Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Of Wonder and Encounter: Textures of Human and Nonhuman Relationality

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Of Wonder and Encounter: Textures of Human and Nonhuman Relationality

Article excerpt

A comparative analysis of the 2011 novel Sous Beton, by Quebecois multidisciplinary artist Karoline Georges, and the 2010 novel Room, by Irish-born Canadian writer Emma Donoghue, shows how certain bodies, especially children's bodies, physically and emotionally develop through affective, material, and embodied encounters with objects, in reaction to different expressions of violence, and to the incapacity of language to adequately represent their reality. These encounters with nonhuman objects participate in these children's processes of identity formation and challenge the conventional logic of identity that characterizes their respective worlds, shedding light on the constitutive vulnerability of the relational field in which the two young characters and the perceived objects surrounding them are interdependently transformed. In addition, these encounters between the protagonists and surrounding things cause moments of wonder that create both a discomfort and a certain amazement at the new perspective on the world that emerges from that meeting with a particular thing or nonhuman figure. In the two novels, not only do these moments of wonder allow the negated lives of the children, their lifeless existences, to find a new trajectory and to "find a different form of sociability" (Ahmed, Queer 105), but they also provide alternatives for these bodies to extend themselves in narrow, constraining spaces in which they are somehow invisible (106).

This essay is thus a reflection on the presence of wonder and on its impact on the negotiations between life and death. The novels Sous Beton and Room participate in this reflection as they appeal to the relationality between human and nonhuman objects as a way of exploring new forms of life and of illuminating the importance of objects in how "bodily and social spaces leak into each other or inhabit each other" (Ahmed, Encounters 100). More precisely, drawing mostly on Sara Ahmed, Elizabeth Grosz, and Karen Barad, I argue that the protagonists in both novels experience life and death in a "more than human ethical praxis" (Whatmore 160), and that the texts can be read as attempts to surpass the traditional and conventional life/death dichotomy by telling stories of trauma and near-death experiences through moments of wonder in meaningful encounters that bring to attention the vitality of the dead.

The entry point is thus this fictionalized moment of wonder in several encounters between child characters, objects, and events. The two young protagonists struggle to make sense of their surroundings and, as they come up with strategies to escape and defy death, they find support and a sense of the possible in certain objects that surprise them by their capacity to be helpful and supportive. In these children's minds, and in contexts where friendship is practically inexistent, they behave with objects as if these objects were alive and could allow them to live differently. The protagonists, named Jack in Room and simply referred to as the Child in Sous Beton, are amazed and surprised by the capacity of lifeless things to expand their own life and to help them survive. These characters and objects serve not only to introduce alternatives to normative forms of existence, but also provide fictional engagements with trauma, with experiences of precarity interwoven, in Room, with the broader framework of male domination and, in Sous Beton, with a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, biopolitical system of power forces in which human value is reduced to mechanical action for the greater good.

The child characters struggle to make sense of and survive in toxic environments. They cope by developing caring and careful relationships with nonhuman others. These relationships stem from a wonder that impacts what Vicky Kirby calls a "relentless process of identity formation" and they interrogate "the very notion of circumscription, difference, the limit, the line" of "what secures the identity of one thing, or one self to the other" (110). …

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