The Bear Necessities: Steam of Life

Curator's Note

Steam of Life (2010) is about various Finnish men depicted sweating in a sauna, thus trying to rid themselves of both physical and emotional fatigue. However, for me the most affect-laden sequence is not about these men pouring their hearts out. It is the sequence in which one of them speaks of his friendship with a grizzly bear named Juuso, who loves to break things and eat bath whisks made of birch twigs. Suspense is built up during the sequence: who or what is this mysterious ‘orphan’ who banged the sauna door and then barged in underneath it, only to flee the cabin even before ‘breaking into a sweat’? At last the mystery is revealed, as the bear emerges from below the frame with an emphatic growl, and then proceeds to smash up the garden furniture, while the man calmly comments on its destruction.

An obvious comparison can be drawn between this sequence and Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). Grizzly Man depicts some Deleuzian process of ‘becoming-animal’ gone terribly wrong. Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man does not count as an example of becoming-animal, because his desire to integrate with the world of bears is not borne out by a commitment to let go of standard power relations. Instead it is a futile attempt to escape his humanness and his inner turmoil. By contrast Steam of Life might best be characterized as an example of Levinasian ethics, insofar as it is based on an asymmetrical encounter of the human self with the animal other, without attempting to reduce the animal to human nature or vice versa.

Can animals be our friends? The novel Life of Pi (2001) answers this question with an unambiguous no, because animals' 'essence precedes their existence', as Sartre would have it, while for humans ‘existence precedes essence’, which is an insight ignored by Timothy Treadwell with devastating consequences. Steam of Life would seem to challenge this dichotomy though, not by giving any straightforward answers, but rather by asking questions about the ‘emotional rewards’ we seek to gain from our friendships with animals. To what extent are such friendships even possible, unless based on animal romanticization, projective identification or anthropocentric ventriloquism? But to deny such possibility altogether would seem to ignore the fact that animals too have affects, which we nevertheless are never able to grasp from the ‘inside’.


Tarja, I like what you say here about the different affective encounters between animals and humans in Steam of Life and Grizzly Man. I'm particularly interested in the nuanced distinction you make between the two, seeing the animal-human relationship depicted in Grizzly Man as ultimately unable to let go of the sovereign human subject, which challenges arguments people have made that it is an example of the Deleuzian concept of becoming-animal. On a somewhat related note, one of the things that strikes me about this clip is the fullness and wetness of the human body that it depicts. The close-ups and long takes on bare, sweat-covered human skin permeates the 'skin of the film' as it were, creating another level of affective engagement. I wonder if you could speak to that aspect of The Steam of Life?

Fascinating example to think about animal/human relationships, and how these relationships are both felt and imagined. I think this clip clearly illustratess your point about animals undeniably having affects, but of a nature that no matter how much we narrativise or poeticise (as the voiceover does) are unknowable. Irreducible to human experiences but undeniable as experiences in their own right. Like Laurel, I was also struck by the texture of the film, a key part of which for me was the man's performance, especially in contrast to the unmediated "being" of the bear unaware of the camera. The static camera shots focus my attention on the sweating of his skin, as well as his concentration on either ignoring or speaking directly to the camera. Then the bear enters this still frame and rides roughshod over the scene, and there is a fantastic tension between human presence and animal presence. Does that tension in the texture of the film work as one answer to the dichotomy you mention?

Dear Laurel and Trent: Yes! What is going on here is an emphasis of the porosity of the border between the human body and its 'outside' which can catalyze a sensibility that humans and animals are not distinct categories, but neither are they interchangeable. Furthermore the tension between human and animal presence reminds us that 'affect' is not specific to human bodies. Thus I think that this tension epitomizes precisely the capacity of any body (human, animal) for affective reciprocity.

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