Monday, May 30, 2011

In defense of anthropomorphism/pathetic fallacy

In an early critique of my rough draft (for which I am exceedingly grateful), the critic accuses my work of anthropomorphizing its subject and its writer for employing pathetic fallacy. The problem here is that she finds fault with my describing stones that "speak" and have "voices" and thinks I don't really mean to use anthropomorphism but, perhaps since I am still such an inchoate academic, I lack the experience/education to know not to use 'human' verbs when referring to 'objects'. Yet the papers is about the ability of stones to communicate, and it is my intent to use anthropomorphic language to describe the different ways stones communicate. I've been stressing about this matter a few days now, especially because I know that if this former instructor of mine finds fault with my use of pathetic fallacy, so too will many of the essay's readers (ie acceptance committees). However, if I don't use active verbs like "mutter" or "whisper" in describing these stones, I'm simply shoving them to the very background from which I am trying to rescue them!

This morning, as I was reviewing some recent posts to Levi Bryant's blog Larval Subjects, I stumbled upon this marvelous defense of the use of anthropomorphism when writing about objects:

These anthropomorphisms– rife also in evolutionary theory, sociology, and Marxist thought –are not intended to suggest that things really have aims and purposes, but merely to draw attention to the contributions that nonhuman things make in the world and to us. They are designed to break the bad anthropocentric habit of treating nonhumans as passive stuffs upon which we project meanings and which merely obstruct us.

Thank you Levi Bryant. Perhaps I will cite your blog early in my essay so future reviewers won't be so jarred when my stones start shouting.


Una said...

Dear Bacchante (I don't mean to feminize you-- I'm just referring to your eponymous Bacchanal, and I'm not aware of men participating--except insofar as they are dismembered!),
This critic appreciates your gratitude and was herself gratified (and delighted) to read your sophisticated, scholarly, and provocative work. She would like to point out that she doesn't "accuse" your work of anthropomorphizing exactly nor you of employing the pathetic fallacy; she merely encourages you to address and explicitly engage these notions. She is convinced that stones (especially the ones humans value) *do* indeed communicate. She (okay, I've had enough of speaking of myself in the third person)--that is to say I think the idea of the inanimate objects communicating with animate subjects/objects is a compelling academic inquiry and valuable intervention. I do, however, think that assigning *agency* to these inanimate objects is problematic (and your Levi Bryant citation seems to concur; he notes that he does not suggest these things have "aims and purposes" per se). I took some issue with the agency of flora when I read Michael Pollan's (disappointing) _Botany of Desire_, but I think it's more problematic in dealing with *mineral*-- as you are-- rather than vegetable entities. After all, Pollan's point is that these plants have an interest in cultivating humans (as humans cultivate plants) : propagation! What stake do stones have? (This is not a rhetorical question) My point is that if you are going to assign it you must explicitly address this issue of agency. But... does anthropomorphism necessarily indicate agency? In any case, another (perhaps problematic) poetic strategy you might productively explore-- in addition to considering the pathetic fallacy (which I do not accuse you of but merely encourage you to address)-- is personification. (And nowhere do I indicate that not *wrong* to personify!) In my comments I encouraged you to look beyond just contemporary employment of cultural materialism as an approach-- though that is very important, and you accomplish it admirably-- further back into the lineage of that approach to literary criticism. I hope this is helpful (and not just defensive!) in formulating (or re-formulating) your approach. I also hope you recognize the spirit in which these comments and suggestions are offered. I'm confident and invested in (oh, and so impressed with) what you're accomplishing.
A early critic of your rough draft

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Another entry into the anthropomorphic debate is Jane Bennett, who is quite eloquent on why we should anthropomorphize the nonsentient in Vibrant Matter.

What do stones desire? That's a great question, but it can't be answered until "desire" itself is explicated.