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The Genre of the Bear

March 1, 2014

(part one, part two, part three)

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.”

Further reading:

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.


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