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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Talk: The Other Nonhumans @ InterPol, Aberystwyth


Image: Mount Pelée volcano on Martinique

On 29 November, I will be giving a talk at the Environmental Politics Research Group | Grŵp Ymchwil Gwleidyddiaeth Amgylcheddol of the International Politics Department at Aberystwyth University | Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol, Prifysgol Aberystwyth.

I was asked to address current issues that occupy me in relation to new materialism and the environment. Here is the abstract in English and Welsh.

The other nonhumans – Environmental issues within the academy

There is a horror that keeps returning: that of environmental studies papers whose authors try to decentre the human while speaking from a privileged position. From affective engagements with geology that ignore sites of racial or sexual trauma to talks on extinction that disappear on-going sites of colonial violence, such attempts at privileging the nonhuman often end up affirming a privileged human position (e.g. white, middle class, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis). While authors sensitive to human inequality have asserted that nonhuman identities can become a means of countering normative or dominant states of the human, this is not what is performed in the majority of papers.

This recurring situation points to two fundamental underlying problems: 1) an unequal academy and related knowledge production and 2) theorisations of the environment, especially through the lens of materialism(s) in which crucial questions remain silent/silenced due to lack of reflexivity on the authors’ own positions. In exploring this intersection, this paper aims to draw out less prominent questions and provocations within new materialism that may help address this issue.

Wednesday 29th November, 5.30-7pm, Main Hall, Department of International Politics.

All welcome!

Mae yna erchyllbeth sy’n dychwelyd o hyd ac o hyd: sef papurau astudiaethau amgylcheddol lle mae’r awduron yn ceisio di-ganoli’r dynol a hwythau’n siarad o safle breintiedig. O ymdriniaethau o ddaeareg sy’n anwybyddu safleoedd o drawma hiliol neu rywiol i drafodaethau ar ddifodiant sy’n hepgor safleoedd lle mae trais gwladychol yn parhau, mae ymdrechion o’r fath i ddyrchafu’r byd nad yw’n ddynol yn aml yn cadarnhau safle dynol breintiedig (e.e. gwyn, dosbarth canol, gwryw, abl o gorff, heterorywiol, cisgender). Er bod awduron sy’n sensitif i anghydraddoldeb dynol wedi honni y gall hunaniaethau nad ydynt yn ddynol gynnig ffordd o wrthsefyll cyflyrau normadol neu ddominyddol y dynol, nid dyma a wneir yn y rhan fwyaf o bapurau.

Mae’r sefyllfa gyffredin hon yn amlygu dwy broblem sylfaenol: 1) academi anghyfartal a dulliau cysylltiedig o gynhyrchu gwybodaeth a 2) damcaniaethau am yr amgylchedd, yn enwedig trwy lens materoliaeth, lle mae cwestiynau hollbwysig yn ddistaw/cael eu distewi oherwydd diffyg atblygiadol o ran safbwyntiau’r awdur ei hun. Nod y papur hwn yw codi cwestiynau a syniadau llai amlwg o fewn materoliaeth newydd a allai helpu i fynd i’r afael â’r mater hwn.

Dydd Mercher 29 Tachwedd, 5.30-7yh, Prif Neuadd yr Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol. Croeso i bawb!

New article in EPD on geography & matter


Image: ‘Crowd, Isolated on White’ (Leontura/Getty Images)

This morning, my latest article on geography and matter was published by Environment & Planning D: Society and Space. There are two kinds of discomforts that I am processing in this article: the lack of dialogue on the role of matter between followers of historical and new materialism, and my conflicted relationship with the work of Hannah Arendt. I had the feeling that the two problems were related, so I went ahead to see where it took me, starting with channelling the many animated conversation that I have had with people at workshops and conferences. I ended up somewhere different than expected, but with one thing I was right: it had to do with the way we make cuts between the material and supposedly non-material world. The result is called ‘Re-reading Worldliness: Hannah Arendt and the Question of Matter‘. If you do not have access to the journal, please send me an email. It is also available for free on the journal website until 12 September.

Abstract

Both new and historical materialisms have attracted a reputation for leading to ‘bad politics’. Historical materialisms have been accused of reducing too much to material relations and their production, whereas new materialisms have been accused of avoiding politics completely. This article reads the critique directed at materialisms against Hannah Arendt’s exceptional distrust of matter. Focusing on her concept of ‘worldliness’, it grapples with the question ‘why do we need an attention to matter in the first place?’ The attempted re-reading takes place through a feminist and postcolonial lens that draws out the contributions and failures of Arendt’s (anti)materialist framework in its banishing of matter from politics. Arendt’s focus on the prevention of dehumanisation further serves as a means to discuss materialism’s risk in negotiating the tension between deindividuation and dehumanisation.

New Materialism & Decoloniality Workshop, 7-8 July, Duisburg

climate_duisburg

Next week, I will hopefully be attending (and speaking) at the New Materialism & Decoloniality Workshop at Duisburg University. I have to say ‘hopefully’, because the Home Office has still not returned my passport and other documents that I had to send off a few weeks ago for the first part of my citizenship application (fingers crossed that I get them back in time – any advice about alternative travel documents appreciated).

Organised by Olivia Rutazibwa and Pol Bargués-Pedreny of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research, the workshop seeks to bring the two theoretical directions into dialogue with one another. There will be three rounds of discussions in which two people present readings, followed by two discussants who engage with the presentations. The three themes are: 1) The Roots of the Argument. Deconstructions: Nature, Culture and Critique. 2) The Argument. Reconstructions: Infrastructures, Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Cosmologies. 3) Thinking ahead with the Argument. Implementations and Implications: Ethics, Ecology and Geopolitics. The three sessions will be followed by a round table. Speakers include:  Anna Agathangelou, Kai Koddenbrock, Mark Jackson, Lisa Tilley, Jessica Schmidt, Vanessa Pupavac and Ovidiu Tichindeleanu.

The dialogues will be preceded by an evening of dialogues and performances on the topic “Climate on the Rise, People on the Move. Understanding Today’s Global Challenges Differently”. Here, Rolando Vazquez (Utrecht University) and Doerthe Rosenow (Oxford Brookes University) “will explore our relation to the earth, vulnerability and what it means to be human in an increasingly uncanny world”.

Attendance is welcome and free. Please e-mail events@gcr21.uni-due.de .