Friday, 11 May 2012

Revisiting J. B. Bouson – The Year of the Flood

Here is yet another article by J. Brooks Bouson (who I think I have now determined to be a she), this time on the The Year of the Flood. I need to re-read her earlier article on Oryx and Crake, I believe, but even without re-reading it I can tell she is more or less still talking about the same things – utopia and hope and a call to action amidst a narrative laden with the most awful predictions imaginable.

Bouson speaks at length about how Atwood equates the various carnivorous things happening in Year (her short form, which I might as well use) to the state of women in the novel. She invokes de Sade’s musings on predator-prey relationships and how only the predator can enjoy sex because “pleasure belongs to the eater, not to the eaten” (Bouson 2011: 12). This is seen particularly in the character of Blanco, who not only operates a SecretBurger chain (which literally minces human meat into burger patty) but also treats all of his female employers as meat to be sexually exploited. This of course also ties into the other kinds of meat-eating going on, like the Rarity chain that regularly serves the meat of endangered species as a specialty – in fact this whole meat-eating theme is quite strong indeed when looked at it from that point of view. The Gardeners, naturally, are vegetarian.

Another thing she discusses is postfeminism, in particular the characters of Ren and Amanda who have chosen or accepted “[their] own sexual commodification and humiliation” (Bouson 2011: 14) and who use their female bodies as tools and trading goods. This contrasted with Toby who, Bouson contends, is a more traditional feminist (mainly because she protests against this sexual objectification). Atwood, Bouson says, is afraid that “the recent gains women have made as a result of the feminist movement may be short-lived and that there is a thin line, indeed, between the postfeminist’s embrace of her sexuality and the sexist world of the prefeminist past.” (Bouson 2011: 15).

Furthermore, she discusses what she strangely calls ‘Americanism’, “that is, the American culture of violence and corporatization and commodification and unbridled consumption” (Bouson 2011: 15). This seems to me to be rather unfairly directed at a specific nation, although there is no doubt some merit to this term (although others have seen this not as an expression of Americanism, but rather a universal human tendency). Global capitalism? Postmodernism? Globalization in general?

Bouson evokes the idea of ‘degeneration’ when Atwood “gives voice” to the “fear” that “scientific advances will lead not to a progressive utopian future but instead will result in humanity’s reversion to a savage dystopian (even pre-human) past” (Bouson 2011: 16). That is to say, the post-Darwinian idea that despite the rhetoric of progress civilization itself generates degeneration inevitably – perhaps an evolution of the idea that capitalism (which drives progress) must by necessity create haves and have-nots, and that the (degenerate) have-nots must again by necessity outnumber the haves. Thus, the dark pleebland cityscapes that Year is set in.

This, Bouson thinks, is the background Crake comes from and which inspires him to create the Crakers, “noble savages that are environmentally friendly, peace-loving and socially and economically egalitarian” (Bouson 2011: 17) – the replacements of the degenerate 21st century humans. However, as we have seen time and time again, Year also offers an alternative to this: namely the God’s Gardeners.

They too “see the need for a cleansing renewal of humanity and the creation of a new social and moral order”, however their vision is a “counter-vision and counter-narrative of sweetness and light” to the “dark vision of a corporation-controlled, consumer-driven and morally corrupt elite class” (Bouson 2011: 17). The idea seems to be (much like Bergthaller argued) that “environmentalism will not work if it does not become a religion” (Bouson 2011: 18). There is the tension here between nature as good and nature as ‘bad’, nature as prey and predator, and the combination of the two (for instance in Toby’s vision animal being a liobam, a genetically spliced lion-lamb creature). This same duality is reflected in human nature, between the Painballers who torture and kill, and Toby and Ren who selflessly set out to rescue Amanda from their hands. The feminist statement inherent in having only men on one side and only women on the other is perhaps a little too on the nose, but I personally don’t mind.

Bouson finishes with a call to the phronetical (or in common parlance, art not for art’s sake, but for some other, practical sake) in Atwood’s work:

Atwood, who has long talked of the moral imperative that drives her work, also believes in the transformative – and ethical – potential of imaginative literature, and indeed, Year, like Oryx, is a feminist, anti-corporate and radically ecological work in which Atwood, in sharing her fears of and outrage against current trends in contemporary society, also wishes to prod her readers to meaningful political thought and action.                                                                                                                                                                     (Bouson 2011: 23)

Perhaps a fair enough assessment of Atwood’s oeuvre; it is after all difficult to read this kind of literature in any other way, I would contend! Bouson reaffirms her belief in the ultimately utopian vision of Atwood in the very final scene of Year, where they hear singing voices arriving through the trees – whether they’re the Crakers or the Gardeners however Atwood leaves unsaid. Either, I suppose, offers its own version of utopia.


Bouson, J.B. 2011. “’We’re Using Up the Earth. It’s Almost Gone’: A Return to the Post-Apocalyptic Future in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood”. In The Journal of Commonwealth Literature

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Housebreaking Humans – Critiquing Ecocriticism

If anyone is actually reading these, please know that they are mainly written for my own benefit – it’s a psychological thing, a way of forcing me to process the information in the article. Actually posting my musings online in turn forces my notes to be coherent, and I’ve found coherent notes to be much, much more useful than scribbles. That said, if they’re of some interest to anyone, that’s an added benefit!

I recently read another interesting article on Atwood’s two novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, written by Hannes Bergthaller (full reference below as always). Bergthaller’s analysis is quite crisp, and dives straight into the post(-post)modern issue of the usefulness or uselessness of art, a topic close to Atwood’s heart in these novels. Framing the whole piece is the idea of ecocriticism and how it fits into the general humanist discourse. His own summary:

The first half of this essay argues that the idea of sustainability, and the question of species survival lying at its heart, poses a direct challenge not only to ecocritical orthodoxy, but to traditional conceptions of the humanities, as well. It challenges ecocriticism insofar as it exposes the untenability of the normative conceptions of nature which, under the name of ecology, have informed much ecocritical work. It challenges the humanities insofar as it forces them to revise the very understanding of humanitas that has traditionally underpinned them, and to recognize the arts as ‘‘anthropotechnologies’’, in Peter Sloterdijk’s terms: they are technologies of self-domestication that deal with human beings as evolved, biological creatures so as to make them governable.                                                                                                                                (Bergthaller 2010: 729)

The reference to Sloterdijk here is not a one off occurrence; Bergthaller keeps referencing this particular philosopher. Unfortunately I am not very familiar with him, but I might need to familiarize myself after this – point is anyway I might have missed some of the author’s original points just because I am unfamiliar with Sloterdijk.

According to Bergthaller, the modern idea of ‘sustainable development’ was a response to the more Malthusian, nihilistic views on ecology prevalent during the 1970s, (Bergthaller 2010: 730), but has since been criticized as being an ideology of having the cake and eating it: the idea being that we cannot simultaneously sustain the constant capitalist need for growth while also sustaining our natural world. This criticism is what Bergthaller terms ‘ecocriticism’ (with ties to Deep Ecology), which claims that the problem with the world today is a failure of imagination: we must understand that humankind is a part of nature and can exist as a part of the natural order. Bergthaller however astutely points out that this criticism is just “a continuation of Romantic critiques of modernity” (Bergthaller 2010: 731) and claims that “Atwood’s novels expose the woeful inadequacy of this formula as an ethical foundation for humanity’s relationship to its natural environment” (Ibid).

The ecocritical/Romantic fallacy is the fact that although humanity is indeed a part of nature, “there is little comfort in this realization” (Bergthaller 2010: 732). Humanity is after all following its own destructive, but wholly natural, urges when it wipes out other species and destroys their habitats (and humanity is hardly alone in this kind of behavior either – all of natural history is an endless succession of such cataclysms). The solution to this, Bergthaller (via Sloterdijk) contends, is that humankind must in fact de-naturalize itself, we must ‘housebreak’ ourselves and  “tame the human animal.” (Ibid).

How this can all be applied to Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood has already been intimated in other critical essays I’ve previously mentioned, especially the two conflicting views the novels present (posthumanism/Crakers versus spiritualism/God’s Gardeners). Oryx and Crake is a world on the brink of apocalypse (even without Crake’s interference) exactly because culture has “failed to produce workable strategies for taming the human animal” (Bergthaller 2010: 732). Via Sloterdijk, he makes a (in my view) rather odd aside into eugenics, claiming that humanists are simultaneously the shepherds and the breeders of the herd of humanity (a role that Jimmy-Snowman literally embodies with regards to the Crakers) – in essence then the argument is that any culture work (attempting to ‘housebreak’ the human animal) is also an eugenics project attempting the breeding of better humans. The Crakers represent the final and finally successful attempt at creating a thoroughly housebroken human being through genetics, one that no longer needs or even is able to perpetuate the kind of destructive, natural behavior us regular homo sapiens are prone to. A useless piece of hyperbole, probably inherited from Sloterdijk, but the idea itself is solid: ‘humanists’ do see themselves as shepherds of good ideas versus bad ideas (thus the eugenics would be memetic, rather than genetic). This is where Jimmy-the Snowman comes in.

However, disagreeing with other critics (such as Bouson 2004) Jimmy alone is not a solution, as he (in Bergthaller’s words) only embodies a kind of “half-understanding”: “He is fully alive to the thrill of artistic beauty, yet does not understand that it is meaningful not in itself, but because it provides a way of coping with the conflicting tendencies rooted in our biological being” (Bergthaller 2010: 738). The real solution, that brings together the two half-understandings of Jimmy and of Crake in Oryx and Crake, is, Bergthaller contends, the God’s Gardeners in In the Year of the Flood. Bergthaller quite simply states that the reason the God’s Gardeners turn out to be successful in the end is that they have created “a symbolic order within which the fact of survival can appear as meaningful and ‘good’” (Bergthaller 2010: 738) – in other words, they have reintroduced God (this in turn ties into e.g. Dunning 2005). This, Bergthaller says, is a necessary element of the fiction of the whole symbolic order (the rituals, the sermons, the arbitrary rules etc) – “as fictions, they are, in a sense, self-supporting structures for which our biological nature can provide no warrant” – we have no imperative to do any of it, there are no actual norms in place, thus “nature acquires normativity only by virtue of its createdness at the hand of God” (Bergthaller 2010: 740).

What we have here then, in conclusion, is a rather wonderful piece of post-postmodern criticism (more of that old validation, I’d say!): we need ‘imagination’ (art, culture, literature, etc) not in order to see some Romantic ideal of man and nature living together in harmony, but rather we need it to see what is not there (since there is no such natural harmony in the world!): we need it to imagine that we can live in harmony with nature (which is only possible thanks to a meaning-creating entity such as God), yet without forgetting the scientific evidence that suggests we cannot. A return to Romanticism perhaps, but a slightly jaded, cynical return. A return to believing-without-believing, to leaps of faith, to blind trust in things that we rationally know cannot be trusted. Very strange, very curious. I do wonder however if the reintroduction of God is the true solution to this dilemma, and Atwood is I think equally wary of it – but there is no denying that the God’s Gardeners have a lot of good points.

Bergthaller, Hannes. 2010. “Housebreaking the Human Animal: Humanism and the Problem of Sustainability in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.In English Studies; Nov 2010, Vol. 91 Issue 7: 728-743

Friday, 4 May 2012

Post-Apocalyptic, Post-Postmodern, Post-Traumatic! And Oryx and Crake

It was honestly a little difficult for me to read Katherine Snyder’s 2011 article (full reference below) on Oryx and Crake. Since academia is now my business, any hint of someone else doing exactly the same thing as oneself makes you quite nervous, and leaves you feeling like someone beat you to the punch – especially as I haven’t officially published anything yet in a journal or whatnot. Still, it was a useful exercise, so here follows my immediate thoughts:

Snyder discusses pre- and post-apocalypses, analepsis and prolepsis, Cathy Caruth’s trauma theory as applied on post-apocalyptic fiction, Freud’s uncanny, and even the uncertainty inherent in fantastic fiction as opposed to realistic fiction. In other words, the only thing she is missing is Bakhtin’s chronotope and she would already have pre-empted most of my thesis. Her definition of what I’ve termed ‘realistic science fiction’ but which I’ve come to realize most people (Atwood included) seem to term ‘speculative fiction’ is quite apt:

The novel teeters, and we teeter with it, on the unstable brink that separates real from imagined, now from later, an exercise that blurs the line between what is inside and outside the self, between what is already present in our world and what may be yet to come.                                                                                                                                                     
(Snyder 2011: 473)

But perhaps I shouldn’t feel threatened, but rather validated, by Snyder’s article. After all, everything that has been said and done has already been said and done (Adam One's comment on a limited moral keyboard springs to mind), and this just means I am not alone in my musings. What Snyder does do is talk about Caruth’s trauma theory in much more detail than I have, which was quite useful to me.

First of all, she wants to make a connection between the major traumatic event in the novel (the apocalypse) and Jimmy’s own personal apocalypses (the loss of his mother and pet Killer): “Losing one’s mother at a tender age is not the end of the world. It just feels that way.” (Snyder 2011: 473), in much the same way as readers of Shelley’s The Last Man have postulated that Shelley’s own trauma (the loss of her family) was made “commensurate with global history itself” (Elmer 2009: 356). Although I don’t fully agree with this idea (the only personal trauma that explicitly causes the apocalypse was Crake’s, and that discussion is not one Snyder takes up), Snyder does back her thoughts up through liberal examples taken from the text. She discusses the way the story itself is set up, from post-apocalyptic ‘present’ to analeptic ‘past’ scenes starting from Jimmy’s childhood and finally coalescing at the very end. Snyder also talks about the present of the post-apocalypse, of how the “present-tense narration of this new but compromised dawn hints at a traumatic past event yet withholds the context that would allow the reader to understand what has happened, or is still happening, or what it all means” (Snyder 2011: 477). So, in essence, the ‘ungrasped’ idea of trauma theory, that one is not consciously aware of the trauma despite it affecting your life constantly.’

The third part, where she talks about ‘traumatic witness’, was probably the part that intrigued me the most, since it actually had a discussion on how one can apply the idea of the traumatic witness (the all-important third part to my post-apocalyptic chronotope) to Oryx and Crake. It was also at this point when I realized exactly how powerful the idea of post-postmodern theory may be. Consider:

The pandemic—a singular traumatic event of global proportions, yet one that replays past private traumas for the protagonist—marks the moment at which these two registers of the narrative collide, or the moment at which they are revealed to have been one all along.
(Snyder 2011: 479)

In other words, read symbolically (deconstructively?) the whole narrative is more or less about Jimmy’s own childhood traumas becoming manifest in the most obvious way imaginable. “The trouble at home at once predetermines and is retrodetermined by the cataclysmic world events around which the narrative is structured” (Ibid). But yet, but still! There are the other plots, the other ideas, the bioengineering and the dystopia and all the rest. And then, from this, she goes on to wonderfully define post-apocalyptic fiction based on this idea of trauma theory:

It is this uncanny aspect of the protagonist’s experience, I contend, that is fundamental to the imaginative investments of the reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. Post-apocalyptic fiction serves as rehearsal or preview for its readers, an opportunity to witness in fantasy origins and endings that are fundamentally unwitnessable. We are horrified and yet thrilled to see ourselves and our world in the unthinkable plight portrayed here, and even more horrified and thrilled to see the origins of this plight in ourselves.                                                                                                                                                                            (Snyder 2011: 479)

Thus, she returns to the actual powerful message of the science fiction narrative: that it must in a way be read as ‘real’ (witnessable), that there must be that element of suspension of disbelief and so on for it not to simply collapse into the (still very valid and powerful) interpretation that the whole cataclysm is just an extension of Jimmy’s own trauma.

At this point, Snyder goes into more Freudian depths, something I think is a mistake. For one thing she brings up the Oedipus complex when trying to explain the (to me still quite intriguingly puzzling) deaths of Oryx and Crake. Although an acceptable enough explanation, she makes the (in my view wrong) assumption that Oryx is “fatally infected” (Snyder 2011: 481) and the actually patently false assertion that Crake would likewise be thus infected: we know perfectly well that Crake is immune to the ‘super bug’, having taken the same immunizing ‘cocktail’ as Jimmy did.

One interesting point she makes about trauma, a point I had not thought of myself, is the idea that although trauma by definition is the unconscious repetition of an event, Snyder claims the possibility of “repetition with a difference, repetition as reworking”, in other words that characters could actually deal with trauma in order to “remake their present relation to loss” (Snyder 2011: 485) – perhaps for the better. Again we return then to the dual meaning of apocalypse – the end of the world, or a revelation of a new, better one – perhaps even through reworked trauma! Her conclusion is, again, painfully close to my own (validation!):

Such fictions allow us imaginatively to rehearse the end, a rehearsal that itself stands as both traumatic symptom and potential cure, as acting out and working through, as repetition and repetition-with-a-difference. Our awareness that such apocalyptic visions of human futurity mirror our own inner fears and desires does not mean that all trauma, whether individual or collective, will be consigned to the past, but it does help us to confront our status as subjects of history by looking to the future.                                                                                                                                                                             (Snyder 2011: 486)

A perfectly viable theory, this one: that post-apocalyptic science fiction in essence is our own attempt at, through endless repetition, perhaps eventually rework some of our unrealized traumas. And this, dear friends, might very well fit nicely with some things Zizek (add upside-down ^’s on the Z’s please) had to say about catastrophes, dystopian zero points, and other such nice things. But – for a later post.

Elmer, Jonathan. 2009. “'Vaulted Over by the Present': Melancholy and Sovereignty in Mary Shelley's The Last Man.” In Novel: A Forum on Fiction; Summer2009, Vol. 42 Issue 2: 355-359.

Snyder, Katherine V. 2011. ” “Time to go: The Post-Apocalyptic and the Post-Traumatic in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake”. In Studies in the Novel; Winter2011, Vol. 43 Issue 4: 470-489.