Saturday, February 02, 2013

Storied Matter

sunrise, Apollo Bay 2011
by J J Cohen

Though I haven't had the chance to speak very much about some of these projects on this blog yet, I've found myself in a happy and prolonged collaboration with two ecotheorists who conduct most of their research and writing together, Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann. When Prismatic Ecology comes out this fall from University of Minnesota Press, you will see that it concludes with a stunning "Onward" that they co-composed.

Recently they asked me to write a foreword for their forthcoming collection, Material Ecocriticism. The book is great, with essays by Stacy Alaimo, Timothy Morton, Simon Estok, Jane Bennett, Cheryl Glotfelty, and many others. It's intimidating to introduce such a book. Here's my draft, though. Thanks to discussions with the amazing EBOV participants, who allowed me to examine my own amphibious preoccupations in seminar last week, it ends up being about modern and medieval toads.

Let me know what you think.

Foreword: Storied Matter

Mel Y. Chen begins Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect with a story of toads.[1] Chen’s book is a penetrating examination of how our sortings of the environment into hierarchies of life ignore the hybridity, movement, slipperiness and vitality of what gets subordinated to the (white, male, able bodied) category of human. Through a series of “reworldings” she demonstrates that a “fierce sensitivity” to mundane but strange affinities (the love of a writer for a couch, of a word for semantic glide, of a metal for biological intimacy) can disrupt the scale of being and thereby interrogate the politics that accompany its maintenance. To find some tailless brown amphibians at the commencement of this study bringing together disability studies, queer of color scholarship, linguistics, critical race and affect studies is a little surprising. The majority of the spaces Chen roams in the book are anthropocentric – so that, for example, the queer animals she analyzes are mainly art installations, pets, and racialized or costumed humans. Yet Animacies begins with toads, its only non-mammalian animals and the very first things named in the acknowledgements. 

Chen writes that to the presence of toads belongs the book’s “ideational and affective matter,” since their tangible presence in the landscape of her childhood was formative to her own worldedness. Animacies commences: 
I begin with heartfelt thanks to the toads: literally grubby and ponderous yet lightning fast … Toads infused my lifelong experience with their peculiar, but resolute, grace, with a style of creatureliness that I could and could not occupy. And though they were only sporadically visibly, I could be certain a toad was somewhere nearby. (vii) 
A story that begins in gratitude and admiration turns towards elegy when Chen observes that frogs and toads are vanishing from the world, victims of a lethal fungus fostered and then distributed globally through the laboratory use, commercial trade and domestic keeping of aquatic frogs. The fungus entered various ecosystems with the release of the frogs into new habitats as well as when herpetologists carried the deadly agent into the field as they conducted their studies. Backyards everywhere may in the future harbor few amphibians. Though the presence of toads during her Illinois youth is important, it is the “style of their disappearance” that becomes the actual spur to the subject of Chen’s book, with its emphasis upon toxicity, unexpected animacy, and “retrospective temporalities and affects” (vii). A perilous leakage between human space and animal place demonstrates the limits of an imagined segregation, as well as the “transbiology” of many laboratory-bred amphibians.[2]

Among its many other achievements Animacies contributes to the critical movements sorted into rubrics like the “new materialisms,” “material feminisms,” and “vibrant materialism.”[3] Its thanked but vanishing toads open up the possibility of traversing an intimately related road, that of what Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann label a new “material ecocriticism.”[4] The extinction of these amphibians is not inevitable. The toxic meshwork formed by a fungus, Xenopus frogs, laboratories, various humans, and systems of global exchange has materialized certain catastrophic effects, but mourning those results will not alter the future for backyard toads. Material ecocriticism urges us to contemplate
matter’s “narrative” power of creating configurations of meanings and substances, which enter with human lives into a field of co-emerging interactions … matter itself becomes a text where dynamics of “diffuse” agency and non-linear causality are inscribed and produced. (Iovino and Oppermann, “Material Ecocriticism” 79-80)[5]
Mere matter becomes in Iovino and Oppermann’s beautiful account “a site of narrativity, a storied matter, a corporeal palimpsest in which stories are inscribed” (“Theorizing Material Ecocriticism” 451). Material ecocriticism is, in other words, a story-laden mode of re-enchantment.[6] It demands a material ethics, an ethics of entanglement and wonder. Matter and its dynamic, diffusive meshworks generate some strange stories, demanding participations that move co-composers beyond the certainties of closure.

With what tales might toads burgeon, other than the tragic, familiar and general narrative of species decline at anthropogenic environmental change that they bear along with thousands of other plants, animals and substances? Can we imagine these amphibians as possessing a future, one in which we are perilously co-implicated, companions rather than elegists for the disappeared?[7] Might toads possess a unique materiality, an agency, and even an inscrutability that demands that their story not be a human one, not be a familiar one, not be a text that we write without their futural agency, a text that might confine them in a past where they might remain “hunched and still … in their cold hibernations” (Animacies vii)? We live in catastrophe’s widening wake, but that doesn’t mean that we will not from time to time be surprised when what we thought was dead stone darts to sudden life. As Chen has eloquently argued, a post-toxic landscape, an environment full of bodies invaded by foreign agents, is also replete with “queer productivity.” It’s a dangerous space, but we have already arrived. If we convince ourselves of inhabiting a historical cul-de-sac, the Anthropocene of our sinfulness that arrives as merited reward, then we should also recognize that anthropocentric resignation to foregone calamity is far less demanding than embracing the ethics of relationality that actually bind us to living creatures like toads and fungi as well as to inorganic compounds like toxins. Despair is easy. Composing with hope requires work.

As I read Mel Y. Chen’s acknowledgement of her wondrously catalytic toads I was reminded of an amphibian discovered in the north of England more than eight hundred years ago. Encased in the geological, blurring the lines between living and inanimate, beautiful and lethal, nature and culture, the sudden advent of this medieval toad is queer. Writing just before the year 1200, the historian William of Newburgh provides the contemporary account. An attractive stone that some unknown artist seems to have created by conjoining two lithic pieces is cracked open to reveal a living creature at its center. Workers in a quarry are excavating building materials when they discover the perplexing object:
There was found a beautiful double stone, that is, a stone composed of two stones, joined with some very adhesive matter. Being shown by the wondering workmen to the bishop, who was at hand, it was ordered to be split, that its mystery (if any) might be developed. In the cavity, a little animal called a toad, having a small gold chain around its neck, was discovered. When the bystanders were lost in amazement at such an unusual occurrence, the bishop ordered the stone to be closed again, thrown into the quarry, and covered up with rubbish forever.[8] 
William narrates the story because its inexplicability haunts him. He does not know what to make of an animal emerging from a rock to announce its strange intimacy to human worlds. The stone-toad-chain ensemble seem to exist beyond the dualisms employed to order the world. The gold around the creature’s neck is precious, lovely, a symbol of both artistry and humane care (the word used is cathenula, the Latin term for a pet’s leash). The toad itself is natural, startling, vivacious and toxic (toads were held to be venomous creatures in the Middle Ages). The conjoined rock is a cementing together of the disparate into a beautiful if incongruous whole, a union of geology and art. No totality emerges from the discovery. William cannot render the episode an allegory for something else. The stone-toad-chain mesh is parabolic in a double sense: it demands story, and it curves epistemologies into new orbits, warps knowing into swift but novel coursings. 

The excavated and opened objects have an undeniable materiality, a heft. They also possess agency, causing the quarrymen to become lost in astonishment, lost in the realization that world is more mysterious than they had ever imagined: enlivened by stories that meld the human and the inhuman, stories that are fragments seeking greater connection. Perhaps that is why the bishop reassembles the stone (but how?) and consigns the toad and its golden chain to the earth’s depths, the rubbish heap of history (a fertile place, in the end: the toad surely must be waiting there still, awaiting rediscovery). 

Despite the episcopal command the work of the toad was set inevitably into motion. The laborers at the quarry were already enraptured by amphibious wonder. William of Newburgh is infected by the same wonder, an astonishment irreducible to a moral. Ever since I read the passage, I have wondered at its lithic toad, at its hold on me, how it makes me dream of childhood toads uncovered in their winter stillness while digging in my family’s yard, creatures and their earth suspended between life and death, full of agency all the same. I remember a toad in my hand as I write these words, its heft and its chill, and realize that the toad-rock-chain is a material manifestation of a storied world that is more than I can ever hold or know. Toads are humbling. 

Inspired by this collection of essays that plumb the beauty, the agency, the danger, and the complicated multiplicity within material ecocriticism, I pass along that wonder – and that rock that is a work of art, and that gold chain that is a work of love, and that beautiful toxic amphibian -- along to you.

* * *
I thank Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann for their invitation, their inspiration, and their companionship.

[1] Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham: Duke University Press, 2102).

[2] “Transbiology” is the term minted by Sarah Franklin to describe the “redesign” of the biological within the contemporary biosciences. See “The Cyborg Embryo: Our Path to Transbiology,” Theory, Culture and Society 23 (2006): 167-87 and Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

[3] The literature on these subjects is vast, as the essays that follow in this collection make clear, but for a start see Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, eds. Material Feminisms (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008); Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Serenella Iovino, “Steps to a Material Ecocriticism: The Recent Literature About the ‘New Materialisms’ and Its Implications for Ecocritical Theory,” Ecozon@ 3 (2102): 134-45.

[4] In addition to this collection, see Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann, “Material Ecocriticism: Materiality, Agency, and Models of Narrativity.” Ecozon@ 3 (2012): 75-91, and “Theorizing Material Ecocriticism: A Diptych,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 19 (2012): 448-75. In deep sympathy with Iovino and Oppermann’s project is the ecocritical work with which I have recently been engaged, such as the edited collection Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013) and, with Lowell Duckert, the special issue of the journal postmedieval on Ecomaterialism (volume 4, 2013).

[5] Iovino and Oppermann go on to argue that “Taking matter ‘as a text’” demands a widening of what text means, a “questioning the very idea of text”: “The text, for material ecocriticism, encompasses both human material-discursive constructions and nonhuman things: water, soil, stones, metals, minerals, bacteria, toxins, food, electricity, cells, atoms, all cultural objects and places” (83).

[6] “Its intention to ‘re-enchant’ reality, claiming that all material entities, even atoms and subatomic particles have some degree of sentient experience and that all living things have agency of their own, is essential in the making of the new materialist approaches” (“Material Ecocriticism” 78).

[7] I take the term “co-implicated” as a term for environmental entanglement and composition from Lowell Duckert. “Speaking Stones, John Muir, and a Slower (Non)Humanities,” in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. Jeffrey J. Cohen (Washington, DC: Oliphaunt Books, 2012) 273-279.

[8] William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs, Book 1, ed. and trans. P. G. Walsh and M. J. Kennedy (Wilthsire: Aris and Phillips, 1988) 1.28. I am grateful to the students in my graduate seminar “Environ Body Object Veer” at the George Washington University (2013) for talking through the apposition of Mel Y. Chen and William of Newburgh’s toads with me.


Steve Mentz said...

Aren't amphibians considered by biologists as good ecological "indicators" b/c of their sensitivity to small changes in the environment? I don't have a good citation, but perhaps another angle on your toad-obsession here?

My other, perhaps less directly useful, thought is to wonder how recently you've read Cortazar's great story "Axolotl." Which might perhaps join Kafka's Odradek as OOO-icon.

Anonymous said...

It's not really a useful critique, but, that's really cool, and leaves the reader with a clearly conceptualised sense of wonder to carry into the book with them. Nice work!