This essay creatively evidences the materiality of a story and its ability to migrate and evolve. It does so by critiquing the non-human limitations of binary onto-epistemologies, especially visual/discursive ones. Here stories and words have lives, bodies, and agency and as such they matter, but that matter is not material. The mattering of stories is not contingent upon human telling or hearing. Stories linger where humans disappear. An ecomaterialist reading suggests we might productively decouple storytelling (stories about us) from storied matter (stories with autonomy).
The universe is not simply a place but a story—a story in which we are immersed, to which we belong, and out of which we arose.1
THE MOVING PICTURE SHOW: SELF-STORYING AND MATERIALITY
For some time now I've been invested in challenging the binaries through which humans seem compulsively to wish to see the world. New materialists and affect scholars have advanced a convincing set of arguments about the ways matter has life, and agency, and as such not only can affect humans, but also can quite happily conduct their own (sometimes mobile) existences utterly independent of us.2
Ecomaterialism has extended the long tradition of eco-feminisms that argue the networked relationality and interdependence between human lives and the planet. More recently, Anne M. Harris and Stacy Holman Jones's claim that things have a queer life because in their doing and being agentic they queer extant notions of what constitutes life; in queering life, things queer themselves and us, in a queer intra-action being moved by and moving beyond binaries.3 With close enough attention, things show us that there is less distinction not only between living and nonliving things than we thought there was, but also between the greater us and them overall. Adoption narratives too come to rest in binaries of insider/outsider, diaspora/home, family/stranger.4 Binaries are a dying breed. We are made of stars.
This essay claims that stories too have lives, although not material matter, tangible bodies, or easily-discernable beginnings and endings, as some other “things” do. Extending Rebecca Solnit's observation that “Stories migrate, meanings migrate, everything metamorphoses,”5 this essay is about the more-than-human migrations, the mobile lives of not only words but also language, the resilience and agency of stories as a doing that will never be replaced by images or visual cultures. The lives of stories and the visual representations and doings of stories are part of the same body; the binary of visual/discursive is unhelpful in making sense of this interdependence and the still-emergent possibilities in which we all, threaded together, co-create beginnings, movements, and endings that continue in infinite loops throughout time and space.
Stories of/as the more-than-human help to “build narratives about the world that are therapeutic against the isolation of the human self,”6 that is, against the neurotic imagining of the human self that we are alone (an anxiety elegantly countered by Karen Barad and others). Rather, Serenella Iovino urges us toward the need to recognize “‘impersonal stories’—stories of land, of things, of hybridity, of processes” as urgently and empathically as hearing and taking in the stories of ourselves and fellow humans. Iovino nods to that feminist chestnut in restating that “now more than ever, the impersonal is political.”7 In the face of accelerating climate change and the poisoning of the earth,8 we have no choice but to recognize that what we might have had the luxury of imagining as not (humanly) personal before—such as animal, plant, or environmental stories—is now impersonally urgent.
Some deploy the rise of digital culture to argue that this is a moment of post-story, a visual cultural moment, but I side with others who argue that the ubiquity of image-based artefacts have led us to a post-representational moment.9 The visual, the material, and the discursive have always and continue to function interdependently to create not only understanding or knowledge (ontology), but also relationship; we do this through storying a theory of being (epistemology). But just as identities, genders, and meanings can never be fixed, stories too are always queer, always fluid, always migratory.
Michel de Certeau famously asserts, “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.”10 Story is the relational cousin to visuality's individualism. Julie Cruikshank reminds us how stories help build relationships, not just tell about them, linking the past with the present, and imagining possible (and queer) futures.11 She reminds us that many cultures are still oral cultures, and the social function of storying is culture-making and culture-retaining; while visuality is present, it is shared language and practices that allow community members to cohere, not visualities. For Cruikshank, Indigenous genealogies of place and language seldom match the invaders' (collectors') accounts that nevertheless end up as official histories. Not all stories are equal.
“Storied matter”12 is a conceptual tool that claims “matter is not only lively, agentic and generative… but also densely storied.”13 It argues that matter is capable of eloquence, explained by Barad as the “ontological performance of the world in its ongoing articulation.”14 So matter tells stories, but at the same time, humans themselves emerge through “material agencies that leave their traces in lives as well as stories.”15 Prodding this logic one step further, stories might begin to seem material. They do not need to “serve” humans, but rather stories have their own lives, evidenced through their migrations. And if stories have matter, or material agency, might matter then also have its own story, independent of humans? Perhaps all matter is a story that we have only overheard.
A STORY CAN MOVE ME, BUT IT CANNOT MIGRATE
If stories have/are post-binary matter, then why are they not things? The story becomes the matter. If living is a process of diffractive “reading the story” in which critical analysis highlights difference (but not necessarily binaries), then it maps where the effects of differences appear.16 Differences, in one sense, can be considered migratory—a moving from one place/thing/state to another. A diffractive reading (or writing) of the story means that it attends to the “relational ontology” in which we are all acting (or actants). That is, the story might be us, which becomes a story that matters to us (but has matter anyway).
Donna Haraway's onto-epistemological mattering conundrum asserts that “It matters what thoughts think thoughts, what knowledges know knowledges, what relations relate relations, what worlds world worlds, it matters what stories story stories.”17 In migrations, even adoptee ones in which the journey might remain invisible (or more accurately, be disappeared), stories do story stories, in an endless hall of story-mirrors that not only recount something as more conventional stories do, but also create lines of relationality in which a resistant or diffractive reading resists reflection.18 The adoptee story becomes the kind of story that “alerts us to the vibrancy of matter, the material/discursive and to the caution that some stories normalize other stories.”19 I do not wish for my absent (disappeared) adoptee story to normalize your present stories. The migration of adoptees into/through the world are stories that have their own lives and take matters into their own hands. They do not seek a destination, but rather revel in the story-journey of telling. In adoptee story-migrations, telling is the material everything.20
If “life itself is made of stories,”21 and stories can migrate, then what is the role of bodies, especially bodies (and interbodies) that let us down? Adoptees know the precarity of materiality, but we also know so deeply the power and resilience of stories. Stories prevail where bodies falter; stories remain when bodies are no longer. Stories thrive through their duck-and-weave agility, finding the sweet spots between bodies.