Due to a Covid illness, Saturday’s event on Ukraine will now be online only.
Details to follow.
Due to a Covid illness, Saturday’s event on Ukraine will now be online only.
Details to follow.
All are warmly invited to join CSE/Capital & Class for a topical and stimulating talk and discussion with Yuliya Yurchenko, academic, activist and author of Ukraine and the Empire of Capital From Marketisation to Armed Conflict. “An ambitious analysis of contemporary Ukrainian political economy.”
Saturday, 9 July, 2022 from 2:00 – 4:00 pm BST
University of Liverpool, School of Law and Social Justice, Event Space, Ground Floor, Chatham Street L69 7ZR
Saturday, 26 October
Djam Lecture Theatre, SOAS, London
Rather belatedly, new and existing forms of worker collectivism (such as unions) in countries like Britain and the United States are finally getting to grips with the rise of various forms of precarious work in the ‘gig economy’, whether high tech or low tech. This symposium –which will later be published in Capital & Class – showcases some of the most insightful and penetrating new research into how unions and workers are finally starting to successfully resist employer unilateralism. The most important question then posed by these pieces of research is: how can the successes be scaled up so that the challenge to employers is widespread and effective rather than just a straw in the wind. There will be plenty of time for questions and answers to address this issue and many others in the symposium.
Register for free here.
Friday evening 9th November 7 – 9 pm
** Confirmed venue **
Chadswell Healthy Living Centre, Harrison St, London WC1H 8JE.
Frank Engster. The History of German Antifa. The talk gives a short overview about the history of Antifa in Germany. It starts with the historical “Antifaschistische Aktion” of the 20s to then explain the new beginnings after the war in the course of the 68 movement and the K-grops of the 70s to finally concentrate on the three generations of what nowadays is known as “autonomous Antifa”.
Claudia Firth. Anti-fascist Aesthetic Pedagogy. This talk focusses on the self-organised collective learning has played in anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian organising. Using historical examples from the 30’s and 70’s in Germany and Spain such as the ‘Red Orchestra’ and neighbourhood Ateneos, I will specifically explore dialogue, sense perception and play and how these elements might contribute to forms of ‘militant research’.
Michael Goddard. We are Not Snowflakes – We are the Antifa. This paper will evaluate Ministry’s antifa aesthetics pointing to such issues as to whether there is any discernible political perspective beyond generic industrial or heavy metal rebelliousness, especially when these genres have frequently been associated as much with the right as with the left. The paper will explore whether it is possible to speak of Ministry as embodying a consistent antifa aesthetics throughout their career, or even whether this would be a meaningful concept.
Owen Worth. The Making of a Transatlantic Ruling Class. The Trump campaign of 2016 and the Brexit referendum campaign unleashed a set of nationalist and populist forces that have not been seen previously within the contemporary political societies of the US and the UK. What has been noticeable in this mobilisation is the convergence of the outlooks and world views of the groups involved on the different sides of the Atlantic. By focussing on the conspiratorial aspects of ‘globalists’ and ‘elites’ new right-wing discourses have been formed that look to contest the form and content of global society. ThIs paper looks at the emergence of these Anglo-American right wing narrative and looks at its potential future development and impact.
Friday 16th February 11.30 – 18.00
Leicester Creative Business Depot
12:00 – 5:30 Talks & discussions
Register at Eventbrite
Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) South Group and Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy (CPPE), University of Leicester School of Business present:
How are machines being used in contemporary capitalism to perpetuate control and to intensify power relations at work? Theorizing how this occurs through discussions about the physical machine, the calculation machine and the social machine, this workshop re-visits questions of the incorporation and absorption of workers as appendages within the machine as Marx identified as well as new methods to numerate without, necessarily, remuneration. Speakers ask to what extent control is underway via intensified methods to capture labour power, including affective and emotional labour; and will identify how calculation and numeration serve to abstract labour through prediction, prescription, monitoring and tracking; on the streets, in homes, offices and factories. The ‘black box’ argument currently fashionable in debates, where digitalized management methods are a(e)ffectively obscured, is challenged, by identifying precisely how algorithmic decisionmaking, automation and machine learning processes operate to control workers and by theorizing the implications of measure inside human/machine experiences of relations of production.
Kendra Briken (University of Strathclyde) ‘Welcome within the machine. Human-machine relations on the shop floor’
Frank Engster (Helle Panke, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung) ‘Measure Machine Money’
Alessandro Gandini (King’s College, London) ‘Labour Process Theory and the Gig Economy’
Simon Joyce (Leeds University) ‘Digitalized Management Methods. Black Box or Hidden Abode?’
Phoebe Moore (University of Leicester) ‘Quantification of A(e)ffective Labour for Change Management’
Welcome within the machine. Human-machine relations on the shop floor.
Kendra Briken (University of Strathclyde)
This paper will discuss new technologies that lead to qualitatively new human-machine relations (data gloves, co-bots, data glasses, handheld scanner) used on the shop floor in manufacturing (in a broad sense, encompassing also work in fulfilment centres). Based on the (few) existing empirical studies as well as on company and consultancy reports, the aim is to re-visit the incorporation and absorption of the human worker as a mere appendage within the machine as described by Marx. With machines the more and more said to be involved in problem solving by communicating with each other, the question is: What role for the human? Opposed to the debates about the robots taking over jobs, the paper argues that we will instead see a (longer) transition phase where workers might end up in becoming a new appendage in the workplace. Not being off work but also no longer controlling the machines. The paper wants to overcome the well-known debates about de- and upskilling by using the works of i.e. Donna Haraway to focus on the connexion between the body and the machines.
Measure Machine Money.
Frank Engster (Helle Panke, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung)
In capitalisms, machines become specific capitalist machines simply because, as e.g. Heidegger, Simondon or Deleuze and Guattari have shown, we must understand the machine from their context: from their non-technical essence, from their connection with other machines, and from the essence of the machinic. This context, first of all and in the last instance, is the relation with the capitalist economy. This determination by capitalist economy can be shown for three different machines: the physical machine, the calculation machine and the social machine: money. What all three have in common and almost defines them as machines is that all three quantify. The classical physical machine quantifies the relation of nature, the calculation machine quantifies information and meaning, and the money machine quantifies social relations.
Labour Process Theory and the Gig Economy.
Alessandro Gandini (King’s College, London)
This article aims to develop a labour process theory approach to address the forms of labour increasingly often referred to as a ‘gig economy’. Supported by empirical illustrations from existing research, the article discusses the notions of ‘point of production’, emotional labour and control in the ‘gig economy’, to argue that labour process theory offers a unique set of tools to observe the way in which labour-power comes to be transformed in a commodity in a context where the encounter between supply and demand of work is mediated by a digital platform. This is characterised by a subjection of social relations to processes of valorisation centred on data and metrics – particularly feedback, ranking and rating systems – that serve purposes of managerialisation and organisation of work in a context where managers and workers are not physically co-present.
Black Box or Hidden Abode: Control and Resistance in Digitalized Management.
Phoebe Moore, University of Leicester and Simon Joyce, Leeds University
Digitalized management methods (DMM) are becoming widespread with the use of big data and algorithmic distribution of work, the use of people analytics, bogus self-employment and an ‘always on’ culture of work and boundary permeability, in the streets and in homes as well as factories and offices. Resistance to these methods has been relatively fast to emerge, however, both at the individual informal level, or with ‘everyday forms of resistance’ a la de Certeau, and in the formal collective responses which are now being seen in trade union responses internationally. In that light, the paper first outlines the control and resistance model seen in labour process research. Secondly, we outline the environments where digitalization is occurring and the DMM seen therein. Peppered with empirical evidence obtained by the current authors, we note the significance of the methods being applied and how, precisely, they work to abstract labour via quantification. We claim that the ‘blackbox’ response is a mythology that obscures power relations underpinning the control aspects of DMM, where many techniques seen in DMM reflect age-old approaches. Thirdly, we outline where resistance is emerging. We conclude that while there has been significant uptake in DMM in several sectors in ways that make it look like we are dealing a nearly universal ‘uberized’ work paradigm that has begun to infiltrate labour markets across the world, resistance emerging and their integral negotiations indicate that this trend is not a fait accompli. Rather, it is to be seen to what extent digitalized methods will become hegemonic.
Quantification of A(e)ffective Labour for Change Management.
Phoebe Moore (University of Leicester)
Sensory and tracking technologies are being introduced into workplaces in ways Taylor and the Gilbreths could only have imagined. As corporate wellness initiatives proliferate, work design experiments seek to merge wellness with productivity measure and modulate and quantify the affective and emotional labour of resilience that are necessary for surviving the turbulent early days of Industry 4.0, where workers are expected to take symbolic direction from machines. The Quantified Workplace project (QW) where algorithmic devices were used to quantify labour during a period of corporate merger in Rotterdam over the course of one year, demonstrate how affect is measured during a move toward agile systems and thus the seemingly inevitable conditions of transformation and disruption-because machines accelerate and transform, workers must do so likewise. Projects like QW are evidence of capital’s accelerated attempts to capture more areas of work and to facilitate the conversion of labour power into a source of value, using new technologies. Participants’ responses to participation in the project reveal tensions in the labour process when affect is measured in processes of corporate change.
Please email for any other information at email@example.com and/or from 02/01/18 firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Moore and co-editors Prof Martin Upchurch and Xanthe Whittaker will be launching the book Humans and machines at work: monitoring, surveillance and automation in contemporary capitalism (Palgrave Macmillan, Dynamics of Virtual Work series) and Moore will be launching her monograph The Quantified Self at Work, in Precarity: Work, Technology and What Counts (Routledge, Advances in Sociology).
Like earlier forms of capitalism which taught workers to act like machines, the current wave of digitalised work, which includes tracking technologies, automation and surveillance, means that we work with and alongside machines and have even started to think like computers and to compete against them. Machines largely self-manage, do not complain, do not call in sick and do not make mistakes, but humans do all of these things.
Quantification, datafication and platformisation of work via new technologies introduce unprecedented possibilities for stress and a range of symptoms emerging from psychosocial violence (also tracked).
The precarity of the modern worker is central to understanding the quantified self at work.
Precarity is the purest form of alienation where the worker loses all personal association with the labour she performs. She is dispossessed and location-less in her working life and all value is extracted from her in every aspect of life. Because precarious workers are constantly chasing the next ‘gig’, spatial and temporal consistency in life is largely out of reach.
Capital encourages universal communication and machinic devices appear to facilitate this communication within precarious conditions: but only in quantified terms. Thus, anything that cannot be quantified and profiled is rendered incommunicable – meaning it is marked and marginalised, disqualified as human capital, denied privilege, and precarious (Moore and Robinson 2015). Workers are compelled to squeeze every drop of labour-power from our bodies, including work that is seen, or work that has always been measured in Taylorist regimes; and increasingly, work that is unseen, such as attitudes, sentiments, affective and emotional labour.
What are the impacts of technological change and precarity on workers? What are we doing about it?
For Moore’s Work, Agility and the Quantified Self British Academy/Leverhulme funded project, working alongside a company in the Netherlands, Dr Moore interviewed; and the project team including Dr Lukasz Piwek carried out surveys with; 30 workers who were given FitBits, RescueTime and daily lifelogging emails, where results were aggregated on personalised and shared dashboards, over the course on one year, during a period of corporate merger.
The company sought to improve employees’ health and productivity, a project that the company called The Quantified Workplace. Moore did not set up the project, nor consult on it, but worked as lead social scientist alongisde the project. While findings showed increased self-awareness and subjective productivity toward the beginning of the project, these tendencies decreased by the end of the project. Findings demonstrate that workers began to take note of affective and emotional labour in ways they had not previously done and an increased sense of autonomy, desire for coaching and support. Interestingly, workers’ sensitivity to privacy increased (email Moore for further information). For the BA/Leverhulme funded project, Dr Moore also carried out field work in car factories and technology centres. Her next project will look at the risks of psycho-social violence and harassment in digitalised working environments.
Note: On 29th August, Claudia Hammond will be speaking about the Quantified Workplace project and interviewed Dr Moore about this project for the documentary ‘Every Step We Take’, on Radio 4 at 9 pm.
Dr Phoebe Moore The Quantified Self at Work, in Precarity
Prof Rosalind Gill The Quantified Selves of Academia
Prof Martin Upchurch Is a Robot after your Job?
Plenary Panels and Book Launch Roundtable
Dr Ruth Cain Measuring Mental Health: The ‘Recovery Imperative’ and the New welfare-to-work
Dr John Danaher Freedom and Domination in Quantified Work
Dr Kylie Jarrett Valuing ’Er Indoors: Quantification, domestic work and digital labour
Dr Stevphen Shukaitis Knows No Weekend: Class Composition & the Psychological Contract of Cultural Work in Precarious Times
Dr Christopher Till Precarious Work and the Energy Crisis in Semiocapitalism
Prof Sian Moore? Dr Mayo Fuster Morell?
This event marks the end of Principle Investigator Dr Phoebe Moore’s BA/Leverhulme project ‘Agility, Work and the Quantified Self’. Project co-investigators will discuss some of the outcomes from the project with Moore: Dr Ian Roper and Dr Lukasz Piwek
Plenary sessions: David Bailey, Stephen Bates, Paul Cammack, Matt Davies, Athina Karatzogianni (Skype), Donna Lee, Phoebe Moore, Andrew Robinson (Skype), Elena Vachelli. Publication adviser: Magnus Ryner
If you paid for a ticket via the old site, you can be refunded by emailing p.moore -at- mdx.ac.uk.
This will be a Conference for Socialist Economists event with joint hosting from the Critical Political Economy Research Network. The first of these three debates was held at Westminster with David Chandler et al, see its report here. The second event was held at Kingston University on 29th September, organised by Helen Palmer.
‘New Materialism, political economy and the (re)productive body’ will be the third and final event in this series.
The purpose of this third workshop is to revisit the debates in new or neomaterialism in the area of global political economy that started with Jeffrey Harrod’s piece ‘The Global Poor and Global Politics: Neomaterialism and the Sources of Political Action’ in the much read text Poverty and the Production of World Politics edited by Matt Davies and Magnus Ryner.
Since this text, also in the area of global political economy, Paul Cammack, Greig Charnock and Marcus Taylor wrote on debates in new materialism from a Marxist perspective and Nicola Smith and Donna Lee wrote about debates on corporeal capitalism. Feminist research in new materialism is found in the Rosa Braidotti, Iris van der Tuin, Felicity Colman and others. Overall the shift in foci to the body, production and reproduction, ontology, capitalism, gender, quantification and nature have revived questions of materiality that are being discussed across critical areas of research. We see that a range of ‘turns’ are occurring: the corporeal, affective and ontological turns.
Our Debates in New Materialisms III event will revive questions of the political economy of new materialism given the new world of production and consumption we now live in. What is at stake for international political economy in the corporeal, affective and ontological ’turns’? Why are we seeing these ‘turns’ now? Is it because of intensified pressures after the economic crisis to compete or to survive? Is it because austerity drives people to bare life and exacerbates working and living conditions and politicises us to a new level? Where is gender in the historical materialist renewal and discussions of new materialism? Have new technologies in workplaces intensified both management techniques and production processes in a way that violently abstracts the body from the mind? Are we questioning capitalism in new ways and considering new forms of political action and what does this mean for ‘bodies at work’? What are the practical and philosophical problem of assigning agency in digital networks and new spaces of dissent? Is the return to discussions of immanent, transcendental and materialist approaches a sign that we are querying Cartesian ontologies still pervading research in global political economy that place mind as dominant over the body and matter?
Daniela Tepe Belfrage ‘The New Materialism: Re-claiming a Debate from a Feminist Perspective’
The debate on the New Materialism in International Relations (IR) has significant implications for feminist analyses. In this article, we re-claim the term through a re-engagement with feminist (historical) materialist thinking, in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/8 and ongoing austerity measures in the United Kingdom (UK), in which poverty has a ‘gendered face.’ Following Nancy Fraser, we argue that while feminist analysis must pay due regard to the ideational and the discursive, materialist analysis is being side-lined in the current debate. At the same time, the debate on New Materialism in Marxist forums, which claims to elucidate the consequences for the poor and dispossessed left behind or adversely impacted by developments in the 21st century, has also neglected gender. Consequently, this variant of the New Materialism does not provide a complete picture of what neoliberalism and austerity looks like. We contend that any debate on New Materialism debate needs to generate an adequate theory of social relations, production, social reproduction and oppression, in order for its revival to be successful. Accordingly, using current austerity politics in the UK in illustration, we make the case for an expanded understanding of Materialism which casts light on the structuring principles of capitalist socialisation and which affords the social reproductive sphere equal analytical status as necessary to capture capitalist society.
David J. Bailey ‘Old Materialisms, New Materialisms, Same Problems? Does an Ontology of Difference cure Academic Irrelevance?’
The recent debate around old materialisms and new materialisms that has been played out in journals such as Historical Materialism, Millennium, Capital and Class, and in the volumes edited by Coole and Frost and Davis and Ryner, each hint at the problem of irrelevance that afflicts much of our academic endeavour. This irrelevance, the paper argues, reflects a dilemma that sits at the heart of the strategy adopted by radical academics situated within the institutions of the capitalist state. That is, we are faced with the option of being politically ineffective but institutionally secure, or politically relevant but institutionally marginalised and insecure. Both routes lead to a degree of irrelevance of one kind or another, of which we tend to be highly aware. Whereas the old historical materialism of Marxism seemed at times to seek to resolve this dilemma through recourse to the doctrine, “more critical thought needed”; the new materialisms have been accused of responding to the problem through either apolitical observations of ‘forces’ and ‘impulses’, or otherwise a fetishisation of the ‘everyday’. It is not easy, moreover, to see how these problems can be overcome. In an attempt to think how we might steer a course between these two poles of irrelevance, the paper draws on the work of Deleuze and his ontology of difference, which impels us: to map, not trace, both corporeal and philosophical developments and potentials; to be creative; and to amplify disruptive differences that always-already exist. Through a discussion of the contemporary British anti-austerity movement, the paper questions both whether this ontology of difference might be a better way for radical academics to be both in and against the capitalist state, enabling us to be politically effective without marginalisation or insecurity, and therefore cure longstanding problems of academic irrelevance; and whether this represents anything new or different at all in our attempt as radicals to ensure that (human) matter flourishes more.
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.
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.