Edited by Anne Goarzin and Maria Parsons
Peter Lang, Reimagining Ireland series, 2020. 181 pp.
The title of this book claims newness, innovation, novelty, and it relies on a theory which equally aims at renewing critical discourse on literature and the arts. As indicated in the introduction, the volume stems from an international research group on “New Materialism”, a set of terms which in itself raises a number of questions. In what ways is new materialism new, and what is the exact meaning of materialism? The volume gives several answers to the question, first, by providing references to the main theoreticians in the field, second, by giving examples of how the theory can apply to different artistic practices in the context of contemporary Ireland. The authors in the volume refer to the same set of thinkers and authors, including, among others, Karen Barad, Donna J. Haraway, Rosi Braidotti, Jane Bennett, and Stacey Alaimo. These theorists are responsible for coining such intriguing and important concepts as nomadism, diffracted reading, vibrant matter, situated knowledge, trans-corporeality, “OOO” (for “object-oriented ontologies”), and sympoeisis. Many of these “neo-materialists” straddle the fields of science and the humanities: Barad is a physicist, Haraway a historian of science and technologies, Jane Bennett is an environmental studies scholar and philosopher. As opposed to the Hegelian or Marxist emphasis on materialism in its relation to idealism, new materialism relies on the claim articulated by Karen Barad that “matter matters”. According to Anne Goarzin and Maria Parsons in their introduction, “New materialism draws on combinations of feminist theory, science, environmental studies, queer theory, posthumanism, philosophy, cultural theory, biopolitics, critical race theory, and other approaches” (3).
This “mash-up” of theories sounds very much like an invitation to follow unbeaten tracks and to unashamedly cross frontiers and borders that delineate and constrain not just categories of the human and the nonhuman, races and nations, but basically all the binary oppositions that Jacques Derrida already claimed needed to be deconstructed. Indeed, one of the images favoured by new materialist thinkers is that of the zigzagging line, which goes together with diffraction and nomadism. The zigzagging in this volume appears in the deliberate emphasis placed on other forms of artistic expression than literature, traditionally positioned at the top of the hierarchy meant to separate language and representation from “matter”, as denounced by new materialism. One of the basic notions implied by new materialism is indeed the return to embodied or “vibrant” matter – the nonhuman, as in the animal, the rock, the tree, or the rain – as opposed to the single and excessive reliance on language and representation. Thus the volume gives voices to several visual artists and one jazz musician; what’s more, the chapters are not all presented in the form of critical analyses, but also include interviews or reports of lived experiences. Art here is regarded as a doing, and not just the production of a critical discourse on these practices. The critic is also challenged to put his/her subjectivity at play, speaking in his/her own name and speaking TO someone instead of ABOUT someone, while holding on firmly to the theoretical background which underlies the whole project.
The first part of the volume is thus entitled “intra-actions”, so as to stress the deliberate effort to escape the traditional position of superiority that critical discourse adopts towards artistic production, considered as a mere object that needs to be dissected, described, and labelled. Intra-action also points to the collaborative nature of both the works of art referenced and the production of the discourse on those works, in the shape of conversations – one chapter is even a conversation among the artists who collaborated on the same project. Visual artists – painters, photographers, sculptors – are the most liable to demonstrate a special relationship with “matter”, whether “embodied”, or “vibrant”. What is more, those interviewed here share the same concerns as theoreticians of New Materialism, in particular about ecological and environmental issues.
Such is the case for instance for Siobhán McDonald, “whose practice is engaged with understanding how to frame the narratives that lie at the heart of the Anthropocene”(16). Another aspect that connects McDonald to the main theoreticians of New Materialism is the way her work is “at the intersection between art and science” (26): she was involved in several scientific experimentations, including a trip to the Artic to observe the melting of the glaciers, and collaborated with the European Space Agency. McDonald’s practice is also characterized by “a collaborative collision between art and science”, according to Maria Parsons, who led the interview with her. McDonald is an intriguing artist who was involved with a group of people labelled the Hack Circus, and defines her work as “autobiography, speculative writing and speculative making” (31). But her life and work were also deeply altered by the death of her second child, an experience of grief and mourning which she tried to “regurgitate” in a series called Pellet, a word which usually applies to birds.
Labels and definitions get mixed up as in a bird’s pellet as well in the next chapter, which gives voice to a set of artists working in architecture, landscape designing, and film-making, and collaborated on a project called “Contagion” – an ominous term if there was ever one, now that the COVID pandemic has broken out. However, the common point between the three artists is their interest in maps and borders, or, rather, the possibilities of trespassing them. Like the other artists included in the volume, Rachel Gallagher, Jack Hogan, and Moira Tierney have gathered a multiplicity of experiences of journeys and travels abroad, thus evading, even ignoring, the constraints of national identity which for decades loomed so large in Irish culture.
The limitations of constricting definitions of Irish identity are further undermined by the next artistic project analysed by its own promoter, called “The Plurality of Existence in the Infinite Expanse of Space and Time”. Clodagh Emoe’s project was about the system of Direct Provision in Ireland which, according to her, creates a “liminal state”. The project encompassed several disciplines and was meant to give a space where asylum seekers could have a positive experience and contribute to Irish culture. The refugees were invited to plant a garden, to write poems which were exhibited at VISUAL Art Center in Carlow, and to produce audio-works which were displayed in several Irish towns.
Part II of the volume, entitled “Bodies, Performance, memory” contains a piece by Anne Karhio on the relevance of dirt and matter in some recent Irish poetry, sometimes termed “Irish neo-modernism” or “Irish Neo-Avant-Garde”, and which has turned its back to the representational mode. Drawing on an essay by Jussi Parikka, “New Materialism as Modern Theory: Medianatures and Dirty Matter”, Karhio explores the works of emerging poets Trevor Joyce, Randolph Healy, Billy Mills and Catherine Walsh, taken as examples of the rising interest in Irish poetry in the “politics and poetics of materiality” (87). However, Karhio insists that ecological concerns, as well as an awareness of the threats of new media technologies, are also illustrated by more “mainstream” Irish poets such as Paul Muldoon, Paula Meehan, and the late Derek Mahon, who developed a rich imagery of rubbish, waste, dirt, junk, etc. (89). Critics have stressed Meehan’s environmental sensibility, while Muldoon, in his poem “Dirty Data”, uses the idea of “dirt” to describe the processes of information networks and storage. In keeping with the general questioning of borders underlying the volume, part of Karhio’s article crisscrosses with another chapter as she comments on Crocosmia, Clodagh Emoe’s art-project summarised above.
Issues of embodiment, environment, and memory are central to Lisa Fitzgerald’s reading of three “performances”, a “living” one by Dorothy Cross called Chiasm, in which the artist traces “memory and its connection to the physical landscape” (99). The second, a video piece by Nigel Rolfe called Into the Mire, explores the central Irish motif of bogland. The third piece is a dance called Walking Pale, by Junk Ensemble, commissioned by An Post for the GPO in Dublin, and which investigated the idea of the “radical female” (103). Fitzgerald’s chapter is one of the most theoretically informed of all in the book, as she tries to demonstrate new materialism’s ability to re-think the relation between the body, memory, and the environment in performance studies.
Fiona McCann returns to the all-important notion of borders in her study of Mia Gallagher’s “unwieldy” novel Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland, which, according to McCann, illustrates the idea of fluid, shifting boundaries not just from a geographical and historical perspective, but also from the point of view of sex and gender. McCann responds to Gallagher’s entangled novel by deploying an equally intricate and interdependent network of theoretical approaches, including quantum physics, diffraction, the decolonial, and queer theory. She describes Gallagher’s aesthetic in the novel as “a new materialist border poetics” (110), but reads it also as a critique of heteronormativity, of the traditional family, of colonialism, of neo-liberal economy, and even of the ideal of perfection, in the way that the novel flaunts “deliberate imperfection” (122).
McCann’s insistence on liminal spaces in the novel links her reading to other chapters of the volume, including Part III, entitled “Shared Places and diffracted Voices”, in which Eva Urban-Devereux analyses two productions by Kabosh Theatre Company as displaying a “fractured sense of liminality” (127). Liminality, defined as “a state of flux between two different sates of being” (127), is central both to Green and Blue, by Laurence McKeown, and in Lives in Translation, by Rosemary Jenkinson, two community-based performances. Lives in Translation has in common with Clodagh Emoe’s Crocosmia a focus on asylum-seekers in Ireland, while Green and Blue tackles the topic of borders which underlies much of the contents of the volume. If the difficulty of bridging divisions through the plurality of languages and cultures is obvious among the refugees in Lives in Translation, misunderstanding and failures to communicate also loom large between the RUC officer and the Garda officer on each side of the Irish border in Green and Blue, miscommunications they eventually overcome. This understanding is of course threatened by the prospect of the return of a hard border as a consequence of Brexit. Hard borders can only entail traumas, as is the case for the refugees in Lives in Translation, who had to cross numerous frontiers before arriving to Dublin or Belfast. The play is based on real testimonies, gathered by Jenkinson, an artistic choice proper to Kabosh Theatre Company, who “humanize political and social information by creating protagonists and situations on stage based on real people and real-life issues that people can empathise with” (142).
This search for empathy is echoed by Marie Mianowski’s report of her experience with Narrative 4, the association founded by novelist Colum McCann and based on story exchanges between two partners, with a view to engineering social change. Mianowski argues that Narrative 4, as a performative methodology, not only potentially revitalises our experience of social relationships but also our experience of reading, teaching, and writing fiction. As most authors in the volume do with their subject, Mianowski analyses Narrative 4 through her lived experience of it, as she herself has become implicated in the association.
As noted, the volume is untypical in that it does not foreground literature as the most accomplished artistic expression and gives a voice to other kinds of artists. Thus, the last chapter, a conversation between Fabrice Mourlon and Northern Irish jazz musician David Lyttle, continues to foreground interaction and interplay as well as the involvement of the academic’s subjectivity and empathy. Lyttle, like other artists in the volume, has travelled extensively, bringing jazz to such unusual parts of the world as China. He hates routine and seeks the most unusual places to perform, including some Irish islands where jazz music has never been heard before.
One of the most rewarding benefits of reading the volume is to understand the relevance of the concepts of nomadism, fluidity, or diffraction as deployed by New Materialism to issues currently at stake in Ireland, such as the situation of asylum seekers under the rule of Direct Provision, the threat of the return to a hard border after Brexit, the destruction of natural resources, and, more largely, the various ills engendered by the Irish state’s full conversion to neo-liberalism: homelessness, bad housing, growing social inequalities, and uneven access to health facilities. More than ever, at a time of successive crises – economic, social, environmental, and now sanitary – new ways of understanding the world around us are needed, through empathy, situated knowledge, intra-actions, and return to what “matters”.