‘Digital Bodies’ by Megan Archer

“New materialism” is a term coined in the 1990s to describe a theoretical turn away from the persistent dualisms in modern and humanist traditions whose influences are present in much of cultural theory.[1] The discourses catalogued under new materialism(s) share an agenda with posthumanism in that they seek a repositioning of the human among nonhuman actants, they question the stability of an individuated, liberal subject, and they advocate a critical materialist attention to the global, distributed influences of late capitalism and climate change. The turn to matter as a necessary critical engagement comes from a collective discontent with the linguistic turn and social constructionism to adequately address material realities for humans and nonhumans alike. While new materialists recognise social constructionism’s insistence on political relationalities of power and the effect of these dynamics on subject formation, some nevertheless maintain that the idea of discursive construction perpetuates Western, liberal subjectivities and holds on to stubborn humanist binaries. The new materialist turn might indeed be considered a “return” to matter in the context of historical materialism’s concern for embodied circumstance and subject formation. However, as Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman point out in their anthology, Material Feminisms, material theorists do not simply abandon the work of the linguistic turn, but rather build on its foundation, underscoring the co-constitution of material and discursive productions of reality.[2] Feminist new materialisms, for instance, do not discount social constructions of gender and their intersections with class and race. They do, however, also consider how material bodies, spaces, and conditions contribute to the formation of subjectivity.

Theory marked as “new materialism” collectively works against inert, extra-discursive, and non-generative conceptions of matter, but the plurality of methodological approaches within the field is generous. With thinkers like Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, Elizabeth Grosz, and Jane Bennett as several of the field’s leading scholars, the new materialisms draw on combinations of feminist theory, science studies, environmental studies, queer theory, philosophy, cultural theory, biopolitics, critical race theory, and other approaches.

When the field was nascent, Judith Butler’s seminal feminist work on sex and gender was a foundational influence on early new materialist conversations. Butler’s argument against a biologically material referent of gender completely erased the nature/culture divide between sex and gender.[3] Feminist science and new materialist reactions to this kind of radical constructivism emphasised that physical bodies moving through the world, and the differences in those bodies, also inform experience. Feminist theorists began to emphasise the material of the body, considering differences among bodies, and to think through the intersections of material and social constructions. Therefore, a discursive analysis of gender required a non-essentialising approach to the matter of the body, itself. Scholars responding to and synthesising the nature/culture question included Elizabeth Wilson, Rosi Braidotti, and Anne Fausto-Sterling.[4] Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body takes on the literal co-construction of bodies and social environments, arguing that bodily differences are evident beneath the flesh as human cells react to the signals of their environments.[5] Identity and difference are therefore products of complex interactions between matters inside and outside of bodies, and between the social and environmental conditions in which bodies exist.

The variety of new materialist approaches continues to proliferate as the field develops, but Diana Coole and Samantha Frost suggest grouping the major trends in new materialist scholarship into three identifiable camps in their 2010 edited collection, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics.[6] The essays are organised into the categories Ontology/Agency, Bioethics/Biopolitics, and Critical Materialism. Feminist new materialists Rosi Braidotti and Karen Barad would both fit into Coole and Frost’s Ontology/Agency category, since both theorists examine how matter is agential in its emergence. Braidotti draws on and productively revises ideas from her background in post-structuralist theory. Rather than Giorgio Agamben’s bare life (“zoe”), her re-reading of Spinoza and Deleuze and Guattari leads her to formulate a zoe that is the potentiality of all matter to form transversal connections or networks with all other matter.[7] In Homo Sacer (1995), Agamben argues that the Western biopolitical distinction between political and nonpolitical life (what he calls “bios” and “zoe”, respectively) can be traced to antiquity. It is the connection of sovereign power to biopower that distinguishes for Agamben a crucial cut between beings with no legal status, humans included, and beings with the privilege of legal rights.[8] Braidotti revises critical vitalism and biopolitics alike to argue that posthuman subjectivity is a zoe with an immanent potential for self-assembly along transversals, or the tendency of all living matter to form associations with other material systems. Posthuman subjectivity therefore raises important ethical questions, since it is neither bound to the individual subject, nor singularly human.

Just as Braidotti’s neo-vitalist theory of matter requires that we revise our existing ethical framework, Karen Barad’s “agential realism” suggests that the physical laws underpinning the reality we experience are, themselves, an ethical matter. Barad’s theoretical upending of the object/subject divide, or that all entities literally do not precede their “intra-actions”, comes from her robust background in theoretical particle physics and quantum field theory. Conditions for Barad are always already “material-discursive”; that is, discourse and matter come into being together, and the apparatus that delimits being is only a condition of possibility. Barad contests a human-centred concept of agency. She instead argues that intra-actions entail the complex co-productions of human and nonhuman matter, time, spaces, and their signification. Therefore, the human does not act on matter, but rather humans and nonhumans are agential actors in the world as it continuously comes into being.[9]

Though the Ontology/Agency grouping of new materialist theory makes meaningful political and ethical interventions, Coole and Frost argue that it is the “Bioethics/Biopolitics” category that centres on more specific questions of nonhuman social justice and geopolitical sovereign control. Elizabeth Grosz, for example, re-reads Charles Darwin to discuss the biological processes that prepare bodies for social and cultural inscription based on difference.[10]

Lastly, “Critical Materialism” both emerges from a tradition of Marxist historical materialism and responds to the constructivism and deconstructionist criticism of classical Marxist approaches. The new critical materialism engages the effects of global capitalism in an era of climate crisis and rejects the view that discursive rewriting of subjectivity can radically disrupt the material conditions facing the globalized subject under neoliberal capital. Jason Edwards argues that “we will need to remember the materialism of historical materialism in the requisite sense if we are to understand how these problems are the systemic product of the reproduction of modern capitalist societies and the international system of states”.[11] Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life has also contributed to recent critical materialist approaches by re-examining capitalism as a global ecological force, extracting surplus value from nature.[12] The critical materialist approach is thus not a revitalisation of classical Marxism, but rather a rereading of its critique of capital in an era of global complexity.

Regardless of discipline, all new materialisms embrace the vitality of matter, particularly as it encompasses the nonhuman as well as the human. Rejection of anthropocentrism aligns new materialisms with posthumanism, but also with speculative realism, a branch of philosophy that in recent years has posited whether questions of vitality, agency, and generative capability are appropriate for human and nonhuman matter alike. Although speculative realism and new materialisms align in their arguments for the dissolution of a human “centre”, they philosophically diverge in their positions on how we can understand a true ontology, and on matter’s agential and vital capabilities. The approaches of new materialisms extend the capacities of agential and vital qualities to the nonhuman and the material, while the speculative realist approach questions whether an ontology of matter can realistically consider these concepts in the first place.

While new materialists question the position of human-centred ontology, they often do so with the biopolitical bent of also questioning power structures that mark material bodies as subjects of power. In this way they continue to engage with the projects and political concerns of post-structuralism while extending the reach of these discourses into matters beyond the human and into material conditions beyond the linguistically constructed. Somewhat differently, object-oriented ontology is a speculative realist approach which considers the thing at centre, arguing that no entity has privileged ontological status over another, but rather that all things exist equally. Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology argues for thing-centred being, cautioning that positioning our centre around human concern precludes all things’ perception of the world.[13] Bogost and other object-oriented ontologists encourage us to consider perceiving objects as things, rather than filtering our perception of things through human experience.

Jane Bennett, one of the new materialisms’ leading thinkers, argues that nonhuman (and particularly nonbiological) matter is imbued with a liveliness that can exhibit distributed agency by forming assemblages of human and nonhuman actors. Bennett’s 2010 book Vibrant Matter argues that agency is only distributed and is never the effect of intentionality. Bennett’s “thing-power” exemplifies the ability of objects to manifest a lively kind of agency. She explains in her preface: “Thing-power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence of aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience”.[14] Vibrant Matter also brings to the foreground an extant but more latent history of vibrant or lively matter in Western philosophy. Bennett builds on the ideas of early twentieth-century critical vitalists, as well as the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, to bring together materiality, affect, and vitalism.

New materialist transgressions of humanist subject/object dualism, ideas of distributed agency, and reconsiderations of traditional notions of life and death are not universally convincing, of course. Slavoj Žižek’s 2014 book, Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism, offers a critique of this new theoretical turn, arguing that in their attempt to dismantle traditional modern thinking, new materialisms re-inscribe humanist values by merely extending agency, vitality, and social phenomena to nonhuman material.[15] Nevertheless, the variety of interdisciplinary methodologies that form the new materialisms allow them to approach similar ontological questions in different ways, a move which seems promising for a theory placing a high value on increasing contact between disciplines in institutional knowledge production, and the entanglement of matter and ideological constructions.

— University of California, Riverside, April 2018


[1] Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, “Interview with Karen Barad”, in New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, ed. By Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012), pp. 48-70 (p. 48).

[2] Material Feminisms, ed. by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008), pp. 1-19.

[3] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

[4] For an overview see Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, eds. Material Feminisms (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2008) and Manuela Rossini, “To the Dogs: Companion Speciesism and the New Feminist Materialism”, Kritikos 3 (Sept 2006).

[5] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

[6] New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 1-43.

[7] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).

[8] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[9] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007).

[10] Elizabeth Grosz, In the Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004).

[11] Jason Edwards, “The Materialism of Historical Materialism”, in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 281-298 (p. 282).

[12] Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso, 2015).

[13] Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 2012).

[14] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010).

[15] Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism (New York: Verso, 2014).