'On Touches that Cut', by Hayley Singer


When Franz Kafka wrote “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” he was describing a need for writing that cut through cultural insensibilities. Now that we are living in the epoch of the Anthropocene, writers are reprising Kafka’s call to “read only books that bite and sting us.” Theorists, such as Kate Rigby, are asking whether stories can rupture indifference, cut through “the psychic numbness” engendered by ways of thinking and being that “render us insouciant towards suffering, heedless of injustice, content with affluence, and dangerously unaware of our own imperilment.”

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What does it mean to imagine and write creatively about entanglements, ruptures and insensibilities in the time of the Anthropocene? How to resist the rupture in which “it seems that writing is over ‘here’ — and that there is a far more powerful, dominant narrative version of the world over ‘there,’” as described by novelist Delia Falconer? What else keeps writing alive and enlivening but being in touch with, responsive and responsible to, specific worldly contexts, situations and materialities?

How to write stories that touch and cut?

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To cut is to perform a certain kind of touch and to touch is to engage in an exchange that raises, as Judith Butler describes it, “a question of justice.” As Karen Barad writes, touching “is threaded through with culture, history, power, expectation and implication.” To touch, to cut, requires intimate exposure to others. And exposure to others — risking openness and availability to the lives, deaths, desires and needs of others — describes, in part, the work of writing and ethics.

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Journalist Michael Slezak has described Australia’s current land clearing crisis — it is projected that over the next two decades three million hectares of forest in eastern Australia will come down — as a “death by a thousand cuts.” Slezak’s turn of phrase conjures images of land clearing as punishment, slow death, bad death.

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Both axes and knives are kinds of conceptual and physical tools that cleave humans and more-than-human-others together in the very process of cutting them apart. These binding lacerations can contribute to ways of reimagining what Deborah Bird Rose calls “the process of unmaking” that is instrumental to so much anthropogenic disaster.

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An axe is an instrument with rich historic and cultural significance. It has been used to clear paths through woodland and has played a major role in the destruction of the world’s forests. While the axe is no longer the premier instrument of deforestation, the hatchet is a leading tool of destruction in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016). This novel is an epic of cultural and ecological destruction that lays out, with painful precision, the great logic of unmaking that fragments relations, solidarities and responsibilities at the same time that it forges relations and solidarities that advance towards practices of fragmentation.

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Could the condition of being collectively disassembled, though not unmade in the same ways, at the same rate or to the same degree, create fissured atmospheres between people of all species — atmospheres that are intimately and densely populated with loss, melancholy, grief, exile, dispossession and even insanity? As Eileen A Joy writes, “The world can be insane, sometimes places can be insane.” How might these atmospheres be both an enabling condition and a deadening result of being victim to and perpetrators of ecological disaster — how we cannot be struck (drawing on French poet Annie Le Brun) by the clear-cutting of Australia’s forests and a certain clear-cutting of our mental forests?

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The axe is a plot-mover for colonial tales of progress, an instrument of division and exclusion. In Barkskins the axe is shown in its forceful attempts to cut down possibilities for the continuation of ethical, spiritual, cultural and creative life shared between Mi’kmaq people of North America and Canada, their multispecies kin, lands and forests. Proulx renders it like this:

The years went by and the white settlers, many from La Rochelle in France, doubled and redoubled in number. Familiar with the arts of drainage dike and ditch, they were demons to reshape the great grassy marshes into farm fields, and where there was forest they felled the trees. They set their immovable houses in rows along mud-thick streets where hogs wallowed and domestic fowl strutted.

The axe, when viewed and used through a colonial prism, comes down repeatedly on the side of isolation, inevitable hostilities and even extinctions. The colonists that Proulx depicts link the axe with light, truth, knowledge, goodness, productivity and new lucrative industries. Armed with such logic they destroyed places so thickly forested that “even the sunlight was green.”

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For Deborah Bird Rose, intellectual and physical acts of cutting off, disembedding, decontextualising, separating and fragmenting “connectivities into bits and pieces” dull the ethical imagination to the point of zombification. And as Delia Falconer has it, “to be a zombie is to be reduced to having no story at all, and no mission or sense of the future, except to consume the living.” To consume is yet another kind of touch, one that is intimately linked to cutting.

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Tangles of touching-cutting-consuming are evocatively conjured by interactions between humans and other animals. It is Vinciane Despret (via Donna Haraway) who reminds that, statistically speaking, in industrialised societies the most frequent form of human-animal relation emerges from the act of killing — meat, dairy and egg consumption, pharmaceutical and cosmetic experimentation and use, road kill, hunting, diseases (mad cow disease, avian influenza, foot and mouth disease, scrapie) created by the conditions of industrial animal factory farming and the massacres of animals that follow the outbreak of such diseases.

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How to write of these binding lacerations? To write about touching, cutting and consuming but address these concerns in dialogue with geocentred, vegetal, meaty and microbial beings and imaginaries? Ask strange questions. Think with ambitious naiveté. Be open to making counter-intuitive discoveries. Track the compatibility between violence and rationality. Search for meanings that are not self-evident. Trail the creation, development and ongoing shifts of toxic cultures, GMO cultures, of necropolitics and of worldwide dispossessions. This is a creative call to action.

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One story that emerges from the human–animal entanglement of touching–cutting–consuming and, at least to my mind, cuts in the way Kafka desires is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘The Slaughterer’. This story follows Yoineh Meir, a man appointed as the ritual slaughterer of a small town. Meir does not want to kill but day after day he must fulfil his role slaughtering hens and roosters, geese and ducks, cows and goats. With every tremor of the bodies he holds in his hands, he feels a tremor in his own flesh. Slaughtering, he decides, is a punishment that has been laid upon him. After months of killing, he longs to escape the material world but he cannot. His house is full of meat. The scent of slaughter won’t leave his nostrils. He searches for reprieve in his beloved texts but “the parchment was taken from the hide of a cow. The cases of the phylacteries were made of calf’s leather. The Torah itself was made of animal skin.” His days become nightmares. His nights fill with visions of impossible animal returns. In one dream, the lungs of a freshly slaughtered cow bellow lamentations from her windpipe. When he wakes, Yoineh Meir feels enmeshed in an affective ecology of vulnerability, melancholy, sadness, guilt and insanity. He comes to live through the forces of his deadly cuts — every slit gullet and every plucked feather — each one congeals within him, marking his humanity as inhumanity. “The whole world is a slaughterhouse!” he cries as he abandons his home, his town and his post as slaughterer. Days later, his body is found floating in the river.

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To cut through the numbness. To resist the seductions of narrative coherence. Pitch your tent with those who reach towards explosive, inventive and creative lines of morethan- human communication, and who are thus often called hysterical, mad or irrational. Challenge ideas of human uniqueness by writing along multiple and overlapping axes of difference including becoming-animal, becoming-vegetal, becoming-toxic, becoming-insect, becoming-meat. Write along the lines of grief, and by doing so allow grief to matter. This is a call to action.

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Each page of Barkskins raises questions of justice that emerge from myriad touches and cuts — murder and seduction, repairing and uprooting, controlling and revolting. It tells a string of murder stories that obliterate the generic rubrics of ‘true crime’ and ‘historical fiction’ because it is both at once. It uses poetics to touch on the force of colonial imaginations. As Barkskins advances back towards the events of colonial violence in the time of early French and Spanish invasion of Mi’kmaq territories, it might be read through stories of intrusion, confusion and aggression that contribute to Australia’s ongoing colonial–pastoral– industrial narratives and contexts, particularly in light of Australia’s continued land-clearing projects.

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Write your ethical imagination into life; write it from life. Write about beings with multiple relational bonds; those who continue to be denounced by narratives of hierarchical order and coherence. This is a call.

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‘The Slaughterer’ is loud, fast moving and releases a cacophony of cries and screams. It unravels along the lines of grief. Yoineh Meir is filled with the uncanny sense of touching an infinity of dead others and experiences an internal rupture — he becomes slaughterer and survivor, victim to and perpetrator of death. He becomes a monster who is not a monster. Each time I read this story, I’m struck by the fact that it opens something new in me. It shifts patterns of thought, makes unexpected connections, puts me in touch with an ethics that is alive to death. I don’t intend to perpetuate the “glamour narrative” Delia Falconer warns against, in which writers “proselytise the power of literature to ‘represent complexity’ or make us better people.” Particularly as Kate Rigby acknowledges that “a woman might well read Wordsworth or Thoreau in the evening… and go to her day’s work for Exxon-Mobil in the morning,” but I think it is accurate to say that Proulx and Singer, among many other writers, keep ties with cuts that destroy ethical responsibility and create new literary sites of ethical response.

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A call to cut through. Refuse to abandon the soil. Foreground embodiment and embeddedness. Sit with those who think with their entire bodies, who are attuned to more-than-human speakers. Refuse to abandon the dead. The frozen sea.




This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #38. Get your copy here.

Hayley Singer teaches contemporary fictions and feminist writing practices at the University of Melbourne. She writes and publishes essays on carnist narratives and connections between vanguard writing practices and animal activism.