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10 Pro/Polis: Three Forays into the Political Lives of Bees

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Catriona Sandilands

If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by not seeing him as the bearer of signs of politicity, by not understanding what he says.

—Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics”

Grip on and buzz;

emanation in the mad still air.

I am caused quietly

to hear.

—Sean Borodale, Bee Journal

Material ecocriticism demands careful attention to the ways in which the more-than-human world writes itself into literature. In so doing, it is a politically generative practice, meaning that it opens literary texts to new possibilities for understanding the politicity of multiple agents, in this case bees. The material, literary, and political histories of bee-human relations are densely intertwined; in this complex unfolding, material ecocriticism, rather than reading bees as mostly metaphors for human politics, insists that literary experiences are crucial points from which multispecies bee-human politics might emerge. Poetry, for example, may create an aesthetic space in which bees not only enter human biopolitics (they are already there), and not only have political lives of their own (they already do), but also pierce the anthropocentric experience of human political subjectivity itself. Inspired by the poems that animate its final section, this chapter is a speculation about the multispecies possibilities of bee-human political life.

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2 Limits of Agency: Notes on the Material Turn from a Systems-Theoretical Perspective

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Hannes Bergthaller

If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility—without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises—were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.

—Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

The buck stops here!

—Harry Truman

If one had to choose an epigraph for the new materialisms, one could do worse than settle for the closing lines of The Order of Things. The new materialist thought takes as a given the “crumbling” of the conceptual foundations of modern humanism that Foucault anticipated; its intellectual project is a redescription of the world that dissolves the singular figure of the human subject, distinguished by unique properties (soul, reason, mind, free will, or intentionality), into the dense web of material relations in which all beings are enmeshed. This move cuts two ways. On the one hand, the new materialists point out that human beings are far less sovereign than the humanist tradition would have us believe; on the other, they insist that matter is much more than the inert res extensa of old-style materialism, that it is endowed with many of the same qualities that were formerly seen as exclusive to human beings: complex self-organization, reflexivity, consciousness, and the capacity to act spontaneously, that is, in a manner not reducible to external determination. This insight can be summed up by saying that matter has agency. Agency, the new materialists argue, is emergent and distributed—that is, it is not the property of concrete, isolable entities, but manifests itself only as distributed throughout the networks in which these entities are embedded.

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17 The Liminal Space between Things: Epiphany and the Physical

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Timothy Morton

THE TITLE OF this essay comes from Marcia Carter, my administrator in my new position at Rice University. She was recommending that I go to see the opening of the James Turrell piece, called Twilight Epiphany, installed at Rice and opened on June 14, 2012. Marcia said that what was valuable about Turrell was his understanding of how “art happens in the liminal space between things.” As we proceed, we shall see that it is a deeply appropriate way to think about poems as relationships between beings—and indeed relationship as such, which here is understood to encompass causality, as a kind of poetry.

This relationship has a necessary physical dimension—many dimensions, in fact—and so we can begin to use Marcia’s remark, delivered to me offhandedly as if to say such things were quite humdrum, as a tool to think material ecocriticism. This is more than simply a good analogy, since ecocriticism is just the thinking of relations between things as and in figurative language. Furthermore, it will then be possible to think how nonhumans are “storied” in the way this volume at large addresses—and, still further, how this storying is not just a candy coating on things, but is the way causality is fueled and lubricated, as we shall see.

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1 From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Serpil Oppermann

THE CONCEPTION OF physical reality within the framework of ecological postmodern thought and the nature of the material world described by quantum theory have recently been given new life by the emergence of the new materialist paradigm. The radical revisions of our ideas about the description of physical entities, chemical and biological processes, and their ethical, political, and cultural implications represented in recent discourses of feminist science studies, posthumanism, and the environmental humanities have also occasioned considerable interest among ecocritics, leading to the emergence of material ecocriticism. Proposing that we can read the world as matter endowed with stories, material ecocriticism speaks of a new mode of description designated as “storied matter,” or “material expressions” constituting an agency with signs and meanings. The idea that all material life experience is implicated in creative expressions contriving a creative ontology is a reworking of ecological postmodernism’s emphasis on material processes intersecting with human systems, producing epistemic configurations of life, discourses, texts, and narratives. Because ecological postmodernism perceives matter equipped with internal experience, agentic creativity, and vitality, it is important to acknowledge it as one of the roots upon which material ecocriticism constructs its theoretical premises, as this chapter aims to show.

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9 Semiotization of Matter: A Hybrid Zone between Biosemiotics and Material Ecocriticism

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Timo Maran

A BASIC CLAIM OF the newly developing field of material ecocriticism appears to be that matter has agency and embodied meanings and that it is possible to decipher this matter in the framework of textual criticism. As Serenella Iovino has put it in her ISLE introductory essay on material ecocriticism, “The ‘material turn’ is the search for new conceptual models apt to theorize the connections between matter and agency on the one side, and the intertwining of bodies, natures, and meanings on the other side” (“Stories” 450). Material ecocriticism, she continues, “comes from the idea that it is possible to merge our interpretive practice into . . . material expressions” (451). Such an approach raises broad philosophical questions, such as the following: In which ways is the agency of matter expressed? How do we interact with material processes? What are the relations between meanings embodied in matter and our representational practices?

Quite similar issues have been addressed within biosemiotics, a discipline that studies semiotic and communicational processes in and between organisms. After all, all biological organisms live in a certain physical location and under certain physical conditions of the environment, which they need to perceive, respond to, and adapt for. Biosemiotics describes such relations as being based on signs and sign exchange by employing concepts such as codes and coding, Umwelt (the species-specific attachment to the environment, organized by meanings; see J. Uexküll, “The Theory”), and semiotic niche (Hoffmeyer, Biosemiotics 183), among others.1 At the same time, there is a crucial difference between material ecocriticism and biosemiotics; whereas the former has taken a critical approach to human social and cultural processes, the latter has not. The common ground between material ecocriticism and biosemiotics, rather, appears to be foremost in their attentiveness to the connections between the physical realm and meaning processes. With this understanding, I wish to consider a biosemiotic view on what can be called the “semiotization” of matter, namely, how human actions change the semiotic properties and signification of matter. I believe this is a preliminary step that will increase the potentially fruitful interchanges between biosemiotics and material ecocriticism. This chapter includes three subsequent arguments in three sections: a demonstration that matter has the potential to initiate meanings and participate in semiotic processes, a demonstration of different ways that humans and nonhuman animals can make sense of material objects and environments through the process of modeling, and a conclusion that by applying such models back to the material environment, humans semiotize matter by altering it based on human perceptions and understandings.

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