Friday, 10 April 2015

New materialism is the new poststructuralism

I think that this is true in more ways than one; however, one way is particularly important.

Like poststructuralism, new materialism is a signposting mechanism that allows (largely anglophone) academics to obscure the differences between (largely francophone) thinkers, mashing them into a single digestible lump.

New materialism doesn't exist at the level of the authors it claims to encompass, just as poststructuralism didn't. It only exists secondarily, as a way-finding supplement.

If we can make a distinction between the academic and the intellectual, new materialism and poststructuralism are emphatically of the former. They do not involve the unnerving risk of thought but rather the comforting stability of simplification.

They are ways of making a complex situation teachable. They are pedagogical terms—and are not, therefore, without value. However, we should be very suspicious when they are posited as intellectual concepts, as though their purpose were somehow creative.

The manner in which academia satisfies itself with such signposts accounts for a large part of its intellectual malaise. An inability to think beyond badly printed banners is by no means inevitable but it is strongly encouraged by an internal political economy that prizes 'expert knowledge' of trends occurring elsewhere more highly than it does the thought practices occurring (or not occurring) within its own walls.

This is one part of a generalised anglophonic anti-intellectualism that sees 'theory' as something to be imported, bussed in like fresh water to a desert state.


  1. I agree about new materialism and poststructuralism serving as signposting or pedagogical terms (gesturing towards a family resemblance rather than an obvious lineage). I think i might more complementary when I say that, but I agree.

    But I don't quite follow the idea that new materialism is basically about French imports. When I think of important new materialists, who are French, I think of D&G, Stengers, and Latour. Now, there are certainly differences between all of them. But Stengers is clearly allied in her work to D&G and to Latour, even if Latour is not sold on D&G. But the other important new materialists are people like Donna Haraway, Manuel Delanda, Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz, Brain Massumi, Jane Bennett, and Rosi Braidotti. Out of those, only Braidotti is European, and most of her work is still originally published in English.

    And furthermore, in Stengers case, a lot of her work is importing Anglophone thinkers (Whitehead in particular, but also William James and Starhawk) into her work. So, I am confused by the claim that new materialism is mostly a way of importing and repacking most francophone thinkers. Maybe you are meaning something else by those statements I am not getting.

  2. I suppose that the point I'm attempting to make is a little more polemical than referential and so I'd ask for some creative license! However, you are correct inasmuch as there are important people working more or less self-consciously under the NM banner.

    That said, I can't imagine e.g. Stengers accepting the term 'new materialist,' nor does it make much sense to apply it to Whitehead or James (although many have). Ditto Latour. He is usually grouped in as one figurehead amongst DeLanda, etc.; however, this is a gross oversimplification, even if he has written about 'getting our materialism back,' etc. (he's written against 'materialism' as often as for it). And that's what I'm trying to get at. I see Bennett and Connolly as popularisers, first and foremost. I don't find much of anything in their works that is in any way new. They're just stating existing ideas a bit more accessibly. Much of 'new' materialism is so much restatement. And that has its place but I find it frustrating when such things are treated as if they're on the cutting edge of thought (rather than the cutting edge of popularisation).

    Labels like this obscure the differences between these thinkers -- and it's at the level of these details that the thinking has to happen, not at the level of generalities.

    So, pointing to the likes of Stengers, James and Whitehead only proves my point, I think! Likewise Bennett, etc. I think Karen Barad is a more interesting case as she comes out of physics in a much more original and creative way than those who come from political theory, literature studies, etc.

    However, the main point is that the most interesting and original thinkers you mention probably wouldn't identify with that label and most of those who would are, in my humble and entirely contestable opinion, popularisers rather than especially original thinkers. Now, of course that isn't to set up a binary between the populariser and the philosopher (everyone has influences and all of those people are very clever and creative) but, on the whole, I think that a person's acceptance of such labels is inversely proportional to their creativity as a thinker.

    And that isn't due to some flippant refusal of labels tout court (Stengers and Latour would probably be happy to be labelled pragmatists, for instance). It's because papering over intellectual differences and embracing overarching generalisations (such as 'NM') is the work of a populariser rather than a creative and incisive thinker.

    I could rephrase the whole thing, then: I have nothing against popularisation but let's not confuse it with thought (and let's not pretend that NM is not of the former).

    There is of course some sort of family resemblance between all these figures inasmuch as they are all attempting to get away from excessive fixations on discourse, text, language, etc. However, NM, I think, obscures more than it reveals. It says much more about the political economy of the academic humanities (particularly in the English speaking world) than it does anything intellectually significant.