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  • Are We Being Materialist Yet?
  • Charles Altieri (bio)

What is wantedAgain for the first time is a pronounFor the we things don’t run…

—Geoffrey G. O’Brien (2015)

That new materialism has grown so popular means that it might be time for critics to cast a more suspicious eye on its basic arguments. In particular, we might ask why critics should add the claim to being a materialist to the now standard assumption that either one casts one’s analyses in terms of what natural science can process or challenges those terms in relation to what a future science might be able to discover. Claiming to be a new materialist seems to involve a very difficult task, since fidelity to a specific ontology creates at least two huge problems: we have to correlate a plausible materialist ontology with a workable historical materialism, yet the two orientations might prove as difficult to reconcile as Jason Edwards argues they are;1 and we have to address problems that befuddle science like the nature of creativity and the possibility of a meaningful discourse about freedom as if we had stable and trustworthy answers grounded in methodologies science can or should accept. And claims for a new materialism, however process-oriented, depend on a foundationalism that runs counter to the critiques of thinkers like Richard Rorty who have made significant contributions to how we think about nature and about politics. At the least, new materialism owes us a plausible answer to why we should adopt this ontological vocabulary in the light of those difficulties. Lacking that, I suspect that such ontological claims achieve little more than shining a contrastive light on the value of philosophers like Husserl and especially Wittgenstein who insist on being content with methods of description.

If we add to these problems the tendency of new materialism to vacil-late between claiming simply that they offer a new perspective on experience and claiming that its ontology gives it distinctive explanatory power, there emerges an almost unescapable suspicion that “new materialism” is the [End Page 241] theology or mythology of our time.2 How else can one explain why so many superb minds labor so intensely at bestowing a metaphysical dimension on descriptions of experience that can be handled less problematically simply as phenomenological accounts? And how else can one explain the frequent claims (soon to be cited) that new materialism can reconcile a lucidity derived from scientific vocabularies with a radical politics allying historical materialism with discourses about creative freedom? As Paul de Man might have said, any critical theory that gets lucidity, creativity, and revolutionary politics together has to be delusional.

Perhaps I should apologize for my own glib generalizations. And indeed I have to recognize that new materialist descriptions of our experience of and with things often offer both illuminating and exciting modes of refocusing our attention. But one has to ask if the excitement is backed up by compelling analytic arguments. So I will try to make my own position articulate by engaging with a range of arguments in what is still the core document in the emergence of “New Materialisms,” the anthology of critical essays by that name edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost and published in 2010.3 The editors are committed to break entirely from the “Cartesian-Newtonian understanding of matter” that yields “a conceptual and practical domination of nature as well as a specifically modern attitude or ethos of subjectivist potency” (Coole and Frost 2010, 8). They put in the place of that old materialism an insistence on “describing active processes of materialization of which humans are an integral part”:

The prevailing ethos of new materialist ontology is consequently more positive and constructive than critical or negative; it sees its task as creating new concepts and images of nature that affirm matter’s immanent vitality. Such thinking…avoids dualisms or dialectical reconciliation by espousing a monological account of emergent, generative, material being…. For materiality is always something more than ‘mere’ matter: an excess, force, vitality, [End Page 242] relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable

(Coole and Frost...


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pp. 241-257
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