Volume XIII, Number 2, Fall 2017


"Introduction", by the guest editor, Anna Kérchy

Anna Kérchy is an Associate Professor at the English Department of the University of Szeged, Hungary. She holds a PhD in Literature from the University of Szeged and a DEA in Semiology from Université Paris VII, as well as a habilitation degree in literature and culture from the University of Debrecen. Her research interests include intermedial cultural representations, the post-semiotics of the embodied subject, interfacings of Victorian and postmodern fantastic imagination, gender studies, women’s art, fairy tales, and children’s/YA literature. She has authored two monographs: Alice in Transmedia Wonderland. Curiouser and Curiouser New Forms of a Children’s Classic (McFarland, 2016) and Body-Texts in the Novels of Angela Carter. Writing from a Corporeagraphic Point of View (Mellen, 2008). She (co)edited collections on postmodern reinterpretations of fairy tales, the literary fantastic, the iconology of law and order, the cultural history of Continental European freak shows, an EJES special journal issue on feminist interventions into intermedial studies, and a Bookbird special issue on Translating and Transmediating Children’s Literatures and Cultures (2018). Email:

We live in an exciting era that invites us to reconsider human-animal boundaries and relations on a daily level: many young girls’ favourite application on visual content-sharing social media platforms Snapchat and Instagram is a facial recognition software called Dog Filter that lets users technologically enhance their self-portrait and presumably augment their sex appeal by adding their faces a canine nose, ears, as well as a tongue that droops down whenever the mouth is open; “the monkey selfie copyright dispute” ignited by pictures taken by wild macaques using a camera belonging to a nature photographer has established a legal precedent that non-human creators can be declared legal persons and copyright holders; the reawakening of ancient viruses due to global warming melting ice caps’ permafrost is no longer a catastrophe movie’s nightmare but an imminent encounter awaiting humanity; and scientists have found evidence of a non-human/non-animal consciousness that is exemplary for humans in trees’ altruistic ways of helping each other in a forest environment through acoustic signatures, intertwining roots, and fungal networks. These earthly phenomena might eventually lead us to epiphanies concerning interspecies connectedness. They can remind us that although in the Anthropocene humankind, in the name of self-proclaimed superiority, has caused long term, planet-scale, incurable, malignant impact, – like the mass extinctions of plant and animal species, the pollution of the oceans, the extermination of the rainforests, or the alteration of the atmosphere – it is high time we start to think in terms of a post-Anthropocene era when humans and non-humans – animals, plants, and cyborgs alike – interconnect as parts of “the same litter,” mutually benefiting from their cohabitation as “companion species,” bonded in “significant otherness” as “messmates” in a multipartner “mud dance,” to use feminist philosopher biologist Donna Haraway’s terminology (32). One of the ultimate recognitions might be that ‘becoming humanimal’ might function as a survival strategy in our increasingly chaotic, dangerous, endangered world.

Besides these ideas permeating the postmillennial, post-postmodernist Zeitgeist, a more direct inspiration for compiling a special issue for AMERICANA E-Journal on Interspecies Dialogues in Postmillennial Filmic Fantasies came from a conference panel entitled “Fairy-Tale Cinema: Posthumanist Potentials of Plant/Animal/Human Encounters” I organized for the biannual international conference of the Hungarian Society for the Study of English hosted in January 2017 by the Eszterházy Károly University in Eger, Hungary. The papers presented at the panel by teachers and PhD students of Szeged University’s Institute of English and American Studies tackled a variety of exciting topics, ranging from the wolf’s gaze in adaptations of Little Red Riding Hood, and pumpkin people’s trans-species transformation in Cartoon Network’s Over the Garden Wall, to Disney’s commodification of an ursine feminist cultural pedagogy, and ecocritical encounters with plant children in contemporary fairy-tale cinema. The lively debate following the papers chaired by the University of Roehampton’s Allison Waller made us realize that plenty of further dilemmas await exploration in the emerging interdisciplinary research area of critical human-animal-plant studies. The multifaceted nature of the field became even clearer when the project gained further impetus from the foundation of SZTE’s Animalia Research Group and succeeding interdepartmental workshops and a zoosemiotic conference on Animal Signs, Images, and Spaces – which aimed to systematically explore how animals gain symbolical signification in human cultures and how different animal species use signs throughout their communication practices. These academic events proved and the present volume attests that the shared enthusiasm about new visions of Nature can bring together for fruitful discussions scholars from as different disciplines as cultural anthropology, art history, psychology, literary criticism, and media studies.

The growing interest in humanimal studies was also attested by the impressive number of submissions received for this issue devoted to theme of the fantastification of interspecies ties in contemporary popular culture. The best case-studies of a plethora of essays on ‘post-anthropocentric assemblages of human-nonhuman relations mediated by fantastic imagination’ have been eventually selected for publication in a double corpus of twin texts. In an unprecedented manner, an Americana e-Journal is issued simultaneously with an Americana e-book on a similar theme. Besides the present special journal issue on Interspecies Dialogues in Postmillennial Filmic Fantasies, I proudly present and heartily recommend to the attention of interested readers the AMERICANA eBook entitled Posthumanism in Fantastic Fiction that can be downloaded free of charge under the Creative Commons licence from the series’ website at http://ebooks.americanaejournal.hu/ .

In both volumes, interdisciplinary non-anthropocentric enquiries map the place of animals and plants in fantastic imagination with the aim to rethink the notions of humanity, personhood, or agency in a way that is inclusive of non-human life forms. The aim is to understand animals, plants, and other creatures of the non-anthropoid natural lifeworld both as symbolically-charged topoi upon whom human bêtises, anxieties, and desires are projected in fictionalized forms, as well as ‘beings-in-themselves’ independent of the human knowledge produced about them. We seek to explore how interspecies dialogues can create egalitarian relations between humans and all living beings who have been posited on the marginalized, stigmatized pole of the nature-culture divide, as Donna Haraway (2007) opined. Following Jacques Derrida (2002) we explore how interactions with an animal existence empty of textual traces affect the speaking human subject through trans/verbal means, and celebrate with Michael Marder (2013) plants’ unique capacity to deconstruct human metaphysics by undoing binary oppositions such as self and other, body and soul, life and death, surface and depth, the one and the many. Some essays tackle what Jane Bennett (2010) means by the notion of “thing power,” and insist on the materiality of the human and the animation of matter always already pulsing with life, ready to “produce effects dramatic and subtle,” making a difference in the web of interrelationships constituting our shared enworlded existence. The articles combine critical animal-, plant-, thing- studies and theories of posthumanism with analyses of the literary fantastic, fairy tales, fables, fantasies, and their adaptations in visual arts and different transmediations of children’s-, young adult-, or crossover, dual-audience-oriented fantasy cultures.

Topics include alternative modes of human-animal-plant exchanges, interspecies transformations and transactions in contact zones; postmodern bestiaries, eco-horror and animal lore; veganism and carnivorousness, animals and/as food; predatory beasts, animal bridegrooms and furry friends. Ideas related to alterity, abjection, altruism, mimicry, metamorphosis, violence, vulnerability, and intimacy are problematized beyond the humanist parameters to reframe perspectives on strangeness and domestication, humanism and bestiality. We explore both the symbolic legacy, the psychic-, material- reality and the performative powers of non-human entities to ask how representations of animals/plants shape our understanding of humans, and speculate how non-human entities may experience humans. We venture to think in terms of a posthumanist identity politics while we scrutinize how animals/plants allow us to address metaphysical, philosophical, ethical, legal concerns. Through our exploration of cinematic narratives, the visual poetics of fictional accounts of feral-, vegetal embodiment also comes into the focus of our attention.


 



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In this e-journal issue, Barbara Klonowska reveals how Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film War Horse makes a human-animal friendship one of its central themes and welcomes the film’s vanguardist attempt to explore the globally traumatic historical experience of the Great War from a non-human, non-anthropocentric perspective. László Sepsi deals with the psychological effects of animal horror in his concise overview of representations of arthropods in American horror cinema, with allusions to cinematic curiosities like Wladyslaw Starewicz’s 1912 silent marital tragicomedy featuring dead insects. Annamária Hódosy connects the lycanthropic metamorphosis in postfeminist female werewolf narratives to ideological technologies of the patriarchal construction of femininity she punningly calls “bitch training.” Zsófia Anna Tóth discloses the limits and potentials of feminist cultural pedagogy commodified by Disney Studios in the animated adventures of Merida and her Mother Bear, while Zsófia Márki’s gender sensitive reading focuses on transformations of the selkie wife myth, and in particular the connection of seal skin to abjection and language, throughout its numerous contemporary cinematic adaptations. Márió Z. Nemes is interested in the human beast emblematized by the fictional serial killer Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter, for whom the prototype was 19th century’s monstrous decadent genius endowed with a subterranean, subconscious quality, connected to the realm of the pathological, demonic, animalistic, as a by-product of “machine culture’s” dehumanizing “meatifying” mechanisms. Anna Kérchy’s three-fold purpose is to interface the “vegetal visions” of fairy tales with altruistic self-consuming and aggressive cannibalistic tendencies of plant children in contemporary fairy-tale films and relate them to the bioethical dilemmas and posthuman plant philosophical ideas emerging in postmillennial children’s and young adult literature – through an amusing set of examples ranging from Svankmajer’s Little Otík to Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man. Energizing Plant Studies, co-authored by Márk Horváth and Ádám Lovász, sets out to think about performativity without restricting this ontological category to the performances of human bodies or narratives, arguing that rhizomatic proliferations and troublesome weeds blur anthropocentric interpretive frameworks with entangled intra-active agencies, illustrated by Kathryn Bigelow’s surfer crime thriller Point Break. Dávid Levente Palatinus’s analysis of HBO’s Westworld series argues that in science fiction television the problems of consciousness and sentience are pivotal to the representation of the emancipatory politics connecting human and non-human species, but also serve as mediators of anxieties that surround such politics in the Anthropocene. Suzana Marjanić discusses zoo-ethical implications of the controversial symbolical and exploitative relationship between humans and non-humans in the animal right activist performance art of Croatian Tajči Čekada and Minnesota-based Mary Britton Clouse.

The three reviews discuss important contributions to critical humanimal studies: Tamara Muhel takes a sneak-peek at Animal Horror Cinema, Edit Szűcs sheds light on the merits of Mayako Murai’s From Dog Bridegroom to Wolf Girl. Contemporary Japanese Fairy-Tale Adaptations in Conversation with the West, and Dávid Szőke offers a brief overview of Modernist Ethics and Posthumanism, a special journal issue of Twentieth Century Literature.

This special journal issue deals with immediately contemporary visual cultural products surfacing in a variety of media platforms (including the small and the silver screen, picturebooks, and transmedia performance arts), and in a multiplicity of diverse moving-image genres we chose to denote in the title with the general term “filmic fantasies” (comprising fairy-tale film about shapeshifting, humanimal war drama, lycanthropic comedy, eco-horror, arthropod catastrophe movie, and monstrous psychological thriller). The cultural critical analysis of mainstream entertainment practices is a rich field of research: aimed at mass accessibility and mass appeal, popular cultural products can record and reveal material and socio-political conditions of their production, along with global cultural patterns like postmillennials’ growing sensitivity to animal rights.

It is amazing to see how Haraway’s “chimerical visions” of diverse bodies, perspectives, and meanings co-shaping one another in situated “nature-cultures” (138) surface in innumerable pop iconic pieces. Since the fight against speciesism is a form of subjection (or abjection) inherently intertwined with further ideologies of systematic marginalization like sexism, racism, ableism, or ageism, the aim to debunk the myth of human exceptionalism is easily integrated within agendas of human rights movements, intent on systematically challenging unjust hierarchical relationalities and anti-discriminatory, ‘politically correct’ representational practices strategically embraced by mass entertainment conglomerates like Walt Disney company.


 



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While composing this Introduction I was delighted to see how The Last Jedi, the 2017 film that is the latest sequel to Star Wars’ blockbuster science-fiction saga, a fairy tale set in space, abounds in scenes supporting the ethical treatment of animals. Leonine Wookiee warrior Chewbacca experiences a “vegan epiphany” when he is about to take a bite of a porg (a small bird-like being) he cooked over a campfire, and suddenly realizes the pain the living porgs feel over the loss of their mate. Adopting the viewpoint of the porgs staring at him, he suddenly sees the meat as a corpse, decides not to eat it, and compassionately befriends the porg species throughout the rest of the movie. Elsewhere, fathiers, magnificent horse-like creatures abused for human entertainment, are freed from the race tracks by the human heroes equally seeking to escape imprisonment by authority figures, who in the end are saved by the vulptices, foxes with crystal fur. Vulptices adapt to the environment by integrating the region’s minerals within their fur: their survival strategy illustrates the symbiosis of the organic and the inorganic, proves that even the most inhospitable lands can harbour life, and renders meaningless the skinning of wolves for human vestimentary purposes. These interspecies encounters practically re-enact in fictional terms the PETA corporation’s slogan, “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.” Moreover, this is one of the most democratic episodes of the series, as the Force is no longer passed on to the chosen few but can be awoken by anyone: be it a poor orphan girl or an imaginative child, anyone can be a hero. “Princess Leia is no longer a princess, but a general, a position that can be replaced by another” (Kojima) assisted by cyborg, animal, and human freedom fighters. The Rebels’ fight for a peaceful cohabitation of a multiplicity of species, humans, aliens, and robotic droids is set in a galaxy far, far away, but may be not that far from our own lived reality’s sociocultural struggles. It resonates well with alter-globalization movement’s promotion of humanistic values serving transspecies interests such as environmental and climate protection, the preservation of indigenous cultures, civil liberties, justice, and peace.


 



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Another blockbuster, HBO’s medieval fantasy saga Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s bestselling series A Song of Ice and Fire also embraced in its latest, 2017 season Timothy Morton’s (2007) posthumanist idea that kindness is the easiest way of making contacts between different cultures and species. A reconciliation between two rival noble houses competing for the Iron Throne – and represented by the binary opposite elements of Fire and Ice, and the heraldic animals of Dragon and Wolf – has been reached by Daenerys Targaryen, who became the Mother of Dragons assisted by the nomadic Dothraki horse lords, and Jon Snow, a despised ‘bastard son’ turned King of the North with a direwolf for a soul-mate and a disabled little brother called a Three-Eyed-Raven. An emblematic episode encapsulating the promise of an accessible political status quo, interspecies bonds, and Jon’s personality development grounded in non-anthropocentric ethics and eco-philosophical illumination takes place when Jon touches one of the last remaining dragons and is touched by it in a way that makes him reconsider his notion of bestiality. First he recognizes the “beautiful beast” beneath the monster, then he empathizes with Daenerys calling it her non-human child, and finally manages to understand what she means, which he embraces by asking her “to trust in a stranger, because it is our best chance,” because “our reasons aren’t your reasons, but we all serve a greater purpose, we are all on the same side, because we are all breathing.” In Martin’s saga, via a clever recycling of the Tolkienian historical fantasy tradition’s trademark plot device, different creatures team up as comrades united in a chivalric alliance against a common enemy, a dark power threatening them with the ‘thinning’ of the fictional universe, inflicting damage upon the healthy land. The recurring warning “Winter is coming” associates an impending apocalyptic cataclysm with the image of a dreadful climate change, and turns the arch-enemies, White Walkers and their humanoid zombie army, driven by an urge to kill anything living, into metaphorical embodiments of environmental catastrophe, heralding the dawn of the Anthropocene.


 



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Human attempts to make interspecies connections to save the land we call home have become a major leitmotif of postmillennial popular culture. There is no place here to discuss further gems like Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi mystery Arrival, about the efforts of a linguistics professor tasked with interpreting the language of octopus-like extraterrestrials visiting planet Earth, or Netflix’s sci-fi horror TV series Stranger Things, in which kids confront terrifying supernatural forces to get their friend back from an evil alternate dimension while one boy befriends the monster in a larval stage, growing fond of it as a temporary pet because of their shared love of chocolate… The fantasy of taming the beast gains ethical, political, environmentalist implications that could be subject of further analysis.

With these thoughts in mind, I wish to thank editors-in-chief Réka Cristian and Zoltán Dragon for encouraging me to simultaneously proceed with the e-journal and the e-book project. I am especially grateful to Zoltán Dragon for technologically providing the framework and the space for the material (and for sharing his inspirational photographs on Facebook). I wish to express my gratitude to Daniel Nyikos for his invaluable help with the copy-editing and to Edit Szűcs for the wonderful cover image. Special thanks go to my animal companions, Jellybean the rabbit who relentlessly chewed on my computer cable during the editorial process, Onegin the cat whose grin shall stay forever behind, and a flock of chattering parrots who make phone conversations ever so difficult but also brighten up my days.

 

Works Cited

  • Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Derrida, Jacques. 2002. “The animal that therefore I am (More to Follow).” Trans. David Wills. Critical Inquiry 28.2 (Winter): 369-418.
  • Haraway, Donna. 2007. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Kojima, Hideo. 2017. “Star Wars, The Last Jedi, and the Reinvention of the Hero.” Rolling Stone. Dec 29.
  • Marder, Michael. 2013. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Martin, George RR. 1996- . A Song of Ice and Fire. Bantam Books/ Harper Collins.
  • Morton, Timothy. 2007. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

 

Filmography

  • Benioff, David and DB Weiss, creators. 2011- . Game of Thrones. Written by George R R Martin et al. HBO.
  • Duffer Brothers, dir. 2016- . Stranger Things. Netflix.
  • Johnson, Rian dir. 2017. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Lucasfilm and Walt Disney.
  • Villeneuve, Denis, dir. 2016. Arrival. Lava Bear.

 

List of Figures

  • Figure 1: Villeneuve, Denis, dir. 2016. Arrival. Lava Bear.
  • Figure 2: Johnson, Rian dir. 2017. Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Lucasfilm and Walt Disney.
  • Figure 3: Benioff, David and DB Weiss, creators. 2011- . Game of Thrones. HBO.
  • Figure 4: Duffer Brothers, dir. 2016- . Stranger Things. Netflix.