What is New Materialism?

What is New Materialism?

Christopher N. Gamble, Joshua S. Hanan & Thomas Nail (2019) WHAT IS NEW MATERIALISM?, Angelaki, 24:6, 111-134, DOI: 10.1080/0969725X.2019.1684704

The increasing prominence of “new materialism” signals a growing cross-disciplinary effort to challenge longstanding assumptions about humans and the non- or other-than- human material world. This paper argues that there is currently no single definition of new materialism but at least three distinct and partly incompatible trajectories.1 All three of these trajectories share at least one common theoretical commitment: to problematize the anthropocentric and constructivist orientations of most twentieth-century theory in a way that encourages closer attention to the sciences by the humanities.

The common motivation for this “materialist turn” is a perceived neglect or diminishment of matter in the dominant Euro-Western tradition as a passive substance intrinsically devoid of meaning. In what has become a kind of de facto motto, new materialists routinely emphasize how matter is “alive,” “lively,” “vibrant,” “dynamic,” “agentive,” and thus active. As we will argue, however, while new materialist scholars tend to use them interchangeably,2 such terms nevertheless take on sharply divergent meanings across the three approaches we identify. Likewise, as we examine below, this same divergence also underlies new materialist efforts to problematize anthropocentric binaries (e.g., “meaning and matter,” “culture and nature,” and “gender and sex”).

Alongside the rise of new materialism, there have also been numerous critiques. For example, new materialism has been criticized for exaggerating the extent of earlier feminist scholarship’s “biophobia” or neglect of matter;3 for rejecting Marxism and cultural materialism on mistaken grounds;4 for uncritically embracing and conflating the scientific study of matter with matter itself;5 and for overstating its alleged “newness.”6 Unfortunately, however, these critiques have largely placed all new materialists under the same umbrella and thus have often misidentified their target. At least, this is what we hope to demonstrate.

This paper emerges from our desire to offer a response to such criticisms but not in order to defend new materialism in general. Instead, we hope to help redirect each arrow of critique toward its proper target, and on this basis to advocate for the approach we call “performative” or “pedetic” new materialism. We think this approach has the greatest value and potential for future development but has unfortunately been badly misunderstood and wrongly conflated with the other two types of emerging new materialism. We therefore aim to illuminate how “negative new materialism,” “vital new materialism,” and “performative” or “pedetic” new materialism are simply not compatible.7 Even if their motivations are similar, their basic guiding premises are not.

More specifically, although each of the three types of materialism seeks to critique anthropocentrism’s presumption of matter as inherently passive and devoid of meaning, we argue that only the performative new materialist approach radically undermines a discrete separation between humans and matter. In distinct ways, both negative and vital new materialism continue to foreclose an appreciation of the truly performative movements of matter. On one hand, negative new materialism embraces either a radical division between human thought and inorganic matter or a “withdrawn” essence, both of which we think persist due to its uncritical embrace of an external, human-observer perspective.8 On the other hand, while vital materialism explicitly rejects any form of essentialism, we think it nevertheless manages to sneak back in through a metaphysics of life projected onto inorganic matter.9 In these crucial ways, as we elaborate below, non-performative new materialist theories continue to implicate certain objectivist, non-relational and, thus, idealist assumptions or residuals.10

The performative approach to new materialism, however, successfully eschews discrete separation by refusing any presumption of something external to matter – including human meaning – that guides, structures or grants meaning to its behaviors. In such a view, matter simply “is […] a doing,” as Karen Barad puts it.11 Matter is what it does or “how it moves,” as Thomas Nail puts it.12 And since the performances of humans are not external to those of the rest of the material world, this view also leads, importantly, to a performative understanding of science in which every act of observing also constitutes, at once, a transformation of what is being observed. Such a view enables the following responses to the criticisms of new materialist work we mentioned above:

(1) The neglect of matter. While we agree that some new materialism work does unwittingly reinforce the binaries it seeks to problematize,13 we believe this criticism does not apply to the performative approach. For example, when the latter speak of a prior “neglect” of matter they do not mean that previous theorists did not talk about matter but rather that those theorists neglected or discounted matter as inherently dynamic and meaningful (precisely due to the anthropocentric presumption that meaning, and whatever else might make humans exceptional, is immaterial).14

(2) Science envy. While we also agree that some new materialists have embraced science uncritically in ways that conflate its findings with matter as such, in a performative account scientific practices and discourses are just as productive of the very world they describe as is any other action, human or otherwise. Such an account therefore agrees with poststructuralism and science-and-technology studies that all human discourses are constitutive. The novel argument, however (at least within the dominant Euro-Western tradition), is that those discourses are themselves also – and only – particular configurations or performances of matter.

(3) The fetish of novelty. Although we fully embrace historically oriented work questioning the alleged newness of new materialism, we again do not agree that this critique applies to the performative approach. Matter always has been in motion. We have shown elsewhere how the creativity of this movement has been erased or excluded in the Western tradition.15 Furthermore, arguably the most important historical Euro-Western precursor to performative materialism is the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose philosophical poem, in many ways, is connected to a performative materialist understanding of Homer.16 In addition, we also find a great deal of merit to the recent call for greater recognition of and sustained engagement with the affinities (and differences) between a performative “new” materialism such as Barad’s “agential realism” and the many and varied agent ontologies discussed in indigenous studies literature, which in some cases can be traced back many millennia.17 We thus understand performative materialism as a recovery in novel form of older subterranean or largely disparaged or disregarded materialisms and certainly not as an ex nihilo appearance.

The aim of this paper is to clarify what distinguishes a performative or pedetic approach to materialism by illuminating its differences with both older materialisms and other new ones. The general aim of Part 1 is to develop the former distinction.

Read on!

Black Hole Sun: On the Materialist Sublime

The first image of black hole has just been released today. This is a profound and important aesthetic moment from a new materialist perspective. The image is not beautiful because we enjoy a free play of our imagination as we try to figure out what we are looking at and how it fits with our existing conceptual framework. The image is also not sublime in the sense that a black hole is an infinitely dense singularity that defies all calculation by general relativity, and thus “blows our mind,” as we try to conceptualize the radically unconceptualizable. The black hole is itself a work of art. Nature, according to Kant, cannot be art because nature is passive and mechanistic. Art, for Kant, is radically free because it is a strictly human feeling of our own freedom.

The black hole is an excellent example of the materialist sublime. Nature and matter are not passive or deterministic. They are indeterminate material processes. They perform precisely the sublime that Kant restricts to humans alone. Black holes are not infinitely dense singularities. At the heart of a black hole is a specific (and very small) spatio-temporal region measured by the Planck scale and related to the size of the black hole (its Schwarzschild radius). However, and more importantly, below the Planck level of the black hole there are quantum processes that produce the spacetime of that region. These quantum processes below the Planck unit are fundamentally indeterminate—meaning that they are neither in one spacetime or another. They are the indeterminate material conditions for the emergence of spacetime itself (quantum gravity).

In other words, nature is not just the passive conditions for the human experience of its own aesthetic faculties of beauty or the sublime but itself performs the sublime activity of radical indeterminism without concrete form. Humans have the experience of sublimity only because nature is already performatively and materially sublime.

 

 

The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture, Emanuele Coccia (2018)

This is a wonderful book. I highly recommend it for those interested in materialism, nature, plants, posthuman ecology.

We barely talk about them and seldom know their names. Philosophy has always overlooked them; even biology considers them as mere decoration on the tree of life. And yet plants give life to the Earth: they produce the atmosphere that surrounds us, they are the origin of the oxygen that animates us. Plants embody the most direct, elementary connection that life can establish with the world.

In this highly original book, Emanuele Coccia argues that, as the very creator of atmosphere, plants occupy the fundamental position from which we should analyze all elements of life. From this standpoint, we can no longer perceive the world as a simple collection of objects or as a universal space containing all things, but as the site of a veritable metaphysical mixture. Since our atmosphere is rendered possible through plants alone, life only perpetuates itself through the very circle of consumption undertaken by plants. In other words, life exists only insofar as it consumes other life, removing any moral or ethical considerations from the equation. In contrast to trends of thought that discuss nature and the cosmos in general terms, Coccia’s account brings the infinitely small together with the infinitely big, offering a radical redefinition of the place of humanity within the realm of life.

More here.

Posthuman Ecologies: Complexity and Process after Deleuze, Edited by Rosi Braidotti and Simone Bignall (2018)

Posthuman Ecologies

The devolved and dispersed character of human agency and moral responsibility in the contemporary condition appears linked with the deepening global trauma of ‘inhumanism’ as a paradox of the Anthropocene. Reclaiming human agency and accountability appears crucial for collective resistance to the unprecedented state of environmental and social collapse resulting from the inhumanity of contemporary capitalist geopolitics and biotechnologies of control. Understanding the potential for such resistance in the posthuman condition requires urgent new thinking about the nature of human influence in complex interactional systems, and about the nature of such systems when conceived in non-anthropocentric way. Through specific readings and uses of Deleuze’s conceptual apparatus, this volume examines the operation of human-actioned systems as complex and heterogeneous arenas of affection and accountability. This exciting collection extends non-humanist concepts for understanding reality, agency and interaction in dynamic ecologies of reciprocal determination and influence. The outcome is a vital new theorisation of human scope, responsibility and potential in the posthuman condition.

Table of Contents

1. Rosi Braidotti and Simone Bignall – Introduction: posthuman systems /

2. Iris Van der Tuin – Deleuze and diffraction /

3. Jussi Parikka – Cartographies of environmental arts /

4. Andrej Radman – Involutionary architecture: unyoking coherence from congruence /

5. Elizabeth de Freitas – Love of learning: amorous and fatal /

6. James Williams – Time and the posthuman /

7. Sean Bowden – ‘Becoming-equal to the act’: the temporal structure of action and agential responsibility /

8. Suzanne McCullagh – Heterogeneous collectivities and the capacity to act: conceptualising nonhumans in the political sphere /

9. Simone Bignall and Daryle Rigney – Indigeneity, posthumanism and nomad thought: transforming colonial ecologies /

10. Thomas Nail – Kinopolitics: borders in motion /

11. Gregory Flaxman – Out of control: from political economy to political ecology /

12. Jon Roffe – Economic systems and the problematic character of price /

13. Edward Mussawir – A modification in the subject of right: Deleuze, jurisprudence and the diagram of bees in Roman law /

14. Myra Hird and Kathryn Yusoff – Lines of shite: microbial-mineral chatter in the Anthropocene

You can buy the book here using the promo code RLIJAN19 for 30% off.

 

 

The Poetry of Georges Bataille, George Bataille, translated by Stuart Kendall (2018)

Just got my copy in the mail yesterday.

Presents a new window into the literary, philosophical, and theological concerns of this enigmatic thinker and writer.

Despite its relative rarity, and the condensed brevity of the poems themselves, poetry occupies a striking place in the literary and philosophical oeuvre of Georges Bataille. For Bataille, poetry had no meaning “except in the violence of revolt,” which it could attain “only by evoking the impossible.” Toward this end, he wrote poetry, as he says in Inner Experience, “with necessity—in accordance with my life.” Although poems appear in four of his major works, and others were published independently in a small collection and in magazines, much of Bataille’s poetry remained unpublished at the time of his death. This volume presents a nearly complete edition of the poems in chronological order. Stuart Kendall provides an extensive introduction and notes highlighting the literary, philosophical, and theological significance of Bataille’s poetry. He also explores the influence of Nietzsche, St. John of the Cross, Blake, Baudelaire, and other poètes maudits and situates the poems in relation to Bataille’s other writings and the period in which he wrote.

Georges Bataille (1897–1962), a medievalist librarian by training, founded the College of Sociology and the secret society Acéphale. He was equally famous for his contributions to French literature, art criticism, anthropology, philosophy, and theology. Bane of theologians, existentialists, and surrealists during his lifetime, he became an essential reference for the poststructuralist generation of French intellectuals, including Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

Here.

The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism, Elizabeth Grosz (2018) Paperback

Philosophy has inherited a powerful impulse to embrace either dualism or a reductive monism―either a radical separation of mind and body or the reduction of mind to body. But from its origins in the writings of the Stoics, the first thoroughgoing materialists, another view has acknowledged that no forms of materialism can be completely self-inclusive―space, time, the void, and sense are the incorporeal conditions of all that is corporeal or material. In The Incorporeal Elizabeth Grosz argues that the ideal is inherent in the material and the material in the ideal, and, by tracing its development over time, she makes the case that this same idea reasserts itself in different intellectual contexts.

Grosz shows that not only are idealism and materialism inextricably linked but that this “belonging together” of the entirety of ideality and the entirety of materiality is not mediated or created by human consciousness. Instead, it is an ontological condition for the development of human consciousness. Grosz draws from Spinoza’s material and ideal concept of substance, Nietzsche’s amor fati, Deleuze and Guattari’s plane of immanence, Simondon’s preindividual, and Raymond Ruyer’s self-survey or autoaffection to show that the world preexists the evolution of the human and that its material and incorporeal forces are the conditions for all forms of life, human and nonhuman alike. A masterwork by an eminent theoretician, The Incorporeal offers profound new insight into the mind-body problem.

Here

Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities (2018)

Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene Interruptions and Possibilities book cover

Nice collection forthcoming in Dec 2018.

Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities, Erik Swyngedouw & Henrik Ernstson, Eds., Routledge, 2018

This looks like a great paper on the importance of ecological value theory.

Excerpt from “Value, Nature & The Vortex Of Accumulation,” Jason Moore and Richard Walker

Why bother with value theory? When the classical political economists began to deploy a theory of value to understand the economy it was because the generalization of markets meant that commodity prices had come to be regulated by exchange. For the classicals, value was an objective foundation behind the vagaries of prices, and in a pre-industrial era of handicraft or “manufacture,” labour time was the obvious standard determining value. At the same time, however, they were engaged in fierce debates with opposing views of economy, state, and society. In these debates, the theory of value was mobilized as a weapon of social change, which is why it was called political economy (Varney 2012; Farber 2006).

Marx trod in the footsteps of his predecessors.The labour theory of value was the obvious starting point on a long analytic journey to uncover the workings of capital. For Marx, value was not just the basis of price determination, but the key to unlocking the source of profits, class struggle, and capital accumulation. Along the way, he made technical corrections to the classical theory of value to account for the greater complexity of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism (Marx 1977).1 Most of all, he made two great discoveries: how surplus value could arise in a system of equal exchange and how generalized value turned into capital accumulation.