bodies, it’s a familiar symbol. Most importantly for our purposes here, snakes are tightly bound to the Earth. While there are snakes that can take to the air in dramatic fashion, even these snakes live in trees and slither close to the ground much of the time. Their whole bodies tend to be in contact with the earth while moving. They’re very horizontal beings, in other words, a 90 degree turn from bipedal walkers.

For Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, the Earthbound, a term she borrows from Bruno Latour, are beings who “eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature.”¹ For Latour and for Haraway, becoming Earthbound (or Chthonic ones, from the Greek for earth) is a choice, a choice to align oneself with a complex, interwoven Earth or the convenient illusions of the Modern. Like the snake, the Earthbound or Chthonic one is not a skygazer or someone who takes a position above the weird and mundane world we inhabit. Instead, snakes slither through and around, and are inextricably bound to threads, are threads, of movement, consumption, creation, destruction, etc. For Haraway, becoming Earthbound is the only way for humanity to survive. Shedding the modern, authoritarian skin and walking closer to the ground, listening more closely–these are what is required of us.

Trouble invokes snakes and humans together in a section describing the Medusa as “the only mortal Gorgon,” who might “heighten our chances for dashing the twenty-first-century ships of the Heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil flesh out of dead rock.” Notably, Gorgons are “dreadful” by definition, monstrous to “astralized” and patriarchal minds.² So we have a relatively complete picture of what the Chthonic/Earthbound ones do: they live and die, they align against Heroes and Gods, they defend the complex mess from which they came, and they narrate themselves within a mass of other stories in which they are not protagonists. Importantly, the Earthbound exist with the other beings of the Earth, the snakes they resemble so well. It matters dearly what we choose to do when we live and how we die, but we should neither be cynical and say our nature dooms the world to death nor arrogant and say our moral fortitude will be its salvation.

Figure 2: Acacias

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Acacias don’t just find themselves planted in soil. They don’t wake up in the dirt one day and accept their lot in life. Instead, they collaborate to make the earth they grow in. As legumes, they collaborate with fungi and bacteria to fix nitrogen into forms that plants can use. This process is a bedrock happening in all plant-bearing ecosystems. Moreover, they provide shade, seeds, chemicals like gum arabic, and, with the bees’ assistance, a prized kind of honey.³ They also grow rapidly and often push out native species where they were introduced by colonialists.

Like the acacias, human beings have a potent power to reshape the world. Transforming chemicals, creating solid structures, collaborating with bees, feeding other beings–we do these things daily, and in a fashion far more likely to grab our own attention. So being bound to the Earth, aligning with it as we must, involves a recognition that we are, with all other beings (bacteria being the most powerful, inside and outside our bodies) creators of the worlds we inhabit. We have an orientation–horizontal, earth-centred, non-ideological–and a deeply transformative way of life. It seems obvious that we transform the world, since that’s the basis of several prominent theories of social development and a cornerstone of humanist theories about human uniqueness and stature. But when we see our activity through the figure of the acacia, using the legume-tree as a map to explore ourselves in a new way, we understand that, like the tree, our connections are not always conscious, our impacts neither uniformly negative nor positive.

It would be anthropomorphizing the tree to directly compare us to it, but we should be able to see that, as Haraway puts it, we are both “world travelers and…homebodies…their ways of living and dying have consequences for terraforming, past and present.”⁴ Every way of existing involves us in a project of changing the soil from which we spring. This means that everything is dangerous, nothing is safe, nothing is pure. Wariness, attentiveness, and a recognition of risks and our potential friends and rugged companions on this earth are the qualities we Earthbound want to cultivate. Of course, our powers here are limited, especially as individuals (even moreso when we think of ourselves as contained and restricted to our skin), but even though we inherit a world that is damaged and broken in many ways, we can align our powers towards renewal and shelter rather than destruction.

Figure 3: The Tanuki

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Pom-Poko, the 1996 film from Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli, ends with the tanuki, mythical raccoon-dog spirits, integrating into human civilization in disguise. They have period reunions in an isolated park, stripping off their clothes and practicing their old shapeshifting magic in secret. Their ways of life have been completely obliterated by the human need for housing and development. Their forests fell and burned, and their valiant defence failed. In one final cathartic moment for the film, however, they use their powerful magic to make an illusion of their old 19th century, pre-industrial life. This illusion shows their desire to live apart from and with humans in the old relative balance and harmony they once had. Antagonisms and pressures existed, but nothing like the accelerated devastation they have witnessed.

Although the relationship of Earthbound beings to those who seek the Sky and who emulate modern human nature is not quite like that of the tanuki and the humans they are imitating to survive, the fact that tanuki are shapeshifting creatures with close ties to the earth suggests a kinship. What Haraway suggests in her discussions of the Earthbound or Chthonic ones is that they are hybrids and mutable, ones who are exhausted by industrial discipline and the modern human body. In the final chapter of Staying with the Trouble, Haraway narrates a science-fiction speculation about the Communities of Compost, whose inhabitants are bonded to animals and other organisms during periods of rapid transformation and intense feeling.

“In 2025, the community felt ready to birth their first new babies to be bonded with animal symbionts…Other children in this cohort became symbionts with fish, birds, crustaceans, and amphibians…The animals themselves were not modified with human material; their roles in symbioses were to teach and to flourish in every way possible in dangerous and damaged times.”⁵

This narration, while not without its flaws and bizarre tangents,⁶ is strong in that it integrates the somewhat disparate essays that precede it and give a dreamlike glimpse into a strange world of humanity expanding and redefining itself. Beauty lies there, in the proliferation of different forms, of individuals stranger and more loving than any we could imagine before.

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And if we get animal symbionts within our time, I’ll take tigers. It’s on theme.

Notes:

1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), 41.

2. Ibid, 52-3.

3. Ibid, 123.

4. Ibid, 125.

5. Ibid, 146-7.

6. Note 18 on page 221, in particular, betrays or at least suggests an impaired view of transgender people and how they identify themselves, in particular the odd usage trans-female and trans-male and the categorization of those two as genders in and of themselves, which does not describe the feeling of most trans people I know. Nor mine.

Cyberpunk and Hope in Environmental History

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Flooded Chinatown – John Wallin Liberto

“We believe if you have a serious critique of capitalism and the state (along with the related oppressions they spawn), it might be wise to reclaim their fortresses-the cities. The cities are the home to modern capitalism and state power. They are the engines of the modern economy and the places where their devastating policies are made. We have to confront the enemy at their fortress, if we take away their fortresses they will cease to exist.

For too long, anarchists have surrendered where 3/4 of the world lives to these corrupt and corrupting powers. We believe urban anarchists must organize and create militantly radical infrastructure in the very belly of the beast, if we wish to have substantial victories. Retreating to the forests and wildernesses will not stop the dual juggernauts of capitalism and state power.”

Curious George Brigade, “Liberate, Not Exterminate”  

Cyberpunk is a fascinating genre that doesn’t seem like it has much to do with environmental history at first glance. After all, the entire genre is about the negation of nature, the creation of soulless megalopolises and the heartless domination of corporations, tyrannical states, and ganglords.

Put that another way, however, and it’s obvious that cyberpunk is far, far better when informed by an ecological and historical framework. I’ve been working on a fun side-project in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been developing a cyberpunk RPG setting alongside a group of friends and have been responsible for laying the groundwork for the setting’s geography, culture, and overall history.

The setting, Los Angeles in 2067, is besieged by rising sea levels on one hand and the intensification of heat and smog on the other. Injustices committed by corporations and mercenaries affect not only the human beings in the city, but the aquatic and terrestrial life as well. Fish and seals die off in large numbers, feral dogs roam the streets, plants and trees warp and twist under the stress of the new environmental conditions. This is cyberpunk influenced by a view of human and animal bodies, and the cities they inhabit, as natural systems. Complexity, information, and a high level of entanglement define everyday life for the (thanks Donna Haraway) Chthonic denizens of the new world.

The city itself carries an air of melancholy, especially in quarters that haven’t be renovated into walled-off, antiseptic Arks designed to insulate the wealthy, white population from masses of climate refugees and furious locals. Urban zones are full of life struggling with the weight of machines, automation, and the jackboots of mercenaries for space and air. Every urban ecosystem, though, spites and outgrows the imaginary limitations put on it by engineers and design perfectionists. Groves of trees split abandoned bunkers in two, groups of citizens cultivate crops in now-desolate suburbs, fish and other aquatic beings recolonize flooded cityscapes. Cyberpunk today should be without hope, without the optimism of a final revolutionary cleansing, but also! fundamentally about people who struggle in harsh daylight and in the shadow of the capitalist nightmare for sustenance. Cyberpunk is about people who modify their bodies for pleasure, who steal every happy minute from ruthless employers or anti-loitering robocops. Cyberpunk is stripping away the comforting and deadening dream of North American imperialist capitalism.

Recently, to diverge from the topic slightly, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) ran a miniseries about hope in environmental history. My field of environmental history is often decried for its “declensionism,” which in layperson’s terms means an obsessive focus on the declining state of ecosystems and the terrors humans have inflicted on the natural world. Many of the authors describe cases of limited environmental renewal and some ways that scholars of ecologies past can integrate hopeful narratives into their writing. For instance:

“Contemporary conceptions of hope as an expectation for an axiomatically better and brighter future are, of course, a historical construct. Hope’s progress-oriented cousins—optimism and expectation—should be seen as an outgrowth of an industrial society which assumes robust economic growth, the right to commoditize nature, and constant technological advance. This idea is embodied in E.F. Schumacher’s quip: “Just wait another minute—we shall all be rich and happy.”

Philip Wright, “Hope Beyond Progress” 

I would argue that hope, optimism, and expectation are all tied into the same idea of potential miraculous deliverance or at least spontaneous victory over adversity. In my upbringing, hope was always connected to the miracle of the Resurrection and the expectation of the Second Coming. Though many people integrated this idea into a practice that cared for the world and hoped to heal its ills in the present, many used that hope/expectation as an excuse to throw the material sphere onto the trash heap and watch, sometimes gleefully, as it burned.

So, although cyberpunk is, I would say, often condemned to be fetishistic and oddly sentimental about its technologies of control and surveillance and its aesthetics (embodied by the weird nostalgia infecting products like the Shadowrun tabletop game), environmental history also has something to learn from a no-futurism like cyberpunk. At its best, cyberpunk is not dystopian, utopian, or even overly pessimistic. Instead, cyberpunk can be a logical extension of present-day issues in a more concentrated and antagonistic setting. It is speculation that arrives at the sobering conclusion that things will probably get harder and worse, but not to the point of absurdity. It shows that our lives constitute a struggle, a campaign of attack, defence, and retreat against systems of oppression, capitalist violence, cisheteropatriarchy, settler fascism, naïve techno-messianic hopes, and so on and so on. So environmental history informed by cyberpunk and other techno-pessimist projections is one that can embrace a certain degree of positivity while noting that, in the Cthulucene and Anthropocene/Capitalocene era, there are no technical solutions and the systems that degrade the resilience and health of ecosystems are only going to be better-armed and fiercer in the future.

Cyberpunk is something like an antibody, a way of looking at fiction and at the future that insulates us, makes us cynical where we ought to, and cherish the beauty of the world. It’s a reminder that, in order for us to continue to struggle and attack, and help each other, we all need lives worth living, and that we have a long list of networked and heavily armed and well-funded oppressors who stop us from having those lives. When writing environmental history, we should not only be critically hopeful, but be critical of hope as well as sentimentalized despair. We need to acknowledge that, as academics or as activists, our words will only reach some ears, and that it’s not our job to make hope. Hope happens in communities of resistance and struggle, in the deserts, cities, forests, and beaches, scrublands and marshes. We cannot summon it from words alone.

Now We’re Thinking with Webs: Spider Cognition and Political Work

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A recent article in Quanta magazine discussed some fascinating new findings about spiders. At least part of their cognitive capacity, that is, their ability to process information, is embedded not in their brains per se but in their webs. This is sometimes called “extended cognition,” with the web acting as an external “organ” that can store information and help the spider interpret the environment. The part of the article on which I want to focus right now is this bit right here:

Whether this kind of engineered information-processing happens elsewhere in nature is likewise unclear. Laland is a high-profile advocate for the idea of niche construction, a term from evolutionary theory that encompasses burrows, beaver dams and nests of birds and termites.

Proponents argue that when animals build these artificial structures, natural selection starts to modify the structure and the animal in a reciprocal loop. For example: A beaver builds a dam, which changes the environment. The changes in the environment in turn affect which animals survive. And then the surviving animals further change the environment. Under this rubric, Japyassú thinks, this back-and-forth action makes all niche constructors at least candidates to outsource some of their problem solving to the structures they build, and thus possible practitioners of extended cognition

Even if webs don’t fit a strict definition of a cognitive organ, as some of the opponents of “extended cognition” argue, I appreciate this insight into how various nonhuman animals interact with their environments. Deleuze and Guattari, for one (or two, or many), have asserted that human beings are integrated into machines just as machines require human intervention to operate. Inorganic and organic assemble together and knowledge that was produced in brains from generations ago remains somehow embedded in the built environment for generations afterward. Just as the spider “thinks” with its webs, using its structures to “read” the environment, human beings have built up our many niches, tools, and symbolic forms of communication allow us to offload cognitive functions like memory and vision to artifacts outside ourselves.

Though the article, and the scientists, want to avoid drawing out too many philosophical conclusions from these spider studies, I think thinking about extended cognition, niches, and the natural/artificial divide can help us ask better questions about ourselves and our place in both physical and social spheres. Our cities, art, and language are all ways in which we embed ourselves in niches within the natural world–and these niches shape not only how we can work and move, but how we think and feel as well. Every city is a way of dealing with nature, of trying to make our part of the world more hospitable for human beings (and some select animal friends), just as much as other human structures attempt to order nature in certain ways. So there is feedback between how we build our niches, how we think, and how we reorder and continue to build further.

This is why we, as individuals who are always embedded in webs of cognition and activity with others and with our environments, have to remake our built environment if we are going to establish a better society. It’s not just the social relations in which we are embedded, but the physical spaces themselves that create and concentrate misery and alienation for some and opulence for a few others. For human life to flourish, we need a comprehensive approach to revolution, changing how we think, how we build, and how we think through our machines and niches.

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