'Prickly new cells'

Diffractive reading and writing in Juliana Spahr's 'The Transformation'

One of my white blood cells amidst many red ones. Microscope photograph produced with the assistance of Jeff Stuart and Lucas Maddalena in Jeff Stuart's laboratory at Brock University.

Some of the most extreme acts of writing now being composed in the capitalist Anthropocene are being performed by petrochemicals. What does it look like to write in response to this writing? How do we “make oil a more conceptually powerful part of our knowing,” as Imre Szeman suggests must happen as part of any larger political activism?[1]

Concerned with reading bodies and objects as expressive networks and assemblages, metabolic poetics might appear to have obvious affinities with bio art, especially with work like Eduardo Kac’s “Natural History of the Enigma,” which incorporates biological material from the artist’s own blood to a produce a genetically modified petunia with distinctive red veins on its petals,[2] or Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, an art installation that explores the digestive process by creating a series of machines that turn food into feces. However, in looking for more manifestly literary responses to “storied matter,” as the material ecocritics would say,[3] George Perec might be said to have created an early example of metabolic poetics with his “Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four.” In this pataphysical catalogue, excerpted here, Perec lists exactly what the title describes:

One eggs with anchovy, two boiled eggs, two eggs en meurette, one ham and eggs, one bacon and eggs, one eggs en cocotte with spinach, two eggs in aspic, two scrambled eggs, four omelettes, one sort of omelette, one soya-seed omelette, one craterellus omelette, one duck skin omelette, one confit d’oie omelette, one herb omelette, one Parmentier omelette.[4]

Other examples of metabolic poetics might include the sound poetry experiments of Henri Chopin (especially his poems derived from recording the noise of his blood circulation and digestion).[5] More recently, Evelyn Reily’s Styrofoam explores endocrine disruption in plastics along with a poem about Henrietta Lacks’s cervical cancer cells, which, without her permission, have been used long after her death to develop drugs and profits for pharmaceutical companies.[6] Lisa Robertson’s “The Seam,” enacts “the urgent motions of membranes / with the mystic dialectic of toxins and hormones” as part of an investigation of gender, health, and form (aesthetic, biological, cultural). Her related work with Stacy Doris, “The Perfume Recordist,” is similarly metabolically focused as it seeks to “consider the meeting of perfume, hormones and degeneration.”[7] Craig Dworkin’s poem “Fact” is an example of conceptual poetry, not unlike Perec’s dietary inventory, that lists all the chemical ingredients in the sheet of paper the poem is printed on: “Ink on a 5.5 by 9 inch substrate of 60-pound offset matte white paper. Composed of: varnish (soy bean oil [C57H98O6], used as a plasticizer: 52%. Phenolic modified rosin resin [Tall oil rosin: 66.2%. Nonylphenol [C15H24O]: 16.6%. Formaldehyde [CH2O]: 4.8%.”[8] A publication note in Poetry indicates that this is a work in progress, changing as the surfaces of publication change, requiring adjustments to the content. Robert Kocik’s Overcoming Fitness is also an example of metabolic poetics in its claims for poetry as a biosemiotic tool for talking back through germlines to challenge oil-driven politics and the limiting, systematic definitions of “fitness” they pursue.[9]

Juliana Spahr, cover of The Transformation

An example of metabolic poetics that invites an ontologically phenomenal consideration of identity alive to the permeability of bodies to energy systems, systems of production and profit, and social formations is Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation. This unusual autobiography, part literary ethnobotany, part diagnostic study of metabolic pathogens, presents a subjectivity composed of intra-active[10] tensions between invasive species and invasive cultures as an attempt to imagine a diffractive form of reading and writing. A “diffractive methodology,” according to Karen Barad, provides “a transdisciplinary approach that remains rigorously attentive to important details of specialized arguments within a given field, in an effort to foster constructive engagements across (and a reworking of) disciplinary boundaries.”[11] Barad eschews the conventional epistemological metaphor of reflection and its emphasis on mirroring and sameness in favor of diffractive patterns of difference.[12] Spahr’s book, which Rachel Zolf calls “a laboratory to exhaustively experiment with her ideas and feelings about US hegemonic practices,”[13] is in part a lengthy catalog of the legacy of the passiflora (or passionflower) in colonial and environmental history, as well as in sexual, political, and artistic identity in the immediate post-9/11 American social imaginary.[14]

Three American mainlanders have moved to the island for work (one of them, Spahr, got a job at the university). Their unconventional sexual and intellectual relationship, which they characterize variously as a three-legged stool and as a triangle, provokes them to think beyond binaries about margins, frames, and about the predicament of the passionflower and its effects as an invasive species. Originally named by Spanish missionaries who associated its unique physical structure with the Passion of Christ, the passionflower was received very differently by the Indigenous inhabitants of Hawai’i after its introduction in the late nineteenth century. Hawaiians instead call it “huehue haole,” which refers both to a smothering vine native to the island and to people who have come from another place. Spahr declares early on that her text is “the story of how the history of the island changed them, the story of the huehue haole and the tree canopy. It cannot help but also be a story about how they were shaped by perhaps being and perhaps not being perverts, but still it is more a story about three of them who moved to an island that was not theirs.”[15]   

The Anthropocene is the substrate for the temporal and expressive capacities of the book.[16] “It was a time of oil,” we learn in a series of epochal declarations, “it was a time of an altered environment, an environment altered by the oil economy. It was a time of invasive species. A time of climate change.”[17] It was ultimately a time that proved difficult to characterize and express within the confines of conventional language: “an awkward time for them and for the word them … So it was a time of troubled and pressured pronouns.”[18] The “them” that responds to and results from this pressure is a subject intra-actively defined by the varied and irreducible forces that drive the three lovers involved in this relationship: “They all had their own interests and these interests intersected and overlapped with other interests and they all felt they could be shaped by each other into some new thing.”[19] This emergent identity is queer inasmuch as the question of its own formalization is continually at issue. For example, they embrace the word “pervert,”[20] but resist the word “queer,” despite pressure from others to define themselves in this way: “They told themselves they did this out of respect because they were not sexually involved with people of the same gender.”[21] Nonetheless, the queering of identity is fundamental to The Transformation in terms of the strange intimacy this book explores and enacts in its metabolic entanglements with material-discursive toxins.

Is it possible to rethink the toxin by observing, as Mel Y. Chen does in Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, that the toxin beckons as well as threatens, that it “does not repel but propels queer loves”?[22] The queer productivity of toxins and toxicity emerges in The Transformation through a metabolic poetics that catalogues intellectual and physical changes in the identity of the “them” brought about by the metabolic effects of an infection first acquired in Hawai’i and then reinvigorated in New York. The narrators’ difficulties in reckoning with the imperialist history of Hawai’i in terms of its cultural and biological consequences, and their subsequent decision to move to New York (from an island in the Pacific to an island in the Atlantic) only to face the disruptive and polluting spectre of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, all take place against the backdrop of energy politics and those “values of oil” that “defined the government that currently occupied the continent.”[23] These militaristic, energy-driven politics confront them with toxins that produce damaging, poisonous effects as well as potentially productive and hopeful outcomes. The toxic dust from the collapsed towers, for example, is a constant health concern: “Words like asbestos, lead, mercury, dioxins, furans, hydrogen cyanide, benzene, xylene, chromium, polychlorinated biphenyls, aromatic hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds entered their daily conversation.”[24]

Their complex Hawaiian experiences, however, produce an encounter with toxins that causes unexpected metabolic effects in which political questions “bit into them and those around them with bladelike, piercing mouthparts and stabbed through the skin and then injected a saliva that teemed with digestive enzymes, viruses, and anticoagulants.”[25] The bite left “some prickly new cells” in their bloodstream that affected their immune system, causing them to “now see the huge amount of historical data and position that they carried with them.” [26] The result of this metabolic adjustment is altered forms of reading and writing, shifted frames of signification that spur them to reckon with the central problem and dominant activity of the book: the very construction of heuristic catalogs, maps, and charts. They are struck by the realization in the closing chapter that “they had to stop making maps that were limited by their horizontal or vertical axes. Or charts that started with two options and then spread out from there. They needed a new sort of conceptualization that allowed for more going astray than any map they had ever seen.”[27] The diffractive method they devise as a result of this encounter with toxins combines diverse forms of knowing and awareness “under the sign of contradiction,” exploring their own entanglements within ideological state apparatuses and colonial education systems as well as within the larger biogeochemical cycles of melting ice shelves and chemical pollution.[28]

Diffracted forms of reading and writing are at the heart of what is productively achieved through these toxic encounters — especially given that the heart muscle and the vascular system provide the book with its concluding momentum: “They pumped milkweed and butterfly through their superior vena cavas … And let in their pulmonary arteries the realization that they could only be colonizers who perpetuated even if they wanted to be colonizers who refused … They pumped the cracking Larsen B ice shelf through their right ventricles.”[29] Their blood, which has been altered by the toxins to make legible such diverse matters as expanded tourist industries, names of military operations, unusual island biology, expansionist language, imperial conflict, and climate change, is now pumped through the body “with the hope that it would eventually reach the palm of their writing hand.”[30]

Their blood becomes a form of writing. It also becomes a site of transcorporeal, intra-active identity where it is possible to read the entangled and vibrant forces producing their identity. As Barad reminds us, “the forces at work in the materialization of bodies are not only social, and the materialized bodies are not all human.”[31] Along with their perversions, their poetics, and their politics, the “prickly new cells,” the passionflower, and the polluting dust from the fallen towers are all intertwined forces, “queer” productive toxins that mark a “shift from a metaphysics of things to phenomena,” which, for Barad, “makes an enormous difference in understanding the nature of science and ontological, epistemological, and ethical issues more generally.”[32] Identity is phenomenal in its material-discursive entanglements at the end of The Transformation, expressing, by way of its porosity and transcorporeality, the metabolic flows of “their” biology along with those of pollution and capital.

“Capitalism,” McKenzie Wark proposes, “is a communicable disease in the form of a disease of communication. It puts everything into communication with everything else.”[33] This is the biosemiotic consequence of volatile chemicals mimicking hormones in the endocrine system. It is also the site of Spahr’s response to chemical pollution and social injustice in her engagement with metabolic poetics. The Transformation explores speculative solutions to writing the extreme writing of the petrochemical Anthropocene by pursuing the productively queering effects of toxins, pressurized language, and “prickly new cells” on alternative modes of expression and on alternative perspectives when it comes to questions of sexuality, colonialism, and environment. This work draws attention to the importance of a diffractive methodology capable of broadening conceptions of literacy so that we might better attend to the reading and writing of energy systems as they are inevitably taken up in the metabolism of biological and political bodies.


1. Imre Szeman, “How to Know About Oil: Energy Epistemologies and Political Futures,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue détudes canadiennes 47, no. 3 (Fall 2013): 147.

2. Eduardo Kac, “Natural History of the Enigma,” 2009. 

3. Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann, eds., Material Ecocriticism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014), 1.

4. Georges Perec, “Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four,” in Species of Spaces and Other Piecestrans. John Sturrock (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 245.

5. Henri Chopin, “La Digestion,” recorded 1972, Les Mirifiques Tundras & Co., UbuWeb: Sound. 

6. Evelyn Reilly, Styrofoam (New York: Roof Books, 2009).

7. Stacy Doris and Lisa Robertson, “from The Perfume Recordist,” in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, eds. Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place (Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2012), 236.

8. Craig Dworkin, “Fact,” Poetry (July/August 2009).

9. Robert Kocik, Overcoming Fitness (Brooklyn NY: Exit 18 Pamphlet Series, Autonomedia, 2002). See also Supple Science: A Robert Kocik Primer (ON Contemporary Practice, 2013), edited by Michael Cross and Thom Donovan.

10. The term “intra-act” mentioned here comes from Karen Barad, who proposes a renovated conception of identity formed through what she calls “intra-action.” Unlike “interaction,” which is predicated on associations between discrete agents, “intra-action” presupposes that any distinctive qualities ostensibly possessed by participating agents emerge as a result of their entangled relationship. In other words, intra-action “signifies the mutual constitution of entangled agencies.” Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 33. Emphasis in the original.

11. Barad, 71.

12. Barad, 25. 

13. Rachel Zolf, “The Transformation thinks wit(h)ness,” Lemon Hound 14 (November 2014).

14. The catalog functions as an entangled social and aesthetic space in Spahr’s work more generally, representing, as Lynn Keller notes with specific reference to This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, “a twisted enlargement of the blazon” that makes room for the more overtly politicized concerns of Language writing by integrating details about violence and pollution. See Lynn Keller, “‘Post-Language Lyric’: The Example of Juliana Spahr,” Chicago Review 55, no. 3–4 (Autumn 2010): 78.

15. Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2007), 21.

16. Spahr cowrote with Joshua Clover #Misanthropocene: 24 Theses, which coarsely inveighs against the destructive and self-serving forms of life generated by Western petroculture, particularly the violence operative on scales of greatly varying magnitude. The #Misanthropocene “makes oil-drum pyramids it makes ships of a size called Malaccamax. It makes end­less small plastic representations of the African jungle or plains animals and fish ingest them and vomit them up or don’t and there they sit in their stomachs and then they die.” See Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr, #Misathropocene: 24 Theses (Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2014), 4.

17. Spahr, The Transformation, 205.

18. Spahr, The Transformation, 205.

19. Spahr, The Transformation, 15.

20. Spahr, The Transformation, 171.

21. Spahr, The Transformation, 173.

22. Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham,NC and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 210–11.

23. Spahr, The Transformation, 208.

24. Spahr, The Transformation, 150.

25. Spahr, The Transformation, 39.

26. Spahr, The Transformation, 204.

27. Spahr, The Transformation, 211.

28. Spahr, The Transformation, 213.

29. Spahr, The Transformation, 211–13.

30. Spahr, The Transformation, 211.

31. Barad, 235.

32. Barad, 33.

33. McKenzie Wark, “Furious Media: A Queer History of Heresy,” in Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation, Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 202.