Essay: Jana Normanon mythopoetics

(Un)fixing our position

Onto-ethical celestial navigation in the Anthropocene (a 10-point guide)

Oldest recorded supernova. Image source: NASA Chandra X-ray.

Yes, Timothy, this is the end of the world, but only as we know it.

What’s the point? Getting to know the world differently.

Not rocket science. Science, stellar and cosmic.

Pity the boys with their rocket toys, still missing the point.

The only way through is through; there is no such thing as up, up and away.

The point is not transcendence but inscendence.

Inscendence, as Adam Nicolson notes, ‘does not involve moving beyond the life we know but climbing into it, looking for its kernel’.

We have to go in to get out and we have to go out to get in. Ours is a spiral galaxy. Start at either point – way out or way in – and we will get to the point.

In the beginning is the void. Deep and dark.

It erupts into cosmic plasma, so hot it has no structure.

It is formless.

It begins to cool.

I hear echoes of an ancient story:

In the beginning was the formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.

A wind from God swept over it.

In the first one hundred thousandths of a second, the coming together begins. Quarks clump together into protons and neutrons.

A hundredth of a second later, protons and neutrons start hanging together, forming the lightness of being: nuclei of hydrogen and helium.

Before one second elapses, four elemental forces come into being: gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces.

I hear echoes of an ancient story: in the beginning, God…

Electrons, wildly streaming; negatively charged.

In the cooling, they slow down.

Positively charged nuclei attract them: hydrogen and helium put on their best dresses.

As atoms form, binding positive and negative together, photons of light spill out everywhere – disco ball at the dance.

I hear echoes of an ancient story:

And there was light, separated from the darkness.

And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.

Immense clouds of hydrogen and helium drift, each one breaking into a trillion separate clouds.

I hear echoes of an ancient story:

God separated the waters from the waters.

And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

Colliding, friction, fusion – hydrogen burns, turning millions of tons of matter into energy in seconds and … a star is born.

Stars: elemental burning:

carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, magnesium, iron.

Iron too heavy to be fuel.

Gravity takes over.

The star’s core implodes, triggering an immense explosion of the outer layers.

This is supernova.

Flinging all that is – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, magnesium, iron – out, out, out.

Everything that is, was, and will be can now be.

The stars, the toads, and you and me.

What’s the point of such a big story when God is no longer the point?

Here it is, in the poetry of science, from Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker:

With our empirical observations expanded by modern science[s], we are realizing that our universe is a single immense energy event [beginning] as a tiny speck … [becoming] galaxies and stars, palms and pelicans, the music of Bach, and each of us alive today.

The material human being traces its origins to the emergence of matter itself. Cynthia Stokes-Brown, from whom I borrow tracings of the Big Bang story above, calls supernovas ‘the cosmic furnaces’, observing:

Only supernovas can create elements higher than iron … explosions of stars created the elements that make life on Earth possible. We quite literally are made of stardust.

What does it mean to be made of stardust? What does it mean to be made of stardust just like and along with everything else? In classical western ontology, to be human is to be more than mere matter. But what if all matter is more than mere matter?

Diana Coole and Samantha Frost note that in new ontologies, materiality is ‘always something more than “mere” matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable’.

These are all the things matter lacks in the old story, where ‘mere’ flags a lack of agency; where agency is understood to be a function of human reason.

But what of the agency of stardust? For vital materialist Jane Bennett,

developments in the natural sciences and in bioengineering have rendered the line between organic and inorganic, life and matter, increasingly problematic’. She argues that ‘mineral material [star dust, I’d say] appears as the mover and shaker, the active power; and the human beings, with their much-lauded capacity for self-directed action, appear as its product.

What does it mean to be made of stardust? It could mean that we are made by stardust, a product of stardust. It could mean that stardust is making us, always and already.

Particle physicist Karen Barad examines the constitutive elements of the elements that make up the stardust that makes up everything. Experimenting at the sub-atomic level, Barad brings resolution (without collapse) to the apparent paradox within material existence: that in some instances matter appears to behave like a particle and in others like a wave. Experimenting in metaphysics, as Barad calls working with diffraction, leads them to conclude:

… matter is substance in its intra-active becoming – not a thing but a doing, a congealing of agency…. Phenomena – the smallest material units (relational ‘atoms’) – come to matter through this process of ongoing intra-activity. ‘Matter’ does not refer to an inherent, fixed property of abstract, independently existing objects; rather, ‘matter’ refers to phenomena in their ongoing materialisation.

Matter as a doing, not a thing, means that any ‘congealing of agency’ is never absolute or predetermined, be that congealing paper, scissors, rock or human.

All these – all – stardust products, Barad indicates, ‘are not entities with inherent boundaries and properties but phenomena that acquire specific boundaries and properties through the open-ended dynamics of intra-activity’.

No matter that humans experience the world as a world of bodies, specified and propertied; a world in which ‘I’ seems meaningfully different from ‘rock’ or ‘tree’ or ‘fish in the sea’. Neither ‘I’ nor thee exists absolutely, fixedly, finally or separately. Differentially but not separately. Barad calls this intra-action, in contrast to interaction, writing that:

the usual ‘interaction’ … assumes there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction … distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action … ‘distinct’ agencies are only distinct in a relational, not an absolute, sense … only distinct in relation to their mutual entanglement; they don’t exist as individual elements.

The rocks, trees, fish, seas, yous and mes are not absolutely differentiated, only relationally in co-constitutional entanglement. In Barad’s terms, humans are ‘part of the world in its open-ended becoming’.

Thus end-eth colonising ways of knowing-being-doing in the world, dependent as they are on set-apart-ness; on distinctions that can be fixed, assigned from above to the nature of things creating the illusion that the world is made for some and not for all the capital ‘O’ Others, human and non-human. Barad makes the primary point:

A delicate tissue of ethicality runs through the marrow of being. There is no getting away from ethics – mattering is an integral part of the ontology of the world in its dynamic presencing. Not even a moment exists on its own. ‘This’ and ‘that,’ ‘here’ and ‘now,’ don’t pre-exist what happens but come alive with each meeting. The world and its possibilities for becoming are re-made with each moment.

Intra-acting responsibly as part of the world means taking account of the entangled phenomena that are intrinsic to the world’s vitality and being responsive to the possibilities that might help us and it flourish.

And so, Barad concludes:

Meeting each moment, being alive to the possibilities of becoming, is an ethical call, an invitation that is written into the very matter of all being and becoming.

We need to meet the universe halfway, to take responsibility for the role that we play in the world’s differential becoming.

That’s the point: meeting the universe halfway. Which has very little to do with rockets and absolutely everything to do with stars.

Works Cited

Nicholson, Adam. 2017. The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers. London: Williams Collins.

Stokes Brown, Cynthia. 2012. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. New York: The New Press.

Swimme, Brian and Tucker, Mary Evelyn. 2011. Journey of the Universe. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Coole, Diana and Frost, Samantha. 2010. “Introducing New the Materialisms.” In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics, edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, 1-43. Durham: Duke University Press.

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Published November 15, 2021
Part of Provocations: Selected proceedings from the Provocations Symposium hosted by the J.M Coetzee Centre at the University of Adelaide. All Provocations essays →
Jana Norman

Jana Norman is a researcher in the humanities at the University of Adelaide. She...

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