Over the past two or three years there has been much talk in the social and human sciences about a materialist turn. It is clear that this is not, however, a complete revolution back to older forms of materialism, even if some of their traces are still resonant. The new materialists are self-consciously positioning themselves in the wake of an earlier cultural turn towards linguistic modes of cultural analysis that included radical forms of constructivism, but also in response to new challenges and opportunities that are emerging through novel ways of understanding matter and handling objects.
My essay has two main parts. The first provides an overview by considering some of the ways a new materialism is being pursued, the sources from which it draws inspiration and the kind of vocabulary that is being used to invoke volatile process of materialisation. This includes a sketch of the new materialist ontology, with its distinctive choreography, and some reflections on its significance for analysing the material realm that embodied social actors inhabit. The second part ponders a question that is often addressed to new materialists but that so far does not seem to have been answered very satisfactorily. This corresponds to the “politics of materiality”, which you reference in your book and lecture series title. The question here is whether the New Materialism is only descriptive or also entails a normative project. If it does have normative ambitions or implications, how might these be negotiated? Is it feasible, for example, to reconcile a post-anthropocentric, flat ontology across which agency is distributed with a project for social transformation?
Interest in new materialist modes of inquiry is currently evident across a range of disciplines, from political theory or architecture to geography or anthropology, and in fields ranging from food and biopolitics to international relations and the visual arts. The most rarefied philosophical inquiries, developments in the natural sciences and observations regarding a fast-changing social and ecological fabric are all grist to its mill.Because no orthodoxy has (yet) emerged, the field is exceptionally open. The New Materialisms draw on diverse influences and are being developed by representatives from numerous traditions. These include ancient atomism and modern vitalism; modern political theorists who are re-interpreting Hobbes, Spinoza, Marx and Nietzsche; phenomenologists, Deleuzeans, Fou-cauldians and Derrideans; critical realists, speculative realists and historical materialists; environmentalists, artists, and systems theorists espousing complexity or chaos theory.
But just what are the new materialisms? What is at stake here? And why is this emerging now? It seems to me that two distinctive, albeit related, lines of inquiry are opening up here. One pertains to an ontology of becoming, in which the very processes involved in the materialisation of matter are being re-described; the other focuses on actual material change – with all the dangers and opportunities this entails – while remaining faithful to the rhythms of new materialist ontology.
Subscribing to a new materialist ontology – one that rejects older distinctions between the human and nonhuman, materialism and idealism, or subjects and objects, because it finds them thoroughly imbricated in one another – is a signature of new materialists. This commitment is encapsulated by a terminology of vital materialism/materialist vitalism, or generative immanence/immanent generativity, which are among the terms being used to summarise the project and its ontology.
Some of this ontology’s distinctive features are the following:
• This is not about being but becoming: what it invokes is a process, not a state.
• In this process of materialisation, materiality is recognised as lively, vibrant, dynamic: matter literally matters itself.
• Crucially, this is not the dead, inert, passive matter of the mechanist, which relied on an external agent to set it in motion, but a materiality that contains its own energies and forces of transformation. It is self-organising, sui generis.
• The source of this lively immanence is variously ascribed to difference or negativity; cracks or reversals; virtuality or folds; contingency or chance. The point is that these generative forces are not substances or agencies as such, but are fractures or non-coincidences within matter that endows it with contingency; even, with an internal life of its own. This is not therefore an ontology of solid matter visualised as an unbroken, meaningless plenitude. The emphasis falls, rather, on the relationality and shifting associations between entities, which are incessantly engendering new forms within open systems.
• This fissuring of and within matter may be ascribed, as it is by phenomenologists, to a specifically organic reversibility that defines the body. As simultaneously touching and touched, the body is both an active, sentient existent and a passive, sensible object. For such thinkers, this corporeal difference marks the evolutionary origin of capacities for structuring and stylising the perceived world, thereby instilling rudimentary yet productive agentic capacities into the very flesh of the world.
On the other hand, the difference that subtends material immanence may be attributed, as it is by Deleuzean vitalists, to a vibrant effervescence whereby nomadic propensities are found even within the mineral world. Thus the structure of metal turns out to be full of crystalline spaces that yield a variegated topography of cracks and defects, bringing indeterminacy even to this most seemingly inert material. In their intimacy with things, artisans may experience a contingent, even a creative, materiality that is alive with incipient tendencies which unfold during their encounter with other bodies, forces and affects to provoke a new alchemy as an encounter with the materialisation of which the embodied artist is a part.
• Because such processes of immanent materialisation have no outside, change has to be generated internally. This is a monist ontology. Rather than expressing a single substance, however, new materialist becoming is irreducibly complex, variegated, folded, labyrinthine, multi-dimensional, multi-scalar. Different parts move with variable speeds and manifest themselves with variable intensities.
• This account is nonetheless regarded as inimical to older category distinctions: most notably, between God, Man and Nature, or between human, animal and mineral. In place of a vertical, hierarchical classification of Being, this is sometimes presented, for example by Bruno Latour, as a flat ontology. A flat ontology is one in which horizontal flows, indeterminate assemblages and emergent entities are in a constant ferment of transition and decay.
• A new materialist ontology is thus radically non-anthropocentric. It does not privilege the human species or recognise it as distinctive in any a priori sense, although it does hold humans responsible for destructive anthropogenic effects on the environment.
• The point here is that entities, structures, bodies, objects, all emerge as unstable assemblages that are composed of and folded into manifold smaller and larger assemblages. These are incessantly being reconfigured by encounters with other provisional constellations, from the tiniest to the most cosmic. The challenge for the social scientist is to trace these densely productive and reversible relationships, or for the artist it is to participate in them without aspiring to mastery over the forces involved.
• It follows from the choreography of becoming that the evolution of entities or assemblages proceeds in a non-linear way. Antecedents are insufficient to predict their emergence. Determinism, causality and teleology are therefore much derided by new materialists, who instead emphasise swerves and swarms, chance and the event.
While it is unwise to proceed directly from ontology to politics, the notion of the event is widely used for understanding occurrences that would formerly have been explained in terms of their underlying causes. Thus, for example, a political irruption like the Arab Spring is sometimes described as an event insofar as it is regarded as unexpected, unpredictable: as the creation of something new but whose repercussions cannot yet be known.
Concern may nevertheless be voiced at this stage. By rendering everything as flowing and relational; by focusing on flux and the event rather than on the inertia of congealed structures; by flattening everything into open assemblages or entities, are new materialist accounts not in danger of losing specificity or critical capacity? Inasmuch as their task is an empirical one of tracing the dense networks that produce assemblages, and of catching them in their brief appearing, does the detail required in heeding all these manifold relationships not perhaps condemn us to tiny anthropological studies that lack broader consequence? On the other hand, the insight that every entity has a biography that links its microscopic constituents to distant cosmological forces seems to overwhelm plausible social scientific inquiry without widespread collaboration. One of the challenges in applying new materialist insights will surely, then, be to decide which levels and flows are important. And this, inevitably, will entail some preconception of which relationships and phenomena matter most.
Fortunately, most new materialists do acknowledge that, as complexity theories explain, even apparently chaotic or random systems actually evince deeper patterns of organisation, even if their outcome is unpredictable. And while entities or assemblages may be unstable and complex, they do have recognisable boundaries. It is just that these are porous, permeable, and enmeshed with other systems. This is why the concept of ecologies, which was initially used by the natural sciences, is widely used to reference complex, dynamic systems in which living and nonliving forms of matter interact and matter and energy are in flux, as for example in urban or political ecologies.
These last challenges are especially relevant for new materialist attempts at making sense of the unprecedented situation in which humans are ever more intimately enmeshed with material systems and objects. In this context, new materialism may be regarded as a timely response to – or even as an expression of – conditions found in the twenty-first century. For it is not merely that the imbrication of humans and matter is being understood in novel ways. After all, their use of tools and their reliance on natural resources have always enmeshed human bodies within broader techno- and eco-systems. But while new materialists insist that the human has always been imbricated in irreducibly human/non-human systems, they are also aware that the very materiality of life is being altered, encroached upon, and endowed with radically transformative capacities in unprecedented ways.
The invention of new materials resonates here with claims by artists and designers to a new alchemy. Yet at the same time, the dangers of our meddling and the limits to human mastery are better appreciated. In the anthropocene – an era in which humans’ manipulation of matter is imprinted in the very geological fabric of the earth – change is occurring at an ever faster pace and intensity, with unpredictable consequences that reveal the fragility and limits of the planet. One way in which a materialist turn manifests itself here is accordingly in its concerns about the effects of humans on the broader biophysical environment and vice versa. From this perspective, the materialist turn is responding to an urgent need for the social sciences to direct their critical attention to imminent threats to life itself. This may mean displacing recent attention to questions of personal identity or group recognition, or broadening the more linguistic approaches associated with the cultural turn and radical forms of constructivism, through new inquiries in which political economy, demography, and the earth sciences move to the fore, thus providing a more materialist framework for concerns over social justice.
For example, among the planet’s seven billion people currently striving for better living standards, some two billion suffer from insufficient calories or nutrition. The proliferation of human flesh means a further three billion mouths to feed by the century’s end, under conditions where climate change is putting enormous strains on food, water and energy supplies. As environments are degraded and demand exceeds the planet’s carrying capacity, prevailing economic wisdom is that sustained growth is the solution to sustainability and global equity. But is it? My own view is that the new materialism invites critical theorists to response to this highly generalised and implausible claim through a holistic exploration of the interlocking of diverse systems, beginning with concrete studies of everyday visceral existence that bring real material ballast to what are often overly abstract or diffuse studies. In this sense, the task of a new materialism is nothing less than the tracing of these emergent but potentially deadly assemblages in all their dense material detail.
To put some flesh on this rather general account, it is helpful to begin by asking about its significance for the body – and the body’s significance for the new materialism. The body is, unsurprisingly, of great interest to the latter. Insistence on its visceral, everyday experiences; its biological needs; its corporeal capacities for perception and motility; its abilities to wield tools and to transform its environments aesthetically, add a more material dimension to the recent emphasis on its performative styles and identities. In the schema of bare life, that most minimal condition of existing, to which Agamben refers in Homo Sacer, bodies’ survival – human and animal – might be considered the normative ground zero for any notion of wellbeing. A materialist approach will therefore pay attention to how the flesh is actually being produced and reproduced within numerous bio-, techno-, and eco-systems, as well as to its own efficacy in changing such systems.
Fidelity to new materialist ontology means recognising the body as an assemblage that depends on myriad micro-systems of bacteria, with its intricate genetic structure also being affected by environmental factors. In this sense the body may be regarding not merely as a contingent and non-terminal product of evolution, but also as a permeable entity that interacts with smaller and bigger materialisations, or even as a nodule through which they flow. For example, bodies are increasingly being reconstituted through bio-medical interventions; their abilities are reoriented through interactions with digital technologies and their capacities are recalibrated by biopolitical regimes. New modes of biopower imbue governments with unprecedented abilities to socially engineer human capital and bodily capacities through intervening in the most intimate and microscopic details of daily life. Yet routines at this level – from throwing out trash to using electricity generated by fossil fuels – also have multiple consequences for distant economic, geopolitical and ecological systems on which biological existence depends. At the same time, a body’s survival depends on its embeddedness within broader social structures, in which the objects it routinely handles or consumes are mainly commodities that have passed through the circuits of global markets and thus the structural logics of capitalism. Through such intermediaries its wellbeing is implicated in more distant bio-physical systems, where ancient geological histories and more recent atmospheric changes affect the viability and distribution of crucial resources, which are themselves reconfigured by technological assemblages and mediated by economic systems.
In summary, it is hardly surprising that in this complex, multi-dimensional ecology it no longer seems feasible to distinguish between human and non-human, or even organic and inorganic, entities. As the meshing of numerous systems across different scales becomes ever more intricate, so the material world increasingly exemplifies the complexity and dynamism described by new materialist ontology.
Within the choreography of becoming, the nature of agency remains a vexed issue. New materialists maintain that agency is distributed across a far greater range of entities than had formerly been imagined. This is particularly salient for political critique or intervention but it poses the question of just how widely agency is distributed. In modern Western thinking, theories of agency have generally been governed by anthropocentric and humanist assumptions, whereby agency has conventionally been defined not just as a distinctive property of humans, but in many cases as the characteristic that defines them as a distinctive and privileged species thanks to their capacities for cognition and rationality.
Such views are challenged by phenomenological accounts of corporeality. The core insight here is that agency, like subjectivity and rationality, depends upon and is never entirely separate from corporeal processes – notably perception – in which it develops. In perception, the body structures its environment through a practical engagement with it: it generates meaning in pre-personal, non-cognitive ways that allow it to pattern and interrogate its milieu, thus introducing contingency, corporeal significance and scope for creative improvisation.
From this point of view agency, like subjectivity, is an abstraction that conflates a series of processes or abilities that evolve over time but which are anchored in perception’s ability not just passively to receive images of external nature, but actively to structure and respond to a material situation as a field of (co)existence that is one intercorporeal flesh. It is from this perspective unhelpful to ask who or what an agent is. Rather, the challenge in any particular context is to identify diffuse agentic capacities as these emerge hazardously and provisionally. The same goes for political agency. Its provenance and development must also be traced, rather than theoretically predicted. Such views are congruent with new materialist references to distributed agency, which suggest that far from being uniquely human attributes, agentic capacities may be discerned across a broader range of entities. But how broad is this range? This will depend in large part on which capacities are recognised as agentic.
From the phenomenological viewpoint, the primacy of perception suggests two principal capacities: first, the active potency or efficacy needed to bring about change; second, the reflexivity for these effects to matter to their perpetrator, thus endowing the latter with motivation to act.
If the condition for developing such capacities is corporeality, then this distributes agentic capacities quite widely since it can include non-human bodies, even though for animals their reflexivity and their capacity to structure their environment remains limited. More radical, but challenging, questions arise when agency is also attributed to non-organic entities: a position proposed by Bruno Latour and implicit in some materialist vitalisms. Latour espouses a notion of actants in order to ascribe agency to inanimate entities. The key point here is that actants have efficacy: they make a difference, pro-duce effects and affects, alter the course of events by their action. Latour shows them allowing, encouraging, authorising, influencing, blocking. This may seem intuitively more compelling when agency is attributed to human/non-human assemblages, but Latour also ascribes it to things, which he describes as shuddering, muttering and swarming as they are awakened from their slumbers.
According to the two criteria mentioned earlier, inanimate objects might be accorded a weak form of agency inasmuch as they are efficacious, since they do act on other bodies and they even demonstrate a certain contingency in their material composition that renders them open systems. Yet I have some hesitation in making this new materialist move inasmuch as, according to my twofold criteria, inorganic things lack the characteristic of reflexivity that would make their survival matter to them. In remaining indifferent to the impact of their efficacy, they lack motivation to change themselves or the world in order to improve their life chances or enhance wellbeing. Their structural openness renders them amenable to motivated improvisation in their relationships with animate matter. But lacking this attribute themselves, it is difficult to see how this insight might inspire a critical project of social change. From this point of view, too, non-anthropomorphism makes it difficult to see how humans can be accorded particular responsibility for rectifying the dangers to life they cause within the anthropocene.
My own inclination here is to recognise that just as the choreography of becoming entails different levels, scales and modalities of materialisation, so agentic capacities need to be identified as diffuse but variable characteristics of material entities whose salient qualities will depend on the level in question. Ontologically, a wide distribution is attuned to entities’ generativity and efficacy, which in turn circumscribes and enlivens everyday social and ecological situations. But biologically, evolution requires abilities to adjust and adapt to this material environment and thus organic matter exhibits more highly structured capacities. Since these include non-cognitive abilities to restructure the world, they are shared with nonhuman bodies. Philosophically, this robs the Human of unique standing and ability, as well as undermining equations of agency with rationality. Yet politically, humans do collectively have particular responsibilities that arise from their material domination of nature and which are exemplified by the material damage done to the nonhuman world. Responding in this case does require a more concentrated notion of political agency, albeit one whose concrete appearing remains a contingent political project that includes corporeal performances like gestures and material habits. Coming full circle, this project also needs to recognise the guidance and recalcitrance, the efficacy and resilience, of matter, and thus the limits and provenance of human will.
In light of these last comments, I now want to explore ways in which new materialist approaches inspire a normative project associated with ethical or political change. For many of us who have welcomed a materialist turn after the cultural turn, it is precisely because of the possibilities it opens up for a more robust critical theory and a transformation of conduct towards matter.
I begin, here, by considering suggestions that appreciating the agentic capacities of the nonhuman and of the complex systems in which humans are embedded might engender a new sensibility or creativity. The modern quest to dominate nature has regularly been challenged by romantic strains of thought and blamed for destruction of the environment. In response a different ethos or mode of being-in-the-world, one no longer predicated on instrumental conduct or a will to mastery, is advocated. Encounters with the natural world, whether through immediately visceral experiences or in more mediated artistic pursuits, are often commended here as ways to cultivate a more generous, humble or creative sensibility.
One such example is Herbert Marcuse’s new sensibility, as discussed in his Essay on Liberation (1969). Developed in the context of the 1970s counter-culture with its insistence on limits to growth, this seems to have renewed resonance today. Harmonious, erotic, playful and imaginative, the new sensibility or aesthetic ethos is described by Marcuse as an attitude of letting-be that he associates with the pacification of nature. This is in turn founded on vital, instinctual needs associated with Eros, the life force, which is suppressed by consumer capitalism and modern rationality.
Marcuse privileges artistic activity as a means to re-cultivate an aesthetic sensibility. This would, he claims, recapture some of art’s “more primitive ‘technical’ connotations”, such as cooking, cultivating and growing things, which gives them a form, which gives them a form that neither violates their matter nor infringes on the sensitivity. Activities like gardening, rambling, painting, non-reproductive erotic pleasures, are valued here as playful, non-instrumental activities that cultivate a closer relationship with the natural world and enhance appreciation for its immanent forms without consuming, possessing or commodifying it. Such views resonate with those of Karl Marx in his 1844 manuscripts.
I particularly like Simone de Beauvoir’s observation, here, that if “the Mediterranean Midi lives in a state of joyous filth, it is not only because water is scarce: love of the flesh and its animality is conducive to toleration of human odour, dirt and even vermin.” She goes on to hymn the merits of activities that might today be associated with the slow food movement and whose pleasures she distinguishes from the tedium of housework. A similarly salutary turning away from mastery is expressed in artistic interactions with materials that follow their material potential and shapes, rather than simply imposing form upon them. This is equated with a more receptive, open sensitivity to the nonhuman and a willingness to engage with it in a more reciprocal way. In turn, it paves the way for a new cultural ethos, which for thinkers like Marcuse is a vital prelude to fundamental political change that includes more responsible conduct towards the environmental.
A more recent version of such arguments appears in Jane Bennett’s book, Vibrant Matter (2010), which makes a case for the ethical potential of the new materialism to cultivate a new sensibility. Bennett subscribes to Latour’s and Deleuze’s more extensive distribution of agency to things; she hopes our chance encounters with them may help transform modernity’s attitudes and forms of conduct as these pertain to matter. “What is needed”, Bennett contends, “is a cultivated, patient, sensory attentiveness to nonhuman forces operating outside and inside the human body”. She associates this with cultivating respect for nonhuman otherness and agency in order to engender “a more open-ended comportment” that is also “a more ecological sensibility”. If “we were more attentive to the indispensible foreignness that we are”, Bennett asks, “would we continue to produce and consume in the same violently reckless ways?” In this vein she cites a number of ecological thinkers whom she credits with summoning “more sustainable, less noxious modes of production and consumption… in the name of a vigorous materiality”.
But is such an ethical project enough? A more ecological or aesthetic sensibility certainly looks beguiling, but does it have sufficient efficacy to bring about the sort of profound changes that current material conditions warrant? Surely what is also needed is the kind of critical analysis outlined earlier, in which the social structures inhabited by ethical beings and circumscribed by other material entities are carefully analysed and understood. For even those agents who are most persuaded by vital materialism to adopt a more reciprocal relationship with matter will quickly come up against systemic obstacles that are biophysical, socioeconomic, and disciplinary; obstacles, moreover, in whose preservation powerful interests are invested.
This is particularly the case, furthermore, for production and consumption: areas that highlight the extent to which most objects encountered in the twenty-first century have not only been made over by technology but are also commodified: that is, they have passed through the production system and the exchange process where they have been subjected to the logic of competitive markets and in many cases, to the power of advertising. The system that seems most conspicuous by its absence from a lot of new materialist (and a fortiori constructivist) analysis in this regard is political economy.
Latour rejects the sociology of society inasmuch as he thinks it propounds abstract theoretical frameworks that suppress attention to emergent assemblages. He is especially dismissive of critical sociology, particularly in its structuralist form, because for him this epitomises a tendency to use reified abstractions, while it also promotes a conspiracy theory that claims some real, hidden agency is working behind the scenes. Instead it is crucial, Latour maintains, “not to conflate all the agencies overtaking the action into some kind of agency like society, culture or structure.” Rather, action needs to be approached patiently and meticulously, as a “conglomerate of many surprising sets of agencies that have to be slowly disentangled.” Of great importance here is to establish how congealed structures are reproduced and maintained. I think Latour is right to worry about such tendencies and that applying his bottom-up approach to rediscover the empirical details of emergent social structures suggests a fertile way to invigorate a critically materialist social theory appropriate for the twenty-first century. But it is also surely necessary to have some critical perspective that can guide the selection of appropriate levels and identify the ways power relations not only solidify but also serve particular interests in existing material conditions.
The approach I commend in response is one I provisionally call a “capacious historical materialism”. Building on the earlier example of how bodies might be understood within a dense new materialist domain, I suggest that while such an approach would begin with the most routine, mundane, corporeal experiences of everyday life, it also needs to examine the way intermediate structures of capital and governance affect them and the ways these, in turn, affect wider global and planetary systems. It must also, of course, examine the way material effects flow up through this hierarchy of levels, too, such that daily household practices also reproduce the economy and contribute to environmental problems. The aim of such an approach is nothing less than a biophysical reckoning of the materialisation of the present.
Schematically, I am suggesting that three interrelated levels of analysis be pursued here. Thus micro-level investigations apply to the existential details of the embodied quotidian; on a meso-level, analysis is directed at the social, economic and governance structures where production, consumption, distribution and the management of resources and embodied individuals occurs, then a macro-level pertains to the planetary systems where ‘nature’ resists or eludes social control and complex eco-systems persist or deteriorate through contact with lower level materialities. While each level will itself evince considerable complexity, the task is also to see how these modalities affect one another. It is therefore both the internal logics of, and the connections between, these three levels, as well as the material dimensions internal to each and the kind of agentic capacities it engenders, that are important for building an understanding of how the contemporary world works and identifying leverage points for critical intervention.
This suggests a far broader, more multi-level kind of inquiry than historical materialism as it developed within Marxism, although it remains indebted to it. This is a materialism that eschews the tendency to abstraction or to grand narratives of progress but that remains faithful to the critical attempt at understanding how and where power is located and its material effects. These, then, are concrete studies. Here I mean concrete in both a straightforward sense of realist, visceral and experiential, and in the sense that Marx defines concrete in opposition to abstract, whereby for historical materialists the concrete includes all the complex historical and conceptual mediations that render phenomena actual at any point in time within a dense field of relationality. What still makes this historical materialism a critical theory is that it takes seriously a historical analysis of the systemic logic and effects of capitalism in a way that progressive thinkers simply have not done under the cultural turn. My point, then, is that on the one hand, orthodox historical materialism has focused too exclusively on the economic level, which now becomes merely an intermediary level between the micro (everyday embodied life) and the macro (the biophysical system at a planetary level), although it is still crucial for tracing the flows, circulation and switching points of matter; and, on the other hand, that under the cultural turn language and culture have displaced this sort of critical materialism despite a salutary emphasis on embodiment. Inasmuch as an aim of the new materialism is to challenge the currently hegemonic system of production and consumption, as Bennett suggests a green sensibility must, then demystification of organised interests and reified social structures is a crucial step. I think this can, however, only be the provisional starting point for a fresh analysis of just how these structures are reproduced.
It is at the micro-level that the bottom-up materialism I mentioned earlier summons greater attention to bodies and their needs, in particular by investigating the empirical details and impacts of their interlacing with more distant systems and policies. This is where the small ingredients that comprise or compromise experiences of wellbeing proliferate. It is where experiences of deprivation or dysfunction may become problematised and in future galvanise dissent. Describing them breathes life into the stakes of a critical social science or the purported engines of prosperity. A small debate that has recently interested the British press provides an example of the sort of phenomena I have in mind. It concerns the education minister’s argument with architects. Insisting that his job is not to enrich these professionals but to build schools cost-effectively, he commends narrower corridors and smaller canteens as practical ways to lower costs by reducing space. Yet his critics point out the negative effects such diminished public spaces will have on pupil flows and on students’ feelings of wellbeing. Such details populate the everyday experiences that new materialists try to capture in turning a spotlight on the manifold details of material co-existence, in this case material spaces, which contribute to the quality of life or insidiously undermine it. This is but one place where affective life, corporeal experience and government policy are materially interwoven.
It is also at this micro-level that inputs for the economic machine are generated. It is here that resources are consumed, wasted, recycled, thus feeding distant markets while despoiling the earth. It is here, too, that fit or skilled flesh, agentic capacities and incapacities, human capital, are nurtured through apparently personal yet socially prescribed practices, habits and routines. It is here that the reproduction of social systems relies on modes of governmentality that engender compliant subjectivities. On the one hand it is important, then, to emphasise the ways matter circulates through the household by way of consumer durables and natural resources, to see what abundance or scarcity actually mean here. On the other, it is possible at this level to investigate how small disciplinary practices operate to produce and constrain the embodied and desirous individuals who must fuel the productive system and how public-policy norms affect behaviour by penetrating the most private realms of family life. This is where Michel Foucault’s effective history comes into play, where the body is, as he says, “broken down by rhythms of work, rest, and holidays… poisoned by food or values, through eating habits or moral laws” The new materialism is indebted to Foucault’s more materialist genealogies, with their emphasis on material practices and the way micro-power works strategically on bodies to develop and modify their capacities, especially as he developed them in Discipline and Punish (1975).
This is also where a minimum wage, social security cuts, recession, competitive erosion of a living wage, sovereign debt, translate into diet, health and despair. It is where pain and pleasure, deprivation and desire, are made real. It is the material bedrock of higher level structural or theoretical analyses. This, in short, is where the political becomes personal as socially-normalised structures of power have real consequences for the integrity and well-being of bodies. But it is also where myriad practices of everyday life occur in whose name prosperity is pursued and through whose inputs higher-level systems are reproduced or damaged.
At an intermediate level, the foremost structure that warrants new materialist attention is global capitalism in a broad sense. Socio-economic structures may be recognised here as key switching points within an overall material-existential topography. They comprise the conduits and relays through which micro-materialities flow upwards via the economy to affect natural ecosystems and where inversely, environmental elements are reconstituted before they flow down to impact on flesh. In short, it is necessary to investigate the dense mediations and flows in both directions, with economic structures and governance regimes being the pre-eminent mediators between the matter of everyday life and natural resources.
The pursuit of capital accumulation and profit that companies are compelled to pursue if they are to remain competitive; the ongoing penetration of markets into areas where public assets, the commons, once existed; the mounting difficulty of subsisting without a living wage to exchange for basic commodities; the ideology of sustained economic growth whatever the cost; the penetration of advertising into more and more areas in order to generate more consumption; the use of credit to expand consumption beyond any ability to pay off debts; regarding the environment as so many ecological services that have their price: these are all massively powerful factors that need to be grasped by new materialists if they are to complete an audit of material flows and blockages. For the underlying logic of the capitalist system remains a relentless commodification and privatisation of the commons: a process that simply cannot be neglected inasmuch as new materialists are concerned about the emergence of objects and their imbrication in complex systems. The need here is for a renewed political economy that traces the volatile movements of capital and its associated entities, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, rather than relying on abstract models or analyses. Yet in this sense, capitalism does remain a powerful actant as Latour calls agency (2005) with agentic capacities that shape lives and life chances regardless of individual plans.
If I call new materialist criticism a capacious historical materialism, it is because it does not treat the economy as the sole or even principal level of analysis. While it pays attention to manifold micro-level phenomena, it also recognises that social structures, in particular those where consumption and production are concerned, are inseparable from the broader geopolitical, climatic, geological, ecological, and demographic systems in which lower levels are nested and on which they rely. This is where the wet and green – or dry and brown – stuff lies. It is also where accounts of the anthropocene, but also the detailed scientific studies that inform it, are helpful, provided these also take into account the environmental impacts of economic, demographic and household systems.
My presentation of the new materialism has covered a lot of ground, from the most rarefied reaches of generative becoming to the most visceral details of bodily need. I have suggested that the new materialism offers a new ontological imaginary, possibilities for a new sensibility and practical guidance for undertaking a critical social theory fit for the twenty-first century. Above all, though, the materialist turn is an invitation to direct our attention once again to the material world, to plunge into its vibrant forms and to think afresh about the manifold ways we encounter, are affected by, respond to, and are imbricated with, matter.
lehrt als Professorin für politische Theorie und Sozialtheorie an der Birbeck Universität London. Als Preisträgerin des Leverhulme Trust Forschungsstipendiums beschäftigt sie sich aktuell mit Politik und Ethik der Bevölkerungsfrage.
In the last years a new focus on material phenomena has become increasingly oberservable in the arts and sciences. Most diverse disciplines are stressing the momentum and the agency of matter, material and things and underline their status as agents within the web of relationships of culture and nature. The book "Power of Material / Politics of Materiality“ deepens this current discourse and for the time brings materialist tendencies within the arts, design and architecture into a direct dialogue with a range of scientific approaches from a "New Materialism“ within the humanities and social sciences.
This publication is the result of the first year of program at the newly established cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.