Petrie Meyer on Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide

Selling Nature to Humanists and Humanity to Environmentalists: Existence and Co-existence  in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide

Petrie Meyer, University of Stellenbosch

Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!

Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!

Earth of departed sunset—earth of the mountains misty-topt!

Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!

Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!

Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!

Far-swooping elbow’d earth—rich apple-blossom’d earth!

Smile, for your lover comes.

-Walt Whitman – Song of Myself

The indeterminate, fluid space of the Sundarbans in southern Bangladesh, where land and sea constantly yield to each other in a daily, elemental cycle, is the space Amitav Ghosh chooses to situate his 2005 novel, The Hungry Tide. This river delta, consisting of innumerable islands which appear and disappear according to the whims of tides and seasons, “a terrain where the boundaries between land and water are always mutating, always unpredictable” (18), is a landscape in which the sea, the river, the land, humans and animals all co-exist – sometimes in harmony, but often in competition. Within this space Ghosh, with the same beautiful sensitivity and balance with which he brings together cultures in An Antique Land, presents an environmental issue which has come to be recognized as one of the fundamental problem areas in conservationism – an issue Robert Cribb calls the “acute conflict” between conservation and human rights (Huggan and Tiffin, 4). In this conflict, a battle line has come to be been drawn between environmentally conscious groups fighting on the side of non-human nature, and human-rights groups on the side of the poor, the dispossessed and underdeveloped peoples of the world, with precious little middle ground  being acknowledged by either side. The Hungry Tide, with its complex mixture of people and landscape, steps into this conflict with an implied plea for moderation to both sides – a plea for the acknowledgement and understanding of the plight of the poor by environmentalists, and that of animals and nature by human-rights groups. To achieve this, Ghosh uses human history, human relationships and the desperation of human survival in a hostile natural environment to highlight the ‘humane’ in humanity and remind environmentalists of their own human nature, and myth and descriptions of the landscape, together with the plight of the endangered Ganges dolphin and tiger, to highlight the elemental, beautiful and fragile in Nature, in that way reaching out to the innate sense of connection that humans have with nature.

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Jana Jacobs on Green the Film

Adjusting the lens: Green the Film and its documentary potential

– Jana Jacobs, University of Stellenbosch

Horak’s delineation of the development of wildlife documentaries over the past century raises concerns regarding trends towards commercial, consumer-oriented films and programs that culminate in the deeply problematic genre of what he classifies as “Animal TV”. Wildlife and nature documentaries have proliferated at a rapid rate and have become an integral part of television channels such as Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet. David Attenborough’s narration of series such as Planet Earth (2006) has proven to be highly popular and bankable for the BBC. Not only are these television channels saturated with such programing, but documentaries also clamour for attention in the media market via IMAX theatres. These films offer viewers a sensory experience with spectacular cinematography and stories of animals that are often given names, followed on their journeys through nature and pitted against each other in dramatic encounters. Animals are essentially anthropomorphised in order to encourage identification with them and provide a pleasant viewing experience.

For Horak, the outlook on wildlife documentaries is particularly bleak. Documentaries – as made famous by David Attenborough – with their ‘omniscient’ voice-overs, outstanding cinematography and symphonic soundtracks seem to be more of an archiving of the filmed animals, “partially a desperate act  ‘to save’ wildlife for a virtual world” (Horak, 460); an effort to preserve them for the visual benefit of future generations. Beautiful as they are, their relevance in environmental and animal conservation remains questionable – are they confronting, or at least addressing immediate environmental concerns? It seems apparent then that these types of wildlife documentaries have become inextricably tied to the imperatives of the global media market place, and their efficacy in portraying environmental concerns has been displaced by the need for spectacular products that will secure a wide audience. On the other end of the spectrum, there are documentaries such as The Cove (2009) that rely on graphic, disturbing images in order to shock viewers into attention and potential action, but whether or not this action is taken or sustained is uncertain.

It seems to me that the central issue that remains unresolved is whether or not these documentaries are making a difference in the conservation and preservation of the animals they document. I do not think that this is an easily solved dilemma – particularly since the market is saturated with these types of documentaries. As such, they have set a certain “industry standard” by shaping human perceptions of nature, as well as consumer expectations when choosing a documentary to watch. To dismiss nature and wildlife documentaries wholesale as ill intended and exploitative is not a solution to Horak’s concerns. However these concerns do raise the question of how we are to present environmental issues effectively, in a new way that allows for change – or at least attempts a different perspective and avoids these problematic formulations of documentaries. In this paper, I would like to consider Green the Film (2009) in relation to the types of documentaries I have described. I find the film striking within this milieu and believe it provides us with the potential of approaching the wildlife documentary in a reinvigorated way.

Green the Film[1] tells the story of Green, an orangutan that has been displaced by the devastating deforestation of her natural habitat. The film opens with her, obviously weak, travelling in a duffle bag on the bag of a truck through the palm oil plantations that have replaced her home. The opening scene then cuts to her lying in a bed with an intravenous drip attached to her leg. We are acquainted with the room in which she finds herself through point-of-view shots as established from her position in the bed. The camera angles are askew, and the particular focus on the objects in the room is interesting. When looking at the clock on the wall, it is not the time that is privileged – instead the focus is on a gecko behind the clock. Immediately, we are alerted to a point of view that differs from our own – the orangutan sees the little creature, not the time. Although we initially look at Green, we are introduced to her way of looking as well – thus we are not gazing at her but gazing with her.

Green is in fact an orangutan named Sandra that filmmaker Patrick Rouxel came across in a refuge in Kalimantan in Indonesia. She had been captured on a palm oil plantation and brought to the refuge – completely paralysed on her left side and thus bed-bound. Upon seeing her in the refuge, Rouxel began filming her and eventually made the film. Rouxel is open about the fact that he “made up a story” with Green:

While editing Green, my biggest fear was that people wouldn’t ‘buy’ the story I had made up around Sandra. Anyone working closely with orangutans would be able to see that the orangutan in the opening shot and all those in the wild, in the degraded forests or in the oil palm plantations, are all different from one another, and from Sandra. Fortunately, the average viewer doesn’t really pick up on this and goes along with the story. And those who share my sensitivity actually do feel the pain and guilt. (Rouxel[2])

By using Green, Rouxel endeavours to bring awareness to the effects of the immense deforestation that is resulting in the massive decline of orangutans in the region. Green remains a film that is constructed to form a coherent narrative and convey a particular point; the structure of the film consists of cuts between Green in her refuge bed and the forest that she remembers and juxtaposes this with scenes of its degradation. Of course, Rouxel cannot know what Green is thinking but he imagines and constructs Green’s memory in an attempt to frame her point of view and in so doing present us with her world, essentially an animal subjectivity.

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This week’s reading – Huggan and Tiffin’s Postcolonial Ecocriticism

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In Postcolonial Ecocriticism, Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin examine relationships between humans, animals and the environment in postcolonial texts. Divided into two sections that consider the postcolonial first from an environmental and then a zoocritical perspective, the book looks at:

•narratives of development in postcolonial writing

•entitlement and belonging in the pastoral genre

•colonialist ‘asset stripping’ and the Christian mission

•the politics of eating and representations of cannibalism

•animality and spirituality

•sentimentality and anthropomorphism

•the place of the human and the animal in a ‘posthuman’ world.

Making use of the work of authors as diverse as J.M. Coetzee, Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, Jamaica Kincaid and V.S. Naipaul, the authors argue that human liberation will never be fully achieved without challenging how human societies have constructed themselves in hierarchical relation to other human and nonhuman communities, and without imagining new ways in which these ecologically connected groupings can be creatively transformed.

CALL FOR PAPERS – Changing Nature: Migrations, Energies, Limits (ASLE)

ISEE - International Society for Environmental Ethics

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE)
Tenth Biennial Conference,
May 28-June 1, 2013
University of Kansas, Lawrence
http://www.asle.ku.edu

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) invites proposals for its Tenth Biennial Conference, to be held May 28th through June 1st, 2013, at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The decennial conference theme is intended to reflect some of the most engaging current conversations within the environmental humanities and across disciplines, and to link those discussions to the transnational nexus of energy, labor, borders, and human and nonhuman environments that are so fundamentally “changing nature,” and with it the widely varied kinds of environmental critique we practice, art we make, and politics we advocate. Migrations–of humans, of non-human creatures, of “invasive species,” of industrial toxins across aquifers and cellular membranes, of disease across species and nations, of transgenic pollen and GM fish-have changed…

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Timothy Morton – Further reading suggestions

I have started adding a few blogs/websites worth visiting in the blogroll (see the sidebar on the right). There is a link to Timothy Morton’s blog, but also consider the following two articles:

“John Clare’s Dark Ecology.” Studies in Romanticism. Vol. 47, No. 2 (Summer, 2008), pp. 179-193.

Queer Ecology.” PMLA. Volume 125, Number 2, March 2010, pp. 273–282 (10).

Second reading – Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (25 September 2012)

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“The violence wrought by climate change, toxic drift, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly. Using the innovative concept of “slow violence” to describe these threats, Rob Nixon focuses on the inattention we have paid to the attritional lethality of many environmental crises, in contrast with the sensational, spectacle-driven messaging that impels public activism today. Slow violence, because it is so readily ignored by a hard-charging capitalism, exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.

In a book of extraordinary scope, Nixon examines a cluster of writer-activists affiliated with the environmentalism of the poor in the global South. By approaching environmental justice literature from this transnational perspective, he exposes the limitations of the national and local frames that dominate environmental writing. And by skillfully illuminating the strategies these writer-activists deploy to give dramatic visibility to environmental emergencies, Nixon invites his readers to engage with some of the most pressing challenges of our time.”

Source: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674049307

First reading – Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought (28 August 2012)

“In this passionate, lucid, and surprising book, Timothy Morton argues that all forms of life are connected in a vast, entangling mesh. This interconnectedness penetrates all dimensions of life. No being, construct, or object can exist independently from the ecological entanglement, Morton contends, nor does “Nature” exist as an entity separate from the uglier or more synthetic elements of life. Realizing this interconnectedness is what Morton calls the ecological thought.

In three concise chapters, Morton investigates the profound philosophical, political, and aesthetic implications of the fact that all life forms are interconnected. As a work of environmental philosophy and theory, The Ecological Thought explores an emerging awareness of ecological reality in an age of global warming. Using Darwin and contemporary discoveries in life sciences as root texts, Morton describes a mesh of deeply interconnected life forms—intimate, strange, and lacking fixed identity.

A “prequel” to his Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (2007), The Ecological Thought is an engaged and accessible work that will challenge the thinking of readers in disciplines ranging from critical theory to Romanticism to cultural geography.”

Source: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674049208

Questions of Nature within the disciplinary frame of Literary Studies