- Fluid HistoriesLuce Irigaray, Michel Serres, and the Ages of Water
The History Feminist New Materialists Tell
Across the humanities and social sciences, "materiality" has become a significant but divisive key term used by scholars to reconceive ontology, agency, and structural inequity. Within the context of new materialisms, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost argue that "foregrounding material factors and reconfiguring our very understanding of matter are prerequisites for any plausible account of coexistence and its conditions in the twenty-first century" (Coole 2010, 2). By centering materiality and processes of materialization, these scholars seek to reframe debates about agency, nature, and the political, often in reaction to what is described as a preoccupation with language and symbolic meaning in cultural theory. As Coole and Frost write, "the more textual approaches associated with the so-called cultural turn are increasingly being deemed inadequate for understanding contemporary society, particularly in light of some of its most urgent challenges regarding environments, demographic, geopolitical, and economic change" (2–3). Feminist new materialists have added a particular slant to this conversation at the intersection of feminist and science studies by using materiality to rethink embodiment, definitions of the human, and relationships between nature and culture. In their introduction to the edited volume Material Feminisms, Stacy Alaimo and Susan Heckman frame the feminist new materialist project as one of accomplishing what feminist deconstructionists failed to do with regard to displacing binary oppositions between language and matter, culture and nature, as well as mind and body [End Page 13] (Alaimo 2008, 6). Feminist new materialists critique poststructural feminists for treating matter as a passive substrate for the inscription of culture rather than an active agent in its own right.
Questioning this new materialist characterization of cultural and post-structural feminist work, Sara Ahmed's essay "Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the 'New Materialism'" takes issue with how feminist new materialists have utilized the history of feminist theory to position the new materialist project as cutting-edge. Ahmed argues that feminist new materialism has called itself into existence as a corrective to the supposedly anti-biological and language-oriented approaches of social constructionist or poststructuralist work. She characterizes this as "a false and reductive history of feminist engagement with biology, science, and materialism," the effect of which is an erasure of work by feminists who have, in fact, engaged these areas (Ahmed 2008, 24). Her point attends to the historiographical operation at work in the history new materialists tell about feminism's relationship to science and matter across time. She writes, "In claiming to return to matter, we might be losing sight of how matter matters in different ways, for different feminisms, over time. The gesture is a forgetting as well as a caricature" (36). With a call to respect and acknowledge feminist thinkers whose work prefaces our own, Ahmed warns against forgetting the past for the sake of claiming to do something new.
In her book Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory, Clare Hemmings makes a similar argument about how feminist new materialists have narrated poststructural feminism's place within the history of feminist theory. Hemmings's book explores the politics of how and why historical narratives of progress, loss, and return come in and out of fashion within the field of feminist theory (Hemmings 2011, 15). Narratives of progress attest to feminism's forward-moving trajectory (for example, that feminist theory has grown more inclusive over time); narratives of loss mourn a past moment (for example, idealizing a moment in feminist theory's past as having always already been more complicated than the myopic present); and narratives of return call for sobering up by getting back on track through renewed attention to ideas purportedly abandoned or neglected (for example, calls for attention to materiality after so much interest in language within the context of poststructuralism). This last point is most relevant to my concerns, as Hemmings considers how poststructuralism has been historicized so as to prop up the recent turn to materiality within feminist theory (a move that she adds is characteristic of new materialisms across disciplines). Hemmings summarizes this...