Queer Life? Ecocriticism After the Fire
Abstract and Keywords
This article examines the relevance of queer theory and “queer ecological” trajectories to ecocriticism. It analyzes Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s formative thoughts in “Sex in Public” and proposes some “radical aspirations” of queer nature building. It outlines a “queer life” for ecocriticism and provides a reading of Jane Rule’s novel After the Fire, which engages directly with both the ontological and the political dimensions of queer ecological thinking.
In the opening passage of her 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place, Judith Halberstam quotes Michel Foucault: “homosexuality threatens people as a ‘way of life’ rather than as a way of having sex” (1). For Halberstam, this perceived menace is also a source of political potential: a queer “way of life,” including “subcultural practices, alternative methods of alliance, forms of transgender embodiment, and those forms of representation dedicated to capturing these wilfully eccentric modes of being” (1), responds to and calls into question such institutions as the nuclear family, compulsory heterosexuality, rigidly dimorphic gendered embodiments, and normative reproductivity. “Obviously,” writes Halberstam, “not all gay, lesbian, and transgender people live their lives in radically different ways from their heterosexual counterparts, but part of what has made queerness compelling as a form of self-description in the past decade or so has to do with the way it has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space” (1–2).
In this chapter, I consider that queer theory, and especially recent “queer ecological” trajectories that take up questions of biopolitics, hold the potential to open up not only new life narratives but also new narratives of life, including understandings of ontology and politics that are more responsive to recent developments in ecological thought than the (largely) uncritically heteronormative versions in which contemporary ecocriticism tends to be steeped. Echoing Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s formative thoughts in “Sex in Public” (1998), what I propose here are the “radical aspirations” of queer nature building: “not just a safe zone for queer sex, but the changed possibilities” of ecocritical understanding “that appear when the heterosexual couple is no longer the referent or privileged example” (548) in ecological conversation. In order to outline these changed possibilities, the chapter is divided into two major sections. In the first, I will consider briefly two recent articulations of queer ecology in order to draw out their sketch of a “queer life” for ecocriticism; in the second, I will use this sketch as a way (p. 306) of reading Jane Rule’s (1989) novel After the Fire, which engages directly with both the ontological and the political dimensions of queer ecological thinking.
Queer Life: Becomings1
In 1999, Bruce Bagemihl published his monumental book Biological Exuberance, which documented extensively that—contrary to popular and scientific understandings—a large number of animal species participated in, as a matter of routine, erotic activities between same-sex participants; his work was followed in 2004 by Joan Roughgarden’s equally popular Evolution’s Rainbow. In these texts and others, as Stacy Alaimo has written, “it is easy to see queer animals as countering the pernicious and persistent articulation of homosexuality with what is unnatural…making sexual diversity part of a larger biodiversity” (55). On the one hand, this “naturalization” of sexual diversity can be (and has been) used relatively uncritically to support a variety of assertions about the biological foundations of sexual preference, the role of sex (including sexual pleasure) in evolution, and most obviously, the apparent naturalness of same-sex activities among human beings (a conclusion that has supported both homophobic and queer positive agendas). As Alaimo also points out, on the other hand, “the multitude of utterly different modes of courtship, sexual activity, childrearing arrangements, gender, transsexualism, and transvestism that Bagemihl and Roughgarden document portray animal lifeworlds that cannot be understood in reductionist ways” (64).
In response, Myra Hird has documented a staggering number and diversity of sexual forms, gendered embodiments, and reproductive possibilities in nonhuman animals and other organisms: “homosexual behaviour,” she writes, “occurs in over 450 different species of animals, is found in every geographic region of the world, in every major animal group, in all age groups, and with equal frequency amongst males and females” (2009, 235). Moreover, she argues that stable sexual/gender dimorphism is far from the only possibility for gendered embodiment out there (2008): intersexuality is common in too numerous forms to document; many organisms move from one kind of sexed body to another under different conditions, at different points in their lifespans, and in relation to the gender of other species members; and still other organisms take on specific behaviors or characteristics of other genders in order to fool predators, attract sexual partners, or impress the social competition. What is interesting about this apparent polymorphous perversity and trans possibility is not only the fact of sexual and gender diversity itself; it is also the ways in which “biological queerness” and “animal trans” call into question so many of the arguments about authenticity, embodiment, identity, and even technology on which conventionally human-centered arguments currently rest. For Hird, in other words, queer nature creates new opportunities for posthumanist argument: sex and gender comprise yet another realm in which human behavior is (p. 307) revealed to be not so unique after all, and the line between nature and artifice drawn in mainstream (including some lgbtq) renderings of sexual identity and politics is revealed as ultimately unsupportable. As Elizabeth Wilson adds, referring to the intersex and multipartner lives of many of the species of barnacle that were the subject of Charles Darwin’s studies, to think of nonhuman animals as queer in conventional terms is thus “too glib.” The point is not to impose human sex/gender order onto the natural world in order to assimilate nonhuman diversity to existent identitarian categories. Rather, the characterization of barnacles as queer “has much more punch if it is used, contrariwise, to render those familiar human, cultural and social forms more curious as a result of their affiliation with barnacle organization. The queerness of Darwin’s barnacles is salutary not because it renders the barnacle knowable through its association with familiar human forms, but because it renders the human, cultural and social guises of queer less familiar and more captivated by natural and biological forces” (2002, 284).
Karen Barad has thus extended the meaning of “queer” to render curious still further dimensions of biosocial being; notably, she has deployed the idea of queer performativity to develop an account of the co-constitutive materialization of organisms.2 She writes of a radical reformulation of ontology away from a Cartesian model in which individual organisms (and other entities) pre-exist their interaction, and toward an understanding in which beings are constituted through interaction, in other words, performatively: entities do not become themselves as a result of an individual unfolding of internal potentiality against an external environment, but come to rest transitionally in particular configurations of what she calls “spacetimemattering” in their ongoing constitution through others. “Phenomena,” she thus writes, “are material entanglements enfolded and threaded through the spacetimemattering of the universe” (146); queer performativity is, then, not simply a matter of the discursive constitution/contestation of power and identity, but of the rendering material of the world itself through chemical, physical, evolutionary, and social inter- and intra-actions. As she writes: “ironically, in an important sense, on this account there are no ‘acts against nature’….In this radical reworking of nature/culture, there are only ‘acts of nature’ (including thinking and language use), which is not to reduce culture to nature, but to reject the notion that nature (in its givenness, its meaninglessness) requires culture as its supplement…and to understand culture as something nature does” (150).
Relatedly, Hird has raised Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “becoming” against this notion of performative co-constitution, noting the generative capacities of sensual/sexual encounter. In their example of the wasp and the orchid, she notes, the sex act that is pollination involves a co-implication of the one with the other: “by pollinating the orchid, the wasp becomes part of its reproductive apparatus, which at the same time becomes a piece of the wasp” (Parisi in Hird 2009, 357), what Deleuze and Guattari would call a “becoming-orchid of the wasp and a become-wasp of the orchid” (357). In addition, Hird points to microbiologist Lynn Margulis’s assertion that “new tissues, organs, and species evolved primarily through long-lasting relationships between different species” (357), a radical challenge to textbook accounts of competition, individualism, and selfish genes; sex, as an especially interesting set of inter-agential encounters, (p. 308) suggests particular symbiogenetic fecundity for new bodies and modes of embodiment through diverse kinds of encounters of becoming.3
At a different point on the queer ecological spectrum, Lee Edelman’s controversial No Future (2004) has generated fierce attention to the ways in which queer material and epistemic specificity offers a critique of what he terms “reproductive futurism”; the work has, not surprisingly, also inspired some queer thinkers to consider the implications of this critique for ecocriticism. Briefly, Edelman’s main argument is that contemporary politics are dominated by the figure of the Child in a logic in which the kernel of futurity is seen to reside in the innocent child’s wellbeing. The absolute self-evidence of the value of “fighting for the children,” in contemporary American family values politics and more broadly, “compels us…to submit to the framing of political debate…in terms of…reproductive futurism: terms that impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity” (2). Insofar as the Child is the unassailable bearer of the value of the future, radical critique is silenced: “for politics, however radical the means by which specific constituencies attempt to produce a more desirable social order, remains, at its core, conservative insofar as it works to…authenticate a social order, which it then intends to transmit to the future in the form of its inner Child. That Child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmic beneficiary of every political intervention (2–3). For Edelman, queerness interrupts the unfolding repetition of the same that inheres in this political logic; as a negative (in his argument, death drive-related4) embodiment of the social order’s “traumatic encounter with its own inescapable failure” (26) to bind the future to its reproductive fantasy, the queer figures as an explosive troubling of reproductive futurism.
In the midst of the substantial debate that Edelman’s text has engendered, several recent authors have considered in detail the implications of his and others’ critiques of reproductive futurism for queer ecology and ecocriticism.5 In a reading of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, for example, Jill Anderson argues that the novel turns heteronaturativity on its head by staging reproductive futurity as a sort of apocalypse: a sense of the future always already oriented to breeding and to generational continuity sacrifices the present in favor of a perpetually deferred future, and in so doing also justifies the plundering of resources and the devastation of spaces as part of a logic of proliferation. Isherwood is directly critical of postwar fecundity, both of babies and of goods, which he sees as inextricably tied. As Anderson writes, for Isherwood:
The destruction of the environment directly correlates to the production of children….[He] infuses the heterosexual act with the power to create a generalized apocalypse, wiping away all life on the planet. At the same time, though, heterosex…is entirely stripped of any eroticism, making heterosexual acts purely reproductive and not pleasurable in any way. Isherwood is also preoccupied with the (p. 309) creation of a queer space that overturns heterosexism and homophobia in order to open up queer erotic possibility, establish zones of safety for queerness, and expose ecological destruction, particularly through production and consumption. (53)
Although I would want to avoid any simplistic treatment of the relationship between population and environmental destruction, I would maintain, with Anderson, that the organization of postwar North American suburbs to facilitate repro-normative time and space, for example, certainly offers an important opening for a queer ecological critique of reproductive futurism: the figure of the Child, here, facilitates rather than interrupts capitalist proliferation.6
Bruce Erickson makes clear the ecological stakes of reproductive futurism by demonstrating that this complex of repro-normative temporal and spatial relations is tied to what Shannon Winnubst calls a “future anterior,” an anticipation of a future state that establishes the present as a realm of utility, a sacrifice-zone for that which is not yet. Encompassing the Child whose innocence must be protected from challenge, the future anterior authorizes an instrumental relation to the present, and especially to the Other whose present may be seen as a threat to the future of the Same. If the future is the goal and the present is understood as a condition of “what will have been,” then what is—however horrific—becomes justifiable in light of its necessity of giving rise to the future. Queer experiences thus indicate a “politics without a future,” and demand an uncoupling of the present from the future anterior. According to Erickson, then, “thinking through a politics of nature without a future means rethinking nature such that it is not bent toward the utility of power. Opening ourselves to the possibilities of history means addressing the ways in which the ideologies and concrete practices that have formed out of current understandings of nature represent more about the desired human outcomes than they do about anything nonhuman” (324).
Nicole Seymour addresses Edelman’s implicit challenge to environmentalism even more directly: given the tendency of the environmental movement, and perhaps especially the environmental justice movement, to be powerfully concerned with the protection of vulnerable groups (e.g., poor people of color and their children), not to mention with the preservation of biodiversity for future generations, “is there no queer way of thinking environmentally and ecologically? No environmental or ecological way of thinking queerly” (3)? Although she clearly believes otherwise, she is also aware of the complex stakes of the questions: in order to imagine a genuinely queer ecology, any political and ethical narrative in which the projected sanctity of a future nature justifies the sacrifice of the present needs to be scrutinized carefully. To what extent does the future Child serve as a naturalizing alibi for a narrowly, even destructively, hetero-reproductive present? To what extent might a queer negativity facilitate a more profoundly critical ecology, one in which the future is clearly an ecologically necessary consideration but its imagination is not exhausted by the hegemonic forms of sociality of the present? There are, she writes, “ways of thinking about the here and now that are, in fact, crucial: the belief that environmental devastation is a possibility, rather than a current and impending reality, or that we have to clean up the planet for future generations, rather than for (p. 310) present ones, allows for the kind of complacency that authorizes such degradation in the first place” (17). Following José Esteban Muñoz, she considers the utopian possibilities of queer ecology, in which radical queer negativity (as expressed in the concrete utopias of art and literature) can potentially give rise to new forms of sociability, new ways of being together—as humans and also among others—that refuse both the heteronormative and the anti-ecological elements of current capitalist relations of production, consumption, and social intelligibility.
Both of these threads, I would argue, demand that ecocriticism consider seriously what it might mean to queer life. In a Foucauldian understanding of biopolitics, a central question always circulates: How does power work not only to command death, but also to organize life in particular ways through policies, discourses and institutions that render certain forms of living vital and viable, and others suspiciously toxic to the body and the planet politic? “Saving the earth for the children” is thus always already a biopolitical assertion: saving what, by whom, and for whose children? Why is the future Child the privileged figure around whom environmental ethics and politics are organized, and what about the children—and former children—who might well argue that nothing has ever been saved in their names? What, given non-reproductive forms of generativity, constitutes a child, and where, in this conception, is there space for Others who are not our children, and perhaps not anyone’s children in the way we conventionally imagine progeny? In our “saving,” what assumptions are we making about the nature of life, the definition of what it means to be “alive,” the processes through which life is generated and recedes, the value of living in particular forms and communities, and the institutionalization of particular social and biotic relations designed to understand and cultivate vitality? And not least: what kinds of paternalism or maternalism does the stance of “saving for” authorize: if the future is understood to reside in the welfare of beings too young to care for themselves, then what kinds of political practice are we agreeing to in order to secure that particular future in the face of a complex present that happens to be full of wildly diverse Others?
I began this discussion with Berlant and Warner’s question: what are “the changed possibilities” of understanding “that appear when the heterosexual couple is no longer the referent or privileged example” (548), in this case, in ecological and ecopolitical understandings of life, generativity, and futurity? Clearly, there are many changes: displacing heteronaturativity in environmental understanding means paying significant attention to the ways in which, biopolitically, we both conceive of and promote particular forms of life, including both organismic understanding and sociopolitical organization.7 That our concepts of life are heteronormatively organized is abundantly clear: there are direct links, for example, between the evolutionary idealization of heterosexual reproduction and the political idealization of the Child as the bearer, equally teleologically, of a given society’s future potential. Despite Foucault’s insistence on the (p. 311) difference between a biology of population and a medicine of sex, biological science is, here, borrowed to the task of naturalizing socio-political arrangements of power and privilege; heterosexual nuclear families appear “naturally” paired with heterosexual sex as bearers of life against the ravages of a polymorphously queer perversity. Even if same-sex eroticism has eventually, after a rather long struggle, turned out to be ironically quite articulable with both evolutionary and neoliberal rationalities—in the guise of “sociosexual behaviour” in the one discourse and same-sex marriage in the other—a more self-consciously queer perspective suggests that we should not be at all happy with these articulations for reasons of both ontological expansiveness and political attentiveness. If “queer” is to mean anything at all, it must include a continual process of displacing the heterosexual couple at the centre of the ecological universe. That is the ecocritical project to which this chapter now turns.
After the Fire: Jane Rule’s Queer Ecology
In an essay entitled “Stumps” from her 1981 collection Outlander, Rule comments on the difficulties of living on her small, “cranky little [Galiano] island” (189): “When we talk, we expect to disagree” (187). The piece, originally published in the gay periodical The Body Politic in 1979, is about the need for gay men and lesbians to be part of a diverse public culture rather than to withdraw into protective enclave or invisibility. It is, however, also clearly about the significance fire holds on a rather small island in a dry area of Coastal Douglas Fir-zone forest in southwestern British Columbia: “No matter how much we may quarrel about how to live, no matter how grudgingly we accept each other’s company, no matter what conflicting uses we put our forests to,” writes Rule, “we know we don’t want to burn it down” (189).8 Rule’s essay employs fire as a metaphor: crises craft publics from among dissonant individuals, and gay men and lesbians must be every bit as much a part of those publics as anyone else if our unique perspectives are to be counted in political decision-making. But it also indicates fire as a very particular agent: on Galiano, fire is fire, and the particular climatic, biotic and socioeconomic conditions of life in the southern Gulf Islands mean that late summers are times when islanders get worried about cigarette-smoking tourists in their annually summer-droughted forests. I would like to read her novel After the Fire in a similar way: the fire of the title is both a metaphor for and a metonym of queer ecology, a sign of the possibility of a queer future in its narrative generation of post-heteronormative relations and temporalities, and also a more materialist gesturing toward the queer potentialities of fire as an agent of ecological change that is demonstrably unfaithful to accustomed narratives of reproductive futurism.9
After the Fire is set on Rule’s “cranky little” Galiano Island. Her last novel of twelve, it narrates the complex of relationships that develops among five women as they (p. 312) create, after a series of dramatic personal, familial, and corporeal losses, something like a “queer” community: a set of practices of emotional support, intimacy, respect (sometimes grudging), and care that transcends—indeed, that is predicated on the fracturing and/or rejection of—heteronormative kinship bonds of marital or filial obligation. Like all of Rule’s novels, however, it is both anti-apocalyptic and anti-utopian; it is, instead, a sort of concentrated biopolitical island microcosm in which even small events have huge and rippling implications. In this respect, Rule’s view of Galiano is far more ecologically accurate than politically correct; as ecologist Daniel Botkin notes, islands are actually sites in which the complex biotic facts of constant transformation are most especially apparent, even if idiosyncratically manifest. As Rule is clearly aware, fire is part of that constant movement, no matter how much a given human community might wish to avoid or control it. Here, Botkin offers us further insight: many species, like the Kirtland’s Warbler that only nests in the dead branches of “jack-pine woodlands that are between 6 and 21 years old” (69), require fire: the jack-pines on which the warblers are entirely dependent germinate only in the heat of a fire and grow only when their limbs can reach into full sunlight, as in a fire-produced clearing. I will have more to say about ecologies of fire in a moment; let me suggest here that Rule has intentionally turned away from the dramatic interplay of apocalypse and utopia toward an understanding of fire that is not only more socially complex but also more ecologically observant.
There is no action in the novel before the fire “blooms into the winter night before the fire truck could get there” (1). When they do arrive, the volunteer firefighters can really only watch as the house in which the fire started burns to the ground. As Karen Tasuki, one of the fire fighters, notes: “even if they knew what they were doing, there had never been a chance of saving the house or anyone or anything in it” (2). This fire, echoed by the others that Rule inserts into the narrative periodically as reminders of the thin between the utility of fire and its capacity for devastation, is the fatal event whose after-effects burn through the rest of the novel. Fires in fireplaces and glowing candles speak of warmth, light, and sensuality—a lit match, for example, “restored Karen for a moment to the little illusion she had of fire” (3) as an instrument bent to human pleasure—but “the noise, the heat, the beauty” (2) of this fire speak of an event that is much more unpredictable, and much more transformative.
Specifically, the fire acts as both a literal and a metaphoric space-clearing: the five women around and through whom the story moves find their lives transformed by the fire and also by the chains of events that the fire lets loose: as Kirtland’s Warblers find a generative space in the low branches of new growth, in After the Fire each woman finds a new trajectory in the midst of the events that the fire directly and indirectly causes to occur. The most obvious example of this generative capacity concerns Red, who we discover later is pregnant with the child of the lone man, Dickie John (!), who is killed in the fire: it’s his house that is destroyed, his charred body that is later found in the ashes. Red is not in love with Dickie, who has a swaggering reputation for sleeping around, and she does not respond publicly to his death; she had a relationship with him solely to conceive a child and notes wryly that she “just got pregnant before he got bored” (164). She clearly had no intention of co-parenting, let alone of marrying. Although it is doubtful (p. 313) that Dickie would have defended his paternal rights in any case, the fire literally clears the island of any of the heterosexist requirements that might have arisen around the baby’s birth. With Dickie’s death, Red is free to form the family of her choosing: Red, her dog Blackie, and her baby daughter Blue. Their names defy heteropatriarchy: the cross-species trio is constellated by Red as a set of bruise-like colors, and not according to any patronymy, as we never know Red’s surname.
Even beyond Red’s post-infernal refusal of heteropatriarchy, the house fire sets loose a cascade of transformative events, each of which also involves the destruction of some type of heteronormative bond. Each of the four other main characters—young Karen, middle-aged Milly Forbes, older Henrietta Hawkins, and elderly Miss James—finds her relationship to Galiano profoundly changed over the course of the novel, changes that are all set in motion by the fire. Henrietta Hawkins has been in a holding pattern for years, visiting her unresponsive husband in a nursing home in Vancouver twice weekly without fail; his eventual death releases a torrent of grief and guilt that threatens to destroy her, but Red and Karen take care of her and help her to return anew to her community, now cared for as well as care giver. Racist and class-obsessed Milly Forbes, deposited on Galiano by her ex-husband to keep her out of the way of his new marriage, festers with bigotry and resentment until she has a hysterectomy (with serious complications, but clearly a delivery from reproductive femininity) and is forced to rely on the other women around her. Ancient Miss James has never married—her sexuality is indeterminate—and had retired to the island after years of globally itinerant teaching; after preparing herself for death, she dies and leaves her tiny, perfect house to Red, clearing the space of her elderly self and carefully defying heteronormative principles of inheritance. And Karen, who retreated to the island in the aftermath of a marriage-like lesbian relationship that seemed predicated on Karen’s loss of an independent existence,10 finds on Galiano both a strong community of women among whom to live and the need—like Miss James before her—to go elsewhere to find out where she “belongs.” Using money she inherited from her mother,11 Karen plans to go to Japan to explore that part of her identity that her father demanded she forget, a clear choice to explore herself anew in the wake of the death of old intimate relationships and demands, both her parents’ and her lover’s.
For all of these characters, the fire and the changes that echo it throughout the novel are a form of creative destruction. On this island, in this fire, a whole set of calcified, heteronormative patterns of relationship, identity, and belief is set alight, and in the smoking aftermath the loosened seeds of the jack-pines can spread. Specifically, a queer community emerges: this little island is still thoroughly cranky—Karen tolerates but will never love the racist Milly, and Red’s ability to choose her bruised family is tightly bound to her general misanthropy—but, once at least a little part of that island is engulfed in flames, it nurtures unthought forms of possibility. Despite Rule’s own desires to the contrary, fires happen on Galiano, and in this case, the burning of a dense thicket of overdetermined heterosexual conventions allows these women, after the fire, to rethink how they wish to grow in ways that are not part of a heteronormative script. Indeed, we don’t know what’s going to happen: we are left with Karen’s leaving, not with who she becomes (p. 314) once she arrives; Henrietta also adds clearly that “once you stopped thinking of life as something requiring a destiny, you could accept it as the realer miracle it was” (115).
But the largely metaphoric incineration is only part of the queer ecology of this fire; there are also deeply material considerations. In his extraordinary book Fire: A Brief History, Stephen Pyne documents that fire is a powerful agent in the midst of a complex set of relationships. Any fire requires three things: ignition, oxygen, and fuel. But that incendiary triumvirate does not begin to describe the intricate dance of factors that goes into the making or flourishing of a blaze, whether it be house fire, industrial fire, or forest fire, and neither does it begin to express the different ways in which species, landscapes, peoples and even inanimate objects are shaped by and participate in fire phenomena. As he writes:
Around [fire] revolves an ecological triangle, a circulation of biochemicals, species, and communities. It stirs molecules, organisms, landscapes. It kills plants, breaks down ecological structures, sets molecules adrift, shuffles species, opens up niches, and for a time rewires the flow of energy and nutrients. [And in response], plants and animals “adapt” not to fire as a principle but to particular patterns of fires [in complex ways]….In brief, fire is one of the Earth’s great interactive biotechnologies. (16–17)
The idea that certain species find their ecological niches in the midst of particular fire regimes is not especially new (cf. Kirtland’s warblers). What Pyne adds is a much stronger emphasis on the inter-agency and indeterminacy of these relationships. Arguing that fire has “co-evolved” with life and flourishes in different degrees and modes according to highly specific chemical, physical, biological, and anthropogenic constellations, Pyne has us come to understand fire phenomena as bundles of highly contingent processes, conditions, and events in which, at a variety of different levels and in a variety of different temporalities, things do not just “happen” to other things, but molecular, organismic, ecosystemic, and social factors variously invite, repel, prevent, and fail to prevent particular kinds of fire phenomena. At the evolutionary level, for example, some species thrive in the midst of niches opened up by fire and some have developed traits to protect them from fire, but yet others have developed characteristics that, directly and indirectly, may actively welcome immolation: as Pyne writes, “the exquisite choreography that seems to link high intensity burning, in particular, with preferential reseeding suggests strongly” that “organisms…have evolved traits to stimulate fire” (18).
Fires stimulate and are stimulated. Fires demonstrate and create preferences. Fires feed and are fed by different configurations of biological, physical, and social forces. Fires both are and promote flexible opportunists; it is no accident that in so many mythologies, it is a trickster figure who steals the fire, not only because fire is hard to control, but also because it takes advantage of any flammable opportunity to stir up apparent chaos. Fire is constituted responsively; it cannot exist without life forms that speak its language, and indeed, life forms have constituted themselves in particular ways in order to benefit from the conversation. Clearly, these traits indicate that fire exemplifies the intra-agential performativity Barad has described, that it is part of a broadly queer “posthumanist performative account of materialization that does not limit [the (p. 315) question of communicative co-constitution] to the realm of the human” (125). Fire is a thoroughly queer critter in this sense, and perhaps even a particularly revealing example of one: it is an entity that is deeply implicated, in a demonstrably nonteleological way, in the performative transformation of every level of existence from the physical to the biological to the social and back. Fire and stone create and respond to each other; fire adapts jack pines who, when old and dry, offer themselves up for infernal consumption in order to seed; fire is nurtured and organized by human beings, its evolution fostering and fostered by, for example, large cities built of flammable materials. As Pyne documents beautifully, fire is always already relationally constituted, and also comes to exist only in the company of conditions, adaptations, and events that, in a way, invite the kind of incendiary conversation in which fire is required to participate in order to exist.12 Particular fires converse with and are constituted by particular naturecultures, in which humans are entirely implicated. And even in highly specific conditions, fires do not necessarily respond to or shape their combustible co-conspirators in predictable ways (no wonder fire modeling is such a difficult science13).
But to say that fire is a queer critter in this way without locating that understanding in a critique of the social relations of heteronormativity would be to ignore key elements at play in the biopolitical organization of life. Conceiving life as queer opens the world to a reading in which generativity is not reduced to reproductivity, in which the future is not limited to a repetition of a heteronormative ideal of the Same, and in which the heterosexual couple and its progeny—or some facsimile thereof—are not the privileged bearers of life for ecocriticism. And so I turn back to Rule with this question: in the novel, in what way is the fire not only a performatively queer critter, but also a specifically anti-heteronormative one?
Starting with that question, I think we see clearly the house, the site of the fire that initiates all the women’s transformations. Rule is clear that houses are accoutrements of—literally shelters for—heterosexual relationships. Henrietta and Milly both live alone in single-family homes that were once part of their marital lives; Henrietta comments on being burdened by her possessions in the solid, sensible house her husband had purchased, and Milly’s sense of herself as a cast-off wife is clearly partly constituted by the poor quality of her dwelling, “never intended for winter living…[and] in summer, when the water table was low, she didn’t flush the toilet more than once a day unless she had company coming. Talk about being put out to pasture” (13)! Karen, conversely, feels inadequate because she is renting a family’s summer home and is not able to develop a sense of herself as an autonomous person as she is surrounded by their possessions. Nonetheless, she is clearly aware that the sense of self she might see in a house of her own would be refracted through a heteronormative prism; she comments directly on the heterosexual organization of household properties just after Henrietta’s husband dies: “Karen got into her car and drove over to the Hawkinses’ house, noticing the sign that marked their drive. Hen & Hart over Hawkins. Residents had been asked by the fire department to mark their places carefully since there were no house numbers, but the cute heterosexuality of a lot of them irritated Karen, this one included” (119).
(p. 316) The irony that the fire department required this overt demonstration of heterosexuality is not, I think, accidental: it is as if the hetero-household had to proclaim publicly its vulnerability to flame. Indeed, Dickie had built his own house for the express purpose of beginning a life away from his mother, and it was his proudest accomplishment. When it burned down with him in it, his heterosexual place in the world was destroyed in all senses: his paternity of Red’s child, his house as a performative declaration of heterosexual territoriality. Along the same lines, is it also important that the thing Miss James gives to Red is a house; against the grain of heteronormative patterns of space, time, and inheritance, Miss James’s tiny house with its exquisite collection of singular objects and its orientation to solitude (there is only one comfortable chair) is a subversion of heterosexual spatiality; with her child’s father’s house destroyed, Red literally receives from Miss James a space outside heteronormativity, through a form of inheritance that is sideways to reproductive futurism. And Rule notices all of these relations: “It struck Henrietta that there could be a pleasure in being childless, that someone with even Miss James’ limited resources was free to speculate on generosity, to bestow it where she chose, unlike Henrietta who considered herself in stewardship over what would be Hart Jr.’s and then his children’s legacy” (29).
Although Galiano Island is less suburbanized than others of the Southern Gulf Islands, I’d like to think that Rule recognized the ecological implications of her novel in this way: the enactment of reproductive futurism through heteropatriarchal patterns of property ownership creates a situation in which there is so much combustible material that fires are virtually inevitable. Especially in places such as Galiano that experience routine drought cycles, people need to think carefully about not causing fires; that may mean limiting tourist access, but it may also mean thinking very carefully about land use and housing development (I am tempted to say, “thinking like a fire”). In any case, After the Fire certainly enacts the articulation of reproductive futurism with combustibility; in order to develop a more sustainable fire regime—at least for human critters—something dry has to burn in order for new forms of life to emerge.
By deploying fire as a more-or-less ecological metaphor in the novel for the generative destruction of a landscape of tinder-dry heteronatural relations, including the organization of matter that facilitates them, Rule suggests that there are important affinities between social and ecological transformation. As with fire’s materiality, its metaphoricity is not about some purification of social relationships as much as it is about the radically indeterminate becomings set into motion by the flames. The fire generates a series of dramatic and destructive changes, a coming-apart of a network of heteronormativities; it does not set the stage for a reconstitution of what was there before, and neither does it clear the way for a utopian possibility of something else. The women are altered profoundly by fire and reconstitute themselves as a different kind of community, but in no way is the new landscape impervious to further change: Miss James dies, Karen leaves, Milly is still a racist (if slightly less so), and Red, cherishing her bruises both literally and figuratively, remains deeply suspicious of most human company. Complex fire regimes as a better environmental model for ecocriticism than heteronormative repetitions? Perhaps. But more importantly: fire as a reminder that queer ecology is (p. 317) necessarily a coalitional politics that embraces the contingencies of a material and a metaphoric socioecological queering, in ecocriticism as elsewhere.
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(1) . For a cross-section of formative writings at the intersections of queer theory and ecocriticism, please compare the following anthologies: Rachel Stein, ed., New Perspectives in Environmental Justice (2004); Noreen Giffney and Myra Hird, eds., Queering the Non/Human (2008); and Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, eds., Queer Ecologies (2010).
(2) . I am skeptical of the move by which “performative” comes to be equated with “queer,” in this essay of Barad’s as elsewhere: there is nothing uniquely queer about the idea that beings are constituted temporarily in and through relations with one another (I prefer Margulis’s more descriptive term “symbiogenesis”). But there is something definitely queer in the related displacement of reproductive sexuality from the center of discourses of health and vitality, and especially, from its status as the mode of life generation that is understood to bring diversity (in this case, genetic) into the world.
(3) . Although I cannot include discussion of them here due to space constraints, there are also other broadly queer ecological works that draw from Deleuze and also from Elizabeth Grosz to problematize Cartesian and related understandings of bodies, selves, and desiring subjectivities, but that do not proceed through feminist science studies in the way of Hird, Wilson, Barad, etc. Please see Sandilands 2001; MacCormack 2009; and Scott 2009.
(4) . See also Leo Bersani’s work. Edelman’s and Bersani’s provocative depictions of queer relations to the death drive are clearly more complex than can be reviewed here. One important point, however, is that “queer” identifies, for Edelman, a structural position (an undoing of the Symbolic) that queer individuals may or may not choose to inhabit (27). For a critique of this queer “anti-social” negativity, see Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia.
(5) . Of course, this trajectory is not the only one taken by recent queer ecological thinkers interested in developing a specifically queer ecological politics. See, for example, Stein’s and Hogan’s (2010) poignant works on the epistemic and political possibilities of thinking ecopolitically from queer subject-positions coded as “against nature.”
(6) . Clearly, queer experience is not somehow inherently antithetical to capitalist relations of consumption (the exact opposite would appear to be the case: childless gay couples and singles in relatively wealthy western countries are a particularly rich market for consumer goods): the vitality of the new gay subject in the world economy is part of what Lisa Duggan (2003) and others refer to as “homonormativity.”
(7) . Again, although space constraints prevent a fuller discussion, I would point to Chris Cuomo’s explicitly nonteleological (1998) concept of “flourishing” as a promising ethical term around which to organize this kind of queer ecological rethinking of life.
(8) . Michele Cantelon, a current Galiano resident, echoes this sense that the fear of fire crafts a qualitatively different public sphere on Galiano: “that fear/concern actually bonds us closer than most anything else. I guess it’s because it touches on the most primal physical concerns for survival. But it does seem to bring out the best in people and help them put their baggage aside.”
(9) . In so doing, I am following both Muñoz and Seymour in their Blochian thinking of art and literature as sites for the production/imagination of a concrete utopia (and not simply a queer negativity).
(10) . Rule was publicly opposed to same-sex marriage.
(11) . Long divorced from Karen’s father, she has killed herself: another image that warps heterosexual inheritance.
(12) . As he points out, life can exist without fire, but not the reverse.