Please, Tell Us More!

Kathleen Hart teaches in the French and Francophone Studies department. Her current project is called Evolution and Animality in French Imaginative Culture: Biocultural Approaches. Courtesy of Kathleen Hart.

[Revision (Friday, Mar. 1): The original version of this article did not include the word “straight” in describing the individual by whom a “minor positive role” could have been played. The author has since added this word.]

Professors: What is a topic, idea, theory or breakthrough related to your field of study that you find absolutely fascinating or feel very passionate about? Explain why.

Having just experienced the thrill of watching Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” my friends and I enthusiastically discuss its use of sound, lighting, color, Christian symbolism, marginalized identities, riffs on the Black Lagoon. As a French studies scholar, I compare its treatment of animality to that of Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la bête.” Some of us wish that a minor positive role could have gone to a cisgender straight white male, or that the amphibian could have used its powers to transform the villain’s heart. That, we argue, would have subverted the “good vs. evil” dichotomy that perpetuates oppression. Others disagree.

Humanities scholars deploy a variety of methodologies, from semiotics to New Historicism, to explore such topics in literature, film, visual art or performances. For over a decade, however, I have engaged a new methodology called biocultural literary interpretation: combining traditional humanities approaches with theories of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary social science. Watching “The Shape of Water,” I notice with excitement how its storyline and low angle shots map embodied conceptual metaphors such as “control is up/lack of control is down”; I hypothesize connections between a “swamp creature” and disgust as an adaptation for regulating social interactions.

The invocation of possibly innate human tendencies used to invite the charge of “biological determinism” from critics rightly wary of reviving so-called “scientific” racism and (hetero-) sexism. These days, however, more of us appreciate biocultural interpretation for what it is: a means to greater self-understanding; a social “leveler” that acknowledges we are all, and not just some of us, part of the animal world. And to the extent that scientific sexism or racism may be on the rise, humanities scholars should be informed enough to influence debates. Science is too important to leave solely to scientists. It’s also much too fun.

Please Tell Us More is designed to be a space in which professors are invited to talk about any topic related to their work that they find fascinating. If you are interested in contributing, please write a 300 or more word response to the question shown above and email your piece to misc@vassar.edu

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