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On May 1st, Kristy Strange will be talking to us about ‘Ecofeminism and the Anthropocene in contemporary Female Gothic’
This study examines the theory of Simon C. Estok’s theory of ecophobia – an idea rooted in the anthropocentric and androcentric fear of a threatening and vengeful Nature – through the lens of ecofeminism in contemporary Female Gothic texts. I argue that contemporary women writers use the environment, specifically fluid spaces represented by bodies of water, in their novels to queer normative binary constructs of gender and challenge the categorisation of Othered bodies. These authors demonstrate that the fear and anxieties of feminine corporeality within the environment differs from the androcentric fear of a threatening and vengeful Nature. Instead, the overwhelming presence of toxic masculinity and its desire for domination results in the production of monstrosity and consequential fear for feminine bodies within organic ecological spaces. Consideration of ecofeminism is imperative to better understand twenty-first-century society; particularly, in relation to the rapidity and severity of the current climate crisis alongside the emergence of fourth-wave feminism. This study emphasizes the critical necessity of addressing the gendered corporeality of women and the environment to establish a well-rounded theory of ecophobia that extends beyond the Anthropocene to include discussions on the impact of androcentric constructs.
On May 2nd, we’re joined by Lorenz Hindrichsen for a class on Birth of a Monster: The Gothicizing of Insects in Fuseli, Blake and Mary Shelley
Insects have been typecast as insentient villains in Gothic literature and film for more than a century, a representational practice rooted in late Victorian novels such as Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) but also linked to Romantic precursors like Fuseli, Blake and Mary Shelley. While late nineteenth-century writers habitually deploy insect motifs to articulate political agendas (see Marsh’s demonizing of the Orient in The Beetle), the Romantics’ vilifying of certain insects seems more sparked by paradigm shifts in
science and entomology. Secularisation and technological progress (notably the availability of microscopes) raise unsettling ontological questions about the kinship of humans and animals which are frequently explored through insect topoi in Gothic literature and art.
In Titania Awakes, Surrounded by Attendant Fairies (1793-94) Fuseli counterbalances lithe fairies and ass-headed Bottom with a monstrous, sexualized ‘mothman’, thus lending an innocent, playful celebration of transformations more sinister undertones. Fuseli’s unusual Gothicizing of an insect (contrasting with the goblins and mammals he commonly relies on) suggest a violent rejection of the affinity of humans and insects which scientific entomologists are just beginning to articulate in that period.
William Blake in Ghost of the Flea (1819-20) fuses scientific entomology (Robert Hooke’s engraving of a flea), entomological allegory (notably his idiosyncratic notion of humans as larvae (‘worms’), longing for metamorphosis), and esoteric experience (an alleged vision of a humanoid flea) to construct a new stage villain lusting for human blood. Various iconographic cues (such as claw-like nails, an elongated tongue, right-to-left movement, a falling star) are echoed by the painting’s materiality, as red hues would have been achieved through carmine, derived from insect blood. Blake, who habitually punned on the
materiality of his prints (e.g. the ‘en-graving’ of grave sentences and visual graves in the Songs of Experience) might have been alerted to – and referencing – that fact.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) offers one of the most perplexing and overtly conceptual links of scientific entomology and Gothic tropes. In a key passage in the novel Victor Frankenstein encounter the Creature on a glacier and – bizarrely – derides him as a “vile insect”, a ludicrous claim if read literally (given their respective size) yet quite suggestive if read etymologically or in a scientific context. The Latin stem
in-sect (just like Greek en-tem) signifies ‘to cut up’, and articulates the idea of insects as artificial hybrids consisting of discrete parts, just like the Creature. Frankenstein’s curious boast also echoes the novel’s concerns with discourse and ethics (particularly Frankenstein’s relentless hostility towards his Creation), and verbalizes anxieties emerging from the scientific observation and representation of magnified insects in microscopes and print.
Taken collectively, these Romantic reimaginings of insects as ‘monsters’ address existential questions about the nature of scientific and cultural entomology and their underlying biases. The making of the Gothic allomorphic insect also reveals how fears and anxieties of the period shaped new modalities and tropes of otherness to deal with discomforting ramifications of major paradigm shifts in science and entomology