For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry.
— Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am
Humanity and nonhumanity have always performed an intricate dance with one another. There was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity; today that mingling has become hard to ignore.
— Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
1. Poetry and materialism
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion revolving around “the new materialism,” a branch of philosophy and critical theory that tries to view “the human” through a more non-human lens. Elizabeth Grosz, Barbara Bolt, and Jane Bennett are some of the leading writers in this vein. New materialism raises such questions as: How do we gain a truly non-teleological perspective on the dynamics of the world around us? How do we begin to break down the all-too-simplified divide between the self and environment, culture and nature that continues to underwrite so much thinking in the Humanities? How do we regard the human self when we take into account the macro perspective (planets, black holes, solar systems) and the micro perspective (bacteria, microbiology, neurons, viruses)? What does “the human” become when we take evolutionary theory seriously, and see ourselves as simply another creature among other creatures, and not as beings ordained by God or History? New materialism is strongly influenced by Lucretius, Spinoza, Bergson, Deleuze, Kristeva, Latour, Haraway, and Derrida’s seminal The Animal That Therefore I Am, and yet it also has one foot in the sciences, keeping up with developments in fields such as physics and evolution theory and brain science.
Of course, materialism is very difficult to think about, to consider, partly because we’re so close to it (though even “close to it” doesn’t do it justice, since it implies there is some element of ourselves that is non-materialist, some element that escapes). It is also damaging to our human narcissism, to our belief that our language-making and concept-making abilities give us a prestige that situates us above the impersonal forces of the material realm. We cling to “language” and “concepts” as a way of clinging to the human in a world that evolutionary theory and physics and brain science are making more and more non-human. But to divorce language and concept from their materialist “assemblages” (to use Deleuze’s phrase) is Cartesian in all but name.
Poetry tends to be smarter than philosophy and critical theory. Before Nietzsche and Heidegger began questioning binary reason, poets — especially starting with the Romantics — were addressing paradox, negative capability, and non-being. And poetry, with its close attention to the material realm, has been very adept at thinking through and grappling with the fact that we are not as divided from the animal and vegetable and mineral as we like to believe. When Coleridge writes about “what a beautiful Thing urine is, in a Pot, brown yellow, transpicuous,” or when Shelley refers to the sibilant sands around the fallen visage of Ozymandias, we are enmeshed in a space that places us in a larger corporeal context. Many of the Romantics were influenced by Platonic thought, but this doesn’t take away their materialism — it simply complicates it, suggesting that materialism is never a given, a commonplace “out there” in front of us, but rather a constant intermingling — or a loop — between human experience and impersonal forces, form and metamorphism, the symbolic and the particular, Blake’s Tyger and an actual, living tiger.
2. Animal, vegetable, mineral
Feng Sun Chen’s The 8th House (Black Ocean) is a collection of poems that brilliantly examines these questions of materialism and corporeality. Yet “examines” is not quite the right word, since it implies distance, a static separation between self and material. Rather, Chen’s poetry immerses us in materiality. These poems aren’t “about” materialism: these poems are materialism (to borrow Coppola’s phrase about Apocalypse Now and Vietnam). In terms of form and image, the book continually undercuts the divide we sometimes see in poetry between the self and what’s outside the self. One way she does this is by jettisoning the sense of beginning, middle, and end we find in some poems. There is no buildup toward a final epiphany in these works, not even in the shorter poems such as “Love in the Void” and “Soul.” Instead the poems appear to begin and end with an element of randomness. Yet this appearance of randomness is part of the collection’s power, its ability to go beyond being “about” materiality. This randomness places us in an uncanny, not-quite-human place, as if both poet and reader were drifting in these materialist waves, with no fixed point in sight.
Another way the poet moves beyond the “about” factor is by aggressively going against our quotidian, commonsense perceptions. Chen in the very first lines of the book tells us, “I AM THE MIDAS / OF SLOP.” This is a playful turnabout of the phrase “everything I touch turns to shit.” Yet here, there is nothing negative about turning everything into “slop” instead of the usual Midas gold. If gold often symbolizes not only the eternal and the immutable but also the highest (the “gold standard”), Chen is moving in the opposite direction: she will reveal, Midas-like, the microbiology teeming under apparently still surfaces, and the liquid and mush that solid bodies turn into as they decay. Later in the poem, she writes:
I AM THE MIDAS
OF THE BRAIN
RICHNESS CULTURE OF ROT HOT WHAT I TOUCH
MAKING IT FRESH
MAKING IT NEW
What does it mean to be a Midas of the brain? It’s certainly different than being a Midas of the mind. The “brain” emphasizes the material basis of all our thoughts, no matter how complicated or abstract or scholastic. Yet the use of “Midas” also strikes me as significant. The word is used several times in the opening pages. The story of Midas is a tale of magic, of a king who can turn whatever he touches into gold. In invoking Midas, in saying she is a type of Midas, the speaker implies that poetry has an almost magic ability: in this case, the ability to reveal the “slop” and “brain” beneath commonplace appearances. In our daily lives, we exist in a realm of shorthand Idealism. We attribute human experience to mind – to our thoughts, our sense of agency — instead of matter. If someone cuts us off in traffic, we yell at the person, not the neurons firing in the person’s brain; if we hear a piece of music we love, we think that we ourselves are enjoying it, not that our brain and body chemistry are creating the sensation we call “pleasure” or “enjoyment.” In contrast, Chen’s speaker is a Midas of everyday life, exposing the often unacknowledged materialist substances, the cells, atoms, weathers, digestive patterns, neurons, blood, hair, and skin that make up the su
The next line complicates this picture, though. The speaker says, “RICHNESS CULTURE OF ROT HOT WHAT I TOUCH.” The phrase plays on two senses of culture: “culture” as being that which is not nature or natural, but rather human and human-made, and the “culture” we find in laboratories, the culture used to grow various types of microorganisms. This book, in that first sense of that word, will be a “culture of rot,” a work of art that highlights the materiality of the world we find ourselves in. But the line also implies the second sense: “culture” is a teeming mass of microbes, just as our bodies are. Yet the phrase doesn’t simply collapse the two cultures. They both echo in the line, suspended together, almost like a trompe l’oeil print that shifts back and forth between being a face and a vase, depending on how we perceive it at that instant.
Chen uses this effect — suspending one term or image within the other, often a human one with a non-human one — throughout the book. Later in the poem, she writes:
The spirit does not survive
Now she is already dead
Born for the crate
Pure fat being with mammary and simultaneous craters
Hymn-shaped packed and honey infused pink in delicacy
It is a fine day when the soul wakes up and finds herself a Peg
Much as Chen suspends two contrary meanings of “culture” earlier, she now suspends human and the animal, a corpse and a food commodity. “The spirit does not survive” suggests we are reading an anti-idealist poem disavowing any idea of spirit or soul, and the second line certainly sets us up to think we are reading about a human “she” (since we don’t automatically attach the concept of “spirit” to animals). But this disavowal lasts only to the third line, where we’re told “she” is “Born for the crate.” Because of the first line, “crate” takes on the connotation of “casket.” We now know that “she” is an animal born for human consumption. And yet, that first line continues to echo, to leave its mark. “She” doesn’t simply turn into animal.
The next line tells us this creature is reduced to “pure fat” that it will be “hymn-shaped packed and honey infused.” “Hymn-shaped” brigs back the spirit/soul aspect in the first line, as if something otherworldly were being done to this creature. And in fact, this creature, the “she,” is so far from an animal at this point (being shaped, honey infused, etc.) that “she” loses all creature-like components. The next line speaks of this transformation from creature to edible: “the soul waked up and finds herself a Peg.” On first reading, the word “Peg” suggests “pig.” Why not simply use “pork”? I get the sense Chen wants us to continue to see pig in this pork, just as she wants us to see one form of culture in the other. Pork is too familiar; it dissociates the “pig” from the “pork” too much. Peg is not pig, and neither is it pork. Also, “Peg” could easily be a human reference — a nickname for Margaret. “Peg” thereby emphasizes the trace of the human we see in the first lines. Lastly, the “the soul wakes up and finds herself a Peg” also implies transubstantiation, with the soul/spirit we were earlier told does not survive suddenly waking into this transformed food-stuff.
As can be seen, quite a lot is packed in here: human and animal, edible and commodity, “Peg” and spirit. There is no “human” thread or “animal” thread to follow here. They are too interwoven. And these are only a few lines — the entire collection is filled with such boundary crossing cascades.
The above lines do open up another question, though. Why bring up “soul” and “spirit” at all? Why not adhere to a more strictly materialist point of view, where such terms are crossed out? To me, the echo of mysticism that runs through sections of the book — some of the poem titles are “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Prayer,” “Faith,” and “Spirit” — are not meant to refer to the spiritual domain as a literal entity. Instead, they are used as ways of taking human thought to its limit, to the edge of the ineffable.
Like the philosopher Eugene Thacker, Chen is interested in “reframing mysticism as a modern philosophical problematic” (to use Thacker’s term). Chen is not like the eliminative materialists, who argue that human and animal “experience” is nothing but neurons firing and cells shifting. The positivism behind such an approach is too easy and reductive. After all, we don’t experience our being in the world simply as biology and neurology. And an animal can suffer in a way a rock or tree or snowstorm cannot. The experience of suffering (or of having a thought) is different from brain chemistry, even if those experiences are, on a technical level, nothing but brain chemistry.
The difficulty of any nuanced materialism is how to think about the sense we have of the self while at the same time holding in our minds the indifferent and non-human material forces that bring about this self. To pretend consciousness is no different from a river or a breeze is pointless. Yet this “sense” of our self adds an incorporeal element to our world. In other words, there are ghosts in materialism.
3. Nature and its specters
Mark, gramma, trace, and différance refer differentially to all living things, all relations between living and nonliving.
— Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am
In so far as the divine is conceived in radically non-human terms (non-anthropomorphic, abstract, inaccessible, and “dark”), the divine is, in and of itself, not some thing among other things, not a being among other beings — the divine is, strictly, “nothing.”
— Eugene Thacker, Starry Speculative Corpse
Beckett was one of the great writers of this dilemma between human subjectivity and indifferent materiality, between “I” and the silent world that creates and surrounds this “I.” In my previous review about Santiago Vizcaíno’s Destruction in the Afternoon, I discussed Beckett’s pessimism, and how this pessimism is tied to an astringently anti-foundational worldview. One of the hallmarks of this worldview is “nothing” — that is, the notion that the world does not exist as a seamless material whole (contra to the eliminative materialists), a place of pure, natural process. We upset the balance, as do animals (which also “think” and “feel,” albeit in ways quite alien to our own). This upsetting of the balance breaks the ground beneath our feet. We want something — God, History, and Reason are the usual suspects — to mend the rupture, to fill in the gap. We want the seamless whole. But the Big Ideas don’t answer those basic questions anymore, no matter how many white-knuckled attempts are made. Today, a teleological vision is getting harder and harder to retain. We, by our very existence, bring nothingness into being, and yet this nothingness was also always there, before us.
In her poem “Faith,” Chen writes:
Viruses have something to tell you.
Something dark and secret.
The way our bodies were never ours.
Our bodies belong to evil, cruelty, the Sun.
Only the ways our bodies are broken belong to us.
In this way my diseases make me real.
A river of pus is my love of the world,
shifting plates and inarticulate conversations,
vulnerability in the twelfth house.
Viruses are alive: they have something to tell us that is “dark and secret” — and literally so, since viruses are not a given for us to see and touch. Instead, our bodies encounter viruses, and it is an encounter that has little to do with the conscious self. We can take pills and go to the doctor, but the encounter remains somatic and biological. Between the conscious self and virus, there is no dialogue. And due to this interaction between virus and body, the virus tells us “our bodies were never ours.” The implicit pride we so often place in being human, a pride that seems to almost claim we gave birth to ourselves as a species, is undercut by the secret viruses have to tell.
In the next line, Chen provocatively says our bodies “belong to evil, cruelty, the Sun.” Our bodies are not Ideal Forms: they age, they catch colds and diseases, their limbs sometimes break, their joints ache. On the materialist side, these processes are indifferent, but on the side of human experience we sometimes see this process as evil and cruel. In fact, the indifference of our bodies to our selves only adds to this sense of cruelty. The next line reminds me of Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, where he states all happy families are alike, but unhappy ones are unhappy in individual ways. So too, Chen suggest, with our bodies. In health, we are everyone, a generic example of the species. In sickness and pain we become incredibly attuned to our particularity. She then writes of how her diseases make her “real”: they take her out of the soggy mass of “us” and “we.”
The poem then shifts in tone: talk of “evil” is replaced with “love.” “A river of pus is my love of the world,” the poet informs us, and for a moment we are back with the opening lines of the book, where the poet tells us she is the Midas of slop. Pus, slop: what our more humanist selves finds repulsive, the poet finds attractive. The next lines elaborate, suggesting this “love of the world” also contains “shifting plates” and “inarticulate conversations,” as well as “vulnerability.” This list follows, at least obliquely, what the poet says earlier about the broken body leading to the particularized self. Articulate conversations and strength are not part of this “love of the world”: instead, it is the imperfect, fallible human animal.
And what to make of the title “Faith”? As I was discussing above, an interest in the mystic is by no means a contradiction of the materialist. There’s even a sort of mystic atheism, which we find in Bataille and some of Blanchot and Foucault. Chen’s relentless focus on the materialist realm at its weirdest and most unsettling (her next lines after the above quote are “I am my father / inside my mother,” which is as graphic a depiction of one’s conception as you can get) reminds me of the mystic Angela of Foligno, who described grotesque visions of herself drinking blood from Christ’s wounds and kissing his not-yet-risen body with “great joy.” Even further on her mystic journey, she describes God as “a darkness” because he is so utterly beyond our ability to conceive or understand. Obviously, Angela of Foligno wasn’t an atheist. And yet it’s not difficult to see how this branch of mysticism, based on the unknowable and nothingness, relates to materialism. I get the sense Chen’s title here is not meant to be simply satiric — her materialism in the poem standing as an implied rebuke against what we conventionally mean by “faith” — but that the “evil” and “love” that gives this poem such charge reveals a type of faith, though one at odds with what we usually mean by that term. This is a faith related more to non-human chance than anthropomorphic design.
4. Planet and environment
The 8th House is such a vibrant collection that I’ve been able to discuss a few of its features. But I did also want to briefly bring up how this book might relate to such issues as climate change, species extinction, pollution, etc. — all those concerns that fall under the umbrella heading of “the environment.” This collection is by no means a book about the environment, at least in the usual sense. There are no poems about fracking or Exxon or rising floodwaters. And yet I would argue that a book like this — a collection that challenges our hubristic assumptions about a special human destiny, and that challenges our more sentimental/anthropomorphic notions of the earth as something we must “save” (the earth will do just fine without us) — is as politically daring as more issue-oriented environmental poetry (and maybe even more so). Chen’s poetry, with its perpetually unfolding materialist assemblages, reminds us that “the human” is an aspect of environment, and by doing so encourages us to imagine a relationship between self and world that is less controlling, less exploitative. The environment here is not a passive, senseless mass waiting for humans to shape it for good or ill – rather, the environment is alive, and it is us (along with a million other things). “I am not a vegetarian but I have a sympathy with meat,” the poet tells us. And later in the poem, she writes:
I have meat the way a body has networks.
The way a network has psychosis.
The way corpses have no body. The way souls have mechanism.
I love them openly and we hold nothing back and the weight of our
agreement breaks my back
I lie here cut in half as the spinal lubricant shines
out of me out of my nose and soul.
As lines like these show, this collection asks us to do more than think environmentally. Instead, it reveals the patterns in which we are thoroughly enmeshed, the meat and the soul, the corpses that “have no body” (being things) and the souls with their “mechanism” (being brain). If love is here, as these lines imply, it is not for an environment “out there” but for a cosmology of which humans are a peculiar manifestation. And such a rethinking will make some readers, I imagine, uncomfortable. There is a massive vitality to this book, but it’s not one that places us in its center.