How to Do Words with Things

How to Do Words with Things

Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics
Ira Livingston
Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

One of a series of eco-critical reviews, Stephen Dougherty explores
the new ways that “matter is made to matter” in Ira Livingston’s
writing on science and literature. The payoff of an ecocriticism
grounded in the materiality of language itself, can bee seen by the
strong political positioning toward the end of Dougherty’s essay.

Stefanie Boese:

Stephen Dougherty critiques the usefulness of systems theory in his review of Andrew McMurry’s Environmental Renaissance: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Systems of Nature, calling instead for “a new sense of how epistemology and ontology can complement one another.” Read the complete review here.


Another Foucauldian work, like Livingston’s concerned with performativity and self-reference in literary theory, is Rey Chow’s Age of the World Target, given the third degree by reviewer Ken Hirschkop. Read the review here.


A good place to start with Ira Livingston’s new book is with the Introduction, or the “Introductory Vignette.” The fact that we don’t get there until Chapter 6 says a lot about the logic behind the book’s composition. If we don’t arrive at the Introduction until Chapter 6, it is because the chapters do not build upon one another sequentially. Rather, they are linked together, as Livingston puts it, “like a school of fish or a flock of birds” (3). Or, as he likewise suggests, the book is like a hologram in that all the parts contain images of the other parts; and some version of the whole is reflected in each of the parts. Hence the belated Introduction is not really belated since it does not function as an indispensable roadmap for the trip. Neither is it really an Introduction since… well, we don’t get there until Chapter 6. Some of the flock flies before it.

It is notable too that the “Introductory Vignette” isn’t about literary theory, though the back cover clearly advises the reader that this is a book about “Literary Theory.” Instead, it is about rocks. Specifically, it is about the striking red, white, and crystal-clear banded Lake Superior agates that Livingston used to collect when he was a child growing up in Minnesota. The creation and diffusion of these semi-precious stones, Livingston explains, is the product of a unique combination of not so unique geologic, ecological, and historical processes that go back at least a billion years: erupting molten, petrification, rain, percolation, crystallization, erosion, farming, quarrying, road-building. As Livingston sees it, there is something elegant in the simultaneously fundamental and complex geology of agates:

… like an elemental game of rock-paper-scissors played out through all its permutations: liquid rock breaks through solid, air petrifies in rock, waters from earth and sky pulse through rock, rock dissolves in and separates from water, rock replaces air, water freezes into ice, ice grinds rock, rock separates from rock. (32)

The simplicity of the game is marked in language by the repetition and recombination of the basic word-units: “rock” (fire and earth); “water” (running smoothly, freezing fast); and “air” (low-density medium, fine-grained abrasive). Yet out of the reiteration of these simple word-units, plodding across the page with a droning measure that seems so unpromising, a greater complexity emerges. As with the elements themselves, out of the recombining of the basic words used to mark their absence new words and many more combinatory possibilities come into being:

The alternating bands of agates seem to make them fingerprints of these successive phases, reechoed in the subsequent waves of ice and of peoples in their collections and distributions of themselves and of agates. Even the atoms of which they are made - the atoms themselves aptly enough described as concentric nuggets of waves, or the larger layered nugget of our planet, or the solar system and the galaxy, concentric waves of nuggets - seem like fractal echoes of agates at different scales. The universe, one might say, is an agate of agates. (32)

The “Introductory Vignette” is thus about the geology of agates, but it is more about the fractal lesson of the hologram: the refraction of the micro-universe in the cosmos - of all in all. Although it is almost too elegant for words, the lesson here is also very much about words. What if we were to take such a universal constructive principle seriously? For one thing, it would mean recognizing that the very words we use to express such a world view are part of the fractal design. It would mean opening up the cognitive gates to the possibility that words like “rock,” “water,” and “air” are related to those things which they name in a far more intimate and productive manner than we normally think. We think much more readily in referential terms. The word names the thing because the word is transcendent. It is not a thing, so it may name the thing that is. But there is another way of looking at it: “that language is kin to the world it inhabits” (4); that it “cannot be understood as a God-given gift or a free human creation or a tool to be bent to human will, but only as an emergent and semiautonomous phenomenon, something more like galaxies, ecosystems, and bacteria” (4). And rocks. Thus the fractal lesson of the hologram as rendered in the story of agates does in fact turn out to be about “Literary Theory;” but then “Literary Theory” turns out to be about much more than words. On the fractal model its purview is the universe and all it contains.

As the preceding discussion suggests, Livingston’s field of intellectual investigation is a sprawling and unwieldy space. It is an “interzone” between theories of performativity and self-reference in literary theory and cultural studies on one hand, and “related notions” of complexity theory, systems theory, autopoesis, and other theories of self-emergent phenomena in the hard (or at least harder) sciences on the other hand. This interzone is a space between the formerly isolate and mutually aloof Two Cultures. Between the book covers the reader shall find herself “between science and literature,” in the still uncanny space where two becomes one, where the story of agates turns out to be a story about the nature of linguistic signs. This interzone, a mysterious and alien new land cooling and congealing in some places, still heaving itself up like fiery molten lava in others, is the product, as Livingston puts it, of “an ongoing sea change in the relations among ways of knowing and engaging the world, in the discursive ecology” (1). Relations between different kinds of knowledge are changing, but so are the distinct bodies of knowledge themselves, the changes in internal structures reflecting the changing connections between the various disciplines on the fractal model. Livingston’s term for this interzone is autopoetics, obviously inspired by autopoesis, as first coined by Humberto Maturana to name “the study of ‘self-making’ systems,” and later adapted by Niklas Luhmann to describe similar processes in social systems.

It is difficult to do justice to the myriad facets of Livingston’s autopoetics in a few short review pages, which is part of its beauty on one hand, and part of its beastliness on the other. The space between of autopoetics is in some ways like a central computer room with fat cables and cords bursting out of the clustered cabinets and snaking across the floor every which way. Even if the cables are clearly labelled: “system,” “emergence,” “evolution,” “relativity,” “chaos,” “ecology,” “diversity,” “complexity,” still they are heaped upon each other in great bundles, making it very difficult indeed to move around and to really get one’s bearings. The book is about too much, though it is only about two hundred pages long. On the other hand, its complexity is reducible to simpler components, which is itself one of the main principles of self-making systems. More than anything else, Between Science and Literature is about the changing relation between things and words. That’s enough, and almost too much all by itself. Then again, there is no way to make such a lesson easy. For what Livingston is trying to communicate is still partly incommunicable, at least by the lights of the Foucauldian model that undergirds the whole historical argument of the book in spite of the third degree to which, on occasion, Livingston submits Foucault. Some things cannot be fully articulated or even clearly thought because the episteme, or the discursive ecology, does not allow it.

Nevertheless, for Livingston we are at an historical juncture where the evidence is persuasive enough to hazard the announcement: the modern episteme is crumbling away into the sea of time, and perhaps “man” along with it, though he doesn’t have much to say about that. But still everything is changing. Rare and momentous realignments of knowledge are now making it such that the literary theorist must also be a scientist, because there is no longer so much difference between the two. The human sciences, the social sciences, the hard sciences are commingling in all sorts of unholy ways that at the very least makes it easier for the literature professor to feel some continued relevance in spite of the old slings and arrows of institutional marginalization. Less cynically, and more in keeping with the book’s cluster of theoretical concerns, for Livingston these enormously powerful but also still largely invisible rearrangements mean that the study of language must change to keep up with the changing nature of language: “If language is of the world, like galaxies and ecosystems, this means it participates in what it represents, though how privileged it may be either as a representative or as a participant remains to be seen” (11).

Language, culture, participates in that which it names. It plays a part in the never-ending processes by which all things are riven by identity-in-difference. An agate is not “the thing itself” any more than is a bacteria or a book. All identities are “emergent and internally heterogenous constellations in ongoing ecologies” (110). Does language make it so? Or do things wield their own power over words? Here is another way of posing the question: where do we draw the line between culture and nature? Better yet, how can we draw the line if we take the principle of performativity theory seriously, and if we endorse the fundamental deconstructive insight (likewise the contemporary physicist’s insight) that nothing is simply, or “naturally,” what it is? These are big questions, both for cultural studies, which has been guilty in the past of reducing the world to words, and for science, which, apt to see things otherwise, is perhaps only now becoming more seriously aware of the limitations of representation.

But such questions beg another, more immediate question. Whose performativity theory is this? Livingston glosses over the divisions and differences within the realm of theory regarding the limits of performativity as a viable ontology. There is a lot of discussion and debate that is happening now, though we don’t hear anything about it. Perhaps, though, for Livingston to be able to tell his story he must exclude performativity itself from all the disorienting flux that roils through his book. The decision may be entirely justified. But it does mean that Livingston’s performativity possesses an artificial coherence that belies the process-oriented ontology he elsewhere extols. Is this J. L. Austin’s performativity? Is it Judith Butler’s? Is it Paul DeMan’s, or Derrida’s? Does its salience for Livingston come from the theory of speech acts, or is it motivated by a more definitively theatrical notion of performance?

Or is it more like that which Karen Barad has been crafting and clarifying for nearly a decade? If performativity theory shall ever succeed at “meeting the universe halfway,” which is the title of Barad’s new book about performativity and quantum theory, then it needs to think in new ways about how matter comes to matter. In her theory of agential realism, Barad seeks to move beyond both Foucault’s analytic of power and Butler’s performative elaboration in order to explain how discursive practices help to produce material bodies. As does Livingston, Barad sees the world as a whole rather than divided up into culture and nature, or words and things. She also struggles rather monumentally to warp philosophy and science, working the grain of existing warps (especially quantum physics), so as to forge her way towards what she calls a “performative metaphysics” - one where the things that humans work upon are granted agency in their own right as “intra-acting ‘components’ ” of ontologically inseparable phenomena. For Barad, following Niels Bohr, “the primary epistemological unit is not independent objects with inherent boundaries and properties but rather phenomena” (“Posthumanist” 815). As she elaborates, on her agential realist account “phenomena do not merely mark the epistemological inseparability of ‘observer’ and ‘observed’; rather, phenomena are the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting components… It is through specific agential intra-actions that the boundaries and the properties of the ‘components’ of phenomena become determinate and that particular embodied concepts become meaningful” (815).

Livingston makes provocative gestures towards roughly the kind of performativity that Barad articulates with considerable analytic precision. Take, for example, Livingston’s rehearsal of historian Peter Linebaugh’s story of the 18th and early 19th century English shipbuilding industry. According to Linebaugh, the modern concepts of “raw materials” and “finished products” were created through the changing material relationships between owners of industry, artisans and craftsmen, and the wood they used to construct their ships. As Livingston recounts, prior to the modern era the technical details of shipbuilding were controlled by all the tradesmen and craftsmen involved in production. Under this arrangement, the workers’ monetary compensation was of secondary importance to their “customary compensations.” These came mainly in the form of “chips,” the wood materials left over from all the steps along the way towards the ship’s completion. As owners of capital began to wield greater influence in the production process, and as the workers’ labor became increasingly rationalized through the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the wood became a highly contested material. The idea of what the wood was in itself, so to speak, was free-floating, occupying an amorphous ontological space somewhere between and including raw material, compensation, commodity, and product component. When Samuel Bentham (brother of Jeremy Bentham) set about reforming the shipbuilding industry in a manner that distinctly prefigured 20th century Taylorization, the wood, the labor, and the profit began settling into the conceptual spaces that would capture them for modernity. Here is Livingston’s commentary:

Linebaugh’s account of how “the technical organization of production was not separable from the forms of worker’s self-organization”… illustrates what I have been calling metacleavage: the way the world is cut up and joined together by labor is linked to the cutting up and joining together of the labor. The hierarchized binary opposition between management and labor was made to displace the assorted trades with their own complex internal hierarchies and negotiated relationships with each other. And in recounting this process, it is necessary at least to mention some of the technical details of scarphs and mortise and tenon joints, knees, treenails, dry docks, floating dams, because all of these are concrete instances of how the various pieces of a ship are cut up and joined with each other and with other things. They are articulated, in turn, with a heterogenous and multidimensional network of articulations: of space (such as the fortification of walls and policing of shipyard entrances and exits) and time (as in the standardizing of the workday and the workweek) and of material (into chips and timber), acts (as in the redefinition of customary compensations as theft), and processes (as in the increasing polarization of design and manufacture, mental and manual labor). (118)

Livingston’s analysis of the changing and highly articulated nature of the apparatus of shipbuilding - the relations between the raw materials, the science, the technology, the organization of labor, the deals struck between labor and management, how all of these elements both impinged on and were impinged upon by myriad external factors - this industrial analysis calls to mind Barad’s theorization of the scientific apparatus. As Barad explains, scientific apparati (measuring instruments) “are not inscription devices, [or] scientific instruments set in place before the action happens… They are neither neutral probes of the natural world nor structures that deterministically impose some particular outcome” (816). Rather, like Livingston’s shipbuilding apparatus, they are “dynamic (re)configurings of the world, specific agential practices/intra-actions/performances through which specific exclusionary boundaries are enacted” (816). And just as the components of the shipbuilding apparatus on Livingston’s account are joined together by the cleavages that separate them on the outside, and that internally keep them from ever being things in themselves, Barad’s scientific apparati “have no inherent ‘outside’ boundary. This indeterminacy of the ‘outside’ boundary represents the impossibility of closure - the ongoing intractivity in the iterative reconfiguring of the apparatus of bodily production” (816).

For both Livingston and Barad, the ontology of the metacleavage, the indeterminacy of the outside boundary, also entails that we rethink what we mean by agency, and that we start extending to the world the agency we have so long reserved for ourselves. If we are in fact part of the nature that we seek to understand, as Livingston clearly urges us to consider, then that means that it is part of us too. Getting back to the shipbuilding example, Livingston insists that we are wrong to interpret Linebaugh’s history lesson as being merely about labor conflict. We should not forget the wood. The wood is not a passive and inert substance merely awaiting inscription by culture and language. Rather, it has an active part to play in a drama that includes human beings, technologies, and ideologies. Since the grain of the wood determines how it must be handled, what you can and can’t do with it, and how in effect it will become part of human interactions, the wood itself has an important role in the history of shipbuilding and modern labor practices, not to mention environmental history. Livingston’s explanation here is among the fine moments in his book:

The grain not just enacts a negative resistance (which can still be misconstrued as the brute resistance of material) but also constitutes part of the positive “woodiness” of wood: looking more closely at the grain reveals the networklike structure that orchestrates the various flows that constitute the living tree and give wood the buoyancy and strength and flexibility and manipulability that make it usable for ships and chips. The grain represents the history of the tree’s interaction with water and light; in other words, the tree was always better described as interface and event than as interior and structure, and so it is that our story has also been part of this event. (119)

The story of shipbuilding is not just a story. It is part of the discursive ecology. And the book in which the story is inscribed is not just a book. Like the old ships, it too comes from trees whose networklike structure is not just a symbol or a metaphor for the network of discourse. Rather, the trees’ networklike structure is yet another part of the fractal design of a universe that just so happens to include discourse as one of its components. It’s not all about words, and it’s not all about things. It’s about how words and things are sutured together.

Which brings us back to Foucault. As I suggested earlier, Livingston’s relationship to Foucault is ambivalent, though in the end he does turn out to be, borrowing a label that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick uses to describe herself, a “goodish Foucauldian subject.” He is both compelled by and deeply suspicious of “the Old Testament of the Fouculdian faith” (23) as embodied in The Order of Things. The episteme as an abstract and enclosed system is, in retrospect, too much a product of its own rigorously structuralist historical moment. And the power that Foucault invested in himself to glean unseeable things like a biblical prophet fosters in Livingston a certain wariness, in spite of his deep appreciation for Foucault’s rhetoricity. Still, like Foucault Livingston is ready to play the prophet. The new paradigm is here, chiefly characterized by renewed interest in self-referentiality and performativity in both literature and the sciences; self-organization and complexity in biology; the rise of globalization in politics and economics; the digitalization of information and the rise of “the network society,” etc. On the surface, Between Science and Literature sounds suspiciously like many other recent and not so recent books proclaiming with utopian zeal the rise of the information age, or the network culture, or the new digital renaissance, or the brave new global era. But it is different too. Livingston is a prophet on one hand, and a debunker on the other. He always maintains a certain ironical distance from “the great epistemic shift.” That doesn’t mean he is insincere. But he recognizes that some of the people trying to sell the new episteme - people with great power to shape public opinion and public policy - are insincere, or at least seriously on the make. Some of them are as slick and oily as a Congressman up for re-election. Some of them are Congressmen, touting this or that corporate initiative benefiting this or that media conglomerate. Some of them are CEOs and assorted corporate acolytes. Some of them, like Stuart Kauffman, are science popularizers for whom the new paradigm of complexity and self-organization is vindication (on Livingston’s account) for ever more ruthless and exploitative economics.

Such awareness is extremely important. The abstract and messianic nature of historical change in The Order of Things is no longer persuasive, at least from a pragmatic perspective. The epistemic shift won’t happen (and it is not happening) of its own accord, or in a privileged and miraculous moment. Like everything else, it is a process. It will be shaped by ongoing power struggles between people with differing political and social agendas and competing visions for the future. Though the millennium is still brand new, we have already seen enough to know this is not the Age of Aquarius. “Like the United States,” Livingston writes, “the democratic promise of the episteme will have to be worked and tricked and wrung from it”(24). Even the performative promise of readjusted relations with our ecologies is nothing more than promise, or human hopefulness. Perhaps a mutation in language really is occurring. Precisely who or what stands to benefit remains to be seen.

Works Cited

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

_____. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 28.3 (2003): 801-831.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage, 1973.

Linebaugh, Peter. The London Hanged. London: Allen Lane, 1991.