Black Goo: Forceful Encounters with Matter in Europe's Muddy Margins


This essay undertakes an evocative conjuration of alternative visions of materialism through consideration of intermediary states of matter. Specifically, it focuses on gelid, semi-liquid, semi-solid environments such as bogs, swamps and marshes lying on the fringes of human settlement and against which the claims of reason and historical progress have often been staked. The paper juxtaposes ethnographic and historical examples from Ireland, Italy, Scandinavia and Siberia with reflections on (amongst others) Bachofen, Bataille and Hegel. In doing so it seeks both to explore the limits of certain canonical formulations of historicity and historical knowledge and to ask what new cultural and political imaginaries and what possible futures might become thinkable through a more sustained engagement with the recalcitrant materiality of Europe's muddy margins.

Stuart McLean, "Landscape in Tipperary." November 2011.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles concerned with naturecultures, including a Special Issue on Multispecies Ethnography edited by S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich (2010).  See, for example, Eva Hayward's "Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals" (2010), as well as McLean's "Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond 'Nature' and 'Culture'" (2009).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles concerned with materiality, including Eitan Wilf's "Sincerity Versus Self-Expression: Modern Creative Agency and the Materiality of Semiotic Forms" (2011) as well as Todd Ramón Ochoa's "Versions of the Dead: Kalunga, Cuban-Congo Materiality, and Ethnography" (2007).

About the Author

Stuart McLean received his Ph.D from Columbia University and is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. His publications include The Event and its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity (Stanford University Press 2004) and the Cultural Anthropology article "Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity beyond 'Nature' and 'Culture'" (2009).

Interview with Stuart McLean

Jennifer Carlson: Along with the contributions of Tim Ingold (2011), Stefan Helmreich (2009), and Christopher Pinney (2005), your research on peat bogs and other "intermediary states of matter" destabilizes the anthropological predilection for solid, not-necessarily-humanmade objects, forcing us to confront the threatened loss of human agency and subjectivity inherent in an anthropology of matter moving within multiple modalities.  As such scholarship explodes the concept of agency as a solely human attribute, how might we work to engage the assemblages of molecules and motion formerly known as humans?  Is the concept of the human at all still useful, or does it primarily work to obscure our appreciation of agency and life at other scales?

Stuart McLean: That’s a pretty big (not to mention tough) question and I’m not sure if I can do full justice to it here.  I don’t know that I would want to dispense altogether with the concept of the human although I’ve certainly tried in my own work to displace and de-center it in a variety of ways.  I suppose one response would be to understand human agency and subjectivity not as givens but as relational effects of interactions between humans and various other kinds of entities.  Another would be to see humans themselves as populated and constituted by a multiplicity of pre-subjectival micro-agencies manifesting themselves on a variety of levels (molecular, cellular etc.).  Whether one would still wish to refer to these as specifically human is of course another question.  One thing I’ve tried to do, both in the "Black Goo" essay and elsewhere in my work is to grasp the other-than-human as a constitutive element of the human – that is, as an alien-familiar presence that’s at once formative of who we are as humans and that holds out at the same time the threat or promise if being carried beyond or outside ourselves.

JC: Your writing provokes the sense that even those material things which that seem fixed or frozen, like organisms rendered seemingly lifeless by death and entombed in a peat bog, nonetheless constitute a "living universe of volatile matter" which itself has enormous creative capacity.  In a sense, interventions such as this, as well as Jane Bennett’s (2010) work on vibrant matter suggest that contemporary social science might locate its object in motion and flux, rather than in any particular stable form.  Yet the figure of black goo also conjures a sense of stuckness and stagnation, of tar or molasses or other sticky worlds with physical/social entailments.  What is the place of stuckness in scholarship increasingly oriented to lively matter in motion?  What might we learn from deadness, from things unmoving, or (apparently) non-biodegradable matter?

SM: I think stickiness is an extremely suggestive notion, not least because it is capable of connoting both the liquefying dissolution of seemingly solid forms and the congealment of flows into something more viscous and slow-moving, even static.  While I find the vision of a universe of volatile matter articulated by Bennett and others to be extremely appealing, I’m also more than a little suspicious of the tendency to absolutize flux and unfixity that I find in a lot of recent writings.  The danger, as I see it, is that appeals to the supposed all-pervasiveness of flux and/or becoming can themselves impose a kind of metaphysical closure, whereby the unity of becoming appears as that which grounds or explains the multiplicity of existing beings.  Obviously the criticisms of Deleuze as a closet monist voiced by Badiou and others are pertinent here, although I’m not sure that I’m altogether convinced by their recourse to mathematically derived formulations as an alternative.  As a non-philosopher though, I’m tempted to say that these issues need to be worked out in part through the act of writing.  The challenge then would be to develop practices of writing, or other modes of presentation (performative, audio-visual etc.) capable of doing justice simultaneously to the claims of process and becoming on the one hand and to the density and intransigence of inert matter on the other.

JC: You write toward what you refer to as a "speculative poetic ontology", a project that speaks to new readings of matter put forth in New Materialisms (2010), but also to what philosophers and cultural critics have called "the speculative turn" (Bryant, Srnicek, and Harman 2011) in the humanities and social sciences.  Can you say a bit more about your interpretation and deployment of the speculative as a concept or an aesthetic, and its promise or challenge within contemporary anthropology?

SM: It’s certainly true that I’ve been reading a number of the thinkers associated with the "speculative" turn of late – principally Ray Brassier, Grahan Harman and Quentin Meillasoux.  I’m drawn to their work partly by its attempts to conceive of a materiality that’s radically indifferent to our existence as humans and to do so without reducing it to humanly constructed representations or cultural significations, in other words to think the in-itself rather than the for-us.  Obviously such an undertaking poses particular challenges for anthropology as a discipline that’s been heavily invested in the view that the material world is inescapably mediated for humans by culture, language or social relations.  The attempt to break with this long-ingrained habit strikes me nonetheless as worth making not least for what it might tell us about our relationship as humans to the variegated materialities and material processes in which our existence is necessarily embedded.  As to the term "speculative" itself, my own usage accords with what I take to be Meillasoux’s understanding of it in his book After Finitude.  Here, "speculative" refers to the attempt to engage questions that might conventionally be termed metaphysical (the quest for an absolute, for example) but to do so without the dogmatic validation of a particular vision of the universe that has sometimes characterized metaphysics.  For Meillasoux, of course, this involves the affirmation of radical contingency, of the lawlessness of the ‘laws’ of nature as the only thinkable non-dogmatic absolute.  I suppose I’d be happy enough to characterize some of my own recent work as speculative in something like the above sense – that is as an experimental conjuration with what might broadly be termed metaphysical questions, albeit one that draws on a combination of comparative anthropology, literature and art rather than, say, the Cantorian set theory so beloved of Meillasoux and his one-time teacher Badiou.  For me then speculation would be part of a broader understanding of anthropology (or at least one possible contemporary version of it) as a form of engaged creative practice concerned less with documenting already existing realities than with extending and multiplying its audience’s sense of what reality might comprise.

Stuart McLean, "Cross-section through peat bog, Belderg, County Mayo, Ireland." November 2011.

Additional Works by the Author

"Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond 'Nature' and 'Culture.'" Cultural Anthropology 24.2(2009):213-245.

"Bodies from the Bog: Metamorphosis, Non-Human Agency and the Making of Collective Memory." Trames 12.62/57(2008): 299-308.

"'To Dream Profoundly': Irish Boglands and the Imagination of Matter." Irish Journal of Anthropology: Special Issue, Engaging Imagination 10.2(2007): 61-68.

The Event and Its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

"'With Death Looking Out Of Their Eyes': The Spectropoetics of Hunger in Accounts of the Irish Famine." Social Analysis 43.3(1999):40-63.

"Touching Death: Tellurian Seduction and the Spaces of Memory in Famine Ireland." Irish Journal of Anthropology 4(1999):61-72.

Related Readings

Bachofen, Johann J. Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings of J.J. Bachofen. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Bryant, Levi, Srnicek, Nick, and Harman, Graham. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Victoria, Australia:, 2011.

Coole, Diana and Frost, Samantha, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Helmreich, Stefan. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Ingold, Tim. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Pinney, Christopher. "Things Happen: Or, From Which Moment Does That Object Come?" In: Materiality. Daniel Miller, ed. Pp. 256-272. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

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