The all-encompassing material dimension of existence: aspects of new materialism in Marié Heese’s Vuurklip

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Marié Heese’s novel Vuurklip (2013) is an important addition to the small corpus of literary accounts in Afrikaans dealing with the life circumstances of the indigenous people in South Africa’s earliest times. Making use of the reading strategies rooted in new materialism, this study of Vuurklip seeks to establish what value or broadening of perspectives may be found in the specific ways landscape is portrayed in the novel. In so doing, it assumes that landscape implies an external world mediated by or shaped through subjective experience. At the same time, this article sheds light on significant dissimilarities which the novel offers regarding historical literary texts that have, thus far, focused on the variety and complexity of human relations, and on the socio-political effects of our anthropocentric existence.

New materialism is an intellectual movement opposing the so-called “linguistic turn”, the view that language constructs reality. Over the last several decades theorists like Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and Michel Foucault have focused on the power of language to define and constitute our world by providing us with the concepts for these structures. They claim that reality consists of a system of language symbols.

According to Iovino and Oppermann (2012:76) one of the key points of the “material turn” is a pronounced reaction against some radical trends of postmodern and post-structuralist thinking that “dematerialised” the world into theoretical and linguistic constructions. Ecocritics like Cheryl Glotfelty (1996:xxiv) and Karen Barad (2003:308) favour the material turn, emphasising the need to move away from abstract textual theories to recall the concreteness of existential fields and accept the important ways in which material reality affect both human and nonhuman dimensions of life. Their concern goes beyond opposing the separation between object and its representation by means of language. They strongly call into question not only the supremacy of language above the material object itself, but also the trend of allowing linguistic structures to determine our shaping and understanding of the world, and through which the intrinsic functioning of materiality is subverted (Barad 2003:802, Smith 2014a:755). Iovino and Oppermann(2012:76) describe the concern of new materialism as “focus(ing) attention on bodily experiences and bodily practices, where ‘body’ refers not only to the human body but to the concrete entanglements of plural ‘natures’, in both human and more-than-human realms”.

Matter, the basic principle underpinning ecology’s view of the coexistence of all things, is the substance of all living and non-living things and of all material formations, including“human and nonhuman bodies, organic and inorganic substances and forces” (Oppermann 2013:71). Bennett (2010:121) argues that the human attitude toward control and consumption of the natural world has its roots in the inability to notice the broader spectrum of nonhuman forces in and around him. Supporters of new materialism emphasise “the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces, operating in nature” (Bennett 2010:xvi). Nature is not seen as a passive social construct, but rather as a mediating force effecting interaction with, and change in, other elements, including human beings.

Referring to the intermixing of diverse entities, both human and nonhuman, Haraway (2008:161) writes of “the partners in infoldings of the flesh”. Morton (2010b:3) confirms these ideas from the theoretical viewpoint of object-oriented ontology: human and nature are one object, humankind exists right within, and forms part of, a massive, constantly changing object in which all things coexist. This leads to focusing on the reversal of the roles of subject and object and of human and matter, and to the decentralising of humankind (Morton 2011:165).

In studying Vuurklip, applying the reading strategies of new materialism means focusing attention on the way human characters are depicted as part of material existence as a whole. The search is concerned with representations of matter as a vital and dynamic force affecting other elements, even humankind, and on the physical intertwinement and interplay between all forms of life, as well as the interactive involvement between living and non-living things. The article focuses on human and nonhuman roles in the novel, and on the reversal of roles and the roles of dynamic activity and influence played by nonhuman characters.

By using new materialism as a lens through which to study Vuurklip, vivid traces of the literary expression of ideas about the fading away of the conventional division between the spheres of the living and non-living can be found. Gripping manifestations of interchanges and interconnections between various bodily natures serve to emphasise the material interconnections of human corporeality with the more-than-human world. Human qualities portrayed in the nonhuman confirm the idea of human agency having some “echoes in nonhuman nature” (Bennett 2010:xvi), and there is evidence of the ongoing interplay between human and nonhuman characters, affirming their interdependent and interactive coexistence as part of a singular and all-inclusive object.

Vuurklip offersvarious examples of the dynamic force and influence of agencies traditionally considered as non-living but now depicted in active roles. Enormous material consequences in the world they share with humans and other nonhuman presences are unleashed. The novel provides us with presentations of the narrative power of matter; of how nonhuman substances can construct their own productions of meaning in the narratives engraved in human minds and legends. The characters involved are those whose living conditions and understanding of life are moulded by the natural forces that combine human and nonhuman lives in the processes of evolution. Vuurklip is a vivid account of situations that illustrate the inversion of conventional relations between subject and object. Nonhuman voices dominate those of the human characters, opening new insights into the relationship between humans and matter, and between human beings and the environment.

This study sheds light on the way new materialism brings about a new way of reading texts, enhancing awareness of material exchange, and promoting a sense of connection with the material world. The current processes of objectifying the natural world and the decreasing interaction between its living and non-living entities have contributed to humankind’s attitude of control and consumption. The reading strategies of new materialism may stimulate a change in perceptions and actions. Following these strategies turns Vuurklip into a mind-broadening reading experience, illuminating the all-inclusive material dimension of existence.

Keywords: Marié Heese; material dimension of existence; new materialism; object- oriented ontology; portrayal of landscape; Vuurklip.

Read the article in Afrikaans: Die allesomvattende materiële dimensie van ons bestaan: aspekte van die nuwe materialisme in Vuurklip van Marié Heese

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