Wednesday 2 September 2009


Since I started keeping track several days ago, I’ve found a squirrel on the porch screen, a pouncing lion in the forest canopy on the far bank of the Mississippi River, and a camel on my bedroom wall. Each of these was a detailed fabrication that some pattern recognition engine in my brain discovered amidst the ambient patterns in the screen lint, the undulating foliage, and the wall plaster – but each was also fully recognizable: each time I mentioned that I’d found, say, a camel, my husband was newly surprised at how clearly he, too, could see it once it was pointed out. Granted, I’ve had a lot of practice sussing out cloud shapes from grassy hillsides, but as I’ve discovered the latent menagerie in my everyday surroundings, I’ve become increasingly interested in the function that this fabrication serves.

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.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree. Personification goes well beyond literature; humans personify everything. A few common examples: "my stupid car wouldn't start this morning," "mother nature is smiling on us today," or "my computer has a virus." I think it's a cognitive necessity to project agency and causality on our interactions with the world. Personification helps us define our place.

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

I like this idea of using personification in relation to defining place (as you may imagine) -- and I'm also curious about how we use personification to define and explore our place within things like institutional structures.

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