by Nicole Kaufman, UNC Charlotte
It seemed as if the whole world was watching, or at least the entirety of the United States, as a good deal of the South was recently hit by Hurricane Florence. I could slowly feel the panic rising beginning with the Wednesday before the storm, the time when many colleges and schools decided to start canceling classes and the news channels began broadcasting coverage all day long. There was worry about gas shortages, food and water scarcities, and of course damage from deadly flooding. Family that I had not heard from for months even called to check that I was doing okay in Charlotte, NC.
Meanwhile, Facebook showed me a different story. Every time that I logged on, my feed showed me memes, or humorous images, about Florence, particularly Facebook events intended to scare the storm away. I remember one in particular was entitled “Do the hokey pokey at Florence so she’ll turn herself around” and another “Everyone direct fans at Florence to blow her away.” As memes are intended to do, these jokes took the real fear and panic surrounding the storm and turned them into something lighthearted, something to make humans feel a little less afraid of nature by asserting our agency in a hyperbolic fashion. Of course, when Florence was downgraded before the storm hit the Carolinas, the idea went around that the storm had been humiliated by all of the jokes, hence the decrease in power.
In reality, we know that there is no logical connection between making fun of a hurricane and alterations in its intensity and trajectory. With that being said, there seems to be a sense that maybe deep down, we really do have the power to make tangible change in unpredictable and frightening natural circumstances. This desperate desire in particular is what interests me. Where does this obsession to prove our own agency come from? We see this same anxiety crop up in the language of Gervase Markham’s The English Husbandman. He says “that not any other sand but the salt is good or available for this purpose, because it is the brine and saltness of the same which breedeth this fertility and fruitfulnesse in the earth, choaking the growth of all weedes and bad things, which would sprout from the earth, and giving strength, vigour, and comfort to all kind of Graine or Pulse, or any fruit of better nature” (6). Here, he recognizes nature, the sand, as the cause of success or failure. Nature is portrayed as an active agent of change. While the agency of nature exists separately from humans and is not something that can be given or taken, Markham later attempts to assert his own agency over that of nature’s: “Thou whom it hath pleased God to place upon a barren and hard soile, whose bread must evermore be grounded with sweat and labour, that maiest nobly and victoriously boast the conquest of the Earth, having conquered Nature by altering Nature, and yet made Nature better than she was before” (4). This imaginary power struggle, imaginary in the sense that Markham does not really have the power to change the land in the way he thinks he does, continues throughout the piece. He seems to believe that if he follows the very specific practices he has outlined for amending soil, he can make the land do what he wants it to do. However, as seen from Hurricane Florence, no amount of preparation, anxiety, or jokes can change the course of the natural world to more readily fit our own human desires.
I think that although many of us may not be consciously aware, we are slowly moving toward Jane Bennett’s definition of agency in “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” This agency is distributed across an assemblage, or a web-like grouping made up of actants (445). Bennet makes a compelling argument for this view of agency: “If we don’t know just how it is that human agency operates, how can we be so sure that the processes through which nonhumans make their mark are qualitatively different?” (461). If this definition is to be believed, Hurricane Florence, the soil, electricity, and nature as a whole have agency, as do humans, including those of you reading this post right now. This can be hard to conceptualize as us humans like to believe that we are the power powerful beings in existence. However, as Markham’s anxiety shows, I think we know this is not true and it never has been. The panicked emergence of Hurricane Florence memes shows that this is still true today. Perhaps our use of humor as a coping mechanism shows that we really do believe nature has an agency that exists without human mediation.