New Materialism describes the theoretical turn away from enduring dualisms in modern and humanist traditions whose influences are still present in cultural theory (Dolphijn, van der Tuin 2012, 48). The shift to matter comes from a general discontent with the neglection of matter in the linguistic turn. New Materialists strands are not denying the importance of the more established linguistic or constructionist turns but are rather building on their findings as a way to include material bodies, spaces and conditions on the formation of organic and non-organic entities. In fact, in the Euro-centric tradition matter has been considered empty of meaning while New Materialist philosophers refer to matter as ‘alive’, ‘lively’, ‘vibrant’ and as carrying their proper agency. This change in attitude towards matter wants to address the material conditions of human and non-human: the discursive construction of the subject reiterates Western, liberal ideas of subjectivity and humanist binary divisions between mind and body, culture and nature, gender and sex among others.
New Materialism is often associated with Posthumanism, which is driven by the theoretical (and political) agenda of repositioning the human among other nonhuman actants. They both strive to move beyond concepts of “human nature” to develop new ones that can adapt to contemporary technoscientific knowledge and development. Moreover, New Materialism and Posthumanism put into doubt the stability and the autonomy of the individual, liberal subject and support criticisms for late capitalism and climate change.
We often use to the plural New Materialisms because there are several methodological approaches mainly represented by scholars like Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, Jane Bennet and Elisabeth Grosz, among others. The wide variety of approaches to questions of concern to New Materialism makes the theoretical turn very comprehensive: you can read new materialist approaches to gender, environmental issues, epistemology, physics, language…
I am interested in new materialist investigations of subjectivity. Rosi Braidotti argues that posthuman subjectivity is a zoe (=bare life) with “a potential for self-assemblies along transversals”, drawing attention to the tendency of all living matter to form associations with other material systems. This means that a subjectivity reaches its full potential only when in interaction with other entities. Karen Barad brings this on step further. Their theory of agential realism predicates the co-productions of human and non-human matter, time, spaces and their respective significations, so that organic and non-organic entities continuously come into being together instead of acting upon each other.
New Materialism and Posthumanism are the theoretical ground where I am standing while conducting this research. Thinking of the human subjects as inseparable from their environment – which is here also a digital and immaterial one – opens the way to a conceptualisation of reality as inclusive ecology. Into this ecology, it is possible to discern and identify the interactions among elements that are usually not considered as part of a whole, as co-forming each other in their interaction. New Materialism enables the recognition of the extreme interconnectedness of disparate elements in very tangible ways. This is useful to think of reality as strictly interrelated to the digital, so much that the two influence each other and get in relation also on a material, physical level.
Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press: Durham and London, 2007.
Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman, Polity Press: Cambridge, 2013.
Dolphijn, Rick 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.
Grosz, Elisabeth. In the Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely, Duke University Press: Durham and London, 2004.