In Bodily Natures (2010), Stacy Alaimo argues for an understanding of the human self/body as inherently and deeply interconnected with the environment. By doing this, there will be a “profound shift” in our understanding of our subjectivity. Where there was once a clear, bounded human subject, there is now a material self that is tangled with outside networks that are “economic, political, cultural, scientific, and substantial” (20). By adopting what she terms a “trans-corporeal” stance, we become more aware of the “nearly unrecognizable ethics” that forces us to investigate the material/economic/cultural systems that are potentially harmful to life (18).

Notes & Quotes

  • Alaimo contends with the fact that we live in a world of “simulacra and slick public relations campaigns” that cause us to be more focused on image rather than substance (18). She analyzes the “pink washing” done by the pink ribbon campaign to “raise awareness” about breast cancer, which is often adopted by companies whose products add to the epidemic (18-19). This is all symptomatic of the problem that people living in today’s “risk society” need to have scientific knowledge that the average person doesn’t have access to in order to understand the risks they take every day (19). Instead, we are made to believe in the false image of the impenetrable human body. Alaimo prefers the more authentic trans-corporeal view of the substance of the body:
  • Specifically, Bodily Natures expires the interconnections, interchanges, and transits between human bodies and nonhuman natures. By attending to the material interconnections between the human and the more-than-human world, it may be possible to conjure an ethics lurking in an idiomatic definition of matter (or the matter)…Concern and wonder converge when the context for ethics becomes not merely social but material- the emergent, ultimately unmappable landscapes of interacting biological, climatic, economic, and political forces…Imagining human corporeality as trans-corporeality, in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world, underlines the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from “the environment.” (2)

  • …Harold Fromm gives this arresting image of what I’m calling trans-corporeality: “The ‘environment,’ as we now apprehend it, runs right through us in endless waves, and if we were to watch ourselves via some ideal microscopic time-lapse video, we would see water, air, food, microbes, toxins entering our bodies as we shed, excrete, and exhale our processed materials back out” (2). Fromm argues that the “environment” “looks more and more to be the very substance of human existence in the world” (ibid.). (11)

I especially like this idea of the permeable human body, not only because it forces us to examine our interaction and place within the environment closer, but it also directly connects to Theresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect, which also posits that the human body is porous, adding that it is prone to experience energy enhancement or depletion via the influence of other humans and the environment. For Brennan, the physical influence comes into the body by means of affect, which she defines as “the physiological shift accompanying a judgement” which contains an “energetic dimension” (5-6).  Although Brennan focuses more on the transmission of affect amongst human bodies rather than between the environment and the human body, the role of the atmosphere in her theory is significant. According to Brennan, “the energetic affects of others enter the person, and the person’s affects, in turn, are transmitted to the environment” (8). In defining how this movement works, Brennan suggests that the senses are key players in affective transmission. For Brennan, scent is the most powerful of the senses in transmitting affects because an odor can become “a vehicle for effecting changes in another’s hormonal (hence affective) composition” (10). She further contends that smelling is equivalent to consuming and that something is added within our bodies in the process of smelling the atmosphere (68-9). Touch, hearing, and sight are also listed in The Transmission of Affect as methods of affective transmission, however, these senses are not as powerful as smell. She explains that they all are “matters of vibration” but that they vibrate at different frequencies (70-1). Brennan believes that these senses “vibrate” within and minutely alter the human body. Alaimo is more interested in the way that the human body is hurt and does not blatantly bring up affect, however, both come at this same question of how the human subject is physically altered by the material environment. I think this is vital for gothic and horror literature (not just eco-gothic and eco-horror), which so deeply relies on environment and space. What does it mean for the human body to enter a “haunted” house or a crime scene? Do past actions of humans (i.e.: murder, rape, pollution, etc.) also affect the physical space, just as we are impacted by it?

  • She also brings class and race into her discussion of environment, stating that there are “material, often place-based inequalities” (29):
  • Subject to regimes of ever-increasing ‘efficiency,’ the body of the worker was managed like other ‘natural resources.’…we could say that the workers’ bodies are not only the sites of the direct application of power, but permeable sites that are forever transformed by the substances and forces- asbestos, coal dust, radiation, that penetrate them. (30)

She quotes Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins who state that “…your body knows your class position…” and adds that “what the body of the worker can reveal” is “the ‘codetermination’ of biological and social causes, asserting that ‘whereas human sociality is itself a consequence of our received biology, human biology is a socialized biology'(36)” (27).  Thinking of my other lists, I believe that Charles Dickens presents this concept really brilliantly in a number of his novels, but in the one I’m currently reading for my Victorian list, Hard Times, it’s exceptionally clear in the character of Stephen Blackpool, who works at the mill and is described as constantly bent due to the nature of his work. This idea of the “worker’s body” and that the “body knows your class” also makes me wonder about zombies and serial killers in horror films: is the zombie a socialized body? In Dawn of the Dead, this idea is explored when the zombies naturally return to the mall, the place that they constantly went to in their “normal” life. Is the serial killer’s psychotic brain socialized and/or a product of its environment (Peter Vronsky thinks so)?

  • Finally, Alaimo actually brings up eco-horror films! She notes how popular opinion seems to continue to believe that environmental issues remain separate and “containable” issues that don’t have a direct impact on the human individual (16). She partly supports this idea by pointing to popular horror films “shock us” with human-animal hybrids, but always end with the triumph of humanity 1 Because of this popular fantasy that humans are separate from nature, Alaimo attests that it makes it difficult for humans to deal with environmental ethics in a realistic way. However, she argues that “trans-corporeal subjects must also relinquish mastery as they find themselves inextricably part of the flux and flow of the world that others would presume to master” (17). This acceptance that we cannot control the environment would be difficult for the ecophobic,as defined by Simon Estok, to handle. The ecophobic wants to master, control, and clean up nature, however, the irony here is that, the more we control nature, the more chaotic it becomes.
Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press, 2004.
  1. I’d argue this isn’t always the case… for example, in Cronenberg’s The Fly, although Veronica and Stathis manage to escape and kill BrundleFly, Seth Brundle dies as a hopeless fly-human-machine hybrid. Prior to his final change and death, Seth looses a battle over his own body when the fly genes present in his body grow stronger and more pronounced than his human genes.

Bodily Natures (2010) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.