In the field of naturalism writing, personification has come under heavy criticism during my lifetime. As a child, some of my favorite wall art were rather cheerful frogs and other wildlife that had been recognizably personified by the Maine artist Jake (Maurice) Day who became famous for animating Bambi – a rather personified deer. But by the turn of the century, ecologically minded naturalists had called this personification into question. Sure, Bambi was cute – and, yes, a long tradition of personification in children’s books, from Beatrix Potter to Dr. Suess, had cultivated the cultural mode of expression we think of as environmentalism.
Was this enviromentalism too people-centered? Deep ecologists and ethicists concerned about anthropocentrism asked whether we were loving charismatic fauna only when they reminded us of people. So I’ve been careful with the way I think about animals for the past several years. At the same time, I’ve noticed a fair amount of research pass through the pages of popular science publications about why we love animals who resemble people – particularly immature people. This research appears to be parsing some of the mechanisms by which personification, and particularly anthropomorphism, work.
In uncovering these functions, this research may help shed light on the motives that inspire fictional personfications – especially for those beyond the fable or moral tale. The more I observe personification and the attribution of agency, identity, and, indeed, whole scripts, to what otherwise be thought of as subjects without knowable agency, identity, or dialogue, the more I am fascinated by the way that personification exceeds the way it is often categorized as a literary trope, or a convenient tool for fictionalizing morals. In fact, and in contrast to an idea of humans merely projecting themselves onto everything else, personification appears to provide a view into the processes with which humans engage the world. When we notice ourselves personifying, we are not just catching ourselves in the act of projection, we may be witnessing the way we simulate our engagements with just about everything – in a social way.