Friday, 17 January 2014

Drunk octopus fixing for a fight? 
Is this a metal double-hooked hanger? Or is it a drunk octopus looking for a fight?

Humans are suckers for perceiving the most non human objects as having humanistic attributes. Currently, I'm researching anthropomorphism: the tendency to attribute real or imagined behaviour of non human objects or animals with humanlike characteristics. This hook is a good example because not only do we see the object as resembling an animal, the octopus with its fairly easily attributed head shape and tentacles, our cognition also takes in the screws and position of the metal adding another layer  and assimilating it with human traits of drunkenness and aggression. It's a massively intriguing and hugely broad area to research and as yet I am just chipping at the very tip of the iceberg. My hope, once I've got to grips with it - researched some of the reasons behind our tendency to anthropomorphise and in what circumstances - is to write a complete collection of short stories exploring these ideas. The subject reaches out in so many directions, encompassing our interactions with animals, objects, deities, technology and robotics. It is fascinating stuff.

As well as the academic side of research I'm also seeking strong examples from other writers using anthropomorphism in their stories. At the moment, I'm reading The Snow Child (Headline, 2012) by Eowyn Ivey, about a little girl who mysteriously appears the day after a childless Alaskan couple build a snow girl in their backyard. It's a really good example and beautifully handled, especially in reference to folklore and intertextual understanding of other similar narratives. But, at times, it feels a little slow and I wonder whether it would have benefitted from a hearty edit.

This week's appointed short story reading is Carys Davies' Some New Ambush (Salt, 2007), which I suppose is a bit of a cheat, since I've read it already, albeit quite a long time ago. But it's a cracker of a short story collection, so definitely deserves a reread. There are two or three stories in it which particularly strike me as having something anthropomorphic about them. 'Boot', is the story of a dog who has become too assertive within a family dynamic and needs to be taken "firmly, properly in hand." The narrator says people tell her and her husband, Ian, that "I had confused him and misled him into thinking he was important... I had misled Boot into thinking he was Ian." Another good example is 'In Skokie' which, with admirable brevity, tells of a stolen car. The distraught husband, Myron, goes around "taping up posters, the way people do when they have lost a cat or a child." The narrator leans differently, but equally, anthropomorphically towards the vehicle: "I keep thinking about that old Chevrolet, slouching down the street... taking in the sights... Myron's car, making a break for it." Brilliant stuff. There's also a slag heap in 'The Pied Piper' that to me seems to have anthropomorphic qualities; "people said they could hear [it] groaning and shifting in the night, as if it were trying to get comfortable."

Finally, if you enjoyed the drunk octopus, there is a whole website of delightfully silly household/non human objects with a humanistic appearance here. You can even submit your own, should you spot any.

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