Ontological Fluidity in Zola and Serao: New Materialist Approaches to the Fragmented Subjectivities of the Nineteenth Century
Given that both fields interrogate ontological interconnections, the concept of fluidity is central to new materialism and material ecocriticism. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010) uses the notion of slipsliding to explore how ‘human being and thinghood overlap’, while in Material Ecocriticism (2014) Serpil Oppermann highlights the liquidity intrinsic to a ‘dynamic commingling of discursive and material flows’. Though novel in their interweaving of human and nonhuman ‘being’, such ideas stem from earlier interpretations of material entanglement. In the nineteenth century, evolutionary theory emphasised the biological connections between species, in turn challenging the perceived boundedness of the human form. In literary terms, this inspired writers to explore the porous, fragmented nature of human beings and subjectivities, which this paper demonstrates through a comparative reading of Émile Zola and Matilde Serao. Drawing on new materialist and ecocritical approaches to ontological fluidity, the paper examines L’Assommoir and Il paese di Cuccagna as texts that share a fascination with the decentred, destabilised, and distorted human subject. In doing so, it positions these authors within the discursive landscape of the nineteenth century, while at the same time emphasising the fresh relevance of their work to current philosophical and ecological research.