What would it mean to really write animals, rocks, and steam engines as characters in a novel or a poem? In Vibrant Matter Jane Bennett argues that a certain amount of animism and anthropocentrism is unavoidable when discussing nonhuman human entities. Bogost makes a similar point in his forthcoming Alien Phenomenology. We can’t avoid talking about nonhuman entities through allusion that deploys human-like qualities. However, there is, no doubt, good and bad animisms. All too often the writing of animals is patronizing, tending towards Disney territory. The animal qua animal disappears altogether and we’re left with a mouse that is just a human. Is there really anything mouse-like in Ratatoulli? WALL-E fairs a little bit better in alluding to robot-life, yet still largely fails. 2001 gets close to the sheer alien being of the computer in the character of HAL, yet is nonetheless depicted from the perspective of the humans encountering it with horror. Calvino presents a promising alternative, depicting what the life of a particle might be like in T Zero, just as Abbot manages to genuinely allude to the life of two-dimensional shapes in Flatland. Then, of course, there is the horror of Lovecraft, yet his tentacley creatures always seem withdrawn and without a perspective of their own. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars is a genuine character in his Mars Trilogy. Can we imagine a literature that places human and nonhuman actors on equal footing, where all are genuine characters or– in Burke’s terminology –agents without falling into patronizing prose that treats nonhumans as “poor in world”? Back to grading.
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