New Materialism

The new materialisms are a range of contemporary perspectives in the arts, humanities and social sciences that have in common a theoretical and practical ‘turn to matter’. Many new materialists treat their work as discontinuous with the historical materialism of Hegel and Marx, whereas others recognise a connection via the micropolitical working of power, politics and biopolitics.  The materiality addressed in these new materialisms is relational, plural, open, complex, uneven and contingent; cuts across dualistic boundaries between natural and social worlds; and for some new materialist scholars is invested with a vitality or liveliness.  Despite divergences within this materialist portfolio, all may be characterised as post-humanist and post-anthropocentric, shifting humans from the central focus of attention in social inquiry.

 

Though conventionally the monism and post-humanism of the new materialisms have been constituted in opposition to mainstream Euro-Western philosophy and scholarship (specifically humanism and nature/culture dualism), Kyla Wazana Tomkins (2016) finds familiarity – in their vitalism, and their replacement of anthropocentrism with ecocentrism – with some First Nation and indigenous knowledge traditions (see also Sundberg, 2014; Todd, 2016).  By rejecting a distinction between the physical world and the social constructs of human thoughts, meanings and desires, such perspectives open up the possibility to explore how each affects the other, and the agency of things other than humans (for instance, a tool, a technology or a building).  These ontological shifts not only emancipate the affective capacities of the non-human, but also establish an ethics that can engage productively with human culture, with other living things, and with the wider environment of inanimate matter (Bennett, 2010; Chen, 2012).

 

New materialist ontology has been described as flat or immanent, as it is not dependent upon a foundational or transcendent power such as God, fate, evolution, life-force, Gaia, mechanisms, systems or structures.  This has significant consequences for social theory, cutting across foundational dichotomies including nature/culture, human/non-human, animate/inanimate, agency/structure, and mind/matter.  However, this flat ontology is not a move to universalism, but rather opens up a multiplicity and diversity that exceeds and overwhelms the dichotomies they replace.  In new materialist ontology there are no structures, systems or mechanisms at work; instead there are innumerable ‘events’ comprising the material effects of both nature and culture, which together produce the world and human history.  Exploring the relational character of these events and their physical, biological and expressive composition becomes the means for social science to explain the continuities, fluxes and ‘becomings’ that produce the world around us.

 

The new materialisms have been given a welcome by some feminist, queer theory and critical race theory scholars and activists, who have used concepts such as affect, assemblage, intra-action and thing-power to counter the linguistic focus of post-structuralism; to underpin active engagement with materiality and bodies; and to re-think gender, race, class and sexualities as flows of power and resistance within a messy, heterogeneous and emergent social world.  Arun Saldanha (2006) uses Deleuze’s relational concept of assemblage to embody, re-materialise and re-ontologise race, contra social constructionism, as material movements of, and connections between, bodies, things and places.  The assemblage also provides Jasbir Puar with a means to explore the intersectionalities of sexism, racism, heteronormativity and nationalism in contemporary western societies (2007).  However, both Chad Shomura (2017) and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson caution that use of new materialist perspectives may downplay or even marginalise issues of race, gender and sexuality, if not inflected by feminist, queer, and critical race theories.

 

Essential Reading
Saldanha, A. (2006) Re-ontologising race: The machinic geography of phenotype. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24: 9–24.
Shomura, C. (2017) Exploring the promise of new materialisms. Lateral, 6.1 (Spring).
Sundberg, J. (2014). Decolonizing posthumanist geographies. Cultural Geographies, 21(1): 33-47.
Todd, Z. (2016) An indigenous feminist’s take on the ontological turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology, 29(1): 4-22.
Tompkins, K.W. (2016) On the limits and promise of new materialist philosophy. Lateral, 5.1 (Spring).

 

Further Reading
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter.  Durham NC: Duke University Press.
Chen, M. Y. (2012). Animacies: Biopolitics, racial mattering, and queer affect. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
DeLanda, M. (2006)  A New Philosophy of Society. London and New York: Continuum.
Fox, N.J, and Alldred, P. (2017) Sociology and the New Materialism.  London: Sage.
Jackson, Z. I. (2013) Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism. Feminist Studies 39(9)
Puar, J.K. (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
van der Tuin, I. and Dolphijn, R. (2010). The transversality of new materialism. Women: A Cultural Review, 21(2), 153-171.

 

 

Questions
How do the new materialisms differ from historical materialism?
What does it means to suggest that matter is vital or lively?
Is ontology, as Zoe Todd suggests, ‘just another word for colonialism’?
Why may the term ‘nonhuman’ be problematic from the point of view of feminist, critical race or queer scholarship?

 

Submitted by Nick J Fox

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