On Materialism


Image: Adriana Varejão, Map of Lopo Homem II, 1992.

One of the most frequent questions that I get in relationship to the blog is: what kind of materialism are you talking about? Are you a new materialist or historical materialist – or neither? Some readers have also asked how I moved from writing about nanotechnology to writing about colonialism. The answer very much reflects the title of the blog.

I have had a peculiar relationship with matter for a long time. Sitting in physics class aged 13, I walked up to my teacher and proclaimed: ‘I don’t think the world is as straight-forward as our school books tell us’. He replied: ‘That is indeed correct, but you won’t find out just how weird the world and the universe are until Year 11’. As I was only in Year 7, I had to keep taking those physics classes until I graduated and all my suspicions were finally confirmed. This particular path would later lead me to what is currently called ‘new materialism’, via authors such as Karen Barad, Michel Serres, Isabelle Stengers and other philosophers of science. Thinking through matter from a physics point of view has also helped me understand the many strategies of how people keep trying manage this universal weirdness.


Image: DESY particle physics research centre in Hamburg. Source: dpa

Another path to materialism, via an extended detour, was the product of my geographical location. Growing up very close to the GDR border on the Western side, I could not help but pick up on East Germany’s reverence for Marx. At the end of the Cold War, when the world ceased to stop a few miles away from home, it was fascinating to explore a part of the same country that had undergone an alternative based on a different political theory. Visiting family east of the former border felt like a parallel universe – even the animal breeds were different. At the same time, this parallel universe was visibly and audibly contained by state violence – the same state that built monuments to historical materialists. Although I concluded that Marx or Engels could not be held responsible for the negative actions of the GDR governments towards its citizens, for a long time I remained unable to dissociate historical and dialectical materialism from the image of people being shot down by spring guns at giant fences – with no one being able to intervene.

Initially, this was one reason that attracted me to new materialism. It felt a long distance away from the violence, contradiction and futility I associated with historical materialism, and from the excruciating macho Marxism performed by activists and academics at demonstrations and conferences. Moreover, I felt that historical and dialectical materialism did not seem to be interested in matter at all. This image changed, and perhaps even reversed, for me through a variety of influences, including the work of feminist Marxists such as Silvia Federici and Doreen Massey, political dissatisfaction with new materialism and its ontological obsession, a deeper engagement with the insidious violence of the West, and the discovery of early historical materialist works that engaged with scientific and philosophical questions around matter. The most important influence, however, was the writing of theorists who were active during the interwar period and were looking for tools to counter the threats of fascism, Stalinism and colonialism – writers such as Suzanne Césaire, Aimé Césaire, Simone Weil, Georges Bataille and Mikhail Bakhtin. These authors started from a position that was critical but also appreciative of materialism, and tried to supplement it with what they thought was missing, including considerations of human psychology, racial relations and non-economic relations with the land.

For me, these (and related) writers map out an alternative materialist path that is both historical and new materialist, or neither. This is what I am currently exploring in my work, and particularly how the experiments of the interwar and WWII period continue to speak to the present situation, where we again experience the rise of fascism and (neo)colonialism. How can materialist thinking be shaped into a useful tool to address a political, social, environmental and economic crisis? Here, I am grateful for my formative encounters with matter and materialism, as they keep resurfacing as reminders of the troubling ways in which theory, politics and everyday practices can relate. Mutable matter, indeed!

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