Entangled Bodies in a Stubbornly Material-Textual World

"Mossification" by  Nicole Crozier . A portrait of lichen, moss and Sanita Fejzić.

"Mossification" by Nicole Crozier. A portrait of lichen, moss and Sanita Fejzić.

By reasserting the stubborn materiality of our interdependent, entangled and embodied existence with nonhumans, how might we forge better ethical relations between humans and animals, plants and elements like water, air and land? In this short essay, I’d like to build on the work of material feminists who suggest that human bodies are open-ended systems entangled with nonhuman bodies. If we accept that our bodies are porous with other beings, including very small-scale beings like bacteria, then the boundary between inner and outer is fluid. As Astrida Neimanis reminds us in Bodies of Water, water not only makes up the vast majority of our bodies, it also undeniably positions human bodies as part of the natural world, not separate from it. Human beings are always already more-than-human; we are biological, present, physical bodies, entangled with and enmeshed in our material, natural-cultural world. What we call a “human being” is also, simultaneously, a text—a social construct. In this sense, discourse not only determines what is meaningful to us, it also has the power to subversively redefine what matters. We are currently faced with the rapid extinction of species, the reckless destruction of the earth’s biodiversity as a result of massive resource extraction, the overconsumption of (cheap) goods, and staggering levels of pollution in contemporary neoliberal societies. If we accept that we are entangled with all beings on the planet, then what kinds of ethical responsibilities do we have toward ourselves, that is, toward the whole?

Karen Dale and Yvonne Latham claim that we are entangled with living, breathing beings and things, including rocks and minerals, and so on:

By ‘entanglement’ we indicate that human and non-human materialities are inescapably and intimately connected, following the work of Karen Barad (2003, 2007). These entanglements are heterogeneous, interdependent, co-constitutive and dynamic; they are not mere assemblages or collections, but neither are they fixed or essential (167).

They suggest that “recognising humanity’s mutual interdependency with the materialities of the world is the first step to developing a different ethical relationship with them” (169). In other words, they articulate a deeply relational model of material existence that calls on us to understand our humanity through our relationship with the material world. 

I was born in communist Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. My birth certificate, no longer valid, was replaced by a new one from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) when I was seven years old, a country I lived in for a few months during the Siege of Sarajevo—too short a time for me to identify as being from any specific country (Yugoslavia, which no longer existed, or BiH, in which I barely lived) but too long for me forget what humans are capable of doing in the name of ethnic difference. Having lived through the last major re-mapping of Europe’s borders and the longest siege in modern history, I came to see countries (power structures) and cultures (knowledge structures) as secondary to material conditions that forced my family into extreme life and death situations of survival.

I spent five years of my childhood as a refugee, moving from country to country, language to language, culture to culture and, during this time, the body and its basic need for food, shelter and sleep took center stage. Ironically, living as a non-citizen, in poverty, in vulnerable and precarious political situations, I realized the overwhelming impact that power and knowledge structures have in shaping our destinies. Growing up, I understood quickly and intuitively the dangers that face outsider groups, all those “out theres”: first as a Bosniak from a culturally Muslim background, I learned how small of a difference was needed to solicit neighbours to kill one another. Later, as a refugee, I understood what it meant to be a second class “citizen.” Although my material conditions improved considerably when I became a Canadian citizen, I learned how to navigate a gendered, racialized, heteronormative, class society as an androgynous woman, a lesbian, the non-biological mother of my son, and as a poet and writer with a low socio-economic status. With every new difference that I embodied, I rode the waves of a matrix of power that positioned and repositioned me along a network of privilege and oppression. As a white-passing immigrant Canadian, I was privileged with access to culture and education, but experienced homophobia and discrimination especially after I cut my hair short and was no longer straight-passing.

The word “hybrid” either comes easily or with extraordinary resistance to people from the Balkans, a region marked by war and conflict alongside nationalistic and ethnic divisions. For BiH, the most culturally complex country of ex-Yugoslavia, hybridity is a space of hope with the potential to “destabilize and disrupt the normativity of national cultural forms and practices and homogenous identities” (Bhabha qtd in Takševa and Schwartz). Dominant political discourse categorizes people from BiH as Bosniak, Croat or Serb, leaving ethnically hybrid Bosnians—for example children of war rape—as “abject others”[1]. Given my unique life experience, my situated knowledge of the political and cultural potential of hybridity extends beyond cultural and ethnical differences. I’m interested in the positive potential of hybridity as a movement toward distributive justice for all beings and elements on the planet. This vision of hybridity is deeply embedded in practices of ethical interdependence, a movement toward equitable power relations between humans and nonhumans and a radical refusal to do harm. If we redefine who we are in such a way as to see ourselves hybrid with nonhumans, then it follows (hopefully), that how we relate to ourselves and others must also undergo transformation.

Women, like children, and nonhuman beings, have always been collateral damage in power struggles between countries. If the twentieth century is marked by civil rights movements—women’s emancipation, Marxist articulations of workers’ rights, the struggle for the abolition of class structures, movements against racial segregation and discrimination, LGBTQ+ rights, Indigenous rights, animal rights—how do we labour to stop the subjugation of all nonhuman beings, including trees, rivers, and others who are “voiceless” in the limited view of speaking in ways humans have been conditioned to listen to? Land and bodies of water are usually treated as property, not as living beings with rights. If things are changing now, as we have recently seen in some countries such as Colombia whose “Supreme Court declared that the Amazon is a legal person with rights—to be protected, conserved and restored—and ordered the state to reduce deforestation” (Banda), the problem remains that even if we give citizenship rights to nonhumans, and treat them like persons before the law in the same way we treat Corporations as persons, nonhuman beings continue to be perceived as other than, separate from, and independent of humans. If #IdleNoMore, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and #Resistance150 have taught us anything, it’s that legal systems perpetually fail to live up to their promise of embodying and delivering distributive justice, equality and truth.

It is not enough, then, for colonial state powers such as Canada to simply give legal rights to the beings it subjugates, irrelevant of their difference; a profound shift in the way we understand ourselves and relate to one another must occur, which in turn may result in a radical reorganizing of the very power and knowledge structures that created conditions of oppression in the first place. I am speaking here of a cultural revolution in which words like “human being” may be replaced in everyday vernacular with “more-than-human beings,” for example.

“More-than-Human Sanita Fejzić” by Mathieu Laca, oil on linen, 92 x 122 cm, 2018, featuring the writer enmeshed with fungi and crystals.

“More-than-Human Sanita Fejzić” by Mathieu Laca, oil on linen, 92 x 122 cm, 2018, featuring the writer enmeshed with fungi and crystals.

What are the conditions for this kind of cultural shift?

Every now and then, I think of the young tree that dwelled a stone’s throw away from our socially-subsidized apartment in Geneva, Switzerland, where we lived as refugees for years. It wasn’t easy making friends at school as I couldn’t speak a word of French and I was the only Bosnian in my class. Every day, I walked by that radiant tree fenced in on the sidewalk by my building. I don’t know if I identified with its seeming isolation, but I sensed, for reasons I cannot explain, its loneliness. Of course, I could have been projecting—I was lonely too—but my experience felt profoundly reciprocal in ways only a child can apprehend without judgment or (psycho)analysis. I hopped the small metal fence that caged it and placed my palm on its trunk. This was not an imaginary friendship. It was very real. In the space between us, there was care and reciprocity. In the same way countless interspecies friends (humans and dogs, for example) spend time together and touch as a way to connect, that tree and I developed a friendship that changed my worldview. When this tree pops up in my mind, I feel a squeeze and warmth in my chest. Has it grown into an adult, like me? What does it look like? Is it happy? Does it remember me? If I went back, would it recognize me? Of all the friends I made as a refugee in Geneva, this tree is the one has I think of most often. I never named it—the idea never crossed my mind as a child and it seems absurd even now as an adult—who am I to name it? I sometimes worry about the cars, the pollution, the small plot it occupied on a public sidewalk, meters away from the next tree. I hope and, even though I am non-religious, catch myself praying that its roots reach another tree’s so that it’s connected to its kin. I’ve never since befriended a nonhuman like that.

Even pets, who have legal rights in Canada, continue to be second-class citizens. At the gym last week, I overheard a conversation between a man and a woman about killing dogs. They both agreed that if a dog dangerously bites a human, it should be put down (what qualifies as dangerous was not discussed). After all, “they’re animals.” The problem was, said the woman, “that some people think that because they’re pets, they’re no longer animals.” Their comments were couched in the language of care and concern for victims, within a broader framework of human exceptionalism, naturalized hierarchies and systems of order. At first, their comments did not strike me as outrageously outside the cultural norm, even if it was socially unacceptable in urban Ottawa to admit holding such opinions—that is, until the man said, “it’s because of the vegans and feminists. Now people think that animal life has the same value as human life.” I was pleasantly surprised that this man had intuited the connection between ecofeminism and the sexual politics of meat, whose main thesis is that patriarchy’s association of women and animals with nature, chaos, and emotions, is juxtaposed with the masculine, culture, order, and reason. These false dichotomies have served to oppress women and nonhuman beings alike by positioning them as submissive “others” whose domination, objectification, and instrumentalization are not only justifiable but also necessary to the maintenance of social order.

This example is useful because it illustrates that legal rights alone are not enough to transform epistemic injustices. Since ideology acts as the conceptual link between communication and power, refusing the conceptual frameworks that separate human from nature is urgent cultural (and political) work if we are to disarm structures and institutions that perpetuate climate disaster, overconsumption, and species extinction. The cultural myth that encourages us to see humans as separate from nonhuman beings only serves to give some humans permission to objectify, instrumentalize, and commodify animals, plants, elements, and other life forms on earth for the pursuit of corporate and personal well-being.

How does the presence of a tree or group of trees, the Ottawa River, your dog, affect you? When we take the time to consider what our nonhuman friends and neighbours evoke and provoke in us, how interdependent and deeply relational we are with animals, plants and elements, we may begin, hopefully, a movement toward a more ethical and reciprocal model of relationality with all beings on the planet. Given that the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report declaring that hundreds of millions of lives will be at stake should the world warm more than 1.5°C, a target we are projected to reach by 2040, it is necessary to end this piece with a direct and urgent call to action. Let’s hold ourselves accountable for the cultural shift that is necessary if we are to continue flourishing as a species by cultivating an ethical and communal more-than-human self.

[1] Takševa and Schwartz suggest that what we consider as abject others are in fact hybrid embodiments of a heterogeneous whole; in the case of rape children as a result of the Balkan War, these abject others offer an embodied possibility for re-organizing relationships outside of inflexible ethnic lines.

References

Banda, Maria. “Why Should Trees Have Legal Rights? It’s Second Nature.” The Globe and Mail, 1 June 2018. 

Dale, Karen, and Yvonne Latham. “Ethics and Entangled Embodiment: Bodies–materialities Organization.” Organization 22.2 (2015): 166-182. 

Neimanis, Astrida. Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. Bloomsbury Academic: 2017.

Takševa, Tatjana, and Agatha Schwartz. “Hybridity, Ethnicity and Nationhood: Legacies of Interethnic War, Wartime Rape and the Potential for Bridging the Ethnic Divide in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina.” National Identities (2017): 1-18.


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Sanita Fejzić is a Yugolavian-born, immigrant Canadian writer and scholar. Her novella, Psyhomachia, was shortlisted for the 2015 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest and the 2017 Canada ReLit Awards. Her first play, The Blissful State of Surrender, a dramatic comedy about a Bosnian-Canadian family, was workshopped at the National Arts Centre in March 2018. An award-winning poet, Sanita’s short stories and poems have been featured in magazines across the country. She is also a special editor at In/Words Magazine and Press where she was lead editor of Refuge(e) and Dis(s)ent . Sanita is currently completing her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University.

Claire FarleyComment