It was with great sadness that I found out last week that Yup’ik elder, Paul John, had passed away. I never met Paul John in person and I have never been to Toksook Bay, but his stories and visions of the world have had a great impact on my own thinking and actions in the world. He was an inspiring and prolific intellectual–a quick google search of his name brings up dozens of hits of his stories: written, told, and collaborations–and he was also an innovative and motivated educator in Yup’ik culture and language.
I first encountered Paul John in the work of Ann Fienup-Riordan, her brief gloss of his telling of the story “The Boy who went to Live with Seals” in Boundaries and Passages. A few years ago, she worked with Paul John to create a bilingual Yup’ik-English repository of many of his stories. It is an amazing volume. Stories for Future Generations contains the entire version of “The Boy who went to Live with Seals,” which was first spoken in an educational setting at the high school and later transcribed and translated.
The setting of its recitation is important to me in the context of this particular story, because the story is also set around the education of a young boy who learns how to be a proper human through the teachings of his host, a bearded seal. At moments in the story, audiences blend–young seals, young humans; seal behavior, human manners. I have thought about this story a lot, as has Fienup-Riordan in her work. I am not an anthropologist, however, and I wanted to think about the literary qualities of the story, but in a way that would not erase the story with the imposition of terms and theories developed for other time periods, genres, and nationalities.
I remember working to a point that I couldn’t cross with this story. I knew there was something I should be recognizing in it, but I wasn’t quite there yet. I took my dog for a walk in the woods near our house. We ambled among the trees, the sun and a light breeze in our faces. And then I knew what it was, I knew the hinge of the story. It was breath. The breath of the storyteller, the breath of the singer, the gasps of breath as the boy cries, the breath of air seals need as mammals, like humans, the breath of air released from the dried and stored seal bladders. The physical and metaphysical, the imaginative and the material, the human and the animal, the sea and the land, all meet and cross boundaries in the act of storytelling. With breath, one creates worlds.
Paul John helped me create new worlds; he continues to help me think about categories, what Fienup-Riordan calls boundaries and passages in Yup’ik thought and action. The story of “The Boy who went to Live with Seals” still has much to teach me about the dynamism of Yup’ik oratory; traditional does not mean that the stories are not modern, just as Yupiit who continue to live and advocate a traditional lifestyle are also, at the same time, modern people.
Paul John was a worthy host who taught his students well. While we draw breath, we can carry on his legacy.
I know this is over a year late, but sometimes it takes me a little while to gather my thoughts. Thank you for your patience and I look forward to reading some of your comments about this series of posts!
To conclude with some musings about some of the cultural and symbolic significance of what we think about when we think about polar bears, Gary Hume’s painting transgresses the boundaries of what is believed to be natural. The bear is neither female nor male, or perhaps s/he is both. She resists classification. From a biological point of view this is troubling as it is more difficult for a hermaphroditic bear to reproduce, if it is possible at all. And with the other pressures on bears, such as a lack of sea ice and ice melting earlier (which disrupts their denning habits and pushes food sources such as seals out of reach), bear reproduction is a hot topic. But more than biologically speaking, the cultural and symbolic weight of classification has some bearing on how we think of Hume’s piece and the bears from which he derived his subject matter. To begin, I want to take us back to the meaning of gender when, from the French, it is derived from genre, which means both the cultural distinctions or performances of sex and kind or class, the differentiation of things or beings into like groups based on characteristics. From the Oxford English Dictionary:
Gender (the definition of which comes from American English): “The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex. Also: a (male or female) group characterized in this way” (OED).
Genre: “Kind; sort; style;” also, “A class of things or beings distinguished by having certain characteristics in common” (OED).
Discussing how polar bears disturb classifications, both gender and genre, Canadian anthropologist, Christopher Trott, writes in “The Gender of the Bear”:
One of the well-known stories [among Inuit] concerns a man who had three daughters and when the eldest reached the age to be married, he shut her up in an igloo alone. The girl gradually transformed into a bear and broke out of the hut. The father with his wife and two younger daughters gave chase but the bear turned on them and ate the father. The mother and two sisters protected themselves by laying out skin stretchers in a circle and sitting within. The bear sniffed at the ring of skin stretchers and then wandered off. It is thus the women’s ability to construct a (circular) boundary out of distinctively women’s tools that protects the family. The story explores both the reality that women can transform into bears while at the same time maintaining that it is the women who must construct and maintain the boundary between humans and bears. There is a clear association here between a women’s reproductive cycle, eligibility for marriage, and the creation and manipulation of boundaries that permeates all the stories about bears and women.
Furthermore, when thinking about gender construction and genre classification between and within Inuit and bears, it is important to note that the
polar bear (nanuq) (Ursus maritimus Phipps) takes on a symbolic significance among Inuit far beyond its importance in their diet…The polar bear has the peculiar property of being an animal that lives and hunts primarily on both the land-fast ice and pack ice, while being able to travel overland…To follow Mary Douglas’ (1966) line of argument, bears are thus categorically ambivalent and thus logically potentially sources of “pollution.”
Arguing that gender may be “situationally defined” for Inuit (as it also is for non-Inuit—just think about news stories about the construction of masculinity or when “masculinity” becomes “feminized” in certain situations), Trott points out that in the classification for “male”, bears have one meaning, while for “female”, they have quite another:
While men stood in danger of being hunted and killed by bears through the instability of the predator-prey relation, women stood in danger of transforming into bears through the relationship between their reproductive cycle and the life cycle of the bear. Insofar as women’s bodies act as passages through which human reproduction is effected, they become transformational operators in the same way that bears, through their ability to cross the land/sea boundary become operators in the symbolic realm.
What this means for understanding polar bears in the north and within their relational proximity to Inuit, the people with whom they live most closely, is that the
bear is not so much a cosmological mediator (in terms of transcending and combining the land/sea dichotomy), as a cosmological operator…The bear is not an internally unified figure, but an internally divided figure: there are two bears, male and female, and within each of them is contained the seed of its own opposite. It is precisely this property of an animal containing within it two figures that makes the bear such a powerful object of thought. This argument links to Fienup-Riordan’s (1994) analysis that Inuit symbolic thought consists of the construction and maintenance of boundaries, with the ritual opening of a passage to move outside of those boundaries. I would further argue that in Inuit terms any enclosed boundary already contains within it a piece of its own opposite—which opens the way for a passage.
Bears are therefore transformational; by their very biological capabilities they transgress orders, kinds, classification, genre. And they also serve to help humans make those same transformations. Through thinking oneself with a bear, one is able to cross from male to female, human to animal, even past to future. But bears are not just transformational aids for Inuit. They do this work in other indigenous, and even western, cosmologies as well. According to Robert Brightman, for the Cree bears and bear stories elicit a profound ambivalence about the nature of human-animal worldliness—or how one defines the parameters of each being—because the “signs of the covert infra human animal” are most visible in the bear. The polar bear, endemic and iconic mammal of the Arctic for those living in more southern latitudes, is, as Barry Lopez has written in Arctic Dreams, “a creature of arctic edges: [s]he hunts the ice margins, the surface of the water, and the continental shore.” Surfaces and shores are liminal places, they are where boundaries meet and slide into each other, again, resisting and erasing classification and categorical containment. What does it mean to live on the edge? The world’s edge, of course, is Ultima Thule, the “no-man’s land” between the real and the fictive, the known and the not known, history and mythology. The narratives of climate change, of change in general, demand a rethinking of relationships to the world, preconceived notions of what it means to inhabit a location, and what it means to know with certainty the biological parameters of a species. This is not only true for the polar bear; when invoking the polar bear as the figure of climate change, she acts like the indicator species of global sentiment about the changing world. The term “polar bear,” however, is a metaphor. “Polar bear” describes in language the being that within a given time and spatial arrangement exhibits certain characteristics, such as preying on seals, living on ice, and being colored “white.” But what if “polar bear” renounces these definitions, these characteristics, that classify her? We are left with a vitriolic blog post castigating an artist for engaging in “bad science.”
Brightman, Robert A. Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal Relationships. LosAngeles: U of California P, 1993.
Fienup-Riordan, Ann. Boundaries and Passages: Rule and Ritual in Yup’ik Eskimo Oral Tradition. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
Trott, Christopher. “The Gender of the Bear.” Etude/Inuit/Studies. 30.1, 2006. 89-109.
for a novel to be Northern?
Last summer, I was lucky enough to finally travel to Norway, a country I have wanted to visit since I don’t even know when. The home of such intrepid northern explorers as Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen and the literary giants Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset—not to say the birthplace of cross-country skiing and (my favorite activity to do with my dog) skijoring—Norway has always captivated me with the arctic landscape I hold dear combined with the promise of more than a millennia of living in and with that same landscape. Norway is not a frontier like Alaska. It is a developed landscape, but it is also a preserved and inhabited landscape with a people who recognize that the wild is as much necessary to domestication as settlement (unless you are a wolf, a topic I may try to tackle in a later post). It is true that Norway is an oil country whose economy is dependent on a petroleum industry and it is also true that the degradations to lively nature that come with such an industry are done in someone else’s home (such as the Canadian tar sands of Alberta). But this is not a post about my epic (as in Norwegian Black Metal epic) car ride from Oslo to the island of Hamarøy, from Hamarøy through northern Sweden to Finland, or from Finland back to Norway within smelling distance of Russia and down south again to Oslo. I won’t be going into detail here about the two beautiful Siberian huskies my soon-to-be-Iditarod-champion friend picked up for her kennel or the time we went swimming in the fjord and then I was made to eat a shrimp, Norwegian style. Instead, I want to talk about a book I brought with me and read under the midnight sun in various managed and unmanaged campsites along the road. The book is Let the Northern Lights Erase your Name, by the San Francisco author, Vendela Vida. *****Beware—SPOILERS—ahead*****
While Vida claims a connection to a Swedish heritage in the interview section in the back of the book, I think it is important to note her literary milieu. She is not a northern writer, although she did spend some research time in the North—what she calls Lapland in the interview section and throughout the novel. I think it is telling for how she constructs her North that she writes, “I wasn’t expecting that the Sami culture would be so vibrant, that I would see people wearing traditional Sami outfits in their everyday lives.” While it may seem nit-picky to go after an author for using the term “Lapland” to describe the Sàmi homeland that stretches from Norway through Sweden to Finland, this is a novel about finding one’s identity and coming to terms with a violent and, in some respects, colonized past—a past which was stolen. Consistently using a label that was imposed, that directly defies the political action at the heart of the plot about Sami cultural and political autonomy—the renaming of Lapland to Sàpmi—needs questioning.
Vida is known in Bay Area literary circles. She is the editor of the popular and beautifully put together literary journal, The Believer. She has a writing style that is at times both charming and deadpan. If the novel had been a short story or a collection of witty one-liners—the comebacks that one is always thinking of as ideal responses to situations that are either after the fact or never materialize—it would have been more of a success. Some of my favorite lines:
I left the hamper two feet from the entrance. If Pankaj came into the bedroom, he would ask, “What’s this for?”/ “To hamper you,” I would say.
All the houses but one had a single strand of white Christmas lights bordering a garage door, or running along a roof. / “Everyone is very upset with that house,” Eero said, gesturing at a house with blue lights outlining the front door. “Those people really took it too far.”
Travel is made for liars. Or liars are made by travel.
Although there are several problematic topics in the novel that I would like to discuss (a horrifying drugging and rape of the main character that, in some ways, mirrors the rape of her mother, but that is never discussed again or has any bearing on the story whatsoever beyond a chapter vignette; the racialization of characters that is produced through the denial of their racialization—the raced characters are left at the margins for an ending that privileges whiteness; the way in which pivotal historical and political events for the formation of Sàmi identity and autonomy are lightly brushed in as colorful background, but are not treated in any meaningful detail), what I will focus on in this post is the mirroring of a “bad” (inauthentic) Sàmi man and a “good” (traditional) Sàmi woman. The equal and opposite pairing of these two characters structures the Orientalism of the book that creates the North as the new exotic from which to write stories of and for the culturally dominant West.
The mother of the main character, Clarissa, leaves her family when Clarissa is a teenager and no word is heard from her again. After the death of the man whom she thought was her father, Clarissa finds out that her mother had previously been married to a Sàmi priest in northern Finland. This man, Eero Valkeapää, is not treated well in the novel and it is not his actions or lack thereof that manifests how the author views him; it is through his physical description. He is deformed with two “skin tags” on his forehead, a visual expression of both the feelings Clarissa has for him (she wants him to be her dad, she is disgusted that he may be her dad) and his character function of being the opposite to the valued traditional lifestyle that Clarissa romanticizes for Anna Kristine, the Sàmi woman who turns out to be her grandmother. Anna Kristine wears traditional clothing and heals Clarissa with local knowledge and wisdom gained from living in harmony with the landscape (instead of against it like an imposed Christianity). The opposition between modern and traditional, local and imposed, good and bad are constructed in such a way that precludes Sàmi from being both traditional and modern while they incorporate local culture and foreign ideas so that they are complex, multifaceted, variegated, people living in the world today, with a history, a present and a future. One doesn’t go to India and act surprised at the quaintness of a woman wearing a sari while expecting her to have some deeper spiritual connection because of her dress. We of the West learned to rethink our assumptions about the East through the theoretical and political work of many scholars and perhaps it is now time to take that knowledge and apply it to the North. India is also present in the novel, a somewhat lopsided foil to the Arctic, but it is no longer exotic enough and so the Arctic provides the space of trying on and taking off different inhibitions—it is the new frontier of exploring oneself through the background of another people/culture/history.
To put Vida’s novel in context of an Orientalized North, the editors of the critical and comparative circumpolar volume, Arctic Discourses, highlight the “interplay of expectations and experiences…[that] constitute a history of repetition [with] the constant return to fixed topoi and intertexts” in narratives about the North. The editors wish to coin a new term—the term I myself have appropriated for this blog—for the wealth of textual production that makes up our knowledge of the Arctic: Arcticism. Drawing upon Edward Said’s critical investigation into how the discursive projects of science, literature and art worked (however unevenly) hand in hand with the political project of imperialism to create the West’s knowledge of the East, the editors of this collection state: “Within this Arcticism, images of the natural or indigenous other are reproduced or naturalized…Arcticism also becomes a strategy of imagining the self…as an explorer-hero, a scientific worker, or a white imperial male. It can also be a strong force in the imagining of the collective identities of empires, nations and minorities.”
By naturalizing the grandmotherly qualities of Anna Kristine through her traditional dress and knowledge of healing, local history, and ecology, Vida emphasizes how indigeneity in the North should be valued. Eero Valkeapää, as a priest living in a modern home who does not keep reindeer, is deformed; Clarissa’s repugnance to his physical presence is also disgust at his position within the community. There is a lot that can be said about the destructiveness of Christianity to northern communities, but the character of Eero is not such an attack on colonialism and missionization in the North. In the end, the novel, while a light read for a long airplane trip, is not a northern novel. It is “Articist” (Arctic Orientalist) in that it continues to propagate stereotypes of the North for Western consumption without ever investigating or questioning how what we know about the North comes to be known and transmitted. The real political gains and cultural vibrancy of the Sàmi remain completely hidden within the pages. If you would like to read contemporary texts by Sàmi writers I have included a few works at the bottom. Do let me know your thoughts on the novel and if you have any further reading suggestions!
Meaghan Perry (Májja). “Elle Hansa (Keviselie): Mapping Sami Culture”
Arctic Discourses, edited by Anka Ryall, Johan Schimanski and Henning Howlid Wærp.
The story is in the ice.
So says photographer James Balog in the film Chasing Ice, a documentary of his multi-year quest to photograph climate change. The film follows Balog as he pursues his obsession of catching on film dramatic changes in glaciers in Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland. Through technological and physical failures (time-lapse doesn’t exactly work if the timer freezes at 40 below; Balog goes through three knee reconstructions just to keep up his habit), Balog perseveres to prove the stunning—and horrifying—truth of glacier retreat due to human induced warming trends. Glaciers that were taking decades to retreat several miles have thinned and retreated ten or more miles in three years. Normal calving events have turned into massive shelves breaking off. Melt water and carbon trapped in ice layers are contributing to the feedback loop, increasing the rate at which glaciers melt and recede.
The story is in the ice.
As I watched the film, I was swept away by the crushing beauty of old ice that has never seen the surface of the world in millennia, suddenly revealed when a calved berg roles under its top heavy weight and a glimpse of the darkest, most inhuman luminescent blue is glimpsed before it plunges back into the water. The sequences of photographs in time-lapse reveal an animated landscape, a liveliness of being in the glaciers, that is nevertheless, as Balog mournfully explains, like an “old man dying.” The project is to understand these old men and their last words, to visually, graphically, learn what it means to “visualize change…to see what was and what will be” through the “story that the glaciers are telling.” Balog argues that we have a “problem of perception”—ice, glaciers, climate change—it’s too abstract, too far away, too somebody else’s problem, too inhuman. And so he humanizes the story. He brings the glacier’s geologic time into human time—three years for the filming of glacier retreat and the story of generational responsibility in the form of a father’s quest to leave something for his daughters. The story that the glaciers tell becomes the story of his quest to tell their story.
The story is in the ice.
Sitting in an old, somewhat indy, theatre in California, my friend looks around and notes the variety of styles and colors of down jackets in the audience. The coastal fog is coming in, it’s chilly. But it is that type of crowd. A woman saves a seat with a climbing harness. We are the converted. If we can afford to we drive hybrid cars. If we can’t, we bike. We eat organic, shop at the farmer’s market, are vegetarian, participate in beach clean-ups and anti-development in sensitive habitat demonstrations. We want a future for our children.
The story is in the ice.
After watching or reading about all the films that are trying to raise our awareness about climate change and the loss of polar ice—Happy Feet, Arctic Tales, Growing Up Arctic, Chasing Ice, and I’m sure many others—to get us adults to do something through reminding us of our responsibility to future generations, I have come to the conclusion that the story the glaciers are telling, the story that is in the ice, is distinctly not about or for future human children. Geologic time is profoundly inhuman—epochal change, the Wisconsin Ice Age—none of it has anything to do with the preservation of some life over others, some organisms’ positive life choices against the negative outcomes of others. The story that is in the ice that this film cannot finally tell is that the inevitable loss of ice is not about hurricanes, floods, drought, and the extinction of polar bears. The extent of the loss reveals the expiration date of the human species. We can tell stories about our children to galvanize action on their behalf, but the unspoken—the unspeakable—truth is we cannot keep having future generations. The story is written in the ice—carbon increase, soot trapped in ice, the release of methane. The technology and resources used to make the cameras that document change and the hybrid cars that relieve our anxiety about our culpability—our too human response to this too-human story of one man’s obsession to “do something” so his daughters’ won’t ask “why did you not do something?”—perhaps simply points out that we need a different type of story, a new reading practice, an engagement with glaciers that is not about our children’s future on this planet, but our own. Our own responsibility. Our own love affair with ice. With polar bears. With micro-cosmic bodily identifications and macro-cosmic orderings of agents that can be inhuman, yet still invite us to incorporate their right to life with our own.
The story is in the ice.
For further reading about glaciers and sea-ice I highly recommend Barry Lopez’s meditative chapter “Ice and Light” in his book Arctic Dreams, Julie Cruikshank’s amazing ethnographic reflections in Do Glaciers Listen?, and Elizabeth Bradfield’s intricately connective poems in Approaching Ice.
I haven’t had much time for posting in the last month or so, but after having visited a local store, I thought I should reiterate a point I’ve made before: penguins do not live in the Arctic. And walrus and reindeer do not live in the Antarctic. Although, I will have to admit, on a plane ride I sat next to a Finnish ornithologist and I learned that in that great time period known as the age of exploration, a species of flightless Auk did, indeed, live in the Arctic. Alas, they are now extinct do to the over-hunting of the bird to feed starving sailors.
Yes these are very cute holiday gift cards and bags and it seems obvious that we should just read this as “polar” and let it go at that (because, obviously, polar always means winter always means Christmas. Winter equals presents!). But as I said before, it matters that we know the difference between the North and South Pole and the creatures who live in each geographic location. It is too easy, when coming from a position of power–and I mean a position that controls how images are distributed and what representations and symbolic systems are allowed–to be able to not make the effort to know the specifics of the places and people considered to be on the margins. And those on the margins are never allowed the same ability to “not know” the dominant culture/s. This is essentially Dipesh Chakrabarty’s thesis in his highly recommended, Provincializing Europe.
Along with my ant/arctic friends above, I’d just like to reiterate another point, one that comes up every Halloween and is perhaps better stated here and here: Inuit people actually exist and have a complex history, political system, and contemporary culture. This simply is unnecessary and should no longer be an issue that needs addressing:
If you come across any egregious misappropriations of arctic peoples and creatures with a holiday theme, post them in the comments. Happy Holidays!
One point I failed to address in the last post on the art of the picture was that “Hermaphrodite Polar Bear” was first exhibited in a show called “Art and Climate Change” organized by The Cape Farewell initiative. Hume was a participant on an expedition to Svalbard with Cape Farewell, the first one in 2003. While neither the subject nor the title of the piece references scientific studies of polar bears, endocrine disruptors or climate change, people attending the exhibit or researching it online, might fairly come to the conclusion that Hume’s artwork is a statement about the harmful effects of bioaccumulation related to pollution in the Arctic. I am fine with this rather surface understanding of the piece’s placement in art and politics. But I also think it is rather lazy, schematic, and limiting to only think the piece in the context of its first show or focus on how the subject first came to inspire the artist.
If you have thoughts about art’s relation to science, politics and culture—specifically in reference to what I have discussed is preferred—please continue the conversation in the comments. Now I’m going to turn to the other bee in the blogger’s bonnet—“Bad Science” and the “hysteria” around endocrine disruptors, climate change, and self-serving environmentalism.
What is “bad science” and why does a study that asks for human change almost always get labeled as such? Calling something “bad science” has a history, and it’s not exactly a history of doing science badly. It is, rather, a value judgment on the results, what results were obtained and how these findings fit into already received notions about the world or how the world works (or should work). Much of the science noted by Thomas Kuhn in his study on “paradigm shifts” was labeled bad (or even, at times, heretical). Susan Harding, a noted scholar in the field of science studies, plainly states what is at issue in the label of bad science, of science that is seen to be “too political.” Closely following the historian Thomas Haskell, she writes
Haskell is concerned here with something different from the distorting effects of the intrusion of politics into neutral science. Instead, it is the distorting “politics of the obvious” to which he is drawing attention. Sometimes this can be a matter of idiosyncratic individual assumptions; but these are relatively easily identified by peers who check research designs, sources, and observations. More problematic are the spontaneous perceptions and convictions that are shared by a scientific community and, usually, by the dominant groups in the social order of which the scientists are members by birth and/or achievement. It is reflexivity that is the issue here: self-criticism in the sense of criticism of the widely shared values and interests that constitute one’s own institutionally shaped research assumptions.
“Bad science” challenges the knowledge of the status quo; it asks difficult questions about methodology, ideology and who is served by science. Science is never neutral and value-free. And science (and those who involved in its knowledge practice) should be critiqued. But being critical of science is not the same as being anti-science; being critical opens the possibility for the kinds of paradigm shifts Kuhn documents—shifts in understanding that lead to real advancements, not static confirmation of what we want to believe is true.
The author of the blog in question writes:
Last time I checked we were all getting freaked out by endocrine disruptors condensing over the poles then concentrating up the food chain. We can’t decide on exactly which endocrine disrupting chemical pollutant is the big nasty (it depends on what’s trendy in the research community at a given time) and don’t exactly have comparative data going back very far, but no matter!
And she labels this uncertainty “bad science.” Science is driven by uncertainty, questions, trials, exchanges, and years of study. Science often moves slowly, but I would say people changing their habits change more slowly still. It is no longer a debate that chemicals concentrate at the poles. It is no longer a debate that Inuit mothers’ milk has a higher concentration of industrial chemicals and they live in one of the least industrialized areas of the world. Science is driven by what’s trendy; scientists rely on funding as much as any other academic endeavor. For awhile it was so-called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and every proposal had to include a “native” informant. It was soon realized that not all native people wished their life-histories to be reduced to a few data points and it frustrated “bad” scientists to have to attempt to do so. But for the blogger to end the analysis at this point is disingenuous and misleading. While there continues to be debate about polar bear pseudohermaphroditism (what constitutes abnormal sex organs, exact causes or chemical culprits, is it isolated or widespread), do we really have to wait for the exact chemical compound to be isolated for us to change our behaviors and is it really bad science that points out that we could, in fact, stop some chemical pollutants from being released into the atmosphere while we are trying to come up with the exact data point?
Hume’s drawing is also featured in Buckland’s Burning Ice: Art and Climate Change (2006), a book documenting the “hard work and adventures of all those who have been part of the Cape Farewell.” Next to art work and creative pieces by Cape Farewell participants are short written pieces that either give a context to the art (such as scientific studies or other research projects) or are artist statements on what aspect of the Arctic and climate change the artist is responding to or engaging with. Next to Hume’s “Hermaphrodite Polar Bear,” the only pink page (which catches the eye, which makes one pause) in the entire book contains some text that reads, in part:
It has recently been discovered that Arctic polar bears are being poisoned by certain chemical compounds, commonly used in Europe and North America. Significant deposits of these polybrominated diphenyls or PBDEs, used in flame-retardants for household furnishings, have been found in the fatty tissue of polar bears, especially in eastern Greenland and the Svalbard Islands. The team of scientists who are carrying out studies on the effects of PBDEs on polar bears are concerned because in tests these chemical compounds attack the sex and thyroid glands, motor skills and brain function of laboratory animals. Evidence also suggests that compounds similar to PBDEs have contributed to the astonishingly high rate of hermaphroditism in polar bears. Around one in fifty female bears in Svalbard displays both male and female sex organs.
Citing a study from 2005 (“Brominated Flame Retardants in Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) from Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, East Greenland, and Svalbard” in Environmental Science and Technology, 40.2 (2006): 449-455), the accompanying text persuasively uses relevant scientific studies to argue that bioaccumulation up the food chain is happening and chemicals that do not arise in the Arctic are being found in the bodies of arctic residents (both human and animal). There is such a thing as bad science, but it is not science that is reflexive about how it constitutes people and animals in the world and the world with people and animals in it.
After the Neutrality Ideal: Science, Politics, and “Strong Objectivity.” SANDRA HARDING; SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Fall 1992)
While looking for more information about Gary Hume’s painting, “Hermaphrodite Polar Bear,” I came across a blog that I knew, right away, I should not visit. But I’ve never been able to back down once curiosity is engaged despite the possibility of inflicted damage (what one might call the masochistic addiction of research, maybe?). I knew from the brief Google search description of this site that I would vehemently disagree with the writer and the intensity of the already rising antipathy took me aback. I decided I needed to figure out why I was so against her position and, moreover, what exactly my position was or if I even had a position and wasn’t just reacting to poor writing.
I will write my response in three posts: the first on the art of the picture in question, the second on the science of what the picture represents and the third on the picture’s wider cultural context in relation to the Arctic.
This is the painting that caught both our attention:
Following this picture, this is what the blogger comments:
A few things immediately leap to mind, one of which is exactly how he managed to gain that unique perspective of a polar bears [sic] nether regions, and the other is how pseudohermaphroditism in polar bears has a relation to climate change? Last time I checked we were all getting freaked out by endocrine disruptors condensing over the poles then concentrating up the food chain. We can’t decide on exactly which endocrine disrupting chemical pollutant is the big nasty (it depends on whats [sic] trendy in the research community at a given time) and don’t exactly have comparative data going back very far, but no matter! Either way I’m pretty sure that only the truly die-hard hysterics have somehow tried to pin this on climate change.
In a future post I’ll look at the research into the effects of endocrine disruptors in the Arctic (that blog’s motivation, after all, is “The thoughts of a medical student cranky about bad science, especially that of Anthropogenic Global Warming”), but here I want to address the painting itself, because I think at least part of the blogger’s reaction isn’t to what she might term “bad science”—it is a piece of art that does not directly reference any scientific study—but to the piece itself.
The painting is shocking. It graphically portrays an exposed vagina with what appear to be testes alongside. We see the underside of the bear’s paws but her head is missing. The blogger’s first thought was “how [Hume] managed to gain that unique perspective of a polar bears [sic] nether regions,” but we can invert the spatial relation implied here. The viewer isn’t looking up at a polar bear’s genitalia, but down at them. The artist invokes two common tropes in science and art. The first is found in photographs of scientists and polar bears—the bear is spread-eagle on her front or back and the researchers are clustered around looking down on her, measuring the length of her vulva, clitoris, pseudo-penis or taking tissue, blood and fat samples. The bear is dead or tranquilized—inert, passive, controlled. This is a position of complete submission in the face of a dominant order that the research subject has no control to change.
The second trope is the representation of “headless women” in art. While it is rather novel to see a polar bear depicted in this manner, it is not a new way to represent women. I did not care to delve too deeply into pornographic pictures of women taken from a low angle to emphasize their sex (feel free to do your own research here), but a cursory look for this trope in art did not come back with slim pickings. The surrealists loved headless women—Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp to name just two—but headless women were found in art long before them. An iconic statue of a headless woman is a progenitor to these artists—the Nike of Samothrace. On her Wikipedia page, it states: “Nike of Samothrace is seen as an iconic depiction of triumphant spirit and of the divine momentarily coming face to face with man. It is possible, however, that the power of the work is enhanced by the very fact that the head and arms are missing.” In a recent article on gender, markets and consumption, Jonathan E. Schroeder and Janet L. Borgerson take up this propensity to portray women without their heads:
In a recent Burberrys ad…a headless woman is shown modeling a kilt. Her body inexplicably ends at her neck, resembling a headless mannequin. Although the technique is useful to advertisers because it allows the consumer to project her own identity onto the model, it has serious implications in the larger context of female cultural identity. The woman’s image has been chopped up, decapitated, dismembered. Women who are portrayed without heads not only suffer actual violence implied by the act of decapitation, but also symbolic violence by erasure of identity and intelligence. Intelligence, personality, and individuality are central aspects of human identity, and when women are denied these through representational practice they become less human.
While their end point comes perhaps a little too swiftly and heavy handedly, take these three following pictures, the first mannequins for sale, the second a supposedly “artistic” endeavor, the third an advertisement:
Headless women as art is not in the past, it is not old news. It continues in advertising and shows up in a recent photography exhibit that pays express homage to Max Ernst’s “100 Headless Women” (Max Snow’s exhibit of the same name opened at the Kathleen Cullen Gallery in New York in February and depicts topless women with their heads covered in black “censor” bars). Headless women are considered erotic and feature in many pornographic films and photographs. Women who take pictures of themselves nude or semi-nude and post them to photo-sharing websites often keep their heads out of the frame or obscured in some manner (while this might have to do with privacy or feelings of shame, it could also be argued that it has become a generic staple to female erotic pictures).
Why go into a brief and somewhat schematic history of women in art to discuss a picture of a polar bear? Because intentionally or not, Gary Hume explicitly references this history in how he displays the polar bear for consumption by a viewing public. I bring up intentionality only to say that outside of an artist statement about what was going through his head as he drew the polar bear, we can only infer that he either meant to reference this history or the history is so resonant that this was the most powerful position from which to realize his vision. Either way, it really doesn’t matter.
Although I have to admit, I really would love to know the intentionality here (a dress made from fabric featuring the “Hermaphrodite Polar Bear”):
It is a shocking picture (the original one of the polar bear, not the dress) because it is explicitly pornographic. We are voyeurs in a position of dominance gazing at a passive female and the picture elicits a reaction: discomfort, titillation, horror, fascination, disgust, desire.
But there is something wrong about the picture and it is not that it is a polar bear instead of a human woman (in the third installment, I will discuss the close ties between humans and bears). It is because this female has testicles. This female might not actually be female, we may be viewing a male in the position of submission—we, the viewers, are more confused than the artist, our understanding of art and science best exemplified in representations of passive women by active men (or passive polar bears encircled by active scientists), is suddenly undermined, turned over, thrown back at us. In our confusion and dismay at the failure of conventions, which allow us to know what something means, we may lash out at the artist, the painting, the art world, the often ambiguous complexity of competing scientific research, or the group that allowed such a painting to come into existence, The Cape Farewell Project (which is the target of the blog in question).
I don’t always or readily understand many of the art projects that come out of Cape Farewell expeditions. I am puzzled, indifferent or skeptical—I often don’t get what exactly the artist or the project hopes to accomplish and the essays written to this effect seem to be, more often than not, at odds with the artistic outcomes. That said, I fully recognize that it is the limits of my imagination combined with a point at which my critical thinking becomes lazy—I have yet to go through the rigorous and strenuous task of actual engagement. But I will not dismiss David Buckland’s project of projecting phrases from Gretel Ehrlich’s book, The Future of Ice (a member of the first Cape Farewell expedition), onto ice walls and glaciers. For Buckland, the act of projecting the lighted words is a moment of discovery, an awakening to new knowledge, to becoming something other than what he was before: “The projections pierced the icy surface of the glacier. At times the projection disappeared into the glacier and at others it reflected clearly, it was amazing to discover so many different kinds of ice.”
This is art—it changes the artist in the practice and it asks the viewer to be changed in the experience of the final piece. Change can be frightening, it is difficult and the outcomes uncertain. Necessarily there are no blueprints, conventions, or genre frameworks to see us to the other side. Adaptation is never easy and free of cost, for polar bears or humans.