Notes from the conference I ran with David Chandler, Felicity Colman, Helen Palmer, Nick Kiersey, Michiel van Ingen, Paul Rekret and Christian Fuchs at University of Westminster, 4th March, 2016.
What is new in new materialism?: Marxisms, new materialisms and the nature/culture divide
Starting in the first years of the new millennium, new materialism has been labelled as such by researchers in a variety of disciplines and theoretical commitments. The renewed interest in materialism is linked to two ‘turns‘ in research agendas: the corporeal and the affective. This emerging field of enquiry is a response to the blindspots resulting from a potential dominance of discourse analysis as method in constructivism and cultural studies. Materiality and the corporeal have time and time again been overlooked.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the intensification of interest in ‘bringing the body back in’ occured alongside two global economic crises occurring in the late 1990s and again in the late 2000s. Work restructure and redundancies and an impenetrable job market for young people left millions wondering how they could pay for rent and mortgages. People who had never had to make choices between buying lunch or buying a bus pass, a winter coat or energy bills, began to face some of the most basic issues of the body where one will sleep or what one will eat, how to move around. The widening inequality gap is not a dry statistic. The social and the discursive faded as panic over possible hunger and unprecedented anxieties crept in and exacerbated across class tiers. People were awoken, sensitised, politicised.
Coining the term itself, ‘new materialism’ is attributed to philosophy and postmodern feminism with researchers Manuel Delanda and Rosa Braidotti’s work in the late 1990s (who did so independently of one another). Delanda’s Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997) had earlier set new paving stones or a map for thinking about how we come to the point now to consider any ‘newness’ in the material. Braidotti tested ontological assumptions in her Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming in 2002. The 2010 volume New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost set the scene with chapters by Jane Bennett, William Connolly, Rosi Braidotti and several others. Also in 2010 Iris van der Tuin and Rich Dophijn published ‘The Transversality of New Materialism’ in Women: A Cultural Review. In International Relations, a special issue was published in Millennium on materialism and world politics that included articles on new materialism and later, a collection on corporeal capitalism, in Global Society.
In the early 2000s, a discussion amongst a small group of orthodox Marxists was brewing. Self-labelled (orthodox) Marxist Paul Cammack published a piece in Historical Materialism in 2003 where he describes a ‘new materialism’ as an update of Marx’s historical materialism in a strictly temporal and spatial sense. Cammack identifies capitalist expansion through the means of intensified multilateralism. What is ‘new’ is that the promotion of capitalism in rival states occurs at an international level (40-1). Thus, the newness in new materialism is limited to the updating of a historical period and the scale of expansion. Jeffrey Harrod began to refer to a ‘neo-materialist’ approach also in the early 2000s in talks at the International Studies Association which he published in the 2006 edited collection by Matt Davies and Magnus Ryner, Poverty and the Production of World Politics. Harrod emphasises that ‘the most important activity of humankind’ is ‘work and production’ and observed that ‘there are different patterns of (power) relations which surround it, arguing that world views of individuals are developed from, or influenced, by such power patterns and that such world views are important to mobilization and political action’. Harrod recalled a set of theses on how power occurs in the global political economy which he and Robert Cox devised, albeit delivered from separate publications, called ‘power, production and world order’ in Cox’s case and ‘power, production and the unprotected worker’ in Harrod’s. Harrod pointed out that the focus on production is astute, but if it relies on Marx’s theory of capitalism and production as hinged upon alienation and surplus value then it is overly narrow and looks too much like it could simply be called ‘industrialisation’. Different modes of production contain their own exploitative relations and a theory of production should not be confined to anthropocentric histories such as feudalism or the an as yet non-existent future or a pure form of communism. To pursue a neo-materialist research agenda, Harrod turns to the work of Poulantzas and of Mao to show their deviance from a strict Marxist conceptualisation of class and power based on industrial modes of production.
However, interpretations of a Marxist, human centric, history relies on limited conceptualisations of the corporeal and also on a linearity of history. Where the new materialisms outlined differ is that Marxist ‘new materialists’ continue to work within these boundaries. So far they do not explore their own assumptions at an ontological level in the ways that the corporeal and affective turns in feminist and postmodern research permit, despite using the same label for a seeming new intervention into research. While the small number of Marxist neo-and new materialist encourage a focus on global capitalist forces and production, perfectly reasonable pursuits in themselves: they do not fully address questions of gender (Tepe Belfrage and Steans forthcoming).
New materialism, ontologically, is not only an idea or a philosophical treatise but is lived, practiced, and agential. Using the empirical example of sensory technologies in workplaces we can see that there is more than an academic ‘turn’ in thinking about the material. The integration of sensory technologies into workplaces is a management recognition of the corporeal at work both as affective and emancipatory. How affectivity and emancipation are defined is where things become interesting and the ‘battle for space on your body‘ is underway both on the track and at work. The dominance over how quantities are determined and how numeration is deciphered as related to both production and time are age old methods for control in workplaces and work to maintain capitalist hegemony. Quantifying day to day productivity and work is one thing. Quantifying the body as matter is another. Despite being potentially critiqued otherwise (Frost 2011, 71), new materialism is concerned (among many other things) with power relations.
Thinking through these issues, I started to consider running an event where I could bring in researchers who are dedicated to both understanding what ‘new materialism’ is and want to contribute in new ways to this emerging area of work. I run the Conference for Socialist Economists (CSE) South Group and so hold funding to hold events based out of the CSE journal, Capital & Class. I began to speak to possible speakers for the event I began to envisage. I spoke to David Chandler, who runs the Materialisms Reading Group at the Westminster Forum who agreed to co-run an event with me, where we would bring interested speakers to try to identify what is new about new materialisms? Although she could not finally attend, I invited Dani Tepe Belfrage who has recently written a paper critiquing the subset of Marxists who have written about ‘new materialism’ whose submission I coordinated to the journal Capital & Class. I invited Felicity Colman, who runs a large European network on New Materialism and is writing about digital feminicities and Nick Kiersey who is writing about the anthropocene in a way that resonates with the new materialist interests in moving away from anthropecentric versions of current life. We invited Helen Palmer whose work on transversality and the subject as well as insights into the pedagogical and methodological aspects of new materialism would provide an excellent intervention. David suggested inviting Michiel van Ingen who is identifying how critical realism may or may not overlap with new materialism and Paul Rekret who is not convinced by the concept of the ‘posthuman’. We invited Christian Fuchs to act as discussant. We agreed to seek out gender equivalence. The first panel was labelled as ‘plenary’ because we intended to outline ‘what is new materialism?’. The second panel was intended as a platform to indicate what is ‘newest’, or perhaps better, ‘cutting edge’ in the debates we were to introduce in the preliminary panel. There was no intended hierarchy across panels nor set definition for ‘newness’ but we did set out to invite an equal number of early and seasoned career researchers.
The workshop was extremely popular, we discovered quickly. Registrations on eventbrite quickly added up. So on the day of the event it was not a surprise we were a little bit crowded in the room but there was a feeling of enthusiasm and anticipation. I began the first panel by going over some of the tenets I see coming out of new materialisms from their variety of interpretations. I reminded colleagues that when we talk about matter we need to be very clear what we mean by this. The key differences in the way Marxisms and new materialisms coming out of the postmodern debates view matter is that the latter do not see it as static and unchanging. Quite the contrary, matter is agential and transformational in the feminist and postmodern understanding. Domination over nature may sound empowering but it detracts from possibilities, from impacts that people have on one another that go beyond the cognitive and even the sensory. So I started the day by discussing atomism as envisaged by ancient philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius. Epicurus opined that we are unhappy because we have disassociated ourselves with nature. That is the origin of all despair and human tragedy. Lucretius however did not reject trajedy to the extent Epicurus did and accepted grief as part of the depth and richness of human existence.
The lectern I stood before was indeed an object, however atoms compose the lectern. I can’t see the atoms but I know they are there. What I don’t know however is how they came to be there nor what directions and paths they followed in order to get there, that is out of my control. I do know that the paths were in no way linear nor predictable. I accept the objectivity of the table nonetheless, also recognizing it has a subject, it has matter and it can at any moment, change, crumble, the earth may even swallow both me and the objects around me at any moment if there is an earthquake or a tsunami. I am not in control of the matter around me nor of the earth I stand on, nor, at least not completely, of my body.
At some point in my talk I felt very ill and had to tell colleagues that if I looked pained, it is because I was (I felt lightheaded). The room was full of bodies and chances are there was some kind of impact on me. The window was open to allow oxygen to enter, but the screams of the city were incessant, a pneumatic drill, a siren, signs of work and emergency. Haven’t we all said at some point: ‘my body is telling me something?’ In the coffee break I told a colleague that I often do not know when I am ‘stressed’, but my body certainly tells me. The Spinozan point that ‘the mind is the idea of the body’ is highly convincing when we think in these terms. But materiality is often taken for granted or overlooked; taken as a secondary consideration, or something that is dirty. Matter is associated with pain. The way to emancipation was in pre-modernity thought, via abandoning the body. Materiality was seen as oppositional to spirituality, indeed many of those against Marx accused him of focusing on the way society is organized around commodities and materiality and distract from what could provide salvation. These understandings are limited and limiting. Coole and Frost postulated that the ‘whole edifice of modern ontology regarding notions of change, causality, agency, time and space needs rethinking’ (2010, 9). Indeed, materiality is more than mere matter, it is an excess force, vitality, relationality, emerges from difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable. While new materialists tend to move away from the binarisms seen in Cartesian dualism, coupling is not identical to logical dualism. Life is complex. Forced compartmentalisations and divisions are the fodder of oppression but difference is not automatically antagonistic.
In 1976 Ollman said that the ‘nub of our difficulty in understanding Marxism, whose subject matter is not simply society, but society conceived of relationally’ (14-15). Capital, labour, value, commodities, etc. are all relations, containing within themselves the integral elements of what they are. We tend to see these things as externally tied. But Marx was not unaware of the corporeal nor of nature. This does not mean he would be a ‘new materialist’ today. It does mean that there could be space for dialogue across an age old ‘divide’ between Marxists and postmodern researchers (or so I hope). There are hints of an ontology that does not overlook the corporeal nor interrelatedness of life beyond the social. Objects are not separate from but were part of our nature as human beings, they were needed to ‘complete… existence and to realise essence’ (Marx 1975, 267). Marx’s use of ‘essence’ looks like it follows a tradition of argument first developed by Spinoza. Fox argues that like Spinoza and Hegel, Marx rejected thinking about a being’s nature in terms of substance. Marx also knew that all beings, including human beings, are interdependent. This makes the relationship between humanity and objects an ‘inner relation’ (Fox 132, 3).
After I made some of these points, Felicity Colman spoke, asking us: ‘what is newness?’. Felicity spoke of how work with the feminist new materialist thinkers (such as Barad, Haraway, Van der Tuin, on the shoulders of Braidotti, Grosz, Deleuze, Bergson), have recognised that there is a need to develop an understanding of a ‘quantum literacy’, offering a significant turn for critical discourses of relevance not only for feminist metaphysics, but for all of those who are interested in thinking more adequate terms for expressing knowledge production and the ethical terms of life itself (Bühlmann, Colman & Van Der Tuin, 2016). Nick Kiersey then talked about New Materialism as an emancipatory theoretical horizon for talking about nomad politics such that it might be capable of scaling to address a global form of sovereign striation. David Chandler then wrapped up the discussions by asking us to think about the nature/culture divide and asked whether Marxists are ready for full automation? After a half hour break, Helen Palmer, Michiel van Ingen and Paul Rekret spoke. Helen spoke of a strategy of defamiliarisation coming from Braidotti’s work. Helen demonstrated the contemporary political potency of this term through both a reading of its origins within Russian formalism and a defence of its materialist concerns which counters the traditional Marxist critique of formalism from the 1930s. Michiel talked about what he sees as new about the new materialisms, an attempt to revive what had until quite recently been considered an entirely discredited approach to science and philosophy: vitalism. The new materialisms as he reads them have sought to collapse or ‘transcend’ the nature/culture divide. Critical realist philosophy on the other hand has sought to ‘sublate’ the dialectic which has historically grounded their opposition. Paul Rekret then challenged the concept of emerging hybrid entities, from medically enhanced humans to full blown cyborgs and globally circulating human tissues, announce the actualisation of the ontological assertation that the human never was an integral, autonomous being exercising control over itself nor mastery of its surroundings through the capacity for individual agency and choice to begin with.
What stood out to me in the discussions that followed the two panels were the ways that specific readings of the same authors seemed to inspire very different responses and interpretations. Symptomatic of long standing theoretical and philosophical influences, there were points when assertions and conceptualisations were seemingly quite different, if even oppositional. The understanding of nature, the material and agency in particular differ in traditional historical materialist readings to feminist new materialism, but that is not in itself a surprise. It was clear however that much of the latter has not yet been fully circulated in established Marxist circles (yet?). Like the points I make above, Marx must be re-read before the proverbial gates are closed.
Nevertheless, as Orzeck (2007) wisely points out:
…insofar as the refusal to face up to the heterogeneous Marxist writings on the natural body is a symptomatic of an anxious desire to seal the gap between Marxism and poststructuralism it is antithetical to these sorts of issues and crucially, to the discovery of incompatible assumptions. Compatible assumptions and findings give us a map of the land, but it is only incompatible assumptions that, at the risk of taking the metaphor too far, can reveal the impassable lakes and streams, forcing us to decide exactly where we want to stand.
The workshop lasted for five hours. We did not come to dramatic conclusions but we did explore the possibilities for a discussion that has, as I have pointed out, been brought about with the urgency to re-discover the corporeal. We live in our bodies, on this planet. How we understand and relate to this does not have to be identical but if we share an ontological and epistemological purpose around change and emancipation there may still be capacity for transformation through continued experiences like this New Materialisms workshop in London, which we hope will be the first of many discussions.