JB: I would have to be Michel Foucault to be able to offer even a short genealogy of materialism. Instead, I will name the two pragmatic problems that pushed me in the direction of affirming (and, to the extent that Vibrant Matter is a polemic, preaching) “vital materialism”. The first was the intensification of an alarming trend in American public culture wherein a rise in the invocations by politicians of otherworldly powers (the Judeo-Christian “Almighty” combating “forces of evil”) was paired with the positioning of violence and torture as legitimate tools of state. (William Connolly speaks here of an “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine” and I think that Lucretius, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Foucault and other iconoclasts of piety are right to remind us of the gruesome history of some variants of theism in the West.) This combination moved me to speak on behalf of an ethical outlook that was non-theistic and non-teleological (at least in the strongest sense of telos), to proclaim the possibility that an undesigned order of materiality could nevertheless possess the impressive, dynamic, incalculable, awesome and awful qualities elsewhere ascribed to God or Geist or “the human spirit”. It is materiality that is wondrous.
The second problem was ecological destruction, or the globalizing political economy devoted to extraction and exploitation, waste, commodification, human imperialism and winner-take-all. I am a vital materialist who sees positive, pro-green potential in raising the profile of the fact that any human “I” is itself made up of “its” – of a vast array of originally and to varying degrees persistently nonhuman elements, such as bacteria, metals, ambient sounds, the “trains” of images of other bodies, etc. Here I have been inspired by the straightforwardness of Bruno Latour’s rejection of the anthropocentric bias in the social sciences.
The ‘new materialism’ is the most common name given to a series of movements in several fields that criticise anthropocentrism, rethink subjectivity by playing up the role of inhuman forces within the human, emphasize the self-organizing powers of several nonhuman processes, explore dissonant relations between those processes and cultural practice, rethink the sources of ethics, and commend the need to fold a planetary dimension more actively and regularly into studies of global, interstate and state politics.
Planning Matter: Acting with Things
by Robert A. Beauregard
Toward a New Materialism: Matter as Dynamic
by Rachel Tillman
What’s New about New Materialism?
A Special Session at MLA 2015