Environmental Gothic Part One: The Fat of the Land

Posted by kevincorstorphine on June 17, 2011 in Dr Kevin Corstorphine, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , ,

A couple of years ago I found myself on a long haul flight watching, without a hint of irony, a very Gothic film with a heavily environmental message. It concerned a sentient robot stranded on a dead planet amidst the ruins of civilisation, and proceeded to portray a dystopian vision of the decadent remains of humanity, wallowing in their own corpulence, slaves to mega-corporations and a psychotic computer overlord. The film in question was Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E (2008). Wall-E revolves around the discovery of the first plant to grow on Earth in centuries following our wasteful destruction of nature. It is found by the eponymous robot, whose task is to clean up the mess and make the planet habitable once more. This epitomises two key elements of Ecological Gothic that have recently emerged: a bleak vision of a destroyed world, and the portrayal of humans as ultimately lazy, selfish, and wasteful.

Disney/Pixar

Rather than a large-scale vision of how humanity should respond to challenges of a changing environment, in the contemporary EcoGothic personal responsibility is emphasised. Broadsheets run articles on how to avoid committing ‘eco sins’, a very telling terminology. When we fly we can pay extra to offset our carbon emissions, a practice oddly similar to the indulgences sold by the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. In an early episode of 1960s drama Mad Men the Draper family go on a picnic, and when finished leave their rubbish lying in the park and drive off. This is a very knowing piece of writing designed to produce gasps of shock from an audience who have come to accept the idea of being fined for putting rubbish in the wrong bin, never mind no bin at all. Our over-consumption, we are told, is killing the planet (or ‘raping’ – the use of this term to be discussed in part 2). Meanwhile we grow fat and lazy. Although still associated with greed, fat no longer has the association with wealth, status, or indeed health as it did in the past. The contemporary image is rather one of low class, stupidity, and reliance on the state, as in Wall-E’s vision of the future of humanity, where rotund humans who fall out of their transportation devices can only roll around helplessly until robots assist them.

For an obvious example we can sit our supersized rumps down on the couch and switch on the television. With satellite at least you can see a programme at any given time of the day about fat teenagers, fat kids, fat mothers, fat pets… While masquerading as performing a social good, these perform in exactly the same way as the old-time freak shows we no longer consider ethical, of which the fat person (almost always a woman) was a frequent component. Vanessa Toulmin points out here that ‘such was the popularity of fat women shows that five alone could be found at Hull Fair […] in the 1890s.’

Titana the Fat Girl (National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield)

Like a freak show we are shown the ‘freaks’ performing everyday activities like climbing stairs, getting into cars, or sitting down to eat, and like the freak show the audience is expected to respond with a mixture of laughter, wonder, and horror. A frequent trick is to load a table with all the food the individual or families eat in a month, six months, a year: a statistical exercise devoid of any relevance beyond the spectacle of grotesque excess. The Gothic has always thrived on sinful excess, particularly lust, pride, and envy. These programmes are gluttony as pornography; the only hope for the degenerate sinners lies with the preaching weight-loss guru or messianic TV chef, one of whom literally rakes through effluence for signs of sin. All these programmes display a naked contempt for the working classes in particular, a very Gothic fear of the mob, underneath a thin veneer of Victorian-style paternalism.

William Burroughs, in an essay called ‘The Great Glut’, puts forward a darkly comic vision of the future. Here he imagines the consequences of a world where, according to Burroughs, we follow Allen Ginsberg’s advice and avoid polluting the sea by channelling waste products and corpses back into the soil. He imagines that this will produce enormous vegetables and farm animals, although it will have one drawback:

‘In fact all this food still smells of the shit and corpses it is made of, as if the glutted land cannot transmute the superabundance of nutrients which seep into the vegetables and the hogs, the chickens big as ostriches, the rhinoceros-size steers. The people fed on this food are bloated and stink of carrion and sewage, belching coal gas. Many of them are confined by their weight to hydraulic wheelchairs, with receptacles for shit which are emptied into containers provided on every block like mail boxes.’ (The Adding Machine: Selected Essays, New York: Arcade Publishing, 1986, pp. 145-146.)

He goes on to imagine a future where young people will retreat to areas of barren soil, and carnivorous plants will reclaim the Earth, Day of the Triffids style. This is, however, not very different to the portrayal of humanity put forward in popular culture today as bloated parasites, voracious consumers unable to control our insatiable, gluttonous appetites. This has obvious parallels with the zombie film. Zombies are driven first and foremost by an uncontrollable hunger and, specifically parodied in Romero’s shopping -mall set Dawn of the Dead (1978), a need to consume.

Dawn of the Dead

Fat Families - Sky

The Gothic double of this, is of course the contemporary obsession with thinness, where the (again almost always female) body is displayed for entertainment and critique. Skeletal models and actresses are examined in magazines, their grotesquely bony figures tutted over and ascetic diets scrutinised with a mixture of horror and self-flagellating jealousy. Fashion’s martyrs, dying for our sins. Next time I’ll take a closer look at the victimisation of women and nature’s revenge on humanity. For now I can think of surprisingly few horror novels/films that deal directly with gluttony besides Thinner (novel 1984, film 1996) and Se7en (1995). Any ideas?

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