Mattering Compositionts Kathleen Steward.pdf

This assignment is an experiment in writing and sensing, or in Kathleen Stewart’s terms “mattering”. You are being asked to use Stewart’s ethnographic writing about coal mines in West Virginia as an example to inspire your own ethnographic description and as a way to facilitate your particular wanderings in a sensually charged space (which can be practically anywhere) and where you can position yourself to observe/write about the felt impacts of a particular location/situation. You are therefore required to observe with all your senses and to write about your felt experience in an environment of your choosing. There may be limitations to where you can go, therefore you are free to fictionalize a scene from where you stand. Like Stewart- you are telling a story that catches the pulse of “what’s going on”. You can also choose to situate this exercise in relation to your research/thesis- as a story of creating work (and all that this entails), as long as you foreground the sensing experience of your research/practice. 

Some boundaries

You will need to place particular attention to your surroundings (i.e. smells and noises) in stillness and/or movement. I am less interested in what you see and more interested in the sensual interpretation of what you see. Rather than describing the rising sun for example, my question is whether you can smell the air at this time or whether the morning air can be “felt”. While these descriptions may at first seem insignificant, you will also be commenting on how you navigate the space/moment, with a theoretical framework in mind. The power of description is key and not disconnected from the theory you choose to use. You can evoke the theory (like Stewart) and don’t need to formally cite the work. 

How do you make sense of your experience? Do bodies cross boundaries of embodiment by feeling the environment and the many non-human entities that are entangled in mattering? Remember: theory read in this class is what informs the worlding of this assignment. Most importantly: Have fun !

I strongly encourage you engage Hypothesis for this assignment, as a way to understand Stewart’s worlding and hopefully this close reading will inspire how you approach the writing assignment. 

This writing, sensory experiment, should be no less than 1000 words or no more than 1400 words. 

Mattering Compositions
Kathleen Stewart

I was living in the coal mining camps in West Virginia when Reagan was elected.

Right away everyone knew that something was happening, that we were in
something. Right away the stories started about the people who were getting kicked

off social security disability. Why her? She’s a widow with diabetes, no running

water, no income. Why him? He’s crazy and one-legged; he’s got nobody. It was as if,

overnight, at the hands of a national election, the compositions of life here had

hinged onto an impossible and senseless world, leaving people literally “turned

around”. I remembered this same sudden tipping point, where the world seemed to

hit an edge, from a few months earlier when a terrible car accident involving drugs,

drag racing and wife swapping (or some kind of kinship twisting, no one really

knew what) had left five children dead and everyone else walking into walls in their

own homes, as if they suddenly couldn’t remember where the doorways were.

The hinge of Reagan’s election brought a kind o f clarity too. Suddenly, abject

poverty itself was on display, plain as day. Now you saw that the old people were

buying cans o f dog food for their suppers; they’d be spotted at the camp store

with just maybe six cans of dog food on the conveyor belt and that was it. Young

people were living in cars; the stories traced their daily movements over the hills:

where they were spotted parking, how the baby’s dirty diapers were piling up in

the back seat.

It was as if the elemental had come into direct contact with a life leveled by

a plane o f intensity. As if the environmentality o f the world itself flooded

the social-material-aesthetic landscape with stories, gestures, car parts, the

overflowing creek, and gunshots in the night. Everything was implicated and of

a piece, as if a curtain had descended on the place, creating an otherworldly stage

on which history veered off into a state o f nature and the sociality of talk honed

itself down to the story of leakage and fleshy planes o f impact. People became

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22 Between Matter and Method

bodies moved. Every misbehaving body part was a cutting edge o f something

becoming a phenomenon. Every story became an ambient map of a harsh new

world in a state o f uneven emergence. The very stuff of things, bodies, and words

had coagulated into a method of mattering.

O f course this wasn’t new, just clearer for a minute as the extreme trajectories

of possibilities now took a certain shape. This was a place already blanketed in

the expressivity of shock. Events bloated with possibilities had long littered the

landscape like phantom limbs. History was no distant structural determination

visible in outline but an energetic series of points that hit like bullets. Everyday

aesthetic-material compositions were chords struck on deaths in the mines, slow

starvations, house fires that killed everyone inside, marauding gangs o f teenagers

in the woods, the horrors of the body without medical care, the mass devastations

o f industry-wide mine closings, twenty or thirty years o f mass migrations of

whole generations fleeing in search of work, and the harsh excitements and

hardships and marital battlefields o f area-wide strikes. Whatever happened in

this place honed down to hard points scored across bodies, machines, and places

in the hills. Sociality was rendered heavy and diffuse. Events circled through the

narrative elements of character, gesture, dialog, timing, a certain look.

Cascading scenes o f devastation touched the question o f life, giving it an energy,

a rhythm, a palpable excess. Wild incipient trajectories could set people off. There

were phantasmagorical eruptions. A teenager going on a week long burning spree

taking out barns and outhouses and ending up living under a rock. Or racist

violence in the dark, in the woods, in a space o f condensed displacement—a white

on black rape, all men, an escape and a long night’s walk back to the safety o f a

segregated camp. Never an official confirmation of any kind. Throughout it all, the

kind of utopian thinking that comes of hard drinking or hard religion flickered on

and off like the blue lights o f a T V set left on at night.

Reactive circuits threw up life forms that settled on the place as a mode of

living through things. W hen the big mines closed and people were getting killed

in the deadly little punch mines, snake handling boomed in the churches. For the

sinners, there was drinking and drugs and sucking the gas out o f other peoples’

cars with a tube. The place was overfilled and in the habit of proliferation. People

said the place smothered them but they “wouldn’t never want to leave.” They ran

their mouths; they visited, they watched things arrive in the company of others.

They had the common habit o f “making something of things”. They shared ways

o f being “torn up” or “getting used to” things, forms of neighborliness, labors of

all kinds, and ecstatic forms of experience under the signs o f religion, dream, or

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Mattering Compositions 23

addiction. There was theft and violence and care. The distant state came down in

raids. There were daily forms o f collapse and endurance.

When the union died one day in the middle o f a strike, a stunned defeat

setded on huddled bodies. The bodies wheezed, they reeled. People fell out in

mass outbreaks o f “the nerves” and “the dizzy.” They said it was like they were

being pulled down by a hand that grabbed them in the middle o f their back.

When the fast-food chains in town became the only place to work, the beat-up

pickups went and the beat-up Ford Escorts came. When the idea hit that the

young people would have to leave to find work in the cities, parents prepared

their girls by training them in martial arts so now there are a lot o f black belts in

West Virginia and Cincinnati. Wal-Mart happened. Oxycontin happened.

Tourism didn’t happen. Falwell’s moral majority didn’t happen either; the little

metal stands full o f pamphlets appeared in the back of churches but after years

of standing there untouched, they finally faded away. When the talk shows

started, young people who were overweight or “didn’t talk right” were flown to

Hollywood to be on the shows. Freakiness was not, here, a spectator sport.

A worlding had taken root as habits o f watching, waiting, “running your

mouth,” and “foolin’ with things”— all active, practical compositional arts that

incited, recorded, and performed collective shifts in modes o f being. The

repetitive animations o f prolific storytelling aestheticized and accumulated a

world like a field o f mineable resources. Every act was a way o f sensing out what

was happening. Every glance noted the worldly capabilities o f people and objects.

Bodies sitting together registered the weight o f the world. Their restless mobility

and tinkering with things laid down the rhythm of daily life. Their intense states,

like the ruins o f homesteads in the hills, marked the living out o f impacts as a

form of attachment to life itself.
Here, I write in an effort to return to this method o f mattering that surrounded

me when I was doing fieldwork in West Virginia as an enigma, but one that had a

lived sensibility I couldn’t help but sense myself. It seems to me that this sensibility

is akin to what Karen Barad calls “mattering” and what Isabella Stengers calls

a “vivid pragmatics.”1 It also brings up what object oriented ontologists would

call a robust realism in which objects withdraw from phenomenological and

representational efforts at reduction and paraphrase2. Here I try to follow how the

expressivity o f a vivid, actively mattering world like this both underscores certain

kinds of thought and makes thought dense and oblique3 with labors, the constant

scanning of possibilities, and an attunement to the amassed detritus o f cruel or

surprisingly gentle events. It seems to me that this kind of mattering is a method

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24 Between Matter and Method

under pressure in which the point o f thought is not to represent or to judge but to

reanimate what is coming into states of matter and mattering in bodies, stories,

acts, and events. It may be that a theorist o f mattering needs some singular skills

and capacities such as timing and staging to be able to follow the serendipitous

and digressive lines o f energetic surfaces, concrete abstractions, and substrates

and airs. This may be a world in which what matters, first, is that objects and

persons are cooked down to a capacity to listen to the muscled melody of things.

When I opened my now 35-year-old field notes to begin, things fell out: a pile

of pink receipts from Lilly’s Professional Pharmacy for Riley Hess’s black lung

medications; a note from Greta, the nurse at the poor people’s clinic, instructing

his wife to keep the receipts for Medicare claims; an also pink receipt, probably

mixed up with Riley’s archive all those years ago, for a jacket I bought in Ann

Arbor for $12.99; and Jerry Hensons American Health and Life Insurance

Company naming me as the beneficiary: Katie Stewart (Friend), the F was

capitalized. These droppings affected me not because they mapped onto memories

already lodged in my head but because they were themselves disturbances in a

field registering a strange archive o f social-affective-aesthetic imprints.

They reminded me that I had dropped the ball in my efforts to get Riley’s disability

benefits. They took me back to the scene of Jerry handing me that beneficiary card.

I barely acknowledged it; he didn’t quite announce it; there was an indirectness

about the situation. I must have dropped it in a file or a box without really registering

it and never thought about it again, certainly not when Jerry died about a year later,

at forty something, of complications from the flu. He had also brought me boxes of

canned fruits and vegetables he had put up because I was leaving the field and, as he

put it, I could pay anything I thought they were worth; I could send it once I got set

up back in Michigan because he knew how hard it was and he didn’t want me to be

hungry. I was driving out o f the mountains the next day, when my car overheated

and died. It was Jerry who came and pulled it back to his place. I must have taken a

bus to Michigan. Over the next months Jerry bought a matching, also wrecked,

Dodge Dart, and the two cars sat side by side in his yard, creating lines of affinity,

possibility, and labor to be done in an old Dodge Dart world. My line of thought

ended with a stray image of the time my colleague, Betsy Taylor, helped Jerry gather

fifty-three kittens and cats from his house and yard and took him and the cats to the

animal shelter in town. The droppings on my office floor conjured this method of

mattering that accumulated, left traces, and registered in certain ways and to degrees.

W hen I was in the field, there was always so much to keep up with that field

notes were busybodies making beelines at a worded explosion. People were

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Mattering Compositions 25

sensing out the crystallizations and dissolutions o f what happened. Events

flickered like an apparition or landed hard like a shard in a thigh muscle. They

etched onto things, maybe taking a limb or a child. Materialities swelled into

modes o f address. A life in composition cooled into the shapes o f cars and cows,

o f smoke and mud and words, maybe a ghost, visible only from the waist up

inciting talk and touch.

Life stories came in bits and pieces o f abandonment and loss peppered with the

compositionality of habits and signposts leading onward in a world “got down.”

His father left the family when he was two or three. He was adopted and had a

third-grade education. He drank a lot before he married at nineteen. He had eight

kids. She had thirteen kids; her uterus hangs down out o f her body; when I call her

to ask about getting some firewood she opens with a ten-minute rapid-fire

monologue on how she plants by the signs. He worked in the mines, in lumbering,

on the railroad. One son drank himself to death in Chicago, a daughter died of

diphtheria, another daughter is nervous; she tingles. She had three marriages. She

has numbness. He always takes a red-hot shower. He says most o f the accidents in

the mines are caused by carelessness. The spewing rock down there smashed his

finger and broke a toe. There was no job or safety training down there. They’d go

to their cars to drink; they’d smoke in the mines. Don’t drink in the mines because

the air pressure makes you sick. Once there was a fire; it made a loud whooshing

sound like a train coming. He stayed in until he realized the foreman didn’t know

what he was doing and then he got out. Many lost houses, cars, furniture, during

the last strike. This one will be easier because people will have tax returns.

This kind o f talk was so much what life was about that it would be a disservice

to reduce it to a referent in meaning or truth. Things hit the mouth. The social

was a compositional rise to “make something of things” followed by the stilled

call and response o f just sitting. There was nothing but this. Any attempt at a

summary meaning of life ended up as an open-ended litany. In April 1982, my

notes record the following events people I ran into were talking about; someone

broke into Della Mae’s and stole fifty dollars, pickled eggs, and pinto beans;

someone burned Charlie’s house. Someone broke into a woman’s house in

Rhodell; someone broke into Kelly’s service station and the health clinic; Pete

Shrewsbury and a boy from Killarney were arrested; someone pulled the wire on

the water pump so there was no water in Rhodell; Ronnie Alexander died o f pills

and liquor; Sam Tanks’ son beat him up bad; Elanda Hamlet was almost raped by

William Street; Zackie Shrewsbury spent the day in court and Etta Spangler’s

husband was indicted for grand larceny.

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26 Between Matter and Method

It was as if everyone was trolling a world already organized, moving, and

expressive. The collective weight of the things that happened unfolded in partial

and striking form in the elongated time of a visit. A visit was like dropping into

a trough o f stories, learning to sustain some series o f social openings onto bizarre

possibilities. People seemed to be talking about what could happen or what

could have happened to produce the singular effects now partially sensible as

ruins or a kind of resonance. People seemed to use their bodies as experimental

instruments o f story, checking to see what might happen if someone said this, or

did that.

One day I was in the Sophie Laundromat. A man walked in and gave the

attendant what looked like a Mother’s Day card. They talked while she kept an

eye on the customers—“Better put in your softener, girls.” They started with lawn

mowers because he was having trouble with his; then there was every kind of

machine, electric and gas, push and pull, old and new, machines from Sears in

Beckley and hybrid home-growns, all the various parts that go to different makes

and models, and how you can fashion each part out o f something or other

because they break down, and so and so did one thing to fix something but they

didn’t know if it worked. They talked about what this army of machines and

parts does to arms and legs and lower backs and lungs as evidenced in the body

of so and so or that one who had that leg. Then the woman said, “Well, have you

got all your cleaning done?”“Ha?”“Have you got your cleaning done?”“No, she’s

not done.” I realized that she was trying to get information about what this man’s

wife, perhaps her daughter or her daughter-in-law, was up to. “Well, are y’all

looking for any company to come in?” “No, we’re not looking for any company.”

He said he had to leave but then immediately started up again talking about

someone named Harold who had been fixing up his house, tearing off the roof.

“He told me he likes his job.” “Yeah, they said he likes it.” Then he mentioned the

man’s boy with some reference to stealing. She said, “Ya, they have to get after

him all the time. They stole my granddaughter’s wallet, threw it off the cliff.” Then

they talked about exactly where the wallet was found and where it must have

fallen— in those brambles there. It had her social security card in it.

They were checking in not only on what was happening in precise intimate

places but also on the ways things traveled in words and across bodies o f all


The man again said that he had to get going. Then he started to talk about a

man who had been married recently. “This makes his third.” “Oh,” she said, “I

thought it was his first.” “Oh, no.” “Well, I remember once he was fixin’ to marry

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Mattering Compositions 27

that woman lives up in the trailer but I thought she turned him down.” “Oh, no,

first he was married to that one and they had a kid, they lived together only six

months, then he married that one from Egerie and they lived together only six

months and she had a baby.” The woman tried to get the story straight: “She had

the baby after they lived together only six months?”“No, it was hers. She had that

Then the man finally walked out. The woman finally glanced down at the card

and then read it.
In the field, I was always mulling over the same basic question: what are they

talking about? I circled around ways to ask them: What do you mean when you

say.. ..? What is it like when you . . . ? Why do you say that? Why do you think

people “run their mouths” all the time? What do you get out o f Miss Whittaker’s

testimony when no one can understand a word she’s saying? All such questions

prompted the same response: “I don’t have no ideal, Katie” and then people

would have to find a way to start again as if I had interrupted them.

My fingers were tapping the keys and people were talking about my secret spy

typing in there late at night. That was my method. Their method was to come by

and just sit, just talk, shoulders touching, maybe offer a little tip but one so small

and matter-of-fact in comparison to the overwhelm to which it responded that

it presented as a philosophy devoid of even the fantasy o f “subjects” and “objects.”

If their method was a kind o f social contact, sociality itself was a rhythm marking

the beat o f a saturation. It was like sticking your finger in a dyke or sidling up to

a brick wall with a little purr. People seemed to be drawn to “getting something

out o f” the alchemy o f a self-sensing world as witnessed in any number o f things,

including the inhuman gestures o f demons and angels, the excesses o f drug

addicts and racists, the endurance o f the unbelievably injured, or the oddly still

curious tilt o f a head.

A visit always started with people “placing” each other even if they knew each

other well or had never met. “Placing” was a speculative leap into possible

connections, no matter how unlikely or extenuated; even neighbors or kin, even
those who just walked in without knocking and sat down at the kitchen table,

went through some process at the beginning o f a visit that was like throwing a

deck of cards on the table and picking up a random hand to play. A visit was like

a very slow rumination on the state o f things at the moment in the scene of

sitting together and looking out at the world. It was like setting a stage for contact

with some matter at hand. Visits always ended with slow repetitions o f phrases

like “I don’t have no better sense than that” or “I don’t know what all, but I just

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28 Between Matter and Method

couldn’t help but say somethin? A visit combined the dreamy and the material,

turning the substance o f the world itself into the stuff o f thought brought close

to hand.
One day, when I arrived for a visit, Audie and her daughter, Julie, were

squatting in the sun calmly squishing caterpillars against the side o f the house.

We went inside the hot porch to sit and Audie got us all warm lemonade. Audie

figures the caterpillars came from that apple tree forty feet away; she pictures

them somehow making their way across the lawn. Like snakes, they make her

sick. She says there was a snake on the road that was so big that when she tried

to run it over, her truck skidded off the road.

We were looking out together across the lawn of the caterpillar march. She

started up again. Someone’s trailer blew up. It might have had something to do

with three young men in wheelchairs who were always together. We veered off

into the stories o f the accidents that left the young men handicapped and then

into her series o f verbal still lifes o f the three men together in their wheelchairs

in front of a trailer staring out at the road. It tore her up when her first daughter

left. She still comes around, but that’s worse because Audie gets used to having

her around and then she leaves again. If Julie ever takes a notion to leave, Audie

will just have to take a notion to live alone. She’s got trouble over a woman at

work who won’t pull her weight. Audie doesn’t care about the extra work, she

likes the work, and it’s not hard work, but with this woman doin’ all this Audie

can’t get out o f the bed. Because where she works they don’t need no bossing.

They just decide together how to work and they fill in for each other if they need

to. When I left, Audie and Julie went right back to squishing caterpillars against

the house.

Even casual talk among strangers meeting in public places would drop into

the space o f story and stick on something with some kind of weight. A man I met

at a drugstore told me I should have the mole on my face removed. Moles are

dangerous. You could get a cut and then get blood poisoning from them. He’d

had warts (which were not like moles) on his hands and he’d had a girl rub

Vaseline into them. That was what someone had told him to do. The Vaseline was

what had done it but it might not have worked if he’d rubbed it in himself.

In the ordinary contact aesthetics4 of being in a world with other things and

people, anything could set off speculation. Thought was like a wind tunnel of

associations landing on things. One Sunday during the public prayer o f a church

service, Irene whispered to Sue that she’d seen a calf on Sue’s land and it looked

dead. We left to see about the calf as soon as there was a break. We passed a

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Mattering Compositions 29

burning house. Sue said they must have set it. I asked her who set it but got

nowhere. The house had been empty for a long time. I heard later that it had been

donated to the fire department and that they had set the fire to train some new

men. But when Sue said “they” must have set it, I remembered a few months

before when Hatcher’s house burned down and Lou and A1 said Hatcher must

have set it because they were able to get a lot o f the furniture out and the next day

he was already renting Lacey Meadows place like he’d already had it all set up.

Ray had been at that fire, which he enjoyed. He said he had seen the firemen

bringing the furniture out, but not in a way that expressed any opinion about

whether he thought the fire was set. Refrains like the accusation that a fire was

set sat next to matters o f fact as if the worded opinions had the same status as the

sight o f furniture coming out o f a house. There was no getting to the bottom of

things and things weren’t personal either. They were talking about what can

happen and what it takes to be its sensor. That meant actively “foolin’ with things,”

prolifically generating contact zones that demanded sensory-social-aesthetic

Ray is running his mouth. He moved in with Tracey in Odd to get away from

his brothers, who were known for their drinking and fighting, though he was

notoriously the worst. He says he won’t leave Odd until they carry his corpse out.

He’s never sick except he had all that cancer and they cut him all the way down,

around and up his back. He never sleeps. Cold doesn’t bother him. He works out

on the ground in shirtsleeves when it’s ten degrees. He takes the good with the

bad. You have to. He’s some kind o f mechanical genius and he always seems to be

talking about sex, hunting, tracking scent. When Bobby went by to see about his

truck, Ray and his sons had hundreds o f parts spread out all over the dirt and

they were screaming at each other. But by the afternoon, the truck ran perfecdy.

One night in Amigo, the camp where I was living, I awoke in the middle o f the

night to see a geyser shooting out o f the dirt road in front o f my house. The other

women who lived on the alley were already out there with their shovels digging

the frozen ground into troughs to divert the water. Tammy went in to call the

emergency water line and came back laughing about how she had tried to sound

like she was calling from under water, drowning. They knew no one would come.

Then they stood around in the dark talking about the story o f a woman who had

died that day. They decided her husband had killed her. They remembered all the

times they had seen her, the bruises, her bright red hair, she was as sweet as she

could be; men abused their wives because they were big babies. Sue’s husband,

Jimmy, was a plumber. He would have to fix the water main; the whole camp

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30 Between Matter and Method

would have to dig it out first. There would be black coal dust in the water now.

Patty needs her kitchen pipes fixed but Sue wont tell Jimmy to do it because she

doesn’t like to speak for him. She doesn’t mind if people know she was divorced

when she was young, she doesn’t care what people say, but she’s not going to try

to tell anyone what to do. Maybe that’s because telling someone what to do would

be not just rude but an interruption of a method in its throes. A method of

people getting some kind of purchase on the surplus of propensities that

propelled things by inserting themselves into possibilities.

Now, at Reagan’s election, someone said Reagan was in the mafia and the

government was a conspiracy aimed at making war in South America for money.

Patty tried to buy half o f a cow but the woman wouldn’t answer her questions

about what the cuts would be so Patty thought the woman might be trying to sell

her the cow but sell someone else the hide and the fat would be turned into

hamburger and somehow it didn’t add up so Patty didn’t buy it even though the

price was right. She thought about this from different angles for a long time,

wondering what might be going on. If I tried to take a walk on the road people

would stop to pick me up, not out o f kindness or malice but in the throes of

speculations spit out o f truck windows at me— a melange of half-images o f what

might happen: prostitutes were the women who walked streets; there was a

tunnel up ahead that I should go to the mouth of but don’t go through it, just

stand in the mouth and see if I get a feeling.

W hat were they talking about? Things would compose into sharp and singular

forms even while they were also decomposing or retracting. Talk tracked the

edges o f possibility as ricocheting impressions or narrow little tunnels o f sense

that exposed the real as a rhythmic alternation that shimmered and dimmed.

Things were dangerous, deadly, but there was also a kind of satisfaction that

came of being saturated by a scene o f potential impacts and reprieves. The kind

of satisfaction that comes of getting a blessing from a testimony delivered in an

incomprehensible language. So when Reagan was elected the place reacted;

bodies were set in motion; people watched and talked and sat together in a

closeness to each other and to the charged world that was their ambit, almost as

if drawing themselves into matter to see what was happening to the atmosphere

and air of the place itself.

Young Christians were giving up things like coke or sugar or bowling. People

were being healed in the water; they said maybe it was from the impurities in the

water, or because angels jumped in it, but the water itself had healing properties.

A man who has a plate in his head woke up screaming; he was seeing things.

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Mattering Compositions 31

Maybe a screw was coming loose the way Julie’s mothers had. He had been

taking diet pills. He taught Julie to drive his truck when she was afraid to. Another

man was having falling down spells, he was cured of the depression when he

figured out it was devils and he drove them out. A man didn’t qualify for black

lung benefits even though he was so sick with it because he had worked six

months too little, according to the company paper trail. Things made no sense
but they were in the senses and undeniable.

A concrete conceptuality o f objects, events, and bodies unfolded and recoiled

in an overwhelm o f tendencies and associations, openings and divisions. As in

Foucault’s philosophy o f incorporeal materialism, found objects and the things

that happened held the potential for realignment and reorganization. They

spurred on the sayable, the seeable, their mixed media compositions o f words

and things were shaky and capable o f shaking things up. The method o f mattering

here was a mode o f contact between disparate elements moving in and out o f

sync. Every singularity o f story and event suggested the partial, though striking,

coherence o f an energetic milieu in motion. Sitting together, people “ran their

mouths” as if they were the metronomes o f the world. They sensed out o f what

was happening not as an end point or a norm, but as a generative re-upping of

the capacity to “make something o f” things. A strange, practical realism of

potentialities that are irreducible to fact or meaning and therefore given to the

phantasmagorical and the hard mattering of things.

Anything could set things off. A Greek man came into the camp selling hot

watches and everyone acted very cool. Several bought things, including Gary. He

said he didn’t need the pen any more than he needed a hole in his head but then

he told a story about going to the state fair as a teenager and selling watches for

ten times what he had paid for them. He followed up with a long sad story about

his wife throwing him out and taking everything they had except her ring. She

threw that ring at him and he had to hock it to get a bus ticket. In the pawnshop,

a woman was saying that her husband had bought something that was supposed

to be real gold but it turned out to be a cheap object. No one was upset by these

stories. Gary also mentioned he wished cocaine wasn’t so expensive and no one

seemed shocked by that either, though this was no “sinner” crowd. They were just

registering all the possibilities in things.

When I sat down to write this, the papers dropping out o f my notes seemed

to be formal, written remnants o f efforts to settle things—to establish a Medicare

claim or to create a future with a beneficiary designation. But, like the everyday

flood of stories, these papers might also be seen as methods o f mattering that

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32 Between Matter and Method

initiate more than they foreclose: a conjuring of possibilities, a tentative venturing

forth into foreign landscapes, a precise and practical performativity aimed at

somehow turning bureaucracy and power into matters at hand. Literacy, here,

was not only limited but something to fool with as if it were a physicality or a

musicality. Writing was an instrument directed at the official world o f the courts,

benefits offices, medical institutions, religion, and the zone of the unions and the

mines. But what mattered was its expressivity. The religious rhetoric o f the end

times struck a chord through ecstatic music, trance, collective prayer, tears and

the physicality o f “getting sugar.” An illiterate man dreading his day in court put

his arm in a cast to directly communicate to the judge that he was unable to sign

his name. Activists going to the state capital to testify against strip mining had to

be “carried” there in fear that they wouldn’t be able to talk; one man wanted to go

home and get his teeth; the others surrounded them, touching and murmuring,

until they were called to the stand where they were taken over by the fluid

oratory of a preacher or a union leader.

My question was always “What are they talking about?” It was as if they threw

words at the world looking for some kind of purchase, even as the words

themselves magnetized all kinds o f things, creating a proliferation of moving

lines. It was as if they had to conjure the expressivity o f what surrounded them

and as if the exhaustion of that accumulation was itself an end point or

satisfaction. So they talked, following the lines o f possibilities, and then just sat

together. Being satisfied was being saturated.

Sometimes in church an old, illiterate man would shout out a biblical passage

he had memorized. Others would take up the call with responses o f longer, more

dramatic memorized passages o f blood or destruction until the room settled

into a satisfied stillness. Once I showed a community action documentary that

featured several African American residents o f the camps. The stars showed up

at the grimy, windowless, cinderblock hut, nominally designated as the town hall,

wearing white furs and sparkling shoes. The audience was just sitting; no one

“paid them any mind” as they walked proudly to the front row to take up seats in

the folding chairs. Then an old man stood up, moved to the aisle, and launched

into an uninhibited high-stepping clog dance that lasted about thirty seconds.

No one even looked at him. It was almost as if these performances came from an

elsewhere such as the stardom o f the academy awards or a past time of clog

dancing and a time in which there were public places for performances other

than the churches. But it’s also as if something simply sparked out o f the charged,

straight-faced, atmosphere of the room. There was no finality, no summing up,

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Mattering Compositions 33

no decision about meaning or character or anything else. Just implication,
complication, a folding of things into each other that inspired something musical

in nature, something artful in the shit storm of life. A slow, unfolding, experimental
and ethical pedagogy o f expression that opened the question o f living beyond

and living on.


1 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement
o f Matter and Meaning (Durham, N C, 2007). See also Isabella Stengers, Brian

Massumi, and Erin Manning, “History through the Middle: Between Macro and

Mesopolitics—an interview with Isabella Stengers” (2009), Inflexions: A journal o f
research creation, 3 (2009). Available online:


2 Graham Harman, “Realism without Materialism”, in SubStance 40, no. 2 (Issue 125,

2011):52-72. See also Graham Harman, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy
(Winchester, UK, 2012).

3 Graham Harman, “DeLanda’s Ontology: Assemblage and Realism.” Continental
Philosophical Review 41 (2008):367-83.

4 Jason Pine develops the concept of a “contact aesthetics” in The Art o f Making Do in
Naples (Minneapolis, 2012).

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