From Master(y) Narratives to Matter Narratives: Jeanette Winterson’s <em>The Stone Gods</em>
From Master(y) Narratives to Matter Narratives: Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods
In an attempt to re-materialize postmodernism, Damien Gibson provides, by drawing on material ecocriticism and on the concept of “narrative agency,” a critical posthumanist reading of Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods.
Postmodernism and Critical Posthumanism
Opening on a dying planet where the populace has been genetically engineered to live forever, and closing 64 million years later on a post apocalyptic planet where there is an uprising of toxic mutants, Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007) calls into question new and old master narratives. In his classic The Postmodern Condition (1979), the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard argued that the postmodern is “incredulity towards metanarratives” (xxiv), thus the question that orients this collection of articles, “What was Postmodernism?” might be taken to suggest that we are beyond master narratives once and for all. The recent emergence of the discourse of critical posthumanism, however, is a clear sign that the 500 hundred-year-old master narrative of Humanism still needs to be contested. In addition, as one of the discourse’s preeminent scholars argues, the philosopher Rosi Braidotti, the end of postmodernism makes it apparent that new master narratives have taken over:
on the one hand the inevitability of market economics as the historically dominant form of human progress, and on the other biological essentialism under the cover of the ‘selfish gene’ and new evolutionary biology and psychology … The common trait of these new master narratives is the return of different forms of determinism. (“A Critical Cartography” 1)
Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Stone Gods (2007) attacks both of these new master narratives. It queers too the master narrative of Humanism, and, in addition, it suggests that there is potential for the anthropocene - the epoch in which humanity is having a global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems - to become yet another master narrative. In this article I argue that The Stone Gods suggests that matter itself, by virtue of having narrative agency, contests all such human master narratives.
Winterson’s oeuvre, up until The Stone Gods, has been particularly concerned with contesting androcentrism, so it should come as no great surprise that she might have anthropocentrism, the principal target of critical posthumanism, in her sights. Gregory J. Robinson, who writes “it is a critical commonplace nowadays to say that postmodern fiction is subversive or critical of dominant ideologies or master narratives” (13), argues that Winterson is most concerned with androcentrism, particularly as it is found in religion, and in religion’s Enlightenment successor, science (112‑46). “For Winterson,” he writes, “science is as limited and limiting a belief system as religion. At times she portrays them as two facets of the same belief system, which helps highlight the masculinism underlying each” (126). Robinson is, however, at pains to point out that it is the (potentially) ideological construction of scientific knowledge of which Winterson is critical. He draws attention to how Winterson uses the language of science, along with recent developments in scientific theory, in order to critique master narratives that seek to reify the representation of reality. He quotes for instance the epigraph of Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry (1989), which reads “matter, that thing the most solid and the well-known, which you are holding in your hands, and which makes up your body, is now known to be mostly empty space” (8).Sexing the Cherry also features prominently in other postmodern critiques of Winterson’s work. Laura Doan points to what she calls the novel’s questioning of “grand narratives” (138), and Lisa Moore argues the novel is postmodern because it is an attack on the Enlightenment Project: “this novel rewrites the origins of European modernity - colonial exploration, the rise of empirical science and Enlightenment notions of the unified self” (116). Marja Makinen too, in a similar vein, argues the novel “manages the complex task of offering a critique of the Enlightenment without falling into the trap of seeming to endorse a linear view of history” (93). Winterson’s contestation of linear views of history is taken up by Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor in her book Postmodern Utopias and Feminist Fictions (2013), where she explores the “nonlinear history(ies)” of The Stone Gods. She borrows from Winterson’s novel the title of part of her critique “Same Old Story” (The Stone Gods 59). The concerns of Winterson’s earlier work — linear master narratives, the Enlightenment, androcentrism, utopia, science, and matter — suggest there might be good grounds for arguing The Stone Gods is a novel that explores posthuman narratives.
Despite a preponderance of environmental issues in The Stone Gods, Wagner-Lawlor’s critique fails to make recourse to ecocriticism in any way. There are, however, important overlaps between literary postmodernism and ecocriticism, and more recently, it has been matter that has become a bridge between the two. Serpil Oppermann argues that ecological postmodern fiction “is a hybrid. It is both metafictional and ecological in its self-conscious process of representing the fictional and the natural world … displaying the interrelational transactions between human imagination and the environment” (“Seeking Environmental Awareness” 245). One of the novels that Oppermann draws on in support of her position is Winterson’s Gut Symmetries (1997), which, as she points out, deploys new physics’ Grand Unified Theory (GUT) as its central metaphor: “the metaphor of GUT echoes the ecological principle of the interrelatedness of all things and beings” (245). Oppermann’s analysis of the relationship between postmodernism and ecocriticism continues to this day, albeit in a different form. Oppermann is co-editor, along with Serenella Iovino, of Material Ecocriticism (2014). Elaborating on the new direction her thought has taken, Oppermann writes that the “vision of the world’s phenomena as being in constant ‘relation’ with each other is in fact what connects ecological postmodernism, material ecocriticism, and the new materialist theories” (22). This connection is where the critical posthumanism of Rosi Braidotti becomes relevant. Braidotti is new materialist in orientation, as is another critical posthumanist, Vicky Kirby. New materialism is based on a “scientific understanding of the self-organizing or ‘smart’ structure of living matter” (The Posthuman 57), as developed in the thought of quantum physicists such as Niels Bohr and David Bohm. On the basis of such thinking, Oppermann argues that
matter emerges in meaningfully articulate forms of becoming that can be interpreted as storied matter, even though this claim carries a heavy dose of anthropomorphism. This is however a nonanthropocentric conceptualization of materiality that acknowledges a creative disclosing of processes where materiality projects a lively impetus … Different from personification, which attributes human traits to objects or ideas, narrative agency does not purport to enhance human qualities in fictive or material domains; rather, it denotes the vitality, autonomy, agency, and other signs that designate an expressive dimension in nonhuman entities. [emphasis added] (Material Ecocriticism 29‑30)
In a similar vein, Vicky Kirby has suggested that “nature is articulate and communicative, and in a very real sense - intentional” (Quantum 82). Elsewhere she writes of “nature’s literacy” (Telling 127). In terms of updating literary postmodernism, a fundamental contention of material ecocriticism is that matter has an expressive dimension that can be understood as a form of narrative agency.
The relationship between critical posthumanism and material ecocriticism is made explicit by Iovino, who argues that “material ecocriticism is a posthumanist practice” (66). Critical posthumanism’s arrival was heralded with the publication of three books in 2013/14; Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (2013); Stefan Herbrechter’s Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (2013); and Namod Prayar’s Posthumanism (2014). These books are united by their desire to add the term critical to posthumanism, so as to distinguish the discourse from posthumanism as it has been conceived in the popular imagination. In fact, the popular understanding of posthumanism, replete with cyborgs and humans cloned to live forever, has much more in common with the movement known as transhumanism. Transhumanism is dedicated to the technological engineering and enhancement of the human, in order to achieve at the very least increased life expectancy, and, at its most fantastic, immortality. Braidotti, Herbrechter, and Kirby are all associates of a small network of scholars formed in 2013 called the Critical Posthumanism Network, which connects academics, artists, writers, and scientists who are critically engaged with the emerging paradigm of posthumanism. The Network’s scholars share the view that “technological and global economic challenges, looming environmental disaster and the erosion of traditional demarcations between human and nonhuman have been producing new and alternative ways of thinking about humanity” (www.criticalposthumanism.net). One of the contentions of this article is that the anthropocene might be interpreted as storied matter expressing itself on a global scale.
Critical posthumanism and material ecocriticism are both successors of postmodernism, and Braidotti’s definition of critical posthumanism is particularly apposite given the historicizing question at the heart of this collection of articles. She writes:
posthumanism is the historical moment that marks the end of the opposition between Humanism and anti-humanism and traces a different discursive framework, looking more affirmatively towards new alternatives. The starting point for me is the anti-humanist death of Wo/Man which marks the decline of some of the fundamental premises of the Enlightenment, namely the progress of mankind through a self-regulatory and teleological ordained use of reason and of secular scientific rationality allegedly aimed at the perfectibility of ‘Man.’ The posthumanist perspective rests on the assumption of the historical decline of Humanism but goes further in exploring alternatives, without sinking into the rhetoric of the crisis of Man. It works instead towards elaborating alternative ways of conceptualizing the human subject. (The Posthuman 37)
Environmental theory is an all-important “source of inspiration” (47) for Braidotti’s critical posthumanism. Paraphrasing Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva’s Ecofeminism (1993), she writes “the worldview which equated Mastery with rational scientific control over ‘others’ also militated against the respect for the diversity of living matters and of human cultures” [emphasis added] (48). The fact that critical posthumanism is categorically post-anthropocentric need not be at odds with material ecocriticism’s anthropomorphic ascription of narrative agency to matter. Thus critical posthumanism’s decentering of the human, supplemented by material ecocriticism’s ascription of narrative agency to matter, makes it possible to understand the world, and indeed the universe, as an “ever-unfolding story” in which “we - along with the other animals, plants and landforms - are all characters” (Iovino and Oppermann 270). This article argues that matter, taking on a variety of guises, is an important character in Winterson’s The Stone Gods.
Mastery of Nature
The concept of the anthropocene begs the question of whether it is best understood as a humanist master narrative or a posthuman matter narrative. Braidotti argues that in the anthropocene “ ‘geo-morphism’ is usually expressed in negative terms, as environmental crisis, climate change and ecological sustainability. Yet, there is also a more positive dimension to it in the sense of reconfiguring the relationship to our complex habitat” (The Posthuman 81). Nicole M. Merola’s article “Materializing a Geotraumatic and Melancholy Anthropocene: Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods” (2014) is a case in point of geo-morphism being expressed in negative terms. Merola argues that Winterson’s novel is a critique of cyclical patterns of anthropogenic social destructiveness that provides an excellent theorization of the anthropocene. She uses the word melancholy to describe “a structure of stuckness” which means we have to “inhabit environmental melancholy as a permanent condition” (123). In an assertion that is consistent with Braidotti’s argument that genetic determinism has become a new master narrative, Merola argues that Winterson “implies advanced carbon-based life is materially determined, doomed by its very molecular structures to reorganize in the same destructive patterns” (129). Merola concludes her critique by writing that Winterson’s narrative offers “a dark ecology in which our only option is to endure” (130). There is no doubt that the cyclical patterns of anthropogenic destructiveness in The Stone Gods to which Merola points are repetitions of the same old story of mastery of ‘others.’ However, Merola’s article fails to give any account whatsoever of the novel’s repeated references to the nature of matter. These include:
‘This is a quantum universe’ said Spike, ‘neither random nor determined. It is potential at every second. All you can do is intervene.’ (75)
Every second the Universe divides into possibilities and most of those possibilities never happen. It is not a universe - there is more than one reading. The story won’t stop, can’t stop, it goes on telling itself, waiting for an intervention that changes what will happen next. (83)
A quantum universe - neither random nor determined. A universe of potentialities, waiting for an intervention to affect the outcome. Love is an intervention, why don’t we choose it? (244)
At the heart of the intervention that Winterson’s makes in The Stone Gods is elaboration of an ethos of love of the materiality of the body. And bodies, as Iovino and Oppermann argue, can “provide an eloquent example of the way matter can be read as a text” (6). The remainder of this article then, in contrast to postmodernism, which is known for dematerializing of the body, provides a critical posthumanist reading of The Stone Gods that re-materializes it. Planet Earth too is a body with stories to tell, and be read.
On first appearances The Stone Gods is rich indeed with the tropes of popular posthumanism (or transhumanism). It begins in a dystopian era on a dying planet populated with genetically engineered humans, it concludes on a post apocalyptic planet populated by toxic genetic mutants, and it has as one of its central characters a cyborg. Even the name of the novel’s narrator, however, Billie(y) Crusoe, which is an obvious reference to Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), suggests that something quite other than a reading of the novel as generic Science Fiction is required. The novel signals this at one point, Billie herself confessing “I hate science fiction” (143). In each of the four sections of The Stone Gods – “Planet Blue,” “Easter Island,” “Post-3 War,” and “Wreck City” – which are separated by a span of 64 million years, we meet a version of the couple Billie Crusoe and Spike. When we first meet Billie Crusoe she is a disillusioned lesbian scientist on Orbus, a world that, very much like Earth, is in the middle of an environmental crisis due to climate change. Spike, who updates the cyborg trope, is a Robo sapiens, a robot who becomes part human. Billie works for the Enhancement Services division of the Central Power, and is recruited on a colonizing mission to Planet Blue, which is planet Earth during the age of the dinosaurs. In the novel’s second section, Billie Crusoe has travelled back in time to become Billy Crusoe, a sailor shipwrecked on Easter Island who takes on as his lover another male sailor whose name is Spikker in a reference back to Spike the Robo sapiens. Once again the natural habitat is being destroyed by humans. The final two sections of the novel are both set in a near-future post-third-world-war Earth where CO2 concentrations reached 550 parts per million in the early quarter of the 21st century. A mega-corporation called MORE-Futures has become the government, and Billie and Spike flee to a utopian community populated by a group known as the Alternative. In her new materialist reading of The Stone Gods, Rachel Loewen Walker argues “the three vignettes of the narrative could, in fact, be read in reverse, out of order or even horizontally, as if they were taking place simultaneously in presents that could have been, compelling the reader to relinquish their expectations of a particular outcome” (54). Walker introduces to readings of The Stone Gods the concept of the living present, which she says, “encourages non-linear, open-ended readings of past events, and therefore represents a new lens through which to approach documented and assumed histories” (46). This sense of the living present is how The Stone Gods begins, bringing into conjunction historical master narratives bent on exploitation of the natural environment and mastery of the human body.
In the near future setting of Orbus, The Stone Gods explores the intertwining of the old master narratives of androcentrism and colonialism and the new master narrative of genetic determinism. In each case, the all too material human body is a central character in the narrative. Billie’s boss Manfred works for the “Central Power” (9) in “the clotted ranks of Security and Support, officially known as Enforcement Services and Enhancement Services, but the SS has a better ring to it” (11). These names all reference the exercise of power, the SS of course being an allusion to the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany. Man-fred, whose name is hypermasculine and androcentric, is described as “the kind of man who was born to rise and rise” (8), which has not only sexual connotations, but suggests too that it is his birth right as a man to succeed. He tells Billie “I have a Promotion Plan. I’m heading for the top floor,” which leads Billie to think “yep, there he goes, Penthouse Man” (10). Through the allusion to pornography, Manfred’s role in the patriarchal hierarchy is linked to the exploitation of women. Manfred is also emblematic of the new master narrative of genetic determinism. Billie tells the reader “Manfred is one of those confident men who have had themselves genetically Fixed as late-forties … ‘The DNA Dynasty,’ they called us, when the first generation of humans had successful recoding. Age is information failure” (10). The word fixed is used four times in the paragraph that introduces the DNA Dynasty, suggesting the master narrative of genetic determinism is predicated on stasis. The DNA Dynasty to which Billie refers is probably an allusion to the Human Genome Project, which the critical posthumanist Elaine Graham argues “will encode as normative and universal a partial representation” (122) of what it means to be human. There is definitely something normative about Manfred. Billie Crusoe is by no means content however to let Manfred’s role go unchallenged. Just when it seems that his place within patriarchal heteronormativity is fixed once and for all, his status is queered. Billie tells the reader that “young girls and gay toyboys adore Manfred. His boyfriend has designed a robot that looks like him. Myself, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference” (11). Abigail Rine argues that for Winterson queerness
is not simply non-heterosexuality, but that which intentionally challenges and exceeds the constraints of the normal. This mode of queerness … intersects other forms of marginalized difference, such as gender, and questions how societal definitions of the human have been naturalized and enforced. [emphasis added] (Rine 77).
Manfred’s somewhat straight queerness serves to undermine the naturalization and enforcement of androcentric definitions of the human. And, ironically, by saying that she would not be able to tell the difference between Manfred and a robot, Billie is suggesting that he is in some sense less than human. Manfred’s queering of androcentrism sets the scene for Billie’s queering of anthropocentrism.
On planet Orbus, the novel’s queering of anthropocentrism is staged against a backdrop that satirizes and lampoons generic Science Fiction’s transhumanist aspirations to augment and engineer the human body to perfection. In a bar full of monstrous caricatures of the transhuman, Billie reflects “making everyone young and beautiful also made us all bored to death with sex. All men are hung like whales. All women are tight as clams below and inflated like lifebuoys above. Jaws are square, muscles are toned, and no one gets turned on” (23). Billie Crusoe’s lack of bodily fixity across the novel’s three narratives, her sex and sexuality change, signals a queering of Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Robinson Crusoe is often considered the first realist novel, and it may be understood as one of Humanism’s founding texts. Shipwrecked on a desert island, Crusoe sets out to master, exploit and conquer his natural environment, establishing a bastion of civilization where, as a representative of colonialism, he takes a native whom he names Friday as slave. In The Colonial Rise of the Novel (1993) Firdous Azim argues that the status of Robinson Crusoe as a narrating subject acquires significance “when allied to the contemporary linguistic and philosophical task that was an attempt to define the subject as homogenous and consistent, and to delineate the constituents of the citizen-subjects brought into being by the Western Enlightenment discourse” (10). The discourse to which Azim refers is of course Humanism. Thus Billie’s fluid sex and sexuality is an eloquent example of the way matter can be read as a text: a direct challenge to the homogenous and consistent subject of humanism. Fundamental too to Billie’s queering of Humanism’s ethos of mastery is her campaign against “Genetic Reversal,” for which she is tried for Acts of Terrorism, and her decision not to be fixed. Manfred issues her with an ultimatum: if she wants to avoid being arrested she has to join the mission to Planet Blue. Through her embodied materiality, Billie Crusoe is a character who tells a story that contests both the new master narrative of genetic determinism and the old master narrative of Humanism, predicated as it has been on exploitation of the natural environment.
The mission to Planet Blue is a parody of humanist Science Fiction that tropes the colonization of outer space. During Billie’s flight to Planet Blue, the queering of Robinson Crusoe and Humanism continues with one of the passengers asking the ship’s Captain Handsome “what’s all this writing stuff?” (59). The passenger has picked up a copy of Robinson Crusoe which begins “I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, tho’ not of that country” (59). Captain Handsome, onboard a ship named after Captain Cook’s third ship, the Resolution, is characteristic of colonialism’s rapaciousness. He is a “swashbuckling predator with semi-official sanction” (56), who says of Planet Blue, “I will take my share, a vast virgin country bounded by rivers” (58), thus making a distinct association between exploitation of the female body and colonial conquest. Captain Handsome tells the passenger the writing is a shipwreck story that the men like:
‘We were flying in a strange part of the sky … and I saw that what we were flying through was a bookstorm - encyclopedias, dictionaries, a Uniform Edition of the Romantic poets, the complete works of Shakespeare … Scott, Defoe …’ ‘This one is my favourite - I read it again and again.’ He lifted down a battered eighteenth-century edition of Captain Cook’s Journals. (59)
Captain Handsome’s response draws together in a dense web of associations: shipwrecks, male authors from within the Western canon, romanticism, uniformity, and colonialism. When Billie asks the rapacious Handsome where he got the books from, his reply is “ ‘a repeating world - same old story’ ” (59). That same old story, Humanism’s narrative in which nature is mastered, is always a shipwreck. Like Manfred, Captain Handsome is governed by an ethos of mastery. His solution to the dinosaurs that are an obstacle to human settlement on Planet Blue is to use an asteroid to kill them. Which leads Billie to think: “Handsome’s swashbuckling science was beyond me; it seemed like a pretty dim idea to use space like a bowling alley to knock out the dinosaurs” (60). Captain Handsome’s plan is to leave twenty-four hours before the asteroid hits. “Life cannot be calculated” (94) however, and the asteroid hits four days early. “Deflecting the course of the asteroid had accelerated, as well as altered, its impact on Planet Blue” (91), and a mini ice age is triggered.
This is not to say that even Captain Handsome has been completely insensitive to the stories that planet Orbus, as a body of matter much like earth, has been telling. Expressing the view that climate change is a story with only one ending - (his)tory - he says “the desert advances every year, but the duststorms are not just sand, they are the guts of the fucking planet” (68). The word guts suggests that that Orbus is a body, and its story is one of being sick. In an article titled “Dirt Theory and Material Ecocriticism,” Heather Sullivan argues that dirt - and by implication dust - “is our radically local, material environment,” and that “we overlook the fruitful or toxic, yet certainly agentic, power of the material element of ‘earth,’ or ‘dirt’ at our own peril” (529). Thus, dust, in The Stone Gods, is suggestive of storied matter’s vitality, autonomy, and agency. Billie had been aware of the dust’s agency when making preparations for the spaceflight, observing “there’s a duststorm beginning, like spider-mite, like ants, like things that itch and bite” (30). When she and Spike are left behind with the shipwreck on Planet Blue, which is yet another queering of Robinson Crusoe, matter’s telling narratives become even more apparent.
Captain Handsome says goodbye to Spike by telling her a story that is different from the same old story. A king had three planets, Planet White, Planet Red, and Planet Blue. Planets White and Red he leaves to his two sons, resulting in the same old story of death and destruction, or as Wagner-Lawlor puts it, a “man-ufactured end” (109). “The king then gave Planet Blue to his daughter, because he loved her more than the Universe itself. What happened next is another story” (The Stone Gods 95). Captain Handsome’s last story suggests that by leaving Planet Blue with Spike, a narrative other than the shipwreck of Humanism’s scientific and colonial master(y) of nature might become possible. In a chapter titled “Feminist Ecocriticism: A Posthumanist Direction in Ecocritical Trajectory,” Oppermann argues that The Stone Gods is a “critically posthuman fictional text” because it is “a resolutely materialist engagement with the posthuman questioning of human-machine and human-nonhuman relations” (76). Which helps make sense of Billie’s thoughts about the bodily materiality that she and Spike have in common: “I forget all the time that she’s a robot, but what’s a robot? A moving lump of metal. In this case an intelligent, ultra-sensitive moving lump of metal. What’s a human? A moving lump of flesh” (99). Oppermann argues The Stone Gods “enacts the malleability of bodily natures in a narrative that urges us to rethink biology, nature, and body” (32). This enactment is why Billie’s and Spike’s sex changes in the novel’s different narratives, and helps make sense of Billie’s thoughts about Spike as they lie down together to sleep that first night after the crew has left:
I lay beside Spike and thought how strange it was to lie beside a living thing that did not breathe. There was no rise and fall, no small sighs, no intake of air, no movement of the lips or slight flex of the nostrils. But she was alive, reinterpreting the meaning of what life is, which is, I suppose, what we have done since life began. (99)
Spike is suggestive of matter telling a new story about the meaning of life, one in which even inorganic matter is vital, autonomous, and has agency, thus having an expressive dimension that can be interpreted as storied. Indeed, Spike literally proceeds to tell Billie a story that she herself makes up. Oppermann describes Spike as a “literary-cultural metaphor” that demonstrates “a conjugated inquiry into the historical entanglements of human life and the natural world is pivotal to an analysis of posthuman perceptions of a future life” (32). Spike is, however, only one of a number of examples in The Stone Gods that suggest matter, with the body being a case in point, may be read as a text.
Three Examples of Matter Narratives
The title of Winterson’s novel refers to the moai statues that play a central role in its “Easter Island” section. The statues are bodily forms that help with a conjugated inquiry into the historical entanglement of human life and the natural world. This section of the novel begins with an excerpt from Cook’s Journal: “in stretching for the land we discovered those Monuments of Idols mentioned by the Authors of Roggeweins Voyage which left us in no room to doubt but it was Easter Island …” (117), that entangles three narratives: Winterson’s, Cook’s, and the Authors of Roggewein’s Voyage by grounding them in some way in the material bodies of the moai statues. The entanglement of human literary narrative and the island’s material narrative is further developed as Billy’s ship draws close to the island:
I cannot say the sight was aught but dismal as the Valley of the Shadow of Death is dismal to them that must cross it. The island was stripped and bare, with few trees or shrub-bushes of any kind. Nature seemed hardly to have provided it with any fit thing for man to eat or drink … It was as if some great creature with hot breath had flown above and scorched all below. (118)
Significantly, this passage attributes some form of agency to the forces that have left the land so barren “it was as if some great creature with hot breath had flown above and scorched all below,” which is consistent with Iovino and Oppermann’s argument that agency “is a pervasive and inbuilt property of matter, as part and parcel of its generative dynamism” (3). Billy learns that the island’s palms have been felled to erect and transport the statues that he saw on approaching the island. Iovino and Oppermann mention statues as an example of bodies that “recount naturalcultural stories” (6). The centrality of the moai statues to Easter Island’s naturalcultural story becomes all too apparent when Billy asks his lover Spikker, “is it to be believed … that an island abundant in all things necessary has been levelled to this wasteland through the making of a Stone God and then by his destruction?” (133). What is most compelling about the naturalcultural story of the moai statues is the manner in which they unsettle the idea that nature is a blank and inert slate on which humanity writes its own narratives. The moai statues of Easter Island are central characters in a story of environmental devastation in which the nonhuman and the human, the inorganic and the organic, are fundamentally and inextricably entangled. The story told by the stone statues, paralleling that of the anthropocene which is also written in stone, is of what inevitably happens when the fundamental balance of an ecosystem is upset by human intervention: nature punches back. The literary critic Jeffrey Cohen writes eloquently of the narrative power of stone, arguing “stones frequently trouble the divide between that which lives, breathes and reproduces, and that which is supposed to be too insensate to exhibit such liveliness. Stones … like all life are forever flowing, forever filled with stories” (60).
In the “Post-3 War” section of The Stone Gods it is the body of the novel itself to which attention is drawn. The section begins with Billie on board the Tube in London, where she notices a pile of paper that turns out to be a copy of the manuscript of the novel. She starts reading it at random and comes across an account of herself lying beside Spike, “a living thing that didn’t breathe” (143), establishing a distinct association between Spike’s lively materiality and the body of the novel as a material object. Such a reading is consistent with Iovino’s argument that “material ecocriticism is related to the text taken in its materiality: the text as matter” (61). Billie finds the manuscript yet again in the “Wreck City” section of the novel, but this time she is the one who has left it there. Dropping the manuscript, she picks it up “shuffled as a pack of cards” (241). When Spike asks Billie why she has left it there, Billie says it was a
‘a message in a bottle. A signal. But then I saw it was still there … round and round on the Circle Line. A repeating world.’
Is this how it ends?
It isn’t ended yet.
‘The book isn’t finished, but this is as far as I could go.’
‘What shall I do with it?’
‘Read it. Leave it for someone else to find. The pages are loose - it can be written again. (241-42)
Three times the dynamic and open-ended nature of the body of the text is emphasized: that it should be read at random, that it has been shuffled, and that the pages are loose. “It can be written again” suggests, as Wagner-Lawlor puts it, that on reading The Stone Gods “no matter how [Winterson] might have originally put the pages together, each person will create the story they want or need” (117). In a similar vein, Iovino argues in their dynamic materiality texts reveal “the inner discursivity of material reality, narratives not only discursively enable our understanding of that reality, but interact in an non-deterministic way with it, and are useful tools for envisioning a strategy of recovery for material and ideal dynamics” (64). An unfinished copy of the manuscript of The Stone Gods was in fact left on the London underground by one of Winterson’s editors (Muller 2007). The incorporation of this incident into the body of Winterson’s open-ended novel strikingly illustrates the dynamic interaction of the material and the discursive, and storied matter’s autonomy and expressiveness.
In the “Wreck City” section of The Stone Gods, yet another type of body, this time the toxic body, suggests that matter has narrative agency. When a TV broadcast reveals Billie has been accused of a terrorist plot, she flees into the “Dead Forest” (192). The Dead Forest, like Easter Island, is a set of signs embodying “the entanglements of social and power relations, biological balances, and the material shaping of spaces and territories” (Iovino 61). Billie describes walking into the forest as being like “walking into a corpse, only the corpse wasn’t dead” (202). In a small clearing where the trees might have “cleared themselves,” suggesting material agency, Billie sees “a boy and a girl. Perhaps. Holding hands, barely dressed, both with rags tied round their bodies. The boy was covered with sores, the girl had no hair.” Billie is told that the children are “toxic radioactive mutants” (203), one of Tech City’s big secrets. Stacy Alaimo, an important figure within the new materialist community as well as a critic of postcolonial and environmental Science Fiction, argues that “toxic bodies insist that environmentalism, human health and social justice cannot be severed. They encourage us to imagine ourselves in constant interchange with the environment” (22). The idea of toxicity is further developed when Billy is told that the children are “from nuclear families” (203). Rine argues that this comment suggests Winterson considers the children “victims of heteronormative society” (77).
It turns out that the two children are just the tip of a toxic human waste pile. A party in Wreck City that is overseen by Tech City surveillance helicopters comes to an abrupt halt when it is overrun by the toxic populace of the Dead Forest. The embodiment of the toxic mutants is highlighted: “open-wounded, ulcerated, bleeding, toothless, blind, speechless, stunted” (232). It is made all too clear that the toxic discourse or master narrative that has led to these mutants is war: they are the “bomb-damage, the enemy collateral, the ground-kill.” Embodying the discursive, “some could speak, and spat blood, each word made out of a blood vessel,” and when a mutant with barbed wire tattooed across his chest challenges the ironically named MORE Security forces, he says “ ‘Toxic … me or you?’” (235). Winterson though, contester of master narratives that she is, is not prepared to let the master narrative of war prevail. Of the humans who are the collateral damage of war, Billy thinks “the bodies that can say nothing have the last word. What is it - the last word? No. No more war” (234).
At the conclusion of a novel that characterizes Humanism as a master narrative bent on the scientific mastery of a seemingly inert nature, Billie Crusoe’s last act is to resist what is probably the oldest master narrative, war itself. Ignoring the shouts of “two humans dressed as androids” (244) who are thus less than human, Billie is shot down. The novel does not end quite here though, as one might have expected given Merola’s melancholy argument that the novel represents the anthropocene as a narrative that can only have one ending, devastation. As I have argued, the effect of Merola’s argument is to instantiate the anthropocene as yet another master narrative. A critical posthumanist reading of Winterson’s novel advances postmodern readings of her work by shifting the focus from androcentrism to anthropocentrism, and it may well be that some of Winterson’s earlier works, concerned as they are with matter, might now benefit from a critical posthumanist reading. Critical posthumanism recognizes the continued hegemony of old and new master narratives, whilst at the same time rejecting any telelogically driven and technologically deterministic visions of the future. Drawing on ecological postmodernism’s understanding that everything is interrelated, and material ecocriticism’s theorization of matter’s narrative agency, critical posthumanism is able to offer myriad readings of humanity’s storied habitat. The Stone Gods suggests that storied matter, rather than master narratives, will have the last word about Planet Blue. And the home to which Billie’s returns at the conclusion of the novel, to which she also returns at the novel’s beginning, is emblematic of the world that might yet remain our home if only we become better readers of storied matter’s lively entanglement:
The burrows, tunnels, nests, tree-hollows, wasp-balls, drilled out holes of the water voles, otter sticks, toad stones, mice riddling the dry-stone walls, badger sets, molehills, fox dens, rabbit warrens, stoats brown in the summer, ermine in winter, clean as bullets through the bank. The trout shy in the reeds. The carp dozing on the riverbed. Dragonflies like Annunciations. A kingfisher on wings of blue light. (!4)
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