Q/A Lucia Pietroiusti

Is the body the last thing left alive?
 Photo: Susannah Baker-Smith

Everything in my son’s life is animate. If his head hits the corner of a table, he’ll say: naughty table. Instinctively, we might reply that it was an accident, that it’s not the table that’s bad; things just happen. It’s what we’ll say for the rest of our lives. It’s a coincidence – there is no life in all this but yours and others’, and there is absolutely no connection between you, here, reading this, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Faced with cosmologies that differ from this one, we’re told: don’t anthropomorphise a tree, or a mountain. Don’t animate what we’re trying to drill down into, what we’re mining, what we need to cut down. The word “management” joins the word “forest,” and environmental disasters become mere contingencies in a planet ruled by the forces of intention. Management makes no mistakes. This is how tree and mountain, and everything else besides, get murdered before they’re even touched. As Judith Butler reminds us, only that which can be mourned is worthy of living. So, cut the mournable and you cut your losses. Identity over here; coincidence over there. Make a grid, and avoid the obscenity of chaos and chance. 

Imagine: you say something, and because you say it, something happens (holes in the ground, loss of life, poisoned waters, burning forests). But curses remind us of the tangle of symbol and thing, the materiality of metaphor. They remind us that representations are not just acts of looking at what is at stake; they are a fundamental part of what it is we behold. Narrative, storytelling, imagination, love, care, and agency are interdependent.

A curse calls for a healing spell, or some kind of kiss. 

So what is a body, and when is a word just a sign? If I say “the leg of a table” as words gesturing towards the abstract principle that connects two things (something that holds something up). Or am I perhaps simply noticing, at long last, the mutilated body of the tree that adorns my living room? We are surrounded by dead body parts all the time. We chop them up and lacquer them and spill hot coffee on them in the morning. We wear and eat them, ignoring the horror that created them. 

What is a body, then? And if we have always only ever been one body growing out of another, within another, returning to itself, then the elements that make us up – people, rocks, ducks, laptops, water, pizzas – mix, transform, die, haunt, eat, give birth to themselves. Problem: we’re sticky-sticky-stuck to this little-“b” body. Chronic pains of all kinds remind us of this fact. Think of the casual absence of a ramp, or the violence of a national border; then think of the relative density of air when you cannot move through it but others can. What if un-anthropocentring, more-than-humanising the notion of the body itself may in fact go some way in the direction of answering this question? When the human-centred world is neither our size nor our shape, when it is literally not made for us, we realise that the “human” at the centre of this centre, that humanity, is an eminently and intentionally narrow category that contains a very small number of actual humans.

Another counter-curse: what is it that by returning to itself forgets itself?

Think of the brain, divided. On the left, it speaks, simplifies, understands, classifies. On the right, it moves, intuits, senses. The left is a map, and the right is the journey, and most of the time, we live inside of the map. Yesterday, I lay listening to the sounds of a salmon from the Arctic Sea all the way back to the source of a river where it had once been born, where it will die from the sheer exhaustion of crossing half the planet just to get back home. In the dark, I realised that if I concentrated enough on my hands, they disappeared. I could “feel” arms and wrists – everything was still “there”. But the fingers became a kind of hot absence. I visualised them as a hole: a piece of dark air, with a faint orange glow around its edges. 

Left is map; right is journey. Focus on the journey, and the map begins to dissipate like vapour. The individual self, the singular unit, separated from everything else, no longer holds wholly true, or even wholly possible. Imagine the generosity of that body which, when attended to, folds back into a far larger, swarmier, messier one. 


Lucia Pietroiusti is curator of General Ecology at the Serpentine Galleries and lives  in London.

– This text appears in Spike #62. You can buy it in our online shop –