Post-apocalyptic giant insects, singing mice, poetry by a cockroach, shapeshifting Tricksters, a parrot who speaks Portuguese, a dog who speaks Tagalog, rivers with legal personhood and a scarecrow who was painted into existence by a farmer.
TOTO TO TOTORO: Can talking animals save the world? is an ecological treatise that probes the importance of other-than-human storytelling to form more sustainable ways of planetary being. Toto, the trusty canine from The Wizard of Oz series, guides us through a series of encounters of the animal kind through interviews, poetry, letters and essays by select talking animals from literary and filmic worlds. Through these conversations the talking animals ask if they might be the unexpected key to rupturing the anthropocentric nature-culture divide. And if so, is this enough to save the world?
Below is an extract of one chapter from the publication, where Toto the dog interviews a bird named Blu. For more information about the publication and details to purchase please see here.
The Jungle of Signs
Blu, a Spix’s macaw from the films Rio (2011) and Rio 2 (2014), gained media attention in 2018 due to reports of his species becoming extinct-in-the-wild and dwindling to just 180 individuals surviving globally. I spoke to him over the phone from Brazil about how he deals with this burden of representation and how his character has impacted on the conservation of his physical counterparts.
Toto: Hi Blu, can you hear me? Thank you for speaking with me today.
Blu: Yes, I do! Nice to meet you, Toto.
Toto: Perhaps we can begin by you introducing yourself?
Blu: Well, I am Blu. Urm, I am a Spix’s macaw from Brazil, but I grew up in Minnesota…there aren’t many of us left so some humans think I am special. I’m not sure what to say really…
Toto: I would say that you are definitely considered special, and you’re in fact a symbol for your kind!
Blu: Do you think? Sometimes I’m not sure whether I am a character or me. I mean I know that I am a Spix’s macaw, but I seem to be the representation of all 180 Spix’s macaws that live in-the-flesh. I’m always asking myself if I am a merging of all these into one form? Or am I just a hazy semblance of one?
Toto: You’ve touched on a fundamental question for all of us animals involved in this project. What does it mean to be a character, a representation? We exist in this strange liminal space of reality. We are all created by humans but we live beyond the author’s reality – we don’t die when they die. We are, in a sense, immortal. And we are, in a sense, real.
Blu: Well, we build the world through language, and through language we build reality.
Toto: So nothing exists outside language?
Blu: Not for us! We are language.
Toto: Humans seem to question this about themselves too. Those who believe there is no outside of language are called ‘post-structuralist’ apparently. Some have suggested that if there is no outside of language, then there is no outside of ‘Nature’ too. Nature is writing its own language; writing itself.
Blu: So if humans are part of nature, then nature made us after all. Or we made ourselves…?
Toto: Hmm. A story made us. Words made us. Humans tend to think they are beyond stories, they reside in the world of ‘fact’. But who can distinguish between their fact and fiction? Their whole world is formed through narratives, mythologies. God, in whatever guise, is the main protagonist; for humans as a whole.
Blu: If he’s real then I’m real!
Toto: Well Blu, there is one reality for every person.
Do you know Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard? There is a snippet in there I thought might resonate with you: “the jungle of signs is equal to that of the forests – the vertigo of simulacra is equal to that of nature.”
Blu: No, but my human, Linda, has it on her bookshelf. I like this! To consider it in terms of reality, and as someone who knows human signs and the jungle, I would say the jungle is more real.
Toto: What do you mean by real in this sense?
Blu: Immediate, alive, present…not abstract? I’m not sure. But I find the jungle scary. Comparing the signs of humans to a forest makes sense to me. You learn to navigate them both. I find my GPS helps. Toto, what does simulacra mean?
Toto: Baudrillard defines a simulacrum as a copy without an original.
Blu: I think that’s what I might be! I am a copy of my whole species, but I am in my own right something unique, I don’t have an original. Wow, this is all a bit existential. I think I am feeling that vertigo of simulacra now, it feels a bit like when I learnt to fly!
Toto: Baudrillard opens his book by remembering a fable by Borges, where humans are busy making a map of their territory. They come to the conclusion that the only suitable map is one that is of the scale of reality. The map became the same size as the land it described. Eventually they gave up the map to the elements, to burn in the sun and freeze in winter. But, Borges teases: “In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars.” Perhaps you are remnants of the map, Blu?
Blu: So you mean my character eclipses reality?
Toto: Yes. Or it conflates with reality. And this is important because that means humans see you as part of culture, not just part of nature.
Blu: Do you think it is possible then to bring my in-the-flesh macaws with me, into that culture?
Toto: I’m not sure, but maybe humans are able to see you as entwined somehow. This has happened to me. There is a dog actor who many humans consider to be ‘Toto’ because she played me in the 1939 film. In the physical world she was a female dog called Terry, but after she starred in the film her humans changed her name to Toto. There is even a biography written, I Toto: The Autobiography of Terry, the Dog who was Toto, and she has a gravestone with the name Toto engraved on it. In the minds of so many people, Terry dissolved into another reality, and collapsed into me.
Blu: So we, as characters, challenge humans to consider what it is to be real, to be alive, to exist.
Toto: And I wonder if this could sow the seeds for rethinking the other-than-humans we represent as more ‘real’?
Blu: I think that my species has collapsed into my representation of them, but for humans that is somehow more real…
Toto: You are in a unique position, Blu, being a representation of a whole species, particularly one being on the brink of extinction. It strikes me as a particular burden to be a symbol of extinction.
Blu: It is. I suppose if our species is brought back from extinction I might no longer symbolise anything.
Toto: Well, you would symbolise recovery. Vitality. I’ve heard you have had a hugely positive impact on the conservation of the Spix’s macaws so, in a way, you represent that already.
Blu: Thank you, I’m not sure about that. But humans seem to do more to save the flesh-living birds from disappearing since they were introduced to me. We were already extinct-in-the-wild since 2000, you know. Long before the film came out. A study reconfirmed this is 2018 and now humans know me as the character, they reported it so much more in their media. Now there is a big conservation project to bring us back from extinction; in 2020, 52 of us were moved from a captivity breeding programme in Germany back home to the wild in Brazil. We even have our own website.
Toto, why do you think that humans chose me as a symbol of extinction?
Toto: Well, charisma! You’re handsome, you’re brightly-coloured (humans like that), you embody their dreams to fly. You are exotic to most of them, living in a jungle. And they feel guilty because it is their acts of deforestation, poaching and trading that is killing you. Maybe you should ask how they chose to show you as a symbol of extinction?
Toto: Well, they did it through making you like them, didn’t they? You live in a human world. You learnt to read human language, you drink hot chocolate, you feel nervous, you struggle with fears.
Blu: I’m glad that they learnt to see me like them. I loved living with my human, Linda, because she helped me learn to be me.
Toto: That is very generous of you.
Blu: There is a human in the film A Clockwork Orange who says “it’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.” I suppose that’s how humans work. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about my representation making things more real. Our species’ endangerment became ‘real’ to humans as soon as they could understand me in terms of my relation to them. As soon as I had human attributes.
Toto: You know, some would argue that this is very anthropocentric, there is a violence in making you a player on the human stage.
Blu: I can be a player, and I can play them. If being framed as more human than I am is what it takes to stop us dying out, then that is a price I am willing to pay.
Toto: So you see your representation as a bit of an impossible necessity?
Blu: Exactly. Of course humans will always be representing us, speaking for us. But, in a time of this ecological catastrophe, where is the ethics in not trying to tell our stories for us?
Toto: Astrida Neimanis has written about these ethics, asking if you can have representation without representationalism. She describes representations of nature as a “can’t yet must technology.” Nature, and the urgency of the environmental conditions, demands to be heard. It can only be saved if it is heard in the first place. But the problem lies in the inevitability that humans will always be translators, so it can never be a truly faithful representation, the authentic voice. The importance is for humans to remember they are the translator though, not the writer. They shouldn’t presume they know what we would want to say.
Blu: So humans often get trapped into anthropomorphism, making us like them, simply because they are struggling for a way to listen to us? From a place of obligation?
Toto: I think so, but I would also argue they do it with compassion. They naturally do it as infants before they are instilled with a sense of species hierarchy. It is instinctual and driven by wonder, enchantment, curiosity, admiration. I guess that’s partly why us talking animals tend to live in children’s stories.
Blu: If it helps them see our perspective I’m all for it. When you can see direct conservation results, when we are in a state of emergency, then who is to complain?
Toto: Yes, as in your case. Or the horse, Black Beauty. Simply because humans could, for a moment, take seriously the idea of equine feelings and emotions, they reformed laws of animal treatment. They had empathy for him and could imagine themselves in his place.
Blu: Through the power of language. He is, of course, a person I would strive to be compared to. Sometimes I worry that I won’t compare to him as I am just a cartoon. He has a bit more gravitas, being articulated into novel form. Like you, Toto. You’re both classics.
Toto: You can be who you want to be, Blu. Maybe when you are written down you are more captured somehow, caged within boundaries? Marshall McLuhan says: “Until writing was invented, man lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless, in the dark of the mind, in the world of emotion, by primordial intuition, by terror.”
Blu: I don’t think I like the sound of there! I prefer my cage. I guess I have been written down in some sense. But you know, I’d like to be a character of a timeless book, passed down the generations, like you.
Toto: Who do you think lives in this horizonless space then?
Blu: Maybe the mythological animals that humans speak of in their traditions of oral storytelling? The folklore tales, religious myths, bedtime stories…
Toto: Sounds like a wild place to be.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Borges, Jorge Luis., and Andrew Hurley. Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions. New York: Viking Press, 1998.
Kubrick, Stanley, dir. A Clockwork Orange. Warner Bros, 1971.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. San Francisco, CA: Hardwired, 1967.
Neimanis, Astrida. “No Representation without Colonisation? (Or, Nature Represents Itself).” Somatechnics 5, no. 2 (2015): 135-153. https://doi.org/10.3366/soma.2015.0158.
Spix’s Macaw Return From Extinction.”Official Page.” Accessed January 19, 2021. http://www.spixs-macaw.org/.