Reading Zoos in the Age of the Anthropocene

By Niels Bekkema
Niels Bekkema's stories

A research project using writing to organize political relationships among creatures, human and otherwise. 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:

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.
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.
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?

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1 March, 2022