Thursday, December 29, 2011

Anthropomorphism? You Bet!

So yesterday we went to see the remake of Courage of Lassie, aka Lassie Goes to War, the one with Lassie played by a horse and adapted from a Michael Morpugo book.

That sounds snide, but you can always get me (and my mom; and for that matter Damon) with stories like this. I don't think I'm giving spoilers when I warn you to bring your hanky. I was okay for most of the movie, but the bit where our horse protagonist finally panicks on the Western front got me bad. My mom couldn't watch that bit. I think anybody who has ever had an animal friend, or personal experience with barbed wire, will have trouble with it.

It is common to dismiss this sort of reaction as sentimental and anthropomorphic. And I am pretty darn given to anthropomorphism. How much? Well -

I am so anthropmorphic that I am uncomfortable carrying stuffed animals and dolls with their heads down. When I see and handle my old toys I still get a strong sense of their personalities, and I talk to them on those occasions - especially Soda (a pink dog), Thomasina (a pink cat), and Scratchbit (a formerly pink plush doll with a vinyl head). Scratchbit's personality is so real to me that I just laughed writing her name; not because the name is ridiculous, which I know it is, but in the way you laugh when you suddenly recall an old friend.

I am so anthropomorphic that I have conversations with my cats, and frequently translate their conversational contributions for others. That sounds noxious and cutesy, but the fact is - they demonstrate, through action, that I'm expressing a reasonable approximation of their points of view on a regular basis. My husband has caught the habit from me, and we sometimes find ourselves arguing against our own best interests as the puppets for Thai and Bruce.

I am so anthropomorphic that I feel vaguely that I owe it to Vidcund Curious to go back and play his life "right" after accidentally killing him in my earliest experimental Sims games. (Vidcund's entry on the SimsWiki makes him sound nasty; but even after playing him less than three sim days, I know better.) As I've discussed before, I have managed to invest a lot of character and emotion into a lot of little bundles of programming code in those games. It's not too much to say that I love some of them - in the same way that I love Scratchbit, which is not at all the way I love Damon or my Rev. Mom or even Bruce and Thai.

I am so anthropomorphic that I can, in a similar process, take a string of random numbers and a bare-bones context and find complex human characters in them for role-playing games; not just my characters, but NPCs. It's true that, since I do social RPGs and not computer ones, I get a lot of help with those, as all the players tend to play off each other to create the cast of each game. To that extent, all my friends are pretty anthropomorphic.

I am so anthropomorphic that I can find a complex character in an Agatha Christie novel (no, really! Read Crooked House, or Endless Night), a mediocre TV sitcom, a comic book, and a bunch of research on history, geography, archeology, anthropology - anything I read. I can see personality in a bare skull, or a lump of rock, under the right conditions.

Naturally, because I have such a strong tendency toward it, I regard anthropomorphism in a more positive light than do people who complain that we all have too much of it. On the whole, I think it's more a strength than a weakness, though it can be both. I'll probably return to this subject later - if I continued now I would write beyond a blog-reader's patience, and mire myself in incompletely articulated ideas. For now I think it's enough to state an opinion without offering the argument for it, as food for thought as we all head into a new year with new challenges, same as the old challenges.

I think the tendency to project human qualities onto inhuman things is a necessary part of our ability to imagine ourselves in the place of another, which is the prime manifestation of both our sense of self, and our capacity for compassion.

And I think that the capacity for seeing ourselves in others, human or inhuman, real or imaginary, animate or inanimate, is the first step toward understanding those things as they are.

And I think I am so anthropomorphic because I write, and that I write because I am so anthropomorphic.

And I wish you all a Merry New Year.


  1. I see quite a lot of myself in what you write about here, Peni.

  2. I expect it's a common thing in writers, and one reason why people associate madness and creativity. But of course we don't confuse Scratchbit or Vidcund with real people, or treat our cats inappropriately, or have any trouble with the distinction between fantasy and reality. It just kind of looks like that from outside to people whose grasp on the boundary is less firm and therefore has to be monitored more closely.

  3. I read this post right after I read a PW review of my friend Ellen Levine's new book Seababy, which ended with: "Both text and illustrations strike a graceful balance between naturalism and anthropomorphism."

    Empathy and imagination--required ingredients. Write an animal story...

  4. It sometimes surprise me that I haven't done so yet.