Saw an interesting lecture today by a writer/cultural historian named Rachel Poliquin about the history of taxidermy and its legacy in contemporary art.  She’s curated an exhibit that just opened in Vancouver, where the museum has had sitting in its basement a collection of old taxidermy that no one wanted to see for 50 years.  So Poliquin got a grant to refurbish and re-purpose this creepy, abandoned old collection.

She didn’t mention the fact, but could’ve, that the most famous symbol of the excesses of contemporary conceptual art and the art market is Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” a taxidermy tiger shark preserved in a tank.  It’s interesting that this is so, that an art-form (or whatever it is) so strongly associated with archaic old Victorian practices became the signature of 21st century conceptual art.

One of Poliquin’s points I especially liked was that a shoe or an upholstered arm-chair is, essentially, taxidermy.  Abstract taxidermy, maybe.  We make a lot of things out of animal skins.  When they look enough like animals, we call them taxidermy.

What kind of sign is a taxidermy animal?  Is it indexical, iconic?  A taxidermy fox is often taken to represent the fox species, and so is an iconic sign of the larger group and concept.  But it is also indexical, a representation of the individual animal that it was.  In fact it is presented not as a sign but as the thing itself.

Here’s a bit of the handiwork of my favorite taxidermist, the Victorian Walter Potter:


I’m looking forward to Rachel Poliquin’s book Taxidermy and Longing which will supposed be published by Harvard UP in 2010.  Here’s her website.

Full of Kitten

I read an interesting book this week by a political theorist named Jane Bennett called The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics.  It’s basically an argument against the Weberian theory that modern life is characterized above all by “disenchantment.”  One of the categories of modern “enchantment” she considers concerns what she calls cross- or inter-species encounters:

Their magic lies in their mobility, that is, in their capacity to travel, fly, or transform themselves; in their morphing transits…. Metamorphosing creatures enact the very possibility of change; their presence carries with it the trace of dangerous but also exciting and exhilarating migrations.  To live among or as a crossing is to have motion called to mind, and this reminding is also a somatic event.  My hunch is this: hybrids enchant for the same reason that moving one’s body in space can carry one away — think of dancing or the rush after a hard push on the swing.

Living with cats allows a kind of cross-species enchantment.  Everything in the house that means one thing for us, the people, means something different for the cats: couch, rug, chair are caves and bridges; bottle cap, shoe, sweater are prey or toy.  Having cats in the house means continual unexpected transformation and movement.  I think maybe there’s something fundamentally anti-depressant in this quality, the way the inert domestic space is animated and enlivened by surprising movements, leaps and jumps, stretches.  (And sounds: light thumps, coos, tussles, mieows.)  Anywhere you look you might find a creature prowling or patrolling; motion is called to mind.  This can be true of any domestic pet allowed free run of the house, but compared to dogs, cats seem to me more unpredictably other in their species-being and habits, in their own world.

I put my foot out yesterday to push down a corner of the rug that had bunched up, and it turned out that Pot Luck was curled up inside it.

The other day Celie picked up both cats on the porch to bring them inside and asked me to open the door: “I’m full of kitten,” she said.

Christopher Smart:

For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion….

For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.

Neko Case “People Got a Lotta Nerve”

Neko Case is offering a free download of the first single, “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” from her new album (Middle Cyclone, due out March 3), and her record label is donating $5 to Best Friends Animal Society for every blog that re-posts it.  So, I am doing so: you can download the song here.  Here’s the explanation of the deal.  I love Neko Case, can’t get enough of her spooky, haunting voice.
The song features an elephant in a zoo, an Orca in a tank, and maybe a man-eating tiger? It’s about carnivorous animals and the way human beings try to control them and contain their instinctive violence.  “I’m a man-eater, but still you’re surprised when I eat you…. It will end again in bullets fired.”  Makes me think of Rilke’s “The Panther” and John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals.”  Also of the tiger that an archaeologist friend of ours had in her lab for her students to dissect; it had escaped from its owner at a highway rest stop in Illinois, and was shot to death by state troopers (and then made its way to the lab).
I like the song a lot, but hope Neko can live with the inevitable Hall & Oates references.

Battery-operated Guinea Pig Unfortunately Does Not Poop

There’s this one detail from the NY Times article “Our Love Affair With Shopping Malls is on the Rocks” that Sarah and I were laughing about because it seemed such a sadly apt emblem for the U.S. economy.

The economic crisis has caused shoppers to go into an essentials-only mode. But the mall has never trafficked in essentials. You can’t, for instance, fill a prescription at the Mall of America, because it doesn’t have a pharmacy. You can, however, buy a vanilla hazelnut fragrance candle in the shape of a miniature cooking skillet. Or a $13 baseball hat that looks as though it’s made of cheddar cheese. A store called Corda-Roy’s sells a variety of bean bags that convert into beds. Magnet Max sells a battery-operated guinea pig that runs continuously on a spinning exercise wheel.

It’s the battery-operated guinea pig that stuck in my mind as a little icon of pointless/wasteful U.S consumerism (and maybe of the U.S. consumer too).  We went on a post-Xmas expedition to the Indianapolis “Fashion Mall” a few weeks ago and I had the thought that 80% of what was on offer constituted a sort of money-laundering operation, just in the sense that it really only exists in order to have something to spend your money on.  (The heavily marked-down Christmas gifts and paraphernalia especially conveyed this impression.)

A different article in today’s Times mentions the popular iPhone application iFart: “as you can pretty much deduce from the name, it enables your $200 to $300 mobile device to emit a variety of noises simulating flatulence.”  Compared to the vanilla hazelnut fragrance candles in the shape of a miniature cooking skillet, etc., though, at least the iFart application is cheap (99 cents) and will not end up in a landfill.

By the way, speaking of guinea pigs, when we got home last night at 8:30 or so we stepped over a big garbage bag in front of our front door.  It says something about our housekeeping that no one commented on it; I assumed it was something Sarah had left there for some reason.  As soon as we got in the door, the phone rang; it was Steve across the street letting us know that the bag contained a load of guinea pig poop from their pets, which Sarah covets for our backyard compost heap.  There’s quite a lot of traffic in guinea pig poop between the two households, although unfortunately Steve will not accept the contents of Pot Luck and Daisy’s litter box in exchange.

Bad Parenting moment #1016

Celie was trying to sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and couldn’t remember all the words.  I couldn’t either, so I found a couple video versions of it on Youtube.  I left for 5 minutes and came back to find C&I watching Pokemon cartoon footage of creatures hitting one another in the face to a soundtrack of Akon’s “Smack That.”  I’m sure they couldn’t make out any of the lyrics, at least (one sample: “The way she climbs up and down them poles/ Looking like one of them putty-cat dolls”).

Note to self: no unmonitored Youtube time allowed.

Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.
It followed her to school one day, which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play, to see a lamb at school.
And so the teacher turned it out, but still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about till Mary did appear.
“Why does the lamb love Mary so?” the eager children cry;
“Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know” the teacher did reply.

It’s an interesting fantasy of pure and total reciprocal love between child and animal.  What’s the answer to why the lamb loves Mary?  Just reverse the subject and object: Mary loves the lamb.  The trip to school is a ritual of maturation and development away from infancy, but the lamb remains as a disruptive “lingering” remnant of the pure animal love of babyhood.  I suppose the lamb is probably a Jesus type, too, which means the rhyme may be an allegory of the tension of spiritual faith in the rational schoolroom.

No strip-club pussy-cat dolls allowed at school, either.

By the way, the words to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” were apparently the first recorded by Edison on a tinfoil phonograph.

More Animal Slaughter in the Wizard of Oz


Just had to write again about the amazing emphasis on animal slaughter in The Wizard of Oz.  It’s practically like Tintin in the Congo (in which the jungle animal body count increases steadily throughout).

Here are a few scenes from the climactic Chapter 12, “The Search for the Wicked Witch,” as she sends out waves of her minion creatures to attack Dorothy & co.

First wolves:

He seized his axe, which he had made very sharp, and as the leader of the wolves came on the Tin Woodman swung his arm and chopped the wolf’s head from its body, so that it immediately died. As soon as he could raise his axe another wolf came up, and he also fell under the sharp edge of the Tin Woodman’s weapon. There were forty wolves, and forty times a wolf was killed, so that at last they all lay dead in a heap before the Woodman.

Then he put down his axe and sat beside the Scarecrow, who said, “It was a good fight, friend.”

Now crows, giving the Scarecrow a chance to show his stuff:

The King Crow flew at the Scarecrow, who caught it by the head and twisted its neck until it died. And then another crow flew at him, and the Scarecrow twisted its neck also. There were forty crows, and forty times the Scarecrow twisted a neck, until at last all were lying dead beside him. Then he called to his companions to rise, and again they went upon their journey.

And how about some insects?

The bees came and found no one but the Woodman to sting, so they flew at him and broke off all their stings against the tin, without hurting the Woodman at all. And as bees cannot live when their stings are broken that was the end of the black bees, and they lay scattered thick about the Woodman, like little heaps of fine coal.

Finally, the Witch sends off a herd of buffalo, which Dorothy herself dispatches, shooting each one through the eye with a long-barreled rifle.  (Just kidding.)

It all has a distinct Manifest Destiny, conquest-of-the-Western-wilderness feel to it.

Killing a Cat to Save a Mouse in the Wizard of Oz


We’ve been reading the girls The Wizard of Oz.  They are entranced by it, especially in this neat Dover reprint that includes all of the original gorgeous W.W. Denslow illustrations and plates (many of the pages of text are printed over/under illustrations, which creates a dazzling effect).

You probably know some of the disturbing/controversial facts about L. Frank Baum, such as his belief that Native American should be absolutely exterminated.  This from an 1890 newspaper editorial:

The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings…

Yikes!  Of course, as I read the novel, my lit-crit gears are continually turning to try to think about what kind of “natives” the Munchkins are supposed to be, whether Oz is some kind of native sovereign, how his power in the city-state of the Emerald City relates to the Witches’ authority over the regional territories, whether the various colors in Oz (yellow, green, blue) are intended to represent an alternative racial system, etc. etc.  I spare Celie and Iris these speculations, however.

It’s a very weird book, much more so than the movie.

I just wanted to make one point here about a hilariously/disturbingly strange moment regarding animal welfare.  I’ll quote from chapter nine:

The Tin Woodman was about to reply when he heard a low growl, and turning his head (which worked beautifully on hinges) he saw a strange beast come bounding over the grass toward them. It was, indeed, a great yellow Wildcat, and the Woodman thought it must be chasing something, for its ears were lying close to its head and its mouth was wide open, showing two rows of ugly teeth, while its red eyes glowed like balls of fire. As it came nearer the Tin Woodman saw that running before the beast was a little gray field mouse, and although he had no heart he knew it was wrong for the Wildcat to try to kill such a pretty, harmless creature.

Ok, that sound reasonable, so the Tin Woodman is going to grab the mouse, or stop the cat from chasing it, right?

Actually, he takes a somewhat more aggressive approach:

So the Woodman raised his axe, and as the Wildcat ran by he gave it a quick blow that cut the beast’s head clean off from its body, and it rolled over at his feet in two pieces.

Well, I guess that seems fair.  Maybe he does have a heart, after all!

Wonder why they didn’t include that scene in the movie.

I remember being amazed to learn from Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster that in the early twentieth century, environmentalist groups like the Sierra Club took the position that predator animals like mountain lions were inherently malign & should be destroyed.  Hey, after all, they kill all those sweet bunnies and mice, right?

C&I were actually also a bit troubled by the scene where the ruthless animal-killer the Tin Woodman sends the two fierce Kalidahs to their deaths at the bottom of a ravine.   Iris brought it up suddenly the next day, that although the story said they were mean & scary, in the illustration, they “looked nice” as they were falling:


Perhaps the “twin”-ness of the Kalidahs, so much like Celie and Iris or Pot Luck and Daisy, hit close to home.

Here a cool Library of Congress online exhibit on Baum, Denslow & Oz.

Kitten Thinks of Nothing But Murder All Day

That’s a funny Onion t-shirt (I think it may originally have been a headline with no article, just a photo — brilliant).  It definitely evokes Pot Luck these days.  In other words, he is thriving: he’s a real tussling, pouncing, biting fighting kitty now.  He’s off the bottle and eats slightly diluted canned food in a dish.  He still lives in the bathtub but usually when we’re home we let him wander around.

My pick for the funniest thing he does is tussle with my Croc.  I’m not sure why he likes/hates it so much — I suspect that the rubber is a nice consistency to bite.  He stalks it and ends up entirely inside it, kicking and squirming, as if it’s a little boat or space ship or something.

Another hilarious thing is when he’s in the middle of some energetic tussling, suddenly runs out of steam and falls asleep lying on his back with his paws in the air.

Here’s a nicely diabolical shot (taken by my laptop as Sarah’s camera charger has been misplaced):

McCain/Palin vs. Bears

The Republicans are now officially the Stephen Colbert party as they rally around a tough anti-bear platform.

“We’re not going to spend $3 million of your tax dollars to study the DNA of bears in Montana,” McCain continued. “I don’t know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue, but …”

As Gail Collins points out,

This is an old line… But even if it was the biggest waste of $3 million in history — even if it was money to sedate grizzlies so hairdressers could apply attractive red tints to their fur — do we want a candidate for president of the United States obsessing about it?

It’s now evident that McCain chose Palin as his Soul Mate in part due to her equally fierce anti-bear policies.  As Palin wrote in a January 2008 Op-Ed in the NY Times (weird! didn’t remember that one),

This month, the secretary of the interior is expected to rule on whether polar bears should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. I strongly believe that adding them to the list is the wrong move at this time…..The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, has argued that global warming and the reduction of polar ice severely threatens the bears’ habitat and their existence. In fact, there is insufficient evidence that polar bears are in danger of becoming extinct within the foreseeable future.

Palin’s position reminds me of the administration torture policy, where failure to become fully extinct in the foreseeable future is analogous to failure to die, and anything below that standard falls short of torture or environmental crisis.  Anyway, presumably these positions were inspired by Stephen Colbert’s well-known “arctophobia, the fear of bears,” which he describes as “giant, marauding, godless killing machines.”

Maybe this all has some encoded relationship to the Russia-Georgia conflict and a symbolic revival of Cold War politics?