“What are little girls made of? What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice, and everything nice. That’s what little girls are made of.” When I was a child, people would repeat that nursery rhyme over and over again. I wished so hard that I would have been – or that some day I would turn into – a girl like that: sweet, fragrant, and sunny. But that did not happen, no matter how many times I repeated the rhyme. The other one, “What are little boys made of? What are little boys made of? Frogs and snails, and puppy-dogs’ tails. That’s what little boys are made of” did not help much. I was too scared to even touch a snail.
What is this girl made of, then? What is my material like? My “material of the self”? What has moulded my material, who or what still handles and moulds it, and how? How is it monitored and regulated without my knowing? As matter, am I – before anything – the product of my genes, or moulded by my parents and family? Or am I moulded more by the prevailing conditions, surroundings, and culture? What about me, how much can I change myself? And what are all the different things my material of the self has an impact on?
Catherine Malabou writes:
We live in an epoch in which identity is defined no longer as a permanent essence but as a process of autoconstituion or “fashioning” […] Today, everyone lives multiple lives, at the same time and successively. (Malabou 2008, 70–71)
On May Day, I am flying to the United States. I remember the last time, how just as I arrive in the country, I wake up and it is pitch-black, and I do not know where I am. The clock on my cell phone tells me it is 5 a.m. I turn on the lights and realize I am in the United States, in a small dormitory on the University of Maryland’s campus. I have come here to attend the world congress for theatre researchers. The air is stuffy. I dress myself and sneak out into the gentle, humid night. Millions of fireflies illuminate the dark, and I am overcome by an inexplicable feeling of peace and relief: I have come back to a place I thought I had lost completely.
I am ten years old when I am flying over the Atlantic for the first time. The crossing of the Atlantic, scented by thick cigarette smoke and different perfumes, is followed by a connecting flight from JFK to DC. From there, we – myself, three other Finns and our group leader Stiina – are driven through the night to somewhere in the Maryland countryside. Thick night air greets us through the open window of the wide-tyred car.
I spend five weeks with children the same age as me from all over the world, in a boarding school empty for the summer, now the venue for UNESCO’s international summer village for children. I have practised a couple of Finnish folk dances beforehand as a present for the others, and my mother has made some pendants from pieces of birch to give to the other children. I am ashamed when I dig them out, since they give me real, traditional items bought from a store. We have been taught beforehand to say that, “Finland has a peaceful co-existence with the Russians”, if someone happens to ask something about Russia. No one does. They probably do not even know what or where Finland is.
The summer in Maryland is stifling. I like it. The sour smell of the camp building, the sweet corn bread, the slimy honeydew melon, and the root beer that tastes like toothpaste (“no, it does not contain alcohol,” people reassure me) all put my senses to the test. When the night falls, fireflies dot the open fields of grass and bushes around me. There is a creek and a pond behind the fields, the contaminated water of which we are warned not to stir.
When I thank them, the Americans answer “uhhuh.” In the cool stairwells of the huge building, I start opening doors even to strangers, just to hear them thank me and to get the chance to say “uhhuh” myself. As the weeks pass, it starts to change into “you are welcome.”
In the summer of 1977, I drink my very first McDonald’s chocolate milkshake, take a photograph of the White House, buy myself the world’s coolest pair of Levi’s, experience a shortness of breath caused by a panic attack and have to go to the hospital because of that, and learn to speak English with a thick American accent, a matter of which I am constantly remarked upon during the following autumn. During the same autumn, we get a new class teacher. She tells us that she is Russian-Jewish and shows us pictures of Lenin’s Mausoleum. She also tells us that Lenin died after he had used up his brain. I tell about my experiences at the camp last summer and about my new, multicoloured and multilingual friends in front of the class. The teacher tells me that I have been brainwashed in America.
The viscosity of life
I feel like I am living in matter, in the middle of a substance that is tangible, tough, and often heavy and resisting. I recall places and environments through the materials and elements that they contain, and through the sensations that they, in turn, produce. I also remember people through the feel and texture that their bodies leave behind. For my experience, materiality is the most important attribute of existence. Things that fall below or go over my scale of comprehension are also concrete to me: quarks, the dark matter of space, the matter caused by the movement of energy, and the so-called “new materials”. So, materiality does not concern only substance that can be perceived with the senses, achievable through experience; rather, I think that matter is everywhere, beyond the limits of my perception.
As the conclusion for my artistic dissertation, From Amoralia to Riitta. Suggestions Towards a Material Ethics of Stage, examined at the Theatre Academy Helsinki in 2013, I suggested that everything on the stage is substance. I considered what would happen if we thought everything that the performance contains – the premises, set, props, dresses, as well as the performers, text, speech, music, sound, lighting, and the material and historical reality surrounding the performance – as material. To my mind, this materiality was in principle democratic. My suggestion for the material ethics of stage requires one to regard all material with the same level of gravity and wonder. The fundamental right of another entity to be undefined is an ethical principle for me.
Material is never only raw material, a mute, passive object that settles itself for the subject to mould. I believe that the one thing in common for all living and non-living material, both human and non-human, is that they perform. When a material performs, it reveals its own special quality, its form – an issue that already the Russian formalists thought as unique to material. When it performs, the substance affects and is affected, changes itself and others. It operates actively, manifesting – in addition to form – its own “content”: its feel, its experience brought on by history, and its own particular technique.
Jane Bennett (2010) says that the concept of material as an active power is especially important, because
the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies. (Bennett 2010, ix)
Bennett places a special emphasis on the vitality of the non-human material. This vitality is “the capacity of things […] not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” (ibid., viii).
In addition to Bennett’s “vitality”, Catherine Malabou’s (2008) concept of plasticity is interesting in relation to the materiality that I try to achieve. For Malabou, plasticity means not only a substance’s ability to achieve an understandable form, like when it moulds into a sculpture or a plastic object, but also how the substance itself moulds and gives form. The third, and perhaps the most important aspect of plasticity, is its ability to reset, to destroy itself. Thus plasticity should be separated from submissive flexibility, the ideal of which, according to Malabou, the global capitalism tries to instil into us by requiring us to adapt both according to the ever-changing financial conditions dictated by the economy and to the inevitable stagnation dictated by the hegemonic political forces. However, by making use of the concept of plasticity, it is possible “to refuse to be flexible individuals who combine a permanent control of the self with a capacity to self-modify at the whim of fluxes, transfers, and exchanges.” (Malabou 2008, 78)(.)
During the past spring and summer, I have travelled in places that reminded me strongly of my own plasticity. The places made me think about the material inherent quality of the events that I have registered during the different phases of my life, the impact that different materialities have had on my life, my way of thinking, and my current way of life. What has been born and built, what has changed or stayed the same, what has been lost, and what have I deliberately destroyed?
After the Soviet Union fell, an Estonian friend of my parents, a former party member, was curious and went to examine the contents of the KGB’s archives in Tallinn, opened to the public. It occurred to her also to check our register. Under my name, it read: “Love or friendship?” The note must have been based on the only trip I made to the Soviet Union, which took place in the autumn after I had graduated from high school. Before that, I had refused to travel to the Soviet Union for humanitarian reasons. In November 1984, however, I stepped onto the deck of MS Georg Ots and sailed across the dark sea, where a boy, a student of medicine in Tarto, a couple of years older than me and from a family that was friends with ours, was waiting for me with his Lada. The question of friendship stirred within me.
The Viljandi mound rises in the middle of a flat land. A stone pile, the bedrock, a remnant from the Ice Age. The grey tufts of cloud of early summer dot the sky as far as the eye can see. The old town has become trapped in the middle of the newer building stock. Castle ruins rise up from the ground like ancient weeds. People have lived on both sides of the moat since time immemorial. The footing of a sagging apartment building, decorated with delicate wooden ornaments, has been built using the remnants of a 13th century castle, perhaps even the remains of buildings constructed by the Vikings, and supported by mortar from the time when Stalin was in charge. A photo of revolutionaries in front of the Grand Hotel in 1917. During the previous decade, the market square was full of frolicking ladies and their companions. Moustache whiskers twirled upwards, top hats, white lace shirts, fluffy satin skirts. Smiles and coquetting. This night, I am going to stay in that hotel.
The same place in 1956: the Song Festival. People dressed in blue, black, and white walk side by side with people in red. National dresses speak of the strict Soviet spirit. Decades of black jackets and fur hats. The May Day march in 1973. The old pharmacy is now the Viljandi Museum. In a photograph found in the museum, the shortest and tallest Russian soldier of the First World War stand side by side: the former standing at 204 centimeters, the latter at 111 centimeters tall.
The layers, surfaces, yards, markets, squares, alleys, metal shells, panel walls, plastic mats, veneer tables, baseboards.
In the middle of the wooden houses, faded grey from the sun and leaning towards each other for support, runs a street decorated by cobblestones and tufts of grass. It is the medieval main road, Tartontie. Brick dust and rocks roll down the steep hill, towards the lake.
In the capital of the Estonian protest song movement, the ancient and the brand new do not shake hands with each other, but rather blow up on a traveller’s face. Even though the language I hear is so close to mine, and many other things, like the taciturnity of the people, remind me all too well of Finland, I feel like an outsider and a Peeping Tom. The feeling is similar to that of years ago in the side alleys of Denpasar, or a month earlier in New Orleans, on the blocks ravaged by the hurricane Katrina. I cannot stop thinking of my own relationship to the matter surrounding me. How can I do justice to what I see? How could I get even a glimpse of what the people living here are going through? On what basis can I evaluate what I see, and how can I enjoy it? The squalid street scene fascinates me, a hipster traveller from Finland. I find myself looking at the window of a real estate agency: I could buy myself a house here! In Viljandi, the layers evident all over Estonia are coloured by a particularly wide gap between urbanity and rusticity, and by some kind of a spirit of poverty and dispossession. I am told that the children’s theatre festival of the Baltic theatre schools that I am going to participate in is held in Viljandi, because it is half cheaper here than in Tallinn.
Are there alternatives for the submissive present?
In the week after Midsummer, I am sitting in the Sorbonne University, on the uncomfortable seats of the Richelieu gallery that brims with prestige, listening to Catherine Malabou. She is holding her speech in English. Beautiful, exceptionally good English for a Frenchwoman, I find myself thinking. But she has stayed for a long time both in the USA and Great Britain, I continue to contemplate. At the same time, I remember that ever since I was a little girl, I knew I would end up in Sorbonne. How did things turn out? There were not enough students wanting to study French in upper comprehensive school, and later on, there was always some insurmountable obstacle in the way of my French studies. I learned the language on the streets of Southern France. The conference was free of admission.
The plasticity of the self, which supposes that it simultaneously receives and gives itself its own form, implies a necessary split and the search for an equilibrium between the preservation of constancy (or, basically, the autobiographical self) and the exposure of this constancy to accidents, to the outside, to otherness in general (identity, in order to endure, ought paradoxically to alter itself or accidentalize itself). What results is a tension born of the resistance that constancy and creation mutually oppose to each other. It is thus that every form carries within itself its own contradiction. And precisely this resistance makes transformation possible. (Malabou 2008, 71)
The United States, Estonia, Sorbonne. On the basis of what I have written above, it should seem clear that, to me, each of them feels materialistic in its own, different way. Their unique materialities have shaped my experience, each in their own way. (At this point, let it be said that I have obviously also been shaped by many other, closer, and maybe duller places, some of them even more.) I think whether I have been able to mould anything myself. And what about resistance? Do you even have the right for it when you are on foreign soil, on someone else’s ground? And how to resist in a foreign country, when you should be receptive at the same time? On the whole, are there any alternatives for the materiality that is presented as being inevitable and having no alternatives, but at the same time as being completely submissive? If there are, where are they? Where can one even start looking for them?
The past summer has reminded me of the fragility of matter in many ways. Friends and loved ones fall ill and die. Even Johnny Winter, whom I just heard in New Orleans in May, is now gone. But as my childhood friend and bandmate Jani Salo once said: “Everything that lives, also dies at some point. If you cannot accept that, you should have never even been born.” Once again, substance has not only come out as heavy and tough, but also as sensitive, fragile, and shaky. It can take a lot, but it also breaks easily.
Jane Bennett. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Catherine Malabou. 2008. What Should We Do with Our Brain? New York: Fordham University Press.