She-Monsters of the Anthropocene!

Celina Stifjell

Image credit: Boris Kasimov. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Find the image here.

Image description: Underwater sculptures at Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park. The sculptures are shaped like humans standing in a circle, facing outwards, and holding hands. The sculptures have the same greenish hue as the water they are immersed in, and they are covered by what looks like alga.

Monster studies and the blue humanities share a common interest in examining the ontologies and ethics that determine encounters between human and more-than-human forms of life. Where monster studies seek to challenge the structures of sameness and difference that determine categories such as the “human” or “nonhuman,” the blue humanities searches for more fluid metaphors to reconcile historical and materialist perspectives and to describe encounters where human bodies and “bodies of water” flow into each other (Neimanis 2017).

In this meeting place between more-than-human bodies, where anthropocentric perspectives fall short, we find many maps and myths depicting the ocean as monstrous, ranging from Olaus Magnus’ fantastic Carta Marina to Homer’s descriptions of Scylla and Charybdis in the Odyssey. Here, I believe we can also find good metaphors to explore both the transformative capacities of water and the ambiguous bodily boundaries that make up the monstrous. Yet so far, I have seen few attempts to bring these two fields together.  

In my own blue humanities PhD project, I therefore seek to explore sea monsters as figurations for unstable Anthropocene oceans. Specifically, I am looking into speculative feminist narratives featuring humans who become one with the water, who eschew bodily integrity and normative notions of futurity in order to merge with the oceanic environment and transform into something more than human. Inspired by Melody Jue’s latest book, I believe that these stories about adaptation and transformation might help estrange us from anthropocentric ways of looking at the world by offering a new “amphibious perspective” on our ever-changing environment (2020). 

I first started thinking about the transformative and strange-making capacities of water after watching a screening of Trondheim-based Sámi artist Sissel M. Bergh’s short film #tjaetise (water) during my first month as a PhD student. Part of the series knowhowknow, this visual poem explores modern and traditional ways of knowing the sea through contrasting film clips—trawler nets, drones, brittle stars, walks on the beach—overlaid with an unearthly soundscape. Toward the end, it shows a woman dressed as the coastal goddess Gorrijh Gujne as she walks out into the sea, the camera fixed on her staring (then bulging) eyes as she plunges into the water and slowly transforms into a fish. 

I find similar scenes in speculative narratives about women and the sea across different media and genres. There is Joan Slonczewski’s ecofeminist utopian novel A Door into Ocean, with its oceanic planet and symbiont Sharers; and Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy film The Shape of Water, with its fish-monster romance and reverse fairy-tale transformation. There is Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, a novel that imagines shape-shifting coral-like aliens and a marine biologist who turns into a mermaid; and there is a host of other Afrofuturist texts, from the electronica-mythology of Drexciya to Rivers Solomon’s novella The Deep, that imagine underwater societies formed by the water-breathing descendants of enslaved African women. 

I follow Elizabeth DeLoughrey in referring to these diverse narratives as “submersion stories” (2015). According to DeLoughrey, submersion stories are oceanic narratives about interspecies encounter and transformation that offer a hopeful alternative to apocalyptic imaginaries of the world’s oceanic future. The term originally comes from her reading of New Zealand writer Keri Hulme’s short-story and poetry collection Stonefish—an indigenous reflection on the ordinariness of sea level rise and multispecies kinship—but it seems to fit perfectly as a heading for my odd corpus of feminist, queer, and monstrous texts 

One of the things I like most about these texts is the alternative they offer to long histories within science fiction media of imagining the ocean as an alien realm beyond human history and concern (Alaimo 2014)—from Stanislaw Lem’s inscrutable sentient ocean in Solaris, to H.P. Lovecraft’s xenophobic sea-dwelling nightmare in “The Call of Cthulhu.” I also like that submersion stories’ emphasis on women’s perspectives shifts the focus away from the masculinist narratives that have tended to dominate literary and filmic representations of the sea, from heroic figures like Odysseus or Robinson Crusoe to modern explorers like Jacques Cousteau or James Cameron—all of them participating in a “poetics of adventure” as old as the Western literary tradition itself (Cohen 2010). 

By contrast, women tend to be the ones left behind on shore. Otherwise, they are the monsters lurking in the deep, dark waters below the ship, from abovementioned Scylla and Charybdis and the Sirens that precede them, to Grendel’s mother and (the perhaps less threatening) Melusine. Just like the supposed non-normativity of women’s bodies has led to comparisons with the monstrous (Shildrick 2001), their apparent fluidity and unruliness has caused comparisons to the dangers and unknowability of the sea.  

In submersion stories, this comparison is not contested but rather compounded with indigenous and posthuman critiques that point to the fault lines of human narratives and ideals. It is important that the protagonists here are not conquering heroes and explorers aboard ships, but rather female sea monsters who refuse the call to sacrifice in order to become “part of your world”—as the song goes in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Instead of becoming human, they choose to cross borders and become portentous monsters, signalling futures of transgressive femininity, playful queerness, and more-than-human worldmaking.  

In troubled times, I think the world needs more of these lively and sometimes messy metaphors and stories for learning to swim against (or maybe with) the tides. For Donna Haraway, whose work is thought alongside jellyfish and other Chthulucene monsters, telling new stories adapted to change is a way of “staying with the trouble” of multispecies entanglements and futures (2016). This phrase, almost a slogan for monster studies and the environmental humanities, has already been invoked several times on this blog. I choose to repeat it here to emphasise its value as a rallying point for different fields interested in more-than-human worlds. As I continue to work on my dissertation, mixing metaphors and methodologies, I can only hope to find more stories about adapting to submersion and more studies that recognise the promises of sea monsters.  

Bio 

Celina Stifjell is a PhD student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where she is part of the HAVANSVAR blue humanities initiative and the Environmental Humanities research group. Her in-progress dissertation is due autumn 2022 (but she keeps getting distracted by theoretical tangents).  

Works Cited 

Alaimo, Stacy (2014). “Feminist Science Studies: Aesthetics and Entanglement in the Deep Sea” in G. Gerrard ed. Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 

Cohen, Margaret (2010). The Novel and the Sea. Princeton: Princeton University Press.  

DeLoughrey, Elizabeth (2015). “Ordinary Futures: Interspecies Worldings in the Anthropocene” in E. DeLoughrey, J. Didur and A. Carrigan, eds. Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities. New York and Abingdon: Routledge. 

Haraway, Donna (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Press.   

Neimanis, Astrida (2017). Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic. 

Shildrick, Margrit (2001). Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: SAGE. 

Monsters of the Anthropocene – info out now

‘Non humans only’ (2011) by Tove Kjellmark. Image description: a glass case on a metal trolley. The class case is filled with toy animals whose fur has been removed. A thick line of cords is connected to the glass case, and there is a painting of a small child hanging on the white wall next to the glass case. There is a window directly behind the glass case.

If you have signed up for the Monsters of the Anthropocene reading group series, you should have received an e-mail with information about tomorrow’s meeting by now. If not, feel free to contact us via this website.

We look forward to seeing you!

Monsters of the Anthropocene: Collaboratory at the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities

The Monster Network is excited to announce that we have received funding from the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities to establish a two-year Collaboratory called Monsters of the Anthropocene. The Collaboratory PI is Rebecca Scherr, and it is created in collaboration with Hugo Reinert.

‘Non humans only’ (2011) by Tove Kjellmark. Image description: a glass case on a metal trolley. The class case is filled with toy animals whose fur has been removed. A thick line of cords is connected to the glass case, and there is a painting of a small child hanging on the white wall next to the glass case. There is a window directly behind the glass case.

Drawing on feminist theory, decolonial theory, queer theory and critical disability studies, the Monsters of the Anthropocene Collaboratory invites creative and critical engagements with the figure of the monster in order to address questions of power, vulnerability and othering in the Anthropocene. To do so, the Collaboratory hosts a reading group series as well as a series of workshops and a mini-podcast series produced in collaboration with the University of Stavanger as part of the Monster Network’s regular podcast series Monster Talks.  The aim of the Collaboratory is to foster interdisciplinary collaborations as well as create a space for co-writing research grant applications. In other words, we aim for the Collaboratory to be the beginnings of bigger and even more monstrous things yet to come.

If you are interested in participating in this monstrousness, you’re welcome to join us – the first two reading group meetings are open to all and take place on the 4th of February and 18th of March, both at 14:00 – 15:30 Oslo time on Zoom.  After the 18th of March, we close the reading group meetings in order to allow the core group to focus on collaborations and research proposal writing. The workshops, however, remain open for all.

If you would like to participate in the first reading group meetings to find out if this is something for you, feel free to contact us at promisesofmonsters [at] gmail [dot] com to hear more and to get the Zoom link and password.

We will update this website with news of lectures, workshops and other events relating to the Monsters of the Anthropocene Collaboratory, but you can also read more at our OSEH website.

Writing With

By Aino-Kaisa Koistinen and Line Henriksen

This blog-post is a companion text to the podcast episode Writing With.

Ethos Lab 1
Image description: Table filled with paper, writing utensils and mugs. You can see the hands of the people sitting around the table, holding pens and papers. Photo by Marie Blønd for ETHOS Lab.

Aino-Kaisa:

In academic writing, citations are the obvious sign of who you are thinking with and thus also writing with. Yet, there are always influences and companions in writing and thinking (and feeling) that remain uncited due to the limitations of the academic format. This is why we wanted to make a podcast about our writing companions; the ones we write with that remain uncited, but are maybe heard between the lines (a cat, a ghost, the ghost of the cats of the past)? 

Writing is about making worlds, and it is therefore important to consider, who inhabits those worlds. Who are invited as companions in those worlds? If I write about writing with a cat, who am I writing it for? What is the use of my writing for the cat? As I explain in the podcast, I have recently been living, writing and thinking with a cat, which has raised some pressing questions about what I have come to call cat-writing, inspired by Haraways (2003, 3) “dog writing”. Can words ever describe the attempt to live ethically with a cat – and not just any cat, a particular cat that I live with, Sotku – and the problematics of having to sacrifice others for her to survive? 

Yet, as a human being, I express myself with writing, reaching out to the world with words. The writing must continue, then, as cat-writing; with the cat, about cats, about writing with cats. Even though the cat herself always escapes, always refuses to settle into words. 

As the Monster Network, we have also written texts together. In this process of co-writing, different writing companions – such as disciplinary and theoretical backgrounds, bodily/material realities and life histories – are brought together, even though we all spring from more or less similar interests and indebtedness to, for example, feminist/queer/postcolonial/more-than-human theories. This multiplicity of writing – how one’s “own voice” is always more than one – is what evokes the monstrous in writing. 

Different methods and methodologies can also be used to perhaps tease out the monster, to craft the Frankensteinian creature into existence.

Line:

There is, indeed, a lot of debt in writing (as with all things). The writing ‘I’ owes a debt to past generations who created and sustained (though altered through repetition) the language used to express oneself in, as well as to future generations, who may or may not read the text. As Derrida suggests in Specters of Marx, one must learn to live in the company of such ghosts, as well as acknowledge this debt to the past and to the future as they haunt the present. In this sense, the writing ‘I’ speaks in multiple voices, is being spoken by the ghosts who came before and who come after. 

While preparing the workshop ‘Writing Monsters’, Katrine Meldgaard Kjær and I discussed the figure of the exorcist – to the point of writing ‘exorcises’ rather than ‘exercises’ in our blogpost for this website. The exorcist, not least within popular culture, serves as a figure that gets rid of ghosts and demons, rids not least the female subject of multiple voices, makes sure she no longer speaks in tongues, in languages she has no right to know. There’s a violence in the exorcism, which is excused on the grounds of the humanist understanding of the subject as necessarily singular, as speaking in only one true voice. Katrine and I came up with the figure of the ‘intrasist’ as someone doing the opposite of the exorcist: an intrasist does not get rid of creatures that haunt the speaking, writing subject, but summons them, makes them appear not in order to be exorcised, but to be acknowledge, lived with, as a means of paying back our debt to them (this can never be fully done). A monster writing method may, then, be imagined as a summoning, an intrasism, a thinking with the other voices, not least those that contradict what we thought we wanted to say, or that speaks in tongues impossible to interpret, or that screams till our throats hurt, because what they want to say, what they want to speak through and with their host, is beyond any language, any known means of expression, still to come. 

Aino-Kaisa: 

The idea of intrasism is really intriguing, and I think that the practice of cat-writing can also be seen as a form of intrasism. Living with a companion animal, a carnivore, summons up the complex histories and possible futures between humans and their companion animals – as well as the messy entanglements of love and violence that these relationships entail also in the present. In this sense, cat-writing is what Donna Haraway (2016) might call “staying with the trouble” in the present. Perhaps, monstrous writing is also something that, as a process, asks us to be mindful of the troubles that occur in the present, at the present moment of the writing? 

Line:

I definitely think that monster writing can be understood as the ethical urgency of ‘staying with the trouble’, that is, staying with troubling, haunting voices rather than exorcising them. I also like the idea of cat-writing as intrasism; the voices we speak or attempt to speak are not necessarily human, and our writing companions may be teaching us how to challenge the borders and boundaries between the human and the nonhuman as we write. That would, perhaps, be the cat as intrasist. 

Sotku (28.10.2020, revising a document): 1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq1qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq

“Sotku working as a writing companion.” In the image, there is a laptop with a bright screen in the background and, in the foreground, a cat’s head that blocks the keyboards and some of the screen. Image: Aino-Kaisa Koistinen.

Readings:
Haraway, Donna J. (2003), The Companion Species Manifesto. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.


Haraway, Donna J. (2016), Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Monster Talks 8: Writing With

With whom do we write when we write?

In this episode of Monster Talks, Aino-Kaisa Koistinen (University of Jyväskylä) and Line Henriksen (IT University of Copenhagen) talk about the people, thoughts, creatures, objects and events that keep us company when we write, and that make writing possible – or sometimes impossible, even monstrously disturbing. They talk about their own writing companions, a cat and procrastination, and Kaisa Kortekallio (University of Helsinki) shares a story about writing with darkness, Katrine Meldgaard Kjær (IT University of Copenhagen) talks about writing with music, and Nina Lykke (Linköping University) introduces us to a series of writing companions and their stories. 

Guest stars:

Katrine Meldgaard Kjær is an assistant professor at ITU. She works with interdisciplinary approaches to studying digital health, and is currently working on a project about medicinal cannabis.  She has her PhD from the Department for the study of culture at University of Southern Denmark, and is based in Copenhagen.

Kaisa Kortekallio works on environmental speculations and embodied estrangement at the University of Helsinki. Whether dealing with climate change or winter depression, she prefers strategies of adaptation to those of warfare.

Nina Lykke is Professor Emerita, Dr. Phil. Gender Studies, Linköping University, Sweden, and Adjunct Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark. Author of numerous books, such as Cosmodolphins. Feminist Cultural Studies of Technology, Animals and the Sacred (with Mette Bryld, 2000), Feminist Studies (2010), and Vibrant Death. A Posthuman Phenomenology of Mourning (forthcoming, 2021).

Music featured in this episode:  Ana Bogner: Monsters (https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Ana_Bogner/Multiple_Proportions/Ana_Bogner_-_Multiple_Proportions_03)

Nuno Adelaide: I’m a Monster (https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Nuno_Adelaida/none_given_1662/Nuno_Adelaida_04_Im_A_Monster) from the Free Music Archive. The Free Music Archive offers free downloads under Creative Commons and other licenses.

Monster Talks is a podcast series that explores the figure of the monster and the concept of the monstrous as important thinking tools for addressing dynamics of power, inclusion and exclusion, discrimination and violence. The podcast is made possible by the support of Nordic Culture Point and produced by The Monster Network in collaboration with Network for Gender Studies at UiS. All episodes are available from the podcast’s website at UiS.

Artwork by Joanne Teresa Taylor, NettOp, University of Stavanger.

The Monster Talks jingle: Narration and violin by Sara Orning. Voices by Ingvil Hellstrand, Aino-Kaisa Koistinen, Line Henriksen and Sara Orning. Mixed by Line Henriksen.  Sounds by SpliceSound (https://freesound.org/people/SpliceSound/sounds/188187/) and Anagar (https://freesound.org/people/anagar/sounds/267931/), www.freesound.org, Creative Commons 0 License.