The Shape of Water: Imagining Slavery in the Anthropocene

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:20 AM
Adams Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Diana Leong, University of Utah
An unprecedented increase in the scope, scale, and frequency of ecological disaster in the last generation has precipitated a public and scholarly turn toward conditions of environmental precarity. These matters of global concern – climate change, super-storms, droughts – have assumed a renewed sense of urgency given the emergence of the Anthropocene, a geological epoch in which human activity has become so influential as to alter the natural systems of the earth. While ecologist Eugene Stoermer and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen introduced the term in the 1980s, the nomenclature of the “Anthropocene” has been subject to critique for allowing an abstract notion of the “Anthropos” to anchor an implicit philosophy of history. The benefits and consequences of technological development and environmental disaster, after all, are rarely if ever distributed symmetrically among and within human populations. How, then, might we address the broad ecological impacts of human activity without losing sight of the historical legacies of capitalism, colonialism, and slavery? This presentation will examine Guillermo Del Toro’s 2017 film The Shape of Water as an Anthropocene reimagining of modern racial slavery and its afterlives. Set in Baltimore during the Cold War and the US Civil Rights Movement, the film follows laboratory worker Elisa Esposito as she develops a relationship with a humanoid amphibian creature captured in the Amazonian basin. After a turbulent rescue mission, Elisa joins the creature in the Atlantic Ocean where it transforms her mysterious neck scars into gills. The film’s cross-species relationships, I suggest, invoke the familiar tropes of slavery (i.e. miscegenation, marronage, medical experimentation) to locate our ongoing anxieties over racial difference at the heart of our fantasies of the Anthropocene.