S.C. Hickman (earth_wizard) wrote,
S.C. Hickman

The New Materialists: The Matter of Matter - Ontology, Agency, and Poltics

"Just as a lamp waved in darkness creates a figure of light in the air, which remains for as long as the lamp repeats its motion exactly, so the universe retains its shape by repetition: the universe is Time's body."
         — John Crowley (Little, Big)

Immanence and the emergence of speculative materialisms

In their book New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Diana Coole, Samantha Frost describe the new materialists as forming a cadre of philosophers, poets, cultural and theoretical art critics aligning themselves in "their insistence on describing active processes of materialization of which embodied humans are an integral part, rather than the monotonous repetitions of dead matter from which human subjects are apart" (TNM: 8). [1] Against "oppositional ways of thinking" these new practitioners "decline to locate themselves through critiques of ontological dualism(s) ... they prefer a creative affirmation of a new ontology, a project that is in turn consistent with the productive, inventive capacities they ascribe to materiality itself. The prevailing ethos of new materialist ontology... sees its task as creating new concepts and images of nature that affirm matter's immanent vitality" (TNM: 8). They consider it a post-Cartesian philosophy that is non-dualistic and relinquishes dialectical sublation in "espousing a monological account of emergent, generative material being" (TNM: 8). What this presents us with is an monistic vision in which everything is about emergent processes. An materialist object in this view is never a finished product it always becomes involved in new assemblages and contexts without bound, mutating, becoming, transforming - blooming into a thousand-fold lotus of materiality. As Coole and Frost emphasize the "new materialists are rediscovering a materiality that materializes, evincing immanent modes of self-transformation that compel us to think of causation in a multitude of interlocking systems and forces and to consider anew the location and nature of capacities for agency" (TNM: 9).

Instead of matter existing within some immersive substrate or opaque plenitude and/or continuum these new materialists see matter as "indeterminate, constantly forming and reforming in unexpected ways" (TNM: 10). Matter becomes rather than is: objects form and self-organize within a matrix or field of compositional and multi-relational forces or events (Whitehead) "composing their natural environments in ways that are corporeally meaningful for them, and subjectivities being constituted as open series of capacities or potencies that emerge hazardously and ambiguously within a multitude of organic and social processes" (TNM: 10). They tells us this new materialsm is a "monolithic and multiply tiered ontology" with no definitive boundary separating sentient from nonsentient entities or material from spiritual phenomena. (TNM: 10).

Because of the new philosophy of dynamism and materiality they see both an ethical and political turn within this philosophical perspective of both the new materialist philosophies and sciences (Bioethics and Biopolitics). For this new materialism as well as the life sciences and physics material phenomena are seen and conceptualized "not as discrete entities or closed systems but rather as open, complex systems with porous boundaries" (TNM: 15). Moving out of the age of what Giorgio Agamben called the "anthropological machine of humanism" these new materialists conceptualize the capacities of matter for agency. As a result they tell us "the human species, and the qualities of self-reflection, self-awareness, and rationality traditionally used to distinguish it from the rest of nature, may now seem little more than contingent and provisional forms or processes within a broader evolutionary cosmic productivity" (TNM: 20). 

The politics of science and ethics within this posthumanist and materialist problematic tells us that as "scientists succeed in bridging species, artificially creating and extending human and animal life, and manipulating and synthesizing genes to create new life forms, they muddle the concepts and boundaries that are the ground for much ethical and political thinking" (TNM: 22). If scientists do succeed in inventing new life forms and intelligent agents what kind of ethical value should we attribute to these new forms and according to what criteria? They tells us that any new ethical, political, and philosophical materialism should be both methodologically and epistemologically oriented toward a new realist sociological analysis; and, also continue to focus on the material political and economic aspects of society and power. (TNM: 26).  They say these new materialist philosophers will become more open and egalitarian in their materialist analysis, bringing "biopolitics, critical geopolitics, and political economy together with genealogies and phenomenologies of every day life" (TNM: 28).

Whether you agree with them are not, and I do have questions that I will need more time to develop, one must confront their thinking and understand the implications of their diagnosis, otherwise one becomes complicit with the forces that would enslave us all within an imaginary of that dystopian nightmare world that is nothing more than the death drive made immanent and irrecusable.


1. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics By Diana Coole, Samantha Frost (Duke University Press 2010)

Tags: dystopia, speculative materialism, speculative realism

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