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Reading Zoos in the Age of the Anthropocene

Project Outline

According to a report published in October 2018 by the World Wildlife Fund, the Earth has lost nearly two thirds of its wildlife since 1970. We are, in other words, in the midst of a global mass extinction event, caused, in large part, by a single species: Homo Sapiens. Because of the disproportionately vast impact that humans are having on the planet, scientists now argue that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Far from being merely a technical term used by geologists, however, the Anthropocene is above all an idea or narrative that marks a shift in the way we think and talk about the relationship between humans and the natural world.

One of the implications of this shift is that it is no longer possible to separate natural history from human history. The idea that nature has a history and changes over time is itself only about 200 years old. The same period has seen the establishment of the natural history museum and the modern zoo, institutions whose purpose is to display and preserve that history. The rise of these institutions coincides with the Industrial Revolution and Western imperialism, which in turn is tied to the human transformation of the planet now culminating in the catastrophic loss of biodiversity predicted by the WWF. Thus, the history of the Anthropocene is written in the history of these institutions.

The aim of this project is to explore the past, present, and future of humanity’s relationship to nature—or, more specifically, how that relationship has been represented and imagined in cultural media such as literature and film, and how it is being reimagined today, in the context of the Anthropocene.

“Every aspect of humanity’s relationship with nature can be perceived through the bars of the zoological garden […]. To tour the cages of a zoo is to understand the society that erected them.”

—Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West (2002), p. 13.

The project is conceived as a comparative study of representations of zoos and at zoos, focusing on Western Europe and North America in the past two decades, approximately the period in which the term “Anthropocene” was coined and has gained currency outside scientific circles.

There are three components to the study: zoos themselves, literary and cinematic representations of zoos, and the discourse on the Anthropocene. My approach to each of these hinges on the role of representation and imagination, and can be summarised in the following three basic premises:

  1. The zoo is not only a physical space where humans encounter exotic animals, but also a space of the imagination which both mirrors and shapes the broader cultural understanding of the natural world: the representation of nature it offers is neither neutral nor transparent, but mediated and ideologically charged.
  2. Literature, art, and film are likewise spaces of the imagination, and, like the zoo, have also always been “more-than-human” spaces. Humans have always used animal signs to chart “the experience of the world” (Berger), from the earliest cave paintings to fables to Disney animation. Literature, art, and film are sites where the place of the human in the world is constantly redefined and re-presented. In the past two centuries, whenever the human–animal relationship has been called into question, e.g. around 1900 in the wake of Darwin and Freud, or in the 1960s in the context of environmentalism and the civil rights movement, writers and artists have looked to the zoo as a source of inspiration and an object of reflection. This, I argue, is happening again today, in the context of the Anthropocene.
  3. Because processes like extinction and climate change occur at a rate that is not perceptible to individual human beings, one of the main challenges with regard to the Anthropocene is how to represent it in a way that makes it comprehensible at a human scale. Moreover, this is a prerequisite for imagining an alternative, multi-species (more-than-human) future. Literature and the zoo are also engaged in this process: they must both find ways of making this phenomenon graspable and urgent for readers and visitors and in so doing also play an active role in shaping the discourse itself.

The key research questions are: How are literary and cinematic representations reflecting changing attitudes toward the natural world? And, conversely, how are such representations shaping conceptions of the nature-culture relationship? Finally, how do literature and the zoo, conceived as more-than-human spaces of the imagination, help us to imagine alternative, multispecies futures?