Few contemporary artists channel the utopian impulses of the nonhuman turn with more creative energy than Neko Case. In her work, the untraceable movements of poisonous gases, the uncanny desires of tornadoes, and the recalcitrant withdrawal of subatomic particles envision an array of transits, elusions, and exit strategies so often denied to the subjects whose bodies, trajectories, and affective lives are policed by the regulatory cultural and institutional forces endemic to heteronormative biocapitalism, particularly poor and marginalized women. Drawing on recent scholarship in feminist new materialism as well as its critics, this essay considers the implications of these imaginings. On the one hand, the modes of agency that Case’s songs invoke frequently entail a circumvention or suppression of specific political interests, making them susceptible to antifeminist and settler-colonialist appropriations; on the other hand, her work potentially offers a vision of the political that refuses to take human action as the inevitable starting point for its theories of power and domination, an increasingly urgent task in an age of ecological catastrophe, when the lives of earth’s most vulnerable gendered and racialized subjects are irreducibly enmeshed in precarious planetary networks of biodependencies that include the actions of microbes, tornadoes, and atoms alike. In Case’s most original compositions, a reductionist materialism attendant to the agency of the nonhuman complements rather than forecloses an older materialist tradition insistent on antagonism between conflicting interest groups as the motor engine of history and the social.
Neko Case and the Molecular Turn
David Hollingshead is a postdoctoral lecturer at Princeton University. His research examines the relationship between aesthetic forms and the governance of life. His current book project, “The Biomatters of American Modernity,” is a nineteenth-century cultural prehistory of molecularity, arguing that naturalist reductions of persons to mere matter radically reimagined life as an object of political intervention. His writing has appeared in Studies in the Novel, American Literary Realism, and American Literary History Online Review.
David Hollingshead; Neko Case and the Molecular Turn. GLQ 1 October 2019; 25 (4): 617–647. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-7767809
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