New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics

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New Materialisms brings into focus and explains the significance of the innovative materialist critiques that are emerging across the social sciences and humanities. By gathering essays that exemplify the new thinking about matter and processes of materialization, this important collection shows how scholars are reworking older materialist traditions, contemporary theoretical debates, and advances in scientific knowledge to address pressing ethical and political challenges. In the introduction, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost highlight common themes among the distinctive critical projects that comprise the new materialisms. The continuities they discern include a posthumanist conception of matter as lively or exhibiting agency, and a reengagement with both the material realities of everyday life and broader geopolitical and socioeconomic structures.

Coole and Frost argue that contemporary economic, environmental, geopolitical, and technological developments demand new accounts of nature, agency, and social and political relationships; modes of inquiry that privilege consciousness and subjectivity are not adequate to the task. New materialist philosophies are needed to do justice to the complexities of twenty-first-century biopolitics and political economy, because they raise fundamental questions about the place of embodied humans in a material world and the ways that we produce, reproduce, and consume our material environment.

Sara Ahmed
Jane Bennett
Rosi Braidotti
Pheng Cheah
Rey Chow
William E. Connolly
Diana Coole
Jason Edwards
Samantha Frost
Elizabeth Grosz
Sonia Kruks
Melissa A. Orlie

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Overall, the volume makes a convincing case for the renewal of materialism, in terms of both its theoretical purchase and its radical political potential. It shows, in ways that are often exemplary, that there are rich, and sometimes surprising, resources in the philosophical tradition for renewing materialisms.” - Keith Ansell Pearson, Radical Philosophy

“New materialisms offer democratic theory an important opportunity to
regard its own parameters and function – what can be hoped for and why.
And Coole and Frost’s volume offers a new view of the human (and the
thing) that are well worth regarding. . . .” - Andrew Poe, Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy

New Materialisms is an extraordinary and in fact interdisciplinary collection in its own right. . . . [T]he work coming out of the material turn is mind-blowing work, both in scholarly and in artistic research, and in art”. - Iris van der Tuin, Women’s Studies International Forum

“The essays collected here—authored by leading political theorists and feminist and cultural critics—examine the ‘choreographies of becoming’ and move beyond constructivism and humanism to track processes of de- and re-materialization. The effect is to scramble habitual categories of thought—active versus passive, inert versus animate, political versus ontological, causality versus spontaneity—and force us to think materiality. As the editors put it, ‘materiality is always something more than “mere” matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable.’”—Bonnie Honig, author of Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy

“This is a strong and timely collection, one that could very well direct future discussions of the ‘new materialisms’ toward an experimental, process-oriented, and politically-engaged ‘new ontology.’”—Ellen Rooney, Brown University

Iris van der Tuin
New Materialisms is an extraordinary and in fact interdisciplinary collection in its own right. . . . [T]he work coming out of the material turn is mind-blowing work, both in scholarly and in artistic research, and in art”.
Andrew Poe
“New materialisms offer democratic theory an important opportunity to regard its own parameters and function – what can be hoped for and why.
And Coole and Frost’s volume offers a new view of the human (and the thing) that are well worth regarding. . . .”
Keith Ansell Pearson
“Overall, the volume makes a convincing case for the renewal of materialism, in terms of both its theoretical purchase and its radical political potential. It shows, in ways that are often exemplary, that there are rich, and sometimes surprising, resources in the philosophical tradition for renewing materialisms.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822347538
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/9/2010
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Diana Coole is Professor of Political and Social Theory at Birkbeck College, University of London, England. She is the author, most recently, of Merleau-Ponty and Modern Politics after Anti-Humanism. She is a Leverhulme Research Fellow, 2010–13.

Samantha Frost is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, the Gender and Women’s Studies Program, and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Lessons from a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics.

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Table of Contents


THE FORCE OF MATERIALITY....................47
A Vitalist Stopover on the Way to a New Materialism Jane Bennett....................70
Non-Dialectical Materialism Pheng Cheah....................92
The Inertia of Matter and the Generativity of Flesh Diana Coole....................116
POLITICAL MATTERS....................139
Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom Elizabeth Grosz....................158
Fear and the Illusion of Autonomy Samantha Frost....................178
Materialities of Experience William E. Connolly....................201
ECONOMIES OF DISRUPTION....................221
The Elusive Material: What the Dog Doesn't Understand Rey Chow....................234
Orientations Matter Sara Ahmed....................258
Simone de Beauvoir: Engaging Discrepant Materialisms Sonia Kruks....................281
The Materialism of Historical Materialism Jason Edwards....................299
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First Chapter

New Materialisms

Ontology, Agency, and Politics


Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4753-8

Chapter One

Diana Coole & Samantha Frost Introducing the New Materialisms

As human beings we inhabit an ineluctably material world. We live our everyday lives surrounded by, immersed in, matter. We are ourselves composed of matter. We experience its restlessness and intransigence even as we reconfigure and consume it. At every turn we encounter physical objects fashioned by human design and endure natural forces whose imperatives structure our daily routines for survival. Our existence depends from one moment to the next on myriad micro-organisms and diverse higher species, on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions and on pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday lives. In light of this massive materiality, how could we be anything other than materialist? How could we ignore the power of matter and the ways it materializes in our ordinary experiences or fail to acknowledge the primacy of matter in our theories?

Yet for the most part we take such materiality for granted, or we assume that there is little of interest to say about it. Even (or perhaps, especially) in the history of philosophy, materialism has remained a sporadic and often marginal approach. For there is an apparent paradox in thinking about matter: as soon as we do so, we seem to distance ourselves from it, and within the space that opens up, a host of immaterial things seems to emerge: language, consciousness, subjectivity, agency, mind, soul; also imagination, emotions, values, meaning, and so on. These have typically been presented as idealities fundamentally different from matter and valorized as superior to the baser desires of biological material or the inertia of physical stuff. It is such idealist assumptions and the values that flow from them that materialists have traditionally contested. It is true that over the past three decades or so theorists have radicalized the way they understand subjectivity, discovering its efficacy in constructing even the most apparently natural phenomena while insisting upon its embeddedness in dense networks of power that outrun its control and constitute its willfulness. Yet it is on subjectivity that their gaze has focused. Our motivation in editing this book has been a conviction that it is now time to subject objectivity and material reality to a similarly radical reappraisal. Our respective researches have prompted our own interests in changing conceptions of material causality and the significance of corporeality, both of which we see as crucial for a materialist theory of politics or agency. We now advance the bolder claim that foregrounding material factors and reconfiguring our very understanding of matter are prerequisites for any plausible account of coexistence and its conditions in the twenty-first century.

Our commitment to editing a book on the new materialisms at this time springs from our conviction that materialism is once more on the move after several decades in abeyance and from our eagerness to help define and promote its new directions. Everywhere we look, it seems to us, we are witnessing scattered but insistent demands for more materialist modes of analysis and for new ways of thinking about matter and processes of materialization. We are also aware of the emergence of novel if still diffuse ways of conceptualizing and investigating material reality. This is especially evident in disciplines across the social sciences, such as political science, economics, anthropology, geography, and sociology, where it is exemplified in recent interest in material culture, geopolitical space, critical realism, critical international political economy, globalization, and environmentalism, and in calls for a renewed materialist feminism, or a more materialist queer theory or postcolonial studies. We interpret such developments as signs that the more textual approaches associated with the so-called cultural turn are increasingly being deemed inadequate for understanding contemporary society, particularly in light of some of its most urgent challenges regarding environmental, demographic, geopolitical, and economic change.

The eclipse of materialism in recent theory can be negatively associated with the exhaustion of once popular materialist approaches, such as existential phenomenology or structural Marxism, and with important challenges by poststructuralists to the ontological and epistemological presumptions that have supported modern approaches to the material world. More positively, materialism's demise since the 1970s has been an effect of the dominance of analytical and normative political theory on the one hand and of radical constructivism on the other. These respective Anglophone and continental approaches have both been associated with a cultural turn that privileges language, discourse, culture, and values. While this turn has encouraged a de facto neglect of more obviously material phenomena and processes, it has also problematized any straightforward overture toward matter or material experience as naively representational or naturalistic. Notwithstanding the capacity of these currently dominant theories to clarify arguments and to alert us to the way power is present in any attempt to represent material reality, however, we believe it is now timely to reopen the issue of matter and once again to give material factors their due in shaping society and circumscribing human prospects. The essays we have commissioned for the current volume are exemplary of some of the new and innovative ways of conceptualizing and responding to this reorientation.

The essays that follow are at the forefront of current thinking about matter; about how to approach it, and about its significance for and within the political. They resonate with our own belief that to succeed, a reprisal of materialism must be truly radical. This means returning to the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter and the place of embodied humans within a material world; it means taking heed of developments in the natural sciences as well as attending to transformations in the ways we currently produce, reproduce, and consume our material environment. It entails sensitivity to contemporary shifts in the bio- and eco-spheres, as well as to changes in global economic structures and technologies. It also demands detailed analyses of our daily interactions with material objects and the natural environment. What is at stake here is nothing less than a challenge to some of the most basic assumptions that have underpinned the modern world, including its normative sense of the human and its beliefs about human agency, but also regarding its material practices such as the ways we labor on, exploit, and interact with nature.

In labeling these essays collectively as new materialisms, we do not wish to deny their rich materialist heritage. Many of our contributors indeed draw inspiration from materialist traditions developed prior to modernity or from philosophies that have until recently remained neglected or marginalized currents within modern thinking. From this perspective their interventions might be categorized as renewed materialisms. If we nevertheless persist in our call for and observation of a new materialism, it is because we are aware that unprecedented things are currently being done with and to matter, nature, life, production, and reproduction. It is in this contemporary context that theorists are compelled to rediscover older materialist traditions while pushing them in novel, and sometimes experimental, directions or toward fresh applications.

If we pluralize these new materialisms, this is indicative of our appreciation that despite some important linkages between different strands of contemporary work and a more general materialist turn, there are currently a number of distinctive initiatives that resist any simple conflation, not least because they reflect on various levels of materialization. What has been exciting for us as editors has indeed been our sense of encountering the emergence of new paradigms for which no overall orthodoxy has yet been established. Our aim in presenting the twelve essays collected here is accordingly to initiate a debate about the new materialism while on the one hand, leaving its future possibilities relatively open and on the other, eliciting key themes and orientations that we judge to be bringing structure and velocity to current arguments. It has been our ambition here to contribute to a broad-ranging discussion that is emerging about the nature of our materially and discursively fast-changing world by bringing together a number of leading scholars who are engaging critically with it. In introducing their work our more specific aims are to explain the reasons for a widespread sense that rejuvenating materialism is necessary, to outline and contextualize some of the principal questions and modes of thinking that are emerging in response, and to make clear our own commitment to a renewed materialism in social and political analysis.

The Context of the New Materialism

In advocating a new materialism we are inspired by a number of developments that call for a novel understanding of and a renewed emphasis on materiality. Of great significance here are, firstly, twentieth-century advances in the natural sciences. The great materialist philosophies of the nineteenth century, notably those of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, were themselves hugely influenced by developments in the natural sciences, yet the new physics and biology make it impossible to understand matter any longer in ways that were inspired by classical science. While Newtonian mechanics was especially important for these older materialisms, for postclassical physics matter has become considerably more elusive (one might even say more immaterial) and complex, suggesting that the ways we understand and interact with nature are in need of a commensurate updating. While we recognize that there can be no simple passage from natural to social science theories or from science to ethics, developments in the former do become disseminated among educated publics; they inform expert witnesses who contribute to relevant policy making, and they gradually transform the popular imaginary about our material world and its possibilities. As Stephen White points out, ontology involves not simply the abstract study of the nature of being but also the underlying beliefs about existence that shape our everyday relationships to ourselves, to others, and to the world: "Ontological commitments in this sense are thus entangled with questions of identity and history, with how we articulate the meaning of our lives, both individually and collectively." From this point of view, thinking anew about the fundamental structure of matter has far-reaching normative and existential implications.

A second and urgent reason for turning to materialism is the emergence of pressing ethical and political concerns that accompany the scientific and technological advances predicated on new scientific models of matter and, in particular, of living matter. As critically engaged theorists, we find ourselves compelled to explore the significance of complex issues such as climate change or global capital and population flows, the biotechnological engineering of genetically modified organisms, or the saturation of our intimate and physical lives by digital, wireless, and virtual technologies. From our understanding of the boundary between life and death and our everyday work practices to the way we feed ourselves and recreate or procreate, we are finding our environment materially and conceptually reconstituted in ways that pose profound and unprecedented normative questions. In addressing them, we unavoidably find ourselves having to think in new ways about the nature of matter and the matter of nature; about the elements of life, the resilience of the planet, and the distinctiveness of the human. These questions are immensely important not only because they cast doubt on some of modernity's most cherished beliefs about the fundamental nature of existence and social justice but also because presumptions about agency and causation implicit in prevailing paradigms have structured our modern sense of the domains and dimensions of the ethical and the political as such. Recent developments thus call upon us to reorient ourselves profoundly in relation to the world, to one another, and to ourselves.

In terms of theory itself, finally, we are summoning a new materialism in response to a sense that the radicalism of the dominant discourses which have flourished under the cultural turn is now more or less exhausted. We share the feeling current among many researchers that the dominant constructivist orientation to social analysis is inadequate for thinking about matter, materiality, and politics in ways that do justice to the contemporary context of biopolitics and global political economy. While we recognize that radical constructivism has contributed considerable insight into the workings of power over recent years, we are also aware that an allergy to "the real" that is characteristic of its more linguistic or discursive forms-whereby overtures to material reality are dismissed as an insidious foundationalism-has had the consequence of dissuading critical inquirers from the more empirical kinds of investigation that material processes and structures require. While by no means are all the essays in this volume hostile to constructivism, and new materialists countenance no simple return to empiricism or positivism, we share the view current among many critics that our contemporary context demands a theoretical rapprochement with material realism.

Congruent with these imperatives for readdressing materiality, we discern three interrelated but distinctive themes or directions in new materialist scholarship, and we use these to organize the rest of our discussion here. We do so in the hope of setting a framework for ensuing debate, although we are aware that our three themes are somewhat unevenly represented in the essays that follow. First among them is an ontological reorientation that is resonant with, and to some extent informed by, developments in natural science: an orientation that is posthumanist in the sense that it conceives of matter itself as lively or as exhibiting agency. The second theme entails consideration of a raft of biopolitical and bioethical issues concerning the status of life and of the human. Third, new materialist scholarship testifies to a critical and nondogmatic reengagement with political economy, where the nature of, and relationship between, the material details of everyday life and broader geopolitical and socioeconomic structures is being explored afresh. An important characteristic shared by all three components is their emphasis on materialization as a complex, pluralistic, relatively open process and their insistence that humans, including theorists themselves, be recognized as thoroughly immersed within materiality's productive contingencies. In distinction from some recent examples of constructivism, new materialists emphasize the productivity and resilience of matter. Their wager is to give materiality its due, alert to the myriad ways in which matter is both self-constituting and invested with-and reconfigured by-intersubjective interventions that have their own quotient of materiality.

Towards a New Ontology: Matter, Agency, and Posthumanism

At first glance it seems hard to imagine how we might think about matter differently since its brute "thereness" seems so self-evident and unassailable. It seems literally to provide the solid foundation of existence and to offer itself to an unambiguous ontology. Yet exposing such commonsense and philosophical beliefs as contingent assumptions is a precondition for thinking materiality in new ways. Many of our ideas about materiality in fact remain indebted to Descartes, who defined matter in the seventeenth century as corporeal substance constituted of length, breadth, and thickness; as extended, uniform, and inert. This provided the basis for modern ideas of nature as quantifiable and measurable and hence for Euclidian geometry and Newtonian physics. According to this model, material objects are identifiably discrete; they move only upon an encounter with an external force or agent, and they do so according to a linear logic of cause and effect. It seems intuitively congruent with what common sense tells us is the "real" material world of solid, bounded objects that occupy space and whose movements or behaviors are predictable, controllable, and replicable because they obey fundamental and invariable laws of motion.


Excerpted from New Materialisms Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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