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  • The Body as a Site of Material-Symbolic Struggle: Toward a Marxist New Materialism

This essay explores how a physiological notion of affect, one predicated on the trans-substantial circulation of micro-materiality, provides useful connectivity among old and new materialisms. First, it explores nascent theories of energetic matter in Marxism as potential sites for new materialist extensions. Second, it proposes affect as a theoretical shorthand for the circulating flows of matter central to the physiological production, orientation, and materialization of bodily capacities, including the ability to reinvent political economic habituation from the perspective of difference. Third, it illustrates the contributions of a Marxist new materialism through a brief discussion of contemporary race politics.


new materialism, Marxism, affect

The imperative to theorize emerges in the practical question of how to live in the world with others. In the contemporary historical moment, one shot through with two hundred fifty years of capitalist political economic practices, such an imperative requires theorists to both use and go beyond a Marxist critique. This need to fold Marxist theory back into itself in an effort to emerge differently inspired, among others, Frankfurt School theorists who wove psychoanalysis into historical materialism, Birmingham School thinkers who stressed difference and the power of ordinary culture, anti-colonial thinkers who theorized the global marketplace, settler colonialism, and racial difference, and Italian Autonomists who emphasized biopolitics and affect studies. The most recent addition to this [End Page 89] reimagination, the proliferation of new materialist scholarship, as Diana Coole and Samantha Frost discern it, similarly grounds itself in “a critical and nondogmatic reengagement with political economy” (2010, 7). Even as several thinkers pursue this exigency, the agentive and biopolitical paths of new materialism often overshadow its Marxist directions. Like the Autonomists who prefer to highlight the power, rather than the oppression, of the working classes, diverse new materialisms focus on the undertheorized potential of concrete things, environments, and nonhuman animals as well as the immanent capacities of the general human being. In doing so, they too often jettison the practical concerns that swirl around uneven power relationships and filter bodies through categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ability, threatening to extinguish political economic structures from new materialism’s persuasive milieu. Because social justice concerns are, from my perspective, the raison d’être of theory, new materialist scholarship cannot fulfill its theoretical function without more fully accounting for the social reproduction that takes place through contemporary political economic apparatuses.

Rather than theorize materiality and sensation apart from institutional and ideological structures, contemporary theory would do better to draw new materialist insights back into the critical fold and to do so at the level of the physical body. Opposing a strict separation between the sensing body and the thinking mind, Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the assertion that human beings have a natural “impulse to get knowledge” (3). In this opening gambit, he connects the physical with the metaphysical and supports his claim with reference to the body’s sensory abilities, making human sensation foundational to reason. Much has been made of Aristotle’s characterization of human beings as speaking animals, and Debra Hawhee (2017) has recently argued that nonhuman animals serve as proxy sensory apparatuses for reasoning human beings, but we have not fully grappled with how the human body’s animality (its instinctual, automated, biological processes) interacts with and informs its reasoning capacities.1 Bodily sensation tells the story of reasoned belief, political economic processes, and cultural relationships—a story that yearns to be read through a Marxist new materialism.

No doubt, such a perspective will seem anathema to some new materialist scholars. Marxism, according to their assessment, sets up a false dichotomy between materiality and ideology, simplifies both, and privileges a transactional political model. New materialist inquiries into how energetic matter contours animals, things, and environments bear no filial resemblance to the theories contained under this homographic partner. Yet [End Page 90] Marx (1990), whose commodity fetishism describes ordinary things—from wood to words to wage laborers—as “abounding in metaphysical subtleties” capable of transforming inert matter into conscious forms of being, is among the first theorists to assert the agentive capacity of all things (163–65). From this perspective, it is difficult to read his famous admonition that a ruling ideology “cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind” as simply reducing language to a byproduct of economic structures (Marx and Engels 1995, 83). Informed by a more expansive version of Marx, an alternative interpretation might suggest that ideological battles fail to produce change because they isolate language from the myriad dynamics that animate capitalism. It might further contend that neither words nor the imposition of political economic structures provides sufficient ammunition against capitalism as such a battle requires nothing less than the metaphysical reinvention of materiality.

Of course, this abstract theorization of metaphysical properties— Marx’s value theory—likely strikes new materialists, who assess the imminent possibilities of concrete matter, as hopelessly transcendental. Rather than evidence of discrete projects, this misalignment provides an opportunity for extending the Marxist tradition according to new materialist sensibilities. If the violent history of Marxist revolutions and the lackluster results of Marxist intellectualism derive from an undertheorized conception of materiality, then a dose of new materialism may be the necessary antidote. In addition to grounding Marxist speculations in matter’s rich communicative processes, such theoretical miscegenation bolsters new materialism as well. Focusing on objects, environments, and nonhuman animals—agentive forces that, no doubt, contribute to our collective worlding—new materialism risks reducing power to undifferentiated matter and equating the human being with the liberal subject. A Marxist new materialism reduces these risks by theorizing the capitalist political economy according to how the entire material-symbolic complex primes bodily dispositions, ideological orientations, and everyday practices.

To my mind, these two traditions can be brought together through the tuning fork of affect. Although wide ranging, affect theories cohere around bodily encounters that are simultaneously phenomenological and physiological. For theorists like Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant, energetic matter circulates through environments—molding, producing, and defining them in its wake. Affect orients complex and always contingent associations among situated individuals and things. According to this view, one that matches the still burgeoning rhetorics of new materialism, participants [End Page 91] who dwell meaningfully in their environments perceive affordances that might otherwise not present themselves. Other theorists foreground affect as the biochemical and neurological patterns of bodily attraction and repulsion. Teresa Brennan, for instance, attends to the kinds of capacitated bodies that emerge from the transmission of affect between human beings. Bodies emit microscopic particles and energetic properties that other bodies pick up and these exchanges transform the physiological makeup of individuals, even if only momentarily. Over time and through repetitive encounters, bodies acquire fairly consistent “affective disposition” toward others and the world (Brennan 2004, 8). Pegged to bodily changes—increased heart rate, perspiration, neurological firings, a spike of adrenalin, etc.—that accompany lived experience, affect, as Brennan theorizes it, mediates between the complexities of responsive matter and critical capacities. Defined in this way, affect precedes emotional or psychic affiliations and functions as a fluctuating property that links energetic matter to forms of being-in-the-world.

This essay explores how such a physiological notion of affect, one predicated on the transsubstantial circulation of micro-materiality, provides useful connectivity among old and new materialisms. First, it explores nascent theories of energetic matter in Marxism as potential sites for new materialist extensions. Second, it proposes affect as a theoretical shorthand for the circulating flows of matter central to the physiological production, orientation, and materialization of bodily capacities, including the ability to reinvent political economic habituation from the perspective of difference. Third, it illustrates the contributions of a Marxist new materialism through a brief discussion of contemporary race politics. The essay concludes with a call for the production of different bodily dispositions, using available material-symbolic resources, that represents the entanglement of theory and practice as opposed to the translation of theory into practice.

rereading marxism through a new materialist lens

A growing consensus across divergent forms of new materialism, one that resonates with Brennan’s theory of affect, centers on the rapid dynamics of micro-materiality. On an imperceptible basis, bodily sensory apparatuses detect the movement of particles and waves that make up materiality while the brain organizes that data into patterns. This material processing informs relatively stable understandings of being-in-the-world even though such materialization is ongoing, recursive, and open to change. A Marxist approach to this materiality suggests that micro-level activities [End Page 92] and individual or collective interpretations of them appear to be separate modes of existence, but actually form a single, fluid process. As a dialectical unity, energetic matter and our conscious understanding of it are both materially indistinguishable and perceptively distinct. A cursory look at the Marxist tradition reveals an intuitive sense of this dialectic stymied by an inability to identify and adapt the mechanism that articulates bodily materiality with consciousness.

To be sure, Marx recognized the intrarelationship among bodily experience, political economic environment, and consciousness as early as 1848, when he discussed the senses as an index of historically contingent forms of being. For him (1964), “the forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present” (141). Intergenerational roots and lived experience instruct bodies in how to sense and make sense of material cues. For instance, the putrid smell of rotting meat is likely not a universal experienced by all animals across history, but an inherited sensation designed to protect the health of certain species. Analogously, young children who physically struggle to eat fruit with even the smallest blemish for fear that it, too, is rotten do so through the sensory perception of capitalist bodies that are well resourced and accustomed to the perfect veneer of genetically modified produce. Noting the biological and historical malleability of sensory experience, Marx conjectured that the bodily sensations of those within a socialist political economic environment would be “other senses than those of the non-social” person (141). He understood that historical change must engage the materiality of this sensory register in an effort to reinvent the processing apparatuses of the human body, but lacked a new materialist perspective on energetic matter that might indicate how to do this.2 As a consequence, Marxist theory suffered from the constant unraveling of this material dialectic into a binary between political economic experience and consciousness.

Theodor Adorno, whose brilliant negative dialectics provides little practical guidance, reflects this dilemma. For him, capitalism coaxes identification ideologically through a wide range of signifying discourses and physiologically through bodily experience with things and environments. Expanding on his critique of popular culture, he laments the near totalization of capitalist identification through a mass consumerism that, he argues, undermines an individual’s capacity for autonomous thinking. As he explains it, “The mechanisms of identification have stamped themselves on people’s characters to such a degree that they are quite incapable of the spontaneity” required for social change (2007, 76). Capitalist ideologies [End Page 93] cannot give way to alternatives because the preconscious potential of “bodily impulse[s]” that prime, direct, and affirm decision-making processes are not allowed to operate on their own terms (213). Uncomfortable with the possibility that bodies communicate apart from conscious intentions, humans endow these fleshly judgments with meaning based on available discourses that calcify, like scar tissue, around physical sensations. The individual orients and adapts new data according to this hardened identification, giving the illusion of an enduring nature. Like Marx, Adorno recognizes that capitalism grips the body so that it accords with its historically specific needs but is unable to determine precisely what causes this gripping; consequently, he vacillates between charges against an overzealous faith in reason and indictments of unthinking commodity consumption.

Even amid such uncertainty, Adorno returns to the body’s intellectual autonomy as a key site for the individual’s emancipation from totalizing political economic structures. Using two frequently cited anecdotes, he identifies the incommensurability between bodily dispositions and rationality as a possible starting point for the development of alternative agencies. The first centers on the indecision of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who “is incapable of performing an action that he believes to be right” (2007, 231). Hamlet has the facts of the case (his uncle killed his father, married his mother, and took the throne), which justify an act of revenge. Nevertheless, he is unable to move from this knowledge to action: an embodied incapacity marks his indecisive character. Whereas Hamlet cannot bring himself to perform actions that comport with the prevailing order, the historical example of Fabian von Schlabrendorff represents the compulsion to act even though reason advises against it. As Schlabrendorff relates the story of his unsuccessful plot to kill Adolf Hitler, there was overwhelming evidence of both its futility and the disastrous personal results of that failure, and still he could not stop himself from acting (2001, 8–9). In both examples, the men are physically unable to follow the rationally demarcated path from knowledge to action, and in this fleshly hiccup they exhibit uncaptured agentive possibilities.

This potential agency complicates anticapitalist theories that advocate consciousness raising and policy change, but do not provide opportunities to reanimate bodily capacities. A Marxist new materialism instead aims to reinvent capitalist identification as it materializes through the biological processes of individual experience. It engages and encourages such rematerializations through a plurality of identities, and, in doing so, avoids a key pitfall for identity politics—the constant toggling between essentialism [End Page 94] and social constructivism. This approach views the ontological—Marx’s historical senses and Adorno’s bodily impulses—as always already the inheritance of lived experience. Capacities and incapacities are built up over generational time and materially processed through the historical contingencies of bodily practices. To explore this materialization without falling into biological or social determinism requires a theory of fleshly experience that tracks the circulation of energetic matter through both its phenomenological and physiological developments. The next section sketches such a theory by attending to affect as bodily changes that result from the transsubstantial circulation of micro-materiality.

toward a theory of affect as physiological mattering

If the capitalist political economy nestles into bodies, as Marx and Adorno suspect, materialist theories must account for this physiological materialization. Kelly Happe investigates epigenetics and its intersections with new materialist propositions as one such possibility. The study of how lived experiences impact biological makeup both phylogenetically (generationally inherited) and ontogenetically (experientially acquired), epigenetics offers a scientific lens into persistent political economic and cultural patterns. Indeed, Happe views this specialized subfield as a “historical materialist theory par excellence” inasmuch as it “documents the ways in which the body is quite literally the outcome of material conditions” (2018, 82). She worries, however, about its basis in genetics and the attendant risks of biological determinism. Consequently, she advances affect studies as an alternative approach that similarly attends to the material production of bodies, including their capacities to mobilize political rights and resources, without succumbing to scientific models of linear cause and effect. Affect-oriented analyses explore human potential by placing the body in dynamic relationship to historically specific experiences, but, unlike epigenetics, they refuse to reduce human potential to a single calculus or infinitely repeatable algorithm.

Recognizing its deep analytical reservoirs, biopolitical theorists have long asserted affect as crucial to the invention of political economic futures. Unfortunately, these theorists, as Barbara Biesecker argues, tend to view the body through the lens of undifferentiated potential—what she calls “vital but otherwise unqualified human life” (2017, 418)—and thus they obscure historically and socially constituted inequality. A more viable critical tradition emerges in the work of phenomenological theorists. Sara Ahmed, [End Page 95] for instance, tracks how the affective patterns of gendered, sexed, and raced bodies follow the ebb and flow of political economic exchanges. She proposes a circulation process that produces the seemingly organic relationship between emotions and objects. For her, affect emerges through contact zones wherein one body, discourse, or object touches another and “leaves its mark” (2004, 6). The repetition of similar contacts produces an affective value that circulates along with discourses, commodities, and identities. Critical affect theory describes this materialization from the viewpoint of ordinary experience to explain the socialization of emotion and ideology. This method clearly differentiates life potentials and organizes affective relationships through the political levers of race, gender, and sexuality, and yet it adheres to an unstated disciplinary division between humanist pursuits and scientific ones, precluding the theorization of affect at the biological level of physiological bodily change.

Irreverent toward such boundaries, Mel Chen (2012), the theorist Happe favors, offers a sweeping interdisciplinary study that maps affective circuits through situational perception and autonomous bodily processes. Interested in the uneven distribution of agencies, she studies how individuals perceive the objects and others they encounter as well as how bodies participate in a transsubstantiation of circulating matter that often goes unperceived. Like Brennan (someone conspicuously absent from her wide-ranging analysis), she includes a view of affect as the biochemical and energetic alterations that increase or decrease life potential. In addition to the affective values that stick to and circulate with images, things, and ideas, the exchange of micro-material particles differently disposes bodies toward the world’s political economic flux. Chen exemplifies the temporal sequencing of these two affective modalities through an autoethnographic account of her experience with illness. In a new environment, she tells readers, she habitually sizes up others for signs of potential perfume or cigarette use. Before she has time to accommodate to this cataloguing, her body takes charge and responds: “my liver refuses to process these inhalations and screams hate” (199). The phenomenological approach, she concludes, can only be “a reading of what has already transformed the body” (201). Just as bodily intake of environmental chemicals intervenes in and alters her relationship to people and things, so too do the everyday experiences of others without diagnosed illnesses. For instance, the lead that accompanies market products like paint, toys, and dog food subtly poisons unprotected Chinese workers who produce such things, polarizes American consumers against those Chinese workers, and privileges white, middle-class children [End Page 96] exposed to Thomas the Train over poor, black children exposed to cheap paint. Using this expansive example, Chen enhances affective theories of discursive encounters with attention to the transubstantiation of micro-materials like the lead that laces these things and goes into bodies that breathe, touch, and taste. To be clear, the transubstantiation of matter, what she labels “biopolitical entrainment,” cannot be avoided through sterile environments, nor is it limited to toxic exchanges (192). The imperceptible exchange of energetic matter through intraactive and porous bodies is the pervasive condition of materiality.

Conceptualized alongside biochemical and physical scholarship, affect provides a lens for the rhetorical theorization of how experience moves through and lingers in bodies in a way that engages but is not reduced to scientism. It helps explain how experiential encounters craft bodily dispositions that inform spontaneous actions, animate material differences, and orient identities before consciousness grapples with those encounters. Such bodily affect functions as a kind of rhetorical core—“a generalized rhetoricity that precedes and exceeds symbolic interaction” (Davis 2010, 36). As the body changes in relation to stimuli, it forges intuitive identifications, builds energy for potential action, and creates boundaries for or against engagement across difference. Sometimes affect aligns individuals (groups spontaneously gather in celebration); at other times, it polarizes them (two protesting groups face off against one another). Identified as part of a group, individuals circulate their energies within collective communicative apparatuses, exponentially increasing the group’s potential and accounting for outbursts of action that would be unlikely in smaller groups. With the rise of energetic potential, identity performances proliferate and participating bodies become increasingly closed down to alternative perspectives. In other words, a body’s capability to engage others derives, in part, from how biologically ingrained those affective dispositions have become. Depending on these dispositions, individuals can become capable or incapable of traditional rhetorical deliberation.3 The physicality of bodies, therefore, needs to be pulled into rhetorical theories of agency, argument, and social change.

From the perspective I have sketched, affective disposition reinvents the supposed opposition between reason and emotion as a single, though complex, adjudicating process that takes place through the ongoing constitution of flesh and blood bodies. Both emotion and reason emerge as a consequence of prior bodily exchanges and attendant alterations of the body’s physiological preparation—spike in body temperature, increase in blood pressure, and tightened skin viscosity, for instance. Consequently, theories [End Page 97] aimed at radical sociopolitical change need to connect affect studies with political economic processes as do scholars like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Brian Massumi, and Sara Ahmed, but also with biological processes as advocated by thinkers like Teresa Brennan, Mel Chen, and Alex Weheliye. This theoretical approach collapses the divide between materiality and consciousness and turns the direct pathway between theory and practice into a political Möbius strip that constitutes political economic and intrasubjective relationships through the dialectical production of sensing bodies. In doing so, it deprives political subjects of taken-for-granted positions and suggests that rather than studying how matter signifies, rhetoricians would be better served by exploring how signification materializes affectively. By way of example, the next section explores the rhetorical possibilities of this perspective through a brief excursion into contemporary race politics.

the politics of affective circulation

The debate around Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim to American Indian heritage offers a window into how identity politics reinforces political positions through racialized affects that cannot be dislodged through scientific evidence, on the one hand, and deliberative exchange, on the other. While it is not uncommon for individuals of European descent to have African, Asian, or American ancestral links, Warren’s assertion incited accusations that she appropriated this identity for personal benefit. In response, she took a DNA test that revealed a small percentage of American Indian heritage, discussed the controversy with the Cherokee Nation leadership, and published a short family narrative.4 Instead of appeasing her opponents, this biological and biographical intervention bolstered them. Committed to the idea that Warren manufactured an American Indian identity to get a leg up in her career, a political action committee (PAC), aggressively named Stop Pocahontas (2019), formed after these responses. The group’s website lists ten reasons to impede her political assent, but provides no supporting evidence for its claims and no engagement with Warren’s disclosures. Rather than interact with the ideas it so demonizes, the group performs its identity by reproducing a racialized and gendered parody of her socially progressive policies. At the center of this rhetorical work, the repeated invocation of “Pocahontas” (an insult borrowed, no doubt, from President Trump) builds an affective barrier against Warren’s policy ideas by simultaneously projecting generalized race and gender anxieties onto Warren and energizing its political economic conviction against “far left-wing socialis[m].” [End Page 98] Activities like consuming and retweeting Pocahontas attacks, signing anti-Pocahontas petitions, and donating funds to the Stop Pocahontas PAC biochemically sustain the controversy as the positive feedback loop of social media triggers bursts of serotonin that flow through participating bodies, simultaneously orienting them toward neoliberal discourses and against social democratic ones. Through such repetition, bodies learn to reroute neoliberal critiques toward this abject figure (Warren as Pocahontas) and to equate their bodily pleasure in doing so with unequivocal truth.

Their titular outrage over cultural appropriation offers a convenient storehouse, but not a foundational basis, for the affective energies bringing this diverse group together and sealing it off from different political economic and cultural positions. Skilled laborers who fear a diminished paycheck if undocumented immigrants flood their industry, finance workers who perceive themselves as potential victims of Warren’s anticorporate policies, conservatives who want to retain the mythology of an untarnished American exceptionalism, and members of faith communities convinced that socialism undermines religious rights cohere through a fleshly understanding of Pocahontas as a common threat. Just as Chen’s body screams hate and shuts down when confronted with the microscopic particles of scented others, so too do these bodies scream hate and shut down when confronted with Warren’s progressive politics. Policies like free college tuition and universal health care threaten their bodily status quo and force them into uncomfortable physical states. Faced with this potentially toxic situation, bodies can be returned to a homeostatic position through practices like forwarding reassuring discourse or reciting a shared manta. The spontaneous invective to “Stop Pocahontas,” a call for protection against an imminent threat, reflects the panicked cries of people in crisis, ones desperate to retain a sense of integrity and autonomy against the increasing realization of political, cultural, and material transsubstantiality. Conceptualized through the physiological alterations that accompany discourse performances, affect studies suggest that the Pocahontas phenomenon and other racially charged politics need to be theorized as micro-material processes of bodies grappling with the historical and cultural contingencies of our contemporary moment, one in which difference pervades everyday experience and often signals deep political economic inadequacies.

To understand political controversies from the perspective of micro-material processes that reconfigure bodily capacities crucially reframes questions of race away from individuals who are or are not racist and toward bodies cued toward particular aggressions, vulnerabilities, and [End Page 99] resiliencies.5 Such rhetorical ontologies derive from material-symbolic performances that maintain, shift, and disrupt the potential of thinking/feeling bodies. Thus, Warren’s genetic test for American Indian ancestry reveals little without the habituated experiences that inform that fleshly marker. For her, for instance, the claim to Cherokee ancestry was an origin story, one that connected her family to a larger national narrative, as well as a political statement against the racism she inherited from her paternal grandparents. For those grandparents, this genetic trace was a cautionary tale, warning them against a marriage that might produce children with American Indian blood. For her critics, it evidences the threatening nature of her policies that properly belong to the precapitalist culture of American Indians—Pocahontas functions metonymically to signify the false promises of socialism. As this example illustrates, the affect-bearing materiality that circulates with this discourse enables a multiplicity of “co-constituting bonds of human individual bodies and the body of a nation” (Chen 2012, 194). Bodily performances and the discourses in which they participate produce particular relationships among the individuals, symbols, and environments that organize intraactive bodies as well as the larger body politic.

Of course, the Pocahontas outcry illustrates only one among many instantiations of this self-organizing political economic process. For a related example, take President Trump’s tweet and the subsequent chant at a North Carolina rally that targeted four newly elected congresswomen of color—Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—and united his supporters around the statement “send them back.” As the group affectively drawn toward this discourse views it, these women committed the crime of criticizing the national government, and so they should be sent back to their ancestral countries. Following the logic of immunity, an unwelcome, foreign substance (these congresswomen and their criticisms) has penetrated the self-contained body. The body can process a certain level of toxicity, but becomes symptomatic once that threshold is exceeded and often convulses in uncontrollable purging— vomiting, sweating, defecating, or, in this case, chanting. Whereas biopolitical thinkers like Donna Haraway and Roberto Esposito use immunity metaphorically, affect allows theorists to study this phenomenon through a double materiality that includes both psychosocial and biochemical threats to bodily integrity. People who perceive women, people of color, and socialized markets as threatening do so through biochemical and neurological conditioning of the flesh in relationship to specific representations. Given the simultaneous and reticulate threads of these relationships, the racist [End Page 100] desire to protect the national body cannot be separated from the individual body’s automatic self-protecting functions, the performativity of public discourse, and the xenophobic culture furthered through such practices.

In short, racist political practices cannot be quarantined from the rhetorical signals built into materially sensing bodies. Political changes, even such predictable ones as the shifting demographics of elected officials, are held hostage to the affective circuits of those who fear losing their disproportionate power. Such imprisonment begs for a productive theory aimed at producing different embodied sensibilities. Thus, the prevailing affective processes need to be reinvented through what Chen calls a “metamorphosis” (237) of the existing material-symbolic relationships. I conclude with a brief call in this direction.

circulating different affective values as a theoretical imperative

Neoliberal dispositions and their hegemonic orientations toward the world are the result of neither political economic structures nor ideological fantasies. Instead, they emerge from the continuous cultivation of bodies affectively tethered to the political constitution of such institutions and ideologies. Contemporary cultural critique tends to miss this process of bodily capacitation; consequently, the challenge for theory now is to embed itself into the circulation of affective value where multiple materialities collide. Like everything else, political economic structures and ideas about them are inseparable from the circulation of affect. Capitalism thrives because it matches its language and its structures with nonconscious bodily dispositions. It does this through biopolitical practices that allow for and incorporate difference. Anticapitalist theories have yet to explore how energetic matter evolves with and attunes itself to the dynamics of sociohistorical change, giving capitalism’s manufactured landscape the allure of a transcendental reality. Vacillating between ideological or institutional critique, such theories mistake the entanglement of material-symbolic processes for causal relationships between consciousness and policy. One way to avoid this misstep is to reinvent anticapitalist political economic analyses through a new materialist sensibility that takes biological production serious. Such an approach would recuperate Marxist materialisms—ones aimed at understanding the structural production of inequality—with a difference inspired by new materialism. [End Page 101]

The reasons to theorize a Marxist-inflected new materialism are many. First, we must recognize that capitalist achievements come not only on the backs of exploited labor but on a historical continuation of primitive accumulation that folds the rhetorical constitution of diverse, intersectional subjects into the process of wealth creation. Second, these entangled processes occur along multiple intersecting planes that include the structural level of state legislation, the ideological level of worldviews, and the fleshly level of bodily capacities. Although critical theorists have focused on the first two, there remains much theoretical work to be done to better understand the affectively constituted plane of bodily experience. Third, rhetoric must be understood as the simultaneous process of crafting bodily dispositions and of advocating for political change. To revise a founding claim, we must understand the physiological crafting of bodies as part and parcel of the available means of persuasion.

Catherine Chaput
Department of English
University of Nevada, Reno


1. See Doxtader (2017) for a critique of the famous linkage between Aristotle and the commonplace definition of the human as the animal that has language.

2. Indeed, Marx’s definition of sensation coheres with that of Brian Ott and Greg Dickinson, who explain it as “the process by which flows of matter-energy stimulate our sense organs (through sensory receptor cells) and transform these flows into neural energy” (2019, 69). They offer an excellent overview of sensory bodies, affect, and rhetoric.

3. This dispositional account of matter intersects with the modalities suggested by Deleuze and Guattari’s psychoanalytic theory of affect as well as Teresa Brennan’s biochemical approach (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 168; Brennan 2004, 113–15).

4. According to Warren, her parents eloped because her father’s family opposed his marriage to a woman with American Indian ancestry. This story was passed down to her from a young age and shaped her sense of identity. For this story and other information on the controversy, see Fact Squad (2019).

5. For an ecological, rather than physiological, perspective on such materiality, see Nathan Stormer and Bridie McGreavy’s (2017) excellent contribution.

works cited

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