Reading the Anthropocene: Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”

In this, the inaugural entry in my series “Reading the Anthropocene,” I’ve decided to focus on Margaret Atwood’s biting dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, the first volume in the “Madaddam Trilogy.”  The novel, by turns funny, disturbing, terrifying, and even oddly sentimental, is a testament to Atwood’s continuing ability to paint a portrait of a future world that could, feasibly, stem from the one that we are currently in the process of creating.

The novel, set sometime in the not-too-distant future, follows the character Jimmy, narrating both his present (a world in which most of the population has been decimated by a terrible plague), as well as the past (in which he befriends a scientific genius named Crake, as well as an inscrutable young woman named Oryx).  Theirs is a world overrun with science and capitalism, where a select group get to live in various Compounds (owned by corporations), while most of humanity is relegated to the crime and disease-ridden (and thus sinisterly appealing) pleeblands.  After an unremarkable (though quite unhappy) youth, Jimmy ends up attending the disgraced Martha Graham Academy to study humanities, while Crake (originally known as Glenn), ends up at the prestigious Watson Crick Institute.  Gradually, unbeknownst to Jimmy, Crake develops a pill that, while claiming to offer sexual satisfaction to any who take it, is in actuality the host for a powerful virus with which he intends to restart the evolutionary clock, replacing flawed humanity with his own bio-engineered race of humanoids (dubbed either Crakers of the Children of Crake/Children of Oryx).  Using Oryx as his proxy, he spreads the virus around the world, triggering the apocalypse, but leaving Jimmy alive to care for his creations (he also kills Oryx, leading an enraged Jimmy to shoot him in turn).  At the end of the novel, Jimmy realizes that he is not, in fact, the only human left alive, as two strangers walk into his territory.

As this description makes clear, Oryx and Crake doesn’t pull any punches, serving as a needling rebuke of our present cultural moment and our obsession with the endless production of beauty, food, and all of the other fatally glitzy trappings of modern capitalism.  Indeed, one cannot help but feel a bit of sympathy for Crake’s point of view, given how thoroughly we have managed (so far) to ruin much of the planet that we call home.  Like the best dystopian fiction, particularly that which has emerged during the growing awareness of the anthropocene, the novel attempts to make us aware of just how much ruin we are in the process of perpetrating, ranging from the mass extinction of species (by the time in which the novel takes place, many species of animal have gone extinct) to dangers of science gone unchecked.  Even climate change makes an appearance, though in this novel it remains on the edges, a haunting reminder of things to come (it makes a marked appearance in several places in the novel’s sequel, The Year of the Flood).

At times, the novel manages to evoke the viscerally terrifying nature of a world in which commercialized science has run amok, playing havoc and manipulating every aspect of nature in an attempt to reach some intangible, and ultimately unattainable, measure of perfection.  It’s hard to say which of the fantastic creations the novel evokes are the most disturbing, whether it’s the fiercely intelligent and ruthlessly carnivorous pigoons (pigs that were developed as homes for easily transplantable human organs), or the Chickie-Nobs, a genetically modified chicken that produces a steady supply of chicken nuggets (the chicken itself has no brain to speak of, only that part that manages the unconscious functions necessary for the barest survival).  Even the relatively benign creations, such as the rankunks (raccoon/skunk hybrids), still carry with them the idea that they are not completely natural and that, as a result, they might turn sinister at any moment.

Like many cultural products of the anthropocene, Oryx and Crake attempts to make sense of a world gone mad (both in the context of the novel and, one could argue, the world that we currently live in).  The novel expresses a hope that the end of the world as we know it can be understood at the level of the personal (after all, it is due to the actions of a single individual that the virus is unleashed), but also that that individual and his motivations can only be understood in their complexity when we situate them in the world in which they live.  Thus, there is something both comforting and disconcerting about this vision of the end of the world, as we are, at least briefly, encouraged to believe that the end of the world can be understood (and thus, perhaps, prevented) at the same time as we are also encouraged to understand that, in some fundamental way, the end of the world will always remain inscrutable, forever beyond the grasp of any one thinker 0r reader.

Further, like Atwood’s other (and probably most famous) dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake ends on a cautiously optimistic note, with Jimmy/Snowman stepping out to confront the two newcomers to his territory.  While the novel ends on a cliffhanger (we are left wondering who these people are and what they are doing, and we have no idea how they greet the arrival of Jimmy), there is still the faint sliver of hope that somehow, human life has not been entirely extinguished.  Given the lengths to which the novel goes to make Jimmy (who adopts the name of Snowman in his interactions with the Crakers, for whom he is something of a prophet), a quasi-sympathetic character, we hope for his sake (and our own?) that there is still hope that our world can be rescued from the ashes.

That is a hope that, as the full force of the anthropocene becomes more and more obvious with each passing day, begins to seem ever more futile and more ephemeral.  And that, in the end, grants this novel its raw and terrible power.

Screening History: “The Robe”

The focus of this installment of “Screening History” is one of the lesser-known but still quite enjoyable historico-biblical films, Henry Koster’s The Robe.  While not as famous as such midcentury epics as Ben-Hur or Spartacus, the film was one of the top box office successes of the decade, and has gone down in history as the first film released in the widescreen process known as CinemaScope.

Indeed, when it was released in 1953, The Robe was touted as “The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses!”  CinemaScope, among other things, featured a curved screen designed to make the spectator feel both engulfed in the image but also encouraged to participate, to let their eye wander over the screen and direct their focus on whatever they wanted.  As scholars such as John Belton and David Bordwell have also demonstrated, the switch to CinemaScope also enabled (and necessitated) a variety of different ways of composing the image, so that cause and effect (functions of narrative) could now be contained within the frame of the image, as the larger horizontal space allowed for more people to be included in the frame than had previously been the case with the standard academy ratio (which necessitated more cuts in order to show cause and effect).

In terms of plot, the film follows the Roman tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) and his slave Demetrius (Victor Mature), both of whom find themselves caught up in the series of events that transpire after the Crucifixion of Christ.  Indeed, Marcellus is the Roman soldier that the New Testament describes as gambling for Christ’s robe.  So tormented is he by his complicity that he enters into a period of madness, only finding solace when he at last recovers the robe and accepts Christ.  After wandering with the apostle Peter and Demetrius, he eventually returns to Rome where he, along with his lady love Diana (Jean Simmons) are viciously and ruthlessly martyred by the mad emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson).

In many ways, this film is not as flashy nor as colourful as its predecessors in the genre (such as 1951’s Quo Vadis) or the 1949 Samson and Delilah (after all, no one had a penchant for salacious biblical flair like Cecil B. DeMille).  While the marching legions of Rome still make their appearance, The Robe prefers to sublimate the pomp and circumstance (or, as Vivian Sobchack would put it, the surge and splendor) of the traditional epic form into heightened, one might even go so far as to say hysterical, emotions, as the protagonist Marcellus Gallio and his Greek slave Demetrius struggle with and encounter the tremendous spiritual and emotional power of the divine.  One need only see the scene immediately following the Crucifixion, in which Demetrius screams at his master and condemns him for his complicity in Christ’s death, to understand the ways in which this film attempts to evoke the passion and the power that must have accompanied the death of Jesus.

Furthermore, what emerges from this film, is an emotionally fraught portrayal of the emotional and physical toll that religious conversion takes on the body of the male convert.  Tapping into widespread anxieties about the perceived incompatibility of conversion with the tenets of hegemonic masculinity, the film (perhaps unwittingly) shows the ways in which the male body becomes the means through which the alleged transcendence of the encounter with the divine is always limited by the corporeal presence of the human through which it is inevitably and irredeemably mediated.  In the case of The Robe, the slightly pock-marked countenance of Burton and the fleshly awkwardness of Mature bear with them the permanent reminders of the flesh that the film so strenuously seeks to disavow through its evocation of the heightened emotion associated with conversion and the encounter with the divine presence of Christ.  The fact that Gallio is sentenced to death on the archery field at the end of the film also serves as such a reminder of the weighty encumbrance of the mortal body, even as the soaring music attempts, again, to overcome the materiality of the body of the star.

There is a great deal else to love about this film, including Robinson’s crazed and histrionic performance of Robinson as Caligula.  Further, if one abandons for a moment one’s distance from the film and the tendency to read it as camp, one can see it as a film attempting to render the world of antiquity–and the world of the sacred Time of Miracles–legible for a secular, modern, midcentury American audience.  The fact that it never satisfactorily effaces the central tensions of its vision–between antiquity and modernity, between the transcendent timelessness of the divine and the weightiness of mortal flesh, between the sacredness of the past and the muddy modernity of the present–does not mean that it fails as a film.  Indeed, I would suggest that it is precisely the irresolvable nature of these tensions that stand at the heart of the epic vision of antiquity that was such a prominent part of film production of the middle of the last century.

All in all, The Robe is an enjoyable and extraordinary film.  While it may not reach the heights of artistic achievement of a film such as Ben-Hur or Spartacus, it does come across as a film trying to do something new within the boundaries of the medium of film. While its heightened emotion and evocation of religious painting may read as campy to us today (and probably would have to at least some in the audience as well), it also seems to me that there is another layer of meaning(s) within the film, one(s) that is/are worth thinking about in an attempt to unearth the ways in which film, that most modern of technologies, sought to bring to vibrant life the shattered, fragmented remains of antiquity.  What’s more, the transcendent vision that The Robe struggles to achieve would, I think, have had a particular appeal for a nation, and a world, shaking at the thought of nuclear oblivion.

Film Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Warning:  Full spoilers for the film follow.

When I first heard that another version of the Mad Max story was in the offing, I wasn’t terribly excited.  While I am, as a rule, a fan of dystopian fiction (being obsessed with the anthropocene and with the ways in which humanity seems fixated on its own imminent destruction), there was just something about the way this film was advertised that made it seem like just a bunch of stuff getting blown up without much more than that behind it.  Not that there’s anything wrong with scenes of wanton destruction per se (Michael Bay has practically made a career out of it), but it’s not my personal cup of tea.

But somehow, Mad Max, either in spite of or because of its particular mix of narrative sparseness and excessive visuality, manages to reach a level of operatic viscerality that seems all too rare in our age of blockbuster cinema.

Throughout its two hours, not a great deal happens.  Max (Tom Hady), the titular character, becomes enslaved by the minions of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who utilize him as a “bloodbag” for Joe’s “War Boys.”  After Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escapes with several of Joe’s enslaved wives (who bear with them the possibility of flawless children), the enraged dictator sets out with an enormous war band to reclaim them.  A lot of bloodshed, violence, explosions, and thunderous music occurs, and in the end Joe is slain by Furiosa who, along with the wives, reclaims Joe’s colony for the people.

Of course, I would have gone to see the film for no other reason other than that it seems to have aroused some MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) to heights of apoplectic rage typically reserved for feminist reading groups.  While I’m still not quite certain what about the film aroused such fits of spleen (other than the fact that it features female characters that have agency that can fight as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts), there was much else about the film that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Indeed, despite some initial reservations about the film, I finally just gave in to the power of the image and the sound and embraced this raw experience of cinema.

However, while the aesthetics and affect of this film do rely, for the most part, on intensity, there were a few genuinely touching and soft moments thrown in, such as the steady conversion of War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who gradually finds his thirst for blood replaced by genuine affection for the escaped women.  The fact that he ultimately gives up his life so that others may live gives his presence in the film a certain poignancy that serves as a nice counterpoint to the more laconic and hard-edged presences of Max and Furiosa.

As in so many dystopian films of the anthropocene, our future is a bleak one, with a landscape blistered by hot sun and scarce water, many of our descendants deformed from the damage that we have so willfully inflicted on our planet.  However, as with most dystopian tales, there is also a strain of utopianism, an expression of a desire that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world after all.  And, in this case, that means that the waters of the Colony will be made available to all, and women’s bodies will no longer be subject to the sexual whims of a deformed and diseased dictator with the effrontery to position himself as a savior.

Overall, there is something disorientingly and perturbingly bizarre about the mixture of technology and the primitive that is a central part of the film’s aesthetic.  This sense of the bizarre and the almost unthinkable, I believe, is key to the film’s general appeal.  I’ve begun to wonder recently if there is still room for awe and wonder, awe, or shock in our modern world and especially in our explosion-ridden cinema.  If anything approaches that possibility, I argue that it is Mad Max.  While on the surface it appears to be just another action flick, there is a lot more going on here than at first meets the eye.

Through its narrative leanness and its startling and sometimes horrifying visuals, Mad Max pricks us with the fatal and dark reminders of our own hubris and vanity.  If there was ever an era when we needed those kinds of reminders, when we needed to be shocked by the powerful nature of the cinematic image, it is this one.

Let’s just hope that we can finally take heed.

The Dust-Heap of the Database and the Specters of the Spectator

Metathesis

In 2014, networks launched some 1,715 new television series, a staggering number that prompted manyarticles to declare variations on the theme “there are too many shows to watch.” Same story, different medium, I say. Franco Moretti, a contemporary literary scholar, writes that while twenty-first century Victorianists may (may) read around two-hundred Victorian titles, that barely counts as a drop in the bucket of the 40,000 titles published in the nineteenth century. And the other 39,800 novels? The short version: gone. The longer version: maybe not.

Most scholars probably recognize that the internet has changed the way we do historical research. For the next month, I’m going to bring my mix of book history, reception theory, and the specific approach to the internet that comes with being a scholar of my age (I don’t really remember life before the internet, but I remember America Online) to think about how historical…

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“Avengers: Age of Ultron”: A Melodramatic Myth for the Anthropocene

Warning:  Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ll be the first to admit a fair amount of skepticism going into Avengers:  Age of Ultron.  While I am, as a rule, a fan of superhero films, and while I believe that Marvel films in particular are often far more complex and nuanced in their address than might appear obvious at first blush, I am also not a particular fan of Joss Whedon, who I find something of a pretentious (if talented) bore.  Further, I found the first Avengers film to be compelling but not groundbreaking in any meaningful way (though it was highly entertaining).

Fortunately for me, this film managed to trump its predecessor in almost every way imaginable.

Of course, per the usual, it has all of the explosions and titanic battle scenes that have become a staple of the Marvel films, lightly leavened with snappy dialogue and witty repartee between the various characters (Black Widow particularly excels at this).  And, there’s even a little bit of a love plot thrown in, as Black Widow and Bruce Banner/The Hulk continue to develop their (perhaps ultimately doomed) relationship.  Each of the characters remains haunted by their pasts and their futures, and it is precisely the fear of future failure that leads everyone’s favourite playboy/philanthropist/bad boy Tony Stark/Iron Man to set in motion the process that ultimately creates Ultron, an AI whose daddy issues ultimately lead him to attempt to destroy humanity.

What struck me as I watched this film was how intensely melodramatic it was.  Of course, melodrama is, it seems, built into the very DNA of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in this film it seemed to take on mythic dimension, as the film articulates a remarkably (and troublingly) reflective take on the brink of destruction.  As Ultron (played with a memorable and menacing growl by the inimitable James Spader) remarks, humans excel at creating the very thing that will ultimately destroy and supplant them.  Just as human parents beget the children that will eventually take over their role on this mortal coil, so Ultron has decided to take it upon himself to rid the earth of the meddlesome, murky, and ultimately destructive presence of humanity.  The fact that he doesn’t succeed in doing so doesn’t really lessen the bite of his caustic remark, which is troubling precisely because it is true; the nature of organic life is, indeed, predicated precisely on change, on a constant sense that our own individual lives on this planet are finite, that our descendants are biologically intended to replace us.  To me, this was one of the most frightening moments on the film, precisely because it cuts through all of the bombast and hyperbole typically associated with this genre to hit at a point that we, as a species, constantly try to forget.

Further, a profound sense of melodramatic melancholy haunts this film, as each of the key characters struggles to find that space of innocence that scholar Linda Williams is key to the ways in which melodrama functions as an affective mode of storytelling.  So much of this film remains predicated on the “too late” moments; it’s too late for Bruce and Black Widow, Iron Man remains haunted by the possibility that he will be too late to save his companions, that he will in fact be to blame for the death of everyone and everything he has come to care about.  These moments are, of course, coupled with “on time” moments:  Hawkeye’s family and his bucolic house in the countryside are saved; Black Widow is saved from Ultron (don’t get me started on the way in which she is basically reduced to a damsel in distress); and, of course, humanity is ultimately saved from absolute extinction.

And yet, for all that the film strenuously wants us to believe that saving the world is the ultimately goal, the most terrifying thing about the vision articulated by Ultron is that, unfortunately, he’s right.  We as a species have pretty much brought the world as we know it to the brink of ecological, environmental, and biological catastrophe (we are living in the anthropocene, after all), and one can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe, the dropping of the city of Sokovia onto Earth (thus triggering a mass extinction of humanity) wouldn’t be such a bad thing, after all.  Of course, the film does everything in its formidable power to disavow this possibility, in the process suggesting that it is not, indeed, too late for the collective us in the audience to do something to save our world from its own doom.  As a species and as a culture, we desperately, one might say hysterically, desire to return to some world of pre-lapsarian grace, when we still had a sense of control over own destiny, when we were not faced so imminently, and perhaps inevitably, with our own destruction (one could even say that the anthropocene is one big “too late” moment).

What emerges from this film, finally, is a stirring melodrama that actually manages to perfect that sensibility into something approaching the emotional heights of Greek myth.  Unlike the Greeks, however, who set their myths in their remote past so as to make sense of their own present, the Marvel films present us with the uncomfortable knowledge that the world onscreen is very much like our own; the possibility of our own imminent destruction, no matter how much we try to disavow it, always intrudes on the affective bounds of the film.

Indeed, the final credits unfold against a backdrop of titanic figures doing battle, a potent reminder of the stakes involved in the film that we have just seen.  And yet, like any great myth, Avengers:  Age of Ultron confronts us with some of the most unpleasant truths and facts about our own culture.  Rather than dismissing it as just another blockbuster piece of junk, I find it valuable to think through what the film can do when thought about as a complex piece of filmmaking with something important to say.  What say you, readers?  Do films like this have something important to say about our present world?  Sound off in the comments below.

“While the dearest of friends lays in the cold ground”: Epidemic Disease, Incarceration and Patriarchal Control; The Continuing Story of Josiah Spaulding

Metathesis

After Josiah Spaulding, Jr. was chained to the floor in his room in about 1812 by his minister father, he would never again live a life unfettered by his father’s religious and patriarchal control—a control which extended over the Spaulding family long after the Reverend’s death in 1823.

Oral history of Buckland tells the tale of Josiah’s early escape attempt: he rubbed his chains against the wooden floor in his bedroom for about a year, finally breaking them. This story is recorded in Neil Perry’s 1966 article for the Springfield Morning Union. While there is much sensationalism in any newspaper article written about Josiah, my trip to the Spaulding house in Buckland in 2012 led me to believe this had actually happened.

After some research, I managed to locate the owner of the former parsonage, built in the late 1700s, the home of Reverend Spaulding, Mary Williams and their…

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