- Why Materialisms Matter
Naked Matter, or Theory’s New Clothes
Why the renewed interest in materialism in our present moment? If we take the recent developments of what has been called the new materialisms (NM) in feminist and other forms of critical theory, speculative realism (SR) in philosophy, as well as recent and ever more prominent work in ecotheory, animal studies, critical science studies, material culture studies, and contemporary political economy, materialism seems to be the feature uniting these otherwise disparate theoretical endeavors. This development is striking, given that little more than fifteen years ago social construction (or what was variously termed “the linguistic turn” or “the cultural turn”) was the dominant intellectual synthesis in the humanities and social sciences. Yet, now the various new materialisms (using the term capaciously here to encompass all of the disparate developments above, with the exception of political economy; the reason for this exception will become clear below) have become enough of a dominant formation of their own to provoke pushback, captured nicely by the subtitle of Peter Wolfendale’s critical appraisal of object-oriented ontology (OOO—a form of Speculative Realism) “The Noumenon’s New Clothes.”1
Yet, if there is something more than the perennial changes of academic fashion at work in the emergence of materialism as a new master signifier (one that challenges the conceptual dominance of the signifier itself), it must inhere in the very contradictions and challenges that shape twenty-first century life and thought. In what follows, I will explore this larger historical-intellectual context, detail the contours of some of the most prominent developments in [End Page 9] NM and SR, indicate what is missing from recent materialist speculation, and provide a summary of the articles in this special section.
What’s New about Materialism?
On one level the claim to the newness of contemporary materialist speculation must surely seem overblown. The question of materialism stretches back to some of the earliest writings associated with that retrospectively invented tradition that we call Western philosophy. Pre-Socratic philosophers such as Heraclitus, Parmenides, Epicurus, and Democritus all posited different, sometimes contrasting, sometimes congruent accounts of matter, with specific oppositions, such as those between being and becoming, matter and form, and part and whole, still informing much contemporary work in materialist theory. To briefly retell a canonical and reductive story, if idealism has been the primary characteristic of philosophy after Plato, then materialism has been its shadowy and ever present double. While idealism has had the more celebrated career, reaching twin apotheoses in Kant’s transcendental method and Hegel’s dialectical elaboration of the historical unfolding of spirit, materialism, disinherited, has toiled in the background, periodically mounting a chthonic challenge to idealism’s patrimony. One such challenge became a thoroughgoing revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, with the differing struggles against idealism (both as a philosophy and as a historicism) waged by Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and Darwin. It is striking that in three out of four of these cases, the challenges came from outside the domain of philosophy proper, even as they irrevocably challenged philosophy on the levels of both subject matter and definition. Indeed this successful challenge may have been one moment of the genesis of that more hybrid entity we call theory out of philosophy.
Given the relatively recent and thorough-going nature of this revolution, it again seems strange that the return of materialism would prove so resonant in our present moment. So what happened in the intervening fifty or more years to make the return of materialism such a revelation? In a word: structuralism. More specifically, as Rosi Bradotti points out, the hegemony in the U.S. academy of a specific, largely American, reception of structuralism and poststructuralism, which merged in the eighties and nineties with forms of social constructivism emerging out of feminism, critical race studies, cultural studies, new historicism, and pragmatist philosophy.2 The emphasis on language as structuring both human society and consciousness in structuralism elevated it to central, indeed definitional, position in any account of the social as such. Moreover, humans weren’t masters of language, but rather both...