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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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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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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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14 Corporeal Fieldwork and Risky Art: Peter Goin and the Making of Nuclear Landscapes

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Cheryll Glotfelty

IT MAY GO without saying that a landscape photographer must do fieldwork. How can you take a picture of a place without being there? But this very presumption of physical presence tends to obscure the role of fieldwork in landscape photography, a process that resonates strongly with the material turn in ecocritical theory. Photographer Peter Goin (b. 1951) has devoted more than thirty years to photographing altered landscapes in America, documenting the legacy of human actions on the land. Author of more than a dozen books and recipient of numerous awards, including two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, Goin has done projects on Meso-American ruins in Central America, abandoned sections of the Erie Canal, engineered beaches along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, artificial swamps in the American South, ancient petroglyphs in Nevada, postmining landscapes of North America, California agriculture, the architected wilderness of Lake Tahoe, and the U.S.-Mexico borderline. All of these projects involved rigorous fieldwork that is beyond the scope of most people. Goin is persistently and perhaps perversely drawn to abandoned, neglected, forbidden, and condemned landscapes as he bears witness to the places that our culture sweeps out of sight, out of mind.

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6 Bodies of Naples: Stories, Matter, and the Landscapes of Porosity

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Serenella Iovino

IN THE HEART of the city of Naples there is a place with a curious name: Largo Corpo di Napoli. This little square opens up like an oyster at a point where the decumani, the Greek main streets, become a tangle of narrow medieval lanes and heavy gray-and-white buildings. Like an oyster, this square has a pearl: an ancient statue of the Nile, popularly known as Corpo di Napoli, the body of Naples. The story of this statue is peculiar. Dating back to the second or third century, when it was erected to mark the presence of an Egyptian colony in the city, the statue disappeared for a long time and was rediscovered in the twelfth century. Its head was missing, and the presence of children lying at its breasts led people to believe that it represented Parthenope, the virgin nymph to whom the foundation of the city is mythically attributed. In 1657 the statue was restored, and a more suitable male head made it clear that the reclining figure symbolized the Egyptian river and the children personifications of its tributaries. In spite of evidence and philology, however, for the people the sculpture remained the symbol of their city’s body. In this body, as it sometimes happens in local rituals and legends, the boundaries of gender roles, like those of matter and spirit, present and past, are blurred and shifting.

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