Friday, June 13, 2014

Review: New Materialisms

[Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, editors. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.]

It will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog that I read some pretty dense nonfiction for fun. Oh, I'm no "theoryhead" -- those people who have devoted so much of themselves to such learning that rhyming it off not only effortlessly but accurately and well in pint-side conversations is an everyday occurrence. And I still come at such reading as something of an outsider, not only in the institutional sense that the intellectual and political work that I do is not housed at a university, but also in the epistemological sense that I try (with no particular claims to success, admittedly) to ground my work in the needs of movements and communities-in-struggle rather than primarily in the discourses I encounter in such reading. I do not think that such dense, theoretical writing (or those willing and able to engage with it) should necessarily be anywhere near the centre of our struggles, and I fully admit that a big part of why I engage with it, even if I sometimes deflect this by saying things like "it's for future writing projects," is about pleasure. I like reading this stuff, at least sometimes.

With all that said, though, I also engage with such writing because I think it is useful to do so. Having been written in a university for university reasons does not necessarily preclude that. Being written in ways that are more responsive to other university-produced discourse than to lived realities of struggle doesn't rule it out. Being obscure or hard to understand or awkward or off-putting in how it is written doesn't make it intrinsically dismissal-worthy -- as others much cleverer than I have observed, part of how oppressive and exploitative social relations work is by stealing the concepts and language we need to name our realities, so developing them anew will sometimes feel awkward and hard.

This particular book of university-produced theorizing is one that I quite enjoyed and one that I think, as these things go, is quite worth reading. Lots of critical scholarship over the last few decades has amounted to a rejection of earlier materialist approaches -- that is, approaches that treat some sort of external material reality as a bedrock for thinking about the world -- and an exploration of the roles that language and culture play. This collection features the work of a number of scholars who are part of a new trend to turn back to materialism, but no longer the naive materialism of half a century ago but one that works seriously to learn from the intervening insights produced by writers who have focused on the linguistic and the otherwise less materially social (as well, interestingly, the much more complex picture of the material world that has emerged from multiple scientific disciplines in the last century). This turn is still fairly new, so there are lots of different approaches and no real consensus about how to do it, and that is evident here.

There are a number of reasons why I think this sort of back-to-fundamentals rethinking of how the world exists and how we might know the world is important. Partly, this is because I think the dominant culture and the movements organizing within-and-against it are permeated by two broad sorts of commonsense about the world that are quite different from each other but that are both troubling. These commonsenses are part of the foundation upon which discussions about the state of the world and how to change it are inevitably based, though often that is not made visible. One of these broad flavour of commonsense is a version of the naive materialism shared by 19th century physics, orthodox marxism, and many versions of classical and contemporary liberalism. The other is a spectrum of different-seeming but essentially similar approaches that reject materialism -- sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, and sometimes along with perverse and laughable claims to be more materialist (and its close cousin, empirical) than thou. These two broad stances (which often happily exist side-by-side in the same spaces and people) are socially rooted and need to be considered as part of the larger ways in which movements are always partly struggles to transform how we can and do know the world, so I don't expect individualized suggestions to go away and read and think about them to be very politically useful. Nonetheless, doing so can't hurt.

I also think such reading and reflection is useful because of the role it has played in my own journey. I generally date the beginning of my politicized, intentional thinking and acting in the world to a specific period of time, albeit with earlier roots. Until I was reading this book, I hadn't realized that a big element, not so much in the fact of my politicization but in the course of it once it began, was that in the years preceding it I had read a bunch of popularized but thoughtful and reasonably rigorous books coming out of scientific fields that presented different ways that the "natural" world and its systems at various scales don't really work at all in the 19th century, mechanistic ways that are still popularly believed to be "science" -- James Gleick's Chaos, the wonderful Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstader, and Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, to name a few. There were plenty of social-scale political reasons as well, but I think such reading helped make it more likely that I would not be satisfied with approaches to thinking about and acting in the world dependent on the understandings of the material world these books displaced, and would be open to approaches dependent on a more complex and less intuitive materialism.

Now, for all that I enjoyed this book and think it's a useful thing to read and reflect on, it did make me roll my eyes in a few places. That is largely related to the fact that I agree with contributor Sara Ahmed -- the only one of the contributors whom I had read before, and a scholar whose work I really like -- that none of this is really as "new" as the title and framing of the book claim. She points out that this claim of novelty relies on mis-identifying a lot of scholarship that happened during the cultural turn, particularly much feminist scholarship, as rejecting the material in ways that it just didn't. I would add to that my own experience in my own quirky little niche of political work and writing, where it is nothing new at all to be committed to materialism yet to learn from and build on work that is conventionally understood as not being materialist (even though much of it really is, at heart). That's not to say that the specific things done in these essays aren't original -- to my knowledge, they are -- but rather that the sensibility of seeking an eclectic synthesis of diverse strands of scholarship that can still be responsive to the needs of movements and communities-in-struggle in material ways is not new; what's new here, I think, is who is speaking about these things and who they think they are speaking to. I found that particularly stark in the final essay of the book, which is one of the few to engage directly with the marxist tradition. It says useful things, more or less, but what it extracts from Marx to point towards a living engagement with the world rather than a set of dead and deadening rules of orthodoxy, as well as its consideration but ultimate rejection of Hardt and Negri as the answer, are things lots of other people have done before. Particularly when it comes to the former, there are long histories of autonomist, open, feminist, and other heterodox thinkers that engage in one way or another with the marxist tradition to do exactly the kinds of things that this writer recommends, but very little of that is even acknowledged let alone explored in the essay. For me, none of this makes the book less interesting, it just makes it more obvious that it is produced from a specific place and speaking to a specific audience.

As for the essays themselves, I'm not going to try and do each one justice in this review, as it would just take too much time and space. There was really only one that I didn't get -- Pheng Cheah's "Non-Dialectical Materialism" was an effort to extract a different approach to materialism from Derrida and from Deleuze, who are not conventionally understood as materialist. Unfortunately, I got about 20% of what the essay had to say about Derrida, and maybe 60% of what it had to say about Deleuze. I really enjoyed and found useful the several essays that drew on phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, many of which were focused on putting his work in conversation with later social constructionist and scientific scholarhip. William Connolly's engagement with the latest science of how we perceive and experience the world was fascinating. Rosi Braidotti's reflections on re-thinking biopower in relation to practices of dying was interesting, particularly what she had to say about regulation/production of selves and how we inevitably overflow that, but I'm not sure that I see how her interest in going from ontology to ethics could really be convincing. Samantha Frost's consideration of Thomas Hobbes' account of fear as the basis for political order felt like a bit of a stretch -- it actually felt to me a lot like my objections to how psychoanalysis often gets used in social theory, in that it seemed to depend on homogenizing how the affective experience of fear actually operates in people's lives in order to be able to jump from that to social consequences. I appreciated Melissa Orlie's use of Nietzshe to try to develop an "impersonal materialism" (116). And I really liked Sara Ahmed's piece on the ways in which "orientations matter" (236) -- how our proximity and orientations to that which surround us can profoundly shape our experience and knowledge of the world.

Anyway, this has become a long, cumbersome review, so I will wrap it up. This is not a book that rocked my world, and it isn't going to be one that rocks yours. But in its breadth, and in its push to reexamine fundamental questions about how the world -- the material world that is at least in part beyond the social world, but that is deeply intertwined with and shaped by the social world -- works, I think it could provide lots of different readers with lots of different openings to take your own thinking down new paths.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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