This past weekend I attended NAVSA to present the little bit I have built on QGIS. I map nonhuman animals across Victorian fiction, along with their human companions. I incorporate various attributes into my database such as race, class, breed, gender, ability, etc., to explore why we write about nonhuman animals. Why do they appear in the spaces they do? Do they resist imperial and humanist/Enlightement ideology or are they complicit to it? How do they complicate or reify our notions of these attributes? These are just some of the questions that inspired this project.
I decided to present my first findings on Virginia Woolf’s Flush. It is admittedly not a Victorian text, but a Victorian narrative, in that the novel is a metabiographical text about Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush. This text is often thought of the courtship between Elizabeth and Robert as told through the eyes of their dog. My map contest this narrative. It does not tell a story of courtship between Elizabeth and Robert, but a story of courtship and resistance between the shared and inaccssible environment of a canine and his female human companion.
I received interesting questions and insights at this conference and was able to gauge where an audience’s interest lies—mainly in the intersection between gender and nonhumans. Folks seemed particularly intrigued by the connection between nonhuman animals and women. While there is a large amount of scholarship between these two identities, I think what piqued everyone’s interest was the separation this map presented between these two attributes. The results of my map illustrated that indeed these two identities are not as mutable as we tend to think they are. As a corollary, I posited that these findings can perhaps complicate our ideas of which bodies are sacrificial and how they fit into a larger socio-cultural and political rhetoric. From an ecofeminist theoretical perspective, Flush may be highlighting a narrative that pushes the urgency to concentrate on the potentiality of difference and distinguishing these two identities. It simultaneously illustrates these two persons to be relatively disempowered and vulnerable, but proposes resistance to a patriarchal and anthropocentric narrative through remarkably different methodologies. This thereby fractures notions of vulnerability and resistance from their conventionally engendered and species markers.
Along the lines of separating and individualizing these vectors, I spent the other half of my talk on the struggles of mapping Flush, given that his geographical space is illustrated (or veiled) through his sense of smell. By relocating his surroundings through a sense that is unfamiliar or marginalized for humans when it comes to pinpointing a particular environment (in that mapping is highly visual and doesn’t much rely on smell), I proposed that we can read my confusion as a method through which Flush resists contributing to narrative of empire building and escapes his indoctrination into a colonial space (as much as he is afforded to). Of course, this confusion ends once he is given as a gift to Elizabeth and thus adopted into the realm of pethood. Afterward, and as we might suspect given the close ties and high visibility of pets in western modernity, he is incredibly easy to map, until they move to Italy. Since Italy does not have the same cultural history with pets as England or America, I once again found it a site of intrigue that Flush is once again afforded a particular liberty to roam in a manner that we cannot easily map. Here his location, and consequently, his biography becomes increasingly ambiguous and rich, thereby pinpointing a narrative methodology that points to how nonhuman agency is displayed in Victorian narratives outside of humanist ideology or methodology.
It was refreshing not to spend the majority of my time defending why this research was worth the trouble. An audience of Victorianists and Digital Humanists appeared to already determine the value of this work and the lacuna upon which it is building. I say this is refreshing not to sound satirical or tired, but that this conference assured me that there is a desire for this kind of work in our field. This is always refreshing to hear for someone who is soon to face the gates of hell known as the job market.
I made quite a few fruitful connections, some of which are completely overwhelming. I was encouraged to contact a number of persons and teams working on digital projects. They were shocked to hear that I haven’t yet contacted Ryan Cordell or haven’t yet taken a course on R, which they suggested it is highly advisable I do. CRAP! *fingernail biting* They wanted to see a lot more and wanted a large array of metadata quickly, which again speaks to that desire for this research, but frightens me to bury my head in the sand for the rabbit hole I’ve dug for my lonesome self. Still, it’s more exciting than it is frightening or overwhelming. I easily see the benefits of taking R and revealing questions I do not expect when examining an expansive corpus. Now I just have to get over my fear of learning a language that is completely alien, not to mention the animosity that appears to be inherent between myself and technology.
It appears what was built to be a little side project is going to be an integral component in shaping my career. Who knew?