inadequate futures

tagged with new materialism:

[008 - the novel as inhuman]

September 23, 2017

alex christie

My current project/chapter has me returning to Mark Z. Danielewski's work, a novelist who's been with me since I first thought about teaching, and latter became an important fixture for how I think about literature, and then, again, latter, became an even more important figure for how I think about ethics, (non)humans, and so much more. Although the chapter is specifically interested in inter-weaving Danielewski's most recent set of novels, collectively known as The Familiar, into contemporary posthumanism, figuring The Familiar as another resource for theorizing relationality among (non)humans, it's also given me a chance to revisit his work as a whole. Specifically, I'm looking at some of the 'paratextual' (if you can call it that) projects surrounding The Familiar including a talk that later became an article called 'Parable No. 9: The Hopeless Animal and the End of Nature.' Given in Cologne, Germany in the Fall of 2010, the talk catalyzed my interest in posthumanism, actor network theory, and speculative realism (though I've largely abandoned the latter two in favor of the former), and continues to inform how I think about hope and our relation to animals. By that same token, I'm hoping that 'Parable No. 9' will offer insight into Danielewski's novels---there's clearly cross-contamination---as well as provide fodder for positioning his work among other posthuman theorists.


Juliana Spahr's That Winter the Wolf Came offers solace in a moment of ecological anxiety and disaster. As Trump pulls the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord (indeed, a largely symbolic act but with very real ecological, economic, and political ramifications), I'm struck by the right's oxymoronic stance on the country's autonomy, or the ability to be autonomous in an age of intensified globalization. It's easy to see the tension between the way the nation-state holds open the door for transnational capital---i.e. producing fluid borders rather than locking them down and securing the reproduction of a specific citizenry---and the insistence that somehow the U.S. can stand alone, or dictate the terms by which its borders function. The travel ban, increased racist violence, and the dream of an economy sustained by coal all play into this fantasy of the autonomous nation, and by proxy the autonomous masculine figurehead Trump longs to become.


Rereading Karen Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway is a refreshing reminder of everything I find useful in new materialism and posthumanism. Concerned primarily with how quantum physics might reshape the way we think about matter, agency, and ethics, Barad's work if helpful for articulating where ethical commitments beyond the human, or the human-to-human, might reside. Her reworking of agency is particularly important for her interweaving of the philosophy of physics and poststructural, as she repeats throughout. For Barad, agency is not something humans have, or even particular bodies possess, but rather a distributed enactment across an intra-active assemblage (my word) or apparatus. She argues, 'Agency is "doing" or "being" in its intra-activity. It is the enactment of iterative changes of particular practices---iterative reconfigurings of topological manifolds of spacetimematter relations---through the dynamics of intra-activity. Agency is about changing possibilities of change entailed in reconfiguring material-discursive apparatuses of bodily production' (178). This emphasis on intra-activity reminds us that we (and let's leave this as a slippery signifier) are involved in agency with other matters we tend to not consider imbricated in ourselves. Matter comes to matter through 'iterative reconfigurings;' states that both continually change but also remain the same---cells perpetually dying and being replaced in bodies human and otherwise, for example. Agency is less a deployment of force here than the tipping over of a system into something else or towards a different state---a storm tipping over from rain and thunder into a tornado and back again. In a more anthropocentric mode, it's also about admitting that who and what we are is heavily influenced and perhaps even dependent on the matter that surrounds us, both discursive but also (new) material. It's here that I see Barad linking up rather explicitly with poststructuralism, as if to intensify the performative and disciplinary sutures provided by Butler and Foucault.