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  • Geopolitical Temporalities and Animal Ecologies in The Jungle Books
  • Christie Harner (bio)

In rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books (1894–95), across a range of scenarios and geographic locales, human actions fundamentally alter existing animal ecosystems. Mowgli's adoption by the wolf clan shifts the allegiances of the Free People. Fur traders threaten the survival of an Arctic seal breeding ground. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, aligned with the English family whom he protects, kills two generations of cobras and permanently changes the local hierarchies. A bridge engineer shoots a crocodile into three pieces, eliminating an aged animal whose predatory behaviour was already compromised by the bridge's construction. The needs of the Anglo-Indian military restrict elephant rituals. In each case, the rupture is imperial and ecological—meaning that it should be read in both ways, so that the altered environmental cadence comes to transform how the geopolitical is understood.

Kipling scholarship, focused almost exclusively on the Mowgli stories, has long recognized how animal-human relationships might be read as imperial allegories. In particular, the boy's hybrid status, which enables him to "move between the two worlds" (Cosslett 132) of animals and men, marks both a "privileged heterogeneity" (Straley 125) and the challenge of "conflicting allegiances and desires" (Macduffie 31). Such critical readings focus less on the impacted jungle ecosystem and more on Mowgli's fraught identity: he "hovers between native and British identities" (Cosslett 139), complicating readings of mastery and reinscribing what scholars have read as Kipling's "political multivalence" (Kucich 33), his "quintessentially divided imperial" selfhood (Sullivan 6). This criticism has done important work, situating the Mowgli tales within theorizations of post-colonial hybridity and late-Victorian imperial ideologies. In doing so, however, it neglects the animal characteristics of the non-human characters, heightening the existing anthropomorphism and conscripting them into "different human cultural groups" (Macduffie 28). Even when, as Kaori Nagai has argued, the stories capture the humans' "newfound affinity with animal others," they do so largely as proof of Kipling's "imperial cosmopolitanism," in which interconnectedness is a condition of the global British empire (237).

This essay reasserts the animality of the non-human species in The Jungle Books, drawing on theories of regime shift to argue that Kipling's stories depict the temporal instabilities of human-animal interactions and configurations of power. Resonant with the languages of political science and [End Page 135] systems theory, the ecological term "regime shift" characterizes the irregular process through which "seemingly stable states … can suddenly shift … and become something new, with internal controls and aggregate characteristics that are profoundly different from those of the original" (Kinzig et al.).1

Although stable states may exist on either side of the change, the process involves a "cascade of effects" across the ecosystem, a "temporary loss of resilience as former functions, structures, feedbacks and identities give way to new versions" (Gee and Burkhard 188). Taking on greater consequence in the Anthropocene, the geological epoch defined by unprecedented human influence on the environment, attention to regime shift is at its core the study of species resilience in the face of overwhelming climatic change. The concept measures human impact, positive and overwhelmingly negative, and the time spans through which ecosystems change as a result: seasons, decades, centuries. It may invoke a tipping point, a temporal drag, or an adjustment to introduced time scales and rhythms. Applied across the disciplines, the term troubles social and environmental teleologies that would view the world as "orderly and well behaved" (Kinzig et al.).

The analysis of Kipling's fictional regime shifts in this essay works in tandem with existing arguments that imperialism was concurrently socio-political and ecological, that its effects on the natural world were as immense as those on indigenous peoples. It participates openly in the calls of post-colonial eco-critics to "consider the complex interplay of environmental categories such as water, land, energy, habitat, migration with political or cultural categories such as state, society, conflict," and others (Mukherjee 144). It shares the perspective expressed in Parama Roy's recent work on Kipling's short story "The Mark of the Beast" that "the meetings, clashes, and amalgamations of cultures in the colony occur in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 135-152
Launched on MUSE
2019-12-24
Open Access
No
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